Insights From Partnering With Six Breakout Infrapreneurs

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Entrepreneurs who create breakout enterprise infrastructure companies — whom I refer to as infrapreneur — spot megatrends early and align their specific value propositions to leverage them. We have partnered as founding investors with several infrapreneurs over the last decade, six of whose companies had successful exits over the last 14 months. 

Founding investors partner early, often at the idea stage, are willing to lean into uncertainty, and delight in serving as co-creators and sounding boards to founders as they shape fundamental direction. As a result, this stage of investor has a front-row seat to the decisions founders made that propelled them to escape velocity.

Here are some insights from our experience with six recent infrapreneurs that might prove valuable to future founders. They are Gerard Williams III of NUVIA/Qualcomm, Ankur Singla of Volterra/F5 Networks, Murli Thirumale of Portworx/Pure Storage, Sheng Liang of Rancher/SUSE, Kumar Ramachandran of CloudGenix/Palo Alto Networks, and Guru Pangal of CloudSimple/Google.


Find the big white space in the entire re-imagined infrastructure stack

As the cloud-first era went mainstream, the entire infrastructure stack from semiconductors through compute, storage, security and networking had to be re-imagined. All these entrepreneurs targeted an opportunity area that was big and vital to the adoption of the cloud.


Semiconductor companies untethered from the x86 platform

As the Intel x86 architecture came up against the end of Moore’s Law, new processors had to be built for the mobile, data-centric and cloud-first age. The founders of NUVIA have a bold vision to build a new CPU which attracted the attention of Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and industry support across the ecosystem. NUVIA was creating the world’s best server processor for real cloud workloads that would lead the industry in every important metric: performance, energy efficiency, scalability, compute density and total cost of ownership. 


Pivoting to embrace compute industry standards created escape velocity

With Kubernetes dominating as the industry standard for scheduling and orchestration of workloads, the founders of Rancher nimbly pivoted from a closed-source solution to to provide an open-source alternative. It switched from Docker to Kubernetes, from a services to a SaaS recurring revenue model, and from Kubernetes distribution to Kubernetes management. Despite all these changes, by staying close to the pulse of the community, it built a strong fan following and user retention. As a result, Rancher was able to attract blue-chip customers and generate millions in revenue, prior to its acquisition by SUSE.


Cloud-native and containerized apps created new storage opportunities

As enterprises accelerated their digital transformation journeys, the need for dynamic applications running on a modern data framework became critical. Portworx’s vision was to flip traditional enterprise storage on its head, focusing not on infrastructure but on applications. In order to realize this vision of a world in which businesses could win with data, they made data as agile as containers were making apps. 

Portworx products enable customers to run any cloud-native data service, in any cloud, using any Kubernetes platform, with built-in high availability, data protection, data security, and hybrid cloud mobility. As a result, it will enable Pure Storage (NYSE:PSTG) to provide customers with a Kubernetes data services platform for cloud-native applications. 


Networking had to be redesigned for the branch and the edge

With apps moving to the cloud, the networking from the branch office of enterprises to cloud apps had to be redesigned. CloudGenix‘s vision was to revolutionize branch offices through cloud-delivered WANs. With CloudGenix, enterprises would gain cloud-scale economics for the branch office with the freedom to use any WAN, any cloud and best-of-breed infrastructure services. The team at CloudGenix pioneered a new category of SD-WAN that changes the way networks are managed by using an application-defined approach. By establishing itself as a pioneer, it proved to be a valuable component to Palo Alto Networks’ (NYSE:PANW) secure access service edge (SASE) platform. 

As apps get built on the cloud and at the edge there is a need for application security, networking and delivery as an easy-to-use, enterprise-grade SaaS service. Volterra was founded with the vision to allow customers to focus on what they know best — business logic and building great apps — by providing them a comprehensive and SaaS-based stack to manage the networking, security and operations of apps running in any location; one or more clouds, hybrid or at the edge. Its fully-integrated, distributed cloud services platform was a breakthrough and attracted the attention of acquirer F5 Networks (NASDAQ:FFIV), to expand on its service for DevOps and NetOps teams, cloud architects and line-of-business app owners across organizations globally. 


The rise of private cloud as a service for applications created a new class of company

CloudSimple was founded on the premise that CIOs and enterprise leaders all wanted to move to the cloud but were frustrated by the complexity. The majority of enterprise workloads are platformed on VMware in on-premise data centers. At the time of its founding, less than 10 percent of those workloads had moved to the cloud because of the difficulty in re-architecting applications and changing processes and policies. 

As its name implies, CloudSimple provides a platform and a service for companies to seamlessly move their enterprise application workloads out of private data centers to the public cloud, where they can take advantage of the cloud’s elasticity, lower costs, scalability, geo-availability, and rich set of features and functionality. By deftly balancing the needs of larger players — VMware, which powers 80 percent of private data center workloads, and Google and Microsoft providers of the bare metal infrastructure (the physical servers) on which its software runs — CloudSimple delivered “VMware-as-a-Service” which was seen as such an essential component of the Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) cloud strategy, that the latter acquired it. 

The tech industry is ripe with stories of infrapreneurs who see around corners, attach themselves to megatrends, and carve out a specific market in which to build their companies into category leaders. As the old Silicon Valley saying goes — companies are bought not sold — these infrapreneurs attract the attention of platform companies, delivering value and continuing to realize their mission against a larger canvas. 

Navin Chaddha, Managing Director at Mayfield

Navin Chaddha leads Mayfield. 

He is a three-time entrepreneur turned venture capitalist who has invested in over 50 companies, of which over 37 have had IPOs or been acquired. Chaddha made his 12th appearance on the Forbes Midas List of Top 100 Tech Investors in 2020, being named in the Top Five.

Passionate about nurturing the Rise of the Individual, he is an active philanthropist who has pledged 1 percent of Mayfield’s fee and carry to support diversity, education, health, and ending hunger.

Chaddha holds an MS degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University and a B.Tech degree in electrical engineering from IIT Delhi, where he was honored with the distinguished IIT Alumni Award.

*Disclosure: Mayfield is an investor in Crunchbase. Crunchbase’s investors are listed as part of its Crunchbase profile.

  • Originally published March 9, 2021