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Data Gumbo CEO discusses Houston's startup ecosystem and goals for his company

Andrew Bruce had the idea for Data Gumbo when he realized how difficult it was to share data in upstream oil and gas. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

For Andrew Bruce, an oil and gas professional and entrepreneur, there's nothing like Houston.

"I've lived in Boston, New York, and London, and I've spent a lot of time in Norway," Bruce says. "They are all wonderful places, but I've never experienced anything quite like Houston."

After a long career in oil and gas, Bruce found himself a victim of the oil downturn. Once laid off, he decided to focus on a new idea for a way to provide access to upstream oil and gas data to companies. He founded Data Gumbo Corp., a blockchain-as-a-service company based in Houston, in 2016. The company closed its seed round last year and is moving toward a series A.

While Bruce credits his trajectory from laid off to startup CEO to a lot of hard work and a bit of blind luck, he says that Houston's people and the help they are willing to provide has been extremely beneficial to the growth of Data Gumbo.

"I'm just brainstorming, but I think a lot of [what makes Houston great for startups] comes from the fact that we all recognize the cyclical nature of the oil and gas industry, we are obligated to look out for each other even when people are laid off," Bruce says. "Maybe it comes from that kind of recognition that we're all in this together and we have to try to work through it."

InnovationMap: Tell me a little bit about your background.

Andrew Bruce: Started out as a programmer, and was transferred from New York City to Houston to build a consulting practice for financial systems. My background originally in London was building systems for the deregulation of banking industry that was happening in the mid 80s.

When I came to houston, I got involved in energy trading systems. I built a small software startup, and eventually got involved in National Oilwell Varco and the drilling business. As part of that, I kicked off a program called NOVOS to build an autonomous drilling rig. Came across the challenge of not having access to data for that rig. Data Gumbo was a direct result of that.

I started Data Gumbo to solve the problem of not being able to get data from industrial installations. Along the way, I came across the opportunity for blockchain because the real problem people were trying to solve was mistrust and inefficiency of the process. I stumbled into blockchain kind of backwards.

IM: How does Data Gumbo work?

AB: The whole idea is to build out the blockchain network, and provide a network that they can subscribe to and start doing business on that network. It's a service, so there's a subscription fee. It gives them access to the savings they already have available within their organizations.

IM: Who are the type of customers you're looking for?

AB: Midstream and upstream oil and gas companies, and the service companies that serve them.

IM: What was the reception like at first?

AB: Difficult. We got a lot of questions and concerns about what blockchain is, why they need it, and whether or not they can trust it. We were introducing a completely new concept to a conservative industry.

IM: What were some challenges and opportunities?

AB: No. 1 is the Operators Blockchain Consortium, which was 19 different oil companies coming together to understand blockchain and its opportunities. That's helped. And 75 percent of our early calls were sort of evangelism of explaining blockchain and how it's different from cryptocurrency. So, it was an educational process. The industry was independently going down the road of understanding the technology. And, to be perfectly honest, it was a bit of blind luck that we chose this technology that the industry was getting behind anyways.

IM: What doors does your recently closed seed round open?

AB: Now we're pursuing a series A equity round. Seed was a bridge to equity funding. It was primarily individuals in town who got behind the company and believed in what we were trying to do. They helped open some doors, but primarily it was financing to get us to series A and prove the concepts from a sales and product market fit perspective.

IM: What are you long-term goals for Data Gumbo?

AB: To take the company public and to remain independent. We believe that we want to provide a service to the customers that is independent from any other offers. We want to stay true to our roots and be a blockchain network infrastructure people can trust and rely on for not just upstream oil and gas, but also getting into trucking and shipping and other adjacent industries so we can satisfy the whole supply chain.

IM: How is it being located in Houston?

AB: Houston's startup community has been amazing. When we started this journey, it had been a while since we had any entrepreneurial contacts, so it was basically like starting from scratch. Organizations like Station Houston and, later on, The Cannon helped provided great contacts. People from those organizations — and the business community as a whole — has been really generous with their time. Houston is probably second to none when it comes to people's willingness to help.

IM: What does Houston still need to work on as an innovation ecosystem?

AB: I don't think it's Houston specifically, but a generalization is that large corporations are set up to buy from large corporations. As a small company or startup to sell to a super major is difficult because the sales cycle is so long and the requirements are set up to buy from other large companies. If there was a way for creating an entrepreneurial division of these companies so that they can experiment with and support startups, that would be tremendous. If you're a startup, you should be focused on sales, but cracking that nut within a large company is really hard.

IM: What keeps you up at night as it pertains to business?

AB: People. I've viewed my roles with a huge responsibility. There are people who make a bet on a company, whether they be investors or employees, and you've got to be able to fund the company. So, whether it be through sales revenue or fundraising, making payroll and building a company that people can get a return on their investment is a huge responsibility. So, that's what keeps me up at night — making sure that I'm repaying people's faith in what we're doing.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Elizabeth Gerbel, CEO and founder of Houston-based E.A.G. Services Inc., shares how to navigate M&A activity for both startups and large companies. Pexels

Nervous about an upcoming merger or acquisition? You're not alone. Last year, there were nearly 15,000 mergers and acquisitions in the U.S., according to the Institute for Mergers, Acquisitions and Alliances. These transactions, although executed with optimistic intentions, don't always work out. What is it that separates those that deliver from those whose results simply fall flat?

While you won the legal battle, the real culprit to a failed merger or acquisition transaction lies in post-deal activities such as integrating the divesting company's assets into the acquiring company's existing systems, processes, and organizational structure. If executed poorly, companies could face several hurdles, including:

  • Increased acquisition costs
  • Loss in previously efficient business processes
  • Reduced data quality in current and acquired assets
  • Extended TSA timeline

With the stakes being high, it is critical for each step of a merger or acquisition to be rock solid before moving on to the next stage. In fact, when executed successfully, an M&A transaction can significantly benefit both companies — from startups to well-established corporations.

A strategy for M&A data integration

In order to facilitate efficient and effective merger or acquisition, the critical success factors focus on these driving goals: Minimizing organizational disruption and Maximizing ROI. To achieve these goals, we execute three main stages for every merger and acquisition.

  1. Planning
  2. Analysis
  3. Execution

We start with thorough planning, think of planning as the foundation for a successful merger or acquisition. Without a good plan, the company will be vulnerable to all sorts of structural weaknesses. To prevent key elements from falling through the cracks, companies must define objectives and data requirements, maintain strong communications, and develop both short-term and long-term expectations.

The next step – analysis – since data is absolutely essential in mergers and acquisitions. There is a lot to watch out for: What's the best way to extract and convert the acquired data? Will IT or business support need to be permanently added? What system configuration changes are required? What are the impacts to current business processes and internal audit controls? Will additional training be required? The answers to these questions are highly individualized to each merger and acquisition, and they'll impact how seamless the transition will be. Many people gloss over this stage but then realize the criticality not only in the case of a merger or acquisition but also in the case of a future divestiture.

Finally, the last stage: Execution. This stage is one of the main reasons why some mergers and acquisitions may fall short of expectations. To avoid common issues stemming from poor execution – including disruption of previously effective business processes, impaired customer service, and increase in the cost of the merger or acquisition – we coordinate roles and responsibilities, ensuring that all key tasks are executed. From day one to full integration, we continually monitor to ensure the company is on track to meet its initially defined objectives.

The risks and benefits of a merger or acquisition

I'll be candid: Without a solid foundation through adequate preparation, a merger or acquisition is set up to fail. This risk can be higher for startups and small companies, which don't have the resource buffer that some larger firms can fall back on. Large companies may face a different risk, business processes and data may not be aligned with their current state. And yet, according to Economy Watch, an extensively strategized merger or acquisition transaction, beyond increasing the company's size, can yield significant benefits that include:

  • Improving its strategic position
  • Entering a new market
  • Developing new assets
  • Lowering operational costs
  • Expanding market influence

For smooth mergers and acquisitions, we recommend a multi-step process so that you can identify and reduce risks, condense your integration timeline, and quickly capture value. Because despite the challenges, not all is lost during a merger or acquisition – and there is much to be gained.

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Elizabeth Gerbel is the CEO and founder of Houston-based E.A.G. Services Inc.