Founders on Fire: Richard Li, CEO and Founder, Ambassador Labs

Today we’re catching up with Ambassador Labs, our winner of the 2020 Developer Trailblazers Award. We get to chat with Richard Li, the CEO of the firm. Chief Trailblazer Rose Ross quizzes him to find out what the win has meant for Ambassador Labs and what’s been happening since winning the award.

Richard shares how Ambassador Labs aims to empower developers to play a greater part in achieving success for the companies they work for, whilst reducing the distractions that can take them out of their flow. He can see a future where developers take full ownership of the entire software cycle.

He also tells of how the recent Series B funding was a success despite the pandemic putting pay to physical meetings and how it’s fuelling rapid growth for the company. Watch the full podcast here:


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Interview transcript

Rose Ross: Hello everybody, welcome to the Tech Trailblazers Founders on Fire podcast and videocast. I’m delighted that today joining me is Richard Li who is the CEO of Ambassador Labs, who are our Developer Trailblazers from last year. Hello Richard.

Richard Li: Hello, pleasure to be here.

Rose Ross: It’s an absolute pleasure to have you here with us. Are you in Boston at the moment?

Richard Li: I am in Boston, it’s starting to feel like spring or summer, depending on your point of view.

Rose Ross: Well, as long as it’s warming up that’s the most important thing. Well, obviously it’s a pleasure to have you with us, and obviously our Developer category has only been around for a couple of years, but you guys have been in the developer world for a while now. So, could you tell us a little bit about Ambassador Labs itself.

Richard Li: Yes, we were formed actually in 2014, and when I say formed it was really just me sort of just talking to folks around some of the problems they had, and like any startup we make left turns and right turns, and sometimes go around in circles. Eventually some of the themes that have emerged from our work with customers and our broader open source community has been the importance of developer experience, especially when building software for the cloud. That’s really what Ambassador Labs has focussed on over the past few years.

Rose Ross: Fantastic. Well, I noticed when you guys put together your celebratory press release about winning the Tech Trailblazers, you put a very nice quote together about how grateful you were to your team, and you talked about a ‘developer first’ approach. Now, I’m not familiar with that, so I was wondering if you could just explain a little bit about what that actually means, to myself and the listeners.

Richard Li: So, for ‘developer first’ approach what we mean by that is, that when you’re building software you want to create an environment where the developers are actually really productive, and optimised, for actually writing software. Because writing software requires an enormous amount of concentration, and so if there are little things that happen that distract from being able to focus on writing that code, you really want to try hard to eliminate those distractions. So, one of the analogies I like to give for folks who are not developers is, imagine you’re writing a document and you have a preview function just to see what the document looks like when it’s done, and generating that preview takes 20 minutes, in which case then you’re very frustrated because you’re on a roll, you’re writing and writing, and then you say, ‘I want to see what this document looks like’, and you have to wait 20 minutes to see what that preview looks like. Well, that takes you out of your flow.

And so that’s the kind of things that we enable for developers, is to really enable those developers to stay in their flow, so they can remain productive.

Rose Ross: Wow, that does sound quite an issue, quite a distraction not being able to get that insight really into the bigger picture, because that’s important, isn’t it? You want to make sure it all fits together.

Richard Li: Exactly. Rose, if you take one minute, if you take even a 10 second distraction then you have to spend three minutes trying to get back to where you were thinking and getting back into the flow, and if you add that up, suddenly you’re not getting that much done. And so figuring out ways to really minimise the friction and the distractions for developers is crucially important to being productive, in any sort of software development environment.

Rose Ross: Definitely, particularly these days we all tend to have a bit of a shorter attention span it seems!

Richard Li: Exactly.

Rose Ross: So that’s greatly appreciated. You’ve talked about the ‘developer first’ side of things, what has been happening since you guys won? It’s probably about six months ago that we announced that you guys had been crowned Developer Trailblazer. What’s been happening for Ambassador Labs in the last six months?

Richard Li: We closed our Series B fundraise with Inside Partners. That’s been huge, we’ve doubled the size of our team, and we’re continuing to hire because we just need people, and marketing, engineering, sales, and all these different functions. About two weeks ago we actually launched our Developer Control Plane, which is our vision for the next few years around where we’re going. We’ve built these different tools and we’ve now introduced this umbrella concept called the Developer Control Plane, which is designed for developers, surprise-surprise, on Kubernetes building cloud native applications.

Rose Ross: Fantastic. I did think about that when I looked at your website, obviously talking about Kubernetes which has become huge over the last few years. I was thinking, what has actually happened to Docker? Because that’s been a really interesting turn of events, and I know it’s a little bit off topic, but seeing as you’re right in the middle of that I would be really curious, what you think’s been going on. Or perhaps even enlighten me, because I’m sure a lot of other people are fully aware of it.

Richard Li: Well, Docker is still around and thriving. I think what the challenge with Docker was, they built this amazing technology that everyone started to use, and then they were conflicted around the commercialisation strategy; do we tried to figure how to commercialise with developers, or do we figure how to commercialise with your operations engineers, your system administrators.

So, they tried to do both as a company, and I think that was actually very difficult. It’s very difficult to try to figure out two different monetisation strategies at the same time, even in a single company. What I’ve seen Docker do very successfully now is, Docker Incorporated has refocused entirely on developers. They’re doing super-well, and then at the same time they’ve spun off their operations business and sold it to Mirantis, and Mirantis is doing well selling to the operations engineers, and system administrators.

So, I think now the core technologies in Docker are really being used, but just in two different companies with two different focus areas, and I think that ultimately has been very successful so far for Docker.

Rose Ross: Yes, so it eliminated the confusion that perhaps was an internal bit of push and pull there on the culture and the approach.

Richard Li: Exactly.

Rose Ross: That’s good to know. So, we shouldn’t write them off at all.

Richard Li: Absolutely not. They’re doing great, they just did this huge deal with Amazon Webservices, with Docker and they’re going like gangbusters and everyone in the world still uses Docker Desktop, so I think they’re doing very well.

Rose Ross: Good to hear, that was interesting. There was another thought which is absolutely 100 percent off topic, but please just humour me a little bit. What is the nautical theme with container technology? So, Kubernetes has this wheel from an old ship, well it looks like that to me – I might be totally wrong, and obviously Docker had the digitised whale. Is there something nautical that I don’t know about the technology or references, apart from obviously containers – container ships, I don’t know.

Richard Li: Honestly, Rose, I think it’s just because engineers are bad at explaining things and so we rely very heavily on analogies, and someone started with this container ship analogy and it stuck long enough that people started sticking with the general analogy. I don’t know if it’s a good analogy or a bad analogy, but I think this is just not an engineer’s forte. The Kubernetes cloud world is just so different that the biggest challenge is really trying to explain things to people. So, analogies are a good way to try to bridge that gap.

Rose Ross: Absolutely, certainly helps for me, that’s for sure. So, are we seeing now with obviously what we’ve all been dealing with, with the pandemic and the way that has impacted the way that companies are operating, and obviously digitisation, digital transformation, pushing stuff into the cloud; are you seeing that that’s driving a lot of the development, because obviously first-hand you are dealing with a lot of people who are now pushing the cloud native approach?

Richard Li: Absolutely, we see, especially with the pandemic, things have accelerated, everyone has recognised that over the next decade the success of businesses is predicated on the speed of their digital transformation. So the winners in the next 10 years are going to be the ones that successfully execute on the digital transformation strategies, and cloud native, Kubernetes and development for cloud native applications is a huge part of that digital transformation strategy.

Rose Ross: So, obviously not great from a global perspective, but from a business like Ambassador Labs you’re actually seeing some positives coming out all of the challenges that people are facing?

Richard Li: Yes absolutely. Obviously, the pandemic has been a terrible tragedy for millions, tens of millions of people, and the world is still in this crazy state, but I think in terms of, from a business perspective, the demand for digital transformation technologies, expertise, workflows, has accelerated, absolutely.

Rose Ross: Obviously, you guys put out quite a lot of publicity around when you were winning, how important was that for you and the team, and your conversations with the investment community, that you won a Developer Trailblazer award?

Richard Li: I think it’s all part of this narrative. It’s a huge honour and it’s a big part of the narrative of us building momentum and recognition in the space, for all the hard work the team has done. So, it’s very similar to winning customers and growing your community, it’s getting more of that third-party validation is very rewarding to both the folks internally as well as the folks externally. So, I think the Trailblazers award has really been part of that narrative that we’ve been building towards and continue to work on over time.

Rose Ross: Brilliant, well we were delighted to have you involved, and delighted that you got the recognition that you deserve.

So if we take things perhaps a little bit further, you’ve had quite an illustrious career in startups actually Richard, having stalked you now effectively on LinkedIn! You’re involved with Duo Security; I believe Rapid7 is another name that you’re associated with.

Richard Li: Yes.

Rose Ross: So, this is not your first time out of the blocks with a startup.

Richard Li: No, this is the first time I’ve actually founded a startup, but I would characterise myself as a startup person. I was early at Rapid7 and saw them grow, left right before the IPO, and early at Duo. I love building companies; I think it’s the ultimate challenge.

Rose Ross: Well, we look forward to seeing where you’re going to be taking Ambassador Labs. And looking at the wider industry, and perhaps a little bit of future-gazing for you Richard, but obviously you are in the thick of it there in the developer community; what do you see, say in 10 years’ time enterprise technology is going to look like? What are perhaps some of the things that we’re going to be seeing then?

Richard Li: I think over the past 5-10 years there’s been a secular shift towards developers adopting, getting more responsibility around decision-making, and I think that trend will continue if not accelerate. So, traditionally development has been told what to do, and what we’ve realised is that if we can actually figure out ways to empower developers to really understand the needs of the business, the digital transformation actually goes faster. I think that’s probably the biggest trend that I see over the past few years and it’s accelerating.

And going to your question around enterprise technology and how that evolves, it’s really going to be, how does enterprise technology help these developers maximise their productivity in this brave new world? That I think is the largest trend that I see, even more so than cloud. Cloud is sort of part of that enabling technology and enable developers to be even more efficient and productive than they were before, but the overall trend of developers taking full ownership of that entire software life cycle from business requirements to releasing it, that’s a big thing.

Rose Ross: Yes, because when you’re at that ground level you can start to think about the stuff that you develop now, being the right stuff as a platform for the future. If you’re not really in that process, in that environment, you could be going off down a little rabbit hole thinking that you’re doing the right thing, because that’s what they’ve said. But you never would have done it that way if you’d have known what the bigger picture was, or what the end goal was.

Richard Li: Exactly, and we see this in big ways where it’s, ‘Here’s our business goal. Here’s this new market we want to tackle,’ and also in smaller ways. If you’re an e-commerce site and you make changes to the shopping cart, you want to make sure that the conversion rates of people putting items in your shopping cart doesn’t actually decrease with any of your changes, that it actually increases. And giving developers an awareness and understanding of those things, it just results in better development, faster development cycles. And that’s what you see with the best companies, is, the developers understand the business metrics that they’re optimising towards, and they’re constantly working towards optimising towards those business metrics.

Rose Ross: That sounds very exciting developments, so that should be interesting to watch over the coming years. And kind of the same question, but not about the technology side of things. Obviously, you’ve been in a lot of startups through your career, and I think there’s no argument that what’s happened with the pandemic has changed the world in many, many, many areas, and I think also in the startup world as well. So, if you were to look forward, say 10 years, to what tech startups will look like – if you were founding a startup in 10 years’ time, obviously after you’ve successfully completed your Ambassador Labs adventure, what do you think would be different then from what you’ve experienced up until now?

Richard Li: I think the biggest thing is social protocols for certain things. There’s a recognition that you can do certain things very efficiently as a distributed workforce, and there’s also things that you can’t do efficiently as a distributed workforce. I think in the past, as an example, fundraising; fundraising has always been an in-person activity, people would just make this trek to Sand Hill Road, and some of these other VC hotspots. What we’ve realised is you can actually fundraise pretty successfully without doing it in person.

So, we did our Series B in the middle of the pandemic, and I still have yet to meet my investors in person, even though I’ve spent plenty of time with them on Zoom and on the phone. I think people are starting to recognise there’s certain things that we always used to do in person that maybe is not as efficient, and we can actually do it remotely. Well, of course we still miss being able to sit in front of a white board, collaborate and have those hallway conversations, and those social interactions to see how someone is doing. I think the trade-off is, my sense of the emotional state of people in the company that I don’t talk to on a regular basis is much lower because I just don’t see them. And if we were in the same office, if I walked by their desk maybe I would see something that I wouldn’t be able to tell, because I don’t walk by anyone’s desk anymore.

Rose Ross: Well, at the moment.

Richard Li: At the moment.

Rose Ross: Do you have plans to re-congregate in the Boston area and bring people slowly back, and obviously safely back into a bit of an office environment; what do you think it will look like for you guys, how you’re working over the next six to twelve months?

Richard Li: I think we’ll still be remote first, but we will definitely be building an office again, and having more of a collaboration space. So, being able to come to the office when it makes sense, but also being able to work remotely. And the realities at this point, we’ve got people in so many different countries, so many different states and locations that we’re not going to actually bring everyone, and ask everyone to show up in an office, 2, 3, 4, 5 days a week. We’ll replace that with periodic every ‘once a year’, or ‘once every six months’ in-person get-togethers.

Rose Ross: Do you think you would have had such a distributed workforce if the pandemic hadn’t hit?

Richard Li: I think it accelerated our shift to a distributed a workforce, but we were already pretty distributed. Our engineering groups where a lot of folks were already working from different locations, and marketing was less so, and so that’s where it accelerated. But I think in general we always had HR in New York, so we’ve been pretty distributed for quite some time.

Rose Ross: And is there anything that you think you would want to pass onto people who maybe are beginning their journey, or maybe are just curious, just an insight from you on what you think you perhaps would have done differently. Obviously, everybody talks about failing fast and stuff like this, I think it should perhaps be learning from a failure fast is the key! Is there anything you would recommend, or that you perhaps that you’ve learnt your greatest lesson from when things didn’t perhaps work out?

Richard Li: I think you have to always be very honest with yourself; is something actually working? And if it’s not working you have to be honest and be willing to move on and make difficult decisions, and not do something for the sake of doing things. I think every time we’ve been honest with ourselves it’s been a painful process, but it results in the right result, because if no one is actually buying whatever it is that you’re doing then you have to be honest with yourself and say, “no one is buying, why is that?” Because the reality is, if you’re not changing anything and no one is actually buying, as an example, then no one will continue to buy. And so, you have to figure out how to evolve your business and be honest with yourself. So, that’s I think the hardest thing to do is to just constantly be honest with yourself about how things are actually going.

Rose Ross: Yes, because you do get emotionally invested don’t you, particularly in the early days because you’re working so hard, and to think that it hasn’t quite worked out as you’d planned is sometimes quite difficult to take onboard.

Richard Li: Yes.

Rose Ross: So, other than that, I’m just trying to think if there’s anything else. Is there anything you’d like to share about Series B funding? That was exciting, great partner Insight. It sounds like everything is going particularly well for you guys.

Richard Li: Yeah, I think in general we’re very excited about the future and just building that team, and for us our biggest challenge now is finding the right people to join us on our journey. So, I think my plug would be, if you’re interested in a career in a startup, please check out our website and our careers section.

Rose Ross: It sounds like a very exciting part of the world to be in from a startup perspective, so we wish you lots of luck with that. Is there anything else that you’d like to add, that perhaps we’ve not talked about as yet that you would like to?

Richard Li: No – Rose, thank you so much for having me on this podcast.

Rose Ross: An absolute pleasure. It’s great to meet you, and it’s great to hear about all the successes that you guys are having with Ambassador Labs. So do keep us posted, and wishing you continued success.

That was Richard Li who is CEO and founder of Ambassador labs, who is our Developer Trailblazer winner.

If you’d like to find out more, obviously do check out Ambassador Labs online, but also if you’d like to find out more about the awards themselves, and the Tech Trailblazers, and the podcasts that we are doing with our founders, and our judges, and other people who are exciting with lots of insights in the startup world, please do visit Follow us on Twitter @techtrailblaze so no R, no S. Or find us on LinkedIn.

Thank you very much, bye-bye now.