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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Amazon’s Scorpion Problem

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I expect most of you know the fable of the scorpion and the frog, but if you don’t, it goes like this (quoted from Wikipedia):

“A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog agrees and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature. The fable is used to illustrate the position that no change can be made in the behaviour of the fundamentally vicious.”

Over the weekend, there was some commentary on AWS in fight of its life as customers like Dropbox ponder hybrid clouds and Google pricing. Amazon turned in slightly declining quarter-over-quarter revenue on AWS, although significant year-over-year quarterly growth, as explained in Sign of stress or just business as usual? AWS sales are off slightly.

“Could Amazon Web Services be feeling the heat from new public cloud competitors? Maybe. Maybe not. Second quarter net sales of AWS — or at least the category in which it is embedded– were off about 3 percent sequentially to $1.168 billion from $1.204 billion for the first quarter. But they were up 38 percent from $844 million for the second quarter last year. In the first quarter, growth in this category year over year was 60 percent. So make of that what you will.”

Could Amazon’s nature be catching up with it, or is it just operating in a more competitive market? A set of emails went around from some of the CEOs of our companies talking about this followed by a broader discussion on our Foundry Group EXEC email list. It contained, among other comments:

  1. AWS is not the low price provider.
  2. AWS is not the best product at anything – most of their features are mediocre knock offs of other products.
  3. AWS is unbelievably lousy at support.
  4. Once you are at $200k / month of spend, it’s cheaper and much more effective to build your own infrastructure.

While we are in the middle of a massive secular shift from owned data centers to outsourced data centers and hardware, anyone who remembers the emergence of outsourced data centers, shared web hosting, dedicated web hosting, co-location, and application service providers will recognize many of the dynamics going on. Predictably in the tech industry, what’s old is new again as all the infrastructure players roll out their public clouds and all the scaled companies start exploring ways to move off of AWS (and other cloud services) into much more cost effective configurations.

Let’s pick apart the four points above a little bit.

1. AWS is not the low price provider. When AWS came out, it was amazing, partly because you didn’t need to buy any hardware to get going, partly because it had a very fine grade variable pricing approach, and mostly because these two things added up to an extremely low cost for a startup relative to all other options. This is no longer the case as AWS, Microsoft, and Google bash each other over the head on pricing, with Microsoft and Google willing to charge extremely low prices to gain market share. And, more importantly, see point #4 below in a moment. Being low priced is in Amazon’s nature so this will be intensely challenging to them.

2. AWS is not the best product at anything – most of their features are mediocre knock offs of other products. We’ve watched as AWS has aggressively talked to every company we know doing things in the cloud infrastructure and application stack, and then rather than partner eventually roll out low-end versions of competitive products. We used to think of Amazon as a potential acquirer for these companies, or at least a powerful strategic partner. Now we know they are just using the bait of “we want to work more closely with you” as market and product intelligence. Ultimately, when they come out with what they view of as a feature, it’s a low-end, mediocre, and limited version of what these companies do. So, they commoditize elements of the low end of the market, but don’t impact anything that actually scales. In addition, they always end up competing on every front possible, hence the chatter about Dropbox moving away from AWS since AWS has now come out with a competitive product. It appears that it’s just not in Amazon’s nature to collaborate with others.

3. AWS is unbelievably lousy at support. While they’ve gotten better at paid support, including their premium offerings, these support contracts are expensive. Approaches to get around support issues and/or lower long term prices like reserved instances are stop gaps and often a negative benefit for a fast growing company. I’ve had several conversations over the years with friends at Amazon about this and I’ve given up. Support is just not in Amazon’s nature (as anyone who has ever tried to figure out why a package didn’t show up when expected) and when a company running production systems on AWS is having mission critical issues that are linked to AWS, it’s just painful. At low volumes, it doesn’t matter, but at high scale, it matters a huge amount.

4. Once you are at $200k / month of spend, it’s cheaper and much more effective to build your own infrastructure. I’ve now seen this over and over and over again. Once a company hits $200k / month of spend on AWS, the discussion starts about building out your own infrastructure on bare metal in a data center. This ultimately is a cost of capital discussion and I’ve found massive cost of capital leverage to move away from AWS onto bare metal. When you fully load the costs at scale, I’ve seen gross margin moves of over 20 points (or 2000 basis points – say from 65% to 85%). It’s just nuts when you factor in the extremely low cost of capital for hardware today against a fully loaded cost model at scale. Sure, the price declines from point #1 will impact this, but the operational effectiveness, especially given #3, is remarkable.

There are a number of things Amazon, and AWS, could do to address this if they wanted to. While not easy, I think they could do a massive turnaround on #2 and #3, which combined with intelligent pricing and better account management for the companies in #4, could result in meaningful change.

I love Amazon and think they have had amazing impact on our world. Whenever I’ve given them blunt feedback like this, I’ve always intended it to be constructive. I’m doubt it matters at all to their long term strategy whether they agree with, or even listen to, me. But given the chatter over the weekend, it felt like it was time to say this in the hope that it generated a conversation somewhere.

But I worry some of the things they need to be doing to maintain their dominance is just not in their nature. In a lot of ways, it’s suddenly a good time to be Microsoft or Google in the cloud computing wars.

How Much Do IT Folks Work? Take A Survey And Potentially Win A Fitbit

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Our portfolio company JumpCloud is running a survey to dig deeper into the professional lives of IT folks and their move to DevOps. If you are open to sharing your thoughts and experiences, please take their survey. It’s only about five minutes long and they are sharing all of the raw data (anonymized, of course). The survey ends at the end of June.

The IT sector is undergoing some interesting transformations as a result of the cloud, DevOps, and mobile. I’m interested to see what the data tells us.

If you happen to have at least 100 servers, JumpCloud is looking to pick your brain about how you manage them. If you are open to it, let me know and I’ll connect you with them – I’m sure that they will make it worth your time (and I appreciate the help)!

As a bonus, JumpCloud is raffling off a Fitbit Flex (another one of our portfolio companies), an Amazon Fire TV, and Samsung Gear Neo 2 Smartwatch if you complete the survey. Please take a few minutes and help us get some interesting data on how the IT sectors works.

Apply Today For TechStars Cloud 2013

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This is the second year that TechStars is running a thematic accelerator in Texas focused just on cloud computing. At Foundry Group, we believe in thematic investing both as a way to organize and filter the massive number of opportunities to look at, but also as a way to build a set of muscles around a sphere of knowledge. It’s been fun to experiment with this approach at TechStars.

While we recognize the tidal wave trend of all technology becoming ‘cloudy’, we are approaching TechStars Cloud with specific focus. The companies in TechStars Cloud are the ones enabling the trend of cloud computing and providing the underlying technology, versus just the ones that are being carried along with it.

An example of just such a company is Cloudability, who is a graduate of last years TechStars Cloud program, who we subsequently funded this past summer. They are taking the pain out of managing and monitoring the dozens and often hundreds of individual cloud provider accounts that companies end up with. It’s a big need and the early success of Cloudability validates this.

Cloud computing is still an amazingly nascent field with opportunities everywhere you look. From database technologies to network, big data to analytics, security to hosting platforms, documents to video, the next wave of companies are turning cloud technology into leverage for all businesses – tech and non-tech. The world now has an API and we call it cloud.

If you are a part of that landscape, or want to be, this is a great first step -> apply.techstars.com.  Tell them I sent you.

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The Microsoft Accelerator (Powered By TechStars) Is A Hit And It’s Expanding

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The first cycle of The Microsoft Accelerator, powered by TechStars, is in its final run up to demo day. The first program has focused on Kinect applications and has some super teams, such as Gestsure (they control operating rooms with motion control) and Ubi (they turn any surface into a touch screen.)

Demo Day is in Seattle on June 28th. If you are an investor (angel or VC), send me an email and I’ll get you an invitation.

TechStars and Microsoft have been so pleased with the program that a second cycle of the Microsoft Accelerator in Seattle has been added focusing on cloud-based applications.  The applications are open now through July 13. Each company gets $20k in funding, mentorship from top entrepreneurs, investors and Microsoft executives, $60K in Azure credit, office space, training and support, and demo day to pitch to investors, media, and industry influentials.

As you may know Microsoft has really made some awesome improvements to Windows Azure. Most notably it’s much more open source focused. Want to run Linux? No problem. Python? No problem as Microsoft has embraced open source with this update of Windows Azure. While you need not be using Azure to apply to the Microsoft Accelerator, if you’re playing in the Microsoft ecosystem at all I’d really encourage you to take a look at the latest news about Windows Azure.

If you are an entrepreneur working on something cloud computing related, especially in the Microsoft ecosystem, consider applying to the Microsoft Accelerator today.

Welcome to Brad’s Amazing Cloud

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I’m now officially in the cloud business, courtesy of my friends at Standing Cloud (we are investors.) Standing Cloud delivers cloud application management solutions for cloud service providers, technology solution providers, and their customers. Their application management layer, automated managed services and Application Storefront make it easy to build, deploy and manage applications in the cloud.

Back in November, I wrote that “If you are a hosting, managed service provider, or building a cloud service (public or private), you have three choices. The first is to ignore this stuff (dumb). The second is to try to build it all yourself and keep pace with Amazon (good luck). The third is to use Standing Cloud.”  And that’s exactly what I’m doing. Basically, Brad’s Amazing Cloud makes me a cloud provider.

Built on a white-label version on the Standing Cloud platform, Brad’s Amazing Cloud provides all the tools to get applications up and running in the cloud quickly, affordably, and without the hassle of managing hardware and infrastructure. So it’s goodbye to server racks, terminal windows, and sys admin headaches.  With Brad’s Amazing Cloud, it’s simple and hassle-free, whether you’re a skilled developer or a non-technical application user.

With Brad’s Amazing Cloud, you get your choice of clouds, applications, and developer frameworks. You can run on AWS, Rackspace, GoGrid, and several other cloud hosting providers. Through the Storefront, you can fire up preconfigured instances of a wide range of open source apps – and you need no technical knowledge to do so. Nearly 100 open-source and commercial apps – including popular business applications like Drupal, WordPress, SugarCRM, openVBX and Magento – are all automatically configured to deploy quickly and reliably on your choice of clouds. A few clicks is all it takes to get your applications up and running. 

All account management with the cloud provider you select is handled transparently – no separate account needed. Pick the cloud of your choice, and change at any time, for any reason. Your applications are completely portable from cloud-to-cloud, so you’re never locked-in to a single cloud service or provider.

Brad’s Amazing Cloud is real, and it’s open for business now. Check it out and tell me what you think.

If you’re a solutions provider looking to provide an application management layer for your customers or resellers, a developer looking for the easiest way to build, deploy and scale applications in the cloud, or just want to get your business up and running in the cloud, quickly, cost effectively and without the typical technical challenges, Standing Cloud may have a solution for you. With their white-label capabilities, your cloud offering can be customized to meet your specific needs (just like they did for me), including branding on the storefront, management console and support pages, and your choice of applications (including proprietary apps and software), infrastructure and supported clouds.

If you want an intro to Standing Cloud, just email me and ask.   I’ll also be doing a webinar with with the Standing Cloud team on Tuesday, May 15th, register here.

Build something great with me