Escaping the Iron Curtain for Silicon Valley

Christian Gheorghe grew up in authoritarian Romania and escaped by swimming across the Danube. That was just the start of an impressive career building enterprise analytics companies.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read
Tidemark founder Christian Gheorghe, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who escaped communist rule in Romania. Courtesy of Christian Gheorghe

The one thing everyone wants to know about Christian Gheorghe's life is the one thing he won't talk about.

In Silicon Valley, where the top talent at the hottest companies -- the Zuckerbergs, the Brins, the Cooks, and so forth -- are household names and paparazzi bait, Gheorghe's name isn't in play. Though he is a Silicon Valley CEO, his company, Tidemark, makes enterprise-focused performance and financial management applications, certainly not the sexiest of products.

But to a category of people who matter a lot in Valley -- the VCs -- Gheorghe is a bona-fide hero, someone whose startup was a no-brainer to invest in. And not just because of the success he had in top management positions at previous companies like OutlookSoft and SAP. It's because, as Andreessen Horowitz partner Ben Horowitz said, Gheorghe's life story proves he's "a special guy" who will "do whatever is required" to succeed.

"In pitch meetings, we always start with the background of the entrepreneur," Horowitz told CNET's Paul Sloan last year. "Because courage is not something you're born with; it's something you develop. We had one entrepreneur come in, and I said, 'Tell me about your background?' And he said, 'Well, I was CTO of OutlookSoft and started (Tidemark),' and I said, 'No, no, no. Where'd you grow up?' He said, 'Well, I grew up in communist Romania, and in 1989 I escaped by swimming across the Danube.'"

Come again?

Horowitz heard that and said he agreed to invest on the spot. But Gheorghe won't go there. His background in Romania, growing up under one of the Cold War's most authoritarian dictators? No problem. The story of how, once in America, he rose from limo driver to darling of Sand Hill Road? An open book. But, fearing for family still living in Romania, worried about repercussions in a country still steeped in corruption decades after the Iron Curtain fell, Gheorghe won't talk about his escape.

Gheorghe was eight when, in 1974, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu returned from a trip to North Korea and -- despite having stood up to Soviet oppression earlier in his reign -- took "a 180-degree path [to] dictatorship, communism, and total and utter annihilation of anything freedom-wise."

The changes in Gheorghe's hometown, Romania's capital, Bucharest, started slowly. At first, he remembered, he and his family could rarely get apples or bananas. Then the queues started -- long lines for just about any kind of commodity. "It was a method of control," Gheorghe recalled. "People go to lunch all the time to talk, because if you are hungry, you can't think. So it was a method of control, to keep you under control, so you worry about everything."

Former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Romanian Communism Online Photo Collection

Life in this version of Ceausescu's Romania was bleak. What little television was available was mostly filled with pro-regime propaganda and patriotic songs. Neighbors, and even family members, spied on each other. The secret police was everywhere, and anywhere. And America, really the whole Western world, was constantly portrayed as the enemy, as a place where people were dying in the streets and corruption was ubiquitous.

Gheorghe knew education was the only way to avoid the dead end that was the Romanian army, and fortunately, he took to math and physics and technology. A friend had a Commodore 64, and they would play games on it, and program new ones.

Over two years, he scraped together the cash to buy his own computer, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and he taught himself some programming. A big music fan, he also started building speakers, and then a turntable.

Fighting for access to books and music, and listening to the subversive lyrics on songs like Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" or "Run Like Hell," Gheorghe understood for the first time that things weren't as they seemed. He set out to learn all he could about Romania's government, all while trying not to get hauled off by the secret police for fostering capitalism. "If it has anything to do with the Communist party, or Ceausescu," Gheorghe said, "you and your family basically faced total annihilation. It's usually forced labor....Or you get killed in jail. You literally got eliminated. It [was] that bad."

Ceausescu's thugs were still exerting total control in Romania, but elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the deep freeze was thawing. The Berlin Wall fell, and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia was imminent. But Ceausescu refused to let go, and was eventually captured. His trial and execution took mere hours. Yet Romania's future was very much up in the air. Not knowing which direction it would go, Gheorghe decided to leave. Only the mighty Danube River stood between him and freedom.

Starting over
Gheorghe came to American, arriving at "the modern Ellis Island -- JFK [Airport in New York]" with just $26 and not much more English than some Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull lyrics. But he had hope. "I thought there was gold on the streets, and freedom was something you can actually go someplace and sign up for," he said.

Within a week, he'd talked his way into a construction job, albeit one that meant plenty of hauling plywood, and never swinging a hammer. When he met a former Israeli tank driver who had started a limo business, he moved on.

He started driving at night, and programming by day. In 1991, he got the fare that would change his life, a man named Andrew Saxe. "At the very end of the ride, he says, 'what do you really want to do?' It's a question I remember to this day," Gheorghe said. "I said I would love to write programs."

Saxe said he owned a small company that ran a service bureau for a local cable company, and offered Gheorghe a job interview. "It was the first time in two years someone wanted to know if I could program," Gheorghe recalled. He got the gig and eventually became close friends with Saxe. They built an application for the service bureau work and changed the name of the company from Saxe Marketing to Saxe, and Gheorghe became a partner. Six years later, they sold the company, which they had fully bootstrapped, to Experian for $32 million.

Less than a year later, Saxe learned he had incurable brain cancer. But before he died -- a "devastating" moment for Gheorghe -- Saxe issued one final challenge: "'When are you starting your own company?' He knew I was probably ready."

Gheorghe quit Experian and went hunting for investors. Ending up with the A-list VC firm of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, he launched Tian Software ("the last four letters of my first name"), maybe the first predictive analytics company built around marketing on the Internet. "Like, if you're Sears, how do you deal with cannibalization...related to people coming into the store to look at a refrigerator versus people looking at it online," he explained.

In 2003, Oracle tried to buy Tian, but "I was afraid of being cubicle 9,064 post-acquisition," he said. Instead, he followed the lead of one of his board members, and took the CTO position at a predictive analytics company called OutlookSoft. From 2004 to 2007, he and his team built that company into a powerhouse, and that year, they sold to SAP for "short of half a billion dollars."

One of the keys to Gheorghe's rise in the tech world has been the series of influential mentors. First there was Saxe, and then he met Aneel Bhusri, a partner at Greylock, a leading Silicon Valley VC firm, and an OutlookSoft investor.

When Gheorghe began feeling constrained at SAP, Bhusri lured him to Greylock as entrepreneur-in-residence. What bothered him was that the software he had been building was used by small teams, and not throughout the companies that purchased it. He wanted broader adoption. "I decided to look into building a company from scratch to deal with this notion of democratization of analytics," he said. "How do you take applications that are smart, and easy to use, and simple...and bring them to the enterprise to help everybody run their businesses better?"

That was the catalyst for building Tidemark, and once again, a mentor helped him make it happen. Bhusri came on board as an initial investor, but maybe more importantly, the VC introduced Gheorghe to a group of top Silicon Valley investors. One was Horowitz, who quickly agreed to help nurture Gheorghe's ambitions. With support from Greylock and Andreessen Horowitz, Tidemark was off and running.

For 18 months, Gheorghe and his team built in stealth, looking to replace what he had created at OutlookSoft as enterprises' analytics tools of choice. "It's not because OutlookSoft was a bad company," he said. "But it was just predicated on technology that was limited to what we could do in the previous decade, whereas this new platform of cloud and mobile and social and user experience can enable us to re-imagine what these applications can do."

Tidemark launched in 2012, and working alongside another Bhusri startup, Workday, it has already won contracts with companies like Pabst Brewing, Platinum, and CEC Entertainment.

Bhusri and Horowitz, of course, weren't being purely altruistic. They knew that enterprise is a far hotter segment than consumer, at least when it comes to big growth. Where recent consumer-focused IPOs -- like Facebook, Zynga, and Groupon -- have struggled, enterprise has been a better bet. Companies like Workday, Epam Systems, and ServiceNow have seen their stock prices shoot up. Tidemark's investors obviously hope it will be among the next big winners.

Coming to America
When Gheorghe arrived in New York in 1989, he spent his first nights in a ratty hostel. With few dollars in his pocket, and memories only of shortages and scarcity, he was at first overwhelmed by experiences like walking into American supermarkets and being confronted by things like 12 types of apples. "You cry," he said, because "you don't know which one to choose."

Years and much success later, Gheorghe became an American citizen. To this day, he laughs at how that happened. "You go to this place, by the airport," he recalled. "It's this big hangar, like a warehouse. There's nothing inside, just rows and rows of rows of chairs...with every single type of person you can think of that makes this country so great.

"At the exact time they put in the notice, they said 12:30, a door opens from the side, and here comes two gentlemen...and [one is] pushing a podium on wheels. The other person has a boom box. And they [stick a flag] on the podium, and they put the boom box next to them, and say, 'everybody stand up.' And the guy presses the button, and the box has the national anthem, and a pre-recorded message that welcomes you into the great United States of America, and when that finishes, they take [away] the podium, and you're a citizen."