"Never nail your hand to the side of a boat," says Kelly Herrell, CEO of open source network start-up Vyatta Networks. Good advice for anyone,a lesson Herrell learned long before he got into IT.
Herrell, who began working on charter fishing boats at age 11, was once using a gaff hook -- a long iron spike driven through a wooden handle -- to snag a freshly caught halibut thrashing at arms-length in the water. He missed the fish, he says, and drove the spike through his left hand, pinning it to the boat's hull. "That felt nice," he says wryly.
Now Herrell is after the network industry's big fish -- Cisco, Nortel and Juniper. His bait is Open Flexible Router, a Linux-based open source router and firewall platform.
And being a CEO fulfills a career ambition for Herrell, who comes from a small Washington fishing village and fished for a living through high school, getting his captain's license at 18. While at Washington State University, he ran his own Alaskan charters in the summers. But he quit the business upon entering Cornell University to study marketing and economics. "One of the happiest days of my life was when I hung up my boots," Herrell says. "[Charter running] is hardcore. You're up at 4 a.m. and back at 9 p.m, seven days a week."
At Cornell, Herrell became interested in disruptive markets -- business-speak coming into vogue at that time (the early '90s). He found his disruptive chance with CacheFlow (since renamed Blue Coat Systems), one of the first among dot-com-era start-ups with novel technology for caching Web content. Herrell became the company's eighth employee in 1996.
Next, Herrell went to Cobalt Networks, a start-up selling ready-made Linux/Apache/ Sendmail appliances to feed dot-coms' voracious need for servers. "This was another product category that did not exist before," he says of the sleek blue appliances, which once lined the racks of enormous collocation facilities in Silicon Valley. "I packaged everything together, and let non-technical people easily build an online presence."
Herrell helped take Cobalt public and left the company after it was acquired by Sun in 2000. By then, the blistering pace of the late boom had caught up with him, Herrell says. His next move was to decelerate and spend more time with his new wife, Sharon.
The couple headed to Napa, where they bought a house with a small vineyard, and started the Kelly Martin Winery and a family. "They both have similar gestations," he jokes.
During this time, Herrell and his wife had a son, and Kelly Martin produced two vintages in small quantities, which are hard to find, and sell for as much as $75 a bottle. "The 2002 has great fruit, lots of blackberries, raspberries, and other rich red fruits, with great mouth feel, elegance and softness," according to SecretNapaWines.com
After a few years as a vintner, Herrell says he was ready to get back into technology.
Having seen open source's disruptive force, Herrell took a job as a vice president at Monta Vista Software, a maker of embedded, real-time Linux systems for devices as diverse as cell phones, automated teller machines and carrier/telephone company switching gear.
"Monta Vista is what I would call 100% bare-ass open source," he says.
Monta Vista's customer base of hardcore telecom engineers, with their extreme technical demands, provided Herrell a brisk reintroduction into the IT industry. He also experienced Linux's power as it transformed the telecom market from one relying on completely proprietary equipment to one that became more efficient and focused on margins and costs. The lean years, 2000 to 2004, played out well for Monta Vista. "Suddenly, telcos moved to standard hardware and an open, common [operating system]," Herrell says. "It was radical."
At Vyatta, Herrell is extending this concept to enterprise networks. The company basically gives away for free what Cisco and Juniper charge thousands of dollars for - a fully functional router and firewall operating system, which runs on commodity Intel hardware. Instead, it charges an annual, subscription-based customer service fee, with varying levels of Web, e-mail and telephone support.
More than a decade has passed since Herrell left the charter business, but he says much of what drove him during those long days is still reflected in how he manages and runs a company. Certainly, endurance is one trait. "You just can't let up," he says.
"And, not to be sappy about it," he adds, "but you've got to listen. In sport fishing, return clientele was 80% of the business. I learned what satisfied customers and [paid] the price when I didn't. Those are some really early lessons that probably in the backwaters of my mind drive me."
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