It’s very hard to convince Marcin Żukowski, the Polish cofounder of Snowflake, the US cloud computing giant that went public in 2020 in the biggest SaaS IPO ever, to talk.
It’s not because he’s so busy, or because he lives on the other side of the world; he’s just convinced that he’s not a very interesting interviewee.
Despite the fact that he looks and talks like an ordinary guy, his career has been anything but ordinary.
After getting a PhD in high-performance database processing and running a university spinout, where he built technology that's still used by most tech giants, in 2013 Żukowski joined Snowflake as one of three cofounders. It landed funding from Sequoia, Sutter Hill Ventures and Salesforce and in 2020, raised $3.4bn at its IPO. Today it has a market cap of $55.3bn.
Żukowski has now stepped down from official C-suite duties at Snowflake and can do “whatever he wants”, which includes pushing the next generation of Polish entrepreneurs to dream big.
“I don’t feel like a role model but I know that I am one,” he tells Sifted.
Technology versus product
Żukowski, who lives in California but often spends his summers in the Polish countryside, has recently become more visible in his home country's startup ecosystem. He’s an angel investor in several Polish and Polish-founded startups, including Airly, Sunroof, Nomagic, HiPets and Eduelo.pl; and an LP in several VC funds, including some of the country’s largest like deeptech specialist OTB and generalist Inovo, as well as VCs in the US. He’s also joined the board of the Polish branch of Endeavor, an international startup community that offers support and mentorship for successful entrepreneurs.
“I feel very weird about it all because I absolutely don’t feel like an entrepreneur… I don’t know if I’m a good role model for Polish entrepreneurs, those who focus on business,” he says.
“I don’t have much experience. I very often have to explain that to people who think: ‘OK, Marcin, he achieved such great success in California, he must know everything about VCs, he must know everything about meetups.’ I have never been to any meetup, to any hackathon, not even one.
“But maybe I might be a bit more of a role model for tech talent. Showing them that [entrepreneurship] is a way."
Poland is the largest market in central and eastern Europe; it’s seen a surge of VC money going into startups and its tech talent is renowned internationally. But it’s missing the super-charged success story that could inject more capital into the ecosystem and push entrepreneurs to dream big — the effect that Skype had in Estonia and UiPath in Romania.
Żukowski says the country’s numerous engineers and IT professionals rarely think about setting up startups. “The talent goes to big companies, or to live abroad… All these people went to Google, to Microsoft or to a software house.”
Those who want to try their chances in entrepreneurship don’t really have good guidance, he adds. In California, he says, founders are more used to exposing their technology to consumers and getting some “battle scars”.
They say: ‘I can do it all!’ And I answer that yes, [the] technology can do it all — but you can’t
“Very often when I meet a technologist in Poland, they don’t have the understanding that the path from a cool technology to a company is very long and not obvious — and I thought in the same way.
“Many people have developed technology and think that their job is done. And then I say: ‘Based on this technology, you can build five different products. What’s going to be your product? What are you going to sell?’ And then they say: ‘I can do it all!’ And I answer that yes, [the] technology can do it all, but you can’t.”
He adds that in Silicon Valley, VCs and founders — even those coming from academia — understand that technology is not everything: that they also need good business support and a go-to-market strategy.
“In California, people just understand better how to do these things. And there’s an ecosystem that supports them on every level. Even on the university level — they’re surrounded by people who have done it before, who know how to forge this university tech into a product or into a company.”
He also stresses that a founder doesn’t have to know how to oversee the whole business, and that he or she needs to know how to delegate. That’s why at Snowflake, the cofounders — all of whom are technical — decided to hire a CEO early on.
“I tell many founders that not everyone has to be a CEO — to the contrary, it shows self-awareness [if you decide not to be one],” he says.
Despite caring about developing the Polish ecosystem, Żukowski doesn’t think he’ll make millions from investing in its founders just yet.
“I have talked to young people who wanted to start a company. First of all: it’s cool to chat with these people. Second of all, sometimes I was under the impression that maybe I had helped them. And I would like to do it on a wider scale,” he says.
He sees challenges in the Polish ecosystem. The first is well-known: it’s the “curse” of a middle-size market. “People don’t have global ambitions. It’s changing, of course, but succeeding on the Polish market has often seemed to be enough,” he says, comparing Poland to other countries from the region, like the Baltic states or the Czech Republic, which are too small for founders to succeed and thus force them for international expansion.
The other challenge is less obvious — and it’s something that Żukowski has observed a lot among his Polish friends and colleagues of his generation.
“These people were raised when there was nothing on shop shelves,” he says, referring to Poland’s communist era. “This is the first generation of success — the success they have achieved is enough for them and they’re afraid of losing it.”
I treat investing in VCs as investment. I treat investing in startups as aid... [Some people say] that I should open a charity shop, and not an investment branch
“The most typical example: I see all my friends who work for Google — it’s hard for them to get away, because the success they’ve achieved is out of this world, if you compare it to the conditions they were brought up in as children. And giving it up because you want to open a startup — it’s very difficult.”
But he adds that this might be changing among a new generation of founders — who were brought up in a greater prosperity.
“I have a feeling that taking such risks is easier for them and maybe now this situation will start to change.”
So far, he’s found investing a bit burdensome, especially when it comes to paperwork.
“It’s not such fun as I thought it would be,” he says. “I’ve decided to slow down direct investment but I will make myself accessible as a resource without investment. I really like talking to people, helping them out… If someone wants to talk to me, I’ll always talk.”