Interview with Michael Frew, Owner of Gigalixir

Michael Lubas, 2023-09-12

Gigalixir is a platform as a service created for Elixir and Phoenix. Launched in 2017 by Jesse Shieh, the service is loved by Elixir developers and businesses alike. In December 2021, Michael Frew acquired Gigalixir from Jesse, becoming the new owner and operator.

Lubas: Michael, great to have you on today. To give readers some context, what’s your professional background?

Frew: It’s also great to speak with you today. I started a little over 20 years ago as an artificial intelligence engineer. And slowly, I was pushed up the management chain and ended up in consulting. I ended my 20 year career with an emphasis on information security. At the end of those 20 years, I decided to take a sabbatical. I was suffering from a lot of the same issues that many engineers have, where you’re longing to run your own business, tired of meetings, projects that you don’t really care about. So at that time, I knew I was an operator, but wanted to be an entrepreneur. Over time I found this niche where I could acquire projects that were working well, instead of trying to start them myself. For the last eight or nine years, that’s what I’ve been doing, acquiring small and medium sized projects and companies from fellow engineers, running them every day and honestly, just flat out couldn’t be happier.

Lubas: The Elixir community feels very entrepreneurial, many new businesses are using the language. For some context, what is Gigalixir?

Frew: Gigalixir is a platform as a service, originally designed to support Elixir and Phoenix. But now we support any language with a build pack. So our focus is medium to large companies running Elixir deployments, as well as the weekend hacker that’s running a game server or doing an AI project on the side.

Lubas: How did you become the current owner?

Frew: I’m always looking for businesses to acquire, and they don’t pop up very often. A few years ago someone sent the prospectus over for Gigalixir, and said, “This is a business you would be interested in”. The sales cycle for Gigalixir customers is business to engineer and I knew right away this was something that would be really fun to run long term, with fantastic customers, just a great opportunity. So we reached out to the seller, and Gigalixir had incredible numbers and financials. That means everybody wanted to buy it. And there’s a long story of how you position yourself such that the seller wants to sell it to you. And so that’s a whole other story we could go into. But fortunately, I was successful in convincing Jesse that my team was the best equipped to take Gigalixir forward. I met with Jesse a couple of times while we completed the transaction. I’ve been running it since the very, very beginning of 2022, about 18 months now.

Lubas: You mentioned selling directly to engineers. Could you expand on that?

Frew: Yes. I call it B2E sales, it’s business sales to engineers. Predominantly inbound signups from small engineering teams or members that reach out and sign up for the service on their own. And then they do the work pushing this up to their management saying, “Hey, this is a really nice platform. This is helping us do this side project that I’m presenting to you every week. Can we look at putting this in the budget?”. Then we get the managers reaching out to us. Much like, you are marketing towards the people that are actually using your product. We’re selling directly to the people that are going to use Gigalixir because there’s an incredible disconnect if the person that’s acquiring a service is not the person that’s using it, as you know.

Lubas: There’s a term, “product led growth”, where the software product is so good that’s a huge driver of more sales, and Gigalixir seems to fit that description.

Frew: Yeah, it’s absolutely true. My team members and I, we’re all pretty introverted. It’s very hard to get us to do marketing, any sort of social media. So we really put our efforts into the customer support tickets. We focus on asynchronous communication with customers, not so much marketing. So we are product led. And hopefully that word of mouth continues to go out. That’s how we’ve chosen to run the business. And it also means, you know, we’re not really great operators for certain types of businesses that need that more outbound marketing focus.

Lubas: How are your customers using Gigalixir?

Frew: They’re using it quite a few ways, which is stunning to find every day. So many of them are using it to completely run their company operations. Some of them are running e-commerce stores, others operating global nonprofits. Sometimes we’ll get a question that comes out of left field. And then you find out why they are asking the questions. It’s so rewarding to be part of that. It’s just the most enjoyable aspect to me. We get to be the small piece of everybody’s project. I’ve not seen any limit on how they’re using it. There’s so much variation.

Lubas: I remember using Gigalixir the first time, and getting my app deployed felt like magic. I could visit the URL on my phone and show people what I was working on. It was the coolest part of the whole thing.

Frew: I might steal that story. That is really cool.

Lubas: Are all your customers using Elixir? There’s multiple hosting options, it seems like the marketing emphasizes Elixir.

Frew: For a large portion of our users Elixir is their main focus. We’re definitely seen more languages as well. Elixir smooths out a lot of the challenges with infrastructure that companies face. But then they’re also bringing in other projects to Gigalixir.

Lubas: What do you think of Elixir as a business market?

Frew: On the Elixir side, Gigalixir has grown almost 50% since the acquisition. The economy is having problems right now, but we have been very fortunate. From my perspective, Elixir continues to be a growth opportunity for entrepreneurs and businesses as well.

Lubas: With, a common question I get, “Is Elixir too small of a market?” “Can you build a business around it?” Maybe you didn’t run into that, because the Gigalixir financials were so solid.

Frew: No it came up. We had the advantage of looking at what the original founders’ revenue and profit was at one point in time. So we thought, “while this is not a huge market, it is big enough for us to be in there.” And it absolutely is. If it had just stayed stable, we would have been happy, but we just keep seeing growth because the language sells itself. Elixir is solving problems that are so difficult in other languages. We were able to reach a positive answer to that question with the best data possible, knowing the bottom line dollar amounts. I had almost the same question at first too.

Lubas: I’m glad we’re doing this interview because it’s so important to have business people in Elixir, talking about their experience, and the fact that you’re seeing this growth is such a huge signal for the language.

Frew: I think that’s a good perspective because I come from outside Elixir. I’m an ex-developer now. So to look at everything now, with my experience from the past few years and say, yeah this is something I want to be involved with, I hope that is a boost for Elixir.

Lubas: The hosting industry seems like a competitive place. What are the benefits of using Gigalixir over the big cloud providers?

Frew: They don’t care about customer support. They don’t even care if they have it. They’ll cancel your accounts if you just look at them the wrong way.

I want to run a company where a real person is replying to you, and helping you with your problem. So that’s a huge competitive advantage for us over some of the larger companies. We’re fanatic about support, making sure customers are happy and they are getting work done without our platform being in their way. With the larger providers, that’s not their real focus. They just want to close tickets and keep you signed up.

Lubas: You mentioned starting out as an engineer, and many Elixir developers are interested in entrepreneurship. What would you tell them?

Frew: Consider the path I took, where you acquire a business instead of starting from scratch. There’s just so much information about how to start your own business. And we’re all trying to do that. I realized I’m an entrepreneur, but I’m also an operator. That’s what I was good at. When I was doing consulting, I was always parachuting in, solving a problem, and leaving. I wasn’t great at idea creation and getting from zero to one, right? Getting to that first level. Then I looked at acquiring businesses instead of starting them, I realized I’m really good at the one to ten part of the business cycle, and therefore I’m dependent on the really good entrepreneurs that can come up with the idea and get those first customers. My point is, you don’t have to start from scratch, and if you can incorporate Elixir into it, even better.

Lubas: Sometimes the most exciting part of starting a business is literally starting it. Then reality sets in, and maybe it doesn’t work, or operating it proves difficult.

Frew: Right, when I acquired a small five figure business I thought, “why didn’t I just do this before? Nobody told me about this!!!”

A few years in now I’m acquiring six, seven figure businesses. It doesn’t take long because you’re selecting something you enjoy and know you can operate well. One business I acquired eight years ago is worth 10 or 15 times the original price, plus all the income earned from that ownership. There’s no salaried job I could do now.

I’ve also had a business I bought that did not work, but just like venture capital, you just need one or two to work. It’s a really interesting career path that more people should know about.

Lubas: Thank you for sitting down today with me, very much appreciated.

Frew: Thank you, it was great talking with you.

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