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Igneous Systems' new CEO talks about cloud and COVID-19

Igneous CEO Dean Darwin said COVID-19 and increased cloud adoption have increased the demand for unstructured data management. He sees a chance for Igneous to fill that demand.

Igneous Systems' new CEO Dean Darwin said he wants the unstructured data management startup to "get louder" in the marketplace.

Darwin, who has been a member of Igneous' board since June 2019, became CEO in June 2020. Igneous co-founder Kiran Bhageshpur stepped down from the CEO role, but remains a board member. The role reversal came at a time when Igneous wanted to accelerate its go-to-market strategy, an area that Darwin said Igneous has been too quiet on.

Igneous sells unstructured data management through a SaaS model with three products: DataDiscover for finding and indexing data, DataProtect for backup and archiving, and DataFlow for fast and automated data movement. Darwin said there aren't enough vendors addressing the problem when unstructured data scales to petabytes or more.

Darwin said COVID-19 accelerated cloud adoption, making it even more important for organizations with massive amounts of data to identify what they have and know how to cost-effectively store it. He said Igneous has among the best tools in the market for dealing with the problem, and this should be its time to shine. However, Igneous hasn't had a strong marketing leader in charge, and he's hoping to fix that.

We spoke with Darwin about his transition into the CEO role, how COVID-19 impacted his customers and his company and his plans for partnering with on-premises file vendors such as Dell EMC Isilon and Qumulo.

What are your plans for Igneous?

Dean Darwin: We've really solidified the roadmap of what we're going to be delivering. We could have gone a lot of different directions, and for a startup, that's the kiss of death -- trying to cover too much. We took a really solid look at what our customers were asking for the most. And I think what we have is a real benefit, because unstructured data and file data is simply growing too fast. That compounding sprawl is hitting breaking points. The traditional vendor tools aren't heterogeneous, and they're breaking under that scale. You can't just keep adding more disk.

Data discovery is a really big problem at scale. Customers are asking, 'How do we use a cloud more effectively when we don't even know what we have?' DataDiscover, I think, is a really timely solution for the market. We can handle the massive scale issue, but then also elegantly get the data out to the cloud.

When you're a company our size, you always want to get coverage and scale through partnerships. We're actually doing quite a bit with the Qumulos of the world, and we are opportunistic with Dell EMC Isilon, but what I'm looking for right now is a bit more substantial partnership on the go-to-market side.

Headshot of Dean DarwinDean Darwin

I also think the way we go out to the market isn't enough. When you have a very engineering-centric company with a great engineering team, they're not always the best marketers. They're not always the best people to go out and tell a broad-brush message and then amplify that message. So we're going to be a bit more loud in the market. There's just a lot of noise we have to carve through.

We're working on awareness right now. I don't have a product problem. I don't have a technology problem. We just have to tell a better story in the market.

What's the biggest storage challenge facing customers today?

Darwin: I think companies are still trying to maximize their strategy as it relates to public cloud and how to use it effectively. I think it all runs around scale issues, be it from the DevOps side or the scale from application rollout or the scale of security.

In terms of economic impact from COVID-19, there are some customers that are holding on to cash now. They're being a bit more conservative, not committing to a three-year deal since they're just doing annual budgets now. And that's just common sense.

I've been really impressed about how our customers have flipped the switch. They're working just like they always have, except instead of a face-to-face meeting, they're doing a Zoom meeting, they're keeping the lights on and moving forward. This is the new reality and they're doing fine.

We are seeing a more aggressive push to the cloud than what I've even seen in the past, and a lot of that's COVID-directed. We can't get to our data centers, and we've got this really compelling event to get more into the cloud. I kind of joked that storage people tend to be not as aggressive about getting on the cutting edge. But I've seen a lot of storage folks that haven't really embraced or understood how to effectively utilize the cloud have really picked that up in the last couple of months. They're seeing that clouds are viable, as long as they have a tool that will keep ingress and egress costs down. It's very much an opportunity for us to and we're going to go out there and press on that pretty hard.

Has COVID-19 presented challenges for you as well?

Darwin: From an overall cultural perspective, I think COVID's created a horrible environment, and I hope everybody's keeping healthy.

We're not a hardware company. We're SaaS, so our delivery model hasn't changed. We don't need people going out to the data centers and plugging disks or anything. We had a lease coming due, and I made the decision to close down the office because we've learned to work incredibly well remotely. I didn't have to move a data center out. Everything we do is very cloud- or colo-centric. I literally just flipped a switch.

And after we get the all-clear sign, we're going real estate shopping, because I think value here in Seattle is going to be a lot less in about six months. And it's not just us. When there's an immunization and we open up, I think a whole lot of other companies are going to rethink the way they're using real estate.

Why did former CEO Kiran Bhageshpur step down?

Darwin: Kiran founded the company and has been in the grind for seven years. We've been grinding it out and he just felt it was time for him to go do something else with his life. He's publicly come out on LinkedIn and stated that he was going to do some charity work, and I think he's got some political stuff that he's going to work on as well. I don't think he's going to do a lot with high tech.

He notified the board when he was getting to the point where he felt we need to bring in a bit more go-to-market. I had left Palo Alto Networks in January, and the board started talking to me then about taking the reins of Igneous. I thought that the technology was interesting, and I think it's a benefit for the company and the customers and employees when you have somebody that actually knows the company rather than somebody brand new. So I said, 'Fine, that sounds like a great challenge.'

He and I just kind of flipped positions. The board asked me if I'd be willing to come in and be the CEO, because I have more of a market background, and then Kiran was going to take the board seat. We didn't make a big deal of it because, honestly, CEO news is kind of boring. People don't get put in CEO roles who aren't completely vetted.

How did you get your start at Igneous?

Darwin: Kiran and I have been friends and we've known each other as colleagues for years. I remember when he first started Igneous, we used to meet about every quarter, just two execs helping each other out, networking in Seattle, and became friends. And then, about 14 months ago, he asked me to be part of the board because the company at that time was really trying to find their way on the go-to-market side.

When I joined the board, DataDiscover was just starting to be discussed and starting to come to fruition. I think we have a really interesting board, because on a startup, what you're typically going to get is investors. Kiran was pretty pragmatic and said, 'I need somebody that's been a GM, who has seen how companies get their growth.' He added me to the board predominantly to have that lens because, for the most part, VCs don't tend to have that operational background.

I think one of the best things I ever did as a board member is introduce Mike O'Brien to be the CRO. Kiran, with DataDiscover, thought it was a very heavy inside sales motion, and that kind of shied away from Igneous' DNA of enterprise. So Mike came in, built out a new enterprise team, and we're starting to take down quite a few new logos. We're starting to get our reach and our coverage. From a board member perspective, that was probably the biggest impact I had -- I helped them smooth out the go-to-market strategy and get more enterprise-centric from a growth mindset.

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