Our interview with Ben Lerner, Co-founder and CEO at DataNitro – a Y Combinator graduate

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Recently we caught up with Ben Lerner, Co-founder and CEO at DataNitro. During our interview, Ben introduces us to DataNitro while sharing advice abut the business plan process and applying to an accelerator program. DataNitro is a graduate of the Y Combinator accelerator program.

Ben-LernerWhat is DataNitro all about?

We’re making Excel more powerful. Millions of people work with Excel every day, more and more of whom are reaching its limits. It’s common to see businesses rely on massive spreadsheets, and these spreadsheets frequently require functionality that Excel can’t provide. There are two options for extending Excel beyond its built-in limitations. You can use Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), or dive into Windows programming with .NET. VBA is a bad choice for anything beyond simple user macros, while .NET requires substantial engineering investment. DataNitro is better. We integrate Excel with Python, decreasing development time by a factor of 10. Python, and its open-source libraries, also opens up a wealth of new functionality. Our users have built statistical models, web scrapers, and analytics engines in Excel, and integrated spreadsheets with chemical formula databases, REST API’s, and even electrical meters.

How did you come up with the idea for DataNitro?

My cofounder, Victor Jakubiuk, and I were working at a trading firm, and we were asked to build an options model in Excel with VBA. I’d never worked with VBA before, and I was looking forward to trying something new. By the time we were done, we were both stunned at how bad the language was. VBA has few built-in functions, and doesn’t support the concept of libraries. As a result, anything you need must be written from scratch (or copied from some forum) and stuck into your codebase. Because of this, we wasted a lot of time building basic functions. For example, things, we needed to write a version of Newton’s method, not to mention a max function. On top of that, you spend a lot of time fighting with the language for performance. The project ended up taking over two weeks to finish. If we could’ve used Python, it would’ve been done in two days. Despite its shortcomings, VBA is widely used in finance and engineering. Victor and I decided to work on DataNitro because we knew we could build something better.

What were some of the challenges that you faced starting a company?

It took us a long time to pin down an idea. We initially worked on a social travel site. This seemed like a great idea at the time, but we didn’t have a business model and we were missing key skills for the project. After a lackluster start, we went back to the drawing board and decided to work on something that matched our skillset and had a clear business need. DataNitro doesn’t sound as sexy as a travel site, but it solves a real problem for an entire class of professionals.

You took part in the Y Combinator accelerator program, what difference do you feel being part of an accelerator made to your company?

We entered Y Combinator right after starting DataNitro, and it helped us get off to the right start. The partners’ advice made sure we focused on what was important. When you’re starting a company there are a million different things you can spend your time on; it’s surprisingly easy to work 16 hours a day but not accomplish anything. And seeing how hard our batchmates worked and how much progress they made really helped us build up momentum.

What advice would you give to an entrepreneur looking to get their company into an accelerator program? 

Convince them that your company is going to be a success. An accelerator is an investor. Unlike most investors, their main contribution is time and support, not money, but they’re still investors. How do you do that? The best way is to clearly articulate why you think you’re going to be successful. After all, you and your cofounders are the company’s biggest investors: you’ll be spending years and tens of thousands of hours building it. Why do you think that’s a good idea? On a practical level, take the time to carefully write your application. Make sure it’s clear, succinct, and doesn’t leave anything out. Your writing needs to compel the partners to give you an interview over thousands of other applicants.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?

Listen to your users. Victor and I are both engineers, and when we’re faced with a problem we immediately want to sit down and code. Most of the time, though, you need to go out talk to the people using your product before you start programming. Without their feedback, you don’t know if you’re building the right thing.

What advice would you like to give to an entrepreneur thinking about writing their first business plan?

First, keep in mind that a business plan for a startup is very different from a business plan for an established company. You won’t have detailed revenue and cost projections for 3+ years. Instead, focus on the next 12 months. Figure out some basic facts (how much money do we need, at a bare minimum?; what’s the soonest we can release something?; where does our product need to be to start making money?), and outline a few scenarios (what will we do if we don’t raise money?; what if we raise a seed round?; how would hiring one employee affect our costs?; how would it affect our development time?). Above all, remember that your business plan is just a starting point. It’s going to change, some times dramatically. The process of thinking through the business plan is much more valuable than the plan itself. If someone’s asked to see your business plan, they’ll understand this. They’re expecting it to just be a guess; you should make sure it’s a thoroughly educated one. If this is a potential employee or investor, they want to know that you’ve thought through things as much as possible with the limited information you have.

A massive thank you to Ben for taking the time out of his busy schedule to put down some awesome answers to our questions. We look forward to catching back up with DataNitro next year to see how things have come along.

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