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Varun Talwar has already raised tens of millions of dollars to empower developers to build more new technology faster and to drive the success of small to enterprise-sized companies. His venture, Tetrate has successfully raised funding from top-tier investors like 8VC, Dell Technologies Capital, Scale Venture Partners, and Sapphire Ventures.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • Google as the benchmark for performance
  • Harnessing more security and reliability for your business
  • The vision of Tetrate
  • Varun Talwar’s top advice when building a startup of your own

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    About Varun Talwar:

    Varun Talwar is the founder and CEO of Tetrate.

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    Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:

    Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today, it is very exciting, the founder that we have, someone that has done part of his career at Google. You name it, all the different departments, and now he’s doing it on his own and building his own company. So without further ado, let’s welcome our guest today, and his name is Varun Talwar. Welcome to the show.

    Varun Talwar: Thank you, Alejandro. It’s a pleasure to be here.

    Alejandro: So born in New Delhi in India. How was life growing up in New Delhi?

    Varun Talwar: Life was great. I did all my schooling there. My parents are still living there. I was born and raised there. It is a modern, busy city with lots of people. It was like being raised in any busy, competitive Asian city.

    Alejandro: And, of course, just like any other Indian entrepreneur that I meet, computer science. It’s like you guys are born with a degree under your arm. Why is that the case?

    Varun Talwar: You know, it’s interesting. In a competitive, developing economy like India and China, people opt for careers more out of what will give them jobs and success. There is less time spent on finding your true cause and your true passions. For me, it was a bit of a mixed bag of a mix of both. I was always good at math in my schooling time, so that led to math and sciences in high school. My elder brother had done that, so I had some exposure to that. The third thing was just—remember that this was the year where the internet and internet services were booming in the country. There was all this euphoria around high-tech and IT at that time. I think a combination of those led me to taking computer science.

    Alejandro: You did the undergrad and then the Master’s. Something interesting is that the Master’s, you did a combination of being in Singapore, MIT in Boston, but essentially, you ended up in Singapore. Why did you start your career and pushing things forward there as opposed to doing it here in the U.S. with the American Dream?

    Varun Talwar: Yeah. I’m actually very happy that happened in my life. I went to this program called Singapore MIT Alliance. It was a very new program. It started a year before I joined, and it was a joint initiative between NUS, Singapore, and MIT in Boston. Believe it or not, even in 2002, when we did it, they had live video broadcasting education from MIT into Singapore, including audio, video, zooming into professors and lectures. We had a hall where 30 of us each had a desk. We could press a button, the camera would zoom into us, they could hear and see us, then we could release the button, and it would zoom out. This was available bandwidth-free, latency-free in 2002. That was a great experience 1) from that perspective, and each course was taught by one from NUS and one from MIT, so it was a good mix and exposure. There were 30 students handpicked from Asia, and it was all paid for. It was very important. The other great part about that was because of the mix of the people in this multi-national, multi-cultural thing. We actually got to interact with a lot of students from other parts of Asia, people from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka. A whole bunch of people from Asia came together for that program. Singapore itself is a melting pot of a lot of people from Asia. It was very enriching in that sense, and it also sowed the seeds of entrepreneurship there in that course.

    Alejandro: In your case, you went back to India eventually. That was a pivotal moment for you and for your career because that’s the moment that you also joined Google. We’re talking about Google, 2007, and getting expanding there in India. I’m sure it was quite an exciting time as well. How was that experience of joining Google? How did you land in Google, and what was that Google back in 2007 there in India?

    Varun Talwar: Yeah. Those were fun times. Google started in India in 2006. It was really early when I joined in 2007. We had all of 30 people, I think, which was Google India. We were trying to launch products and services for the Indian market, so we were trying to figure out if search and local languages need to be shifted. Back in the day, if you remember, there was a social product called Awkward. This was way before Facebook. It actually worked in two markets: Indian and Brazil. It was really popular then. We were trying to figure out what to do about maps and local search and all those things. That was the stage when I joined, and my first project was local search and maps. It was a very small team. We were well pampered. One interesting story is that in Google style, there was not just food and other stuff there, but you actually had butlers and people serving you. You could raise your hand at a desk and get food served to you on the desk, which was fun. But much more exciting things were happening in marketing and in product, so my first thing was trying to figure out how to actually improve local search when we had no local data. As you know, India is like a prepaid economy, so all the numbers and cellphone numbers kept changing every now and then. The maps were a challenge because the roads are not labeled. The laptops were not available, so driving directions were hard. There were all these challenges that I walked into, which was super exciting. It could take all the engineering muscle of a company like Google but applied to the local context and make it useful.

    Alejandro: In your case, you did jump quite a bit within Google, and your next chapter was YouTube. Tell us about, for example, putting the biggest live stream together, and also, what was that transition of going from India to landing in the Bay Area?

    Varun Talwar: It’s funny. I started tinkering with YouTube just out of watching more volleyball in Google. It’s like, “Okay. There’s this big bad mod thing that’s growing, and there’s so much content there.” YouTube wasn’t formally launched in India. There was no YouTube. The YouTube interest started there. We launched that. We signed a bunch of content deals with volleyball content providers—had lots of interesting stories of meeting those personalities and studios there to get that off the ground. That’s what led me to live streaming. There is this thing called IPL, which is the Super Bowl of India, cricket, which is one of the four content religions.

    Alejandro: It’s probably like basketball in the U.S.

    Varun Talwar: Yeah. If you’re in the content business in India, there is a term called AVCD. That’s what you have to cover: Astrology, Volleyball, Cricket, and Devotional. If you cover those, then you’ve covered what people want. That’s what we were after. It was a time when there was a lot of demand for it, and it was not easily available. So we signed the deal and put that together on YouTube. We sold all that to advertisers and marketed that. It was a super successful event. That led to a significant increase of audience in YouTube and monthly uniques before and after. That caught the attention of everyone in YouTube headquarters, as well, and the interest grew to form a team here. That’s what led me to San Bruno in 2011.

    Alejandro: That was a pretty big move for you because then after you made that move, then you switch to the team of Google Cloud, but that eventually became the segue into you launching your own business, your own baby, Tetrate. Why don’t you tell us about how you came about against the problem and how you saw that you could put a gap into that problem and perhaps bring that solution to life that would eventually become launching Tetrate into the market? What were those sequences of events?

    Varun Talwar: After five years of YouTube, Google was investing heavily in public cloud as you know it. I wanted to figure out why is it growing and what’s happening there? My first project was Google Cloud Marketplace, and then I took on an additional role for an internal project, which was called Stubby. For those technical people here, Stubby is the internal RPC for Google. What that means is anytime any call comes to any Google service, it is internally fulfilled using Stubby. All of the service-to-service calls are fulfilled with that. It was a technically-oriented team and project. It had been running for maybe 15 years. The strategy for Google Cloud was always being an open cloud. Take the technologies into opensource and have developers love and use those technologies and then give them managed versions of those into Google Cloud, which will get people to Google Cloud. That was the strategy for the division. As part of that, we ended up deciding to build the next version of Stubby in the opensource, and that was called gRPC. That gave me the first learnings into what developers care about. What are the challenges in building microservices? Why is it hard for organizations to deploy polyglot microservices and give uniform features to developers? That gave me a lot of insight, and we had a lot of good experiences of people using it all the way from small companies to medium-size to as large as Netflix and Googles of the world. That was the beginning of figuring out why connecting applications, connecting services is difficult and why developer productivity is so critical and useful if you can offload all of the difficult tasks of these connectivities into a different platform. The way to think about this is, if you’re building an application, there are two parts to it: what is the actual core to the business application. The second side is all the ancillary things that go into it like authentication, authorization, failure in handling, monitoring, tracing, [14:54]. These are all things that every application has to do, but it’s not core to what their purpose is in terms of the business function. Things like gRPC, and now we’ll get into the next thing I did, which was Istio. What they do is offload all of this so that the developer doesn’t have to do them. It’s a simple concept like that, but the impact it has is humongous. Imagine you have in an organization thousands of applications, and let’s say each of them has ten developers. How much time is being put in by each of them in building all of these capabilities differently in a different way, in different language libraries in each of these applications? Now, imagine a state where none of them have to do any of that work, and it’s all done in a consistent way in a platform way, which can easily be changed by a configuration. That is like night and day in terms of before and after of what’s possible. I personally saw that in terms of why were Google’s engineering teams so productive because all of this was built in as infrastructure for them, and it wasn’t a developer to the outside world. Coupled with that is what is happening in the market and the tailwinds. The adoption of hybrid and multi-cloud, the adoption of microservices, where applications are getting distributed, and they’re getting deployed in different places. With that, all that common cross-cutting logic that I talked about becomes even harder, so it’s even harder for developers to actually build that given what’s going on. The third thing was, timing-wise, the rise of containers and Kubernetes. That was happening at the same time, and all the feedback on all the Kubernetes community was that they needed something like this from the networking. I think those coupled together is what makes this very relevant in terms of timing in the market and how that Tetrate started. After gRPC, we conceptualized it still, which was solving the problem of observing, connecting, securing all these different services with using proxy-based approaches. It turned out to be a pretty good success. What led me to Tetrate is then the realization that there is a need for this platform. When we first launched Istio, and I stayed back for eight to nine months after that, I met a lot of customers and users who said, “I want this, and I want this where I’m running, and I want this in my environment for my applications. It should work seamlessly for all of my applications.” Listening to that, again and again, made me feel that there is this need for a platform that has to exist to enable this, which doesn’t live in a cloud provider or a compute provider or any given specific platform. It lives independently.

    Alejandro: So, in that case, what ended up becoming the business model? How do you guys make money at Tetrate?

    Varun Talwar: Today’s business model is pretty standard. It’s software selling. It’s three things that we offer: 1) a distribution for the opensource project, 2) an actual software that you can install and use with standard licensing, and 3) a newer offering, which is the SaaS model, which is the same sort of platform, but pay as you consume.

    Alejandro: How much capital have you guys raised to date?

    Varun Talwar: To date, we have raised $52.5 million with two rounds, A and B.

    Alejandro: Very cool. I’m sure that on the fundraising and the investor relations, you’ve learned quite a bit. What have you learned about, more specifically, investor relations: managing expectations and making sure that the communication is clear with the stakeholders?

    Varun Talwar: Yeah, that’s a very important topic as I’ve taken the journey from being a part manager and then turning into an entrepreneur. The biggest thing is, to be honest and authentic with investors and telling them exactly where you are, what you need, and making them a part of it. I think a lot of entrepreneurs keep them at a distance and keep that as like, “I will come and report to you what’s going on,” as opposed to making them a part of the company, almost an extended part of the company and actually having them work to fulfill whatever gaps there are at any given time at that stage. It would be anywhere from people we need to hire, customers we need to look out for, a PR agency we need to get, or tools we need to buy for our internal operations. It could be any of these usual business function things, but make them part and parcel of the company. Awkward investors actually like that. They want to help you to grow their investments. We are fortunate to have really good investors and board members, at least so far at Tetrate. We’ve kept them close to the company than away.

    Alejandro: One thing that I thought was really interesting here is that part of those investors that you got early on is a lot of strategic investors, meaning larger corporations that have a venture capital arm where they deploy the investments. You’ve onboarded people like Samsung, Dell, Intel. What was the reasoning behind getting that collective group of large corporations?

    Varun Talwar: We are selling into enterprise, and these companies understand the most in terms of what is happening there. From their own strategic point of view, as well as helping us in terms of appealing to prospective enterprises. My co-founder and I are both from technology backgrounds, web-scale. I’m from Google; he’s from Twitter. We hadn’t done enterprise-enterprise selling before. We wanted somebody who will fulfill that gap when we bring on our first investors and board members. I think that’s an important lens to use how to pick investors. We were lucky that we had the option to pick. Not everybody gets that, but if you are fortunate that you have the option to pick, pick for, of course, people. First and foremost, I’m a big believer of picking based on the partner, not the firm, if you’re picking people because you’ll end up living and breathing with them. Second, find the people and the firm which complements the skill you need in the company building, not just like the brand of the firm or the money they are giving you or the terms they are giving. A lot of times, people optimize for that, but if you are truly trying to build a company where all the skills are around the table, then that is useful. In our case, we found that in Dell, and they led our Series A. For our Series B, we ended up picking Sapphire and Jai Das, in particular, because there we needed someone with deeper pockets who was willing to go long-distance with us. Second, he understands the domain that we’re in. Jai and Sapphire have seen a lot of companies go all the way to the start of opensource-based start and all the way to IPO multiple times in the infrastructure space. That made a lot of sense. Third, in the spirit of what the company needs, the company will need that experience of taking that company to that scale and also reach to executives, CIOs, and enterprise execs, and that also is something they actually accel in. Again, picking the right firm that brings those things that you will need in your journey is how we ended up making those selections. A lot of these VC arms of these companies actually operate quite independently from the actual culprit, so they end up operating like venture cap.

    Alejandro: Like VC. Yeah. Got it.

    Varun Talwar: Some of it is coincidence, as well, and some of it is by design where we handpicked them.

    Alejandro: Of course. Varun, imagine that you go to sleep tonight, and you wake up in a world where the vision of Tetrate is fully realized. What does that world look like?

    Varun Talwar: Good question. We are, at some level, reimagining what internet would be for enterprises in terms of their application traffic. Another way to say that is what the real world looks like is that all the companies have this platform magically available as a SaaS or on-prem; it doesn’t matter. All the developers bring in their applications and workflows onboarded to this platform. All the tough aspects that I was talking about, observability, security, routing, resiliency, authentication, all of that is available magically for them and taken care of. They don’t have to do any of the hard work of building any of that, be it any kind of application, deployed in any private, public data center or cloud, and any compute containers, non-containers, and they just come in and discover what is running there, whatever they’ve deployed, and they manage their applications there in terms of what is happening, what are the performance bottlenecks, where is it not secure, how to make them resilient, and that all magically works. They can keep onboarding new applications at a faster pace and, at the same time, keeping all the applications reliable and secure. This goes back to often people ask, how come Google is always up, reliable, and secure? People ask that question all the time.

    Alejandro: Yeah.

    Varun Talwar: In fact, people use their Google.com as a benchmark if their internet is working.

    Alejandro: Right.

    Varun Talwar: Because they can foresee that to be down, but not Google to be down. Right?

    Alejandro: Yeah.

    Varun Talwar: So how come, at that scale, they’re so available all the time, and smaller businesses in terms of competitive scale, eCommerce companies, you’ll often find, “Sorry, we’re down for maintenance.” How can you give that kind of availability to everybody, and how can you give that kind of security? If you think normal businesses get attempts to hack or x for a normal business. Every day, Google used to get like 100x of those attacks. But they continue to be secure and reliable all the time. The call is to give that kind of experience to all the companies.

    Alejandro: Imagine if I were to tell you that I’m transporting you back in time, and I’m taking you back to that moment where you were thinking about Tetrate and perhaps bringing Tetrate to life. Based on your experience now and what you know and what you’ve done and learned, and all of that during this journey with Tetrate, what would be that one piece of business advice that you would give to your younger self before launching Tetrate and why given what you know now?

    Varun Talwar: It’s all about people. Invest in people-relationships, and really try to understand hiring and how to get other people to do the work and the vision that you have. That one thing comes at the core by first connecting to people, understanding not just their skills, but their personality, ambition, discipline, cultural values, and being able to relate to that and figuring out and really being authentic ourselves by opening up to them, and so they open up to you. Forming that bond, I think that’s the key. That is the thing you have to do with all your investors, your leadership team, the employees you bring on board, and that is the way work gets done. That’s the thing that often, as you’re working as an employee in a big company, you don’t end up investing in nothing. That’s the core to how to hire, how to build organizations, how to figure out where the gaps are in the organization, who is the right fit, who is not the right fit, and who has been coming up with the right values, and who you can trust. That trumps a lot of technical things when it comes to building organizations in companies.

    Alejandro: Absolutely. Varun, that was very profound. For the people that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?

    Varun Talwar: I’m very reachable on Twitter: @varungyan or I’m on LinkedIn. Of course, we’re on www.tetrate.io, or @Tetrateio on Twitter.

    Alejandro: Amazing. Varun, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.

    Varun Talwar: Thank you so much for having me.

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