Taking the Heat: How Frore Systems’ New Cooling Chip Unleashes Your Device’s Power

When Seshu Madhavapeddy first pitched his vision for a new type of computer chip that could cool computing devices, believers were in short supply.

“Most people when they heard our idea would say it’s impossible,” says Madhavapeddy, co-founder and CEO of Frore Systems. “The attitude of some seemed, ‘We won’t believe it even after we see it.’”

People are bound to believe now. Four years after Madhavapeddy and Surya P. Ganti co-founded Frore, the company exited stealth mode and unveiled its new chip, dubbed AirJet. Borrowing ideas from technology used to cool aircraft engines, AirJet generates short, intense blasts of air that target heat, a critical pain point in all computing devices.

“Heat is by far the biggest hurdle we need to overcome in computing,” says Patrick Moorhead, a respected industry analyst and CEO of Moor Insights & Strategy. Heat, or rather the inability to remove it effectively, means that some of the industry’s most powerful processors are often forced to perform at half speed. Frore’s AirJet solid state air-cooling chips could double the speed at which today’s notebooks and tablets can operate, says Moorhead. “I came in a skeptic but now I’m a huge believer.”

Finding a 21st century solution to an old problem

The idea for Frore was first hatched over a beer in San Diego in 2018. Madhavapeddy and Ganti both worked at Qualcomm, where they had just completed work on a new fingerprint sensor Qualcomm had created for smartphones and other devices.

“We were brainstorming about what would be a cool thing to do together if we were to start a company on our own,” Madhavapeddy says. Ganti, who had previously worked as a senior research scientist at GE, a top supplier of jet engines, floated the idea of applying to computers the technique used for cooling aircraft engines. “I immediately latched onto it,” Madhavapeddy says. “The fan was invented in the 19th century, and yet as we move into the 21st century, it still remains the main option for heat removal.”

The faster a processor runs, the more heat it generates. If it can’t be cooled effectively or sufficiently, it risks overheating. Because fans are loud and take up precious space, manufacturers are often forced into a compromise that involves running chips at less than full speed. For example, the ultrafast Apple chip inside the MacBook Air, one of the world’s thinnest notebooks, is often operating at less than 50 percent of its full power. “We saw an opportunity to bring 21st century technology to the problem,” Madhavapeddy says.



A solution inspired by jet engine technology

Madhavapeddy already had two successful startups to his credit. Alcatel-Lucent bought the first company he had co-founded, Spatial Wireless, for $300 million in 2005. The second company, Sipera Systems, was sold for an undisclosed sum to the networking company Avaya in 2011. He was eager to make the leap into his third startup. It took him a while to convince Ganti to give up his vice president of technology job at Qualcomm. But by July 2018, the pair set up shop in Ganti’s garage in Los Altos and started working on Frore, a synonym for frozen and frosty.

Heat is removed from an aircraft engine through a process called jet impingement that creates high velocity blasts of air. “Because the air is moving really fast, it’s a very efficient way of sucking up heat from hot surfaces,” Ganti says. His idea was to bring that same thermal cooling technique to portables and phones. “The question was how would you miniaturize it into a chip 2 millimeters thick,” Ganti says. Their chip, which does physical work by creating high-velocity air flow, is the first of its kind, and its development demanded technological breakthroughs across disciplines. The company’s earliest employees were PhDs from an array of specialties, including electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, materials science, chemistry, and physics.

“We didn’t know exactly how, but we knew that it was within the realm of possibility,” Madhavapeddy says. “And when Surya says something is possible, he is going to find a way.”

New processes require a new chip fab

The pair found an early ally in Navin Chaddha, managing director at Mayfield. Initially, Madhavapeddy had been seeking only advice from Chaddha, whom Ganti had known for years through the alumni network of the Indian Institute of Technology. Soon, Mayfield was ready to invest so the company could “break the rules of science to be able to do this thing,” Chaddha says.

When Madhavapeddy said he might need $2 million to get Frore going, Chaddha had other ideas. “That’s not interesting because you won’t make any progress as a hardware company,” he remembers saying. “The right raise for you is $10 million.” Mayfield led Frore’s $10 million seed round.

It was a given that the Frore chip had to be tiny. The two believed it would be used like memory chips, where manufacturers—or users—could add more cooling chips just as they can snap in more memory, if desired. They also insisted their invention be silent. “A consumer buying an electronic device wants it to perform at its highest potential, they want it thin, and they want it to be silent,” Madhavapeddy says.

Frore had a prototype one year after they had started. With a design plan in hand, Frore expanded to Taiwan, the world center for semiconductor production facilities.

“Because the materials we use, the process technology we use, is so unique there was no company out there that could take our blueprints and manufacture the chip,” Ganti says. “So we had to build our own fab from the ground up.”

Laptops before smartphones

It took a year before the fab in Taipei could produce samples. Since then, they’ve been perfecting those samples and enduring a marathon process that the industry calls “qualification.” Once fully qualified, Frore fab is ready to produce 1 million AirJet chips per year. Additional capacity is planned in 2024, both through in-house expansion and through licensing to contract manufacturing partners.

As veterans of Qualcomm, a wireless company, it was natural for Madhavapeddy and Ganti to think of going after the smartphone market. But Chaddha persuaded them to focus on a smaller market, at least initially. “The required volume per customer could be 10 million, 50 million, 100 million phones,” Chaddha says. “They were never going to adopt a brand new technology without some proof points.” He suggested they pick an easier point of entry instead, and show demonstrable success. “Then go after the volume opportunity,” he told them. Frore now has a plan to focus initially on the ultra-thin notebook market, then move into the rest of the laptop market, tablets, headsets, and gaming devices—and eventually smartphones.

Working with Mayfield: Trust, Radical Candor, and a Gentle Guiding Hand
Read more >>

From the start, Frore has had good relationships with potential customers. Madhavapeddy has been knocking on customer doors since almost the beginning and has found a receptive audience. “There is such a latent demand and hunger in the market for an innovative thermal solution that truly unleashes the performance of their compute devices,” he says.

Chip makers are interested in any innovation that might help maximize the performance of the processors they produce. Qualcomm is an early investor and partner. Intel has had a year-long deep engineering collaboration, integrating AirJet into the Intel Evo ultra-thin notebook reference platform. “Intel is excited about the engineering collaboration with Frore Systems to help ready their technology for future Intel Evo laptops,” says Josh Newman, VP & GM Mobile Platforms at Intel.

“We have customers who are committed to launching devices with AirJet in the second half of 2023,” Madhavapeddy says. Because of confidentiality agreements he can’t name the companies, but they include, he says, large notebook makers familiar to any consumer.

A quintessential Silicon Valley tale

As Frore made demonstrable progress, more and more skeptics became believers, allowing the company to raise $116 million in venture capital to date. It still has some $70 million in cash as it seeks to win over the market in the months and years ahead.

“Frore Systems represents what Silicon Valley startups are all about,” Chaddha says. “The company has tackled one of the industry’s biggest challenges, delivering products that will completely transform computing.”

Saving Billions of Lives with Next Generation CRISPR Company Mammoth

Going from 0 to Leading Web3 Platform Company

This is an excerpt from a session with Alchemy Co-founder CTO & Mayfield MD Navin Chaddha at TechCrunch Early Stage 2022. The full recording and transcript can be found here.

Navin Chaddha:

Pleasure to have all of you here. I have the great privilege of having Joe Lau, Co-founder and CTO of Alchemy with me. Today, we are going to be talking about how a company goes from zero to leading Web3 blockchain platform company.

So Joe, let’s start with, what does Alchemy do? It’s been one of the fastest growing successes, from 0 to $10 billion in market cap in two and a half years.

Joe Lau:

So yeah, at a high level, Alchemy is a blockchain developer platform – think of us as the Amazon Web Services for blockchain. So in the same way that AWS helps companies build internet and software companies, we help people build blockchain applications more easily and more effectively. And breaking that down a little bit, we see three big shifts in technology. There was the personal computer, there’s the internet, and now there’s blockchain. They each add a new type of primitive and a new way to build an application that you couldn’t have before.

And the really interesting thing is, if you look back in history, what you’ll see is for each of these technological shifts, there’s always a developer platform that pushes that technology forward. So with the personal computer, it was Microsoft Windows, Mac OS – the operating system is what let people build applications like Microsoft Word, Chrome, et cetera, and those things are what brought value to people’s lives. With the internet, you saw the same thing with Amazon Web Services, which enabled a whole slew of companies to be built.

We thought for blockchain to be successful in the same way that these other technological shifts were successful, someone had to build that developer platform, and that ended up being us. So we started the company in 2017, today we power about $100 billion in transaction volume annually, and millions of users all around the world.

Navin Chaddha:

That’s great. So how did you get the inspiration? Can you talk about your founding journey with your co-founder, and why you chose blockchain this versus so many other things?

Joe Lau:

I met my co-founder Nikil in college, we were TA-ing a databases course. Most college courses as you know, are 100, 200 people, something like that, ours that year was 150,000 people – so just a little bigger than your normal college course. And the reason for that was, it turned out we were piloting this revolutionary new concept at the time called massive open online course. But we piloted essentially what would eventually become Coursera, and we were basically thrown into that environment. So from the very beginning, when I got to meet my co-founder, it was almost like a startup environment, and that’s kind of how we got to know each other.

When we graduated, we were really thinking about what we wanted to do with our lives. And probably like a lot of the audience, the thing that was really important for us was impact – how do you think about how to leave as big of a mark as you can on the world. And for us, we measured impact on a couple different axes. The first axis was, how many people’s lives you could touch, the X axis, the Y axis was how deeply you could affect people’s lives, and the area under that curve is essentially your impact. That’s how I thought about it. The X axis is pretty clear. Again, being a software engineer, how you affect life on a billion person scale is with software. And the Y axis, originally we thought was actually not blockchain, because this was before blockchain, it was more of a personal thing at the time.

In the very beginning, what we cared about was how to bring people closer together. We had graduated from college, we felt distant from our friends, my co-founder was going through a rough breakup and a lot of my friends had moved away. So we were building consumer social experiences and applications to help recreate that sense of community.

We did that for a couple years, 2014 to 2017, and nothing worked. We tried like 9 or 10 things, it’s really hard. I think the 10th or 11th thing we built started to take off – it was doing well, it was on top of the app store and stuff, but at that point, we really started to see blockchain take off. So 2017 was when we really started to see Ethereum take off. And the really interesting thing was, it went from just Bitcoin being a currency or store of value, to now Ethereum being a true and complete platform that you could build all different kinds of applications on top of.

And that to us was a really revolutionary shift. Now thinking back to those three shifts, the personal computer, the internet, blockchain, first you had the personal computer which added a new primitive by allowing machines to follow human instructions. Then you had the internet, which adds another primitive, machines can exchange information with each other, and then now blockchain finally, you could have machines exchange value with each other.

So you could build new types of applications that you could never build before, and we got really excited about that. We jumped into this space and started building. Long story short, we found out it was really, really hard, so I ended up having to build tools and infrastructure for ourselves. And then over time, we would talk to friends and find out they had exactly the same problems that we had. So we launched our infrastructure and our tools as the platform that anyone could use, and was off to the races from there.



Navin Chaddha:

Do you think that’s how you got product market fit or did you have more work to do? Because that’s the hardest thing for a startup – everybody has an idea, but how do you make sure the product you build is a painkiller, that it is solving a real market need? Did you guys talk to users, what was that journey like?

Joe Lau:

We spent a lot of time looking for product market fit. For those who are past it, it’s probably the hardest thing you’ve ever done. For those who haven’t done it yet, I understand your pain, and it’s something that takes a lot of time. I think for us, we spent a lot of time looking for product market fit, and really finding the right thing.

I’d say a couple of thoughts there. I think one thing that helped us was really, really understanding how to talk to users. So for those of you who haven’t heard of this book, The Mom Test, you should go buy it right now, it’s an amazing book. It talks about how to talk to users and really understand their needs. The problem with users is they’re all like their mom, and that if you go to them and you ask, “Hey, will you use my app for this”, they’re always going to say yes, because they always want to tell you what you want to hear. And the reality is, after they sign up, do they actually use what your platform is for? Not always. So how do you tease out whether someone will actually use what you build, and how do you figure out if what you’re selling is actually what they care about? So that was a big learning for us.

I think the second thing was figuring out how to really speed up our iteration – this was one of the biggest learnings that we had. At the time, we were building iPhone applications and we would spend a week building something and then ship it off to the App store. At the time, it was a one to two week review process, so it’ll be on the App store three weeks after you originally made that change, and then by the fourth week, your users have mostly updated. So it’s really a month that you’re looking at to test one iteration. But when you’re looking for product market fit, the thing that’s most important is how fast you iterate. It’s kind of like machine learning and gradient descent, it’s about taking as many steps as you can, as quickly as you can, to find that local minimum, or for product market fit, that local maximum.

So for us, what we did was we really worked on tightening that iteration cycle, so we took that month and we actually dialed it back down to minutes. We ended up taking our apps, and instead of shipping it to the App store, we’d go to Berkeley and we’d pretend to be students. So we talked to students and we’d show them our app, and then when they ran into issues, we would basically get on our computers, change it right there into a new experience, and then show the next set of users. So we were able to dial that month-long iteration cycle back down into a couple of minutes, and that was how we were able to iterate super, super quickly.

The last thing I’ll add really quickly is, talking to users in the flesh, in real life, is really, really important. One thing we did for the social consumer stuff was put our phone numbers directly into the app. It ended up being a bit of a misplay, because we got millions of users, and turns out your phone doesn’t work after 15,000 texts. That’s something that we discovered, so don’t do that. But the important thing is, you want to talk to your users.

For the blockchain stuff, we went to conferences and we talked to everybody that we could talk to. And it was hard, we got a ton of nos in the beginning. You’re talking to people, you’re trying to get them to use your product, you think it’s amazing and everyone is like, I don’t care. You’ve really got to be okay with getting those nos and just getting the user feedback that you can at the time. So if you are getting nos, just know that’s part of the path to finding product market fit. That is totally 100% okay, and the important thing is pushing through that and eventually figuring out what people want.

And that was what we did. And there’s always a bit of hindsight is 20/20 or whatever, but that’s what worked for us.

Navin Chaddha:

So a lot of times when startups get founded, they either go after an established market and you have a faster, better, cheaper product, or they go after an emerging market, what is often called a blue ocean opportunity. So what were the lessons, if any, in navigating a new market? Because when you started the term Web3 wasn’t coined, so if somebody asked you what’s the market size for a platform company, it was probably at zero. So how do you end up navigating this?

Joe Lau:

Yeah, that’s a fantastic question. And I think one thing is, in the very beginning, in a lot of cases, the blue ocean is more of a blue pond at first. When we first started on our blockchain journey, Nikil and I were raising one of our first rounds and when you’re talking to investors, you want your TAM to be as big as possible. So we’re using the most crazy estimations of how many people, how many teams were in the space, and how much they pay. I think we got to 10 million for a total TAM, which if you’ve ever made a slide deck, is not an inspiring TAM. And we were like, how do we make this figure?

So I think at the very beginning, emerging markets are going to look super small. The numbers aren’t going to show at all, you have to have a thesis or you have to have some reason. For us, that reason was a couple of things. One, we saw the growth was really fast. The second thing is, we saw something that I always think is a leading indicator for real technological progress, and that is we saw a lot of our smartest friends and coworkers jumping into the space on their nights and evenings, and some of them eventually even in their day jobs. And that’s always a leading indicator, because you have to have the builders before you see any progress. But we started to see an acceleration of that, started to see that excitement, and thought, hey, maybe there’s something really interesting here.

And I think if you’re going after an emerging market, you have to be okay with not having the guarantee that the market’s always going to be there, which again, stepping back is totally fine. It’s either going to be, there is no big untapped market, there’s either a small untapped market or there’s a big market with competition, that’s just kind of how it works, so pick your poison.

If you go after the small untapped market, hoping that it’ll grow, I think one really important thing is, it changes quickly and you have to be talking to users even more, because user needs are changing all the time. So again, in the very, very beginning, every single one of our customers would have a direct chat with us. We didn’t have customer support people, we had engineers actually on the phone and on chats with people. So we could constantly get that iteration cycle, because when customers ask for help, one, they’re asking for help, but two, they’re actually telling you what to build and they’re telling you what problems they want solved. A lot of companies will have customer support or someone else handle that. And what actually happens is that the most valuable product feedback never actually makes it back to the product team, and it never actually gets built back into the product. So that’s something that was really helpful for us.

And I think at a high level, I’d say – be okay with it being a blue pond in the beginning, but at least have a thesis for why you think it’ll eventually be a blue ocean, and then figure out how to stay on top of that wave and learn from users as quickly as possible, because the space will change really quickly. And for those who know blockchain, the blockchain space has radically changed in the last couple years, and the only reason we were able to keep up was because we’re always talking to the users every day.

Navin Chaddha:

Yeah, I think persistence and perseverance just do magic for startups and founders. So you briefly touched on you and your co-founder living together, working together, TA-ing together for a 100 student class that became 150,000 student class – anything we can learn? How do you choose a co-founder, how do you work with one another, because you’re not going to agree all the time? And it seems for you guys, this has been a great working relationship and a great partnership, and I feel you guys complete each other’s words, and if one is there, he’s always talking about the other, and you still make joint decisions.

So anything we can learn about how do you pick a co-founder, how do you work together, and then how do you make tough decisions?

Joe Lau:

Yeah. I mean, the first thing is, get a co-founder. Who in here is a solo founder? All right. We’ve got some solo founders, all the more respect to you. For us, what we found is, it is tough being a solo founder. I think when you have someone who’s right there with you and there through the ups and the downs, what happens is you’ll end up balancing each other out. Sometimes he’ll be having a good day, I’ll be having a bad day and my co-founder will help push us forward and vice versa. I think you have that like self equalizing and self-regulation mechanism that’s really, really helpful. Honestly, my co-founder is awesome. I think working with my co-founder has been one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made, especially when it comes to the company, I know he’d feel the same way. So that’s the first thing I’d say, is highly, highly recommend, if that’s something that you’re thinking about and you’re not sure.

The second thing I’d say is, I think we got really lucky. I think you want to take your time picking an awesome co-founder. My co-founder and I are friends, so we met in school. We lived together for five plus years, for those five years, I saw him more than my girlfriend, now fiance – we were practically married. And to your point, there are going to be hard times. There are going to be times when people leave, there are going to be times where you disagree. I think we’ve been really lucky in that we’ve never had a fight, we’ve never had a huge disagreement or anything like that.

And I think part of that is because one, we had that base of friendship, and two, we shared a lot of similar values for how we approach the world. And there’s that concept that if you take two smart people and you give them the same information, they’ll generally reach the same decision. And people’s decision making processes are based on biases and priors and other things, but if you give people the same information, a lot of times you can reach an agreement, and that’s something that we’ve always lived by. I think that’s at least what’s worked out for us.

Navin Chaddha:

I think we’re almost out of time – thank you Joe for joining us.

Rethinking Recruiting: Jerome Ternynck’s 20-Year Mission to Redefine “Hiring Success”

After Jerome Ternynck completed his military service in France in 1992, the 22-year-old paratrooper platoon leader drove with a friend to Prague to be part of the economic resurrection of Eastern Europe that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. The two briefly thought of opening a pizza joint, but instead decided to spend their $2,000 in capital to start a recruiting agency. “Everyone was talking about how hard it was to find great people,” says Ternynck, the founder and CEO of SmartRecruiters. “It was pretty hard to find a marketing person in a country where none of the universities taught marketing.” 

Thus began a lifelong mission to rethink how to match people with the right job. After building not one but two large agencies in Eastern Europe, he founded one of the first online recruiting software companies in 2000. A decade later, he founded SmartRecruiters in San Francisco. 

“For two decades, I’d heard people complain about the recruiting function,” says Ternynck. Most gripes were about how difficult and unsatisfying the process was for both managers and candidates. “Even today, more than 80% of Fortune 500 CEOs don’t believe they have access to the best talent, and 80% of candidates accept the first job they are offered because they don’t believe they will find the job of their dreams,” he says. “That’s why we started SmartRecruiters – to help companies have hiring success and help people get jobs they love and do it at scale.”

That notion of “hiring success,” which offers a fresh new approach for attracting and hiring top talent on demand and on budget, is resonating more than ever as companies find themselves in a global competition for talent in a post-pandemic world where people can work from anywhere. While SmartRecruiters has grown steadily in recent years, sales rose 70% in 2020 and are on pace to grow even faster this year. 

The company raised a $110 million Series E in July that valued it at $1.5 billion.  Ternynck plans to double headcount to 600 this year as he seeks to pursue the vision of connecting people to jobs at scale.

“We’re seeing evidence of an accelerated digital transformation of the recruiting function,” says Ternynck. The pandemic has accelerated major shifts in labor markets, such as the rise of remote work, the Great Migration of workers to new locations and the Great Resignation by people who for one reason or another have decided to change jobs. “The relatively simple process of hiring people within 10 miles of your office has become a nationwide or sometimes a worldwide competition. The level of fluidity and complexity in recruiting at the moment is unprecedented.” 

“The pandemic has forced every company to modernize their hiring systems, because there was no other choice,” says Mayfield partner Rajeev Batra, who championed Mayfield’s decision to be lead investor in a $5.5 Million Series A round in early 2012. “Suddenly, talent acquisition teams had divine license to spend money on technology.”

Ternynck doesn’t just believe in the globalization of work, he lives it. An avid catamaran sailor — he races an 18-foot Flying Phantom and a 40-foot cat that he says is “for sure” the fastest sailboat in San Francisco Bay — he’s as likely to work from homes in Costa Rica and France as from San Francisco. 

What sets SmartRecruiters apart

SmartRecruiters’ SaaS offering is unique in that it’s designed to serve three constituencies: candidates, who can easily tailor their applications and be alerted when their resume is read or an interview is scheduled; managers, who want low-hassle tools to collaborate with each other and with recruiters; and HR staffers, who are measured by how quickly and efficiently they can complete searches. 

This approach is long overdue, says Ternynck. He should know, having had a hand in the industry’s evolution. He grew that Prague-based recruiting agency, Accord Group ECE, into a 200 person practice and sold it. He then built another agency in the late 1990s, when the recruiting industry started going digital. To get in front of that trend, he then started MrTed Ltd., which developed the world’s first “applicant tracking system” in 2000. Makers of ATS represent the largest segment of the recruiting technology market. 



After London-based MrTed was purchased in 2010, Ternynck began work on SmartRecruiters to help with one of the major problems keeping CEOs up at night: the war for talent. While an ATS can help administer hiring tasks, it has limitations. “Does an ATS help you find the best candidates? Nope,” he says. “Does it put a smile on the face of the managers who have to use it? Nope. They can help put butts in seats, but they definitely don’t help organizations achieve hiring success.” 

Disrupting the massive recruiting industry would be costly, so Jerome moved to San Francisco to raise venture capital. Shortly after arriving, he was introduced to Batra by two business friends from Europe, including GoodData CEO Roman Stanek, who had literally been the first person Jerome’s first recruiting firm had placed in a job, and Stephane Panier, a former Google executive and business school classmate. 

Batra had been evaluating the HRtech landscape and had met dozens of companies, none of whose founders were compelling enough to spark his interest.  He spent 6 months getting to know Jerome, introducing him to his network, brainstorming the model and together imagining where the company could go. 

“What struck me was the completeness of Jerome’s vision,” says Rajeev. “Ultimately, he wanted to use technology to eradicate unemployment, but he also understood that none of the existing players had come up with a way to use software to transform the way they hired.” 

The road to a “hiring success” platform

With just a mock-up of a prototype to go on and a handful of employees, Rajeev and the Mayfield team decided to invest despite concerns about Jerome’s original business model. Since big companies were spending only $1 billion or so per year on recruiting software – a pittance next to the $500 billion they spent on the recruiting function – he wanted to give away SmartRecruiters’ software for free, and make money instead by taking a cut of revenues from headhunting firms, job boards and other ecosystem partners. 

With the help of Brett Queener, a former Salesforce executive vice president who became SmartRecruiters’ President in 2014, the team scrapped the free plan and decided to go after the big prize instead. Although other start-ups were raising big funding rounds to build recruiting platforms for small and mid-sized companies, the company followed a path similar to the one chosen by SaaS powerhouses such as Workday by targeting sophisticated companies with hundreds of thousands of employees. After years of development, the company introduced its Talent Acquisition Suite in 2015. “I certainly wish we could have done it faster,” he says. “But I don’t think there are any shortcuts when you’re trying to build an enterprise software company.”

Indeed, when it was time to raise its next round of financing, many investors were wary of the HRTech category, and only a handful shared Rajeev’s enthusiasm. So Mayfield took the lead role in wooing other investors such as Salesforce, and ended up pulling together a $19 million round. “An entrepreneur wants to know that an investor is going to believe in them when others won’t show up,” says Rajeev. “These days, it seems you can raise millions if you can yawn twice. But that’s not always the case.” 

The service quickly gained traction with Silicon Valley companies such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Visa and Square. By 2017, large, non-tech companies were paying attention. A major milestone came that January, when Bosch moved its entire recruiting function onto the platform. With 400,000 employees speaking 37 languages in more than one hundred countries, the account was ten times larger than anything SmartRecruiters had taken on at that point. But the onboarding went smoothly. “It signaled to other companies that there was now a real alternative to ATSs,” says Ternynck.

By 2019, the word was out. The company added 120 large companies to its customer list, and research firm IDC named it the leader in a newly-created category called modern talent acquisition suites. Then the pandemic hit, putting talent acquisition even higher on the list of things-to-keep-CEOs-up-at-night. Companies dealing with massive complexity as economies shut-down and opened up, such as IKEA and Domino’s Pizza, were among the 200 large accounts that signed on in 2020. A methodology and toolkit for diversity hiring devised by SmartRecruiters to eliminate unconscious biases and subjective opinions is already being used by 500 companies. And the total number of applicants on the platform is 60 million, 100% more than a year ago.

With so much momentum, the company was able to land term sheets for the latest financing round in just four weeks. The $110 million round was led by Silver Lake Waterman, and Mayfield as well as Insight Partners, who have also been great partners to Jerome and the company, re-upped. The money is being used to expand sales and marketing around the world, and to accelerate R&D. While the focus to date has been on helping companies find the perfect candidate, the company is looking at ways to present promising opportunities to individuals who apply for a particular job.

And Jerome, an eternal learner, has been working to grow from product visionary to a great CEO. “Great entrepreneurs need to invest in themselves to become great CEOs,” says Rajeev, pointing out that SmartRecruiters scale and velocity surpassed that of Jerome’s earlier company. After a year of persistent urging, Jerome agreed to join a peer-based coaching group called 10XCEO that Rajeev recommends to many of his portfolio company CEOs. Before long, “Jerome was saying ‘why didn’t you tell me about this before?’”

At the same time, Jerome is strengthening the team around him, with world class people such as Chief Marketing Officer Mark Jewett, Chief People Officer Lisa Sterling, and Chief Financial Officer Jeremy Johnson joining the Company. 

“SmartRecruiters has the best product, the best customer base, and is the most interesting and visionary company in the industry,” says Rajeev. “In addition, Jerome lives his vision everyday, spearheading diversity initiatives and joining Pledge 1% to give back to the community.  While the company and board are always working to set and achieve the next great milestones, I’m incredibly proud of what Jerome and the team have accomplished.”

If you’re interested in working with a fast-growing, game-changing company that knows how to hire great people, look here

 

Saving Billions of Lives with Next Generation CRISPR Company Mammoth

The relationship between Mayfield and Mammoth Biosciences began when Mayfield managing director Navin Chaddha met Mammoth co-founder and CEO Trevor Martin back in 2017. Trevor was a recent Stanford PhD graduate pursuing an unusual path: he planned to start a company focused not on his graduate thesis work, but on the newly-invented CRISPR diagnostic technology, licensed from the University of California at Berkeley. Mayfield partner Ursheet Parikh was investing in the next generation of bio-engineering platforms, opening the door to a whole new class of treatments and diagnostics, in contrast to traditional biotech investing, focused on individual treatment. Ursheet and Navin were very impressed with Trevor’s passion and entrepreneurial spirit. Mayfield invested in a seed round in a company that was then called Apheleia Diagnostics.

Ursheet drew upon Mayfield’s expertise in guiding scores of companies at the inception stage, including Poshmark, Outreach, and HashiCorp, and leaned in to help. As Trevor and Ursheet got to know each other in the following months, they discovered a shared passion for building a defined, extensible platform to power hundreds of new treatments and diagnostics. Trevor called it “Mammoth Inside,” drawing the analogy to “Intel Inside.” Building such a platform company would require Mammoth to involve the core inventors of CRISPR and the core of the CRISPR discovery engine that could power future innovation. To drive this effort, Ursheet connected with Dr. Jennifer Doudna — now the winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for her development of the CRISPR method for genome editing, and whose lab at UC Berkeley is a hotbed of CRISPR innovation. She shared that her students, Janice Chen and Lucas Harrington – inventors of the CRISPR diagnostics technology as well as many novel CRISPR systems for diagnostics and therapeutics – were also interested in starting a company. Ursheet facilitated a set of conversations at the Mammoth office in Dogpatch, hosted the team at his home in SOMA, as well as at Stanley Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Through these discussions, the group found a deeply shared common ground to use these new technologies to have a positive impact on patients’ lives, and the rest is history: Trevor, Janice, Lucas and Jennifer combined forces to co-found Mammoth Biosciences.

The core mission that drove this alignment was the intense desire to help patients as quickly as possible, from disease detection to treatment, spanning diagnostics and therapeutics. “Ursheet shared and encouraged our vision to build something foundational from a general healthcare perspective, that would have a lasting positive impact on the world across many fronts,” says Trevor. Mayfield led a $23 million Series A which several seed and angel investors joined, including Apple’s Tim Cook.

Trevor Martin, Jennifer Doudna, Janice Chen, Ursheet Parikh, Maneesh Jain and Lucas Harrington at dinner

Ursheet recalls his early meetings with Trevor. The 27-year-old biologist had just finished his PhD and showed an immense capacity to learn business. “Trevor is exceptionally self-aware, asked for help frequently, came up with creative solutions and followed up fast. When introduced to the best in class cofounders, advisors, mentors and service providers, he would inspire them to get involved and was magnanimous in sharing the platform.”

“Since no one before them had built a CRISPR platform company with such a diverse toolkit of proteins and potential, they were going to have to grow up quickly to make it happen. A company cannot grow faster than its founders” says Ursheet of his work since then with Trevor, Janice, who is the CTO, and Lucas, who is CSO. Jennifer continues to remain involved as co-founder and chair of the company’s scientific advisory board. Trevor, Janice and Lucas knew that they wanted to build a new type of biotech company not wedded to the typical playbooks often used for single-asset companies. The underlying science was too closely wedded to the business opportunity for that. To help them transition from scientists into business people, Ursheet spent time with the team to talk about everything from product strategy and business development to building a world-class team. “Mayfield was definitely the most proactive in terms of making themselves available to help,” says Trevor.

“Getting a PhD is really relevant to starting a company, because it helps you deal with uncertainty,” says Trevor. “But you can’t just read a bunch of books to learn how to manage people.” To help, Mayfield connected Trevor, Janice, and Lucas to John Baird, a veteran executive coach whose clients included Steve Jobs. “Mayfield also helped recruit key executives such as COO Ted Tisch and CBO Peter Nell and this unique combination of scientist founders and experienced executives working closely together is what makes the Mammoth story possible,” Trevor adds. And Navin continues to be a sounding board for strategy and growth conversations.

The relationship has been fruitful. Mammoth has rapidly morphed from a research project in the lab into one of the most promising, closely-watched life sciences businesses in the world. The company, which recently crossed 100 employees, continues to pioneer CRISPR technology and stand at the forefront of delivering on the promise of CRISPR through its therapeutic and diagnostic programs.



When COVID hit, Ursheet was one of the first to urge Mammoth’s founders to focus on creating a test for the disease. The company has a strong culture of accountability, and the founders were concerned that doing this would require delaying the timeline on some other goals set by the company. Also, it was unclear how these new Covid-19 products could get approved in time to help. “I remember a long call on Sunday afternoon in February 2020 to prioritize Covid-19 over existing diagnostic programs and making the case that it was ok to take the leap with or without a clear approval path. If there was ever going to be a time when new bio-platforms will get to patients fast, it will be during a pandemic. One of the silver linings of Covid-19 now is that we will get the first MRNA and CRISPR products for patients years ahead of the original schedule and this will save innumerable lives,” says Ursheet.

Mammoth has been the most prolific inventor of new CRISPR systems that have significantly expanded the conditions that can be treated and diagnosed. To translate this into patient impact fast, Mammoth is both developing these treatments in-house and also working closely with other biotech companies. Mammoth has developed partnerships for novel CRISPR products with leading healthcare companies including Glaxo-Smith Kline, MilliporeSigma, Hamilton Company, and Agilent Technologies. The company was awarded two contracts from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop and commercialize CRISPR-based diagnostics and biosurveillance platforms for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. Even before the pandemic began, Ursheet encouraged and helped the Mammoth team to forge partnerships to demonstrate its leadership of a vast new ecosystem. In January, 2020, for example, Mammoth inked a deal with Horizon Discovery, a U.K.-based developer of biomanufacturing technologies that drug-makers can use to manufacture new treatments.

That would be more than enough of a contribution for any start-up. For Mammoth, it’s just the beginning. Beyond healthcare, Mammoth has the potential to power the next generation of companies working on improving the health of our planet with better foods. “I feel inspired and blessed to be supporting the mission of the stellar team at Mammoth,” says Ursheet.

Says Trevor: “It’s super valuable to have investors who suggest bold bets themselves and commit to supporting them.”

KiwiCo: Doing Well While Doing Good

Sandra Oh Lin knew it would be easy for venture capitalists to typecast her as a “mompreneur.”

It was 2011 and she was raising money for a new company, KiwiCo, that would deliver educational projects to kids. A mother of two young children, she had just left eBay where she was leading their $2 billion-a-year fashion business. Maybe, they might think, she was more interested in pursuing an altruistic passion, rather than building a valuable company.

So she made sure she was ready to parry such misconceptions up front. “I didn’t lead with any ‘I just drove here in my minivan’ jokes,” she laughs. Instead, she stressed her background in consumer products and ecommerce – as an R&D engineer at Procter & Gamble prior to her eBay experience – and came prepared with carefully-researched market projections and a detailed operating plan. “It was all about showing ‘Here’s why I’m credible,’” she says. “And only one of my credentials is that I’m a mom.”

At least one VC didn’t need such assurances. Mayfield managing director Navin Chaddha had worked with Sandra as an advisor to Poshmark, the social marketplace for fashion that went public in January 2021. “Sandra was laser focused on her mission to foster creativity in children and I could tell that she had the acumen to build a big business,” said Navin. He quickly agreed to invest in KiwiCo’s $2 million seed round, even though the company was still just an idea.

A decade later, KiwiCo is riding a wave of success for monthly-subscription box services that Sandra was early to spot. Companies such as clothier StitchFix and pet products’ supplier Barkbox have gone public and Mayfield portfolio company, Grove Collaborative, which sells sustainable home goods & personal care products, recently raised funds that gave it a valuation north of $1 billion.



While it’s only just begun to do any brand advertising and has raised only $10 million in venture capital, KiwiCo’s traction with customers puts her in that cohort. The company has already shipped over 25 million Kiwi Crates to kids in 40 countries, who receive materials and instructions for educational projects such as slime circuits to learn about electronics and flying squirrels to learn about zoology and gliding.

Each crate is targeted at a specific age group and designed by a team of educators, engineers, and makers and tested extensively with kids in the intended age cohort. KiwiCo now has 8 different subscription lines ranging from infant to what they like to call kids-at-heart. “Since the beginning, our mission has been all about encouraging kids to become creative problem solvers,” she says. “We wanted to give them materials and inspiration to gain both the skills and that creative confidence to feel like they could actually make a difference and hopefully, change the world for the better.”

While that goal was there from the beginning, success didn’t happen overnight. The idea of subscribing to services that delivered physical goods was not yet widely accepted by consumers 10 years ago. “We were doing okay, but I wouldn’t say things were awesome,” Sandra recalls. “So we never assumed that we could raise more money.”

That forced the team to be efficient from a capital perspective. At one point early on, the company cranked out three new offerings, including an app for a kind of “digital refrigerator door” where parents could store and look at their kids’ creations, without big headcount increases. When they didn’t immediately take off, they made the decision to pull the plug within a few months. “We were disciplined,” she says. “If something wasn’t working, we didn’t chase growth at all costs.”

Mayfield supported KiwiCo by participating in a $5 million Series A round of financing in January 2012. Two years later, the firm helped round up investors to come together for a small financing which gave the company much needed runway. “One of our beliefs is in being loyal to a fault with entrepreneurs,” said Navin. “That cash infusion allowed Sandra to execute on her plans and continue to build KiwiCo into a vibrant subscription business.”

The KiwiCo team kept experimenting against the huge market opportunity. Grandparents alone spend $64 billion a year on gifts for the grandkids, and parents spend $5 to $10 billion a year on arts and crafts. The toy and activities market is over $100 billion.

A turning point came in 2014, when the company introduced Koala Crate for preschoolers, Doodle Crate for 9 to 16 year old art-lovers, and Tinker Crate for the STEM-oriented. Not only did they do well on their own that Christmas, but more than 20% of customers were soon ordering more than one. That vastly improved the economics, by increasing the lifetime value of customers and driving down shipping costs, says Sandra. By early 2016, it was profitable and cash flow positive, and they haven’t looked back.

The pandemic was an inflection point for the company. Through “Zoom School,” parents got a close up view of their child’s classroom and a deeper understanding of what they were learning – or not learning. Additionally, parents and children alike were hungry for non-screen experiences after spending all day on laptops and tablets for school and work. As a result, Kiwi saw its sales more than double and its employee count grow to 200. It has expanded beyond its age-specific subscription boxes, which cost $17 or $30 a month (less for longer-term contracts), with an e-commerce site that features scores of products, ranging from a face mask coloring kit to a build-your-own electric pencil sharpener. A company unit focuses on delivering products specifically for schools and organizations, including those serving disadvantaged children.

With the acceleration provided by the pandemic, the company has anchored market leadership and has many options to explore for the next phase of their financial journey.

Reflecting on the journey, Sandra says Navin, partner Tim Chang, and Mayfield have been an important sounding board and were always ready to lend a hand when she needed it. “They have been very helpful and very supportive at the right times, which is what you want from an investor,” she says.

How Mission & Values Set the Foundation for Couchbase’s Success

Couchbase

Couchbase is on a mission to empower enterprises to develop, deploy, and maintain their mission-critical applications by delivering a high-performance, flexible and scalable modern database. Today the company listed on the Nasdaq exchange under the ticker symbol “BASE.” I sat down with Couchbase President and CEO Matt Cain to get a little more insight into how leadership and culture paved the way for Couchbase’s journey to IPO.

Congratulations on Couchbase becoming a public company! What role do you think culture plays in a company’s success?

I believe that the foundation of any leading company is its world-class team, a combination of industry leading talent and a set of values that enables those people to do the best and most fulfilling work in their careers. Culture is the product of those values in action, and leaders must be the stewards of ensuring the company is living consistently with them. When it comes to teamwork and communication, I have tried to create as many opportunities as I can to ask what’s working, what’s not working, and where the team needs help. At Couchbase our culture is a sustainable competitive advantage as we attract, develop and retain the highly-skilled talent necessary to execute on our business growth strategies. The leadership team and I work relentlessly to make Team Couchbase feel valued so they can then work together to create value for our customers, partners and shareholders.

Describe your leadership style and approach as CEO.

Several early-life experiences shaped my approach to leadership. First, my parents raised me with strong Midwestern values. I also developed a love and passion for teamwork and collective goals through competitive team sports. And going through a Jesuit education reinforced the concept of leveraging your talents to make the world a better place and act as a “person for others.” Roll all of these together and you get a servant leadership style with an emphasis on teamwork. I’m about the “extreme ownership” and “servant leadership” philosophies to drive the best results while building a culture that is durable– and wins. In this model, the leaders are ultimately responsible, but teams make the difference. My goal has always been to build, reinforce, and model a culture of openness, transparency, and trust that delivers results. And we have to have fun along the way!



Couchbase was founded in 2011 and you came on board in 2017 as a first time CEO. What was that like, stepping into a new role to lead a company?

So one of our company values is Attack Hard Problems, and that’s sort of the approach I took head on when I arrived at Couchbase. I think there’s a razor-thin edge that elite performers must balance between self-confidence, or a willingness to try new things, and humility, or knowing that you will get things wrong. With this mindset and when facing challenging times as a leader, I try to stay calm and work through things as a team. I also try to remember that I’m in service of others, like employees, customers, partners, and shareholders, to derive motivation to work through hard things. I can’t fix problems I don’t know about, so I work hard to maintain a genuine connection with as many of our team members and possible. As an example, in my first 100 days I committed to setting up at least 100 meetings with employees, customers, investors, partners, vendors and analysts to listen and learn. I’m a true believer that people can do amazing things when they work together and put the team first. I’m very proud of what we have accomplished so far as a company, and I think you can see some of that reflected in things like our Glassdoor rating and also in our business results which allowed us to become a public company today.

What advice would you give another CEO as they begin to prepare for the IPO process?

Surround yourself with a world-class team. No one person can go through this rigorous process alone– it really does take a tremendous amount of teamwork and collaboration. Invest in your people and your culture because at the end of the day, the results the team delivers are what are going to help position the business to go public. That and get ready for the grind! In all seriousness, it really does require a super talented team to pull it all off. I’m grateful for the team’s continued dedication and passion for our business, even in the face of a global health crisis. It inspires me every day.

Congratulations again to Matt and the entire Couchbase team on their IPO, which marks the latest milestone in our decade long journey – looking forward to all that is to come.

How Tonal Became a Home Fitness Star

When his first start-up hit hard times in 2012, Aly Orady knew that if he ever started another company, he would give Mayfield managing director Navin Chaddha a shot at investing before anyone else. Navin, more than any other board member of Pano Logic, the thin client company Aly co-founded in 2007, stood by management when many other investors were “running for the hills,” Aly says.

“I remember one phone call when our bank was demanding its money, the investment bankers were spent, and we had 100 or so employees to worry about,” Aly says. “Navin assured me, ‘No matter what happens, we’re going to do the right thing’.”

And Mayfield did. As part of a sale and wind down process, the company had to lay off almost all of those employees on very short notice. In a move that’s almost unheard of in the world of VC-backed startups, Mayfield led the charge to cover the cost of severance packages. This required not only money from Mayfield, but leadership to convince the investor syndicate and influence with the company’s bankers.

“Mayfield talks about being people-centric, and it sounds like a tagline. But it’s not,” Aly says. “I experienced it first-hand.”

The trust engendered in those tough days set the stage for a much more rewarding relationship. Over the past six years, Aly has built Tonal, which makes an ingenious digital strength-training system for the home ­– essentially, a Peloton for strength conditioning – into a star of the booming home fitness market. Mayfield was there every step of the way.

Partner Tim Chang, an early quantified self, biohacking & fitness enthusiast, provided early strategic and product help and led the effort to secure seed financing. Since then, he’s helped recruit key advisors and executives, who have successfully overseen the company’s hyper-growth. Tonal recently announced a $250 million funding round, led by Dragoneer Investment Group, at a valuation of $1.6 billion with new athlete investors including Maria Sharapova and Mike Tyson. Mayfield invested in the round alongside other existing investors, including consumer VC giant L. Catterton. Prior investors include Amazon’s Alexa Fund and athletes including Steph Curry and golfer Michelle Wie.

“It’s been especially rewarding to get to work closely with a repeat Mayfield founder right from the very early days of the company, on a product that I’m personally excited about and have always been the perfect target customer for,” says Tim. “I’ve been into strength training for more than half my life, and had spent months and months prior to Tonal researching every home system on the market trying to build out my own dream gym. I knew from first glance that they had a breakthrough innovation never seen before in the field, enabling safe self-spotting for newbies as well as ‘quantified reps’ and advanced lifting modes such as eccentric loading for experienced lifters. It’s incredibly gratifying to see that early vision and thesis play out in the market, and resonate with so many customers!”



The Tonal story began after Aly joined Mayfield as an entrepreneur-in-residence in 2013. Coming into his office at Mayfield twice a week, he discussed ideas for another enterprise technology company with Navin, Rajeev Batra and other partners, who also opened doors to many of their contacts. And spending time at internal and external Mayfield events, including the daily lunches for staff, provided him a view on everything from finance to culture. “I haven’t talked about this much publicly, but I was a solo founder. When you don’t have co-founders, it’s a lot more important to trust and be comfortable with your investors,” says Aly.

While this was happening, Aly decided to get in shape, and lose the chubbiness that had frustrated him since childhood. He was soon hooked on weight-lifting and lost 70 pounds in nine months.

But he’d also lost countless hours driving back and forth to the gym and waiting for equipment to free up. Then, while lying on a bench staring at all the digital displays on the analog equipment, an idea popped into his head. “If I could make a system that uses electricity instead of gravity, I could shrink it down into something I could use in my apartment,” Aly recalls. “It could completely change the world of strength training, which has been stuck in the past for too long.”

At first he kept the idea to himself, wondering if a heavy-duty technologist who’d never been a CEO could pull it off. When he shared it with Mayfield’s partners, Navin asked: “Are you sure you don’t want to do something in enterprise infrastructure?” But when Aly pointed out that he wanted to follow his newfound passion for fitness to make an impact on people’s health, Navin encouraged him. And Tim was a believer and a booster from the start, and loved the company’s initial name: Ript Labs.

After six months, in late 2015, Aly had a working prototype and asked Tim to give it a try. After just a few bicep curls, Tim told Aly to come back and pitch the partnership again.

Aly did so a few days later and just as he returned to his apartment afterwards, he got a call from Tim asking him to come back to Mayfield’s Sand Hill Road offices. A $1 million term sheet awaited him. After some minor negotiations, they shook hands on the deal and an updated term sheet soon followed.

Tim sought out seasoned entrepreneurial talent with the right backgrounds to help build the team, as well as other angel investors that could help. Tonal ended up raising $1.5 million in its seed round in May 2016, led by Mayfield with participation from Bolt Ventures and angels, many of which resulted from Tim’s introductions. Just as important as the money was access to Bolt’s R&D lab, which was equipped with 3D printers and $250,000 CNC machines that are used for rapid prototyping.

Tim has continued to counsel Aly on everything from strategy to product, helping to gamify the Tonal experience. He introduced Aly to numerous venture firms which resulted in an $11 million series A in October 2016. And Tim helped to persuade former Fitbit chief business officer Woody Scal and former Twitter COO Adam Bain to become independent directors, and helped recruit Tonal executives such as content chief Ryan Vance.

“I think I have personally sold more Tonals than any other board member,” says Tim, who proudly describes himself as an advocate and word-of-mouth promoter of the product.

Looking back, Aly says none of that would have happened without the enduring bond that he and Navin cemented during the bad-old days at Pano Logic. “When things are going smoothly, it’s not really so necessary to have strong relationships with your investors,” he says. “But when things are rocky, that’s when you see who your friends are.”

“As a people-first investor, you have to believe in people, even if their prior experience is different from the idea they are passionate about,” says Navin. “It has been inspiring to see Aly grow into a great leader and to watch the impact that Tonal has made in delivering fitness to thousands of people.”

Click here to read other news on how Tonal became a home fitness star.

How the Rancher No-Drama Team Quietly Built a Kubernetes Leader

For the five years Mayfield partner Ursheet Parikh sat on Rancher Labs’ board of directors — from Mayfield’s A round investment in 2014 to the sale of the company in 2020 for over $600 million — Rancher never missed a quarterly financial target, despite two major pivots and one pandemic. Even the board meetings went smoothly, says Parikh, never exceeding the allotted two hours.

“Working with Rancher has been a delight from day one,” says Ursheet. “It’s the lowest-drama company I’ve ever seen.”

Sheng Liang, co-founder and former CEO, credits a “keep-it-simple” philosophy. “We hit our goals by laying out a plan we think we can achieve, and then finding a way to meet it. That’s it,” says Sheng, who is now president of engineering and innovation for SUSE, the German open-source giant that acquired Rancher last December.

Of course, keeping things simple doesn’t just happen. It requires some key ingredients. First among them is trust, so that executives, employees, and directors know they can rely on each other to do what they say they will. Another is transparency, so that everyone can pull together to address challenges as quickly as possible. And it requires a particular kind of pragmatism.

“To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be ambitious and optimistic. You have to believe you can topple VMware, or Amazon,” says Sheng. “But many companies get carried away and don’t back it up with a dose of reality.”

Sheng, an engineer who had a key role in the development of Java while at Sun Microsystems in the 1990s, eschews many practices that complicate life for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. For example, Rancher never had different sales targets for the board, the company, and the sales team. There was no sandbagged “board plan” to keep Sheng looking good for directors, and no unrealistic “stretch” plan promising soaring bonuses to salespeople who hit higher sales quotas. Instead, every salesperson at Rancher had one unchanging quota, based on the only plan that mattered: the real one.

“If you can grow 100% a year, there’s no reason to go for 120%,” says Sheng. “Heck, if you just grow at 50% for another 20 years, you’re the next Microsoft.”

Seeing the opportunity

Given its business, Rancher had little room for shenanigans. The company was founded in 2014, when companies were flocking to a new technology called “containers,” which let them deploy their software in tiny chunks that could be run on any kind of infrastructure, from a mega-data center to the server in the closet.

Rancher’s founders immediately understood the implications. Sheng, Shannon Williams, and William Chan had founded Cloud.com in 2008. It sold software for anyone that hoped to create their own cloud platform rather than use AWS or Azure.

By the time they started Rancher (Darren Shepherd, a former Cloud.com customer, was the fourth co-founder), very few people would think of competing with AWS, Microsoft, or Google. But while these companies offered their own container services, Rancher’s founders foresaw a day when companies would need “multi-cloud” tools that would work on all of the main platforms — say, to be able to shift to another cloud service or company-owned data center, if a cloud had an outage.

For the first 18 months, the team struggled with how to help customers trying to run software in such a heterogeneous world. A technology called Docker had emerged as the basic container technology. If Docker containers were like rail cars of code, customers still needed a system to organize them into trains, and to manage those trains as they moved onto different gauge rails.

Rancher built a Docker-based system, just in time for it to be rendered irrelevant by Kubernetes, an open-source technology created by Google that quickly became the standard container framework. Suddenly, the tiny company faced competition from a slew of well-funded startups offering their own implementations, or “distros,” of Kubernetes. Worse, the cloud giants themselves threw in Kubernetes management as a freebie to get companies to use their cloud offerings.

It was a scary time, says Shannon. But the level of trust was such that no one left. “We had so much confidence in each other that we didn’t face the self-doubt that brings down a lot of startups,” says Shannon. “We were able to move through a risky time pretty comfortably.”

Forging a new path forward

The easiest path would have been to crank out their own distro, with extra features or some other small advantage. But Sheng was not willing to bet the company that Rancher could do a better version of free.



“If you have an ounce of honesty, you’d have to realize that was a hopeless business model,” he says. “It was obvious to us, but I can tell you it wasn’t obvious to a lot of our competitors, and still isn’t.”

Instead, the team bore down on finding unaddressed niches in the Kubernetes ecosystem. While many distros focused on running software on a particular public cloud, Rancher’s namesake product helped customers easily move containers between competing clouds, but also on other kinds of infrastructure, such as legacy, company-owned data centers. In 2019, it added a popular miniaturized Kubernetes distro called k3s that can be squeezed into IoT devices such as wind turbines and drones, which have very limited compute capacity.

As sales rose, the founders made sure to keep their focus on market realities. At one critical juncture, Sheng and Shannon, who was Rancher’s president before the acquisition, decided to write down a list of all the reasons a customer would not buy Rancher’s products — from lack of a feature, to the fact that the company was simply too small. While many startups focus only on making their products as good as possible, “We’ve learned that the why nots are often more important than the whys,” says Shannon. Rancher’s development effort therefore focuses as much on eliminating “why-nots” as creating “whys.”

By early 2020, Rancher had carved out a valuable corner of the booming Kubernetes ecosystem, and done so quickly. Sheng loves to point out that rival Red Hat had a Kubernetes distro before Rancher was even founded, but didn’t come out with a Rancher-like product until 2020. “We went from three years behind Red Hat to two years ahead.”

When SUSE approached the company about an acquisition in July, the Kubernetes market was heating up. While the pandemic had hurt overall tech spending, it had also caused many companies to accelerate their adoption of the cloud as a way to save money and accomplish their digital transformation goals. While Rancher had grown to 250 people, Shannon figured SUSE’s much larger sales and engineering teams meant Rancher could quickly reach ten times more customers than it could on its own.

“The market was developing much quicker than expected, and by combining forces with SUSE we’ll be able to build the undisputed market leader in Kubernetes,” says Sheng. “Ursheet supported us staying independent but also realized that the exit could help us realize our vision and that it made sense for our stakeholders and employees.” The SUSE offer was one of many, and the company’s value had more than doubled by the final bid.

Read also: Ursheet Parikh’s cradle-to-exit role at Rancher Labs

“We’ll never know what might have happened otherwise,” says Sheng, “but we probably did the right thing.”

Again, no drama.

How Volterra Dreamed Big, Then Focused Its Way to 300% Growth

Ankur Singla knows what it’s like to be an overnight success. Back in December 2012, Juniper Networks bought his first start-up, Contrail Systems, for $176 million. The company was just nine months old.

So when Ankur started Volterra in 2017 with $25 Million in Series A funding led by Mayfield, he was looking for a different kind of experience. He wanted to develop technology to tackle one of the digital economy’s knottiest problems, knowing full well it might take years to solve. He just didn’t know which problem. So while he searched, Volterra’s engineering team started work on a new kind of soup-to-nuts “edge” network that companies could use to replace scads of standalone products that weren’t designed for modern cloud applications. Whatever problem Ankur ultimately settled on, it would make use of this cloud networking platform. 

“I was on a quest to find that big application, and we ended up going on a lot of goose chases to find it,” says Ankur. “And then the pandemic hit.”

Suddenly, companies all over the world were trying to figure out how to keep employees productive from their homes, and edge-centric networks, which handle traffic closer to end users so everything doesn’t go back to overwhelmed corporate networks, were suddenly center-stage. After refocusing on a technology that was supposed to have been a means-to-an-end, the company’s sales grew at a 300% clip in 2020. To take better advantage of the sudden demand, Volterra agreed to be acquired by much larger F5 Networks for $500 million in January 2021.  

“We didn’t want to do another infrastructure company,” he says. “We created technology we could apply to a big and tangible problem, like autonomous cars or industrial robotics. In the end, we found we’d already created something that applied across many problems.”

“Founding investors have to build a zone of trust with founders as they explore the different phases of early stage company building,” says Mayfield managing director Navin Chaddha. “It was a delight to partner with Ankur, who is a big thinker and constant learner, as he and the team guided Volterra to a great outcome for all.”

From the beginning, Volterra’s networking and security technology was designed to address the obvious weaknesses of legacy networks in a cloud-centric world. For decades, companies had built expensive, complex private networks so employees in the office could safely use applications they created or purchased from companies like Microsoft and Oracle. By comparison, the public Internet was insecure, slow, and inefficient. With little network capacity at the edge, every mouse-click generated traffic that might have to travel thousands of miles to a corporate network or cloud data center.



The public Internet was also unbalanced. Network capacity was largely architected so a few big companies (think Netflix) could push content to consumers and far less for when consumers wanted to send information back.

Read also: How Mayfield’s Navin Chaddha Supported a Founder’s Quest

Ankur realized those assumptions no longer applied. Long before the pandemic, companies were shifting rapidly from on-premises applications to cloud services that live on that same Internet they used to eschew. And overall traffic patterns were shifting as well: It wasn’t just Netflix movies sucking up the Internet’s capacity, but billions of Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok posts ricocheting across the globe.

“The Internet was built for moving data downstream. With the distributed nature of modern applications, we realized it needed to be more symmetrical,” Ankur says. “That was probably our biggest insight.”

But it wasn’t his only one. The 100-person engineering team also developed a new security model for distributed applications and a console that enabled network administrators to easily monitor and manage them all. Significantly, it was “multi-cloud,” allowing companies to securely manage apps hosted on AWS, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure as if they were one.

“The basic idea was, ‘We will operate the network and apps for you so you can focus on your business,’ Ankur says.

When the company came out of stealth mode and began selling in 2019, the response from customers was swift.  SoftBank, for example, signed up to use Volterra’s platform in its new 5G network in Japan, as did other companies from a wide variety of industries.

While Ankur kept drilling down on the right applications to maximize Volterra’s value-add, the company leveraged the capital it raised to staff up to about 125 employees, almost half of whom were industry veterans who had worked with Ankur at some point during the past 15 years.

When COVID hit, Ankur expected demand for the product would drop. He decided to put his quest for “the killer application” on hold, and focused on the existing product to ensure the company’s near-term survival. Instead, demand spiked as companies that had only been thinking about moving to multi-cloud and edge-centric computing suddenly had no choice. Enroute to that 300% growth in 2020, Volterra signed up customers that included two more huge phone companies and a top five carmaker.

By year end, it had become clear the company’s ten person sales and marketing team couldn’t keep up with demand. Ankur began looking for a partner with a larger sales force and established marketing programs, to help make the most of the moment. 

One of the potential partners was F5, a 25-year-old company with a broad product lineup, a well-known brand, and a long list of marquee clients that might be receptive to Volterra’s technology. The companies also shared a similar raison d’être.  Both focused less on the basic plumbing of the Internet, and more on making sure companies could run their apps as quickly and safely as possible anywhere. 

When talks escalated and F5 made its acquisition offer, it was the right decision for investors and offered the best way to drive adoption of the company’s technology. 

“I had really wanted to keep building the company,” Ankur says. But after long discussions with advisors including Navin, Volterra accepted the bid from F5.

“You’ve got to do what is right for the team,” Ankur says. “I’ve learned over my career that if you don’t, things will never work out in the long-term.”