Founders on Fire: Niraj Tolia, President and GM, Kasten

Having been runners up in the 2019 Containers Trailblazers Award, Kasten have gone on to success and recently been acquired by Veeam. The former CEO and Co-Founder, Niraj Tolia, is now the President and GM and he joins us to talk about the history of how Kasten came about and what the acquisition means for the firm.

He also talks about the importance of company culture, finding the right team, and how he’d be first in line to enter the Tech Trailblazers Awards if he ever launched another startup.

You can also listen to the podcast on YouTube or Anchor FM.

Interview transcript

RR: I’m here with Niraj Tolia for the Founders on Fire. Welcome everybody, thank you for joining us for this Tech Trailblazers Founders on Fire podcast. I’m delighted that today I’m joined by Niraj Tolia from Kasten which is now part of the Veeam family. Hello Niraj.

NT: Hi Rose, great to be here. I’m very excited about the conversation today.

RR: Yes, likewise, likewise, and thank you for making the time in your diary because youve literally just been acquired, what is it a couple of weeks ago that it was announced?

NT: We announced it a couple of weeks ago, it closed only a few days before that, so as you can imagine things have been very hectic, but in all the right ways. Excited to share about some of that for the listeners today too.

RR: Fantastic, well Im delighted you could make a bit of time in your diary. So, lets focus in a little bit, obviously Niraj youve been in the storage world, and now obviously the containers world which is where Kasten is. Prior to that you studied for a long time at Carnegie Mellon, so thats a very prestigious university to study engineering.

NT: Thank you.

RR: So, do you want to tell us a little bit about first of all, your adventures specifically with Kasten. How did that come about, and what is it that you actually do there?

NT: So I think it’s just what you mentioned, everything in my career has been built on the things that came before it, and Kasten was in some sense a very similar story. I’ve been working on storage and data management systems for a long time, but between us and the viewers I’ve tried to escape from it twice in my career – early on in my career, and failed miserably at escaping from it, so now the joke that I have, is that data has gravity and it refused to let me go, so I’m completely at one with that at this point.

What happened was, the previous startup we were at, we got acquired, and one of the things that we started doing there is not what we’re doing at Kasten, but we started using Kubernetes for some of the applications we were building. Very early days of Kubernetes, pre-1.0, I think if I look back in time this was around the 2015 timeframe. When we looked at that actually the funny thing is my team started complaining about using it; yes the technology was a little early, but they started complaining because different pieces of software that different groups were developing were getting integrated faster, so the integration pain was showing up at part of development was at some later integration phase.

That’s when the lightbulb went off that this is going to change how people build and develop applications in the rapidly changing world, in the digital world, all fast level today. So, that was that about just Kubernetes taking off, and then at some point in time I left EMC, then Dell EMC, and I took a little bit of time off, a breather, and started looking at what else there was in the market. Kubernetes bubbled back up to the surface, and the growth since our early experiences with it convinced us from first principles, that a) it would win compared to other things such as Docker, Mesosphere, etc. and b) as more enterprises moved applications into this environment, data protection, data management, and a multi-cloud world, and a self-service world would become increasingly important.

So that’s how Kasten started back in the day, and since we started there’s been no change, no pivot within the company. We had focus, we were convinced about how we could bring benefit to a customer, how we could help accelerate through the journey, how we could be the trusted adviser, and that’s the part we executed on.

RR: So, obviously it was an attractive position for Veeam, and now youve been there for a couple of weeks. Obviously youre probably not able to say too much about exactly how everythings going to pan out! But like I said, congratulations on that and Im delighted that youve landed obviously back in the storage type of world. So, bad luck with your attempts to escape it!

Thats exciting and you talked about a previous startup that you were involved with that was acquired by EMC, I dont know if it was acquired by EMC or Dell at the time, but obviously part of that family too. So, on your journey getting a lot of exposure to the startup culture, to all of the challenges of building teams, raising funding, having happy customers, what would you say are some of the things that youve maybe learnt, either because it worked or maybe because it didnt work so well, and you found a better way of doing it, what would you say are some of the things that youve learnt on the journey?

NT: I think some of the things we learnt in the previous chapters of my career that we put in place here is, the importance of culture within a company. On day one when the company was incorporated, me and Vaibhav, my co-founder, we’ve been working together forever; you mentioned Carnegie Melon, we actually went to undergrad together, and we’ve been working extremely closely for over 10 years now. Culture was important, before we founded we figured out who did we aspire to be when we grew up, who did we want within the company, what kind of environment did we want, and some of the big things that we really focused on was transparency and openness which I think has made a big difference.

We share everything within the company, apart from things that we can’t legally share, personal information etc. Everything is open, we have a board meeting, all board meeting slides are shared as an example, investors show up for the board meeting review with the entire team, all financials right down to the last penny or cent. Everything is open, people feel free to ask questions, people know where the company’s at, at any point, and whether for good or for bad. It’s not just about sharing the positive news, it’s about sharing the news that might be hard at that point in time, when talking about the plan moving forward.

So, I think trust, transparency has made a big impact to the success of the company, in terms of how we run things. Obviously, other smaller things, how to build teams, how to run them, how to hire the right kind of people, all those. And if people are curious we actually have put up all the notes on our culture, independent of Kasten, so there’s no product brand and anything of that sort, but if you go to the first thing we have before we describe our jobs opening etc. is our culture deck, it looks a little bare but it has all the information one wants. We have a separate thing for engineering which is specific, us being a heavy R&D organisation, what we were early on in our careers at Kasten, and also generally for the entire company cross-functional. So, if people are curious I’d also love the feedback on what we have out there.

RR: Got you. Well, you can guess where Ive just gone! Ive just gone to have a look at your culture deck. Lets have a little click, so This deck just like the company will always be a work in progress, feedback welcome and appreciated.’ ‘Culture is a shared outlook, culture is strategy,which is a quote from Jim Collins, who is the Good to Great,author. ‘…and enables us to out-compete others, helps build a successful and portable company…’ I wont ask you to repeat all of these because you probably dont look at them you live them, you dont look at them, right.

NT: Yes.

RR: I wont go through all of these because I want to leave a little something for people to go and have a look at themselves, but you talk about your values which is, Define and exemplify our culture. Define our individual behaviour. Attract amazing co-workers, and values are used to promote, reward, and part.So, very exciting, I shall have a little bit more of a look at that at a later date. We can certainly put a little link into that in the transcript if anyone wants to dive a bit further into what youre doing. Thats great. So, obviously beyond culture, beyond transparency which I think is very commendable because as you say, there are good times and there are quite often quite tough times too, and if you cant pull together during both of those then particularly for the latter, then it could be quite a painful experience.

What would you say you might have done differently, retrospectively now?

NT: Such great questions. Hindsight is always 20-20, think about that for a second, what would I have done differently? A couple of things, in this post-impact of COVID world, and something that we did is, a team is somewhat distributed. We have offices in the Bay area and Salt Lake City, we have a few people in India too, so we have right now three locations, so we always distribute. I think something I would have wanted to do if I’d done things differently was just to go completely remote from the beginning. COVID has hurt a lot of people personally, the impact cannot be understated today, but from a professional impact I think it has helped people, not to just stay safe in the times we are in today, but working remotely helps cut down on the commute, and improves people’s quality of life. It doesn’t tie people down to a particular geography, it gives them more options.

Especially in young companies, there’s no-one standing over your shoulder monitoring your work as an example, but it’s also not just part of the culture. We’ve just taken that to the logical extreme and said, why not go fully remote? I think that’s potentially something we’d have done a lot sooner had I known, but all in all given where we are at today, there’s not that much I would have changed. Some of it, just because we’ve learnt so much from previous things we might not have done the greatest start, things we knew we could improve on. But I think it’s just how we’d have built our team would have probably changed a little bit, given everything that we know today.

RR: Because you could have done things in a different way with people who perhaps werent in those pockets, you could have gone a bit more

NT: Exactly.

RR: not necessarily international, but national and taking that approach. Yes its very interesting, I think theres probably a few people who are looking back and thinking, Why didnt we do this before? This is brilliant!Its got its ups and downs, right, but overall theres lots of ups too.

NT: Exactly, and it’s a lot about saving money. We did a map on this where, sure maybe we save on office leases, but you promptly go and spend that and then some more on doing off-sites for the entire team, where everyone comes together a few times a year. So this is not at all about the budgetary impact for me, this is about finding the right kind of people, and potentially finding people that are under-represented in a community, in the technical community, because they might be remote, they might not be living in a large hub. So how do we also give more exposure to those categories of folks out there? I think it’s a combination of those things, and it helps build up a bigger and better team, faster I think.

RR: I think weve all had a bit of a pivot in the way that we look at our working life, a lot more of these types of things.

NT: Yes.

RR: Not being able to meet up in person at events, obviously there would have been a few of those potentially, where we could have sat down and had a nice coffee, and had this conversation face-to-face. But it does make a level playing field, it doesnt matter that Im in London and youre in the Valley. We can talk very easily and its a very accepted part of working life now, which is wonderful.

NT: Yes, and as an aside I love London by the way, I’ve been there many times in my life, spent three months in Cambridge at an earlier point in time. I really like the UK.

RR: Well good, come on back and then maybe we can do the coffee sometime next year.

NT: I really look forward to it.

RR: Good. So, you cant really say too much about what the plans are, I would imagine, from a Veeam perspective. Obviously, weve been working with your PR team in putting this podcast conversation together, and youve come to our attention in the Awards where youve shone as a beacon in the Containers Trailblazers category. Those types of things were seeing, because were very fortunate that this year, although I think you guys did enter but you obviously had to withdraw, because unfortunately youve got an acquired fortunately, fortunately you got acquired. How important do you think things like that are going to be moving forward? Because weve seen incredible uptick in the number of entries this year, I think particularly because we arent a physical event, weve always been virtual. So inadvertently we were kind of ahead of the curve. Do you see that things like that are going to continue for startups like yourselves, in making sure youve got that third-party validation in your pitch decks?

NT: I thinks so, yes. It’s not just about pitch decks, pitch decks definitely, but I think for our customers this validation does help. So for any other startup founders out there, what people will realise is, even customers are wising up to the fact about there are awards that are genuine, and there’s some awards that are not, and so they look out for those. We talked about Trailblazers, all of those things are very important to us as a company, because it demonstrates that we are being recognised by other neutral industrial leaders, thought leaders, and peers out there, and that’s meaningful to us, our investors, our customers, the team. I think there is no going wrong there.

I can see why more people apply in times like this, as that recognition counts for a lot, and it helps demonstrate that even in these trying times, companies are still making progress, they’re still figuring out how do they innovate, how do they solve customer issues, how do they bring value, whether it’s an enterprise, a developer, no matter who it might be at the end of the line, they’re working hard on their problems. So, I think that’s a great validation to show.

RR: Well, should you ever in the future do another startup, always possible in four or five years we may well see you again in the Tech Trailblazers.

NT: I definitely hope so. I will be first in line in your submission queue.

RR: Fantastic, well thats what I like to hear, thats what I like to hear. Obviously, weve talked about COVID times, and nobodys going to pretend that this has been easy, obviously some of the changes for a lot of us who have remained healthy have been positive, work-life balance has been shifted, but there are obviously a lot of terrible, terrible downsides to it all. Obviously, youve been going through a very interesting time with going through an acquisition, being acquired, but say that hadnt happened at this time, what would you be focusing on, from the edge of these things?

NT: I think it’s a very good point. COVID surprised us somewhat. We thought business was going to come to a crashing halt. We thought we would be in a scenario where everything would slow down. But what COVID has also helped is to accelerate everyone working from home, people being remote, it’s accelerated digital transformation within companies, there’s been a lot of conversation around that. For us, what we discovered and what we also saw was that COVID actually accelerated our business, it was trying and challenging under the circumstances, but I remember early this year – and I’m based in California and we went into shelter-in-place in March. We had a board meeting in May where we discussed the impact of COVID and how we had plan A, B, and C, for scenarios like this. Then we had a forecast for the board, ‘This is what we will do this quarter,’ and the quarter was ending a month and a half after that. We thought with great visibility, we far exceeded our quarter in terms of financial results.

And we were surprised by that, so I went and checked with a number of my peer CEOs in the startup space, in the cloud native container world, and I got similar notes back from predominantly all of them, saying for cloud native if you’re in the digital transformation space, business is accelerating today. And we can talk a little bit about Veeam too, but independent of whether we had been acquired or not, we had an independent part forward, we had lots of cash in the bank pulling into the end of next year. What we would have looked at is, how do we accelerate a business right now? Or, if we hadn’t been in this position, how could we change what we’re doing to latch onto what customers were really focussed on today. But we were again fortunate as far as that goes, it was unexpected definitely, but very fortunate.

RR: Are there any other things youd like to share about your experiences so far, and what you see the future will hold from your perspective?

NT: Sure. All startups are journeys, especially when we talk to your listeners today. The things that I would recommend and these are some of the challenges that you run into, there’s always daily ups and downs, and I’ve been through it, and other people have been through it, and you figure that out. But you can only figure that out if you have the right team in place. Having the right team in place also allows you to move so much faster, and that we really benefited from. For an enterprise product as an example we release to customers every two weeks, we still do so in the new world as a part of Veeam. We will talk about Veeam in a second, but I think just to get the right team will stack the odds in your favour. I think that is the biggest take away I have from this experience. I could not have done this without everyone else in the company.

I think the price one can place on people you can trust implicitly and explicitly is… I can’t value that. But now at Veeam the number of people we’re not technically at a fifth or sixth company or institution working together, so not just me and my co-founder, but like five or six of us, that we’ve just been working together for a while across different companies large and small, starting from 2007, 2010 or so… At the end of the day there will always be interesting and exciting work, what really gives everyone job satisfaction is the people you work with. It is all about the people. I help, I unblock, but all the people do the heavy lifting are a part of the cast and team. I feel honoured and proud to have worked with them, and I believe that if we focus on the team building aspects of it, if we focus on bringing the right people in, that will help address the harder times, not necessarily the hard times, but the harder times when they come about, and helping just prove at making sure… Startups are hard. Most startups fail, but how do you make sure one has the best chance of success, and how can you optimise the things one controls, and that’s what I focus on.

The other thing is obviously getting a great set of advisers on board, because the other thing we sometimes… at different stages of the company were, how do we get in front of the problems you’re going to face six months from now? Assuming you’re on a growth path, we always said how do we scale? What are the next set of people? What are the next set of functional teams we need? What are the next set of things we need to do, processes we might need to change? What processes to introduce because we’re extremely likely as a startup. How do you put those things in place? Getting the right set of advisers for that I think was also extremely critical for us.

RR: Is there anything else that youd like to share before we bring the podcast to a close?

NT: All I would say is… actually, can I talk a little bit about Veeam? We’re very excited, we’ve been partnering them for six months already. They’re extremely supportive of things they haven’t traditionally done, such as open source. We’re running as an independent business unit, so we obviously will be integrating with Veeam, but customers don’t need to buy us. Veeam, like us, is very customer focused. We’re very customer-obsessed just like them, and so if they want an independent product coming from the new DevOps world, you have that, if they’re bridging from the virtualisation space, as a Veeam customer the Kubernetes and containers will have them covered.

So I’m very excited about the future, the Kasten team, the entire teams come over Veeam and we’re looking to rapidly grow and expand that. So, now that we’re expecting particularly going remote, if I could plug us for a second, if anyone wants an interesting career choice, definitely they should check us out.

RR: Yes, I did notice theres a few positions in EMEA actually, so not just in the States.

NT: Yes, and we are growing, there’s going to be a lot more open positions showing up over the next few weeks, across the board.

RR: Fantastic, so stay tuned. Keep an eye on that,, and youll know whats going on. Fantastic, well thats exciting and its always great to hear. I love obviously talking to yourself and your peers about the successes. Its always wonderful to see that youve come to that stage where you can now say, Yay, weve done it, weve been acquired.But obviously youre not walking away now, youre still very much building the business within the bigger family now, so thats exciting for you too. So, I wish you and the team the very best of luck.

NT: Thank you.

RR: And thank you for taking the time to join us, here on the Tech Trailblazers Founders on Fire podcast. That is Niraj Tolia, who is the VP and founder of and is now part of the Veeam family. So, if you’ve enjoyed listening to this please give us a review, follow us on social @Techtrailblaze, and also on LinkedIn under Tech Trailblazers. Thank you very much.

NT: Thank you Rose.