From late 2017 through early 2019, Ankur Singla made the trip from Volterra headquarters in Santa Clara to Mayfield’s offices in Menlo Park at least once a week to brainstorm with Navin Chaddha, the firm’s managing director. The goal: figure out what mega-problem Volterra could help solve for mankind. Would it be enabling driverless cars? Stopping the scourge of cyber-crime? Revolutionizing manufacturing?
Due to the pandemic, the answer would be none of the above. And that turned out to be fine.
The pair had met in 2012, when Navin declined to invest in Ankur’s first startup, Contrail Networks. But he’d given advice that had helped Ankur hone Contrail’s strategy. So when he and co-founder Harshad Nakil began thinking about Volterra in early 2017, they decided to forego the beauty contest meetings with various VC firms and offered Navin the opportunity to be a founding investor and gave him a first look to lead the investment. “To be honest, I was less interested in the money since we could have funded the company ourselves at that point,” says Ankur. “I was more interested in talking to him about where we should go — and not go.”
Ankur’s plans were hugely ambitious. He first wanted to create a new kind of “edge” networking platform for an increasingly cloud-centric world, itself a massive engineering challenge. Then he wanted to use that networking platform to tackle a specific world-changing challenge.
From the start, Navin was supportive. “He understood this was not going to be easy,” Ankur recalls. The pair spent the first year focused on how to get started on the basic product. For example, they decided to focus on a system for phone companies, on the premise that since networks were their business they would need to move faster than companies with other core competencies.
“We focused on how to sequence things so we could get to market with something that had immediate value, and not just drown in the ocean of our big ideas,” he says.
The most enticing problem to solve with Volterra’s networking platform was obvious: supporting a vast fleet of autonomous vehicles that would need to communicate with each other and with a variety of services in the cloud. In many ways, it was an ideal and rigorous test of whether Volterra’s network could deliver on its promises. If a car can’t get instant, continuous information — say, that a collision just occurred up the road, or when and where to get gas or to recharge — the consequences would be serious.
The pair spent hours talking through the requirements. “We brainstormed constantly,” says Ankur. They visited industry leaders, including executives at Lyft, which came through an introduction from Navin, along with Alphabet’s Waymo subsidiary and Uber. But despite a flurry of billion-dollar acquisitions and technology breakthroughs, by 2019 it was clear the autonomous transportation revolution was nowhere close to needing an actual network. “We spent almost six months debating this,” Ankur says.
From there, the duo’s attention turned to a range of other problems, such as industrial robotics and cybercrime.
Harsh realities ended the quest. A month after the pandemic began, Volterra made the decision to jettison its idea of tackling a massive application, instead hunkering down on selling its more general security system. The company executed against this plan, acquiring a company in France that already had 30+ customers. That acquisition put Volterra on the radar of F5, which ended up acquiring Volterra for $500 million.
“Ankur dreamed big and executed flawlessly on building the product and taking it to a large market, which saw it as a painkiller not a vitamin. I’m glad the team was rewarded for their bold thinking and nimbleness in trying different options, and I believe that joining forces with F5 will only amplify their impact.” says Navin.
As for Ankur, he’s thrilled he sought Navin’s input back when Volterra was just an idea. “Navin was pretty much involved from day zero of the company, and he helped us figure out how to go to market and how to create a business,” he says. “We didn’t need his technical input, but we really needed his thoughts on how to build a company, do positioning and figure out GTM.”