At South By Southwest in March, Google[x] chief Astro Teller spoke about the value of “perspective shifting” in innovation. On of the secrets of solving hard problems, he said, was to think of them in a completely new way. To improve something by 10x instead of 10 percent, as Google CEO Larry Page is famous for demanding, requires a radically different approach to the status quo.
That axiom appears to hold true in the case of Instart Logic, a content-delivery startup that is fresh out of stealth and has so far raised $26 million in venture backing from Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock Partners, Tenaya Capital, and Sutter Hill Ventures over the course of three rounds.*
Instart Logic, started two years ago by three Indian engineers who worked together at big data company Aster Data, is taking on content-delivery network (CDN) giants such as Akamai and CDNetworks with a new approach to delivering data to a Web page. The company’s internal demos show its technology loading Web applications – such as games – in half the time achieved by its competitors. If the technology performs as well as Instart Logic claims over a long period of time and at scale, it will have significant implications for publishers, developers, and consumers concerned about Web app performance, especially in cases of weak data connectivity. The technology would allow for richer and more complex apps to be delivered faster, even on weak connections, such as while a user is accessing the Internet via a mobile device in a cafe.
Perhaps one of the reasons Instart Logic has been able to achieve such results is that its three founders had no CDN experience before deciding to build the technology. In fact, Manav Mital (CEO), Hari Kolam (CTO), and Raghu Venkat (chief product officer), initially set out to build a gaming company. The avid gamers (pictured above) thought it would be great to build a website that served as a centralized hub for all sorts of games from different publishers, with interactivity features built in. While they knew they wanted to do a startup, they were naive about how the ecosystem worked. They didn’t even know what an angel investor was, Mital says. When it came time to get seed money, they set about spamming people on LinkedIn. “It really taught us the value of cold-calling,” says Mital.
They must have been adept spammers. Former Sequoia partner Gaurav Garg was first to put his money into the team, and he was soon followed by Ron Conway and David Lee of SV Angel. The founders, who are all 31, were planning to raise $600,000 for their seed round but ended up closing it at $1.2 million because of demand. The strange thing was, the investors didn’t even like the company idea. They just wanted to invest in the team, which drew on experience not only from Aster Data, but also from Google and Yahoo.
Initially, the founders didn’t care that the investors didn’t like the gaming idea. “In the early days, we thought we’d prove them wrong,” Mital says. “Later on, reality began to sink in.”
In January last year, the founders finally succumbed to logic. The gaming website went in the trash and they started over. After six months of idea-wrangling, and prompted by the pain of the game “Bioshock” taking so long to download, they struck on the novel notion of streaming application files rather than downloading them, just like what is done with most online video these days. Instart found that by chopping up files into pieces and then sequencing those pieces for optimal delivery, an app can start before it has finished loading. Using big data analytics, Instart can also predict when, where, and in what order particular chunks of the app should be delivered. That means users can see and interact with a Web app before all of it has actually arrived.
So while traditional CDN vendors fight over milliseconds, Instart appears to have changed the dynamics of Web content delivery. “It completely topples everything they believe in,” Mital says of the established players. “Everyone in the business of performance should be doing what we’re doing.”
Instart’s cloud-based product was in beta for the second half of 2012, and it already has a number of high-profile customers, mostly in ecommerce, gaming, and travel, who pay the company on a per-usage basis. Early clients include online retailer Bonfaire, game developers Kongregate and Disruptor Beam, and social travel site Gogobot. The Instart office, which is in Mountain View, CA, has swelled to 45 people.
Instart Logic can now, however, expect to be a target – if not as a mere competitor, then perhaps as an acquisition. Its challenge will be keeping focus amid the onslaught. It has to move full stream ahead.
* Disclosure: Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz, and the Greylock Discovery Fund, are investors in PandoDaily.