Many gifted South Africans have made it big in Silicon Valley, including Elon Musk, Roelof Botha, and Paul Maritz. Christiaan Kuun, a rising star at Cisco Investments, is following in their footsteps.
Kuun is well-known in South African broadband circles thanks to his work at the South African National Research Network (SANReN).
Between 2007 and 2012, he was the SANReN programme manager where he oversaw the construction of a national telecommunications network to interconnect South Africa’s research and tertiary education institutions.
He later served as the strategic projects and stakeholder engagement manager at SANReN to ensure the smooth operation of the project.
In 2014, Kuun left South Africa to do an MBA at International Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland.
After completing his MBA, Kuun joined Cisco in Europe where he helped to find startups that developed innovative technologies that would complement Cisco’s corporate and innovation strategies.
His team helped to foster partnerships with these startups to create and execute go-to-market strategies.
This experience was perfectly suited for the work Cisco was doing in Silicon Valley and Kuun was given an opportunity to join Cisco Investments in San Jose.
He is now a senior portfolio development manager at Cisco Investments where he brings portfolio companies and Cisco’s business entities together to leverage the value and scale that Cisco offers.
MyBroadband asked Kuun about his work in Silicon Valley and what makes it such a unique location for tech startups.
Why did you decide to move to Silicon Valley?
Cisco Investments – Cisco’s Corporate Venturing arm – was starting to double-down on what we call Portfolio Development – meaning services that Cisco would provide to companies that Cisco has invested in.
I started running into this team through the work that I did in Europe. After getting to know the Cisco Investment team, they offered me the opportunity to join them, given that there was so much overlap between what they were doing and what I was doing at the time.
The whole concept of Portfolio Development is fascinating and worth expanding on. Essentially, in Silicon Valley, there is a plethora of capital available to invest in startups, and those companies can pick and choose which investors they would like to bring on board.
Thus, creating a competitive dynamic between VC funds to “get into a funding round.” One of the ways that VC’s use to differentiate themselves is by starting “Portfolio Services/Portfolio Development” arms – these are teams of people who do nothing else than drive value to the startups that their funds have invested in.
A good portfolio development team can bring much value to a startup, and promising founders take this into account when deciding which funds to take investment from.
In your experience, how is Silicon Valley different from other tech hubs globally?
When comparing Silicon Valley to other tech hubs, several differentiating factors that stand out to me:
Access to talent – The depth of talent in Silicon Valley is nearly impossible to re-create elsewhere. If you want to start a company and need to find highly specialized/talented developers, chances are you’ll be able to find enough of them here in Silicon Valley to build a company around them. The same can be said for all other categories of people you run into – whether it be marketing, business development, finance, and more. There is talent across the planet, but there are only a few other hubs like Silicon Valley. That being said, I’m very interested to see how important this factor will be in a post-covid world.
Access to capital – Venture funds in Silicon Valley are forward-leaning to the point of being aggressive – this comes from a recognition that building successful businesses is challenging, competitive, and one needs to capture the opportunity as fast as possible. The amount of money VCs in Silicon Valley are willing to invest is extraordinarily high compared to almost anywhere else. Also, the services, networks, and experience these VCs can bring to companies are genuinely world-class – you are just set up for success here.
Mindset – The one thing I love and miss about South Africa is the positive outlook and “can do” attitude of South Africans. Silicon Valley (and California in general) embodies a very similar mindset. People here get excited about your ideas – nothing seems impossible. New ideas are encouraged, and failed ideas are celebrated. When you combine this culture with access to funding and brilliant people, well, the results speak for themselves.
Ecosystem – Silicon Valley remains the leading global ecosystem when it comes to value creation and exit value for startups. This again speaks to the amount of capital available in the valley and the appetite from the industry to acquire businesses that represent new innovation.
What does Cisco look for in a startup for an investment? Hence, what makes a startup attractive for investment?
As a strategic investor, Cisco typically looks for startups that are highly complementary to our technology and business goals. We invest across the board, from silicon/semiconductors to software-only companies, but they always meet the goal of supporting our core business.
If there is a sweet spot for investment, it would be a series B round, where product-market fit has been achieved, and the company is getting ready to scale up – that’s also when we can add value as a strategic investor and partner.
A lot of the value we add is by helping our portfolio companies scale. We do this by supporting their go-to-market processes and by building out joint solutions together with Cisco products.
Typically, it is the more mature companies that are able to take full advantage of these benefits – and this is a critical point of differentiation for Cisco from traditional VCs.
Which deals have you been involved in? Which one stands out for you?
I support our Enterprise Networking, Cloud & Compute, and IoT investments, a key innovation area for Cisco with many great investments. However, one investment stands out as a crucial learning moment for me, and that is Cohesity.
I started working with them when they were around 70 employees and were beginning to scale out globally. Today, they have more than 2,000 employees and are well into the “unicorn” territory. On the Cisco side, we built a partnership with Cohesity, which now spans across the globe. Our global sales team can directly sell their product (including in South Africa) to our thousands of international customers.
The partnership continues to drive immense value for both companies. Working together with Cohesity, Cisco’s Business Units, and Sales teams have been an incredible learning opportunity in what it takes to build out a global business. I have many lessons to share – but that will fill up an entire article by itself!
What are some of the main lessons you have learnt as a South African working abroad, and how would you translate them to South Africa?
One of the key things that struck me when I started working in the USA was how aggressive startups were in planning to tackle big markets from day one. That thinking translates into the amount of funding raised, the way their products are developed, and the kinds of people being hired. I’ve definitely become more aware of the opportunities that are out there and how big many of those markets are.
This hyper-growth-oriented mindset is hugely influential. As another example, look at a country like Israel. It’s punching far above its weight when it comes to building out successful global technology businesses – one of the key reasons are because Israeli startups “think global” from day one.
Another insight has been how uniquely creative people in South Africa are – it sounds like a cliché – but I never really understood it until we lived in other countries. There are many constraints to life in South Africa, those constraints seem to force people to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions. Where in the USA a problem is often solved by throwing more resources at it, in South Africa, you’ll see way more creative and elegant solutions.
What is next for you? And do you see yourself staying in Silicon Valley for a long time?
From a longer-term perspective, the career and learning opportunities in a place like Silicon Valley are unique. I don’t foresee moving back to South Africa anytime soon as there is still much for me to do and learn over here.
That being said, I can’t stress enough how much I miss South Africa! I miss the people, their sincerity, their genuine expressions of care for others, their hope for the future, their ability to deal with setbacks – it’s the people that make the country beautiful.
I remain incredibly optimistic about the role South Africa can play as Africa continues to develop. Who knows? Maybe one of those opportunities will bring us back.