I was very excited this week to sit down with Amir Khan, founder, president and CEO of Alkira, one of our portfolio startups that is helping enterprises accelerate their journey to the cloud across multi-cloud environments.
This is not Amir’s first rodeo. He is a classic example of a serial entrepreneur who made his bones in networking with two stints at Cisco in the 90s and early 00s. In 2012 he was part of the founding team at Viptela which he also led as president and CEO. Viptela pioneered software-defined wide area networks (SD-WAN) and helped transform the networking industry. In 2017 Viptela was acquired by Cisco.
The following year Amir started all over again with Alkira. I was very keen to talk to him and hear what motivated him to become an entrepreneur and company founder.
Creating your startup from scratch
I have spent over 30 years working in the networking industry and I felt there was little room for innovation. It was mostly old products and old systems. There was no ground-up approach to improving things. I started my first company when I was 48 years old.
We needed to do something from scratch. We started with a clean sheet of paper with Viptela, but after we sold the company to Cisco, I felt the pull again. My wife warned me about all the stresses of startups, but I owed it to my team to come back and do it one more time!
One observation that I just couldn’t shake was how everyone was suffering in the cloud because the network was holding them up. Eventually, we brought networking into the cloud and made it a service offering.
Amir has leveraged his hard-earned expertise in networking to found both his companies. I asked him whether he had found it difficult to build teams to help him realize his vision.
Building a multi-discipline org
It was not easy. We had to find experts who understand networking and how networking interacts with surrounding things. Networking is probably one of the most mission-critical IT undertakings in any enterprise. Finding that kind of expertise takes time. For example, we had to build a multidisciplinary team with expertise in different areas including engineering, product management, sales, solutions architects and sales engineers. We’ve been fortunate to work with the best networking talent who were also open to learning new technologies.
Once we had a few senior people in place, they guided the more junior hires coming into the org. In each of our departments, we started with senior people who understand networking and have the openness to learn and also be mentors. Then we can bring in people with less experience. That combination allows us to grow quickly, because these people come up to speed very quickly.
This is a really smart approach to team building which I had never heard articulated quite so clearly before. The mix of wisdom and youth coming together to accelerate growth and scale.
Four learnings from becoming a leader
1. It’s all about chemistry
Every company is different. But the first valuable lesson I learned is the importance of team chemistry and culture fit of the people that you are bringing in. I’m looking for people who are humble enough to learn and open to working with others.
2. Share information
Secondly, I learned the last thing you want in a startup is to keep information hidden. You need a free flow of information. You need to find out what are the good things and what are the bad things, so you can continuously improve and keep moving forward.
3. Empower others to make decisions
The third lesson was how to delegate and enable others to work independently. I’m very hands on and I love to get involved with all aspects of the business whether it’s finance or marketing or anything. The key is knowing when to back off and empower people to make their own decisions.
4. Be a leader
Finally, you have to present yourself as a leader. When you walk into the office, people read your body language and find clues to your mood. The morale of the whole company can depend on how you carry yourself and the way you present to the world.
I’m always impressed when I hear CEOs addressing the burden of leadership. It takes courage and self-awareness to understand and take responsibility for the impact you have on the people who work with you.
I could have listened all day to Amir. He has remained focused within his career but learned so much that has applications for founders in any industry. After selling the first company he founded, he is working hard with Alkira, building out a successful team and continuing to shape the way networking serves the next generation of cloud-based businesses. They say that lightning doesn’t strike twice, but in this instance, I wouldn’t bet against it.
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