Clearwell Lives On, But It’s Farewell To “Clearwell Systems Inc.”

by Aaref Hilaly on June 23rd, 2011

Very soon, Clearwell Systems will become part of Symantec and cease to exist as an independent company. This will bring to a close 6 ½ wonderful years, during which Clearwell has grown from the two founders into a profitable, 240-person company. All told, our team has shipped 6 major versions of the Clearwell E-Discovery Platform, signed over 400 customers and 75 partners in 14 different countries, and become widely recognized as leaders in our industry. As a result, Clearwell’s valuation has increased from effectively zero to the $410 million which Symantec is paying our shareholders to acquire the company, making this by far the largest acquisition of an e-discovery software company to date.

For 6 of Clearwell’s 6 ½ years in existence, it has been my privilege to lead the company as its CEO. These have been, by far, the most rewarding, stressful, exhausting, and exhilarating years of my career. So in this, my final blog post, I would like to reflect on how we got here, and take this opportunity to thank some of the many people who made it possible.


In my view, there’s no single thing that makes a company successful. Rather, it’s a distinctive mixture of the right idea at the right time, executed the right way, by the right team, which gets the right lucky breaks and is propelled forward ahead of the competition by surging customer demand. That, in summary, is the story of Clearwell.

Right idea at the right time:

In the early days of a company’s life, when there’s no product and no hint of a customer, the only thing that you have is the idea. This is not the specific idea of what the company will do (that comes later); it’s the idea that there’s a huge change, a shift in the tectonic plates, that creates the opportunity to build a substantial new company. Much of this is about timing. Many changes are obvious over a 10-year timeframe, but it’s very hard to gauge which of them will occur in the 2-4 years that investors are willing to fund a startup venture.

The founding team at Clearwell was attracted by two big trends which combined to produce a profound change. One trend was that, by the mid-2000s, almost all communication within an organization had started to flow through email, as opposed to voicemail, memos, or hallway conversations. The other was that storage costs had fallen to the point where it was almost free to store all the email that people were generating. We realized that these two trends in combination had resulted in the creation of a user-generated written record of everything happening within an organization – something which had never existed before. Our hunch was that there had to be some way of unlocking value from this written record, while still respecting privacy.

Executed the right way:

We came to Clearwell with very specific ideas about how to build a world-class software company. These are too numerous and varied to capture here, but I will give you a few examples. In product development, we have always sought to build our enterprise products as if they were consumer products, so we made sure that they are intuitive and easy to use without any training. We designed them with the sales process in mind, by making them very easy to install and evaluate, so that prospects can try them out for free prior to purchase.  When it comes to marketing, we sought to promote a better way of doing e-discovery, rather than just pitch features, by championing the importance of early case assessments (ECA). With respect to pricing, we made the entry-point price as low as possible to encourage adoption, and pegged it to a metric that scales in line with value.  Strategically, we chose processing, analysis, and review as our entry point into the e-discovery market, because that’s where software provides the biggest, most immediate ROI.

In every area of the business, we brought a distinctive approach, all centered around our view of the ideal customer experience – the experience we would want to have, if we were our customers.

Right team:

The standard playbook for recruiting is to hire people who have done it before, ideally in the same domain. We took a different approach, and instead hired primarily based on personal qualities. Some of our team had no prior experience in enterprise software; many (including me) had never worked in e-discovery before coming to Clearwell. But we all share one thing in common: a relentless drive to win in the marketplace by building better products and providing better service than anyone else.

That hunger to win will trump experience every time. It’s the reason why engineers work through the weekend to resolve customer issues without being asked, or why a salesperson will travel 4 days out of every week to call on customers. It’s something that gets built into the company culture and then self-perpetuates. Our team tripled in size in the space of 18 months, and I never cease to be impressed by the fresh ideas and boundless energy coming from the new generations of “first-timers”.

Right lucky breaks:

Every successful company needs the rub of the green, and there have been many occasions when I’ve marveled at our good fortune. But perhaps our biggest break was that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) changed for the first time in 38 years in December 2006, defining rules for the treatment of electronic information in the courts. This accelerated the movement from paper to electronically stored information and coincided perfectly with our entry into the market, drawing us into the electronic discovery domain.

Surging customer demand:

It’s an amazing feeling when you achieve “product/market fit”, as we did at the beginning of 2009. The user community among law firms and litigation support firms embraced our technology for ECA, taking our user base from hundreds to thousands. Enterprises woke up to the money that could be saved by bringing electronic discovery in-house, proactively issuing RFPs and creating new positions specifically responsible for e-discovery. Federal agencies began to adopt e-discovery solutions to sift through the vast quantities of data coming to them as part of their regulatory and investigative duties. Essentially, e-discovery became a core business process, just like finance, sales or HR – it became something that every organization had to do. And just as other departments use applications like salesforce.com (sales), Success Factors (HR), or NetSuite (finance) to manage those business processes, so it was that legal departments realized that they needed an application like Clearwell to manage the e-discovery process.

All of a sudden, the business accelerated, sales took off, and we felt ourselves being pulled in every direction at once. In response, we expanded our platform, moving from 1 product to an integrated platform of 4 products; and, we increased our geographic coverage by building out the sales team across North America and establishing beachheads in Europe and Asia. The Clearwell team worked around the clock to respond to customer demand, while at the same time recruiting and training as we added people at a furious pace. We learned that hyper-growth can be painful, but in a good way.


When things go well, the CEO often takes a disproportionate share of the credit. I must confess, it would be nice to think that the company’s success is due to some kind of brilliance or magic touch on my part, but the reality is quite different. This has been a team effort from beginning to end and there is a very long list of people who deserve recognition. It’s impossible to capture them all, but I’m going to do my best, by saying a heart-felt “thank you” to:

  • Venkat Rangan and Charu Rudrakshi who started the company, raised the first round of funding, and set the DNA of the engineering team;
  • Jim Goetz at Sequoia Capital who acted more as co-founder than investor in the company’s first year, and has since been incredibly supportive of the management team;
  • Tom Dyal at Redpoint Ventures for his support and insightful advice on strategy; Bill Coughran at Google for helping us think through how best to scale engineering; John Dillon at EngineYard for teaching me what it means to sell software; and, Scott Dettmer at Gunderson Dettmer for his finesse and deft touch in managing the most delicate negotiations;
  • Andy Byrne, Anup Singh, Kamal Shah, Ryan Snyder, Soumitro Tagore, Trevor Eddy, and Venkat Rangan for creating a truly outstanding management team built on trust and mutual understanding – it is quite remarkable that in 6 years, the company has only ever had 1 VP Business Development, 1 CFO, 1 VP Marketing, 1 VP Sales, and 1 CTO;
  • Amar Laud, Amy Johnson, Andy Kashyap, Aruna Mantripragada, Bill Duffy, Brandon Cook, Cat Lee, Chitrang Shah, Cris Barrett, Dave Fraleigh, David Speicher, Dean Gonsowski, Donna Hui , Doug Kaminski, Ed Hinton, Jason Montgomery, Jason Reeve, Joe Schwartz, Krista Jones, Kurt Leafstrand, Malay Desai, Manish Sampat, Mark Wentworth, Mike Lee, Peter McLaughlin, Sangeeta Relan, Sean Wilcox, Steve Rapp, Subbu Gooty, Teddy Cha, Tom Kennedy, Tom Wells and Umair Hamid for being the leaders who have really defined the company, and without whom we would never have got anything done;
  • Clearwell “Class of 2005” for their super-human efforts in shipping Version 1 and launching the company; Clearwell “Class of 2006, 2007 and 2008” for tirelessly iterating until we cracked the code for a profitable business model; and, Clearwell “Class of 2009, 2010, and 2011” for driving the huge expansion of our operations, both in the US and overseas;
  • John Petruzzi from Constellation Energy, Joe Tawasha from Charles Schwab, Don McLaughlin from Qwest, Pallab Chakraborty at Oracle, Jesse Hartman at the Department of Health and Human Services, and Ron Best at MTO for being bleeding edge customers who took a chance on a fledgling technology;
  • Jeff Fehrman from Onsite; Greg Mazares, Keith Lieberman and the infamous Taylor brothers at Encore; and Paul Tombleson at KPMG UK – for being the first service providers to embrace Clearwell’s technology;
  • Debra Logan and John Bace at Gartner; Barry Murphy and Greg Buckles at eDiscovery Journal; Brian Babineau and Katey Wood at ESG; Brian Hill at Forrester; Chris Dale of the eDisclosure Information Project; George Socha and Tom Gelbmann; Nick Patience at 451Group; and Vivian Tero at IDC – for doing so much to help define e-discovery software as a space and make it intelligible to end-customers;
  • Deepak Mohan and Brian Dye at Symantec for sponsoring an acquisition that will massively accelerate the adoption of Clearwell’s technology; and,
  • Finally, Enrique Salem and the entire Symantec M&A and Integration Teams for giving us such a warm welcome into the Symantec family.


It has been a remarkable journey. I feel proud, and humbled, to have been a part of it.

One Response to “Clearwell Lives On, But It’s Farewell To “Clearwell Systems Inc.””

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