To borrow a phrase from the country singer Barbara Mandrell, Peter Levine was into the enterprise when the enterprise wasn’t cool.
Now that the tech investment buzz cycle has pivoted in an enterprise-friendly direction, I thought it was time to check in with Levine, a partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
I talked to him late last year on the heels of a busy summer. In July, he led AH’s stunning $100 million investment in GitHub, then followed it up with an $11.2 million investment in Meteor, and in October, an investment in Udacity, an education startup.
Perhaps hinting that 2013 will be as busy as 2012, last week he led a $30 million investment in Data Gravity and joined its board of directors.
We had a pretty long conversation. His fundamental argument about why smart enterprise-focused startups make for good investment opportunities comes down to one simple notion: Pretty much everything that’s been running in the corporate IT environment — things on which companies will spend more than $3 trillion this year according to some educated estimates — is ripe for a significant disruption that will make it less costly to own and operatee, more efficient, less prone to failure and simpler to use. That means a lot of large companies who have a lot of skin in the game maintaining the status quo are likely to have their worlds seriously rocked in the coming years.
Sound like fun? It’s exactly what AH hired him for two years ago.
Here are some highlights from the first half of our conversation. I’ll post the second half soon.
AllThingsD: Peter, the thing I keep hearing people say these days is there’s this feeling that the venture community is sort of “waking up” to the enterprise, or that it’s suddenly cool. You, on the other hand, have been all about the enterprise from the start. What do you think about that?
Levine: Yeah, it’s a really good time to be investing in the enterprise. We see so many interesting companies in the space right now. Just for context, it’s interesting that you comment on the idea that people are just waking up to the enterprise, and that’s exactly how I have felt for awhile, that there’s this renaissance in enterprise computing. There’s an awakening up and down the stack for new products that are going to service the enterprise.
In my mind there are three categories that are all being disrupted at once. Cloud infrastructure: All the underpinnings of it all — storage, security networking and virtualization — would all fit there. At the next layer there’s software-as-a-service, though now there’s almost anything as a service. That’s transforming all the on-premise applications. At the highest level, mobile is transforming how people are consuming information and data and applications they are using. … In the cloud infrastructure you can see someone like a Cisco as the old guard, or even server vendors to some extent, and the new folks being VMWare, which totally upended the server world. For networking, you might see Nicira and other companies in the software-defined networking space as examples. It’s early days in that. There’s a big shift in software driving new network infrastructure rather than hardware and components driving the network infrastructure. In the same way, a VMWare can turn a server into an infinite number of servers. With SDN, the hardware component, it may even be a server in this case, with software basically creating a virtual network.
I get the point on Software-Defined Networking, though lately Cisco would argue, and not entirely without merit, that it has some of its own SDN chops. But I think your point is bigger about incumbent companies in the enterprise.
Exactly. The point isn’t whether Cisco has the technical chops to go do SDN, and it’s not whether they see this trend or don’t see it. They see it as well as everyone else. The problem is that from a business model standpoint, it’s really hard to go from one side of the pillar to the other. We’re talking about the commoditzation of components that very strongly eat into revenue streams and how revenue is recognized. That may sound like a minor accounting rule. But it is huge. With software, if I have to prorate my revenue for three years over the course of a sales engagement, rather than book it all up front as you do with a hardware sale, it dramatically shifts the sales model, the revenue model, the go-to-market model. It’s not only about the technology. For someone like a Cisco, they may very well have the technology chops, but there it’s about commoditizing the very revenue stream you rely on for your existence.
So I presume there are more examples like this in other parts of the stack?
Of course. There’s software-as-a-service on one side. There’s SAP, which has a long history of running big on-premise apps. And then you go to the other side. The whole transformation began with Salesforce.com. Ten years ago, Salesforce.com was an outlier. It was heresy to even think about putting precious customer data outside your firewall. I think that Salesforce really paved the way for the entire software-as-a-service category. And now every part of that stack — from business intelligence to analytics, to performance management to CIO tools — are all moving from the on-premise equivalent to off-premise, SaaS-based equivalents. Every major on-premise vendor has an equivalent off-premise counterpart.
And yet here you have the same thing as in your first example: SAP and Oracle are buying SaaS companies and talking about how they, too, are running in the cloud.
It’s true. They can acquire their way in. They have a lot of money. However, I’ve worked at large companies, and when you’re in there, you have this revenue base, and have a history defining how you’ve done things for the past 20 years, from sales to engineering to architecture. So even at the executive level, you can have every intention to transform the business and move into the new cloud architectures and so on, as the strategy trickles down through the organization it becomes difficult to implement because of the way people are managed and it becomes very hard to swallow some of these acquisitions and have them flourish. Basically the old guard suffocates the new innovation by not letting it flourish.
So we talked about software-defined networks, and there was last year a lot of attention on new companies there. Where’s the next area of attention?
Three years ago we invested in Nicira under the assumption that this was coming. There are still opportunities there, but the nature of this business is such that when a successful outcome like that happens, there’s a flurry of activity, where the venture community tends to pile on the next 40 companies doing similar things. But there’s other areas. Storage is a really interesting area right now. If you look at computing being commoditized by VMware, and now networking being commoditized by SDN, storage is the most expensive component at that layer. And it has been dominated by the same architecture and the same companies — EMC, NetApp, Hitachi, IBM — for at least 20 years. Same architecture, same companies. So I do believe there is an opportunity for companies in that layer to be disaggregated. Now, people have been talking about that for a long time. I was one of the very early employees at a compay called Veritas in the 1990s. So it’s a space that I have an affinity for. The interesting part of that market is that people have talked about the commoditization of storage since then. That said, it’s actually pretty interesting.
So what is startup vs. incumbent dynamic in storage?
In the past there was only the enterprise data center. And a startup would have to go head to head against an established startup in the data center. Whatever you’re selling, storage or networking or security, you’re going head to head with the incumbent players. And for a startup it is incredibly different. There’s questions about service and support and features, and there’s a CIO who says, well you never get fired for buying X or Y. So what’s happened now — and it just became clear when I talked with a friend about this recently — is that whole cloud architectures that are being set up in parallel to enterprise data centers, maybe inside or outside a company, or whether it’s Salesforce or Facebook, or Zynga or Amazon, those are the companies that are very sensitive to price, anti-incumbent, they’re adaptable to letting startups come in. So where a lot of new startups are starting to get traction is with these new cloud architectures, and it might be within a corporate infrastructure, and where there’s green field opportunity. What you find in these environments is a lot of commoditization at every part of the cloud infrastructure layer — whether it’s compute, networking, security or storage — they’ve all been greatly commoditized as compared to the traditional data center. That parallel universe has given startups the ability to make an inroad by gaining traction and relevance. And those companies are the lead users. The cloud infrastructure has dragged the crusty old data center to innovate in a new way.
So who are the companies you’re starting to see and invest in doing that disruptive work in storage?
We recently did an investment in a company called Convergent-io, which is building a storage networking switch that will leverage commodity disks at performance and reliability rates that are equal to if not better than current storage arrays. So that is the whole magic. You have to get equal or better performance and reliability. The whole idea of using flash is really interesting, but that’s essentially using the same architecture. What I’m sort of trying to leapfrog in the storage space, is to ask how storage can become commoditized on the back of commodity components.
You’re not a believer in the idea that flash can save the world, at least inside the data center?
Flash is expensive, but it’s still a storage array that sits there with a lot of expensive stuff around it. The flash stuff is linear and sequential versus the way storage array has tended to work in the past. My belief is that fundamentally there won’t be a storage array anymore. Now, that’s a big leap. But in the same way, things will change up where software will just define the storage layer. I’m talking commodity flash and disk as being the basis for the infrastructure.