For the May 2022 SV Angel Founder Profile Series, we are proud to feature Monica Sarbu, Founder and CEO of Xata. Xata offers a serverless database service that combines the power of a traditional database with the feel of a spreadsheet. The company recently announced their $30M Series A financing and an all-women board of directors, including the former COO of SV Angel portfolio company GitHub. We hope you enjoy learning a bit about Xata and lessons learned along the way.
Name: Monica Sarbu
Hometown: Berlin, Germany
Company Name & Brief Description Blurb: Xata offers a serverless database service that combines the power of a traditional database with the UX of a spreadsheet.
Year Founded: 2020
Q: Tell us about yourself and your path to becoming an entrepreneur.
Building innovative products is what makes me happy, what motivates me in the morning, and what pushes me to grow in my career. Having the chance to study computer science allowed me to fulfill my dream of building technical products that make the life of people easier. I was lucky enough in my career to work in startups where creativity and innovation were the key to building a successful business. The first company I co-founded was called Packetbeat and we were building an open-source monitoring solution that was giving insights into your infrastructure by looking at the network traffic. After the company was acquired by Elastic, we continued our vision of building a more complete monitoring solution by starting Elastic Beats, which collects all kinds of data like logs, metrics, etc from your infrastructure to give you better visibility.
Q: What was the impetus for starting Xata? Tell us about the moment you decided to start the company in 2020.
At the beginning of 2020, I started a non-profit organization that offers free mentorship for women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ in tech, called tupu.io. When we were building the mentorship platform, we realized that while serverless platforms have done a lot in simplifying the application development and deployment, there isn’t any database solution on the market that makes databases as simple as they should be. In the end, for Tupu, we decided to use Airtable, even though it’s not really a database product. That allowed us to build a solution much faster. It also opened our eyes to the fact that a database service with a simple data model and a very nice UI is currently missing on the market.
This is how we got the idea to create a product that has the usability and data model of Airtable but also offers important database concepts like transactions, constraints, and scalability.
Q: What were you seeing in the market that made this the right time to build Xata?
There are multiple trends happening right now that indicate that it’s time for a new wave of products in the data space. First, the adoption of serverless happens quickly across small and large organizations. This means that more and more people expect the data layer to be serverless as well. Secondly, the rise of Jamstack and platforms like Vercel, Netlify, or Cloudflare, which are very focused on the developer experience and make complex deployments as simple as pushing a Git branch. Finally, the wave of No-Code and Low-Code tools enables a lot of new people to develop tools that were previously only accessible to developers.
Our goal with Xata is to radically simplify the way developers work with data.
A very good and easy to use serverless database will help accelerate all of these trends: serverless developers will love our Data API, Jamstack developers will love our branch/preview workflows and integrations with Vercel, Netlify, and Cloudflare Pages, and Low-Code/No-Code users will find a tool that is very accessible but also not limited.
Q: Prior to founding Xata, you were an engineering leader at SV Angel portfolio company Elastic. What were some of the lessons that you learned at Elastic that you hope to bring to Xata?
At Elastic I have seen the benefits of a fully distributed company, that allows you to hire the best people across the world, wherever they live, without the need to convince them to move to a specific location. When you put great minds together and give them the freedom to innovate and encourage them to lead projects, great things get out of it.
I have also seen first-hand how to grow a large business around a developer-centric product, especially an open-source one.
Q: What’s a really difficult part about being a founder that no one talks about?
As a founder, you are involved in a wide variety of decisions every day. In one day, you can be part of discussions about opening a new entity with lawyers, and then jump on a call with the engineering team about a technical issue. You are leading discussions about the long-term vision of the company, the go to marketing strategy, salary negotiations, supporting and encouraging the team, making sure to build and maintain a healthy culture in the company, and many more.
Until your company grows enough and you find experts in each of these areas, you need to be a generalist. I personally find it really fun, but if you were working in a larger organization before, you should expect it to be quite different.
Q: Given the many demands you’ve had as a founder, how do you allocate and prioritize your time daily?
I have learned to prioritize my tasks only when I become a parent as my time was suddenly limited. I have become better over time at multitasking, context switching, and identifying what tasks to prioritize.
As a leader, your main role is first to make sure you are unblocking your team. In addition, I like to prioritize the tasks that bring to the company the biggest impact on the market.
Q: Did/do you have a mentor, and how were they most helpful?
Personally, I only had a professional mentor for a relatively short period of time, but that experience was so valuable that I felt motivated to start tupu.io.
Having someone with an objective perspective can be of great help and support in your career. I think a good mentor gives you self-confidence when you need it but also points out your mistakes in a kind way so you can correct them.
Q: Was there an unexpected piece of advice, or something you heard or read that has stuck with you or reframed your thinking as you’ve grown as an entrepreneur?
I got a lot of great life advice from my father. As a kid, I tended to roll my eyes, but as I grew up, I realized how powerful they are. One piece of advice that stuck with me is to not be quick to judge a person and to wait to find the things that they are really good at. There is a lot of uncovered talent in people that can be very valuable in the correct setting.
Q: You founded tupu.io several years ago to offer free mentorship to women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups in the tech industry. We’d love to hear more about this work and how can others get involved?
Tupu.io is a non-profit initiative that offers a free and global platform for mentorship. Our mentors are volunteers who donate about one hour of their time every couple of weeks to mentor someone from underrepresented groups in tech. If you’d like to mentor someone, you can easily sign-up on the website, it only takes a couple of minutes and then we’ll match you with someone. The mentorship relationships usually last 2–3 months with meetings every 2 weeks and we’re receiving amazing feedback from the mentees!
There’s more information on tupu.io, but there’s one more thing I’d like to add: you can be a mentor at any career level, it’s not only for VP and C level! A junior software engineer has a lot more practical questions they can ask another software engineer than what they can ask a VP.
Q: The fundraising environment is changing rapidly with much more capital and more investors. How should founders think about choosing which investors to work with?
One thing I did, and I think it was a good idea, was to cultivate relationships with several investors way before I actually needed the rounds. This is important because you will be working together for years to come, and the difference between someone that you seek advice from all the time and someone who you are just keeping updated is huge. Therefore I’d recommend other founders to choose the investors from which they can imagine getting advice or other types of value from.
Q: How did you convince your early investors to partner with Xata during the company’s early days?
I am really grateful to the early set of angels because they agreed to invest when I had no team and no product. I have worked with some of them before, so for sure that helped, but otherwise, it was an exciting idea in a space that has a lot of potential.
Q: Xata’s exciting Series A announcement also highlighted the company’s all-women board of directors. How should founders think about choosing their board members as they scale?
When fundraising we didn’t necessarily look out to create a 100% women board. We chose the partners that were most qualified and that we felt that they really believe in us. But when we realized that we could form an all-women board, I got pretty excited about it as a statement that the winds of change are here.
Q: You’ve always promoted diversity within the company and within your cap table. Why is this important to you and how should founders think about it as they scale?
There are two things: first, diverse teams have fewer blind spots and are more innovative. When the company is small, that is an important advantage that you don’t want to miss out on. Secondly, if you don’t have an inclusive culture from the beginning, it can be much harder to retrofit.
To me, these two are reasons enough to put more effort into D&I than the usual startup at our stage would put in.
Q: Why did you choose to partner with SV Angel? What is it like to work with the SV Angel team?
I think SV Angel has a very good reputation and network. As a result, it’s also a positive signal to other investors. Working with the SV Angel team is always very easy and pleasant, I send a request or ask something and I always get a very quick response.
Team & Culture
Q: Can you share any valuable lessons about recruiting and scaling a world-class team?
A couple of things that worked for me:
- Find places where others are not looking. That means geographically, but also online. LinkedIn is saturated with recruiters so try to find other avenues as well.
- Contact people as a founder, with a genuine message, without spammy automation. Tell them about the interesting challenges that your startup is solving. Tell them about the team they would join.
Q: How would you describe the culture at Xata to a prospective hire?
We are a friendly and inclusive team that values work-life balance. We all work remotely, usually from home or from a co-working space, and we meet a few times per year in a nice location. We build a product by and for developers and we do it collaboratively, which means that everyone in the team has a direct say in evolving the product. We value autonomy and like to hire people that are driving projects and are creative, instead of waiting for tasks to be assigned.
Q: Tell us about your decision to build out a remote team. How do you plan on supporting company culture and employee engagement as you build out a remote workforce?
I have been working in distributed teams for 7–8 years now, and, even before the pandemic, I realized that the productivity benefits of office work are overrated.
If you have a strong team, and if the way of working is tuned for a distributed team, doing a healthy blend of async and sync communication, you probably can be more productive than any other office-based team.
Two years ago I would have trouble convincing a lot of people about the above, but during the pandemic, I think most engineers would agree and many are rather changing jobs than having to return to the office.
On top of that, you add the usual benefits: you can find people all over the world, people can live where they like, they are happier because they don’t spend so much time in the car, etc.
Q: Quotes you live by?
Always give more than you take.
SV Angel has a very good reputation and network. As a result, it’s also a positive signal to other investors. Working with the SV Angel team is always very easy and pleasant, I send a request or ask something and I always get a very quick response.