ROWAN: SendGrid, the core company, sends emails. It’s not marketing-focused emails, it’s things like signing up for your application, verifying your account, password resets – those sorts of critical emails. At SendGrid Labs what we do is, because our core service basically helps developers so they don’t have to build an email infrastructure, we focus on building the tools to help developers save time.
We identify engineering bottlenecks that cause developers to get distracted from building their core business. And then we build tools and services and solve problems that help them be more productive.
PBN: SendGrid told you that you could choose anywhere to station SendGrid Labs, why did you pick Providence?
ROWAN: So I picked Providence because I’m a lifelong Rhode Islander. I live down in South County. My previous two startups were based out of Boston. … I was part of the Rhode Island tech ecosystem before that. My first company was started in ’95 down in South County, it was an ISP. The technology scene in the mid-1990s, early 2000s just wasn’t where it needed to be for me to build the businesses that I wanted to build, so I kind of had to go out of state, but I always wanted to live here. So when SendGrid said “Hey you can create this lab environment wherever you want,” I immediately thought: “Providence is where it’s at.”
PBN: What do you think the state – whether it be legislators or the local business community – can do to make Rhode Island more of a technology hub?
ROWAN: I think they probably have to talk to the right people in the state, I’m still not convinced that all of the right people that are core technology players within the state are actively engaged at a government level. I think they need to seek a little bit more outside counsel, and I think that outside counsel exists in the state but they need to really tap into those environments. It’s not about showing up at an event, but it’s about being really immersed in the tech community not for political reasons but for pure business sense reasons – to truly help the state.
PBN: Ideally, where do you see the tech scene in Rhode Island in five or 10 years?
ROWAN: I think I see it being a little bit more open. … A lot of the businesses in this state tend to worry about letting employees do things like focus on personal growth and development growth professionally as well. I think people worry about what will happen with that employee because they’ll get smarter and walk away.
Those are the people that I hire. I hire the people that in a lot of ways – but not all ways – are smarter than me and they’re driven to grow. At SendGrid we actually encourage people to focus on personal growth, business growth, gain knowledge, and we know that someday they may outgrow their job or us and that’s perfectly OK in my opinion, but I don’t see that enough. People lock down too much and that stifles innovation.
You’re keeping people from learning for all the wrong reasons. Part of your job as an employer is to help [your employees] grow, and if they grow up and they start a new business, well then you just created a new entrepreneur and that entrepreneur is probably going to stay in Providence or in Rhode Island.
PBN: If you were to pitch Providence to someone who was looking for a place to start their company, how would you sell it?
ROWAN: One: It’s a great city. Two: It’s not so big that you don’t run into people when you’re going to walk for a coffee. For me, that’s really, really important. It makes it really easy to maintain relationships. When I walk to get a coffee, it’s literally every day that I run into someone on the way there and on the way back, and that’s just great. That whole serendipitous meeting makes for a really driving environment.
It’s a great city, it’s not too big, it’s close to Boston, and the tech ecosystem is right on the cusp of being one of the best in the country. It’s made an amazing turnaround.
PBN: What do you think has been instrumental in the city’s recent turnaround?
ROWAN: I think a lot of the meet-ups we have on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis are really important. I think the key there though is the consistency of those meet-ups and the overall content of them. Years ago when we had meet-ups that were part of different organizations … they were just social events, they were suit events. Now, they’re more diverse in what they’re talking about at these meet-ups and the bigger thing is they’re more consistent, which makes it a lot easier for people to get engaged.
Not to give too much credit to myself or to SendGrid, because we’re not the only ones doing it. It’s great that businesses are being built here, and I’ll build another business here someday, but it’s also really cool that businesses that are built are coming here. And that says something else about the state, and I think that’s important.