Kendall Clark Founds Stardog To Solve Data Silo Problem
Oct 25, 2023
Kendall Clark is on his second career. Up until the age of 27 he was an academic having gone to school for years to attain his PhD in philosophy. And while he enjoyed the life of an academic philosopher, it didn’t pay the bills. He thought programming was a good alternative and went back to school get his masters degree.
He got his first proper job in 2002 building a website. In working on a project for a large realty company, he realised that data was the real key to building websites, but also that pulling data together from various sources was a huge challenge. And that challenge led him to become an entrepreneur, founder and CEO of Stardog to solve that problem.
“The founding idea came around for the fact that I realised on that day that big companies, what we call the enterprise, did not have all of their data in one system. And when I say it like that, it sounds horribly naive, but I’m just being honest. I just had this idea that there’s one company, all your data is in one place, why would you do it any other way,” says Clark.
He would then join forces with Mike Grove, and Evren Sirin to start pursuing this data-driven mission to unify data after meeting at the University of Maryland AI Lab with the founding of Stardog in 2006. This founder’s journey is based on my interview with Stardog founder and CEO Kendall Clark.
Stardog is an Arlington, Virginia software company founded in 2006 to provide a reusable, scalable knowledge graph platform designed to enable enterprises to unify all their data, including data sources and databases of every type, to get the answers needed to drive business decisions.
A knowledge graph is a network of real-world entities, such as objects, events, situations, or concepts, and the relationships between them. It’s also known as a semantic network. Knowledge graphs are used in data science and AI to organize data from multiple sources, capture information about entities of interest in a given domain or task to forge connections between entities to provide a framework for data integration, unification, analytics, and sharing.
While Stardog was early to the market, the sector is now large and growing. The worldwide semantic knowledge graphing market is projected to reach $3.4 billion in 2023, rising to $5.3 billion by 2032, according to Grandview Research.
Clark chose the name Stardog when his co-founder Mike Grove was listening to a Seattle-based grunge band called Mother Love Bone and the song Star Dog Champion was playing. While he disliked the music, he loved the name Stardog and bought the domain name for it for $300. But he also liked the name for technical reasons. “Our product works by using this data modelling pattern called star schemas. It’s why there’s other companies in this general space called Star something. It’s kind of a term of art for software developers. We were a dog family still are. And my wife who’s a graphic designer taught me well. I knew that stardog was a great domain and made for a memorable logo,” says Clark.
They bootstrapped the company for 10 years. Without rich friends or family to support them, Clark put $500 into a corporate account to capitalise the business. And because they were in D.C. at the time, they survived by pursuing Federal R&D dollars. “And then ironically, in the 2008 financial crisis, we started picking up banking customers that didn’t quite understand why we had not been able to get banking customers prior to that point. It wasn’t until 2016 that they created a Delaware C corporation and raised their first seed round.
Today, Stardog is growing fast. It’s some 100 employees help large enterprises like Bosch, Ericsson, BNY Mellon, NASA and the NIH (National Institute of Health) use Stardog to unify their data lakes into actionable insights. “NASA is our oldest customer, they use us pretty extensively in the systems engineering process, which is really kind of a supply chain process,” says Clark.
The company has raised about $40 million in funding to date and is looking to raise another funding round in the second quarter of next year. Accenture’s venture arm invested in the company, providing a partnership that helps put Stardog in front of the CTOs of the largest companies around the world. They also have partnerships with Databricks and Microsoft, which are also paying dividends for the company.
Clark reflects on the challenges of building a business for over 17 years that is only now hitting its stride. What kept him going during the first 10 years when growth was hard to find? “I’ve committed many entrepreneurial sins. I will have been called foolishly stubborn if this doesn’t work out. When it does work out, I will have been gritty and persistent. So it’s not anything until it’s over. We’re still in the game. And there’s a lot of exciting developments. The business is certainly accelerating, the market’s accelerating, primarily because the awareness of about this problem and appetite to do something about it is accelerating,” says Clark.
On whether he is working towards an IPO, Clark says, “Some entrepreneurs need to ring the bell on opening day on Wall Street. I don’t. I mean, if that’s what’s required of me, I’ll do it. But I also realised I’m not really a public company CEO. That doesn’t seem fun,” says Clark. He would rather sell the business at some point to a large successful company for a good return for investors. “And I would like my friends and enemies to say, ‘He went and did the thing he said he was going to do to solve that problem’. And the planets a better place for it,” continues Clark.
Clark was born and raised in Houston, Texas to a religious family during the ‘70s. His father was a chemical engineer and was the first on either side of the family to graduate college. “I was a little kid when he was in college, and he worked all these jobs. And it was an important story I heard from him growing up,” says Clark. He took it so seriously he would spend years in academia to finally earn his PhD. “I grew up in a happy, middle class, childhood, education was important. I was very studious, and, you know, liked to read from a young age and they said, ‘Graduate school was a way to avoid getting a job and all you do is read all day.’ And I was like, sounds like heaven,” says Clark.
Clark’s concept of business was formed by listening to his dad make phone calls to places like Venezuela and India, and he moved petrochemical refineries around the planet. He thought all business was about wheeling and dealing like the oil business in Texas.
“With this naivete, I thought all the world’s data in all the big companies was in one place, and that wheeling dealing was what it meant to be a business leader. And it was just attractive. So, he left academia to start what would become Stardog where he found out there was no wheeling and dealing in the public sector and it would take persistence and hard work to build a growing company.
As for the future? “I’ve got this thing I want to accomplish. It’s very mission driven, that, if I can do this, I’ll be successful and make money and return money to my investors. But more importantly, I want to solve the problem. And so, to leave would be quitting and my parents didn’t raise a quitter,” concludes Clark.