Ian Tien is Co-Founder and CEO of Mattermost, an open source, private cloud alternative to proprietary SaaS messaging solutions. Mattermost is used for secure team communication at organizations like Intel, Samsung, and the United States Department of Energy. In this episode, Ian describes their Open Core business model, which seeks to monetize enterprise customers who need advanced deployment and security features.
Mike Schwartz: Welcome to Open Source Underdogs, the podcast where we interview leaders from successful open source software companies and bring their stories to you.
Today my guest is Ian Tien, Founder and CEO of Mattermost.
Mattermost is a highly-scalable chat platform for privacy-conscious organizations that want out of cloud-hosted platforms like Slack or Skype.
Ian, thanks for joining us today.
Ian Tien: Thanks for having me.
Mike Schwartz: Ian, why don’t you just start a little by telling your listeners your background and a little bit of the founding story of Mattermost.
Ian Tien: Sure. So I actually began my career at Microsoft, up in Redmond.
And I was working on the Microsoft Office Team and Engineering with my friend, Corey Hulen. And we worked on number SharePoint products that had business intelligence built-in, dashboarding, data warehousing, SQL Server. And, you know, had to really good time doing that.
I moved over to the product management side with Outlook.com and OneDrive. Had a pretty good time there. So you know this is early days, and from there I ended up going to to business school for a little bit.
And while in business school I started a video game company. So I was doing online games, it was a lot of fun. And I ran that for a few years after business school.
And what happened is while we were, you know running this very sort of fun game company, we were using a messaging service online, and it was it was running our entire company: All of our data was in it, all our analytics, all the conversations, all our analysis, our designs.
And one day, this platform that were using got bought by a large company. It was a small company, got bought by large company. And the quality of the application started going down.
It would crash it, would lose data, and you know, we were just really frustrated by it, and we tried to export. We tried to export and they wouldn’t let us leave; we couldn’t get our data out.
And when we stop paying the subscription, they would paywall us from our own information.
When this happen, there were people are team saying like, this is, this is sort of not okay. This is not the way that the world should work. Where you’ve got these SaaS services that
can really keep you all contained.
So what we did is we had over 10 million hours of messaging done in our video games. So we took some of the software that we use for messaging, we rewrote it little bit, and, you know we’re engineers, so we rewrote it a couple times.
And pretty soon we were using our own software to do collaboration and to sort of replace their the platform we were using. It was pretty basic.
But what happened is, in June 2015 we decided open source it. And it just really took off. We end up winning some open source awards, and it became pretty clear that this was a business.
So we pivoted the company, we got rid of the games, and we said, you know we’re going to build this new world of open source messaging, and that was the Mattermost open source project.
By March of 2016 we’d figure it out a way to sell a Enterprise Edition of the product on top of the open source platform. And it’s really worked.
So now we’re all over the world and we have a lot of customers. Two of the top three aerospace companies, two of the top three mobile phone companies, two of the top three US federal agencies. These are all our customers, and what happens is, they use our open source Mattermost Team Edition, which is available MIT-licensed, really easy to install, single Linux binary, works with MySQL or PostgreS[QL].
People get going right away, they see immediate value. They’re messaging each other. Their collaborating, they’re adding lots of integrations, all you need to curl command and a webhook, and you can build these sort of like mini systems.
So you got immediate value, whether it’s devops teams, or information security, or IT teams, or broader users. They really enjoy the product and prove that there’s value.
And as the deployment grows, they decide, you know what, we shouldn’t as a team host this ourselves, we should have central IT do it. And when they give it to Central IT, Central IT says well you want these compliance features: We want high availability, we want data retention, we want compliance, can you plug into our [backend], our global relay, and can you do e-discovery.
And the answer is all yes – but those features are in our commercial version. So that’s when the procurement cycle starts.
After they’ve proven the value, we’ve given it all away for free. When it’s time to scale, that’s where you have the sales discussion.
So that seems to be a really nice model and that’s why we’ve grown so fast in just a couple years.
Mike Schwartz: Do you segment the customers all, in terms of marketing? Or are you really just waiting for customers to find the open source and then contact you?
Ian Tien: Our growth so far is really around the open source version being used, and adopted, and expanded. And there’s going to be customers sort of all across the board.
You know, our focus is largely on Enterprise, because can we sell high-availability and retention, it’s really those large organizations that find the most value out of it.
Then there’s also more security-conscious, sort of smaller companies and they’ll buy some the Enterprise features for one or two things that they like. But it’s really, we’re really focused on the Enterprise segment.
Control Of Data / Privacy?
Mike Schwartz: And do you find maybe that some of the Enterprise customers don’t feel comfortable putting their data on a cloud server especially, you know, confidential conversations between people?
Ian Tien: Our customers are privacy-conscious Enterprises, who are looking for a team collaboration solution that can increase the productivity while meeting their custom security and sovereignty needs.
So large Enterprises, financial services, in public sector, in government, in manufacturing. In what we think of as high-trust organizations, they’re really looking for solutions that they can control a hundred percent.
They know that there’s no third party monitoring, they know that all the custom security and compliance infrastructure that they bought they can integrate with our collaboration solution. And they know that, you know, they don’t have any external dependencies, right. If this has to be available all the time, they have total control.
And I would say a lot of customers actually are going to public cloud. They’re on Azure, they’re on AWS. A lot of the public sector are on the govcloud versions of those. Customers are very comfortable with cloud and Kubernetes, and Docker, and all these sort of cloud-friendly technologies.
What they prefer is that they control the system and not a vendor. So when it comes to privacy and control of the data, they have it a hundred percent.
Mike Schwartz: How do you work with customers? What’s your experience was supporting customers? Do you work a lot one-on-one with customers? Or do you rely more on automated online systems to work with customers?
Ian Tien: The business model we’ve chosen is open core. So there’s going to be an open source version that’s free, and everyone has it, and they can enjoy it, MIT-licensed, really easy to use. And then there’s a commercial version that’s an add-on that gives you sort of Enterprise features.
So what we don’t do is we we don’t try to monetize services right. Services is a cost center for us. What we want to do is put out all the information about how to have a great Mattermost instance, how to scale it, how to do really well.
We want to put that in the community for absolutely free, we want to make it web-discoverable. We’ve got these large forms, you have any Q&A, any problem you have with Mattermost just web search it and we want you to find the answer.
So that’s the investment cycle it’s: If you have a question coming from a customer, that’s fantastic. Go to the forums, or go to the documentation, add the answer in and send a link so that the answer becomes web-discoverable and the whole world gets that benefit.
So that’s the cycle we have, where we have a customer, we do answer their questions, we try to put that information out as quickly as we can onto the world so that Mattermost becomes easier and easier to install, easier easier to extend, easier and easier to customize.
So what we’re focused on is selling the commercial version of our Enterprise product to many many very large companies that can benefit the most from it. And then we want to give away the rest, to the rest of the world. That Enterprise business funds the innovation, and the support, and the growth of the open source project.
Mike Schwartz: Do you actually answer community support questions?
Ian Tien: Yeah, we’re absolutely on the forums, all the time.
And what we try to do is we want to encourage the community to answer and what we’ll try to do is wait at least 24 hours to allow the community go in, you know, have their two cents in and take the first crack, and then we’ll come in with sort of more experts.
But we really want to enable the community to grow and to build. And not only, you know, not only parts of the open source committee but also our partners who are experts at implementing and delivering the Mattermost and helping customers; we want to empower them to answer more questions, and so to get known in the community, and to participate and to enjoy.
And then behind them we want, we have our core contributors that will also support and answer.
Levels Of Support
Mike Schwartz: For commercial customers is there an SLA, or do they get quicker support?
Ian Tien: So on the forums no one really knows that you’re a commercial customer. People just ask questions and we try to treat everyone sort of the same.
What the commercial customers get is support through other channels that they can contact directly and we can be much tighter with them, depending on the support level.
So for very large Enterprises we’ll have our own Mattermost channels where we can go back and forth, and it’s very quick, and easy to share information. And it’s really embedded with us.
Mike Schwartz: So you’re using Mattermost to support your customers.
Ian Tien: Oh, absolutely. So our desktop app can actually connect to Mattermost, multiple Mattermost servers.
And we have customers that, you know, they’ve got their Mattermost instance in one tab and they have us in another tab. They can just switch back and forth and talk to us and go to instance and it’s great because they can share feedback you’re like – oh check this out, we built this thing and it’s amazing, and you know, we can pass it on we can share it, share the ideas.
Or there’s something they want to tweak in that user interface or there’s, there’s something we need to change, and we get that feedback right away.
And we have a monthly release cycle, so every month on the 16th of the month, we release a new version. You know, it’s a single Linux binary so very straightforward upgrade, and that’s how quickly we can react to feedback in the community every month.
Challenge Of Real Time Support.
Mike Schwartz: Is that hard, having customers be able to sort of ask you questions in real time, and sort of expect immediate feedback?
Ian Tien: It’s a mix, yeah.
So what we find is most of our customers when they’re onboarding, there, you know, our support is really around configuration right, so that they’re like okay, I can do high availability, I need to install this, and install this. It’s a lot less break-fix. So when Mattermost runs you know it’s sort of coming and going. So what we find it’s a lot more configuration.
So, yeah you’re right, like sometimes expectations of certain instant response. That said, a lot of our organizations are actually using messaging because they’re asynchronous.
Because they don’t want to use like a Skype for Business or something that’s ephemeral, where people come in a different time zone, they log in, there’s no history, they don’t know what happened between the whole day. With Mattermost it can be both synchronous and asynchronous, and people sort of do them in different ways.
I think working with our customers they kind of get a sense of the rhythm in the pattern. And it’s really, this is a very, very top tier support; these are strategic customers that even like co-develop with us. So they’ll be contributing code, they’ll be giving us really insightful advice.
So they’re really a part of the community, they almost feel like part of our extended team, because we’re all working together to make a fantastic product and to really develop it. It’s not very common and it’s not a huge number of customers we have at this top-tier support, but when it works, it works really well.
Mike Schwartz: Using open source as a distribution channel people, search probably for “open source Slack” or “open source Skype,”
Mike Schwartz: Using open source as a distribution channel people, search probably for “open source Slack” or “open source Skype,” and they find you, so I’m sure that’s an important distribution channel. But are there other distribution channels?
Ian Tien: Open sources of is a wonderful channel, and what we think about it, is sort of a, a growing series of channels that sort of escalate upwards.
So the open source is one piece, it makes it really easy to find, web searches from Mattermost keep going up, we get a lot of organic traffic.
The next tier is really around resellers. So if you’re look on our website under partners, you’ll find a listing of resellers around the world that can bring Mattermost and explain the product to more Enterprises.
So they might not be familiar with open source, they will understand the benefits of having a collaboration tool that’s completely under IT control that’s easy use, easy to install, so a reseller can go in and they can discuss the product in French, in Korean, in German and really
help explain to these prospects and customers our value proposition. And because we have this commercial product, it’s much more familiar as a commercial partnership, how to distribute.
So we get the benefit of open source and we get the benefit of traditional resellers and channel.
More Channel Details.
Mike Schwartz: Just curious – have you looked at the percentage of sales from channels, or how’s it sort of stacked up to your expectations?
Ian Tien: We’re really excited about channel. And it’s about, sort of how the story begins.
And how the story begins is there’s a lot of interest from Enterprises and the challenges procurement. And when you have a channel partner like SHI or Dimension Data, they’re plugged into a huge number to Enterprises, so we can do procurement through them.
It’s a win-win because those resale partners give the Enterprise the benefit of consolidated billing right, and really easy procurement.
We get the benefit of be able to fulfill the order; and when you have an ecosystem where everyone’s winning that’s very scalable. So it starts with just the authorized resellers and it’s like hey help us pass the paper, that’s what they do, and we have that partnership.
Then we’re getting into sort of value-added resellers. So companies like AdPhineas over in Europe, where they’ll provide local language support in local time zone. And we have a partnership to take the lead that we get in their region and work together to expand the business.
So again it’s win-win with value-added resellers. And then we have distributors like a FedResults, which is part of Carahsoft, in the federal government, and they’ll do even more.
So they’ll have a marketing organization that we can partner with to find opportunities in their existing customer base and really tell them about the benefits of Mattermost. In addition of that, they hold our GSA schedule, so when we sell Southwest Federal Government, we have a partner that really understands how to procure, how to work with these organizations, and navigate the system. So again it’s win-win.
So it’s all about creating community where your economics and your success is aligned.
Mike Schwartz: You mentioned that Mattermost is open core. So you have a free Community Edition and then you have other versions I guess of the software with additional features.
I’m just curious is the main revenue streams from the business license of the non-open core, or are there any other revenue streams, training, support, or is it just all hundred percent license?
Ian Tien: The commercial part of the business is focused on selling commercial licenses of our add-on’s that are built on top of the open source project.
So if we’re selling Premier Support, that’s only available to customers who are buying the commercial version. Because that’s our focus.
Now if someone wants to start a business supporting the open source version, that’s wonderful we’re not going to compete with them. We’re only going to provide services and training to the people who are using a commercial version.
Mike Schwartz: In terms of like percentage of revenue is there an 80/20 rule, where 80% of the revenue would you say is licensed? Or do some of the other like support contracts on license, do any of them make up more than 20% of revenues?
Ian Tien: So everything we do is subscription. There’s a portion for licensing and there’s sort of an add-on for that support.
We try to make our customer success organizations sort of cost neutral, right. So you buy the support add-on and what you get is that the extra layer support and you know, that revenue covers the costs of, supporting these Enterprise customers. Where we grow the company is really from the subscription revenue of the commercial add-on’s we do.
License And Renewals
Mike Schwartz: By using the software they’re required to keep renewing their subscriptions. How have you found getting renewals and making sure you retain the customers?
Ian Tien: Yes, it’s a great question. There’s a couple of things to talk about there.
Number one, just because how we started the product, and started the company, and started the open source project, we really didn’t like being locked into a vendor-hosted solution that had all of our data, that we didn’t have any choice.
So purposely because of that, when you use Mattermost, you have a hundred percent access to your data to MySQL or PostgreS[QL] database, and if use the commercial version and you decide, you know what, I want to use the open source version, all you have to do is take out the license key, and you got the same functionality as the open source version without the commercial add-on’s.
We make it that simple so no one ever feels like they’re locked in.
That said, renewals are really strong because people have validated that this product already brings value, they’ve used the open source version of for a while typically before they go to the Enterprise version. So they know it works, they get the Enterprise version for the compliance features.
So the renewal question is do I still need those compliance features. And for large Enterprises who are running these in the data center, it’s a pretty straightforward decision.
Mike Schwartz: But you have to chase them down, they, you know, didn’t sign your subscription, or we didn’t see that check, or – how is that process going? Because that can be tricky.
Ian Tien: Yes, so we have a back-office person that does that, so they’ll send out the emails, and you can renew using credit card, you can you use a bank, or wire in different currencies; so we support all that the back end.
Mike Schwartz: But does the license shut them down if they have it renewed? So is there license enforcement?
Ian Tien: So before a license fee expires, there’s a series of warnings that the system administration will get sort of in the interface, like hey, you have this many days before it expires. We’re very open with the sort of notifications you get in the grace period afterwards, and there’s sort of some slight changes in behavior afterwards.
What we do want is everyone to feel safe and comfortable running the software, and the license renewal is more about the procurement system then sort of like IT issues with backend.
Typically if you’re Enterprise you want to renew properly, get everything buttoned up properly, so it’s been pretty smooth.
Mike Schwartz: To switch tracks a little bit and talk about the value proposition for Mattermost?
Ian Tien: So one thing we really think about is privacy-conscious Enterprises. And for privacy-conscious Enterprises Mattermost is the team collaboration solution that let’s them increase productivity and have this modern world of collaboration while meeting their custom security and sovereignty needs.
So there’s going to be requirements that these large Enterprises have to be able to be in complete control of their collaboration system. To have no third-party monitoring. To have many security options because it works with their private network, because they can do intrusion detection, because they can analyze every line of the source code, and their information security team can go over everything with a fine-tooth comb. And on top of that there’s custom security, custom compliance, custom auditing.
For those Enterprises that really value privacy, autonomy, control, and extensibility. And be able to go further than they could with any vendor hosted solution, any vendor hosted multi-tenant solution – those are our customers.
And you can read about that sort of positioning in, 451 Research has a note on us, Gartner in their workstream collaboration space has covered us, we’re a vendor to watch in the latest market trends report. We’re actually being named a Cool Vendor by them.
And it’s really about differentiation. It’s really saying – hey there’s a lot of collaboration solutions out there for Enterprises that are really privacy-conscious, that really want control, that want that layered extensibility, who want to have the option to go further in there customization of the collaboration solution.
That’s our differentiation. That’s where we really live.
Mike Schwartz: We talked a little bit about channel partners and, those are important to every business, but are there other partnerships?
Ian Tien: Yes, absolutely. When you run an open source project you have community on your mind all the time.
So Mattermost has over a thousand people who contributed to the open source project. On top of that there’s over a thousand open source projects based on Mattermost. We’re in 15 different languages. There’s a huge community extensions around us.
So for the open source piece, that’s growing really well, and that’s part of the engine that drives awareness and discovery, and more customers.
In addition to that, we’ve got our experts community in our channel. So how do we help distribute, how do we help deliver this offer into Enterprises, through resale and through services.
One part of that new community that we’re really excited about is Atlassian channel partners.
So as HipChat has announced its retirement, for these high-security companies that really want to do collaboration, especially if they’re Atlassian users, they no longer have that option now that HipChat is retiring.
So Mattermost is really stepping in, we want to make users of the Atlassian server products, that need total control, that need high security, that need to stay in private clouds or data centers, we’re filling that gap. And we’re working with Atlassian partners like cPrime, the largest Atlassian channel partner in the United States, to go meet the needs of those Atlassian customers.
And we’re working on new partnerships all around the world with the Atlassian channel to make their customers successful.
In addition to that, there’s certain communities from our customers that have built up around the Mattermost product, around the open source version, and eventually the commercial version.
One of the best examples there is NH-ISAC, which is a global association of information security professionals from the healthcare industry. So they’ve been running Mattermost for their community as an open source solution for awhile. We’re about to announce a partnership with them.
Where they’ll be using the Enterprise version, and we’ll have an increasing presents working with NH-ISAC, attending their summits, getting to know their community, the challenges their communities have around how to collaborate as information security professionals on a platform that is vetted and is under their complete control.
Challenges Of Open Source
Mike Schwartz: One of the questions I had was – you know open source has a lot of great qualities – collaborative development, and certainly for marketing, but have you discovered any challenges? Has it, have there been any negatives or any, has it hindered you at all along the way?
Was there any unexpected surprises, where you thought open source would be great but it turns out it was actually maybe sort of more challenging than you thought?
Ian Tien: Absolutely. Coming from a design background, we thought really carefully about what is Mattermost Team Edition, which is our open source version, and was is our Enterprise Edition.
So our Team Edition is kind of like a small office: it’s going to be really easy to start, you just step in there, everything works.
You got emojis, emoji reactions, you can do channels, you got GIFs, you have mobile apps and desktop apps, and it just, it works. And if you’re coming from Slack, it’s really easy, the keyboard shortcuts from Slack are supported, webhook integration from Slack are supported, slash commands; it’s very familiar.
Now we have our own additions. Like the ability to use you know, spaces, and non-English letters, and channel names, and we’re able to use hashtags and some other things like that.
The open source Edition which is for teams, is really designed for for that world, right. I don’t have a lot of ask permission for anyone, I can kind of do whatever I want, I trust everyone to be good citizens in this Team Edition.
And then for Enterprise, you’ve got all the complex things. You’ve got roll-based permissions, very sophisticated high-availability, all the compliance stuff. And we thought that delineation would work really well.
What’s happen is, people using the open source Edition are too often unaware there’s an Enterprise Edition.
So they take the Team Edition, which is built for small teams, and we have Enterprises that have hundreds and thousands of people use the open source version. And when we talk to them, they’re like, you know what you should add, you should add a permission system. But we have a permission system in the Enterprise Edition that they never sort of discovered. So all the problems that they have, that they think they have, are actually solved in the commercial version.
We just haven’t provide the awareness. That’s something we think about all the time do we want to, in our open source Edition, make it more obvious that there are these features for Enterprises, and they are in the commercial version.
And that’s a line we have to be careful about because, like well, do we really want to market inside an open source project?
And the consequence of not doing that is you have a lot of people using open source version who would easily upgrade if they knew they could just phone procurement and say, I want these extra features, they’ll make my life so much more productive. And we got like three thousand people on this instance – yes like, just go make it a piece of our company infrastructure.
So that discoverability is a question for us, and the consequence of not making the commercial version more discoverable in the open source project is brand. It’s people feel like wow, Mattermost can’t do these things – when we can. But then how do we let people become aware of it.
Gauging Community Size
Mike Schwartz: Do you collect statistics back from the products that you know who’s using it? Or are there any type of opt-in’s to send back marketing data? Or how do you gauge the size of the community?
Ian Tien: So any sort of telemetry you put into a high security product is never going to tell you the accurate story.
We had a lot of metrics looking at what’s our search volume – how many people are coming to the website, and were they unique visitors, and how many people are downloading. And we try to gather a lot of sort of anonymous statistics around this to sort of see the velocity and the direction of the interest, to make sure it’s always growing.
In terms of our actual user and customer base we want to make it super easy for them to sort of discover us and learn about us and contact us. And that’s part of the customer journey.
So they’ll come, they’ll find us, they’ll download. Somewhere along the way they’ll re-engage. And then we can continue that journey as they contact us, as we understand how they’re using us, and how we can add value.
So yes, because we’re dealing with privacy conscious Enterprises there’s a little bit of a gap in our story. What really matters is the flow of the start to the middle, so we can not only convert them over to the commercial version that they’re looking for but make them super successful afterwards.
Mike Schwartz: What are your thoughts about funding and open source, and is that something that Mattermost is seeking? You know, you’re in the heart of VC Mecca here in Palo Alto.
Ian Tien: So if you look at our website you can actually see a number of our investors. My personal view is that you know, finding the right investors is an incredible benefit for any organization.
So being able to have more capital means you can do more. You can accomplish more. We can hire more people, we can pay more people to build the open source project, to help scale the commercial business and we can go faster.
All we have in this world this time and if we can bring in capital to move things more quickly, I think as an open source project the most important thing is you’re open, and you’re transparent.
You’re saying like, this is what we do, we’re open core, here’s a commercial version, here’s our open source version, this is, this is what we do. And if investors are aligned with that vision,
and we’re aligned with those investors and what their expectations are, then it goes back to that great ecosystem of line incentives.
Our investors make introductions for us, they give us great advice and we’re a lot further along because we had that collaboration and help.
Mike Schwartz: So if you are an entrepreneur who wants to use open source as part of your business model, do you have any advice for that person?
Ian Tien: I think the most important thing is to focus on the value you want to create. You want to build something that people love.
So start with – I want to build something that people love, and think about roles that open source can play: in your vision for the product, your distribution model, the community you want to build, and the business you want to build.
Mike Schwartz: Well that was really fascinating. Thank you so much for making time Ian, and best of luck with Mattermost.
Ian Tien: This is fantastic.
Mike Schwartz: That’s it for episode 4. Special thanks to the Linux Journal for co-sponsoring this podcast.
To the All Things Open conference for helping us to publicize the launch.
Music from Broke for Free, Chris Zabriskie and Lee Rosevere.
Production assistance from Natalie Lowe. Operational support from William Lowe. Thanks for the staff of Mattermost for logistical support.
Next week we’ll talk to one of the visionaries who inspired this podcast, Mike Olson from Cloudera. Don’t miss it.
Transcription and episode audio can be found on opensourceunderdogs.com. Until then, thanks for listening.