Peter Zaitsev is the Co-founder and CEO of Percona, an open source database software and solutions provider. In this episode, Peter discusses how Percona has successfully built a multi-million dollar business around services and support without VC funding.
Here’s a link to Peter’s 2016 article How Percona Has Built a Successful Open Source Business Based on Support and Services Revenues if you’d like to learn more.
Michael Schwartz: Hello and welcome to Open Source Underdogs, the podcast about successful open source business models.
I’m your host, Mike Schwartz, and this is episode 31 with Peter Zaitsev, Founder and CEO of Percona.
Peter was one of the early MySQL team members. He’s also renowned for co-authoring the canonical O’Reilly book, High Performance MySQL.
This episode is a fascinating story about how you can build a fantastic business by curating some complex open source components while, at the same time, founding the availability of more open source features for the community.
Here we go. Peter, thank you for joining us today.
Peter Zaitsev: Thank you.
Michael Schwartz: Percona has a very different business model than many that we’ve interviewed – can you shed some light on the origin in the mission of Percona?
Peter Zaitsev: Sure. A while back, now it looks like in a different galaxy far, far away, I was an early employee of MySQL AB. That’s before Sun, before Oracle, long time ago.
And I really joined the company because we were on this very romantic mission to revolutionize the database, open source database, yet, as time went, I think MySQL AB pivoted from the company which would be really putting the customers first to this, I would say Venture Capital potential IPO track, where you can say, “Hey, you know what, we need to really hit the growth numbers at all cost.”
In this case, I think our romantic ideas and ethics in some cases would suffer. Or, at least, I saw it.
I decided to leave MySQL at the time and start Percona. The idea was we wanted to be a very much customer-focused company, put customers first, to do consultancy, which was our first focus, really doing what’s right for a customer, not having any other baggage or commitments that we would have.
That is pretty much how Percona got started.
Michael Schwartz: Percona has a number of open source projects. Could you just give a quick overview of some of the more successful ones?
Peter Zaitsev: Sure. First let me mention how our first open source project really originated. Really we went into this business as a professional services consultancy business, we didn’t really think about building our products.
But what we found is to help customers to solve their problems, in many cases, consulting is not enough. You really need the code, software products in many cases.
For example, we found there was no good open source backup solution for MySQL, and that is how we created Percona XtraBackup.
Also, this was the time when Oracle would own InnoDB, and MySQL would own the rest of MySQL, and all that MySQL engineering was very dysfunctional at the time. And that is how XtraDB and later Percona server was born.
So, it was very much, I would say, born out of a customer need, first and foremost.
If you look at, right now, we have a software, such as Percona server for MySQL, which is very popular MySQL, which offers a lot of additional enterprise features. In open source package, we also have Percona server for MongoDB with similar proposition. We have Percona Monitoring and Management purpose-built open source, monitoring platform for databases.
We also have Percona Xtra DB Cluster, which is our clustering solution for MySQL, which is really adopted by a lot of large enterprises with very high availability requirements, sometimes as a replacement for Oracle RAC.
Michael Schwartz: And who are the customers of Percona today?
Peter Zaitsev: If you think about open source database, we have a very broad applicability.
Customers come to us from all the countries, industries, in all shapes and sizes. From our focus, I think we are most successful with the customers which are running database at scale, or for business-critical applications. Because that is when they really want to invest money into having their database to run well and perform well.
We have many Enterprise companies though we have a fair amount of smaller companies and startups as well.
We serve a substantial number of companies in the finance industry, in healthcare, in retail, so all of those are obviously the companies which work with a lot of business-critical sensitive data.
Sales and Marketing
Michael Schwartz: Do you have any outbound marketing campaigns or do companies just find Percona through the open source and through the tools and contact you inbound?
Peter Zaitsev: Well, it is both. We do have our sales team, which is both supported by our marketing team and inbound leads, as well as is looking for the companies who would potentially benefit from Percona, and contact with them.
What we found is, a lot of especially larger companies, they are kind of lazy in this regard, where we say, “Hey, you know what, if you are somebody who matters, you will contact me.”, more than actually doing a lot of research to find the company they want to engage with, as with some of the smaller startups. So, we use a combination of that.
I think one of the things that we have been doing from very early days is we really focus on the thought leadership and educating our customers and community at large.
For example, our blog has about 300,000 attendees every month which is, of course, not Facebook, but if you think about a professional database industry, that is quite significant.
We do more of Percona conference talks. Every year worldwide, we run our own two conferences, so really rely on thought leadership right to get Percona message out.
Michael Schwartz: How has the value proposition for Percona evolved over time?
Peter Zaitsev: If you look at where we started, we started with especially consultant-focused on the high performance applications for MySQL and MySQL alone.
And this gradually extended both in terms of the services, the offer. So, right now, we have a support management services, and professional services such as consulting and training, and in terms of the technologies they cover; right now, we also cover MySQL, PostgreSQL, MongoDB and MariaDB.
Really the value proposition changes from essentially, “Hey, you know what, we can optimize your MySQL performance” to “What Percona helps you to run MySQL PostgreSQL, MongoDB best?”
Now, I think what is important for our customers is what we provide the fully open source solution, open source platform, if you like. It should help you to avoid vendor lock-in, and really save costs invent.
What our customers recognize after they have been customers for some time is the quality of our support and other help they are trying to get from Percona. But that is obviously something every vendor would say that, that doesn’t drive their buying decision, but that is a value they recognize later.
Support Other Products
Michael Schwartz: One of our previous guests said that if you’re going to sell support, it’s almost better if you don’t write the software because if you write the software, then those people who are writing it are not billable.”, and it is actually better to just support somebody else’s software – do you think that’s true? Is it better not to write the software?
Peter Zaitsev: Well, I don’t quite agree with that, because if you think about support, it can mean a couple of different things.
You can provide the operational support, and this would be something like your help desk. “Oh, you know what, I am having a problem with my Windows or Mac, I don’t know how to do that. And I go to somebody, and he gives me that support to use it for.” This is one kind of support.
Now, in this case, you are also relying on somebody to provide you bug fixes, the security fixes and so on, which is absolutely critical in the enterprise. And either you are going to provide it or some other vendors will. In this case, you obviously wouldn’t have provided a complete solution.
And I think what makes Percona unique is that we do both. So, when we support MySQL, we actually have engineering team on staff, so, when our customer is, let’s say experiencing some crashes or some other software-related bugs, we have people on staff who can actually fix those issues and deliver bug fixes right.
If you have no experience in writing software, then, of course, you cannot do that. The same happens with security issues. Of course, you need to have some software engineering to provide that. But that doesn’t mean you need to write all software.
For example, if you think about the Red Hat, and especially in the early days of the Red Hat, they would not write entirely of Linux Kernel, but they would have enough engineering experience to support their customers on the code basics when they have to.
And you can think about Percona, of course, we are much smaller one, as the Red Hat of open source databases.
Support Business Model
Michael Schwartz: I was reading an article you wrote in 2016, titled, “How Percona Has Built a Successful open source Business Based on Support and Services Revenues”.
In the last 28 podcasts I’ve recorded, the sentiment has been almost unanimous that it’s hard to scale this approach. In an early episode with MariaDB, Michael Howard was very dismissive of the support business model.
I’m wondering, how did you manage to scale this business, and how do you get enterprise customers to renew?
Peter Zaitsev: Okay. Well, I think that is a very good question. And I think this is very interesting in the open source community, what has been happening right now is, currently a lot of so-called open source communities, they don’t really have an open source business model.
They have an open source marketing model. They market something that is open source, but they sell you something which is actually commercial.
Think about MySQL, which markets itself as the most popular open source database. But if you come to Oracle, they’ll sell you MySQL Enterprise, which is of course proprietary.
The same happens to many other companies, and the reality of that is this, if you go ahead and erase their Venture Capital, then typically the growth curve and the revenue expectations you will have to provide will be much higher than the natural, organic open source community growth support.
You will have to turbocharge that by pretty much introducing the open core, source available or similar model, to force your customers to pay it – but that is not open source.
In our case, we are not venture-funded company. We have been bootstrapped, and in this case, we have been saying, “Hey, they’re going to accept the revenue growth, which the market is going to tolerate while they’re sticking to our values.” Of putting the customers first, they can take care of our stuff, and sticking to the open source.
Is that giving us larger growth – I don’t know, somebody likes it like MongoDB or Elastic. No, but we have been able to build a successful business for that. That is, I think, a very core difference.
Now, something else I would want to add here, which we recognize as very important: If you are really looking for an Enterprise, we’re not looking to do it alone, we’re not going to go with this kind of insurance. We are not trained to say, “Oh, we’re going to grab open source software and self-support it in-house.”
The Enterprise companies, in the end, if they are going to be adopting open source software, they are going to buy support services from somebody. If you provide a good value, that somebody is going to be you.
Give Open Core a Break
Michael Schwartz: Sounds like you haven’t really changed your opinion about open core. But given that, how hard it is to start open source businesses, or let’s say businesses that lead the development of an open source project? Do you cut them a little bit more slack today, or do you still think that you should either be open core or open source?
Peter Zaitsev: Oh, no, no. I mean, let’s be clear. In this case, my approach or my thinking is, open core has the right to exist. And that is a very reasonable business model to pursue. That is not a business model we have chosen.
We at Percona have been able to choose that business model. We are doing the fully open source at large extent because those larger vendors exist.
For example, they are not tricking anybody, so we could be able to do all their engineering for example which goes into Percona server just by ourselves. We are relying in this case on the Oracle pushing for the open source edition, and then, they’re doing that better.
I would say, if you’re doing the green hill development, trying to build up a completely new database from scratch, it can be very hard to succeed in the current market without some sort of an investment.
That is my take, but my point of thinking here is this: Businesses should come in all shapes and sizes, there is room for proprietary software, for open core, and so on and so forth. But if you look at the customers, everything being equal, the open source, the true open source gives you the best value, and we happen to be able to do a business by providing the best value to you.
Michael Schwartz: I think it’s kind of ironic that you’re saying that open source is the best value, but I noticed, in that same article that you mentioned that you think margins should be lower for open source software.
And if it’s the best value, shouldn’t the opposite be true, that you get better margins for giving customers more freedom?
Peter Zaitsev:Well, what I am speaking about here is a value for customers in this case. And I would say the value from customers, that desk responds to somewhat lower margins to you, if you will. Especially on the per-unit basis.
If you look for example some retail evolution, ranging from somebody like Costco or even Amazon, they are able to lower prices in many cases because their margins are lower but their costs are lower as well.
If you think about how much Costco marks their stuff compared to somebody like Nordstrom, then, that’s going to be night and day. And yes, we are much closer to Costco in this regard, and we are proud of it.
Michael Schwartz: That analysis assumes that you’re getting volume. If you use open source as part of your business model, must you then get volume?
Peter Zaitsev: I think in this case, of course in terms of my analogy, to think it is not super correct in this case is what stores like Costco sell relating to inexpensive products.
In the Enterprise space, you often have a dollar volume, which does not have to have the same customer volume. For example, I have looked, now probably like a year or so, as a fan of a pivotal event, and they listed just about 300 customers. But they would have more than a million dollars of average revenue per customer. They have a very high-end Enterprise focus.
So, I think you can get the volume driven this way. And what also happens in the open source case, and I think what is important here is, really in a successful open source project, you are able to save on the marketing costs because your community is going to be doing some marketing for you, to much more sense than property companies typically can enjoy.
Michael Schwartz: You have a lot of experience in licensing, I’m sure. Have your thoughts on licensing about let’s say within open source licenses?
Peter Zaitsev: Oh, yes. I think it is a very interesting time for open source licenses.
I think classically if you look at that, there have been two camps in open source software licensing – and again I am speaking about the open source only in this case – there have been one camp which would be the permissive licenses.
Think about Apache, BSD, MIT saying, “Hey, take our software, do whatever you want, if you want to integrate or modify it and ship it as a commercial version – it is fine.”
And then, there’s been this GPL license, which is led by ideas of Richard Stallman saying, “Hey you know what, to really promote open source software, we need to force companies which are modifying that software to open source that.”
And I think in the ‘90s, early 2000s, it looked like the GPL approach was winning. There is of course Linux, MySQL, and so on and so forth, but more recently, things have been changing with what we have interesting polarization going on.
Because from one standpoint, we see where technology features are more open, getting more traction, for example, PostegreSQL has the larger momentum than MySQL in those days, in part because of the underlying license.
From our side, we are seeing also people polarizing and evolving towards not completely open source business models. You can see business source license, which MariaDB uses, you can see the shared source licenses, which companies like MongoDB, Elastic, or Redis, has been adopting recently.
We can say this really polarization of the open source, some of the ideas are driven by “Hey, you know what, we want our adoption of software to be as widely used as possible, and kind of really focused on adoption.”
There is another thing in the open source, which is focused on protection and monetization, saying, “Oh, you know what, we kind of want to give something like open source, but we want to make sure cloud providers can just take our stuff and run with them.”
I think there is a space above, and I think it’s very interesting to see what this competition of ideas and business model is happening right now. And it’s very interesting where it is going to take us.
Michael Schwartz: Do you think that by introducing these more restrictive licenses that the companies are trying to gather a larger percentage of the monetization of the ecosystem? And they are basically making a call that they’d rather have more of the pie than, let’s say, have a slice of a bigger pie?
Peter Zaitsev:That’s right, that’s right. I think it’s interesting to use this analogy. That’s exactly something I use in one of the keynotes I gave recently. From a pie analogy, companies are focused on a bigger pie or getting a bigger slice.
And that is exactly that. And some companies and communities are exactly focused on the growth, on the project first and foremost. And in this case, we typically choose as permissive licenses as feasible, and of course if you want to have a control and really ensure what only you can monetize in your environment, then, that is a different choice.
For example, I would say, if you think about PostgreSQL community, that is extremely fragmented. And there is no large player that has a very large portion of that market.
And, generally, that community is very much focused on adoption. For example, if they say, “Amazon now has a PostgreSQL or a PostgreSQL Aurora.” That is fantastic, that means more Postgres, that means Postgres is more accessible for some developers which wouldn’t use it otherwise. They were excited about that.
Now, if you look at the opposite side of the spectrum, we have MongoDB. MongoDB is obsessed about having all the MongoDB revenue there is. And they’re doing good at this point in time.
You can see there is only one MongoDB Atlas. In this case, we’re not being kind of undermined by Amazon’s or Google’s Office old drive. But that also is just about now. We can see with those changes to not open source approach, for example it has even been dropped from some Linux distributions, or some projects that are moving away from using MongoDB because of that open source changes.
And we also see some alternatives popping up. Amazon says, “Hey guys, you don’t allow us to run MongoDB on Amazon? – That’s fine, we’ll create protocol compatible alternative, Amazon’s DocumentDB.”
I think if we look at 5 years from now, we’ll see what that strategy, to be kind of very greedy and selfish, has backfired from MongoDB.
Next 20 Years
Michael Schwartz: Switching gears a little bit, where do you see Percona in 20 years?
Peter Zaitsev: As a code someone writes, it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future in this case.
The honest answer would be, I think how technology is evolving, it is really hard to tell.
What we are focusing on, if you look at the next 3-5 years, is we are continuing to build and improve our open source platform to run open source databases successfully. And we are investing a lot in Cloud offerings, especially in Cloud Native, which I think is fantastic open source response to that seductive convenience, which database-as-a-service offers.
And also, a lot of focus on really automation. I could call it Artificial Intelligence for databases, but really only some of the algorithms, which underpin automation, are artificial intelligence-based. So, that is going to be a good direction where we are going to.
If you think about reality, my approach has been growing successful, profitable, and what’s most important is a good company that I can be proud of, and our staff can be proud of. And because I didn’t raise any Venture Capital, I don’t necessarily need to provide an exit to anyone.
Even 20 years from now, we’re still growing, we’re still a private company – that is fantastic! I don’t see any problem with that. And there are some very successful companies like IKEA, which are very large but they are still private.
Of course, it is possible that somebody will come and make an offer I can’t refuse. Well, I’m a businessman, and I wouldn’t be telling you, “Oh, I never will sell it for any money.” Because I know when those words are said it is typically bullshit.
Michael Schwartz: And the way that you position the business, in a way, because you write some software, but you’re also willing to look to what other people are doing, almost like it’s a better long-term strategy for you because you don’t have to be right on your software.
You’re willing to sort of jump ship and say, “There’s something better out there. We’re just going to use that because it’s open source.”
Peter Zaitsev: That’s right. If you look at our approach to innovation, we are looking, for example, at MySQL like a system or Postgres system, or whatever. We are really looking at the tools which already exist in an open source ecosystem, we are covering the gaps which we need to. But in some cases, we will have to write something from scratch, and in others, we will have to adopt some open source projects, and kind of integrate and test and so on and so forth.
But I think it’s very important in our business to be low on ego. Because if you let the engineering team to get that “not-invented-here” mentality, and you really started implementing too much stuff in-house, even if it doesn’t provide substantial value to customers and communion, you will raise your costs way too high and run into trouble.
Challenges For open source Companies
Michael Schwartz: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing open source startups today?
Peter Zaitsev: That is an interesting question. I think many open source startups are different. We are really looking at the different target audience, if you will, and different business models. Now, if you look at the open source database infrastructure, I think getting known is very tough.
Because if you look, compared to years ago, maybe 20 years ago, the open source ecosystem was small and everybody kind of knew everybody and lent you a hand.
Now, it is dominated by the semi-open source, venture-funded or either public companies in terms of voice share, in terms of how much marketing they do, it is very hard to become known, I would guess. That is a challenge.
Another hump of course is, if you are targeting Enterprise, those folks are very risk-averse.
If you, say, you are a two-people company, you have created some fantastic technology which can help a lot, then a question for enterprise is, “Can I trust you to be here in the next 10 years?” Because that is a planned horizon for many.
And on Fortune statistics, about how many startups go under – of course, they don’t. I think even for Percona, it took a lot of time for us to get that confidence of Enterprise customers.
I didn’t mention this in the start, but we have been in business for 13 years now, and our customer base has been evolving. Early on, I could not imagine the customers I have now taking us seriously.
We had to really provide services to much more startupish organizations which don’t quite care what’s going to happen in 10 years. They are just looking for somebody who is best to help them with their needs today, right now.
Advice For Entrepreneurs
Michael Schwartz: Maybe you could just talk about – forgetting the company and open source maybe – but just in general, you’ve got quite an entrepreneurial experience, any advice, just for entrepreneurs?
Peter Zaitsev: I think what is very important in this case is to understand who you are and what your goals are. Because I myself have a relatively unusual path. I came from a technical background, from engineering background to becoming a CEO, and I also chose to stay fairly technical.
I’m still going with the customers, and we discuss the technical problems with them because that is something I like. That really defined how the company management will have to be structured. I needed to hire a lot of people I could trust, to really focus a lot of business aspects.
That is not a road which is right for everyone, and that is not the road probably even possible for everyone. I would say it would not quite fit in the role of the traditional CEO in many cases.
Michael Schwartz: Peter, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and being so candorous today.
Peter Zaitsev: Of course, thank you! That has been a pleasure.
Michael Schwartz: Thanks to the Percona team for helping to organize the interview.
Transcription and episode audio can be found on opensourceunderdogs.com.
Music from Broke For Free and Chris Zabriskie. Audio editing by Ines Cetenji.
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Next week, we interview Boris Renski, the Founder of Mirantis.
Until then, thanks for listening.