AtScale has Soul

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A Storm portfolio company AtScale made a little noise this week in the press mostly around detailing the recent financing.  Some of you might have heard of the company before: it got a lot of attention a few month ago, when it came out of stealth.  For a quick perspective, you might want to check out this Forbes article: AtScale Launches To Democratize Hadoop.

We were an early investor in the firm and this week, we were happy to announce renewed participation from our friends at XSeed as well as new investors and advisors, UMC Capital, AtScale is also pleased to have Jerry Yang (Yahoo! cofounder), Amr Awadallah (Cloudera cofounder) and Michael Franklin (AMPLab, Spark) as investors and advisors as well.

So why did Storm invest in AtScale?

As background, I met one of the founders, Dave Mariani, in 2013. I did not fully appreciate the opportunity and potential from our first meeting. Within a month and meeting Matt Baird, Dave’s early co-founder,  I was working convinced and really believed in the team and vision. I was working to find a syndicate partner for a seed round that saw things the same way. Fortunately, we met up with Xseed and the rest is history.

The vision for the company has been consistent since the beginning and I’ve been impressed by the team’s laser focus on the market opportunity around Business Intelligence on Hadoop. The rest of the founding team is impressive as well with equally deep domain expertise. After the seed financing, we were able to attract Josh Klahr from Greenplum / Pivotal and most recently Bruno Aziza from Business Objects and Microsoft to lead marketing.

Team: When I think back on that decision and what continues to give me conviction about the team is that they really understand the Business Intelligence (BI) problem. This team is not full of carpetbaggers. In fact, Dave Mariani has been a customer of BI in his roles at both Yahoo and Klout. He also built BI solutions at MineShare, a startup he founded and sold in 2000. This team knows the problem first hand and knows what solutions customers want based on that deep experience. In an area as technical and specific as BI, this experience has proven to be invaluable against a landscape of what seem to me to be weak set of competitive offerings often from teams that have remade themselves in the light of “big data” as the next new thing (and of course in full disclosure I am biased). It was difficult as an investor to wade through all the pitches of big data solutions to find something with soul. AtScale has soul.

Timing: The AtScale solution/product wasn’t possible “pre” Hadoop. Hadoop and the ecosystem that has emerged around it is a figurative freight train that has changed the data IT landscape in a remarkably short period of time.  AtScale’s solution would not be possible without the SQL-on-Hadoop innovations like Impala, Spark and TEZ which did not exist a few years ago.  As a result,  anyone trying to do something similar to AtScale earlier had to build the full Hadoop-like solution stack and now are somewhere on the tracks in front of the freight train. AtScale really is an example of the power of a new class of applications on Hadoop infrastructure. Infrastructure is only as valuable as the applications and insights that it can enable.

Market: I really believe that analytics is the first killer application on Hadoop. Hadoop is really incredible in terms of what it enables but the key is the applications. AtScale is the key enabler that ties both the Big Data market estimated at $50B by Wikibon to the Business Analytics market which IDC expects to grow to more than $50B by 2018. I know thats a lot of billions but I like to have sea room. AtScale not only is a force multiplier between these two markets but it can leverage BI interfaces like Tableau and Excel. It turns out Excel is really the largest BI tool in the market today with over 1 billion users worldwide. In addition to Excel, there are more than 100 million BI users of more dedicated applications today. These users are the key to pushing Hadoop even further into the enterprise as a critical asset. AtScale is the missing link.

We could find ourselves on the tracks in front of some other freight train – nothing is easy. But I think the opportunity in front of AtScale is just tremendous. There are many signs that point to other successful investments Storm has made over the years. I will do whatever I can to help AtScale reach all of its potential. After all, it’s not everyday you get to work with a company with real soul.

The First Date – Just Get Out the Slides

I have had a few meetings in the last few weeks that have reminded me how important some structure is for the first date – or at least when you are really pitching – just quit the “lets just talk it through and see the demo” pitch.  Bring out the slides. I am not kidding. Structure is sweet. I am sure your product is awesome but the demo isn’t enough for me. Unless you are going to levitate, go back in time or some similar Blaine like feat, I am not investing in a demo. I have a lot of awesome interactions and conversations at places like Philz.

Sometimes like this morning I had a meeting to talk with an awesome entrepreneur and she had just taken over as CEO of a company and wanted to get me up to speed on the business as they will be out raising money later this year. Perfect – no slides. No need. But I know her well and I know she will have a deck when she goes to really start raising money. No question. I learn a lot in unstructured meetings (unstructured does not equal without purpose) and hopefully the people I meet with feel the same. Those conversations are great – and they build relationships and trust which are critical – but I cannot imagine really making a decision over a latte. Maybe there are other venture investors that will so chalk it up to just my style.

I know it sounds cool – just talk it through and they will get it. Much more casual and much more fun. But don’t do it. Even if the investor says it’s OK – go to the deck. I am not talking about going through a mountain of slides. Tell the story succinctly and get to critical aspects of the business. The structure makes a huge difference – at least to me. Slides can be light on the details – no one can digest a page of numbers easily but they serve as the illustration to the story you are telling. Just get out the slides. Please. There is some complexity to any business and team and we are all short on time (and maybe I am short on intelligence) but some structured flow to the conversation will not only be the most efficient way to spend out first date but it will also be the best way for teams to get funding. At best, an unstructured first date just leads to a second structured one.

I have made the mistake of letting teams present to my partners in an unstructured way. Totally my fault and I let everyone down.  I made it harder for my partners to fully understand the material – even if they had seen the deck – and I made it harder for the team to really make their key points. Random questions are just terrible in a room full of people because the interaction generally focuses more on one person and then is somewhat disjointed which puts everyone into thinking about what is for lunch.

What you need to do is to engage people. It doesn’t always mean that they are asking questions though that is an easy metric, but it means they are paying attention. They are interested in what you are saying. If a venture investor isn’t interested in what you are saying, does anyone think funding will follow? In conversation, it is way too easy to digress, go down that awful rathole. But it won’t be driving the engagement you need to get to the next step.

I am not sure who out there is giving entrepreneurs the advice to just talk it out – some sort of hug it out fuzzy approach – but I think it is just flawed and not doing anyone any favors. Without structure, its hard to be efficient with time and while I like to think I am probably more liberal than most with first meetings, I really cannot spend the time again on a second if things don’t make sense to me. I really don’t care if its Powerpoint, Keynote, old school foils or Prezi etc. but its got to be structured and thoughtful. Put in the work to distill the story. Iterate on it. Its hard for me to believe that better communication won’t lead to a better outcome.

If you want money for 18 months – be able to answer what that means. Please keep the hand waiving to a minimum. Be direct about what you know and what you don’t know. I don’t expect precise answers but I expect you know directionally what you are doing with the business. I am backing you not some other person I hope to hire.

So back to that product demo – they are great but secondary. I actually like seeing demos. I know you have been working hard on it for weeks or months and its the showcase of all of your vision but its hard for me to see as clearly as you do without the rest of the context.  I care generally about two things – team and market opportunity and the combination of why you are going to win. If we have time – I would love to see the product but lets not skip the main event.

I am not that product person that just gets it. I would posit that the same is true of most venture investors regardless of how they position themselves. You might be tired of talking through the pitch one more time with yet another venture investor. I understand. But my sincere advice is to get over it. It is possibly the easiest thing you will do as an entrepreneur. Really. My partners and I do it when we raise money from our limited partners (our investors). I have come to actually really enjoy telling the story and structure really helps to keep things on track for what I know is a small allotment of time. I know how hard it is to re-tell the same story but there is no reason to make life any harder.

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Helping to Recruit and Build Teams.

It is a goal to help wherever I can and get out of the way when I can’t. Helping to recruit and build teams is one way I can do something other than write a check. I am sure a lot of venture investors do a better job than I do, but all the great ones I think make it a priority.

I try really hard as a venture investor to really help. I view it as critical to my ultimate success as a venture investor at least for the long game. Sometimes I do better than other times – though always paying attention to do no harm which I wrote about in a prior post on the (venture) hippocratic oath. Sometimes there is little I can do. For example, I can’t really help define a product or even dissect the friction in a sales process besides sharing stories of past experiences.

But over the years one area that I have found I can help a lot with hiring executives for the portfolio companies and spending time with employees that are trying to think through career decisions. Some might argue its not a great use of my time – and time it is – probably something like 10-20% in any given week. But I have come to the conclusion that at least for me, it is one way to provide some leverage for the portfolio companies. Its not altruistic – the reality is that with great teams my job as a venture investor is greatly simplified. As a result, helping to build and support those teams is a very good use of time and if I help its truly constructive to building the business – like introducing the company to a new customer.

So why the Good, the Bad and the Ugly? On this point I may differ from others in a material way. I try to give a full picture of the company. I assume that everyone I am meeting is smart. It drove me crazy when I was younger listening to venture investors spew mindless optimism about their companies. Most venture investors I know are loose with the facts. It does take eternal optimism to survive day to day in the venture business so its not all that surprising. I remember feeling like I was being treated like a second grader when I was leaving my last operating role. I couldn’t believe that people thought I had no other context for the opportunities – and generally those conversations made me want to run from the company because I assumed that this was how the investors (or CEOs) thought about the world. Who wants to work for someone who is delusional? I know that smart people will eventually discover all the challenges of any company (and every company has them) so better to discuss them in the process as it relates to fit and avoid surprises. I know of a recent situation where an executive was recruited into a company having been sold on certain sales numbers and customer contracts. The reality when he got there was that none of it was true. He left and everyone lost. Its not a unique situation.

One of the hardest parts in hiring, recruiting and retaining the best people is to balance giving a different perspective as an investor but at the same time do my best to act just like anyone else on the executive team – because ultimately its not my decision who we hire and who we don’t at a company. There are some situations where I have a strong opinion on someone but I try hard to not cross that imaginary line where a CEO or VP might think it would be a mistake to hire someone simply based on my view.  I need to respect the relationship. You cannot help if being critical is the only club in your bag.

I am fortunate in that most of the time when I am interviewing potential hires, I am not the initial screen so the people I am meeting are generally somewhat qualified at least on paper. Most of the time I am focused on fit – is the company the right place for the new hire in the role that they have in mind (scope, experience etc.) and does the role fit the career path and match against the passion of the individual. I have found this is a great way to get into the detail without the grind of typical interview questions. I have different discussions with different roles and I do have some basic questions like if I am talking with a VP Sales I want to understand how they have built teams, what sort of quota they carried, deal size etc. But I find this is a natural conversation for the pros. They never hesitate and its an easy discussion.  As a venture investor, I can offer up a different perspective as an investor – why I invested, what has worked, what hasn’t worked, how I think about the market etc.

Every company has issues. Its much better to put them out in the open and have everyone join the company with their eyes wide open. That way, while things may still not work out, it won’t be because expectations were not in line with reality. I think it makes a stronger case for the company and treats everyone like a professional – which all ultimately lead to a better outcome. eastwood_good_ugly

 

OpenStack Podcast / Interview with NextCast’s Jeff Dickey and Cisco’s Niki Acosta

I will put up another post after the OpenStack Vancouver Summit in May with my thoughts but I got on the webcam with Jeff Dickey and Niki Acosta who produce OSpod – there are a ton of other great community members that they have had on the show. You can get past shows (video or podcast) on Jeff’s site NextCast or read the transcript on a Cisco blog post  and see the video there as well. I am still a believer in OpenStack – it is just growing. Walmart is the latest example.

 

 

Determination: The Dawn Wall goes Free.

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Pitch 15 Dawn Wall (credit Corey Rich Photographer)

Everyone talks about grit and what it takes to make a start up successful – and they are right. I am not going to add much to that discussion here today. Sometimes though it can be hard for others to see the struggle looking in from the outside and really understand it. Sending (slang for climbing) the Dawn wall is a graphical illustration of that struggle.

 

I don’t climb much anymore. I used to climb – a lot. When I was at Stanford, I would often spend four days a week in Yosemite during the climbing season.  I have been up the East face El Capitan and Northwest face Half Dome and others but I am very below average in terms of my climbing accomplishments in Yosemite. I didn’t have the physical ability and time – and certainly not the determination to do what Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson have done. Their climb is worth calling out I think for those who may not appreciate how significant the achievement is in climbing. But even more important is that its an amazing story of perseverance and gritty determination.

 

First of all, lets put it in context. The Dawn Wall (aka the Wall of the Early Morning Light) was first climbed in 1970 by Warren Harding – who was one of the original pioneers of big wall climbing in Yosemite. He used bolts, pitons, stovepipe legs (yes really) and whatever he could find to “aid” him in the climb – known as aid climbing. Harding had climbed El Capitan almost 20 years before … but the Dawn Wall has so few features (think cracks and seams) it took him 20 years to attempt it. Looking at it, the wall looks utterly impossible to climb by any means. Caldwell and Jorgenson did it without aid – free climbing the route and only using protection in the rock to prevent a deadly fall. The wall is 32 pitches (think of a pitch as roughly a rope length and how climbs are divided into sections) and ~3000 feet.  Of the 32 pitches, only 13 of them are rated at less than 5.13 and seven of them are 5.14a or harder. Anyone climbing 5.12 or better on Yosemite granite is in a very small club. I never got good enough to feel confident on 5.11 granite. Imagine climbing ledges and seams the size of dimes and nickels for 3000 feet. The climb I can think of that matches this accomplishment was the free ascent of the Salathe Wall in 1988 – also on El Capitan – by Todd Skinner and Paul Piana which was first climbed in 1961. Free climbing the Dawn Wall is a huge event.

 

So aside from the outright accomplishment which is incredible – is the story of determination – which I think is even better. It was not an easy won victory. No quick run to the top with natural talent. The team had been working on the route for seven years on and off. Other great climbers had tried parts of it but putting together all 32 pitches was tough – especially given seven of them were 5.14. Part of the trick was that it would take time. Given the Dawn Wall faces East (hence the name) it gets hot on the granite in the direct sunlight – even in winter. But doing it in winter means risking storms. I can tell you having been through an storm on a porta-ledge that accomplishing an ascent can turn to survival in a matter of hours. A Storm would have ended their attempt. Because of the extremely hard nature of the climb, they had to do much of the climbing at night. The holds were so small that they could not afford any sweat and the rock tends to have more grip when its not as hot – I think it has mostly to do with a difference in temperature between the fingers and rock. So now to recap – the team has been fighting gravity for weeks thousands of feet off the ground, think ledges like dimes and nickels, requiring route finding since it has never been free climbed before – at night.

 

My favorite part of the story is Kevin’s struggle with pitch 15. He had done it before but the fatigue of the climb, time on the wall etc. were all I am sure taking their toll. He also was having problems with his fingers – climbers obsess about their fingers because it you injure your finger tips – especially on a route like this one – you are in trouble. They like many before them including me took to super-gluing athletic tape to their fingers to prevent damage.  It took Kevin 11 attempts over 7 days to complete just one pitch. Can you imagine the despair? Its hard. Tommy his partner had already made it through the section and was essentially waiting for his partner to complete it as well – the two had worked on it together for so long Tommy couldn’t imagine trying to summit without Kevin. In order for the route to “count” – both climbers must climb each section without falling. If Kevin had gone on without making it through pitch 15 without a fall – he would not have been able to claim the free climb (like Tommy). Sitting in the porta-ledge and staying motivated and keeping your spirit up after 7 days is just inspirational to me. Kevin (like Tommy) is just wired differently than most people. In a similar way that most entrepreneurs are just wired differently – since the gritty determination to finish – the mental anguish and toll extracted – is just insane.
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Yvon Chounaird – famous for the Patagonia and Black Diamond brands and maybe more famous for his climbing leadership in Yosemite during some of the golden years said when the news broke
 “When we first climbed the North American Wall on El Cap in 1964, we thought, ‘Well, that proves that any big wall in the world can be climbed.’ We never dreamed they could be climbed all free! Sending the Dawn Wall leaves Pope Francis with no choice but to admit our closest relative is the chimpanzee.’”

 

National Geographic did a great write up on this as did the New York Times if anyone wants to read more.

 

Congratulations to Tommy and Kevin. Reaching so high is an inspiration to us all. While dreams and determination are not the only thing that drive success – they are always part of the foundation. Never give up. Ever.
Day 19
Day 19

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AWS Re:Invent 2014

AWS is a force. The claim is that they have 5x the capacity of all the other public cloud vendors – combined.  The pace of innovation on the platform, the quality of the services and the sheer scale on which they operate their datacenters is really impressive. James Hamilton who is a VP and Distinguished Engineer needs to write a book on the growth. It would be required reading for anyone doing anything in the cloud.

Think about this – Everyday AWS adds enough server capacity to support all of Amazon’s global infrastructure when it was a $7B business (2007). Every. Single. Day.

AWS has spent a lot of time on thinking about networking (and I think its potentially their biggest existential threat to growth). Hamilton again this year outlined how critical the network is – after all Netflix actually built their own CDN. When you think about it – this is the one area of cloud that AWS does not firmly control its own destiny. They will lay fiber and connect their datacenters but will always be dependent on the larger bandwidth providers. Maybe not – but it highlights how critical bandwidth is ultimately for so many of the applications and services – including very basic services like database replication.

Silicon Angle and theCube pulled me into an interview at the last minute – no prep time. But I shared my thoughts and perspectives. Let me know what you think!

 

 

 

 

OpenStack StartUp Ecosystem – It’s Real!

For the upcoming OpenStack conference in Paris, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how the ecosystem has evolved since OpenStack started. Storm has been fortunate to be involved early and found some success with SwiftStack and MetaCloud – which was recently sold to Cisco (Blog post here). As most know, I think OpenStack is a big part of the future of infrastructure and have numerous blog posts on the subject. I have invested with some conviction for the past 3 years but I think we are still in the early days – the large companies have really just got on board in the last 12 months with the exception of maybe RedHat. The future is very bright for startups – and the $100 million financing for Mirantis or the new $16 million financing at SwiftStack are just two of the latest data points (which incidentally didn’t make it into the graphic before I took it to print). With some help at Storm (thanks Jordan), we looked companies which are either platinum, gold or corporate sponsors of the OpenStack Foundation. There were 63 that made the list as startups. There is a larger group of supporting companies that would have made the numbers even larger. You can view all the companies here.

Some other interesting statistics: OpenStack isn’t just for newly minted startups – Pactera (1995) and Parallels (1999) were both started long before OpenStack – or the concept of cloud infrastructure for that matter.

The newest company was Stackstorm (2014). I am about to invest in a new company as well – but this is really a moving target. Stackstorm is a great example of a new generation for sure.

More than 180 investors in total have made investments in OpenStack companies. All the data was collected via Crunchbase, OpenStack.org and company websites. Please let me know if you have any comments or thoughts on how to improve – we’ll try to put something together again next year. I think its a trend worth watching.

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A MetaCloud Journey

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Congratulations to the team at MetaCloud. The acquisition by Cisco was announced today. I am obviously very proud to have been involved with the company. It’s something special to have seen the team make it happen since the very first day. It was an incredible journey with the team – as anyone would expect. There is something to be learned from failure, but success at times comes with even more lessons to be learned. And successes certainly are more fun to reflect on and write about for a post.

As a venture investor, I try to constantly learn, improve and do better as a partner. Ultimately, my job is to generate returns for our investors – the endowments, pensions and others that believe in our collective ability at Storm to invest in early stage enterprise companies. My ultimate goal is to make the companies I invest in successful. If I help make our companies successful, good things should and will happen with time. So from that perspective, understanding the how and the what that made MetaCloud a success as a company is an interesting story. Looking back many of the elements that made MetaCloud so successful are universal – like the quality of the team. Sure there are exceptions, but all of these elements make up what every successful company does (it’s certainly my experience) – but each one in a slightly different way. That is what is interesting.

I also want to give a nod to Chris Hipp. I was introduced to one of the founders of MetaCloud, Steve Curry, by our mutual friend Chris. Chris passed away in 2009 unexpectedly – Ashlee Vance (who was at The NYT at the time now Businessweek) did a nice obituary. I wish Chris was still around to see all that was created. It would have made him very happy. Thank you Chris.

 

 

So what attributes have contributed to make MetaCloud a success?

 

  1. Not being wed to the original idea

Sean Lynch and Steve Curry had the original idea of acting like a sort of cloud broker of compute resource. Sean had experienced first hand the excess compute capacity that often sits idle behind large corporate firewalls. If there was a way to enable others to leverage that capacity – and enable a large enterprise with capacity to sell that capacity back to the “grid”, amazing things could happen. Steve Curry and I met many times at the Dutch Goose in Menlo Park to brainstorm about the idea before funding – even pulling in an occasional customer into the discussion. We spent a lot of time going over the idea, talking with potential customers but it quickly became clear to us that the idea of a broker model was just too early for the market. Mostly because if you think about it, the prerequisite for being able to enable this compute brokering is for enterprises to already have effectively what we would call today a private cloud. Those private clouds did not exist then and we are just starting to see them get deployed today. The broker model has merit and likely will exist when the market is ready. You heard it hear first

 

 

  1. Build what customers want

The team was very smart to recognize the broker model was flawed early and adjust the plan – otherwise we would have failed.  I am not sure I would call what happened next a pivot so much as carefully listening to customers. Customers wanted a private cloud. The team built what customers wanted – it sounds obvious but building the broker concept technically was interesting and at the time seemed more disruptive than just standing up and managing private clouds for customers. But customers wanted private clouds and needed help designing and operating them. The team decided to deliver OpenStack as a service. Deliver a fully functional OpenStack cloud behind a corporate firewall where the cloud would be fully managed so that there would be no need to have any internal OpenStack expertise. One thing we learned early – and this was critical – was that we needed to make a promise to the customer, if at any time they want to take over managing the cloud themselves, they could do so without cost. MetaCloud would give them a license to everything. Everything. No cost. Zero. This put the proverbial monkey on our back to deliver a solution that never made that choice relevant. It focused the development efforts on managing scale, deployment and operations as well as contributing code back to the OpenStack community. MetaCloud had little incentive to deliver anything proprietary since customers could in theory take it at any time. Poof.  We struggled to explain what this meant to the market and to customers. Is it a consulting business? – no. Is it a distribution I can buy support for?- no. What is it?  The best answer:  it’s a solution.

 

 

  1. Delivering a solution not a product

OpenStack as a service. We were able to get a lot of traction in an early market by delivering the right solution versus the right product. Customers ultimately want to get their problems solved so they can focus on their own business. Sometimes products are good enough to deliver against that value proposition or customers may be well equipped to buy just products (think copy machine). The MetaCloud team realized early on that many customers needed a solution around OpenStack. Customers either didn’t have the resources to execute an implementation themselves or didn’t view placing internal resources against a problem as the best use of their own teams. MetaCloud enabled those teams to do even more – focus on the harder problems and scale way beyond what they were able to do on their own. MetaCloud in many ways became part of their customer’s team and we treated the customers as if they were part of our team. It paid off.

 

 

  1. Execute. Execute. Execute

The team could execute. If they got the opportunity to sit down with a technical leader, it usually led to a serious sales discussion. I cannot think of a single instance where MetaCloud was the contributor to the issue when standing up a cloud with a customer. We struggled sometimes to get hardware delivered on time or projects got pushed out based on a customer’s new timeline but the team executed. Sean Lynch hired an amazing team of people to help him execute. Customers asked us to get OpenStack running with their NetApp filers? – no problem. Want it to run with EMC arrays? – we can do that. And this was long before EMC, HP and others committed fully to OpenStack. We did a little custom work for sure but we could do it because this team could execute with confidence.

 

 

  1. Team had technical credibility with customers

MetaCloud had a tough problem to solve in most sales situations. Infrastructure is not like a sales tool that someone can just try out, roll it out to the team and if it works great, if not it was just some wasted spends. For MetaCloud’s customers, they were making a huge bet not only on OpenStack but also on MetaCloud’s ability to deliver. The team had some technical credibility with some of the early customers by virtue of having worked with some of those team members side by side in other companies but existing relationships doesn’t scale. Technical credibility was critical to success (and I probably underestimated it at the beginning) simply because it was such a major infrastructure decision. I am biased, but I would guess there is not a better technical team on the planet.

 

 

  1. Financial prudence and sequencing

When we launched OpenStack as a service, we didn’t have customers banging down the door. The team wasn’t well known outside of the companies that they had worked at before and OpenStack was viewed as an immature project with little hope of success. We had to figure out what OpenStack as a service really meant for customers – how much were they willing to pay? what was the right way to charge? – per core, cpu, server or some other metric? OpenStack was early and as a startup we were not going to move the project forward by ourselves – we knew we couldn’t move much faster than the community. As a result, the company was very careful with our spend until first we really understood what it was we were selling. Then with the first sales hire, Bert, we were very careful to figure out how we were going to sell repeatedly before investing more in terms of sales and not until recently have we really started to ramp up the marketing team. The team was also thoughtful about raising equity.They operated on a shoestring for two years from the start when we wrote the seed check in summer 2011 to the A round which was done in June 2013 with Canaan and Maha Ibrahim. She is a great partner at a great firm. The team then raised a Series B financing last spring and it made sense since we knew what to scale and how to scale.

 

 

I am grateful to have worked with such an outstanding team and wish them well in their next chapter of success with Cisco.

 

 

SaaS Metrics

There are others that have spent much more time thinking about metrics in SaaS. I am enjoying watching the community develop better and better ways about thinking about these new businesses. They make up the majority of the models that we are investing in at Storm today.

Dave Kellog, who is CEO at SaaS company Host Analytics, put together a great post titled “The Ultimate SaaS Metric: The Customer Lifetime Value to Customer Acquisition Cost Ratio (LTV/CAC)

I like the fact that Dave is a fan of actually looking at the financial model as well – I think this is critical because any one metric or combination of metrics can be misleading (positive or negative) especially early in a company’s life – but even can cause confusion for public companies. As an entrepreneur (or investor), understanding the model is critical. Its guaranteed to be wrong but it gives you a framework. He references a SaaS metric periodic table from Insight Venture Partners which I thought was creative and generally accurate.

Unlike Dave, I don’t think all four financial statements matter – at least on a regular basis. A statement of retained earnings really doesn’t tell you much about running the business – but cash flow, income and balance sheets do.

He makes the point that one of the best ratios to looks at is lifetime value / CAC. I agree – though with a caveat. The biggest problem with it early on with a business is LTV and CAC are dubious calculations because the datasets are small – and the ratio therefore is just as potentially flawed. And Dave recognizes some of the limitations as well like calculating churn which has another great post on here. But the basic point is right on – a business should value what is willing to pay for a customer (CAC) based in some way to what that customer is worth (LTV).

The CAC ratio captures the cost of acquiring customers. In plain English, the CAC ratio is the multiple you are willing to pay for $1 for annual recurring revenue (ARR). With a CAC ratio of 1.5, you are paying $1.50 for a $1 of ARR, implying an 18 month payback period on a revenue basis and 18-months divided by subscription-GM on a gross margin basis.

Lifetime value (LTV) attempts to calculate what a customer is worth and is typically calculated using gross margin (the profit from a customer after paying the cost of operating the service) as opposed to simply revenue. LTV is calculated first by inverting the annual churn rate (to get the average customer lifetime in years) and then multiplying by subscription-GM.

For example, with a churn rate is 10%, subscription GM of 75%, and a CAC ratio of 1.5, the LTV/CAC ratio is (1/10%) * 0.75 / 1.5 = 5.0.

The general rule of thumb is that LTV/CAC should be 3.0 or higher, with of course, the higher the better.

Happy modeling!

Surviving Technology Extinction: Mobile, Cloud and SaaS Are the IT Asteroids of our Day

Impact_eventJeff Haynie who is the CEO and co-founder of Appcelerator recently put together a great post with Re/code called Surviving Technology Extinction. It is a great read. Like so many things in life, one can view challenges as obstacles or opportunities. The changing IT landscape is no different. I have made the case before that we are in the middle of a complete rebuild of the IT stack from infrastructure to applications. Its the reason I have written other posts such as my thoughts on Openstack and applications like GuideSpark.

Jeff references a good article from the NYT about how consumers should deal with the complexity of IT choices today and many of the lessons can be applied to the enterprise. I am so impressed with many of the senior IT executives I meet today because the embrace the idea of empowering users and are leading their companies into the next generation of IT services. I completely agree with the strategy to avoid extinction – although it is easier to state in the abstract without any constraints. Regardless, its a great framework and place to start.

Embrace the user

CIOs must recognize the huge productivity gains of providing employees with apps that truly help them perform their jobs better — those that are simple, complete and conform to their lifestyle versus the other way around.

Favor ecosystems over features

The best modern solutions find themselves at the center of a broad, diverse ecosystem as well — composed of groups like developers, as well as software and services companies

Expect openness

Vendors for whom openness is a part of the DNA offer customers more than just lowered risk of lock-in. There is also the ubiquity of skilled resources, as well as the likelihood of a broader ecosystem. Openness and ecosystems go hand in hand.

When it comes to the enterprise, it’s not about just surviving “technology extinction.” There’s a very real opportunity to thrive in these times of uncertainty, simply by embracing the opportunity while competitors dither.

I couldn’t agree more. This is such a powerful force in IT right now. I am counting on some large incumbent vendor’s products going extinct. This creates enormous opportunity for start ups.

Just like the changes that took place on Earth  65 million years ago and resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs, those same changes also gave rise to an environment where mammals could thrive. Mobile, cloud and SaaS are the IT asteroids of our day.