Episode 45 of the Open Source Underdogs Podcast: An interview with Tracy Ragan, CEO and Co-Founder of Deployhub.
Episode 44: Devops, Security, & Cloud Automation Puppet with Yvonne Wassenaar, Chief Executive Officer
Mike: Hello, and welcome to Open Source Underdogs. I’m your host, Mike Schwartz, and this is episode 44 with Yvonne Wassenaar, CEO of Puppet. Yvonne is the third CEO of Puppet. Luke Kanies was the founder, we interviewed him in the episode 22.
Sanjay Mirchandani succeeded him, and Yvonne took over from Sanjay in January of 2019, about a year before we recorded this episode. A CEO who takes over a company like Puppet needs a different skill set than your typical founder. Whereas the founder needs deep domain knowledge, usually a hands-on approach to business development, CEOs for companies, in later stages of growth, need this intangible corporate leadership ability. It’s hard to say what it is, but you know what it is when you see it. Yvonne has it, and she also has the values and an understanding of the culture that complements where Puppet is in its corporate life cycle. I don’t want to spoil any of the content, so I hope you enjoy this interview. Here we go.
Why Take On The CEO Role At Puppet?
Mike: Yvonne, thank you so much for joining us today.
Yvonne: Absolutely. It’s great to be here, Mike.
Mike: When you joined Puppet early last year, as CEO, why did you want to take on this enormous responsibility, steering the ship with hundreds of employees and thousands of customers?
Yvonne: You frame Puppet so well in terms of, it is a large employee base. We do have a lot of customers, and I’d extend it even further into we’ve got a massive community around the globe. And I did think really long and hard around was I the right person to take on the responsibility to bring Puppet and the impact of Puppet, the company, in the community to the next level.
And the reason I said yes to that that question, to myself and to the board, is, as I thought about the opportunity, Puppet to me represented a perfect place for my step, next step in my journey, for the following reasons.
One, the values that are represented by Puppet, and the Puppet community aligned really well with my own, in the sense that we are really focused around – you know, being open-source core kind of the democratization of technology diversity and inclusion, having impact at the practitioner level, and really making a difference in the world around us.
And to me, I feel life’s very short, and having strong value alignment is really important. And what Puppet represented resonated very much with me.
The second thing is really around the technology and the problem that we solve. I deeply believe that Puppet and the technology that we build and work, standing upon with the community and with our own team, makes a difference in the world around us, makes a difference not only in eliminating soul-crushing work, which is what Luke started with, but makes a difference in terms of enabling companies to achieve the agility that they want, in a secure and scalable way.
And as an ex CIO, the risk of cyber security I think sometimes is underestimated, and it’s really beholding upon all of us to think about not only how do we leverage technology to make the world a great place, but how do we do it in a safe way.
So, to me, if I think about the values, and I think about the actual product and offerings that we’re bringing to market through the community and with our commercial offerings, that resonated really well. So, the third component was, “Can I personally make a difference?”
Given my experience across companies like New Relic, VMware, and my time in Accenture, I felt I had a good breath of experience that I could, not necessarily bring the answer, but ask the right questions and bring the right team on board to really deliver our true potential as a company.
So, those three things combined, all aligned up, and having been here a year, it was definitely the right decision. It’s been a great ride, I think we’re doing amazing stuff, and I can’t wait for what’s yet to come.
Why Expand Product Surface Area from Configuration Management?
Mike: In the past, I might have described Puppet as being a Configuration Management Platform, but today, Puppet’s moving into areas like continuous compliance, incident remediation, and continuous delivery – why expand the product surface area? And I’m also wondering, how do you evaluate the risks that come along with that expansion?
Yvonne: Puppet as a Configuration Management Platform, I’d even say tool, has been the market perception of who we are. And that very much is grounded on where we started.
To me, the fascinating part of your question really comes down to the fact that the big shift that Puppet made in this last year was going from talking about what I would call “feature functionality”, which what Puppet does, is, really, we automate infrastructure in really, really powerful ways, to talking about the use cases and the business problems that we solve.
So, what’s interesting is, from a technology standpoint, what Puppet has built out over the years is going from a declarative approach to infrastructure automation, which is where we started, which is, we’re turning environment to a known, good state, to extending that into both declarative and task-based automation, which we leverage our open-source project, Bolt, to support and drive. And Bolt integrates with Puppet enterprise. So, it’s both declarative and task-based, both agent and agentless. Now, we are extending even further into workflow, event-based automation.
The tool has gotten more robust in terms of the types of things that people can do with it, but the real shift, I think, from an impact standpoint, is, we’ve started to really be able to harvest from our customers, what do they use that tool in capability for. So, you know, certainly some people are using Puppet truly to manage the configurations in their environments, and that’s the main driver. They’re looking for that efficiency and scalability of what they’re doing.
We also found, however, that some people are deeply dependent on Puppet for compliance. And that understanding that that’s the business use for the tool, or one of the business uses for it, allows us to better serve up and meet those needs.
And interestingly, from an incident remediation standpoint, again, there’s a lot Puppet does from a declarative model standpoint that was always kind of remediating your environments in some way, shape or form, if you think about it. But it’s a very simple extension into integration with security scanners like Tenable, Qualys and Rapid7, to really start to go, having a scan, and then, manual process, and sorting through PDFs and Excel files, to get to business impact to saying, “Hey, I can ingest that information, make it contextually aware in the environment, and allow people to act on it in a much automated way.” Which not only reduces the work effort, but very importantly, to my earlier comment on cybersecurity, reduces the time to remediation of a known vulnerability, which improves your security profile.
So, the big shift, I think Puppet for a while has been making the tool or the platform more robust, but the shift that I think you’ve seen in the marketplace perspective is more around how we characterize what our technology can do in the context of business problems and business outcomes.
Priorities After Joining as CEO
Mike: In your first few months as CEO, what were your priorities, and did you feel like you needed to pivot the business after coming in after the founder? And I’m wondering, was there really a pivot needed? Or did you see that it was more of a requirement to incrementally improve what Puppet was doing?
Yvonne: Yes, it’s always challenging when you take a company over as CEO, in part because there’s a huge piece of the culture and the connection with the people that comes with that top job that you have to be sensitive to.
When I look at the journey of Puppet – Luke actually ran the company for the first many, many years very successfully, and the creation of this new market, and the proliferation of the technology at that practitioner level, there was actually another gentleman, Sanjay Mirchandani, who took over from Luke and ran Puppet for three years. And what Sanjay focused on was really selling higher up into the enterprise, and kind of, to your previous question, looking at going beyond configuration management, what was important in the marketplace.
As I took Puppet over a year ago, the key things that I noticed, one was that we were very much on the right trajectory, and it was more some fine tuning and focus that we had to drive to the business. And my real time and attention in the first year, first and foremost, was on appreciating that a CEO change, no matter how great I may or I may not be, is an experience that you need to work through with your employees and with your community.
So, my first focus was on the team and the community and really aligning around purpose. And kind of your first question, why was I even there, did I care about the same things they did, were my values aligned, how are we going to come together as a team and really drive the next level of the journey – I think that’s important advice for anybody taking on a senior level role.
Start with the people, and then, really, from a business perspective, looking at how could we get the biggest impact with these things that we have, how can we simplify and focus what we are doing to those that would make the biggest difference.
So, we did trim the product portfolio a little bit, we doubled down on areas where we felt we had differentiated capability, we started to focus a lot more on the engagement with the community, we had drifted a little bit away from that which happens sometime.
So, really looking at, we did our first ever in person contributor summit, looking at how could we really nurture both, the community who has gotten us to really where we are, as well as being in meaningful service to our enterprise customers, who, at the end of the day, are a critical part of the business model as well, and scaling what is now a relatively large company that has a strong open-source base, and also has a sustainable, monetary business model to care as well for.
Puppet Value Proposition
Mike: What would you say the value proposition is for Puppet today?
Yvonne: I believe that Puppet has gone from being a kind of a practitioner tool that eliminates soul-crushing work, which is a really, really important thing that we have extended a prawn, that value proposition, to being a platform that enables business agility in a safe and secure way. And the way that I see us, really bringing this to market is, if you think about the modern enterprise and open-source projects, they are here to service to everybody. We really focus our commercial efforts on what I would call the Global 1000. And in that segment, those companies are going to be in a hybrid, or multi-cloud world for many years, if not decades, to come.
And Puppet is uniquely positioned to, in some regards, be their automation everywhere platform, be it in the data center or into the cloud, and increasingly across the Internet of Things. And we’re able to do that because we have a portfolio of automation capabilities, so different types of automation are actually required for different types of use cases in needs.
And so, whereas before, the world was a little black and white, you know, it’s either declarative or it’s imperative, and there were religious battles, it’s like now we realize that many different types of automation are needed when you operate at that scale. And we offer all of them in a coherent way. And we’re starting to build out the intelligence from that practitioner level up through the executive level, and helping people do things, all the way from, get the work done, to create the reports and the insights that the auditors need to get you through that compliance check.
So, for me, the real value proposition for Puppet in the commercial space is being that automation everywhere platform that gives you the action that makes things like your ServiceNow and Splunk implementations complete, because they might be able to tell you what to do or where the problems are.
But it’s really when they integrate with Puppet, that you get that completion of that loop, that everybody needs to truly get the business impact.
Mike: So, Global 1000 is still a very horizontal market with all sorts of different vertical segments. I’m wondering, from tactical sales and marketing perspective, when you’re trying to convey business value to these different segments, do you have to change the marketing a little bit? Or is there any vertical marketing or segmentation going on, and how you look at the customers, and how to sell to them?
Yvonne: Yeah, absolutely. I love the question that you asked because there are so many horizontal technologies in the world, and I work with many companies, back in the day, BEA, and VMware, all very horizontal in terms of a capability. What’s interesting, however, is the importance that you highlight, which is differentiating how a product is built versus how a product is bought and consumed.
And that’s when you do benefit I think from taking a more vertical or use case approach to a technology. And, for us, for example, we do a lot in highly-regulated industries, and financial services is a great callout.
So, even though the Puppet product offerings are the same, whether in service to retail, or financial services, or tech, or government, how we speak about the technology can start to vary in terms of those segments.
And at the enterprise level, referential buying is a real thing. You know, if I’m a large bank, I’m greatly comforted if I know five other large banks also use that same technology. And you can start to help them understand the financial services banking problems that you can solve, and as I mentioned, compliance or certain compliance requirements in those industries.
So, you can start to make it much easier for your customers to get value out of your technology and to trust your technology, when you can speak in their language, and when you can connect them with their peers, who are in a similar way using your technology to solve problems.
So, what we have done – to answer your question from a segmentation standpoint – one is, recognized where are our open-source solutions most relevant and valued, and continuing to feed and nurture those. And then, being really thoughtful on where our commercial offerings are most valuable, and drive the greatest impact.
And on the commercial side then, further sub-segmenting into vertical industry, and then, as we talked about use case, are you looking to solve problems around incident remediation and reduce time to vulnerability remediation, are you more interested in compliance reporting.
At the end of the day, I like to kind of joke, Puppet is a Swiss army knife, they can do a lot of things. That’s a blessing and a curse. And when you work with large enterprise, then, more specific you can be on the problem you solve – I kind of use the analogy of an IKEA furniture – at the enterprise level, they really don’t want the big box of IKEA furniture showing up in a bunch of little pieces, without an instruction manual they have to solve it themselves.
Some people like that and get a lot of joy. It’s usually not my customers, they want to have a simple easy way to get to business outcome. So, we’ve really done a lot to make that clear and easier for them.
How To Balance Open Source Investment
Mike: I thought it was interesting how you mentioned that you were, let’s say, investing a little bit in the open-source community, for example, an event for contributors. I’m wondering if you could talk about how do you prioritize investments in the commercial product versus the open-source product?
Yvonne: I think about open source a lot. For me, personally, I think we are where we are in terms of the rapid technological advancement because of open source, and how that’s really proliferated around the globe in so many ways. And I do believe that it is a great way to democratize access and contribution to technological development, particularly with underrepresented groups in countries and locations, where they may not have otherwise been able to participate at that highest level.
So, I’m a big believer in the whole concept, and I’m really proud to work at a company that appreciates and celebrates that, and invests in it. What I think is really important in the seat that I sit in is appreciating the fact that open source has in our case almost moral and principle value, but it’s also a critical component of our strategy. It is not the business model itself, but it’s a key part of our strategy.
And I think of open-source in a couple different components. We have open source tools, Puppet open-source Bolts, those are tools that our community members can contribute to and benefit from. We have open-source content, which, in our case lives on the forge, which makes the tools even richer. And we have some people who only contribute to content, and some who only contribute to the tool, and some who contribute to both. And then we have the users of that open-source content.
And to me, it’s important when I think about the open-source community, I think about all those constituencies because they’re all critical players even though they’re playing in different roles. And I’m very proud to say we have over 75% of our commits still coming from the community. We have a very active community.
For me, what’s important is that we are continuing to nurture the creativity, the innovation, the access, in what I would call that “ground level of capability”, and that we’re allowing people, who have interest in ownership and institutions that we’ve built, to be able to contribute and get the benefits over time.
So, we do a lot of things, from – we did a contributor summit in Budapest last year, we are doing Puppet camps again, so we’ve reinvested in that, more currently, in the process, we’re making them virtual just because of the environmental challenges, this coronavirus. But we are looking for ways that we can help people who are part of the Puppet community be able to have a platform to speak about, what they’re doing with the technology, the impact it’s having, and help others.
We have obviously community managers, we’ve got slack channels, we’ve got some interesting ways that we’re looking at engaging with the community from the support perspective. So, there are many different aspects to it.
And to me, one of the beautiful things is I think open source has evolved a lot in the last decade. And I like to think of Puppet as one of the folks who are leading through that evolution, and how you continue to give back, and you know, garner benefit in a very, very productive way. So, super-excited about what we’ve done. I’m sure we’re looking to evolve, but I do think it’s part of what makes Puppet special.
Evolution of Sales Motion
Mike: So, originally, I’m sure open source was one of the primary let’s say distribution channels for finding customers who are going to engage with you commercially. But I’m sure that the sales, you know, processes, and motion has gotten very mature as a company has grown. How does it work today? Would you say that the open source still really is a driver for business? And, if it’s changed, like, how have you adapted to that change?
Yvonne: The go-to-market side of Puppet has evolved a lot. And open source has, as you suggested, played a critical role, and I believe it still does, but it’s shifted.
In the beginning, a lot of people who bought the Puppet commercial products came from the community, and they were the practitioners who were bringing that technology into that environment.
Many of the open-source users never felt the need to actually go and buy commercial products, they scaled up, and they built their own UIs and their own ways of advancing the open-source project in their company.
And so, we did go through a phase, where, in the early days, there was a lot of inbound. And what I would say is, now, the two things that have shifted, one is, as our ability to drive impact across an enterprise has increased, as the maturity of our solutions have increased, we’re actually selling to higher-level individuals in a company.
So, what I’d like to say is, we’re not just selling to the hands-on keyboard people, we’re selling to people who may never actually touch Puppet, the technology themselves. And yet, the fact that there are Puppet practitioners in their company is super important. So, I think one open source serves us today because it keeps a rich set of talents in the marketplace that can work on, and scale and execute the technologies that we’re bringing to the enterprise customers.
The other thing that we found is, many of our enterprise customers have in some way, shape, or form, or division, used, or are using, open source. And they have just set a point where it’s no longer differentiating for them to do all the work around, upgrading the open-source and everything else, to do it that way. And they rather move to the commercial version, take advantage of the incremental feature functionality, have a simpler upgrade process, have 24/7 support.
So, for us, I would say, in some regard, open source is still the land, people are using it, and then they’re starting to realize open source isn’t free. You’re just making different choices, do you want to have the engineering talent work on, keeping your open-source implementation healthy and current, and to build around it.
That’s the right choice for some. For others they are saying, “Hey, open source was a great way to get something started. Now it’s starting to run a critical component of my business. Maybe I’m better off, from an opportunity cost perspective, to engage with Puppet, to have Puppet provide me those services of incremental feature functionality, and reporting and support. And I can spend my valuable engineering talents time on other things that might differentiate me as a retailer, or manufacturer, or a bank.”
Is Puppet Open Core?
Mike: Would you say that Puppet is open core?
Yvonne: What I would say is, Puppet has – and I think this has been the big shift in terms of how we think as a company – certainly Puppet open source is a very mature, very impactful projects that many people can build on top of, frankly, around globe, which is wonderful to see.
What I would say is, as we think about the broader Puppet, what we are looking at is, how do we create open-source capabilities that people can stitch together in different ways to self-problems. And we don’t just look anymore at, we have to be the sponsor of those open-source projects, we absolutely contribute upstream to other projects, we leverage other open-source solutions in some of what we do. For example, Terraform and Puppet work great together, there’s actually some great webinars on how you leverage Bolt and Terraform to drive provisioning, and configuration and actioning on that.
So, we’ve really taken a much more open-minded approach, and thought about open source, almost from a component or an ingredient standpoint, that can be stitched together into whatever solution that you need. And some of those solutions we stitched together in a commercial way for our large complex enterprise customers. And others were providing the componentry that companies can stitch together in the way that they need if they want to do something all open source, or put their own secret sauce magic to it.
Mike: Pricing is I think really hard for every company, surprisingly difficult. And it seems like the impact and the value of Puppet is so enormous to organizations – how do you find the rate gate to figure out or to find the right strategy for pricing? And you’ve only been there for a year, but have you seen that change? Do you think that the pricing model that you’ve figured out is going to be stable?
Yvonne: Pricing is an incredibly challenging topic I think to your point for pretty much everybody, and to me, what I learned early on, back in my consulting days, is one of the best ways to think about what the right pricing model is, for your company is, to start with the value chain of what you’re bringing to your customers.
If I take an early-day example of like an eBay, you know, market place, you are bringing value creating community. You’re making value by letting people sell through that community, you’re making value by letting people buy through that community. You are making value by providing different ways to attract attention.
You can kind of map out all the different value points, and then, you can make decisions on where do you want to price to be able to get a return on the value you’re creating. So, eBay for example, could have chosen to say, “Hey, you’ve got to pay to get in, and then everything else is free.” Or, you can get in for free, “There’s value in there, but let me give you that for free, and you’re going to pay these other steps.”
So, I think every company needs to go through that process and figure out where the value is, their driving for their audience that’s worth having an exchange. The interesting thing is, it can easily become way too complex. So, simplicity is an important rule of pricing in my experience, and then longevity.
Particularly if you’re in the enterprise space, you don’t want to be changing pricing all the time, and it runs through your systems. So, I feel Puppet, in terms of where we’ve come from, that we have a pricing model that has worked well for us and for our customer base, on where we’re at. Are there opportunities to fine tune it and evolve over time? I’m confident there are. I’ve never seen a company that hasn’t at some point in time started to shift and think differently about their pricing.
But, to me, whatever you do with pricing, it has to center around what is the value that you’re bringing your customers, and can you come up with something that’s simple and easier for them to understand that will scale out for a meaningful period of time. Because a hard thing to do is change your pricing all the time. That’s an easy way to upset your customers, and make a lot of enemies in procurement. And nobody wants to do that.
How to Encourage More Women in Open Source Business?
Mike: Yvonne, you might have noticed that the male to female ratio in Open Source Underdogs is currently 41:2. And we’re trying to improve that ratio this year, but it does reflect the reality of the tech market, which is that men are overrepresented, especially at the C-level. What can we do as an industry, or even more tactically, what can I do, as a founder of a software company, to improve that ratio?
Yvonne: I love that you’re asking the question, what can you do to improve the ratio, because I believe at the end of the day, it has to start with individual ownership in action. And we can talk about really lofty things we could do, but at the end of the day, we need to create the future reality that we want. And we all have a role in it, whether we’re male and female, different types of necessities and so forth, if we want a diverse world, we have to create the opportunities for that, or diverse roles in leadership I should say.
And what I believe you could do, first and foremost, I appreciate this opportunity, just showcasing Puppet and myself, and having different types of role models in your podcast. I’ve had numerous women come up to me and tell me that they aspire to be a CEO, and in part, they aspire to be a CEO because they see me doing it. That’s incredibly humbling, but it’s also a great reminder that, for many people, if you can’t see it, you can’t believe it.
So, I think, first and foremost, showcasing different types of role models, that it’s not just one type that a successful leader looks like, but there’s many. The second thing is sponsoring and encouraging people to step up to that next level.
What I have found working with underrepresented folks is that – myself included – we can often tend to be much risk-averse. So, encouraging people to retire to build that confidence that they can go to that next level. Sometimes to give them that nice gentle push, maybe not so gentle sometimes, as I had in my career. Sometimes, you just need that.
So, I think creating the models, I think giving the pushes. And then giving the opportunities, take a risk on somebody. You’ll be amazed at what they’ll do with the right sponsorship and support. So, I think there’s a lot we can do across the board, but those are three tactical things that, at an individual level we can engage in, things that I try to do all the time.
Advice for Founders
Mike: Last question, any advice for entrepreneurs who are looking to use open source as part of their business?
Yvonne: Absolutely. I live in Silicon Valley, and I run into a lot of people who get really confused on open source, and – when I say “get confused on open source”, they confuse perhaps a desire and a belief around the power of open source as a way to democratize technology and bring important solutions into the hands of everybody, with the fact that somehow you’re going to have to figure out how you’re going to make money.
And so, to me, it’s really important to understand you can get both, I think Puppet does both, but you have to be really thoughtful what is the role that open source is going to play in your business model, because it is not a business model into itself. That’s kind of a rule number one.
The second thing that I would say is, community, community, community. I don’t think that you’re going to get a lot of benefit out of just open-source thing, the technology you build if you’re the only one building it. Certainly people might use it, they’re not going to pay you for it, they might benefit from it, they might like that it’s open source, but I think part of what’s made Puppet powerful from an open-source perspective is the community engagement, and the fact that we’re collaboratively building these different open-source projects, and that we are collaboratively building content – that is what I think truly makes open-source most powerful.
So, I really think if you’re going to do an open-source solution or have that be part of your solution model, how are you going to invest in, and engage, and nurture, and grow, and sponsor, and give a voice to your community, so that you keep them engaged, so that it truly is really executing open source at what I think is the most powerful level and form.
Mike: Yvonne, thank you so much for your time and sharing your great insights today.
Yvonne: Great. Mike, thank you, it’s been wonderful. And, again, I really appreciate the opportunity.
Mike: Special thanks to the Puppet team for helping to coordinate this episode. Audio editing by Ines Cetenji. Transcription by Marina Andjelkovic. Music from Broke for Free, Chris Zabriskie and Lee Rosevere.The podcast Twitter handle is @fosspodcast.
Please, tweet at us if you have any comments on this episode. Next time, we talk to Tracy Regan from DeployHub, a great technologists and founder CEO.
Stay safe everyone. Until next, time thanks for listening.
Episode 43: Native-Cloud Visibility and Security With Kris Nova, Chief Open Source Advocate at Sysdig
Mike: Hello, and welcome to Open Source Underdogs, the first podcast recorded in 2020. I’m your host Mike Schwartz, and this is episode 43 with Kris Nova, a Chief Open-Source Advocate at Sysdig.
Kris, who also goes by Nova, has contributed to Kubernetes and several other open-source successful software projects and startups. She’s currently a leader in the Falco project, a next-gen intrusion detection tool that is an “incubating” project at the Cloud Native Computing Foundation also known as CNCF.
My mission this year is to interview more women who are open-source business leader, so when the opportunity presented itself to interview Nova, I couldn’t resist. But this podcast was a bit of a challenge for me. I interviewed Loris Degionni, the CEO of Sysdig, a few episodes back, so I wanted to stray little from my normal business model format.
It was also really tough not going down the Cloud Native rabbit hole, although I think ultimately I couldn’t resist. So, it’s slightly more tacky than normal, but I hope you enjoy it. Personally, I found Nova’s perspective really thought-provoking, but you didn’t tune in to hear me, so without further ado, here we go. Nova, thank you so much for joining us today.
Nova: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Mike: So, how did you end up at Sysdig?
Nova: Well, I had come out of my third startup that had gone through an acquisition, and, you know, I took some time off from work, I did some traveling, and just kind of — it was the first time in my life and in my career, where I was able to take several months off of work and just kind of mentally reset. And I started to evaluate the industry I was working in, and I wanted to stay working closely with Cloud, and Cloud Native infrastructure, and Kubernetes, but I wanted to pivot a little bit.
And I started looking at the available spaces or sub departments of the industry. And one of the things that really stood out to me was the security. I felt like security was one of those things that you kind of look at it always as an afterthought.
You don’t really ever wake up and design new software on day one to be the most secure implementation. So, I felt like we were finally there with Cloud Native, and started having more involved security conversations. I felt like there was just a lot of room for innovation in a field that I already knew a lot about starting off, with a new spin on it, which was getting involved with security. And then, Sysdig reached out, and here I am.
What Is Falco?
Mike: Sysdig makes a ton of data available from the kernel, as I understand it. And Falco, the project that you’re working on, tries to filter that data to make some actionable security information, maybe about intrusion detection.
Nova: The definition that kind of really made it sing in my mind and resonated with me was, when Loris, our founder, I think you might have already spoken with him, the way he explained it to me was, basically we take the kernel as the new source of truth. Traditionally, if you look at how you would be auditing or attempting to observe a system, the network was usually kind of the most fundamental element you could get down to and, the thesis behind that was, if it’s happening at the network layer, we know it’s true, and we can trust it.
And as we moved into Cloud Native, we realized that TCP packets were not the smallest element anymore. So, we took it even down later further than the network, which is where the kernel comes into play.
I think you said it best yourself, we take a lot of information coming out of the kernel, and then we try to turn that into something meaningful for a human or a team. And that’s really what Falco does. It tries to be that connection point, that adapter between what would otherwise be an unreasonable amount of information coming out of the kernel, and then actually, trying to give you something that can help you tell a story.
Has Falco Been Good For Business?
Mike: Falco looks like a pretty impressive tool, and I’m wondering, has it been able to drive business opportunities for a Sysdig, the company?
Nova: I think if you look at open source, and what that means to anybody doing open source in any industry, it’s got a new way of thinking about how you engage with other people in the industry, other organizations in the industry, other folks in the enterprise.
And I think the easiest way that I can describe, the success I’ve seen with open source is, just looking at it as there’s fundamentally a difference between building a solution for someone and building a solution with someone. And I think open source is the latter of the two, is it gives you, and it gives your organization an opportunity to collaborate with other folks in the industry. And that’s where we’re seeing a lot of these hybrid solutions.
You know, we could have open-source software called Kubernetes running in a public cloud provider, using a CNI implementation from a startup in San Francisco, all of which being secured with Sysdig. So, we’re seeing these multi-level, multi cardinal solutions because people are building an open source, and realizing that it’s actually more effective to build a small tool that is easily consumable than it is to try to build this monolithic solution to every problem under the sun.
Has CNCF Been The Right Home For Falco?
Mike: Falco has been incubated at the CNCF. And I’m wondering if you have some thoughts about whether CNCF was the right home for the project?
Nova: I’ve been involved with the CNCF for years now. Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve worked at a few startups, we’ve donated, and built, and contributed to a handful of projects that ultimately ended up in the CNCF. And I think if you look at open source in the enterprise, and having a neutral third-party organization such as the CNCF, that can just help with things like governance, and infrastructure, and supporting the projects. And doing it in such a way that it’s neutral and unbiased for the project itself, ultimately just makes for a healthier project in a more wholesome experience for the maintainers and the end-users.
I think the CNCF does a really great job at embracing this idea that ultimately in open source the end-user is the new customer. They’re the new consumers of the open-source project, and giving them that customer-like experience is something that you really see with the CNCF, and I think really drives healthy communities.
Introducing Governance For Falco
Mike: So, one of your goals I guess, when you joined Sysdig, was to help build the governance infrastructure for the Falco project. Have there been any challenges along the way for making that happen?
Nova: I feel like when I joined, Falco was already on a trajectory to being a first-class security solution in Cloud Native that is open source. And I think I was able to come in with, you know, like I said, I’ve done this a few times, I’ve been involved with the CNCF for years, I’ve been working on other more household projects such as Kubernetes, or Helm, or Envoy. And I think I was able to come in and bring everybody together and kind of double down on our approach to open source.
I think there’s a lot of work that we had to do, that we have yet to do, but ultimately, it all comes down to this idea that, at the end of the day, Falco belongs to everyone. It’s not Sysdig’s tool, it’s a tool that was originally started by Sysdig and has already started to grow and be used in new and exciting ways.
We have end-users who are using Falco for things that we never even dreamed of originally. I think having that open-source governance, that open-source model of “We’re going to make our decisions in the public, and we’re going to give the broader community an opportunity to get involved with these decisions as we’re making them.”, has been a really big part of the direction that we needed to take the project over the past maybe six months or so.
Mike: In addition to end-users, have there been any other vendors who joined the Falco ecosystem? Maybe who are looking to commercialize Falco as part of their product or make an offering?
Nova: I mean, that’s something that we’ve tossed around with at Sysdig. And I think any time you have successful open source, somebody’s going to automatically go to, “Okay, how do we wrap this up and stick an SLA on it, and then start offering some sort of first-class support for a project.
And in my mind, once an open-source project reaches that stage, like that’s a sign of success. That’s ultimately where you want to end up. I think Falco is right on the cusp of us getting to more of an enterprise open-source solution.
I’m excited to see both, how my company Sysdig is able to take these new ideas and run with them, and potentially see other organizations and other companies in the industry do the same thing as well. So, I feel like we’re on that horizon of this finally happening for the project, which is pretty rad.
Trade-off Of Moving To A Foundation
Mike: I guess moving your project to a foundation, it’s a lot of bull thing to do for the governance of the project, but not all open-source companies do that. What are some of the trade-offs that you have to make when you decide to move your project to a foundation, and to move the governance to sort of a more open process?
Nova: In Falco, we always talk about exchanging of velocity for altitude. And I feel like in open source, we have that same paradigm of, as you go either more on the foundation side of things or more on the agile side of things, you’re going to be exchanging enterprise opportunity with the ability to be agile.
In other words, if we, as a company, had an open-source project, and we didn’t have open-source governance and open community around it, we would ultimately be able to iterate much quicker, and it would be a much more simpler and less complicated process for us to drive features, and to deal with debt, and to build a new functionality. But we would be sacrificing this ability to build with other folks in the ecosystem.
If you look at Kubernetes, if you look at a lot of the sub-projects of Kubernetes, they do operate at a less agile speed or less agile velocity, but ultimately, that has empowered many different companies in the enterprise to come together and start working on building holistic solutions for everyone.
I think a great example here is, there’s an infrastructure project called Cluster API, I had helped start this project, I think two years ago now, when I was at Microsoft, and the whole point of the project was, for us to come together and start to standardize how folks install and manage Kubernetes. And it’s taken two years for us to get where we are today, so it’s happened a little bit slower than most people might be used to.
But, we now have a standardized holistic API that anyone in the ecosystem can use. And we’ve actually seen large Cloud providers, VMware, Microsoft, Google, they’ve all come together, and they’ve actually started building to this new interface. So, again we’re exchanging that velocity for that ability to be collaborative.
Mike: Remember, when I interviewed Matt Mullenweg from WordPress, he mentioned something very similar how we could build it faster if we just build it ourselves, but the community slowed us down, but we ended up with better software.
And one of the other things I remember from that podcast was, well, just thinking about it, WordPress is really such a central part of so many ecosystems. They’re not monetizing Automattic, the company behind WordPress isn’t monetizing every user of WordPress. There’s companies that do WordPress hosting and WordPress development, so there’s this big ecosystem around WordPress, which is really impressive.
And I’m wondering, do you see the Falco project as coalescing that kind of ecosystem? And how do you get there? Or, is that even desirable?
Nova: I think the CNCF enables this type of collaboration. If you look at the projects, this is something that is baked into the governance model. When we were proposing Falco to move from the Sandbox, which is the most introductory level a project can be at, to incubation, which is where we are now, there is an entire section and an entire conversation around this concept of vendor independence, which is effectively this idea that if one vendor, who is working on a project, decided to take a step back, or take a break, or pull resources back, would the project still be able to grow, and prosper, and be healthy in the same way it is now?
And that’s a fundamental philosophy in the CNCF. So, I think you’re going to see that with every project. I think us doubling down this for Falco was really critical to us getting where we are with Falco.
Surprising Falco Use Cases?
Mike: So, you alluded to some of the interesting business use cases that maybe you didn’t anticipate when you designed the product. I’m wondering if you could share with us what some of those are? Because I was also wondering, it seems super interesting, but how do people actually use it?
Nova: I did a presentation of KubeCon in San Diego, with a gentleman named Abhinav from a company called Frame.io, and he went into a lot of detail about how they’re using Falco in a very limited way, which is funny, because I spend the first half of the presentation talking about how Falco can audit the entire kernel, and how we can start to process and assert various signals in the kernel that go for every system call that would potentially be running in Linux. And then Abhinav walks on the stage and says, “Oh, we only use it for three.”
And it was just kind of this funny moment, where it’s like, if that’s what they needed in their pipeline, which if you go, and you watch the video, you can see the use case, and why they were only interested in a subset of these metrics here.
You can actually see that Falco is dynamic and configurable enough for them to use it very concretely in a very small, but very precise way for exactly what they needed. So, I think you see that in a lot of different open source, but especially in Falco.
Can Falco Consume Non-Kernel Data?
Mike: Can Falco consume information from other sources, other than the kernel, and make sense of it in sort of the same way?
Nova: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that we’ve been circulating in the Falco community, and I think this is a great example of us not being able to move as quickly as we wanted, but in exchange, we’re getting feedback and insight from the community is, we’re working on a long-term supported release called Falco 1.0.
And one of the things that we learned pre 1.0 was that there was actually a lot of value in taking other input sources other than just the kernel and enriching the Kernel information with these other input streams.
So, a big feature of 1.0 is going to be making secondary input streams much more dynamic and much more configurable, so that folks can start to plug other information into Falco when it comes time to building that story or that alerting system that they’re looking for, when it comes to detection, and anomaly detection, and insecurity.
Is There A Marketing Strategy At Sysdig For Falco?
Mike: Is there a marketing strategy at Sysdig for Falco?
Nova: Yes and no. So, we obviously have our corporate marketing strategy, we have an entire department here. And we have a lot of similar goals, but I feel like they’re implemented in different ways. I think the easiest example here is Sysdig targets customers and users of our platform, whereas Falco targets end-users, which effectively are customers, but the relationship is a little more like, “We’ll give you a foundation in the scaffolding to come and build with us.” And you’ll be able to do that effectively for free, but you’re not going to be getting a lot of the first-class features that you would be as like a commercial partner, or a commercial consumer of what Sysdig has to offer.
So, again, depending on your use case and what you’re looking for, it kind of gives us an opportunity for folks to get involved with — it’s going to cost more, but it’s going to be easier and more resilient, more reliable and more powerful. Or you can take the free open-source approach, which is going to require rolling up your sleeves and getting involved in the community.
And I think what’s really interesting from a business perspective is watching as different implementations change from one side to the other over time. And seeing how 2019, it was a commercial user, and then moving forward, they moved over to open source. Or flipping that around and going from open source to commercial.
So, it’s exciting to have that flexibility, as departments grow, or their organizations, as their needs change, as their systems change, what they might be looking for from us – it could potentially change. And having sort of an array of opportunity and avenues for them to get involved has been really powerful for us.
Difference Between End-User / Customer
Mike: What is the difference between an end-user and a customer?
Nova: I think the easiest way to say “This is an end-user.” is someone who takes advantage of open-source software in its most raw form, whereas a customer is an exchange for goods and services, where we’re willing to provide some sort of monetary compensation.
So, again, we’ll use Kubernetes here. Kubernetes is open source. If you or me wanted to go and go to github.com/kubernetes, we could potentially download Kubernetes and install it on some servers, and then try to go sell those servers that have a working version of Kubernetes running on it, with some sort of service agreement. But there’s nothing that’s really preventing us from doing this.
And in the same way, other folks who have been contributing to Kubernetes for years and maybe even were, like Google, the original creators of Kubernetes, they have both the open-source avenue as well as the more commercial avenue. And I think you see that with tools like how GKE is Google’s Enterprise version of the open-source software that you could go download for free.
Who Ideally Would Join the Falco Community?
Mike: So, if you could see more partners join the ecosystem, what kind of partners would you like to see join the Falco community?
Nova: Honestly, I would like to see the security industry come together and start working together as a community more and more. Like I mentioned earlier in the interview, moving to security, I had to relearn a lot of things. One of the things that hadn’t really been in my career up until recently, after joining a security company, was this concept of very strict competition, and this concept of, if I have some piece of intellectual information, I’m going to kind of withhold that. And that becomes part of our IP and what we have to offer. And I think we saw the same paradigm infrastructure in Cloud
And, ultimately, if you look at the security industry, following applications, following infrastructure, following DevOps, it’s ultimately in my mind going to end up in the same way, which is the industry coming together and realizing that it actually makes more sense for us to work together on something that it is for us to fight each other.
I would love for more folks, whether their security vendors, or security consumers, or even just users of security tooling, at the end of the day, to come together and start exploring different ways of securing systems, and open-sourcing, and collaborate on that.
Is Open Source Security a Trend?
Mike: I think that’s actually true. I remember speaking with Michael Howard from MariaDB, and he mentioned to me that – I don’t know if it was on the interviewer or after – security software is not inherently open source that normally it would be commercial, proprietary, licensed, all the above, to keep it closed. And so, I do think it’s the idea of, there aren’t tons of open-source security tools, so, are there other open-source security tools that maybe you can identify that you can think of this as a trend, or is Falco really at the forefront of this?
Nova: I think – and if I get too often with ranting about security, please, please feel free to stop me – but I think if you look at security, having a holistic approach to two main categories is really what you want to see, when it comes time to taking security seriously and fully locking down a system.
So, I think to give a really simple example of this. If we look at solutions like Kubernetes RBAC, which is role-based access control, just describing who can do what, and when, and how they can do whatever it is they’re trying to do. And potentially rejecting requests if they do not meet whatever criteria you set forth.
But we also see this in Linux with things like Seccomp and SELinux. And it’s this idea of, we’re going to try to prevent somebody from doing something if they’re violating some sort of policy we have in place. So, there’s other CNCF tools like open policy agent as a great example here. There’s an open-source tool from Microsoft called Gatekeeper. That is an implementation, a concrete implementation of open policy agent. That attempts to effectively do the same thing pod security policies do, and Kubernetes, but from concrete implementation of OPA or open policy agent.
But, again, we’re in the situation where these solutions, everything I just mentioned, all attempt to prevent somebody from doing something that they shouldn’t be able to do. Or to prevent some application from doing something that it shouldn’t be able to do. But if you look at the history of security, that’s only part of the story. One of the things I’ve been saying that I really feel like it’s a powerful statement is, at the end of the day, there’s no such thing as perfect software.
Even Linux, the most well-known open-source operating system in the world, the largest open source project in the world, we still get CVEs, there’s still exploits. There was Heartbleed, there was a handful of critical CVEs that have happened in my lifetime. And those are fundamentally never going to stop. And anomalies and things that you aren’t expecting are fundamentally never going to stop.
So, I think having this preventative side of things that you see with tools like access control and policy enforcement, running those in concert with tools like Falco that are more of a detective side of things really gives you like your kind of coming at the problem from two different fundamental perspectives, which kind of I wish you to double down on your security approach.
So, short answer, yes, we see a lot of other tools, but we don’t really see anything that’s as focused on runtime detection, has to do with something say like Falco, or maybe even Wireshark, which was Loris’s original project.
How Can Companies Adopt Cloud Native?
Mike: So, you’re the author of an O’Reilly book on Cloud Native infrastructure, which I just ordered?
Nova: Thank you. You should buy several copies of it, for all of your friends and all of your family.
Mike: Makes a good Christmas present. But this is a very new knowledge domain for enterprise IT staff, and reading your book is a good place to start. But I’m wondering if you have any more thoughts on how companies can get up to speed on Cloud Native infrastructure?
Nova: I think the book is a good starting point, but more importantly one of the things that I really want to stress with folks, to really have an understanding of what this phrase “Cloud Native” even means. And you can go to cncf.io, and they actually have like an entire essay that was put together that attempts to define what Cloud Native means to them.
But I feel like it’s kind of like a personal choice or a personal journey you have to go on. It’s like buying a car. Ultimately, at the end of the day, you’re going to buy the car with the features that you need, that you like, but that whole process starts with, doing test driving things, and doing research, talking to people, and going to look at cars, and spending time understanding why this car may be better in this situation or might be better in this situation.
And I think Cloud Native infrastructure follows the same paradigm of, you have to look at the ecosystem as a group of resources. And you can take these raw resources that are available in the ecosystem, my book included, and those raw resources become part of what you would use to potentially build out your finalized system.
What To Look For If You Want To Join an Open Source Project?
Mike: A couple last questions about your experiences as a veteran of being a part of open-source startups. If you’re looking to join an open-source startup, what would be some of the things you would look for that would be good signs that this company knows how to use open-source as part of their business model?
Nova: I guess there’s two answers here, coming at this from somebody who’s — I’m in a very senior, very high visibility role, here at Sysdig, so I almost wanted to join a company that needed some guidance and needed some help. If I was to join a company that was perfect and open-source was already solved. You know, they were already doing everything “by the book”, it wouldn’t be very interesting or exciting for me, and I would hope that they would not be as interested in having somebody like me come in. And for lack of a better term, do what I do best, which is helping to drive open-source adoption and collaboration.
For me, I wanted to find something that had opportunity to grow, and had opportunity and potential for us to move into really, really great things. And I felt like Sysdig was that perfect intersection of high potential with the right place at the right time with security.
Now, if somebody isn’t as insane as I am, looking to get involved with something that’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of effort, I would say the first thing I always look for is, how are decisions made, both at the company, both on your team and both with open-source projects. And another thing that I always kind of view as a red flag is this concept of open-source announcements.
If you think about it, an open-source project by design should be open to the community, you should be able to go, and read, or watch, or listen to the decisions that are made, the features that are driven, the choices that the community is deciding on. And you should be able to at the very least observe these, and if not, potentially shape and govern these things.
So, anytime I see somebody doing some sort of open-source announcement, to me, that’s just evidence that it wasn’t an open-source project to begin with. That it was built behind closed doors, and then ultimately, hand it over for the sake of publicity, and not originally built in open source, as you would see with a lot of the other CNCF projects, like Kubernetes, like Hellman, like OPA, like Falco.
Advice For Open Source Entrepreneurs?
Mike: Last question about open-source entrepreneurship. So, if you were in the shoes of an entrepreneur who wanted to use open source as part of their business model, do you have any advice for that entrepreneur?
Nova: Get in there and roll your sleeves up. At the end of the day, open source is, you’re not going to have that first-class experience of, “Click here, put in your credit card number, and then poof.” Everything works like it’s going to take understanding what’s going on, it’s going to take contributing to the code, contributing to the project. And you’re really going to have to accept the fact that you are just as responsible as the open-source project as everyone else working on it.
Mike: Nova, thank you so much for joining us today – first guest of 20/20, yay! Thank you so much.
Nova: Thank you. It’s been really nice talking with you.
Mike: Special thanks to the Sysdig team and Amanda McKinney, 280blue, for helping to coordinate the episode.
The link to the presentation that Nova mentioned can be found on the episode webpage on opensourceunderdogs.com. Transcription by Marina Andjelkovic.
Music from Brooke for Free, Chris Zabriskie and Lee Rosevere. The podcast Twitter handle is #fosspodcast.
I have a big announcement: I just found out that my talk about the podcast was accepted to OSCON in July. If that happens, I’m really looking forward to sharing some of my thoughts on what all these episodes mean.
The next episode features the current CEO of Puppet, Yvonne Wassenaar, who brings us up-to-date on Puppet success in business models. Don’t miss it.
Until next time, thanks for listening.
Episode 42: EnterpriseDB, Collaborating with the community to make Postgres enterprise ready, with Ed Boyajian, CEO
Ed Boyajian, CEO joined EnterpriseDB and helped it pivot from a small organization, to one of the leading Postgres database companies. The company has figured out how to run a profitable business, while embracing and respecting the community and open development process that has formed around Postres for more then two decades.
Episode 41: Apollo GraphQL, revolutionizing how developers write modern applications, with Geoff Schmidt, CEO and Co-Founder
Episode 40: Pivotal, enabling enterprises to manage a unified multi-cloud software infrastructure with James Watters, SVP Products
James Watters, SVP, Products at Pivotal Software, is a veteran of the unix and open source software business. With a broad breadth of products, including Java Spring and many other essential tools for developers, Pivotal has built a business of enormous scale in record time.
Michael Schwartz: Hello, and welcome to Open Source Underdogs. I’m your host Mike Schwartz, and this is episode 40 with James Watters, SVP of Products at Pivotal.
Pivotal is probably best known for the success of Spring, the most popular way for developers to write Java applications, but they built a great business around the Pivotal platform, which enables large businesses to manage a unified, multi-cloud software infrastructure.
Pivotal is a little different than your typical open-source startup. Spun out of EMC and VMware in 2012, and IPO in 2018, and shortly before I recorded this episode in August of 2019, VMware announced the definitive agreement to acquire Pivotal, a combination that’s expected to close in 2020.
James makes the case that open source is winning because it’s innovative feature-rich and enterprise-ready. He has a deep understanding of both the technical and business mechanic that make open-source companies tech. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this interview, so without further ado, here we go.
Michael Schwartz: James, thank you so much for joining the podcast today.
James Watters: Great to be here, Mike. Hi.
Michael Schwartz: So, you were trying Pivotal in 2012 when it was formed, and for the listeners who don’t know the backstory, maybe you could just drive a little bit about how that came about, and perhaps about how it’s coming full circle to some extent.
James Watters: I was fortunate enough to join a open-source research and development team at VMware in 2010, working on an open-source project named Cloud Foundry, and we didn’t really know what it would become as a business. It ended up, they decided to spin that out along with another open-source project called Spring Source, or Spring, into its own company, and that was one of the foundational product elements of the company called Pivotal.
Michael Schwartz: What’s your current role with pivotal?
James Watters: I’ve done a lot of product work at Pivotal. I’m currently SVP of Strategy, focused on new parts of our product. I’ve been focused on things like streaming, container-as-a-service, function-as-a-service, all the emerging areas of our product.
Size Of Product Team
Michael Schwartz: Just to give everyone a sense of the scale, could you give a rough estimate about how many product managers are Pivotal, and the total size of the product team?
James Watters: It’s pretty expensive. There’s hundreds and hundreds of engineers that work on the platform at Pivotal, and I would say 50 full-time product people working and supporting them.
How The Product Management Has Changed In The Last 15 Years
Michael Schwartz: When you were at Sun a while back, you were a product manager of Solaris, which is a pretty epic assignment for those of us geeks who revere Solaris. Since then I’m wondering, could you comment about a little bit about how has been an open-source project manager evolved? Like, what’s different now?
James Watters: That’s a great question. The cycle time was so different on Solaris. And that was an 1100-person engineering team. And then, on the kind of customer-facing product front, I think we were under 10 people. It was very much engineering organization, product provided a bit of input and amplification of key customer themes. We worked on often multi-year release cycle.
In the new world of open-source, the community input comes so fast. It’s a different release cadence. Our core platform PCF at Pivotal, we released every quarter. And that was a big mindset change for me versus some of the older world at Sun. It was just how fast everyone expected you to respond. It’s not uncommon now to meet with a client. And in a matter of weeks, we will have a feature changer update shipped to them.
It’s a completely much more iterative world of continuous delivery, both at the platform as well as what we’re trying to inspire our customers to do for their end users. So, I think that’s dramatically changed since.
How Smaller Organizations Can Improve Product Management
Michael Schwartz: If you’re not Sun, you are VMware Pivotal, but you are so much smaller. Do you have any suggestions for some of the little things that you can do, or that it open-source company might do around product management?
James Watters: I think that’s really opening a question, and I don’t want to speak conclusively on it, but I think what I’d say is, there’s kind of two ways of coming at it. And my specialty is always being understanding the enterprise organization that the product fits into.
There was a point in our journey, where we felt adding additional features around security would probably be neutral to the developer audience that was using the platform, but what actually bring like the chief security officer and her team deeper into the conversation.
Suddenly, we approached a few banks, and we said, “What if we could rebuild this entire platform infrastructure every day for security?” And we had a really brilliant product person at the time named Justin Smith, who let this initiative to articulate the idea of the much more ephemeral approach to the platform.
I think the reason I mention this is, you could have gone deeper on just developer experience, but by finding that other constituent in an enterprise that come to the negotiating table around why we’re giving money to this company, that really changed the game for us and a few clients, because the chief security officer was now also an advocate.
I think it’s challenging you doing open-source products because you might get a lot of feedback from your immediate community and immediate users. But in order to sell the products to a larger organization, you need to think about articulating investments to a broader set of constituents.
Michael Schwartz: You mentioned PCF for Pivotal, Cloud Foundry. For those who don’t know, maybe you could just tell us a little bit about what that is, or also walk us through some of the other product offerings at Pivotal.
James Watters: I’ve been fortunate enough, Palmer at VMware hired couple of Google engineers in 2009-10, to come build this platform out. It was really like what you might call the Cloud Native platform world today.
At the time, there was no such thing as container-as-a-service, and at the application level, there really was no micro-services, and continuous delivery was sort of a very radical idea of enterprise. It was sort of the first platform built with the container first design, built to enable continuous delivery of things that look more like micro-services than monolithic applications.
And kind of was the first investment in this Cloud Native space, in terms of application platform and culture, all coming together in a platform.
That was really what PCF did, and we were able to scale it from zero sales in 2012. Or the spin that was first contemplated to hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, and ultimately the background of a public company.
Michael Schwartz: Cloud Native is a broad horizontal market. Do you segment the market at all by vertical industry or use case?
James Watters: This is another thing around products. For me, products strategy is that I do think that vertical use cases are critical. I’ll give you two examples. In the banking world, there is a huge focus on Java, because it’s traditionally a Java-centric custom application world.
Banks were always willing to invest in the high-end applications that often was built by Java developers.
When I first started and till this day, banks are, I would say, the number one language in banking is Java. They are very security-centric, they operate in a highly-regulated world, and they tend to be very hybrid cloud. There’s very few banks that run public only.
They were a tremendous fit for the design of PCF, both from support for Spring Boot as well as its core security differentiation.
We absolutely thought of a lot about banking, insurance, regulated industries. Then, manufacturing and industrial was a little bit different space. There you had a lot of the IoT world, you had streaming data, you had a completely learning how to build software for the first time way of engaging, where industrial companies were just getting started on major software investments.
I definitely think about vertical segmentation. I think for anyone who’s contemplating a sort of customer first approach to product thinking, vertical segmentation is a good early model to take on.
How To Decide What To Open Source?
Michael Schwartz: Pivotal has 73 projects in GitHub, and I’m sure that there’s more in private repositories – how do you decide which projects to open-source?
James Watters: I think, by and large, we tend to be an open first-style company, as I mentioned on the Andreessen Horowitz podcast awhile back, I am an advocate for sometimes keeping the UI, closed-source can be a simple way of differentiating between the pure-community efforts and the final enterprise products. But in general, we’ve tilted towards open source first.
That’s also been a key part of our relationships, like I mentioned, with certain banks.
A lot of the core security infrastructure of the platform was all kept open source, because the banks felt more comfortable consuming a platform that was opened first, even in those core areas.
Michael Schwartz: When you have a lot of projects, is it difficult to position the value proposition of the company?
James Watters: That’s a great question. If you think about how many projects you want to take on, like say, MongoDB is a fairly focused company. One core thing, Elastic are fairly focused company, but you get into the platform world, companies like HashiCorp are very successful at doing multiple projects. I think Pivotal is probably one of the broader breadth open source company is out there, certainly Red Hat has a pretty broad breadth. You hit a point where you become the platform provider of choice for their next generation of design, and actually the pressure comes to do more and more and more.
One of the biggest pressure points for us was always like, “Okay, we love this as an application platform. Now, provide us the whole universe of data services on the platform.” And so you have to achieve a certain critical mass to have the scale to invest like that.
But I do think that in enterprise segmentation, it’s powerful when you can start to have people accept the offerings you do have. And then, the biggest pressure is, “And now add this, so I can have one coherent approach. And I think that that’s something really important for open-source companies to think about it. Like, “Look at how Amazon operates. They are not a federation of hundreds of little hosting providers all coming together. They really have that sort of single point of interface to all of their abstractions.
I think that’s an interesting dynamic in the world right now. Open source is like, how broad you should go in your portfolio, do enterprise buyers favor that, is it better to be lower and single products – that’s something we discussed.
Michael Schwartz: With a lot of products, containers, Cloud Native services, it seems like it’s harder than ever to figure out how do you price. There’s more things you could gate on and the more elasticity is given, I know us, at my company Gluu, a lot of challenges because of CPU that depends upon the time of day. Can you talk about the evolution of pricing, and did you get it right initially, or did you have to make some tactical adjustments along the way?
James Watters: I think that’s a great question. I think it’s never easy or straightforward, we made a decision that we were going to go after the largest thousand companies in the world predominantly. We were going to supply a lot of technical resources to them, to ensure that they were successful with our product, and very much be an outcomes-focused company.
I think we intended to price at the higher end of the market, and that was a very deliberate choice. And I think as we’re growing now, we’re seeing more opportunity to start to segment the offer. To have a more transactional approach, we reintroduced the container-as-a-service product that didn’t have as many features as the full platform, but was something that people were ready to pay for more on a transactional basis.
I think that there is this tension between the desire to have a broader platform versus to be more transactional, and that very much comes back to customer segmentation. I would think of pricing in terms of how transactional you want to be, and then what the customer really expects out of you to make them successful.
Like, what does customer success really look like – it has to be at the core of your pricing model. If the prices are really low, and they’re not successful, that’s actually not on either of your interest.
Michael Schwartz: Does Pivotal actually have competitors?
James Watters: I don’t think that Pivotal has a company that is assembled just like us. We have some unique assets, one of the reasons we were successful in enterprises is, we have the number one way that enterprises build apps in the Spring Boot.
So, when it comes to like how enterprises are building applications in the Spring Boot, it’s probably easily the number one, and it might be over 50% market share of net new enterprise applications today.
There’s not another company that has that. We also had a very big git, and we were owned by kind of the Dell VMware family of companies ultimately. So, we’ve always been able to go to market with them, but we really still did have to earn our own way. But we could get introductions.
I think all of those
things came together in a way that allowed us to build a higher-end platform to
focus on the top 2000 companies in the world, and to go make them successful, and
to price and package accordingly.
I think one of the challenges right now for smaller open-source companies is, these cloud platforms that are open-source, they keep adding features that are pretty high rate. So, you may think that one day, you have a company, and the next day, that’s a feature of a cloud platform. And I think that’s attention.
Certainly, in the
service mesh world, you see disruption of kind of traditional networking and
API management, coming in the way that people are adopting a service mesh, etc.
Is that a company, is that a platform – I think that’s a very dynamic part of
the market right now. It’s pretty important, and I don’t talk about it too much,
but I really do enjoy working on open-source projects because they can have a
breadth of impact that’s pretty unimaginable to something that you have to
commit a sales transaction and for software before someone can use it.
We have an asset at Pivotal, Spring Starters, and they’re the number one way that people get started with a new job application. And that’s start.spring.io. You start a new job project there.
Every two seconds a developer on average is going there to kick off a new project.
And the top three countries for it are China, United States, and India, but these are the kind of impacts that open-source can have worldwide, deep into developer impact that you can never do with closed-source only, enterprise sale only products.
I think just the unimaginable breadth that open source can get you in ubiquity, that it can get you in the modern world is stunning. So, that’s what I’m humbled to work on. I think the challenge is then like, “Well, how do you make sure that the largest 5,000 organizations in the world are contributing to that?” And that’s where I do have a passion for enterprise monetization of open source, and finding ways of partnering with those organizations, and packaging, and pricing things, such they feel that there’s good value. And partnering with these open-source companies and making them their most meaningful platform.
I think I’ve got there two minds, number one, open source is super important just from a long-term impact the world, it’s harder to work on projects, they can have a bigger one than open source ones.
And then there is the challenge of like, “Well then, how do you build the economic model around that when it’s so ubiquitous to begin with? That’s the kind of challenge that I’m taking on, and I’m humble to be able to work on open source for enterprises for that reason.
What Types Of Software Should Be Open Source?
Michael Schwartz: Do you think that certain types of software lend themselves to being open source?
James Watters: I would say that the developer workflow today – and that’s not my line but I like it – it starts with “Git clone.” And I think any saying, where a developer is initiating a project in this era, it better be either a really easy to use API, I think Stripe certainly has proven that, or, it better be something like start.spring.io. Or, git clone, something that a developer could just go grab in a permissionless kind of way.
And Adrian Cockroft at Netflix said that, back when he was at previous companies, there were these big architectural debates for months before a project would start. And that in Netflix you really implemented the running code talks. It’s all about running code. I think that that is the reason why open source is really powerful for anything having to do with developers.
And then, on the infrastructure level, open source has become the most profound way that large vendors collaborate. If you look what’s happening in the Kubernetes community, where you have every major public cloud contributing to Kubernetes, IBM acquiring Heptio to make major contributions to Kubernetes, in infrastructure, open source has the way that these, what you might have had standard bodies before, there’s sort of like a running code way that large vendors are collaborating. Both, in the end-user developer space as well as in the infrastructure space, open source had a huge impact.
But if you think those worlds are slightly different, the dynamics of start.spring.io, which is very end-developer focused versus the way that every public cloud is normalizing how they run Kubernetes are slightly different, they’re all open source but they have slightly different behaviors and attributes. And it’s kind of fascinating to see database companies like MongoDB a little bit different than the way that the Kubernetes community is operating.
Do Enterprises Care About Open Source?
Michael Schwartz: Do you think that customers actually care about open source? I mean, large enterprise customers?
James Watters: I think large enterprise customers absolutely have seen the tremendous benefits in just frankly the innovation velocity of open-source products. And I think the biggest change is that in the early days, open source was a cheaper version available for free of the enterprise products. That’s what I think it was especially hard to monetize.
If you’re just going to be the cheaper thing and the low-cost provider, and not the premium product, a lot of enterprises might look at that and say, “Hey, we’re an enterprise, we can afford to buy whatever we need. We just really want innovation leverage, like we want the best product.
But I think there’s a new whole category of products, or there’s only an open-source player that is creating it. Like PCF was the kind of first micro-services platform in the world for enterprises. And it was built a 100% open source. It was both the market leader in terms of features and the open play.
I think the open-source market is changed, where there is room to be both innovative, or the expectation is that they’re both innovative, higher-end, feature-rich as well as enterprise-ready – all of that is expected from open source today. I think that’s where the innovation is happening.
If you look – here’s an example – Amazon has a service Kinesis, which is how they were doing messaging, and it did a pipelines. And now they’ve switched that to a managed Kafka service. They had to do that because the innovation was really happening in the Kafka community in open source. Even on Amazon scale, they couldn’t keep up with it.
I really find that to be the best part of the market right now is that you can’t out-innovate the open-source players.
Cyclicality Of Centralization
Michael Schwartz: It seems like there’s sort of a cyclicality between centralization and decentralization. For example, a couple years ago, everyone was at full tilt towards “Go to the cloud.”, and now, it’s almost like with Kubernetes and other technologies – is there any shift away towards maybe bringing more of this type of functionality in-house, and does that help a company like Pivotal?
James Watters: When I talked to CIOs about this, I tried to help them deconstruct the current cloud market, and what I told them is, “Public cloud is not one thing. It’s really three different zones of features that you need to think about. The first is the commodity layer, which is, “Hey, I’m just buying virtual machines, networking disc, the basics, and that’s kind of where public cloud started.
There, you can use a platform like Kubernetes, and run those system resources in similar ways, if not identical ways, across public-private, hybrid multi-cloud. So, I think Kubernetes has done a tremendous job of making those system resources normalized across all the clouds.
Then, I think there is this emerging space within the Cloud Native community around the open-source developer focused projects that run on Kubernetes, like Kafka, like Spring Boot, really like Pivotal’s platform. That’s where the developer innovations come. That’s like the open developer innovation community, that’s number two.
And the number three is, they selectively are these managed services like Google Spanner, Google Machine Learning, or you might be ahead of the market, where there might not be an open play there yet, where Spanner requires dedicated fiber networks between data centers to make the database magic work. So, there are areas we are the managed cloud or head.
Our perspective is that innovation in the core, where you are really arming your developers, continues to happen in open source. Commoditization can be achieved through technologies like Kubernetes running in a normalized way across clouds.
And then, technologies, like the Open Service Broker, relay to buy these managed things. Long story short, I think what’s happening is, the CIO’s are getting smarter about deconstructing cloud from this monolithic idea of “I go all in one cloud.” to like, “How do I selectively use what’s best about each cloud?” I think open source is playing a huge part of that.
Should Open Source Be Less Expensive?
Michael Schwartz: You touched on this a little bit before, about how open-source software maybe should be cheaper. I think that there is a sort of perception for some reason that even though you get more rights with the license that the software should be less money – do you think that that is changing, or is that something that is an industry we need to work on with customers?
James Watters: I’m a maybe a contrarian here, my dream was always a very open product that generated a lot of value that enterprises were excited to invest in the platform partnership in. And, essentially, I don’t think that open source should have to have cut rates levels of investment into research and development vs. closed source.
My contrarian nature there says, “If you really have the right relationships with these customers, they’re going to be just as happy giving an open-source provider money as they are giving Oracle money.” I mean, if anything, I think that open-source partnerships are valued in a more profound way in the modern enterprise that might be even happier to give you more money than Oracle.
I do think that that something is happening. That also comes back to how these open-source companies engage with these large enterprises, are they focused on them, do they understand their vertical needs, do they put security first, are they able to measure the outcomes that are achieved with their platforms?
Closing Advice For Entrepreneurs
Michael Schwartz: Last question. Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs who are starting new ventures based on open-source software?
James Watters: I think my advice would be, if you really develop a community around your open source, you’re one of the luckiest people in the world. That’s a tremendous gift. Save and invest in that community, but also spend some time understanding how that technology fits into the value chain, in the largest thousand companies in the world, and investments they are making in technology.
Try to balance the needs of the developer who’s approaching it from a ‘git clone, let’s get started’ perspective, as well as the more complex matrix or matrices of a large enterprise organization, and what they need across security, operating, certainty SLAs, etc. If you can get those two forces right, then I think you’ve got a remarkable opportunity. But I do think that monetization, and ultimately funding a great R&D team behind your open source project, takes a balance side towards both.
Michael Schwartz: James, thank you so much for taking your time today in this really pivotal moment in Pivotal’s trajectory.
James Watters: One last pivotal word joke.
Michael Schwartz: Thanks, James.
James Watters: Thank you, Mike.
Michael Schwartz: Thanks to the Pivotal team for making this happen.
Transcription and episode audio can be found on opensourceunderdogs.com.
Music from Broke For Free and Chris Zabriskie.
Audio editing by Ines Cetenji. Production assistance by Natalie Lowe. Operational support from William Lowe. Transcription by Marina Andjelkovic.
The Twitter handle is @fosspodcast.
Next week, we have Geoff Schmidt, Co-Founder and CEO of Apollo GraphQL.
Until then, thanks for listening.
Shannon Williams, Co-Founder and VP Sales of Rancher lays out how a great team with deep domain knowledge can actively identify a product market fit in a crowded space, and emerge a winner. It’s an inspiring story of a plan perfectly executed. This is a MUST LISTEN episode of Underdogs!
Michael Schwartz: Hello, and welcome to the Open Source Underdogs podcast. I’m your host Mike Schwartz, and this is episode 39, with Shannon Williams, Co-Founder and VP Sales of Rancher.
Let’s go for a minute into the land of hypothetical. If I can ask all 38 previous podcast guests a question, “Is monetizing support a good idea?”, I think there would have been virtual consensus that support doesn’t scale. Except, Rancher is perfectly executing a business plan to do just that.
I hope you’ll enjoy this episode. Tweet your comments at @fosspodcast, and we will asynchronously discuss in the Twitter sphere, but for now, here we go with the interview. Shannon, thank you so much for joining us today.
Shannon Williams: Thanks for having me, Mike. It’s exciting to be here. Looking forward to our conversation.
Michael Schwartz: Can you just fill us in a little bit about how Rancher got started and what was the mission?
Shannon Williams: We’ve been going now since 2014. In a lot of ways, it feels like we started before that, because my co-founder Sheng Liang, Will Chan and I, the three of us started another company called Cloud.com back in 2008. And, for all intents and purposes, we’ve been working together every day for 11 years now. That company was an early developer of open-source infrastructure-as-a-service software.
We built a product called CloudStack with the founding members of the OpenStack foundation. I had a really fun run there for about three years before being acquired by Citrix, and spending another three years at Citrix.
In our work on CloudStack, we learned a lot about, as you can imagine, managing infrastructure at scale, building out private clouds, helping a lot of large companies build public clouds. At the time, everything we were focused on was how do we deliver virtual machines to developers quickly from anywhere.
But over the course of working on a lot of private clouds, we noticed that we had a lot of conversations with people trying to figure out how to blend their on-premise infrastructure with this growing amount of cloud infrastructure.
One of our early customers was GoDaddy actually. They were looking at building a public cloud, and Darren Shepherd, our fourth co-founder of Rancher, was a Chief Architect there. We got to know Darren really well.
We started talking in 2014 about what could be done to bring together the on-premise infrastructure, the cloud infrastructure, into something that overlaid it all, and to really allow people to treat infrastructure like Cattle, like a disposable commodity. And Docker was just getting started, the concept of Containers was emerging, and we thought there was a really cool opportunity to look at leveraging that, to build out management tooling, infrastructure services, and kind of imagine the next generation of infrastructure management, which would hopefully enable people to do computing anywhere, with really consistent deployment experience, management experience, monitoring experience, all these types of things.
And so, Rancher was born. For almost 5 years now, we’ve been working on continuing that journey, how to build open-source products that are available to anyone, and really allow them to run workloads anywhere. So, that’s really where we came from.
Michael Schwartz: This market, it’s really diverse. There’s a lot of tools and tooling in this area. I’m wondering, what’s the exact value proposition for Rancher service?
Shannon Williams: Rancher is open-source software, we have a number of open-source projects but our most famous is called Rancher, and it really sits at the management playing around Kubernetes. Organizations use Rancher because they are deploying and managing more and more Kubernetes clusters.
Rancher provides distros of Kubernetes. We have one called RKE, which is a pretty typical, upstream distro, it’s really good for deployment, automation. Then, we have one that’s optimized for the Edge or other low-resource utilization called K3s.
We provide distros of Kubernetes to people that need to run Kubernetes, but Rancher itself actually sits above those distros, it’s the management client. What’s cool about it it’s really distro agnostic. It actually manages any Kubernetes. And by managing, what that means is an organization implements Rancher so that they can deploy and control, and then grant access to dozens or hundreds of Kubernetes clusters – some running in the clouds, some running as hosted services like GKE, and EKS, some running on premise, maybe on the Edge.
By bringing all those clusters together, what Rancher allows them to do is, dictate policy, control access, monitor availability, manage deployment of applications, manage catalogs, attach additional open-source services, like Prometheus for monitoring, or Fluentd for logging, or Istio for service match, and so, Rancher sits at that next. So, how do I manage Kubernetes everywhere according to my organization’s policies.
By doing that, it enables them to then really deliver their service reliably. For organizations, they think of Rancher as the Kubernetes platform, it’s Kubernetes as a service, it’s how they deploy apps and run anywhere.
Michael Schwartz: The Rancher GitHub repository has 14,000 forks, which is really a lot. But there’s only around 60 something developers, which I could see is probably primarily being the people in your organization – can you talk about the relationship between the open-source project and the activity there, and the SaaS service?
Shannon Williams: Just to be clear, we don’t offer a SaaS service. Rancher is open-source software only. We only provide open-source software that people use, but what we sell is support for those open-source projects.
On any given day, there’s about 30,000 teams around the world running Rancher. Those teams, they may be a smaller group that’s deploying it for one application. There’s maybe somebody doing a Dev lab, or test lab, but of those about 1%, about 300 enterprise customers, these are companies that deploy Rancher, and whatever they are running on it, it’s critical to their business.
They contract with us to provide enterprise-grade support for Rancher, RKE, K3s, and really their whole Kubernetes stack up and down. By providing that Enterprise-grade support, what they get from us is the confidence to run really important workloads on the open-source Rancher, but what they like is that we don’t have your classic open-core only model, we don’t sell version that’s different to them. They just pay an annual support subscription, and they use it.
A year later, if they are no longer using it, they are not paying an annual support subscription. They can keep using the software, but they would be using it again without support.
Our model is geared around helping organizations that need support, get the best possible support in the world for Rancher, Kubernetes, Prometheus, and Istio, and all the pieces of technology that we deliver to them.
Why Open Source?
Michael Schwartz: Has open-sourcing the code really made a meaningful contribution to the company?
Shannon Williams: It’s at the root of our success. By open-sourcing the code, we enabled a startup with relatively no name recognition obviously, to come into, in a lot of ways, it’s a very crowded market.
Think about the companies that are dealing with application management platform as-a-service. When we started, you can imagine Docker, Mesosphere, Red Hat, Pivotal, these companies were already out there. You know, Docker, in their sense with having released the Docker project, orchestration and building different types of management tools, and with enormously more funding than us, much, much, much bigger brand recognition teams.
We had to find a route to market with limited funds, we needed to let our product be our best piece of marketing, and so we took that approach. We believed in this for a long time. In our last company, we had a very similar approach. We made Rancher fully open source and free because we felt that it was the best way to get adoption, to plant seeds in organizations that would need this technology.
By putting it out there, we really bet on two things. We bet that people would like it, and that they would want to use it, but we also bet that this technology was crucial. And that at least a good chunk of people who use it would find value in getting support for it and find value in having SLAs that they can rely on for that application. And we’ve been thrilled. I mean, our company’s now almost 200 people, we’re more than doubling this year. In terms of revenue, it’s really worked out really well.
People really do love Rancher. It’s something that makes me really confident with the model as you have to believe in your engineers, you have to believe that products can be great. We also spend an enormous amount of investment of time working with our open-source community. We have a huge Slack community of thousands of users who come in with suggestions and ideas on how to make the product better. We get thousands of issues, and feature requests, and bugs filed by the community.
I don’t think we have more of a user community then of a contributor community. I love it because they come to us with real problems that need to be solved, and I identify them. Often, their use cases sometimes are pushing the boundaries that we may not see out of a Fortune 500 company that’s using Rancher. So, it all sort of pushes forward with the hopefully creating a great product for everyone.
More On Why Open Source…
Michael Schwartz: So, just to sort of dive a little deeper on that. If you made the software commercial tomorrow, do you think the 300 or so Enterprise customers, who are using the software, do they really care about it being open source? Or is it just a non-sequitur, or they just want the best software? So, if you made it commercial tomorrow, do you think that that would be bad from where you are today?
Shannon Williams: Yeah, I do. When I talk to organizations about our business model, they get really excited because there isn’t one of them which hasn’t been in a position of really limited leverage against their current vendors. Everybody has been staring at just massive renewal orders.
We closed, just this quarter, today is the end of our third quarter, and we closed three deals with organizations that are spending a lot with us, half a million a year in recurring revenue, for example, to support environments. And their frustration in some cases was platforms that they had built, PaaS platforms, where the cost had grown exponentially. And they just had no ability – even though these were all based on open-source, they weren’t themselves open source. I mean almost everything is based on something, open source at this point.
What people really like is, they like an open-source product, because they always have the option to leave it there, let it run, support it themselves, hire some engineers and figure it out. In the end, if you are running a proprietary tool, and you don’t pay, you have to yank it out of production. And that is impossible for most companies.
I think our business model, yes, some people would still buy a Rancher, and be fine with it, but I think a lot of the smartest CIO’s I talked to are really excited to see a company like us, that embraces open source for commercial purposes, provides really good support, and is committed to building open-source products. For us, it’s allowed us to grow faster than any other approach I’ve been able to come up with.
Pivot To K8S
Michael Schwartz: Seems like Rancher made an epic pivot towards Kubernetes at some point, I guess, fairly recently – what did you learn from that process?
Shannon Williams: Well, the hardest part about getting into any market is making bets, and then figuring out where they come down. Rancher started about the same time as Kubernetes. Right around 2014, Kubernetes was starting at the same time we started our company.
At the time, we really thought Docker and their Swarm and stuff were probably more likely to win out. They had so much momentum. But it only took a year to realize that Kubernetes was actually really well-built piece of code.
So, when we first started working with them, we were kind of thinking we would be managing Swarm clusters and Mesos clusters, and then, even before we launched our 1.0, we decided to support Kubernetes, because it was a really good piece of software.
So, we released our 1.0, our first product to the market in 2016, Rancher 1.0, at the time, if I was talking to them, I would have said something like, “You know, it seems like different companies are choosing different orchestration approaches to containers because they need different things from them.”
Some people want to scale really big, like Twitter. So, they’re using Mesos, other people really focused on the developer experience, and they’re choosing Swarm. And it wasn’t really clear yet that one standard was going to emerge, but what we started to see was some stability issues with some of the other orchestrators that we saw as a manager. It was like, “Ah, these things aren’t stable as I would have expected them to be.” What we found is that Kubernetes is really reliable.
So, as we imagined our business, and trying to support these technologies and helping companies implement them, we felt like it was safe to bet on something reliable, and that did require pivot that moved away from messaging, and product development had gone into supporting, we built our own thing, we had Swarm, we had Mesos, we weren’t really sure what orchestration was going to take off. But as we got more comfortable with Kubernetes, and luckily, we started working on it early, it made it really easy for us to honestly commit to something we liked.
By that point, by 2017, we were all in on Kubernetes building on that. And since then, we already had a lot of people using it in our 1.0 product, we also had a really nice base installed, we didn’t just lose.
So, a lot of times, you have a pivot, and it means almost starting from scratch. But actually, we didn’t really lose hardly anyone because it was very much in line with the direction that most of our customers wanted to go as well. Even if they maybe chose a different orchestrator, they also saw the market going this way, so they were really, really appreciative that we gave them a path to get to Kubernetes off of maybe something else they had chosen when the market was still a lot less clear.
We found that that wasn’t nearly as big a problem. Now, what is hard in pivoting, especially, one of the things we built was our own orchestrator called Cattle, and one of the hardest things was actually convincing our own engineers that the Kubernetes was actually superior to what we had developed ourselves.
That’s a hard thing to do because no matter what, if you built something, you’d always love it. And at the same time, in an early market like we were in, lots of people loved the thing we built, a lot of people telling us, “Hey, we really like this Cattle. It’s really good and you should just keep improving that.”
But as an entrepreneur trying to build a business, you have to be really, really honest with yourself, and you have to really look at all the signals, not just the ones that maybe are giving you the positives you want to see.
All the signals told Sheng, and I, and Will, and Darren, that we needed to really focus our business on solving the problem that we thought most organizations were going to have. And that was, how to take Kubernetes to scale, how to bring together a really complex ecosystem around it, how to build a platform that would work.
That meant really having long conversations with our engineers, convincing them if they weren’t excited about this, that maybe there are other things they could work on in our team and finding the team focused on doing this.
It worked out great, but it was not trivial. We have a small team, I can only imagine when you see big companies today trying to pivot to Kubernetes, you’ve got years and years of customers install base, and how difficult that might be for them.
Michael Schwartz: Great. It takes a lot of leadership. Most sizable organizations are using Containers today, so if you can sell to anyone, it becomes sort of challenging, so who do you sell to? I’m wondering, do you segment the market at all?
Shannon Williams: One of the nice things about open source is, it has allowed us to, give an idea most, I would say the 300 Enterprise customers, like every quarter now we’re closing about 50 new customers. Every quarter we are closing, we look at what the source of those are. I would say 30 of the 50 came from open-source Rancher users.
They started with open source, they used it at a business-unit level, or line-of-business level, and it became important to them, and they needed support. Those deals, they are not very competitive, they’ve already kind of looked at Rancher, they have a relatively short sale cycle, they’ve done the proof-of-concept – we don’t have to go in and prove that Rancher is the right solution for them.
What we found is that we don’t really need to segment that. The product pricing was probably the most important thing to segment. We did find that with such a huge install base, one of the mistakes we couldn’t do is, we couldn’t support everyone for free, for a small amount of money. We needed to kind of keep a relatively medium-sized bar, to ensure that people who needed support had to make an investment to get it.
For example, we could have gone with a lot of SaaS models, $10 a month or something like that, but the reality is, infrastructure and Containers, Kubernetes – these are all really complex. The support is quite real. We provide a lot of advice, a lot of architectural help with these organizations doing it. So, there was a real risk that we would price the product so low, and that we would then be trying to do this for lots of companies with very different levels of technical skills.
I’d say, the closest thing we came to segmenting the market was providing a lot of free open-source support for people who are trying to figure it out themselves, but then, charging a reasonably significant fee to come in and get support. Our customers had to invest tens of thousands of dollars on an annual basis to get support with us.
By doing that, it allowed us to work with companies that really valued this. We’re investing their time and the money into making it successful. That was really the best qualifier. It allowed us to focus on teams that really could help us grow the business at the same time.
We’ve seen some industries become really big with Rancher, but it’s more just a sign of who uses Containers. It’s companies, and certainly the internet, and the technology industry, but there’s a lot of financial services, companies, fintech companies, biotech companies, universities, research organizations, we’re seeing adoption in government and military use cases. It’s really broad now.
Retail, Edge’s driving, all sorts of interesting use cases, oil and gas, all sorts of interesting use cases in manufacturing, automotive – just lots of cool things that people start to imagine, a model where Kubernetes becomes this grand unifying theory for computer, where it runs everywhere. It runs in their single node, base station, it runs out in the windmill farms, it runs in Chick-fil-A shops, it runs in factories, it runs on cruise ships, it runs in data centers, it runs in the cloud. It’s a really exciting time to be working on tech, I would definitely say that.
Pricing To Value Ratio
Michael Schwartz: Normally, it’s really hard to get pricing right. Did you have to pivot your pricing model a couple of times? Or how was your experience like, figuring out what are the right price points?
Shannon Williams: Oh, man, that is a good one. We learned a lot from our last company. I made every mistake you can make last time. This time, we definitely had to pivot a little bit to be quite sure what the right element was to scale on with the number of clusters, or containers, or nodes, or CPUs, or things like that, but we decided pretty early on that the size of the implementation was probably a good way to judge how the cost should change from a small deployment to a large deployment, the number of hosts and servers, things like that.
Actually, I would say we learned a lot, we’re fortunate, that were a lot of indicators from the market, as people talked to us I would say. Your first 10 – 20 customers give you a lot of feedback on pricing, whether you want it or not.
Usually, I think most people price to low, just by nature. We all want to just make it both amazing and cheap prices. Like, who wouldn’t love this thing? It’s the best and it’s the cheapest. But you have to be realistic about what it takes to fund a business, what it’s going to take to build a profit, and what you can do with those engineers you can hire, and then you have to convince people of the value. It can be tough.
I remember I walked away from a lot of deals in open source. I just said, “I’m sorry. I totally appreciate that you’re telling me you could use the software for free, so you couldn’t possibly pay me more than $10,000 or $20,000. But if I did that, I wouldn’t be able to build a business, I wouldn’t be able to write open-source software, and I wouldn’t be able to give you the level of support you demand from your other enterprise software vendors. So, I’m sorry, we can’t do business with you.”
And sometimes they come back, sometimes they don’t, but being willing to walk away from deals – for our business model, it is absolutely critical to have to be able to do it. Otherwise, again, the car I’m selling you is available for free. You can take the same car with the exact same features, you’re not paying for a special version, it doesn’t have a better horn or better tires –it’s the exact same car. What I’m offering you is the confidence of working with me on it, and the world’s best support for that technology. If you don’t value those things, then, we can’t come to any business relationship between us.
Michael Schwartz: Have you used partners to help you deliver to customers, especially globally? Or are there any other business partners that have been important for you to build a business?
Shannon Williams: Yes, yes, yes, yes. Over and over again – yes. The critical partners for us have been really two big buckets. We have found that the other companies who are building critical technology for teams adopting containers. It’s a company that’s called Portworx that builds a really nice storage, and a company Aqua that builds great security, Sysdig who creates monitoring, Gitlab who does really cool tools for CI and Git deployment – all really commonly chosen by our customers.
But partnering with those companies, companies that fit into the same solution stack, we have been able to do two things: we’ve been able to build a much more credible solution for our Enterprise customers. And we’ve been able to align messaging and go-to-market together, and take maybe a couple of other organizations who are our size, venture-funded startups, and take our stories, and show them to larger organizations together.
And we would’ve done this through, we’d run online meetups, where our partners come and present to our users about their technology, and how they work with Rancher, and how they work with Kubernetes. That gives us a lot more credibility, and helps those company succeed, which helps the market grow because the market is vibrant. So, we invest a lot in partnering. We’ve also partnered really closely with the cloud providers.
We work really closely with Amazon, Google, and Microsoft in the U.S., and large providers around the world, to ensure that their implementation of Kubernetes works really well with Rancher. And that’s been fundamentally critical, especially because what we see is we see a market where, if you are in the cloud, you are probably going to use the cloud providers Kubernetes.
So, we want to make sure that we’re not trying to convince you to use Rancher’s Kubernetes on Google, take Google’s Kubernetes engine, which is great. Let us provide you with the common frameworks, whether using Google’s in Google, and Amazon’s in Amazon, on premise and Edge, or different types, everything is consistent, everything is managed the same way, everything is deployed, monitored, upgraded consistently. And you have a platform that really is this UberCloud we set out to build in the beginning anyways.
Michael Schwartz: If a customer says that services aren’t enough, they want on-site engineers, they want sort of higher-level design consulting – do you do that as expert services, or do you work with delivery partners to do that?
Shannon Williams: We tend to work with delivery partners. We work really closely with both big and small delivery partners who had built expertise. In Rancher, we have a platinum partner program, which is made up of some amazing companies that have implemented Rancher for others multiple times, and really have deeper understanding often not just of our ecosystem.
So, companies like RoundTower, CloudOps, Readapt, Accenture. We work with quite a lot of the large multinational services companies. We work with different regions around the world. These companies, BoxBoat and other really good ones, these guys, they’re really staffed to provide ongoing services for organizations in a way that we’re not.
Like, we are great at coming in and giving you a ton of information about Rancher and helping your architect your Rancher deployment, but a lot of times, technology is only a chunk of the solution. The solution needs to include some transformation of how you do things, how you do DevOps, how to train all your developers around microservices, how they start thinking of some of these new service matches, and how they might get into solving business problems for your company.
We can point you in the right direction and help you with those things, but we’re very laser-focused on the Kubernetes platform. And these companies are much better than we are at providing the transformational experience around there. So, yeah, we very much partner, especially in those longer-term things.
What we have found as really critical is the actual investment of our own on customer success. I would say, one of the things that’s got a lot better as we’ve grown is, we’ve invested more and more in — I think it was like the first 90 days when an organization becomes a Rancher customer.
I think this is really important for open-source companies because if you are a SaaS provider and somebody’s using your product, you have a pretty good idea what they’re doing with it. But as an open-source software companies, especially ones that support that open-source software, organizations can have very different processes, they may have more or less mature implementations, they may or may not have built-in an HA deployment. And they’re coming to you to provide support. You really need to make sure they understand best practices, that you reviewed their deployments, you helped them understand how we recommend doing things.
We invest a lot more now in customer success than we did in the early days. When a customer comes on board, we really spend a lot of time going through their architecture, helping them make improvements that they will achieve their goals, whether it’s stability, multi-cloud implementations, or they might try to do something, there’s a lot of scale. And then, there might be something we’ve learned already that can help them. I would say customer success has been a big learning for us.
Michael Schwartz: Has that investment in customer success also translated into increased revenues per customer year-over-year, so they’re buying more, or other products, or other divisions?
Shannon Williams: Well, it’s still new enough that I wouldn’t say if I know how correlated those two things are, but we certainly believe they are. We are investing in it because our bet is helping a customer be successful, with even a departmental implementation or a single app deployment is going to pay dividends for both retention of that customer and that workload.
So, a year later, when they decide they want to renew that support they bought last year, they have a really good feeling that, “Yeah, that was a great investment. Partnering with these guys has been useful.”
But certainly that also works internally. As they use it, they seem to spread the word. I mean, we have seen over and over and over again the power of the success of a Rancher deployment spreading within a company.
Users love Rancher. It’s a user-oriented product. What’s so cool about a product that has 30,000 open-source users is, it says something about how usable it is. It’s like terraform, you use it, it’s pretty straightforward, you like it and you go, “Cool. This is easy. I can get this.” You tell your friend, “You should use terraform. It would help you do something.” It’s kind of same with Rancher.
If all those users are using it, they are clearly getting some value from it. When somebody in your company says, “Hey, use this.”, and you’ll probably benefit from it. And there’s no barrier. I don’t have to start by going and getting a license to try it. I can just use it. It tends to spread the same way. It’s just the word of mouth and the power of it kind of spreads.
So, we found that making them successful and making sure those early champions are well-armed to explain why they chose Rancher, and they got a really good implementation, they don’t get bitten by a bad config, or maybe not knowing the best practices, it helps us in the long run for sure.
Michael Schwartz: I’m sure you’ve been hearing about open-source strip-mining from large cloud vendors, but what I’m wondering is, do you think it would be good or bad if some mega cloud company offered a Rancher-based service?
Shannon Williams: I think it would be great personally. From our perspective, the value of these mega cloud providers is always tied into a big ecosystem that they’re trying to build around. What we find is that organizations want to live in those ecosystems, and leverage those ecosystems, but they know they’re not going to live in just one of them. So, they want lots of them. And the more that those ecosystems interact or work together, or do things that help them work together, the better off they are.
In so many ways, I think the strip-mining analogy is that it’s a rough analogy because, well, it’s true that some of these providers don’t put a lot back, and there’s definitely been some ugly competition between open source and commercial. For the most part, I think their relationship has actually been pretty beneficial, mutually beneficial between the cloud providers and the open-source software developers.
It’s often where it’s really struggling, where you‘ve seen it’s struggling is when organizations haven’t had a great business plan our route to market, or they haven’t been able to commercialize their own products. And then, all of a sudden, it gets embedded into something larger. And then, the only monetization of it happens in the cloud.
I think that’s where we see most of the problems. I think that’s going to continue. I think that that was happening before as well. You know, ideas are developed, but are never really taken to market fully or are not pushed into the market aggressively. Organizations build upon those something new, or something tangential, or something that accelerates them. And that is what ends up being the big success.
To me, that’s business. That’s something that’s going to happen in any space, whether it is open source or not. And, yes, in our world, people can take and build on it very easily, but that’s what you know you’re getting into when you’re starting an open-source software business. And if you don’t, you really should research a little bit more.
This is a knife that cuts in many ways, from a business perspective. And I certainly would look at the world, and I certainly wouldn’t call foul if that happened to an open-source project. I’ll give you a feel, in China, Rancher is incredibly popular.
From early days, my co-founder Chan grew up in China, and so, you have someone who can speak Chinese and talks about it in China – Rancher became really famous. We’ve had multiple times where startups have kind of emerged competing with us in the market, selling Rancher and providing support around it.
Our experience has been that that, as long as we continue to push forward the innovation and organizations really value what we do, they’re going to want to work with us. They are going to benefit from working with us.
As long as we keep pushing it forward and building the product better, that will continue to be the case. But you have to know what you’re getting into. I don’t feel like there should be a huge shock if you build an open-source product, and someone forks it, and does something cool with it, that’s kind of the idea.
When To Use Open Source
Michael Schwartz: Moving to slightly higher level, do you have any thoughts about when entrepreneurs should use the open-source development methodology to develop a commercial product?
Shannon Williams: For me, I think it’s about the product you’re trying to build, and what you think your route to market needs to be. If you’re entering a market that you think is pretty competitive, and has a lot of different products, and you know you’re going up against much more well-funded organizations than you, then, I think open source is a really, really important one to consider and to look at. Because it allows you to get adoption in what would otherwise be a really hard market.
If your only feedback is going to come from a handful of companies you can convince to POC you or pay for it early on, you are going to have a hard time building momentum. And you’re going to have a hard time having good conversations with users who either like or don’t like what you’re building.
To me, I don’t know, I’ve been building nothing but open source for 11 years, so it kind of feels to me like everyone should just build open source. I don’t find that it’s ever slowed down our monetization. It’s always been a benefit. But I certainly would say that if you’re building something that you think is transformational, that actually has a broad audience that will adopt it, open source should very much be what you’re considering.
If you’re building something that’s probably a service, and it’s going to be hosted, I think open source can be enabling capability, but I wouldn’t worry too much about the open-source side, I would just focus on building the SaaS platform product tool that you are building a cloud service.
Because I think in those cases, open source is less important than it is an on-premise software or fundamental software. You’ve seen with Docker, open-sourcing, and having an open source success is not by any means enough to guarantee a commercial business success, but it puts you in a position where you have a great chance to engage with users, listen to what they think is necessary. Next steps, what they’re excited about your platform for, your product for, and what they’re willing to pay for, and build on that.
Advice For Entrepreneurs
Michael Schwartz: Last question, any advice for new entrepreneurs starting a business around an open-source platform?
Shannon Williams: Of the four of us who started Rancher and started Cloud.com and everything, I’m the non-engineer. My role in the early time of building a company, I was considering my role then to be how to connect with users, like how to connect to people even before you have a product.
When we were in our first 6 months, our first year, I spent all day, every day, thinking about who are potential users could be, based on the direction we think we were heading, and reaching out to people, introducing myself and introducing the idea we’re building, and getting feedback.
You always have to be thinking about the next milestone of users, “My gosh, how do we possibly get to 10 companies using our product?”
And the only way I can ever found that works to get to 10 is to find them by hand. To think, “You know, I think this makes sense for somebody in that space.” I really believe that if you as a founder can’t explain your value proposition enough to get someone to sit down on the phone and talk to you about it, and maybe watch a demo.
Especially when you can tell them, “Hi, I’m Shannon. I’m one of the founders of this new startup called Rancher. We’re trying to solve this problem, and I thought it might apply to you guys. I really love your feedback. We are not trying to sell you anything, we just want your feedback on what we’re doing.”
If someone doesn’t want to talk to you with that pitch, you might be barking up the wrong tree with your idea. That initial response, if you can’t just explain what you’re trying to build to someone right away, and if you can’t get a meeting, it’s probably worth reflecting on what you’re doing, and maybe tweaking, and then trying some different approaches, trying some different messages.
Because if you can’t get a meeting, it’s going to be really hard to get a sell. It’s going to be really hard to get a user, it’s going to be really hard to convert them into a paying customer.
But if you explain to someone, most people love to talk to entrepreneurs starting companies, especially if they can really clearly communicate what it is they’re trying to solve. And that validation early on goes enormously towards then calling that person back in three months, and saying, “Hey, we got a first beta ready, would you like to take a look at it?” And getting those first 10 is hand-to-hand combat.
Really the first hundred is hand-to-hand connecting to people, showing them the product, showing them the value, and getting to use it. Every once in a while, you have these runaway crazy successes, where everyone’s like, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe – how did we live before this existed?” But most of the time, it doesn’t work like that. Most of the time, you have to connect, talk, demo, listen to the feedback, and go back and consider how far on or off your strategy you are.
Michael Schwartz: I said it was my last question, but now you just raised another question, and I can’t resist. Previously you mentioned that a lot of the leads for customers were from inbound, from customers who use the software, liked it, and then called you to purchase a support subscription. But 50 deals a quarter – that’s a lot of business. That’s really pretty stellar. And I’m wondering, what’s the right mix of inbound and outbound marketing sales to push for, or how do you balance that?
Shannon Williams: First step for all of this is find a real market. When you find a real market, things get a lot easier. Because you have to have something going on that’s causing people to look for a solution, they have to have a problem.
So, to your question, if I had my druthers, I’d have a 100% coming inbound, so everything coming inbound means that the market is actively looking for solutions. My brand is well enough known, we are the company they should at least talk to about this to get a demo. Ideally, it’s open-source, just download it, and install it, and try it, and see what you think.
I, from day one, believed in inbound as our goal. So, that meant, instead of spending a lot of our early dollars on advertising, for example, I spent almost everything we did, online communication to users. And that meant, oh, my goodness, we wrote dozens and dozens of pieces of content explaining how to use Containers, and Kubernetes, and Docker, to help people find us.
They may not be looking for Rancher, but they were looking to solve a problem. And so, we really tried to build a list of the lots of the problems they were trying to solve.
We hosted an online meet-up every month that grew to have thousands and thousands of people register every month. It was crazy. We just run them today – I just did one last week.
And what we said was, “Hey, come, it’ll be our smartest technical people. We will stay as long as you need. We’ll demo whatever it is we say we’re going to do. I won’t just show you a bunch of slides, we’re actually getting this code, we will teach you how to do it. And we will stay until every Kubernetes questions are answered.”
So, these things would run two hours, three hours, but they allowed people to cross hurdles, to learn how to build the CI/CD Stack on Kubernetes, or how to do monitoring on it, or how to deal with logging, or how to use containers and the cloud – whatever it was we were trying to solve that month, we really focused on it. It was really that. It was education, community, content that, coupled with early references that we built by hand, in that hand-to-hand phase, got the word out.
By continuing to invest in that, we were able to kind of sow so many seeds of open-source users that as they matured, and liked what they usd, they contacted us. The right mix for me is a 100% inbound from the open-source community. But what we did find was, as we grew, we started to run into bigger organizations. They have entrenched vendors.
All of a sudden, we might have won a line of business users, and then they just said, “Hey, we love this Rancher. We are going to use it for application A, B, and C.” But 80% of the company was using something else that they’ve maybe built themselves, or maybe they bought something, some other product a couple years ago to do PaaS, or something.
And so, because those organizations started to look and say, “Why aren’t you using this? Why are you using Rancher?”, we had to support them and show other people in the organization, “Well, actually, this isn’t the same. It’s different, and here’s why it’s different.” What we did find was there was longer Enterprise sales cycles, so we needed good high-quality sales people to work with bigger companies.
But the positive was, we found that those companies actually really appreciated that it was open source. And the fact that you already had one over, a group of people who really loved it internally, meant that you kind of solved, in a lot of cases, the biggest problems these IT teams were facing, which was, they were building stuff and no one was using it anyway because they were just going to the cloud, they were building something themselves.
So, when we could tie together, the IT organization, which is like doing everything they can to support forward-looking development while still being secure and still being cost-conscious. And teams that have usage and feel like they’ve got found something cool, it was just like made it for a much easier sales motion than your traditional either selling top-down or kind of getting some executive buy-in, and then hoping people use your product once it was brought in.
I don’t know, does that answer to your question, Mike? I kind of feel like I ramp up there.
Michael Schwartz: Yeah, that’s lots of great info. Shannon, thank you so much for joining us today, and being so honest with your answers.
Shannon Williams: Mike, it was my pleasure. Thanks for doing this. I love your idea of open source entrepreneurs just sharing and talking about what we do. I think it’s a phenomenal business model. It is a real transformation of the relationship between the developer of a really powerful software and the consumer of that software. So, it’s something I have enormous passion for.
Michael Schwartz: Best of luck with Rancher, and congratulations on all the success.
Shannon Williams: Thank you so much, Mike. You too. Have a great one.
Michael Schwartz: Thanks to the Rancher team for making this happen. Transcription and episode audio can be found on opensourceunderdogs.com. Music from Broke For Free and Chris Zabriskie. Audio editing by Ines Cetenji. Production assistance by Natalie Lowe. Operational support from William Lowe. Transcription by Marina Andjelkovic.
The Twitter handle is @fosspodcast. Rate us on iTunes if you like this episode.
Next week, we have James Waters, SVP of Product at Pivotal. Until then, thanks for listening.
Episode 38: npm Inc.– From Software Registry to Software Business, with Isaac Schlueter, Chief Open Technology Officer
Michael Schwartz: Welcome back to Open Source Underdogs. I’m your host, Mike Schwartz, and this is episode 38, the last in-person interview recorded at the Open Core Summit. Our guest is Isaac Schlueter, CEO of npm Inc.
If you want to learn more about npm, Isaac was a guest on Founders Talk Episode 61. And for an interesting perspective on the npm ecosystem, you might want to listen to Changelog Episode 355 – it’s an interview with C.J. Silverio, as a former CTO of npm Inc. She provides an interesting perspective on the economics and the technical challenges of running the world’s largest package registry.
I hope you enjoy this episode. And if you like it or you’d like to start a discussion, tweet at us. Our Twitter handle is @fosspodcast.
So, without further delay, onward with the interview. Isaac, thank you so much for joining us today.
Isaac Schlueter: Hey, happy to be here.
What Is Npm?
Michael Schwartz: Some business people listening to this podcast might not know what npm is or what it does – can you give a really quick explanation?
If you’re depending on a platform, or a module, or a library, or something, you can automatically pull in all of those updates and keep your app up-to-date.
Why Inc. Not Foundation?
Isaac Schlueter: There is a couple of reasons for this. The first one is, if we go back to the kind of the history of npm, when I decided to start a company around it, it was my side project for about four years.
And it grew in popularity. It was running on donated infrastructure from this company, Iris Couch. We just grew to a point where the scale was too massive for them to be able to afford to keep doing that.
I looked at my options, and starting the foundation was definitely on the list of things that I could do. Another option was, find a home for it in some big company, try to get hired by Google or Microsoft, or somebody.
The reason why I decided to start an independent company was simply owing to the scale and the rate of growth that we were seeing. So, the typical way that a foundation operates, you raise a bunch of money from a bunch of companies who have some vested interest in whatever the thing is, whether that’s an open-source project or some other thing. And then, you spend that money on keeping the thing going, so that might be, having developers work on the project, your managing governance, or marketing, whatever.
Within npm, we had this exponential growth curve that we are still at the very beginning of, in terms of the number of users on the npm platform. We’d grown to about a million users. Our rate of downloads and package growth was just astronomical.
So, we kind of did some back-of-the-envelope math and realized like, “Okay, well, we could go, raise a couple million bucks to start a foundation and be able to put some resources behind this thing. But what are we going to do next year? We’re going to need 10X as much. And then, the year after that, and the year after that.
The task of just kind of continually being in fundraising mode was pretty daunting. Especially because it’d be hard to justify that the benefits to each of those member companies would also keep increasing enough to justify them, increasing their investment.
On the other hand, if you have an exponential growth curve of almost anything, even rising costs, you can take that to an investor and say, “Here’s the thing: it’s a thing that’s growing, it is a thing that’s exciting.” You can tell a story about how you’re going to go about monetizing that in the future, and that’s something that is sort of a good fit for a venture-back startup.
Michael Schwartz: Most people use npm for free – what do you actually sell?
Isaac Schlueter: We sell two main things right now. The first is npm Orgs product, which is a multi-tenant SaaS thing that you can use to store your private code within your organization. That’s used primarily by smaller companies or front-end development teams within larger companies.
The price point there is $7 per user per month. It grows depending on the size of the Org, you can have multiple packages all underneath that same Org.
The other thing that we sell is our product called npm Enterprise, which is a single-tenant instance of the npm Registry and website. It has some additional features, like single sign-on, or security policy enforcement, that kind of thing, which is more of a need at bigger companies.
Michael Schwartz: What kinds of companies use the Enterprise products – do you segment the market at all?
Isaac Schlueter: The sweet spot for us is about development team of 50 or more. We do some market segmentation to go after different sectors. There are some sectors that we focus on, but obviously, we will sell it to anybody who wants it. There’s a fair amount of inbound that comes in as well.
We’re seeing the most traction in sectors that have really high compliance, policy and security compliance needs, so financial industry is a really big one. And there’s also a ton of customers with money to spend on their development practices, and they get a lot of benefits by having their developers able to build things in a more frictionless way.
The other sort of category of markets that we go after, where we’ve seen some good results, are companies where there is sort of an internal agency model, where you have a web development team that has multiple different website properties.
There might be hopping between different websites that are all kind of under one big corporate brand. And in that case, there’s a lot of benefits to being able to reuse those modules.
Marketing / Sales
Michael Schwartz: In terms of marketing, you were sort of starting from a nice position because everyone knows npm – how do you organize sort of the marketing effort so that people know what the commercial offering is? And how do you organize the sales – do you just wait for inbound or you do any outbound marketing?
Isaac Schlueter: We do a fair bit of outbound marketing, and it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword. Everybody knows npm, but not everybody knows npm Inc. or npm Enterprise.
One of the challenges that we ran into, which I think is common among a lot of companies that are operating in open-source communities, is that people have heard of the thing but they haven’t really heard of the product.
One of the things we heard is, “Oh, npm? That’s a company??” I just thought packages came out of the ether. I didn’t realize it was downloading from somewhere.”
So, when it comes to our marketing efforts, a fair amount of the work there is in continually beating the drum of like, “Yeah, we have things for you.” “If you need policy compliance, if you need security, if you need proprietary code, and you want to manage it, using the things that your developers already know and love, then we have a solution for you.”
When we go through the sales process, typically we have an internal champion, which is usually engineering architect, or engineering manager, or something like that, who sort of intuitively understands the benefits of npm.
Then, the sale process tends to be one of making the case to folks who are not already deep in this ecosystem. That tends to be people in kind of like internal development tools, purchasing team, the CIO’s office – it can take a couple of different shapes, but, you know, the folks within a large Enterprise who managed to spend on development tooling.
Free V. Commercial
Michael Schwartz: Diverting a little bit from marketing, one of my guests said to me that it’s almost better to start a company around a product that you don’t write, an open-source product that you don’t write, because all those engineers who are working on the open-source thing, they’re not billable, or they’re not contributing to their commercial product – do you feel that friction at all, where maybe part of the team is really committed to the community mission but maybe other parts of the organization are more interested in the product than actually generate revenue? How do you reconcile that?
Isaac Schlueter: It can be a tough needle to thread. I mean, not to dispute the past guest who said that, there’s some sense in what they’re saying, but obviously, I do disagree because of what I’ve done.
I think that the challenge, or at least the puzzle, is to figure out how do we continue to make good on our community mission in such a way that it serves our product interest, and how do we design our product interest in such a way that they’re served by the success of the open-source community.
We have certainly made some missteps in the past. One of the biggest things that makes good intuitive sense. You have an engineering team, you have a web team, you have a backing team. Of course, you’re going to have an open- source team, but the minute that you start doing that, you create this unhealthy dichotomy.
Even if it’s just in your own thinking as a founder, and as a manager, as an entrepreneur, where it can be very easy to get into these dysfunctional patterns of being resentful about, “Well, these five engineers are spending all their time on the open-source stuff, and we’re just giving that away, and how is that helping the company?” “And here I am, busting my hump every day, trying to make our website better, and trying to sell products and trying to get new log-ins and new sign-ups.”
And every time you want to build some new thing, it’s like, when
we run into this case of like, “Should we give this thing away or should we charge
for it?” And the thing that I’ve come to after five and a half years of doing
this is – if I was smarter, maybe I would have come to it sooner –
is just that that’s the wrong question.
The minute you find yourself asking, “Should this be free or should it be paid?”, you’ve already kind of committed the fundamental thinking error of putting those two things at odds.
The better way to think about it is, “What is the free thing that will get someone to pay for this?”
So, what can we give away in such a way that it will open the door for an upgrade path, and that will open the door for a paid product that is a very clear enhancement to the thing that they’re getting for free.
Some of the best companies in the space that I’ve seen tend to have an approach of, like, their explicit goal is that individual developer should never have to pay for our product. But, a company should almost always have to pay for it.
And that really clarifies the thinking, and it clarifies a puzzle in a really interesting way. Because anything that involves a team of ten people, writing a proprietary application, like, they got to pay for that. That’s a company, that’s a for-profit company.
Now, okay, it could also be like a school or it could be a nonprofit org – you can always give those folks a coupon, that’s not actually a problem. But with our Enterprise product and with our Orgs product, I think we’ve done okay. Orgs are free if they’re open source.
If you have five people collaborating on an open-source project, and they want to keep a bunch of modules under a namespace, they don’t have to pay for that if it’s all open source. And we really see that as part of the nice, easy transition from like an individual working on open-source, a group working on it, and then up to a group working on some kind of paid product.
One of the things that we did not anticipate when we made Orgs free was actually it increased our paid Orgs signups.
We’d always intended to do some kind of, like, first month free, type of trial type of thing, and just kind of didn’t get to it because it takes time and attention, and there’s only so many people and only so much code you can write in a day.
And we decided that we want to make Orgs free for open-source projects. Because there was a handful of different open-source projects, and we gave them an Orgs, one of our database markets just went free. And we were kind of like, “We should just make this a thing.”
When we did that, what was surprising was, people at companies would sign up for a free Org, add their whole team, try it out for like an hour, go, “Okay, this is going to work, and then, they’d flip the switch to be a paid org.
That’s for me when kind of the light bulb went off. Like, “We should not be thinking about what is paid and what is free, we should be thinking about what is free, so that it makes it easier to buy the paid thing, if you need it.
Michael Schwartz: So, it was all on the honor system? You could sign up as an Org?
Isaac Schlueter: You couldn’t publish anything private. You couldn’t have a package in your organization that had access control attached to it. Anything you published in a free Org would be open to the entire world.
Michael Schwartz: You really almost had to invent a business around this because I can’t say there was like any direct model you could choose. And one of the hardest parts of that is figuring out what to charge for that, especially because you didn’t have a lot of data. I’m wondering since you started the last five years, have you had to pivot on the pricing model a couple of times? Or has it been relatively stable, and did you get it right?
Isaac Schlueter: Yeah, we just stuck the landing – it’s been perfect. No problems at all. I wouldn’t say that we’ve pivoted on the pricing model. We have made some changes that I think are somewhat subtle. And most of those I’ve been owing to user experience.
Around in 2016, or beginning 2017 I think – I forget the exact dates now, it’s all lost in the mists of time – when we originally released our Orgs product, our paid Orgs product, basically an organization, again, you build things in the simplest way possible with the stuff you have because you’ve got to ship something, and if at one point it was perfect, you waited too long. And just the easiest way to do it was to say, “An organization is a subscription that belongs to a particular npm user.”
That gets us into some real interesting subtlety I think that not a lot of Org users, then or now, really fully appreciate it. But the idea was, your Org would have an owner – that was an npm account.
The real big problem that came up, and it came up fast, was, well, what happens when that user goes away, what happens if they leave the company and now what. It’s still billing to their account and their account has this credit card attached, it is a corporate credit card, and like, the only way to resolve it was actually to go through our support team, which, I love our support team, I think that they’re great, they do great work, and I’m really happy that they’re there, and supporting our community, and our customers, but every time somebody has to contact support – that’s a mistake we made, that’s something that we needed to fix.
So, we kind of went back to the drawing board and said, “How do people think this works? How do users think this Orgs thing works?” They think that they create an Org, and they think that they just pay for the Org, and the Org has some user who is administering it, but they can change that user.
So, what that said to me and what we kind of landed on was, the organization itself should be the primary first-class kind of billing entity. And then, the user account of the subscription, and everything else, is attached to that organization, not to some individual user.
Then, that shift, due to some other sort of subtleties, and how it was implemented, we realized that if we made this transition, a bunch of Orgs, who are currently not paying for users who have access to their packages, would suddenly have to start paying for those user accounts.
And the way that we addressed it was, we just collected all of those cases where that would happen, and we applied a coupon to all of those accounts to give them a discount and said, “All right. Like, your bill isn’t going to go up.”
Yeah, we probably could have just said, “Well, bad news. I know you’re paying $7 a month now, but it’s now going to be 21 because you got these other two users that technically are part of this other Org, even though they’re in your Org also.” And it got really hairy, but we figured that the user experience hit just wasn’t worth it like, “Thank you for being an early subscriber, an early adopter.”, but moving forward, it really vastly simplified it.”
The organization is a top-level thing, it’s like a first-class entity in our system. Every user account costs 7 bucks a month – that’s it. There’s no like discounts if you’re in multiple Orgs or anything like that.
Nobody complained, some folks got an email that said, “Hey, you know, we’re changing our pricing model. This would make your bill go up, but here’s a discount, so it won’t.” There was basically no reaction, which is what we’re hoping for.
Now, our Enterprise product, regarding pricing, yeah, we’ve been all over the map there. You talked about there not being data, well, with a self-serve product, you have quite a bit of data. It’s really easy to just throw a survey out there, and like, yeah, it’s going to be noisy, and you’re going to get a dozen people were like, “Oh, I wouldn’t pay more than a penny.” But you can wipe out the outliers, and get some kind of at least directional data.
One of the things we found was, there’s already some services out there, like GitHub costed 7 bucks a month for Orgs at that time. I think they’ve since changed their pricing model for their Orgs products, so it’s like $25 for the first 5 users and then $9 after. We thought about doing something like that in our sales, mainly in the future. Just to kind of help people get over that initial hump.
But once you had your first 5 users, it’s very, very sticky. The easier we can make that seem, it’s like 25 bucks and you get 5 users – that seems cheap. But if it’s $7 a user, and you only had two users, there’s a pretty good chance you might not like stick with the product. If you get those 5 users in, now you’ve got five people all collaborating on code, and they’re not going to abandon that for anything because now it’s kind of in their process.
So, with the Enterprise product on the other hand, there really is almost no data, and it’s very difficult to get that data. A lot of Enterprise products, even if you go to like companies, providers, websites, and you look at their Enterprise products, it says, “Call us.” You are kind of in this like arm wrestling match with the procurement department, where your price is, like, you give us ‘whatever we can get out of you’ basically is the price.
I think with our Enterprise product now we start at $50 a seat, and the product has quite a bit more features in it than our previous generation of our Enterprise product which was quite a bit cheaper. And we also have a minimum number of seats in order to qualify for an Enterprise product. We don’t offer it for less than 20 seats.
The nice thing about that is that it immediately selects out everybody who’s not actually going to need the benefits of this product, who is not going to need the policy enforcement and security features of it.
They are not going to be as well served by that product like they should really be buying Orgs. So, it’s tempting to look at pricing as like the way that you make money, but really, another way to think of it is like, how does a pricing act as a filter for who should be using this thing, and how does it work as a signal.
If you have a product, and you have your product break down your pricing page, or whatever, there are companies that are going to just look, and they’re going to say, “I don’t want the cheapest one, I don’t want the most expensive one – give me the one in the middle. I don’t want to look at all these words.” And they’re just going to buy it.
You need to think of, like, who is that user, who’s that persona and kind of focus your research there, and then, work backwards, like, “What is their budget? What can they pay?” And then from there, you’ve got pretty good answer about your price.
Every Enterprise is going to try and make some argument for why they should be paying less. So, start high and let them push you down. And also, like, if you don’t start high enough, then they’re not going to think that it’s legit.
More On Pricing
Michael Schwartz: Was that one of the hardest parts of migrating from I guess open-source repository or open repository to business? Just getting that right?
Isaac Schlueter: On the list of hard things, that doesn’t even make it top 10, there is quite a bit that’s much more challenging. I mean, the other thing about product is, I think it’s really much more art than science, and certainly, there’s product managers out there who are like pounding the table as they listen to this, and sure that I’m super, super wrong about it.
But, so much of it is, you need to figure out a price that you won’t go bankrupt. And then, you need to figure out how to sell that at that price. And the specific number, is it 8, or is it 9, or is it 20, or is it 25.
I think at the end of the day, that probably matters a lot less than have you built a product that people want to use, and have you priced it in such a way that it sends a signal that those people actually are the ones who should be using it.
If you look at the pricing of wine, great example of this — I don’t know, I’m going to offend some wine snobs in your audience, I apologize – a lot of the pricing of wine is like completely arbitrary.
It’s like, are you somebody who likes the expensive wine or who doesn’t care, or you’re like somebody who kind of wants, “I want it to be good, but like I don’t want to spend a lot.” I mean, all wine, it’s all fermented grape juice. It’s not that different, it’s essentially just overstock of wine, that’s why they’re able to sell it so cheap.
But that price signals a particular kind of buyer who is likely to benefit from that product. And on the other end of the spectrum, it’s the same kind of thing. You’re buying this $500 bottle of wine because you want to show off how rich you are, and in order to show off how rich you are, it has to cost $500. And so, that’s why people buy that.
In the world of software product management, we like to pretend that we’re a little bit more rational because we’re all like tech people and we are very cerebral and logical. We do math, and it still largely just kind of comes down to like, what are the products that your product is like, how much do they cost. If you just copy them, it’s probably you could do a lot worse.
Michael Schwartz: So, now I have to ask a question – what were some of the hardest challenges? Please, take top, one or two.
Isaac Schlueter: I set myself up to that one, didn’t I? I mentioned a kind of the split brain that can happen within an organization when you separate out your free, or open-source, or community offerings from your paid offerings, and think of them as different things. That’s a very, very easy error to make, but it’s a very pernicious one that really gets in everywhere.
And I think it, in order to avoid that error, you have to think about that design, not just in your product design but actually in your organization design, in your strategy, in your go-to-market, in where you get your investment from, and who you have on your board. Like it has to really, really inform everything about your company in order to steer yourself away from that kind of problem.
Another big and easy mistake to make is having an on-prem and a SaaS product at the same time early in companies like them. Eventually, you’re going to need to have an on-prem product. And if you’re positioned well to do a bottoms-up sale, that has to be a SaaS.
Because no development team — if it’s five people on a Dev team and you’re trying to convince them to use this tool, they’re not going to spin up a server and install it and operate it themselves – they’re just not set up for that. If there’s a SaaS offering, they’re going to take that one.
And as an early stage company, when you’re talking about like 10, 20 people, if you are building products, like you’re going to take every single shortcut you possibly can. And the biggest shortcut you can take, if you have an on-prem product and a SaaS product, is to start putting big ‘if blocks’ in your code base. And you can tell yourself like, “Oh, they’re the same code base, were totally keeping them in sync.” It’s all one big Dev team.
What’s going to happen is, even the same developer working on both things is just going to put a big ‘If Block’ and say, if process dot, end of dot enterprise equals true, and then basically fork in place, which is even worse than actually forking two code bases. Because now you have this kind of like convoluted ball of mud.
We originally did have an on-prem Enterprise product, we still have some customers who are using it, even though we’re still trying to kind of like nudge them to our Enterprise SaaS product. We reached a point as a company, where we sort of realized we can’t keep running this Enterprise product, we’re actually losing money on every sale, because the cost to support and operate and get a customer up and running is just too high.
So, we pivoted somewhat, we kind of instead said, “How do we take what we do with the registry and with the website, with the Orgs and everything else?” “How do we make a SaaS offering there?” And what do the Enterprise customers actually need for that?”
We’re still figuring out kind of how to play in that space, and how to best have that integrated and connected with our self-serve products, but it’s still a huge step in the right direction. I think hindsight being 20-20, going out the door really in our first year with an on-prem Enterprise product and a SaaS team’s product at the same time, seemed fine. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
A bunch of people told me, “Well, you need to really make sure that the code bases don’t diverge if you do that.” I heard that from a bunch of folks at GitHub, who made the same kind of error, and I was like, “Okay, noted. Don’t let the code bases diverge.” Got it. What they didn’t tell me was, “You’re going to let the code bases diverge. That is absolutely going to happen – it’s inescapable.” You can either be a SaaS company or an on-prem product company, and those two companies are very different shapes.
If you’re going to be an on-prem product company, that means there’s a lot more of a top-down sale most likely. Or it just has to be so easy to install and start running like on a laptop. It’s almost certain that you’re going to need some really good professional services skills within your company, because making a customer successful with that product is going to require that you have somebody who knows how to stand it up, and how to operate, and kind of which buttons to push, and which knobs not to push, how to tell if there’s a problem – all of that stuff.
That means training, that means customer success, that means like really building in good metrics into the product itself, but in such a way that they’re not going to offend people who don’t necessarily want data collected about them, or if it’s behind the firewall, like, how that all works.
On the other hand, the way that you go to market with a SaaS product is completely different. It’s more about adding hooks and adding limits and adding these pay walls within your free product. So, when you go to your settings page, or you go to like view some metadata, or you go to view a report, or you go to add a new package, they can say, “Hey, you need to pay to use this feature. And those are two completely different mindsets.
At a certain point of maturity, you could reach a point where you have enough, maybe you fall of the bottoms up path, the bottom up path eventually gets to the top, and the top down path eventually gets to the bottom. But if you try to approach it from both sides at the same time, I just feel like that almost never can work out well. Now, there are companies that end up doing both, but if you really look carefully at the companies that are successful doing both, most of them started on one end, and then made it to the other.
Either they started as a top-down company, and they did well enough with like evangelizing, and marketing, and getting adoption, and gaining traction within these large companies that it became sort of a de facto standard. And then open-source parts started to kind of become the way that developers expected to do things.
Or they started as a bottoms up strategy, where every developer just eventually started to expect that this is how things work. And when they came to a big company they said like, “We need to sign up for these.” And then, eventually, they built out features that built up to that enterprise-level. And obviously npm loses position to do the bottoms up thing, and so, approaching both the same time was — I would not do that again.
Michael Schwartz: What’s your approach to building the team?
Isaac Schlueter: Before there was a company, there was me and there was one guy who was in Thailand. Another couple of folks, one was in Eastern Europe – again, this was a whole donated infrastructure stuff, so whatever that other company was doing. I didn’t really recruit them, it was kind of just like who I ended up with. And luckily, some of them were really good. A lot of npm’s success really owes to that.
When we founded the company, you know, it’s easy to forget now, because it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago, but video conferencing was not as good as it is now. Chat apps were not as good as they are now. Slack didn’t exist, Zoom didn’t exist. I think Zoom might have existed, but it wasn’t what it is now. It wasn’t back then easy-to-use.
So, initially, we would focus our hiring on the Bay area, which seemed reasonable. It’s what you do, it was a Bay area startup. We opened an office in Oakland, mostly because that’s where I live. We went from there, so that the initial team was almost all coming from Oakland. There’s one person we got doing op stuff, who is in South Africa. And part of the challenge was like adding remote people was really hard, because the whole team is there in Oakland.
Like, we’re talking about strategy, and tactic, and products, and technical direction, and stuff over lunch, out everyday, like, it’s really, really hard to keep people in the loop if they were not colocated with us.
We eventually moved from IRC to Slack, and we started doing more and more stuff on Slack. We found that we actually needed to have a little bit more time zone coverage. So, we added some other developers, we hired somebody who was in Europe, and that really pushed us to operate in a more distributor friendly way. So, doing more of our discussions on Slack, having our meetings with Zoom.
We kind of just kept adding remote people. It was like, “Well, there’s those two developers we want to add, we want to hire.” And like, can they do remote, and one of them is remote, and you do that again, again, again, and after a while, it got to a point where like, our CEO is in Halifax, our CTO is in Toronto, I’m here in Oakland. We have this big beautiful office, and I’m one of like four people in it.
When we rented that office, we had this plan to like eventually grow to 50 people. And we were looking at the office we were in. We were 13 people, and we did not fit. We had a single conference room, a single room with a door that closed, and we grew to about 13 people, and we were just like, “This is ridiculous, we got to get out of here.”
We found a bigger space, we knew that we would end up growing to between 30 and 50 people over the next couple years, so we’ve rented the space that could house that many. I think it was just a few weeks or a month ago actually, or maybe a couple months ago, where we had this interesting situation where our landlord wanted to move us to a different spot within the building.
You know, we’ve been thinking for like a year how stupid it was that we had this big Oakland office, and like, we’d really like to get rid of it, but we’ve got another year on the lease. And they’re like, “Hey, we want to move you from the 11th to the 5th floor.” And we’re like, “How about we just leave?” They are like, “Yeah, cool. We get to rent the space out at 2019 prices instead of keeping your lease? Yeah, go.”
So, it actually worked out great. It was a little bit sudden, the way that sort of fell on our lap. But yeah, now we’re just 100% remote, everybody works from home, and that freed up a lot of capital for us to actually offer like a monthly work from home allowance, to cover things like internet, and the desk light, or whatever work expenses you might have, whereas previously, it was like we really can’t afford to do that because we’re spending our whole office budget on an office.
If you want to work in the office, like, we got this great office, but most of our staff was not in the Bay Area. So, in terms of like, where do we recruit people or how do we find talent, we do get a lot of resumes, we do get a lot of interest especially in technical roles.
We use a combination of just our networks, which has some pros and cons. The obvious pro, hiring somebody you know is you know them, so there’s a good chance that there’s a little bit more of like a connection, they may be a little bit more motivated to make it work, etc.
The downside is, you probably know people who are like you, and so you can very quickly and easily get into a bad cycle, where your kind of diversity just goes off a cliff. Or even worse, we’re like people who are kind of in the crowd, or like included in decisions, or have a little bit more power or authority within the company, then they probably sort of can get very like toxic and weird that way. I think that we’ve avoided that for the most part.
The other thing we’ve done in, especially tough to find rolls, we’ve had some success with executive search firms, we’ve done that a couple of times. And then, also posting stuff on LinkedIn, on Lever, on our other social media channels. We have our own npmjs.com/jobs that shows what roles we have open, and people apply for them.
Advice For Entrepreneurs
Michael Schwartz: The last question. Any advice for new entrepreneurs who are starting a business where open-source is a part of their business model?
Isaac Schlueter: I talked about this a little bit, but I’m going to go ahead and just repeat myself, because I feel like this is really important and really easy to miss and really easy to not understand the importance of it.
You have to craft your plan such that doing the free thing actually serves your strategy. And there’s a lot of subtlety to that. I don’t have like one weird trick that will fix everything. But you definitely need to think of, like, “If we give this thing away for free, what happens?”
Part of the thinking there is, imagine that you have like ants roaming around on a dirt floor or on the ground, if you pour some honey in one spot, that’s going to change the whole ecosystem. And that’s kind of what happens when you start giving away something for free, whether it’s an open-source product, whether it’s a service that you say, like, “This is free for open-source packages or for open-source projects, or for open-source users whatever.”
You’re creating a pile of honey in the middle of all these ants that are currently just kind of roaming around in their own different ways, like, they’re all going to find it, and they’re all going to come to it. It’s like, “Okay, now what?” What I mean by that is, when you get something away for free, you are fundamentally kind of like disrupting an ecosystem.
It’s important none of the ants are complaining about the honey, but you’ve now changed the shape of the scenario. And that can be really, really good, or that can be really, really hazardous.
It’s tempting to be like, “Oh, I’m charging for this thing and I’m giving this thing away.” And how do I convince the free people to buy the paid thing? Like, you’d really need to back several steps up and think, “What do these people need? What’s the thing that I can sell them that will address that need? And what’s the free thing that’s going to drag them over?” Instead of saying, “What do I give away for free?”, and then separately from that, “What do I pay for it? How do I balance these two?” They have to be one thing in your mind.
Michael Schwartz: Isaac, that was super interesting. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Isaac Schlueter: Thanks for having me.
Michael Schwartz: Huge thanks to the Open Core Summit for connecting us to Isaac and for volunteering their only sales office to provide a quiet place to record. Don’t miss the next Open Core Summit. It was one of the best conferences I attended in 2019. Where else can you get a critical mass of open-source founders in one place?
It’s essential that we foster an event like this so we can share experiences about what’s working in open-source business.
Transcription and episode audio can be found on opensourceunderdogs.com.
Music from Broke For Free and Chris Zabriskie.
Audio editing by Ines Cetenji.
Production assistance by Natalie Lowe. Operational support from William Lowe.
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Until then, thanks for listening.
Ben Golub has lead several open source software ventures, including Gluster and Docker. Storj monetizes open source by creating a distributed file storage network. Using the network, people can securely store files. And owners of Internet connected computers can put their unused disk capacity to work. To lower transactions costs, Storj launched a true utility token, which has intrinsic value. It simplifies transactions of an alternate 150+ fiat currencies. This episode was recorded in person at the Open Core Summit.
Michael Schwartz: Hello, and welcome to Open Source Underdogs. I’m your host, Mike Schwartz, and this is episode 37, with Ben Golub, CEO of Storj.
I was really excited to schedule this episode because for a few years I’ve been wondering if there’s some cryptocoin business model that might work in the open-source world.
This is the second of three episodes that we recorded at the Open Core Summit in San Francisco in 2019. It was a fantastic event for open-source teams and founders, and I highly recommend attending the next one.
Ben was previously the CEO of Docker, he was also the founder of Gluster, which was sold to RedHat. He has a pretty deep understanding of the trials and tribulations of building a business around open-source.
After finishing the interview, I wasn’t 100% sure this was really an open-source business model after all, but Storj is definitely one of the most unique companies I’ve ever learned about. So, with that said, let’s roll the proverbial tape.
Michael Schwartz: Ben, thank you so much for joining us today.
Ben Golub: My pleasure.
Michael Schwartz: Ben, before Storj, you helped found a company that launched a little product called Docker – can you tell us a little bit about your journey? How did Storj come about, and why did you move on from Docker?
Ben Golub: Yeah. I’ve now been at 8 startups, four CEOs, so I’m a glutton for punishment. I actually started my career doing international development, so my first failed startup was a business school in Uzbekistan that had a business model, which was I think, “Teach people how to read a balance sheet and then democracy will flourish.” And that didn’t quite work.
But from then on, I’ve been involved in sort of the first version of the web, ran a number of businesses at VeriSign, was the CEO of Plaxo, was the CEO of Gluster, which we sold to Red Hat, and then ended up at what was dot.Cloud, and it eventually became Docker.
Right at the time, Docker had this crazy notion of taking a container that we used to run a PaaS and said, “Hey, can we make this available to the world?” And Solomon Hykes, the founder, and I introduced this notion of a container. And I think in sort of excellent open-source fashion embraced the community, embraced something that was disruptive.
We saw it grow, and it became tremendous. I think it helped change the industry and became a driving business. I’m an early-stage startup guy, I’m not a late-stage startup guy, and I think that once you want to get to a certain size, where it’s 500, 600 people, and you’re closing in on a hundred million revenue, there are people that are better at scaling PaaS than I am.
So, I moved on. I still obviously love the company. And then, I got approached by Shawn Wilkinson, who had this crazy notion as a student at Morehouse College that you could build Airbnb for disk drives, and that’s what I’m doing now.
Is Storj Distributed S3?
Michael Schwartz: I think of Storj as decentralized S3.
Ben Golub: That’s absolutely accurate. Deliver something that’s S3, its cloud storage, but it’s delivered across a huge network of disk drives that we don’t own, that are run by individuals and data centers.
How Does Storj Make Money?
Michael Schwartz: So, for every dollar raised, 60% goes to the person with the hard drive? The other $0.40 I guess goes to storage, the company – how do you use that $0.40 to help build the ecosystem?
Ben Golub: It’s a really good question. One of the most important things that we do is, we sort of build equivalent of really large self-storage data centers, without spending any capital, and we just compensate the people who run the nodes.
We are onto the same thing on demand side as well, so rather than hiring hundreds of salespeople and giving away open-source software for free, we’ve come up with the notion that open-source drives 2/3 of the cloud, so we give a portion of our $0.40 to any open-source software company.
Usually, our way is, we also have partners in the Storj space, we are partners like Mongo, FreeNAS, FileZilla and Influx, and it’s really a great win-win.
Who Are The Users Of Storj?
Michael Schwartz: Who are the users of Storj? What type of applications is it good for?
Ben Golub: Its really general object storage, which means that anybody who’s generating a large file that is going to be read a lot, it’s an excellent use case for us. That’s good for backup, it’s good for serving videos. It’s good for distributing software.
The world of course creates lots and lots of data every year, and about 90% of it that’s being created is sort of large files, which is a perfect use case for us.
Why Use Storj Over S3?
Michael Schwartz: Some would say that you have to be ten times better than a previous existing solution to motivate people to move – why would someone use Storj over Amazon S3?
Ben Golub: That’s a good question. And they almost have generalized it to the centralized cloud storage offerings. One interesting note is that while the price of disk drives has come down roughly 50% over the past five years, the price of cloud storage has come down maybe 10%, during a period in which the amount of data of course has exploded.
We are significantly cheaper, we are also profitable. We are also significantly, we think, a much better security model. And we can’t read your data. It is almost impossible for a hacker to get your data, or get a treasure trove data – it’s like sort of encrypted sand on an encrypted beach.
We also happen to be faster. We happen to be 100% durable, and at a significantly lower price. What we’ve found is, there’s almost insatiable demand for people to try us out. Now, it’s early, so people are dipping their toes in the water, using test data first, or you know, low value use cases, but we think when they see what we’re doing, they’ll be here.
How Does The CryptoCurrency Work?
Michael Schwartz: Google tells me that Storj as a cryptocurrency issued on the Ethereum platform. The price they told me is $0.1514 cents, and a 24-hour trading volume of three million, prices up 3% in the last 24 hours.
Ben Golub: Oh, it must have been my speech.
Michael Schwartz: It is a circulating supply of $144M coins, of max coin supply of 425M coins. So, my question is, how does a cryptocurrency relate to the monetization strategy of the company?
Ben Golub: Our basic economic model is that we quote prices for Storj, and we quote them in dollars. And as a consumer of our service, you can either pay for storage with us in dollars or in our cryptocurrency.
If you are a provider to us, if you are renting out your disk drive, we pay you a dollar rate, we pay you using our cryptocurrency.
And you can either hold onto that, you can use it to buy storage on your own, or you can trade it on one of the 11 + exchanges that are using us.
Unlike a lot of other crypto companies, we’re primarily a decentralized storage company. And the crypto is a great accelerant, it lets us have hundreds of thousands of people get paid in 180 countries and build things like smart contracts. But we’re not a mining company, we are a company that is first and foremost about delivering a much better approach to storage.
Why Use A CryptoCurrency?
Michael Schwartz: Why was the cryptocurrency a better way than just settling in cash?
Ben Golub: Well, it turned out to be very difficult to settle in cash in small amounts. It’s very difficult to do things like smart contracts using cash money. We are in 180 countries, so what we found is that having the cryptocurrency made it much better for us to build a large network.
Now, we could certainly be entirely fiat-based, but then, there would be additional fees, but this seems to align well with our interests.
What Is The Disconnect With Value And Economic Empowerment?
Michael Schwartz: You’ve said in the past that there’s a disconnect between the value created by open-source software and the amount of economic empowerment – what did you mean by that?
Ben Golub: If you look at for example the cloud market, which is now a 180-billion-dollar market, over 2/3 of all of the workloads are open-source based. In fact, if you were to include Linux in that, it’s about 90% of the workloads.
It is very clear statement to make that open source built the cloud. If you look at the total revenue generated by pure-play public open-source companies, like the Red Hat’s, and the Hortonwork’s, and Cloudera’s of the world, their total revenue is about 5 billion. So, 5 billion out of 180 billion.
If you talk to any open-source company that’s doing things in infrastructure, what you’ll find is that the primary way in which they are being monetized now is by Cloud companies, who, for rational reasons, basically give away the software for free, in order to drive consumption of additional compute cycles, or additional storage cycles.
And unfortunately, cloud computing is the biggest trend and monetization by giving away for free is the biggest way that open source is getting monetized. And there are really only four companies on the planet that are capable of running large public clouds. That to me is a huge disconnect.
Is Cloud Strip-Mining A Victimless Crime?
Michael Schwartz: On this podcast, we’ve had several guests who are worried about what we called Cloud strip-mining of open-source software, and they see it as really an existential threat to the open-source ecosystem.
And yet, Elastic, Redis and MongoDB are doing pretty well. Is this a victimless crime? And is it desirable for the companies that develop the open-source companies to capture all, or even a majority of the revenues, in the ecosystem?
Ben Golub: I agree that there are a handful of successful commercial open-source companies, I happen to have been at a couple of them, but these are just a handful of them. And almost all of the ones that you mentioned have essentially gotten to their state by spending hundreds of millions of dollars to go directly to the on-premise businesses.
And while I think it is wonderful, and it’s great that there are success stories that there are, I don’t think we would be happy if we said, “Hey, there are only five successful farmers in the world out of millions of farmers.” We wouldn’t be happy if we said, “Hey, there are only five or ten, successful companies in general.”
There is so much potential, and so much of these trillion-dollar IT industry, and 180 billion-dollar Cloud industry is being driven by open source, but if it isn’t flowing back in, then, we’re really not going to see the potential that open-source could really bring to us. In much the same way that I don’t think telecommunications was delivering on its full potential until we went to the internet.
Does Decentralized Cloud Offer An Alternative Business Model?
Michael Schwartz: So, selling to these large enterprise customers, as you mentioned it, an on-premise software product is really expensive to scale support in sales. And it could be tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars actually build that kind of infrastructure – but does decentralized cloud approach change that for these companies?
Ben Golub: Yes. For an open-source company that partners with us, if they have an open source project, whether through paid users or free users, generates lots and lots of storage. My guess is that they are generating lots and lots of money for one of the big four cloud providers, but are not seeing any of that.
Instead of trying to come up with a new kind of license, we come up with a new kind of cloud, a centralized cloud, like Storj, it’s entirely in our rational benefit to say, “Hey, if you have an open-source company that drive storage to us, we will give you a healthy chunk of the revenue that we get. And so that’s what we do.
All of a sudden, they’re able to build up a sustainable revenue source that doesn’t require hiring lots of salespeople, it doesn’t require trying to solve the multi-cloud problem for the 500 large companies in the world that they can do that.
Now, we may not be-all and end-all, we may give them the first two years of additional runway, so that they can build a sustainable base, and then go after the enterprise – and that’s fine. But getting from big community to successful enterprise sales is a really hard gap to close without the cloud.
Does The Market Value Open Source?
Michael Schwartz: Recently I was reading an S, and I did a search for open source, and the only place I found it, was in the risk section that, you know, somehow using open-source might come back and bite us, and we might have a liability. Do you think that the public is really aligned with this view that open source is a good thing?
Ben Golub: I think there’s no question to me that open source itself is the dominant way that software is getting written and consumed. Go to any enterprise, and it’s far more likely to find that they are open-source first rather than proprietary.
If you look, all these same things are happening, whether it’s Containers, or Docker, Kubernetes, or Mongo, or databases, or in operating systems, or in machine learning – it’s all happening in open source.
But the monetization of that is broken. It’s not that anybody questions that open source is a right way to build great software, it’s that the monetization model that used to be fairly clear has now gotten disrupted by the public cloud.
Michael Schwartz: Because one of the best monetization strategies of offering and as-a-service is now not available?
Ben Golub: It’s not available. If you are a small company, it is almost always a much better idea to say, “Hey, let me service lots of small and medium-sized customers first with something that looks like a service, rather than trying to do on-premise.”
You might eventually get to on-promise, but unfortunately, that model, which used to work pretty well for open source, is really difficult now. And it’s not only that you sort of have this gap between large community and getting to on-premise, but increasingly, even the on-premise market is now becoming dominated by public cloud.
Does Open Source Materially Contribute To The Business?
Michael Schwartz: Do you think that using the open-source development methodology materially contributes to the business?
Ben Golub: It really depends. I’d say open source is not a strategy, it’s a tool. And you have to find the right approach to open source that matches with your business strategy. But, if your strategy — Docker certainly could not have happened had we been proprietary.
We could not build a huge ecosystem and get so much usage and integration if we were proprietary. And then, the challenge becomes okay.
Now, we’ve got millions of users and billions of downloads, and lots of enterprises are interested in how we turned that into monetization. But, honestly, that’s a much better problem for me to try and solve than, “Gosh, I’ve got some proprietary. I can’t take anybody even take a look at it, and it doesn’t work with anybody else’s stuff.”
When To Open Source
Michael Schwartz: What do you think are some of the indicators as to when the project should be — where open-sourcing it might be helpful?
Ben Golub: I think that there are a few different things to look at. I think, first of all, you want to, in any project, do that 10x thing that you said. If you’re just coming up with an open-source version of salesforce, and the only difference is, it could be slightly cheaper, that is not going to happen.
The disruption was being SaaS, the disruption isn’t on the code side. But I think that, to the extent, what you are building requires a strategy that wants to build a large top of the funnel. You know, if it’s something that’s developer-centric, if you have a strategy that depends on having lots of integration, if you have a strategy that depends on being disruptive, then those cases, I think, you want to look at open source. If you’re just an end-user application – probably not.
Storj Virtuous Cycle
Michael Schwartz: You mentioned that with Storj, there’s a virtual cycle of investment, growth monetization, and innovation – can you unpack that a little bit because that’s very concise?
Ben Golub: Sure, again, we are a different kind of cloud, and since 2/3 of cloud workload is given by open-source, we’ve sort of elected to try and make the open-source community part of our go-to-market, but in a mutually beneficial way.
In the model that we have, if you’re an open-source company, and your product generates lots of data whether by your free users, by your page users, it doesn’t matter, backups, if you build a connector that gives your user the option to send that data to us, versus another form of object storage, will give you a chunk.
What does that set up? It sets up a nice virtuous cycle, in which open-source innovates, open source generates revenue for us, like in similar decentralized networks. We, in turn, send revenue back to open source, which allows them to innovate further and build their own business models, and it continues.
Other Decentralized Opportunities?
Michael Schwartz: You mentioned that decentralized cloud is potentially a new business model for open source. And I understand how you’re saying, if you write an open-source piece of software that uses Storj for file persistence, that you could generate revenues from that. Can somebody build a company like Storj that uses a decentralized approach to something else?
Ben Golub: Yeah. There are companies – we are sort of decentralized S3, as you said. There are other companies out there, like Xiamen and others, who are trying to do decentralized DC2.
Of course, there are a lot of interesting decentralized payment companies, there are interesting decentralized CDN companies. Each of these has basically been taking a fairly horizontal use case that the cloud companies deliver, but deliver it in a decentralized way. And I think, in all cases, we would all be well-served by embracing this notion of mutually beneficial relationship with open source.
Other FOSS Cryptocurrency?
Michael Schwartz: The only company that we’ve interviewed, who has issued a cryptocurrency, do you think that there’s opportunities to use cryptocurrencies for other purposes? Maybe to help either fund or reduce transactions cost for developing or monetizing?
Ben Golub: Absolutely. I’ve seen lots and lots of interesting crypto companies, and there are lots of not so interesting ones that are just ‘fly by night’ operations. But, among the interesting ones, with blockchain and cryptocurrency, what we needed to do is sort of create these large decentralized networks, where trust is sort of built into the network, rather than residing in a particular individual.
And you can make payment algorithmic. There are a lot of interesting experiments, for example, to say, ”Hey, let’s reward people for contributions to open source based off of using crypto currency, and doing it in an algorithmic manner.” And it gets really an interesting idea.
But ultimately, for anything like that to work, somebody has to be able to drive economic value for the open-source to begin with.
And my guess is that’s not the people who today are generating the value, which is the public cloud companies.
Challenges Of Launching A CryptoCurrency
Michael Schwartz: From a legal business perspective, it’s fairly technically challenging launching a cryptocurrency.
Ben Golub: Yeah, we were sort of fortunate that we did it right. And we also, in 2017, we had a network built and launched before we did a token sale. The token sale had utility from day one, and we’ve tried really hard not only to be enterprise-grade in terms of our product, but to be in a serious enterprise-grade in terms of our governance and management of the token and our treasury policies, inside our trading and governance, all those good things.
Treasury / Governance Of Currency
Michael Schwartz: Storj actually holds cash or an amount of cryptocurrency that’s let’s say unissued – is that how it works?
Ben Golub: Yes. We generated in our token sale 425 million tokens, and then in essence, we broke the mold. So, there will be no more ever created. We sold 75 million in our initial token sale. Since that time, of course, review tokens to compensate people who are running nodes, some people have paid us back in tokens.
Right now, there’s about a 125 million storage tokens in circulation, and then, the remainder we have, the biggest chunk of that, is in time lock, so that it won’t be entering the market in an undisciplined way.
View On Red Hat Acquisition
Michael Schwartz: I could probably keep asking you questions about cryptocurrencies for the next half an hour.
Ben Golub: Oh, that’s okay. Happy to answer that, but now, I’ll be honest, I find cryptocurrency far more interesting than decentralization. Because, ultimately, I think that if that’s a tool, and cryptocurrency is a small part of blockchain, and blockchain is a small part of decentralization. Decentralization is in some way even bigger than Internet, because Internet in itself is decentralized.
Michael Schwartz: Slightly off topic question, but is the acquisition of Red Hat by IBM a good thing for the open-source software segment?
Ben Golub: I think it really depends on how IBM manages it. Some companies do a great job at acquisitions and some don’t do a good job. I have to say that I actually sold a company to Red Hat Gluster, which, of course, Red Hat has now become part of IBM.
I think to the extent that IBM enables, or allows, Red Hat sort of to open-source roots, but helps it sort of continue to flourish as a shining example of commercially successful open source, I think it’s great.
Personally, last year, I was able to say, “Hey, it’s fantastic, we now have more than Red Hat.”, as an example of a public open-source company, and Red Hat, and Hortonworks, and Cloudera and RealSoft and, and now Mulesoft has been acquired. Cloudera and Hortonworks have combined, and Red Hat is now part of IBM. Elasticsearch entered, but there’s fewer public open-source companies.
Michael Schwartz: Now, we have less.
Ben Golub: Yeah. And, of course, the largest one is now no longer independent.
Move To Open Source License
Michael Schwartz: Recently, several prominent companies in our industry, like Cloudera and Chef, moved to an all open-source strategy, then moved away from open core. Do you think open core has peaked and will move back towards a more truly open-source model?
Ben Golub: Well, it’s interesting, because on the one hand, you’ve seen some people become more permissive with their licensing, and then you’ve also seen other companies become more restrictive, and come up with a sort of new licenses to deal with the Cloudera.
I don’t have a dog in that fight, except I think that the answer to monetizing the cloud isn’t a new kind of license, I think it’s a new kind of cloud. And that’s where we come from. Because, ultimately, yes, you can add value to open source by making it better for large enterprises, whether it’s through proprietary modules, or services support, or subscriptions, or packaging.
I think there’s all kinds of variations on a theme. What we need to do is find a way that you can make open source monetizable for large numbers of small and mid-sized companies, or even larger companies that are running in the cloud.
Biggest Challenges For Open Source Businesses?
Michael Schwartz: Putting storage solution aside for one second, what do you think are the biggest challenges today facing entrepreneurs who want to build a business around an open-source software project?
Ben Golub: I think that the first challenge most have to do is, like any great open-source project, build something compelling and build an exciting community around it – that’s a hard thing to do.
I think that what they then need to figure out is how do they build a sustainable business model that can carry them from the time they have a really big community to the time that they have a sustainable economics.
Along the way, it gets really difficult. Even if your community is successful, how do you manage your community, how do you monetize, how do you make it possible for people that participate in your community, without undermining it, and how do you avoid going down to the point where all that you get from a large company is just charity.
I’m not saying charity in a bad way, but I’m saying, when I was running large open-source communities, what I wanted from the cloud companies wasn’t some cloud credits. I didn’t want them to say, “Hey, I’ll put two people on your thousand-person projects.”
It’s nice, but what we really needed to do was have a mutually beneficial business relationship, so that we could invest and grow.
Advice For Entrepreneurs
Michael Schwartz: What advice do you have for the entrepreneur who needs to lead this open-source effort? You’ve been through the entrepreneurial journey many times, and I’m just wondering if you have any advice for the person who is actually going through that journey?
Ben Golub: Well, of course, it is a journey. As they say, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I think, personally, what you have to do is, you have to love what you’re doing. And I think especially for an open-source, you have to believe that the journey will be worth it even if you can’t feel the successful business.
Because, what you are doing, it’s interesting enough for you, and it’s going to be hard to build something interesting enough for the community. But having done that, I think you need to think really clearly about where you want to be each year over the next five years. I think you need to think really clearly, from my point of view, over what your monetization strategy is going to be, and who are your users, and what is your use case.
I think far more startups fail because they don’t pick a direction than because they choose the wrong direction. I think if you articulate internally a really clear direction, and then, you’re consistent in saying that’s your model, whether it’s open core, or service and support, or access, or whatever it is, and then you are relying on everybody in your company – I hope choice of strategies is right.
But even if it’s slightly wrong, at least you’ll all be running in the same direction, and you can change course. The worst thing that I’ve seen in startup after startup after startup is, they don’t pick a direction.
Everybody runs at five different directions, and they know they are failing and they don’t know whether it’s because one of those is wrong or because all of them are wrong.
Michael Schwartz: Ben, thank you so much for taking the time out of the conference today to record the podcast.
Ben Golub: Great questions, thank you.
Michael Schwartz: Huge thanks to the Open Core Summit for connecting us to Ben, and for making space to record at the 2019 Summit. Don’t miss the Open Core Summit next year. It’s a fantastic event for founders and open-source teams.
Transcription and episode audio can be found on opensourceunderdogs.com.
Music from Broke For Free and Chris Zabriskie.
Audio editing by Ines Cetenji.
Production assistance and transcription by Natalie Lowe.
Operational support from William Lowe.
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Next week, we have Isaac Schlueter from npm, the last of the in-person interviews from the Summit.
Until then, thanks for listening.
Have comments? Tweet at us. The Twitter handle is @fosspodcast.
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Next week, we have Isaac Schlueter from npm, the last of the in-person interviews from the Summit.
Until then, thanks for listening.
Bart Copeland, is the CEO of ActiveState. Since the 90s, millions of developers have used the famous ActiveState distributions of Python, Perl and Tcl. In this episode, Bart narrates ActiveState’s journey, including several pivots and ownership changes. Stay tuned to the end to find out how they were able to pivot to the open source thing that they do so well.
Michael Schwartz: Hello, and welcome to Open Source Underdogs. I’m your host, Mike Schwartz, and this is episode 36 with Bart Copeland, CEO of ActiveState.
If you’ve ever installed Python, Perl, or Tcl on a Windows workstation, there’s a pretty good chance you use the ActiveState installer and distribution.
ActiveState is one of the oldest open-source companies in existence. The founder was Dick Hardt, who some of you might know as one of the editors of the OAuth 2.0 specifications, among other notable achievements.
This episode is the first one we’re publishing that was recorded in person at the open-core summit. If you’re a fan of the podcast, you heard Joe Jacks, a few episodes back, describing the event which did not disappoint.
Don’t miss the next one if you can get to San Francisco. Especially if you’re a founder or entrepreneur interested in open-source software development.
ActiveState made some major pivots, although I think they ended up returning to their roots. It’s a pretty fascinating story. So, without further ado, here we go. Bart, thanks for joining the podcast today.
Bart Copeland: Thank you, Mike, it is great to be here.
Michael Schwartz: ActiveState was founded in 1997, which makes it one of the oldest companies we’ve interviewed so far. It was acquired by Sophos, I guess in the 2000s, and then, it was bought out by management.
Just focusing on what happened after the acquisition, can you take us back to the time after the buyout happened, and how you refocused a company?
Bart Copeland: It’s a really good question, Mike, but I should start with, in order to understand the refocus, we need to understand a little bit of history of why ActiveState was acquired in the first place.
ActiveState started in 1997, it was all around open source, building specifically language distributions around open source for the developers. Developers had needs specifically around Perl. Then, anti-spam became a huge problem. ActiveState came up with an anti-spam solution called Perl MX, and that caught the interest of Sophos.
Sophos acquired all of ActiveState, but Sophos really wanted the Perl MX product, which eventually became PureMessage under Sophos. The CEO Sophos had a lot of affinity, and pride, and admiration for all of ActiveState. And the other team, the language distribution team, was dormant within Sophos, and he did not want to do anything to hurt that team.
That’s where I got involved, and I was an early investor in ActiveState, but I wasn’t part of management. But then, Steve Munford, the CEO of Sophos, contacted me, and I, with a couple of few other outside investors, we acquired the team, the technology, the customers and the ActiveState brand.
And what we wanted to do leaving Sophos, is, we wanted to do the next great thing. We often said, “We want to do the next PureMessage.” So that started us on what we refer to as chapter 2, or version 2.0 of ActiveState. So, 1.0 was 1997 to 2003. And then, 2.0 was after the dormant period, from 2003 to 2006. And 2006, that’s when we started ActiveState 2.0.
Maybe, before I go on, did I give you a good grounding of…?
Michael Schwartz: Sure. And what was the plan when you bought it out?
Bart Copeland: There was two key plans. The first key plan was, we needed to extract ourselves from Sophos. There’s all this infrastructure and technology overlap that we needed to distract ourselves from, so that was our first plan.
The second plan was, let’s go do the next great thing. And that’s what we were going to do. We were a team, I think at the time, we were about 16 people or so. One other key caveat, above all this, was, I wanted to do it organically. I didn’t want to raise a bunch of money. I said, “Let’s do this the good old-fashioned way. Let’s drive revenue, let’s reinvest that revenue, our profits into growing even further.” So, that was what we embarked on.
Michael Schwartz: Would you say that you’re similar to Anaconda, or RedHat, making an open-source software distribution, consumable by the enterprise, by providing reps and warranties, and liability protection, and patches, and aligning with the enterprise procurement process?
Bart Copeland: The short answer is — I’m going to give you two answers, the short answer and the long answer. The short answer is, I say, we do the same thing that RedHat does for Linux, but we do it for open-source programming languages.
We have RedHat Enterprise Linux or RHEL, and it’s a enterprise-grade distribution of Linux. We have Enterprise grade-distributions for Perl, Python and Tlco, and there’s a lot more we’re doing there. That’s a short answer.
The longer answer is, our whole mantra at ActiveState is twofold. Mantra number one is, making open-source easy for the enterprise. Mantra number two is, making open source that just works for developers.
When it comes to open source run times, whether you’re the enterprise or the developer, there’s different needs. But if you look at the complexity it is today, to build a language distribution from an open-source ecosystem, and have that consistency across operating systems, managing all the dependencies, managing the security issues, managing the license issues, and then, keeping it updated, and making it really easy to deploy and share with other developers, making it really easy to move that distribution from your dev environment to your test environment, or your staging environment, or it’s your production environment- it’s not easy.
We do a number of things that make it easy, as well as the indemnification that you talk to. There’s really two audiences, there’s developer audience and they have their needs, and then, there’s the Enterprise audience and they have their needs. And our goal is to meet both audiences’ needs.
Michael Schwartz: So, from a revenue perspective, what are the most important products, and which products do you think are the most promising for future growth?
Bart Copeland: I talked about the versions or chapters of ActiveState. Under chapter 1, the most important product in terms of revenue potential and growth was Perl MX product.
Under chapter 2, it was the Stackato product. The Stackato was our private PaaS offering. That product was sold to HP in 2015.
However, under chapter 3, it’s our language distributions product. But here is the important thing to recognize, Mike. Under chapter 1, and chapter 2, and under chapter 3, this has been a steady growing business, our language distribution business. What we’re doing different under chapter 3, is we’re trying to grow our business so that it doesn’t bifurcate. Because, if you notice in chapter 1 and chapter 2, we ended up with two business units.
In chapter 1, we had the language distribution business, and we had the Perl MX business. Under chapter 2, we had a language distribution business, and then, this product called Stackato, which I touched on briefly.
So, we ended up with two business units under chapter 1 and chapter 2, and I really felt what was important for us, as a company going forward under chapter 3, is, let’s have a unified product offering, no bifurcated businesses or two-business unit.
Our real growth opportunity and potential for ActiveState going forward is around this whole area, what we refer to as open-source language automation. This is a category that we’re leading in. It is bringing automation to your open-source runtime.
And, as you know, Mike, in the hole open-source ecosystem today, there is a lot of movement towards bringing automation to the software development life-cycle. We are touching on one aspect of that, and that’s the open-source runtime.
Why this is so important, and why we see this is a huge opportunity, not only for ActiveState, for a lot of people in the open-source ecosystem is that developers today have lost the freedom to do what they do best, and that is, write code.
Developers today are spending more time doing things other than writing code, they’re dealing with security issues, they’re dealing with license compliance issues, they’re dealing with IT compliance issues, they’re dealing with bug fixes. And it’s knowing that developers are losing their efficiency in doing what they do best.
Furthermore, developers are not able to use the best tools to do the job. What we’re trying to do, as a company, is to help free up developer, so they have the right tools to do the best job, and they’re doing what they do best and love to do, and that’s just writing code.
So, in summary to your question of, “Where is the biggest potential for ActiveState?” – It’s around this whole category that we have created called Open-source Language Automation.
Michael Schwartz: ActiveState is serving many large customers, but the market for programming language is a very horizontal market, probably every company on the planet can use it. Do you segment the market in any way?
Bart Copeland: We do, and we don’t. There’s two ways we look at the market. The first way we look at the market is, we think of the developer, and we think of the large enterprise – we’re constantly thinking about that.
At ActiveState, we talked about bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up is, we think of the developer, and how do we create an experience for them, to be very easy for them to consume our products and use them in working with us quickly.
The top-down is, the developers using our product, bring it into an enterprise, they bring it to their boss, and they say to the boss, “I really like to use the ActiveState platform in greater detail at the job.” That’s the top-down, it brings in the decision-maker, it brings the buyer. So, that is one way we look at the market.
The other way we look at the market is, in terms of verticals, who has the greatest affinity for the types of solutions we build and sell. And historically, and going forward today, we’ve had a lot of success in obviously high-tech.
We’ve had a lot of success in banking and finance, we’ve had a lot of success in aerospace and defense, we’ve had a lot of success in insurance, and we’ve had a lot of success in manufacturing. Whereas we haven’t had a lot of success for example in healthcare, to give you an example where we haven’t had success.
But on the whole, though, we don’t do a lot of segmentations, because you’re right, it’s a very horizontal play for us. And what we try to do is, we try to make our softwares accessible to as many developers as we can globally. Throughout the planet, we have downloads all over the planet. The number one download is the US, and I think after that, our downloads are really big in China and Japan, and then, in Europe.
Hopefully that gives you an idea of how we look at the marketplace. And I guess, if I would really wear my marketing hat, we could do a lot more segmentation that we’re doing than we’re not doing.
Michael Schwartz: So, drilling down into the team a little bit, how do you organize the sales effort for such a global market? And how is that sort of adjusted over the years?
Bart Copeland: The first thing is actually, the adjustment has been the same under all versions of ActiveState, or all chapters of ActiveState, 1, 2 and 3. The selling motion has been the same. The selling motion from a sales organization is effectively comprised of account managers, account executives, and customer success managers, and inside sales reps, and depending on where you are in the selling cycle, involves those individuals.
Typically, what happens, we — and I got the other aspect of sales engineers — we get a potential opportunity. Usually, it comes from a developer, or group of developers, using our solution within an organization. That then leaves to greater interest into, going from the free version to a paid version. That involves an account executive, with a sales engineer, they work together, and we do this all over the phone.
All our selling is done over the phone, rarely do we go on-prem to an organization. It’s done over the phone, or through a series of video conference calls. Then, relationship is made, a deal is consummated, all our deals are based on annual subscriptions. That’s a recurring revenue model. Once the deal closes, then it goes to our customer success manager.
The customer success manager with her team, their job is to make the customer successful. Then, there’s an account manager that is brought in to nurture and manage the account, and renew it, and work with the account, to help them in other areas of their business, where our solutions can help them. And that’s typically the cycle that we work on.
Now, that is for the Enterprise tier. One thing that I haven’t touched on, Mike, is that we, not only have an Enterprise tier, we also have a lower-tier pricing structures. We have five tiers, we have the Community Tier which is free, but then, we have the Coder Tier, the Team Tier, the Business Tier, and the Enterprise Tier.
For the Coder Tier, Team Tier and Business Tier, that’s handled by an inside sales group that deal with the smaller price point products.
Michael Schwartz: I noticed that you have an OEM license – is that a material part of your business? And how did that come about?
Bart Copeland: Yeah. If you look at our business today, at the enterprise level, about 50% of the revenue at the enterprise level is enterprise subscriptions, and the other 50% is OEM. So, the way it came about is that when you get a distribution supported from ActiveState, there’s two ways you can consume that distribution. One way is, you consume it internally, and you consume it internally for all of your internal Dev practices or Dev applications that are enterprise wide.
However, another way you can consume our distributions is, you bundle it with your product, and you sell that bundle to your end-users. For example, you may have a product that requires a Python language distribution to run your Python product on your customers’ systems.
Then, we OEM our language distribution as part of a bundle, and that’s how it came about. It’s a sizable portion of our business, the OEM portion.
Michael Schwartz: Are there other partnerships that you think are important to ActiveState?
Bart Copeland: So, going forward with the ActiveState platform, around open-source language automation, we feel the partnerships that are really important, it is right now looking at the whole landscape around CICD, around what GitHub and GitLab are doing, and what the cloud providers are doing, specifically AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google with Google Cloud platform, as well as we watch IBM Cloud, it’s kind of the number four cloud player.
Those are the three key partnerships. We’re looking at other areas that we are concentrating aggressively. I would say there’s another area, fourth area of a bunch of miscellaneous groups that we feel are important. For example, we feel it’s very important to play well in the whole RedHat ecosystem.
Another ecosystem we feel it’s important to play well is in the VMware ecosystem. Another very important area, which is more around standardization, is the Docker ecosystem, or the containerization ecosystem, to make it very easy to consume our distributions as containers.
Is ActiveState Open Core?
Michael Schwartz: You mentioned a few tiers of product – would you consider ActiveState distribution to be open core?
Bart Copeland: Absolutely, yes. If you look at what comes off of the platform, the ActiveState platform is all about building your language distribution, certifying it, and resolving.
So, when I say building, you decide which packages you want from the open-source ecosystem, you decide which of the language runtime you want to use from the open-source ecosystem. For example, to stick to Python, you want Python 3.7, you want 35 packages from PyPI, you bring that all, and that’s all open source.
We then build it for you, for the operating systems you care about. You have three choices: Windows, Linux and Mac. You build it for the operating systems you want. That then is created as a distribution, the core of the distribution is open core, because it’s relying on all the open-source licenses that exist, and we preserve that.
Once you build the distribution, then, we certify it, we check for any “dependency hell” issues. What I refer to as dependency hell, we check for any security violations, we check for any license issues that you may have decided as a user, there’s certain licenses you don’t want.
The other thing we do is, we resolve any issues that come up automatically in the background. You’ve got this distribution on the ActiveState platform, and the result is, the dependency breaks or there’s a CV threat – we fix that automatically and we alert you.
Where I’m going with this in the spirit of your question, all of that is still open-core. It’s all based on all the open-source ecosystem, but the platform itself is closed-core. That’s the closed proprietary layer on the outside.
Michael Schwartz: Over the years, have you significantly adapted your pricing strategy, or has it been relatively stable? Let’s just talk about the distributions, what you’re still in.
Bart Copeland: The distribution business has been relatively stable. The key thing that’s different is, historically, we’ve been distribution as-a-service. You come to ActiveState, and we provide you a distribution as-a-service. Now, we’ve evolved the business, where it’s, you self-serve with the platform and build your own distribution. It’s a software-as-a-service solution.
The pricing for the most part is the same, but we’re offering a lot more for the same price now under the ActiveState platform.
Open Source With A Third-Party Project?
Michael Schwartz: One of our guests previously made the case that it’s better to sell open-source software that someone else writes because, otherwise, you are funding engineers who are basically not billable – would you agree with that?
Bart Copeland: Yes. But I think you have to find a fine balance. Because, if you are always taking and not giving – that’s not good. From my perspective, you have to have a very fine balance of how you’re dealing with the open-source ecosystems.
Language Support Roadmap
Michael Schwartz: There are new programming languages every year, it seems. I’m guessing if you’re a new programmer, you’re not going to start learning Perl or Tcl – has that made these products more valuable, maybe as you face less competition in the tools market?
Bart Copeland: I believe it makes it worth value for two reasons. The first reason is what you mentioned. It is that we have a lot of legacy languages that we support, it is very important to the enterprise. Because, for example, and some of your listeners may laugh at this, is that we support today Perl 5.12.
We have Perl 5.28, but we have enterprises, we have applications and production, and we support 5.12 for them, because it’s easier for them, if we support Perl 5.12, to migrate to 5. 28.
So, in that sense, that’s very valuable to us and valuable to our customers. But at the same time, the same customers are saying, for new applications, for greenfield applications, we need to use the new languages, and can we go to ActiveState to get the new languages.
Our goal eventually, with the ActiveState platform, is to support any language that our customers want to use. We’re not there yet, but that’s the vision for the ActiveState platform.
Michael Schwartz: Which languages do you think you’re maybe in sooner than later?
Michael Schwartz: Can you talk a little bit about your approach to building the team? Does location weigh into the hiring equation, or are you willing to use remote people?
Bart Copeland: That’s a really good question. My philosophy is, we go where the talent is, we don’t force the talent to come to us. So, we are a company about — what is it today — think about it, just under 2/3 are head office in Vancouver. But I think it’s getting closer to 50%. The other 50% are distributed throughout North America.
Our philosophy is, as I said, we go where the talent is. And as a result, especially on the development side, we are hiring developers, wherever the talent is. We have developers spanning four different time zones, from West Coast all the way to Halifax, which is one hour further than the East Coast time.
But we tried to bookend it within those time zones, because we haven’t yet expanded to either the Asian market or the European market, just because of the collaboration. We wanted to be able to collaborate in real time. We use Slack aggressively as an organization.
So, the answer to your question is, we are very open to a distributor organization. We think we’re doing a really good job of managing a distributor organization. There’s a number of things we do to include all of our virtual activators. We call ourselves activators at ActiveState. And we refer to our remote activators as virtual activators or remotes.
Here’s some things we do to make them feel inclusive. We use Slack aggressively. Most of our Slack channels are all public within the company, so everybody can see what everybody’s doing. There’s freedom to lurk, there’s freedom to participate.
We have regular company meetings once a month, with the entire company, with video on. We also really encourage video meetings all the time. Every morning, all the teams, various teams have daily stand-ups, the agile methodology, all those daily stand-ups are done with video or a video conferencing.
We also try to have all our activators, at least twice a year, come to head office, so we fly everybody in. We have them all together, so they can build relationships and cross-pollinate.
Also, many tech companies have a lot of nice fringe benefits, like free drinks, free food, we bring in a warm lunch every Friday, we call it “free-lunch Friday”. Unfortunately, our remote activators don’t have access to that, so what we do is, we send them a food package once a month with Amazon Prime — and I’m not sure exactly how we do it, I’m not involved with it myself — but we actually ask them what they would like and we arrange it in an Amazon Prime, and we deliver it to their homes.
And the other thing we do is, various members of the remote team fly up on a regular basis to interact with the head office as well. These are some of the things we do to promote inclusive environment, and also needs to grow. Because it’s very hard, given the type of work they are doing, to find all that talent in Vancouver – I would say it’s impossible. It’s not very hard – it’s impossible.
Balance Free And Paid
Michael Schwartz: As a sort of Python hacker myself over the years, I’ve been on the ActiveState site a number of times, looking at code examples – how do you choose which efforts to invest in? And how do you invest, I guess the R&D or community work that you do – how do you prioritize it?
Bart Copeland: It’s a really good question. I don’t have a good answer for you on that. At the end of the day, we have to find a balance between investing in developers and solutions for developers and meeting their needs, and balance that with ultimately the enterprise, because they long-term pay the bills. And we need a healthy balance there.
One of the things I should touch on, Mike, is that, if you look at ActiveState through its entire 20-year journey, there’s something common through that 20-year journey. And that commonality is as follows: every single product has been based on open source. Every single product has been built and designed with the developer in mind.
And every single product has been built with a developer and the enterprise in mind. If they take the intersection of those three, that’s our sweet spot, that’s where we make money. We’re constantly trying to find the balance because we are a company that’s growing organically.
We don’t have outside money, we have to rely on our hard work and creating a happy balance between developers, who don’t want to pay for things, which we’re fine with, but finding and giving them those solutions that they’re free to use, and then find that happy balance with developers and the enterprise who are prepared to pay for what we offer.
How Far Do You Forecast?
Michael Schwartz: So, you’re 20 years in, which is not something a lot of tech companies can say – how far do you look ahead to the future? Are you looking 20 years out?
Bart Copeland: I look in three to five-year timeframes. Because if you look at ActiveState history, under ActiveState 1.0, we were focused on Perl, the high-rapid growth of Perl, and with the anti-spam problem under ActiveState 2.0, again we were focused on language distributions, and we were focused on the whole cloud computing space, and specifically for us, platform-as-a-service.
Now, we’re focused on open-source language automation and helping make software really work well for developers in the next three to five years.
Because tech moves so fast, the industry is so vibrant and so exciting. And I often say to younger developers, younger people getting into tech – because I’ve been it now for 30 years– I say, “We are still in the early innings. We’re like an inning 2.”
If somebody said to me this is a 100-year cycle we’re in right now in tech, and we’re still in it 20 years or so, we got a lot to do. It’s just starting to get exciting. I’m kind of looking here, I’m at the
the latter part of my career, and I’m looking at my two young sons, who are just starting their careers, and I want to do it all over again.
Because I think it’s going to get even more exciting. But the point I’m trying to make here, Mike, it’s very hard to look beyond three to five years in my view. We, right now, are focused on this audacious goal of building a platform for open-source runtimes and specifically solving the problem around open-source language automation. That’s our focus, that’s a three to five-year plan. We’re going to deliver on that, and then we’ll regroup again.
Michael Schwartz: Quick question on governance. As a bootstrap company, do you have a board of directors? What does governance look like in a bootstrapped company?
Bart Copeland: Bootstrap company, by definition, that means we’re a private company. So, the company is owned by its employees and some key shareholders. And I believe in good corporate governance, and there is a board. The board is comprised of some of the key shareholders – it’s a very small board.
I think it’s important, as a CEO, that you get external advice, so in addition to having a board, because that’s one form of advice, I have a group of advisers that advise me as well and advise my leadership team.
And I think that’s very important. I think as a bootstrap company, you shouldn’t do things in isolation. It’s very important that you have individuals that are not in the trees with you, and they can constantly spot and say, “Hey Bart, have you considered this, or what about that?”
There’s four of us on the board. And then, I have three other advisers, who are not part of the board, but advise me one-on-one.
Advice For Open-Source Entrepreneurs
Michael Schwartz: Last question. Any advice for new entrepreneurs, who are launching a business around an open-source software project?
Bart Copeland: Oh, that’s a good question, Mike. I think there’s a general advice, and then there is advice specific to open source. The general advice that I give — and I do a lot of Angel Investing with young entrepreneurs, and invest in small promising individuals and companies — the advice I give is, persistence, and perseverance and focus.
If you believe in something, stay at it. Don’t lose your focus. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pivot, but if you look at people who are successful – it’s about perseverance and persistence. That’s the general advice.
As far as open source is concerned, I think my advice is, I love open source. It IS the future. When I first started an open source, people were saying, “This crazy. Why are you doing open source? There’s no future in it.” Now, open source has one. There’s so much power in collaboration in open source.
My advice is, if you are not using open source, then there’s something wrong with your company. You should BE using open source. It’s the way to go. It is the de-facto standard to build a great organization.
Michael Schwartz: Bart, that was fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Bart Copeland: Thank you, Mike, it’s been great.
Michael Schwartz: Thanks to Bart and the ActiveState team for making this interview happen. Thank you, thank you to the Open Core Summit team for giving us a table at the event to promote the podcast, and for giving up their sponsorship room a few times, which was the quietest place we could find to record.
Please, support the event. We need more events like this to grow the industry and to share our experiences in person.
Transcription and episode audio can be found on opensourceunderdogs.com.
Music from Broke For Free and Chris Zabriskie.
Audio editing by Ines Cetenji.
Production assistance and transcription by Natalie Lowe. Operational support from William Lowe.
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Next week, we have Ben Golub from Storj, who will take us through the first open-source, blockchain business model.
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