NinjaRMM co-founder and CEO Salvatore Sferlazza. Courtesy of NinjaRMM.
In the mid 1990s, after his sophomore year studying finance and computer science at SUNY at Albany, Sal Sferlazza put on a suit and tie and went to intern for his uncle in New York City. At the time, his uncle was known as an IT consultant, but in the digital age, we'd call his company a managed service provider (MSP).
The offer was for admin work like answering phones and running errands, but Sal’s a coder at heart. A good one, even at 19 years old. He started messing around with the SCO UNIX operating system and throwing code into prototypes for clients and soon, Sal’s uncle was sending him around the city to do things like diagnose IT problems, set up printers, and revert servers.
At the time, Sal was getting practical hands-on experience as a college student. In hindsight, he was laying the foundation for the most successful endeavor of his career.
A former Accenture software consultant and VP of product at a since-sold startup, Sal caught the founder bug in 2001 by starting video game company Realm Interactive, which he sold to NCSoft in 2004. From there, he founded: Data protection company Lasso Logic, sold to SonicWall in 2005, IT network management PacketTrap, sold to Quest Software in 2009, and cloud MSP Anchor, sold to eFolder in 2013.
Noticing a pattern here?
In 2013, Sal once again jumped a few years ahead of an industry, this time remote monitoring and management (RMM), by co-founding NinjaRMM. By building software on tech stacks released 20 years after most of his competitors had started operating, Sal is now leading one of the fastest-growing SaaS companies in the IT management space. NinjaRMM has signed up 5,000+ customers, raised a $30M equity round from Summit Partners in 2020, and will be at close to 300 employees by the end of the year, up from 40 in 2018, according to the company.
The operation is thousands of times more complicated than what he did as a teenager, but at its core, Sal is still taking powerful, novel technologies and applying it to use cases where customers have pain.
“Ninja will be my most successful startup by a mile the way it's going, I say humbly, and we’re all super excited about that,” Sal said in an interview with The Org. “As a startup, RMM is quite an ambitious endeavor, but has a lot more functionality than the other products that I've built.
“Building Ninja at scale, I'm drinking through a firehose. I'm learning every day. I'm getting to see new paths that I haven't even been able to see in earlier startups. There's so many growth levers that we still have to grow faster. I don't feel like we're sucking wind, I feel like we're just getting started.”
The first company Sal sold, Realm Interactive, shaped a lot of his future philosophies. An avid video game player, he became intrigued with the potential for social gaming in the early 2000s after a new game called Dark Age of Camelot was released. The gameplay itself was poor, in Sal’s opinion, but the game allowed you to play alongside thousands of other people for the first time. Figuring other gamers would have the same pain points he did, Sal started a company with a focus on graphics. His lead concept artist was poached from Marvel, where he had drawn X-Men comics, and the graphics were so impressive that at a convention for the launch of the first Xbox, the game developers from Activision Blizzard came over to take pictures of what Realm was building.
A few years later, Blizzard released World of Warcraft and Sal sold Realm as an asset acquisition to NCSoft. It’s a company Sal thinks he could've grown more in hindsight, but the lesson of finding the right time to disrupt an industry stuck.
“From a technology curve perspective, I'm not an early adopter. I’m probably more of a mid,” Sal said. “I don't want to be an alpha or beta tester because I'm a startup. You're behind the gun. You have limited funds. You're bleeding all over the floor because you're not generating cash flow. So you have to at least make sure that you're on a foundation of concrete and not on a foundation of sand with the technologies that you're using.”
At NinjaRMM, the concrete foundation turned out to be building on a new stack. Sal had made a lot of connections and customers in the MSP space and realized most of those customers were having IT capability issues. The things they were trying to build and manage were too advanced for their IT providers, basically. Sal took those pain points and built Ninja on the cloud, using new (but proven) technologies to become agile and faster than competitors. The company has a lot going for it, but the main value prop is that it can just solve problems quickly, and for MSPs, that’s the name of the game.
Sal, to his credit, still seems to treat the business like a young startup. He spends a lot of time on the phone with customers, rare for a technical CEO, and is very involved in the hiring and team building process. Up 80% YoY and with 25+ open positions, this will not be a company Sal sells before he's ready.
“Step one of being an entrepreneur has to be to keep learning, and if I was to go back in time, I think a lot of those companies I sold too early, to be honest,” Sal said. “I didn't really see through the forest. Ninja taught me that as a founder, you really need to have a heart to heart with yourself on how big one of these things could be. We're becoming an emerging market leader, I wouldn't even call us a startup anymore, but what happened in Ninja's favor was that it grew so fast, much faster than any of these other companies, that there was just always a reason to keep going. Every day, I saw the product getting better and better and customers enjoying it further and further.
“The mantra for us at Ninja is now pretty clear: Build it as big as we can build it.”
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