Episode 55 – Miguel Valdés Faura, CEO and Co-Founder of Bonitasoft
Mike Schwartz: Hello and welcome to Open Source Underdogs. I’m your host, Mike Schwartz, and this is Episode 55, with Miguel Valdés Faura, CEO and Co-Founder of Bonitasoft.
Not every tech company follows the same trajectory to success. Hypergrowth is great if your market supports it, but the world of infrastructure software is diverse, and hypergrowth can subject your business to unreasonable risk.
To me, Bonitasoft was a reminder that a CEO’s responsibility can transcend shareholder value. While the primacy of shareholder value seems axiomatic in Silicon Valley, it’s worthwhile for entrepreneurs to weigh that risk. Miguel and his team did just that, and their success validates the idea that business models are not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
As a side note, as I was
doing my research, I noticed that Miguel has interviews in Spanish, English and
French. American CEOs are lucky to speak two languages, but three is pretty
exceptional. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the interview. This was the last of 2020.
So, without further ado, here we go.
Miguel, thank you so much for joining the podcast today.
BPM Market Overview
Miguel Valdés Faura: Thank you, Mike, for having me.
Mike Schwartz: So, although this is a business podcast, you’re a technical founder, and sometimes, it helps to have a high level of understanding of the market. Business Process Management, or BPM, it’s still an important way to think about how to apply technology, but the technology landscape has changed so much since 2001, I guess when you started the project, and even since 2011, when you started Bonitasoft. Why is BPM still a good way for companies to think about how to build applications?
Miguel Valdés Faura: Good question. So, it’s because companies – I like to say that it is all about processes, a ton of processes that are required to run a company, some that are more critical than others, but BPM technology has been here for a while to help companies, to rethink, re-invent and automate their processes, whatever, they are critical or not. Also, I think it is something that is here for a wider dimension, and of course, the market is evolving because also the needs of those processes are changing in organizations.
Mike Schwartz: So, the Bonita project itself started at the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science. The project was transferred to the Bull Group, and then, in 2009, you started BonitaSoft with Charles Souillard and Rodrigue Le Gall?
Miguel Valdés-Faura: Exactly.
Mike Schwartz: And also, over the years, how is the community grown? Is the Bull Group still involved, and are there other important contributors in the ecosystem?
Miguel Valdés Faura: BullGroup, which is now part of Atos, at the origin, is involved, but as a partner. It is one of those hundred employees, partners that we have – I’m talking about Consulting and System Integrators Partners that helps customers worldwide with the Bonita implementation, but nothing more, meaning that over the years, Bonita self has grown into an international community that goes beyond specific companies, but, also, having individuals working sometimes as freelance models, as part of the bigger companies.
And I think that’s one of the main achievements now. We have now a community of around 150,000 individuals working with Bonita, not all of them of course are contributing, it is only a small portion of this contributing code, but there is people participating in answering questions in the forum, or translating the products – there is a lot of activity in the Bonita community that is not relied only on one company.
Why No-Code Is No-Go?
Mike Schwartz: In an interview a few years back, you said that the no-code approach does not open the possibility for developers to write code that meets business needs. Can you expand on that? Don’t business people love drag-and-drop GUIs, to build BPM workflows?
Miguel Valdés-Faura: Yeah, a good one. So, probably, it was referring that with this new trend of local done, this new kind of developers, the thing some analysts were calling business developers, at some point, we were facing with people that are not skilled in development to build some complex applications, and at some point, they’re going to face some limitations. Of course, a lot of people like to build on applications, using drag-and-drop, as I mentioned, or visual tools, but when the application gets more complex, or when you need to customize a little bit more the application, at some point, developers need to be part of the game as well.
So, I’m not saying that it’s not useful to have business people participating in the development projects. I’m not saying that the local movement is not something that is real, I’m just saying that we need to find a balance between things that can be done graphically, and first that require code, and it’s about how those two different skill sets can collaborate, how business people or people without development skills, can also work on the same project with developers.
Probably, those two personas are not going to use the same thing.
Mike Schwartz: Thousands of organizations use Bonitasoft, but switching to the business side a little bit, from a revenue perspective do you see the 80/20 rule, where 20% of your customers make up 80% of your revenues? And if so, what does that 20% segment look like, with regard to use cases or industry verticals?
Miguel Valdés-Faura: In terms of the verticals, of course, I think it’s not only something -particularly Bonitasoft, all BPM vendors, you know, have a lot of traction in market that are highly competitive. So, for example, insurance, banking, telecommunications, because there is a lot of pressure to do better than the competition, because there is a lot of processes that are related about how you provide better services to your customers, and how are you going to retain those customers by providing good services.
So, those will be probably the main four sectors in which Bonitasoft is evolving and getting customers, and also, potentially the ones, in which other vendors are also evolving. In terms of the split or the size of the customers that we have, we have this idea from the very beginning to focus on medium and large organizations.
So, there are some BPM vendors that are focusing on smaller implementations, we are really focusing on complex implementations and meet large organizations. So, the majority of our customers, like 75% of our customers, will match that criteria. And the majority of the project implementation inside those projects are either core or critical to their business. We usually don’t start working with a customer in less critical business process, but this is part of our strategy. And, of course, our product is better suited for those complex implementation.
Mike Schwartz: Kind of a basic question, but what would you say are the most important value propositions for your customers?
Miguel Valdés-Faura: First of all, we are selling a platform, not a product, so, what we want is like to bring together those two personas that I was referring in a previous question, so business people or less skilled people, in terms of technical skills, and how developers can work together. So, we have a platform, in which you have clearly separated the visual programming capabilities versus the coding capabilities. So, in a sense, we are taking the benefits of the majority of things that we see in an open-source project. So, extensibility, open architecture, which APIs, compatibility with other open-source technologies that are things that appeal to developers. And at the same time, we have an integrated platform, a unified platform, that is also providing visual capabilities to less technical people. And, also, this clear separation in which, depending on the skills that you have, you can use some of the capabilities of the platform, and depending of your skills, you can use some others – these are the things that make us different, and that people like about our solution.
Mike Schwartz: Bonita project is open source, and Bonitasoft has a platform built around that – how exactly do you monetize?
Miguel Valdés Faura: So, we sell subscriptions – package additional capabilities to the open-source version, and also, some professional services. And those subscriptions, minimum is an annual subscription, are sold either for people that are deploying the Bonita platform on premise, or people that are using our cloud offering now. But, in two situations, we are basically adding capabilities on top of the open-source solution, like for example, monitoring capabilities and scalability. And we package that together with a professional support, SLAs, contractor warranties, as part of this subscription. Also, it’s a 100% of our probably related revenue is a recurring revenue.
Mike Schwartz: Cloud hosting is really a great business model, and I heard you mention that you have a hosted offering. How has the hosted offering evolved over the years, and do you see that becoming sort of the most important way that you deliver the software? Would you say self-hosted is still going to be more important from a revenue standpoint?
Miguel Valdés Faura: Yeah, a good question. I think in our space, the BPM space, and particularly because of the nature of the projects that we target in our customers, as I was referring as core or critical, we still have a lot of people using the on-premise version, especially in banking insurance that are sectors that are still using a lot of on premise, or they are starting their cloud movement, using public clouds, but not really externalizing everything to SaaS solutions. So, on-premise is still really a big majority, but we have released our cloud service 18 months ago, and we already see a traction. So, there is more and more customers also embracing that new offering – I will say today is more like 80/20. We expect that this is going to change.
It took us a while to offer a Bonita Cloud version because we didn’t show a lot of demand previously. We, as I mentioned, we started seeing some companies that are more and more interested. We really believe that it’s going to be maximizing in the next years, but again, the on-premise is still the number one option today for our customers.
Prioritization Of R&D
Mike Schwartz: So, how do you prioritize your R&D effort, because you’re still contributing to the open-source project, but you are also building your commercial like extra features. And how do you prioritize R&D?
Miguel Valdés Faura: That’s a tricky one for every open-source company. Because you need to make also clear rules about what are the developments that are going to go open source versus the ones that are going to go commercial, and the same applies to the teams – do you have the same organization working on the two kind of features, do decide to have different organizations?
So, we have evolved over the years, but one thing hasn’t changed is that we have defined from the very beginning clear rules about what is open source and what is not. For example, we didn’t want our open-source version to be something that cannot be put into production, because that was not the essence for us, the essence for us as open source.
So, the open-source solution at Bonitasoft you can develop, and you can put it into production, however, for example, as soon as you’re talking about scaling – if you need to CCP, if you want to do clustering, those are the kind of things that, from the very beginning, have only been available in the commercial version.
Also, first of all, is about defining the rules, so, your development team knows what goes into one edition versus the other. Not only your development team, but also of course the community, the community using the open-source version and also your customers – it needs to be really clear. Secondly, over the years, we have evolved, also, in terms of how the development team is a structure, to be more focused on one product, one edition, meaning, one set of people for developers working, one part of the product that is either open source, or is commercial, which, of course, is a way simpler to manage from a management point of view.
Cloud Native Opportunity
Mike Schwartz: In the Cloud Native world, scaling is sort of table stakes, like Kubernetes out of the box is clustered, and my company Gluu, we’ve decided that we’re going to make scaling sort of part of the open-source, just because it seemed like it’s hard to get adoption in the Cloud Native world unless you support Kubernetes, and Kubernetes has clustering.
Do you see a similar trend in the BPM market? And are any challenges or opportunities around Kubernetes and the move to Cloud Native?
Miguel Valdés Faura: Even before Kubernetes, the move that we saw was the adoption of Docker. So, four years ago, we started to demand Docker super, as a way to use and deploy Bonita. So, that’s one of the first that we did. So, to certify a Docker image for people wanted to start their projects, it took us depending of the geography some time, we got that traction from the US, a little bit less in Europe in terms of adoption of the Docker image. Now, it’s a reality – there are more and more people using that. And, of course, those people are also asking now, “Okay, let’s combine that with Kubernetes.”
We have decided that Bonitasoft, that this is part of the kind of the capabilities that we can provide as part of our Cloud Edition. So, the elasticity capabilities that are offered to our Cloud customers is based on Kubernetes. And I think that the value to the customer is that we are able to manage that automatically for them.
This is something that we are at Bonitasoft proposing in our Cloud offering. But if someone wants to do it on premise, and they want integrate, the current Bonita on-premise version without the Kubernetes and manage Elasticity, they can do it.
But at Bonitasoft, we have a package to make it really simple for people who want to use the Cloud service.
Growth While Pivoting
Mike Schwartz: As you know, investors are super-focused on top-line growth. They want growth, growth, growth, but when there are major technology shifts, like from 2011 to today, seems like a different world. It’s hard enough to survive, let alone to grow a 100% per year. Can you talk about some of the challenges of achieving this high level of growth, especially if you have to pivot at the same time, like you probably did over the last couple of years?
Miguel Valdés Faura: A really good question. I mean, you know, it looks like hopefully things are changing, but when we started Bonitasoft off in 2009, and especially in the years that follows, looks like everyone needs to become a hyper-growth company. And of course, I really was trying to raise a lot of money, and we did it as well as Bonitasoft. And, of course, raising a lot of money means also at some point delivering really high growth. But things are changing, and I think that that’s okay, and that’s possible in some situations, it’s something you need to also be willing to do.
We wanted, at some point, growing the company that way at Bonitasoft, especially at the beginning, we decided to change. We decide to change because we wanted to build a more sustainable business, and of course, the level of research you take, if you are always following the hype- growth is a big risk. Because, of course, you are depending a lot of on money from investors, usually high-growth means high losses. So, you need to raise money. Of course, missing some of your targets can put the company at risk.
So, we decided five years ago to change, and embrace what we call a sustainable growth business model, in which profitability scheme for us, in which we try to grow as much as we can, if the company is profitable, and learn in environment in which people are enjoying their day-to-day work.
Now, we have to switch from one to the other, and I think that the pandemic that we are living these days is also reminding us that potentially that’s also a model that some other companies should consider..
Transition From Growth To Profitability
Mike Schwartz: That’s very interesting that you’re saying, “switch to high-growth as long as its profitable”, but how did you manage a relationship with your investors? Were they on board with that, or was there some friction around, saying, “We don’t want to accept this high level of risk?”
Miguel Valdés Faura: You mean, at the beginning, or when we decided to change to a more sustainable growth model?
Mike Schwartz: When you decided to change.
Miguel Valdés Faura: I think they were happy to see that after seven years of existence, we wanted to start looking to profitability. I think at some point that’s important for a company. And so, they were okay with that. And, then, of course we think that we have another kind of discussion with them because we are not asking any more money, the company is profitable for the last four years. So, then, do we need to deal with all the things like, okay, are we looking for an exit, are we looking to grow and do some acquisitions that we want to continue to grow the business organically – but, in any case, you are not forced to raise money which I think is good for us, and in some situations also good for investors.
Building The Sales Team
Mike Schwartz: So, it’s the technical founder one who’s been on the business side for a long time. Building a sales organization is really challenging – is there anything you’ve learned about building the sales team that you’d like to share with startup founders?
Miguel Valdés-Faura: Yes. It’s maybe because I’m also an engineer by training, but, of course, we did a lot of adjustments in the sales organizations over the years, and we’ve made a lot of mistakes and we’ve learned a couple of things. We made some great success, but you know, for the last four years, we are operating with sales methodology that probably you know this, it’s called Customer Centric Selling methodology, which is really focus on the value that you can bring to the customer, that is more focused on quality versus quantity, in which you do, not a lot of prospection, but you are really trying from a marketing perspective to have people really interested in having a discussion with you, and spending a little bit more time and trying to provide a solution that is, as I mentioned, to the problem.
So, then, you can surely acquire a new customer, but also make sure you can renew over the years. And this is one of the big things that we did. And we did it by having a mix in the sales team, people that are coming from different backgrounds, including engineering.
And I think that’s one of my first learning is that you can’t have people that have an engineering background that are doing exceptionally with that, and I think we’re seeing that with more and more companies.
Second, you need a methodology that is really focusing on providing value and delivering value to the customers. And this methodology needs to also be shared with marketing, and needs to be shared with the rest of the organization, including product teams know. And that has been a big change for us. Of course, we didn’t need that from one day to the other, but that move to this new methodology, having the right mix of people and focusing more on content and maturity of our leads than on quantity and prospection, has made a big difference for us.
Mike Schwartz: You mentioned that Atos was still a partner, and perhaps, there are other partners who are either bringing you business or you see as critical. But can you talk about like the role of like how the partner strategy has evolved over the years?
Miguel Valdés Faura: Today, we have three different kind of partners – we were talking about Atos, we have a category that we call Consultants and Systems Integrators Partners. As I mentioned, we have something like a hundred and plus of those partners, so, including CGI, including Atos, including Sopra, and then, other things that you in the U.S., you call it more boutique-like partners, or people that are more specialized in one particular sector. So, implementing projects in insurance or in banking. For example, in the U.S. people like Evoke, in Latin America people like Indra – this is one category. Those kind of partners are helping us either to identify new opportunities and also to do the implementation.
By the way, 62% of our new business is influenced by those consulting partners. Second category will be the technology partners. So, there’s no surprise here, this is about integration of our product with other products in a similar market. So, for example, we have those kind of partnerships with the UAiPath in the RPA space. We have this kind of partnership with a DocuSign. So, basically that means bi-directional integration between the two products. And I joined go-to-market, in which we think that the two products combined can bring more value to the customer.
And the third type of partners that we have are OEM Partners. So, it’s people or companies that are embedding our technology and reselling as part of their product. So, to name one that is more representative. Talend is doing that, Talend is that integration leader that is embedding Bonita as one of their offerings. So, those are the three kind of partners. And of course, this thing has been evolved, and has been over the years. So, we started with putting a lot of effort on Consulting and System Integrators Partners, and then we started to focus, in a second step, on more of the technology side of the story.
Mike Schwartz: You mentioned OEM partnership, which is interesting for open source, because I think that companies who want OEM can use the open source and become part of the ecosystem. What is the driver for a company to OEM in open-source product?
Miguel Valdés Faura: A good question. I think is that the nature of the technology that you are embedding, if you are embedding just Log4j for logging – that was, at least, used 15 years ago, – or Hibernate for persistence. Potentially, it’s the same done embedding, BPM engine or Workflow engine.
So, if you are embedding a solution, that is more like a project or a platform, that is in some way critical to the other solution that is embedding, potentially you’re going to look for, not only can I do it from a license perspective, but also, potentially, you are going to contact the other company to do a partnership. So, that’s what’s happening a lot in our ecosystem – embedding a VPN engine or embedding the whole platform, embedding a workflow solution is something that’s potentially going to be used for mission-critical things.
So, if that is the case, even if the license allows you to do it, potentially, you are going to also look for some help from the company that is building that. And of course, then, it could be also an issue with the license. You know, some of the licenses, for example, the GPL license are not allowed to embed directly without having an OEM equipment in place or changing the license. So, it could be either a license issue, or it could be that you need some helping if something goes wrong.
Mike Schwartz: I normally don’t ask about license because I’ve actually been thinking about doing a whole another podcast, or maybe in a season or something, just on licensing, because it’s a complex topic.
Miguel Valdés Faura: Yeah.
Mike Schwartz: And, of course, Bonitasoft’s project’s been around for a long time, but is it GPL license – can you just talk for a second about the open-source license that you’re using, and maybe why?
Miguel Valdés Faura: The open-source project is really under the GPL license, and it’s more historical reasons, this is how we started the project. You know, at that time, it was the time when MySQL was – those kind of projects were appearing, it was the time of Enterprise middleware – so, we kept that license because that was also all discussions around open-core business model. And we didn’t change the scene that, for example, we are now also launching new ones, new products in which, we are also moving to some other license like Apache or MIT. But we kept, for the Bonita project, the GPL license because this is the one that get everything started.
Mike Schwartz: It sounds like the less permissive license actually has benefited you. But I think there’s sort of a knee-jerk reaction or policy among entrepreneurs these days to use permissive license, like MIT or patchy, but it sounds like GPL actually helped you in this case.
Miguel Valdés-Faura: Yeah, it kind of helped, for example, we’re talking about the OEM, it can help the OEM space, some of the people are going to see that there are some restrictions, and then, of course, there is this debate about, okay, but if I’m burying a GPL library, it’s going to be contaminating my project, but usually when you have that issue is because the project that you are building is usually something that you want to follow the open source, you want to commercialize something, just by liberating all those people work in open source, so, yeah, as you mentioned it, it’s always a complex discussion.
But, yeah, I think there are some benefits of using GPL, there are potentially some drawbacks depending of what do you want to build with that license – I think it depends. So, it is not magical rollover for what is the best license to use in your next project.
Keys To Growth In 2021
Mike Schwartz: So, there’s a lot going on today. We have the pandemic, moved to Cloud Native, changes in paradigms, like continuous delivery. What do you think are the keys to growth in the next few years?
Miguel Valdés Faura: I think nobody knows. I think we need to be humble, especially with everything and all those things that are going on, that are going on these days. But you know what, I will be back to my – what I was talking about the sustainable growth. I think that more than ever, being in a business, running a business in which you know that you are profitable, that you are of course trying to maximize, and you are ambitious to maximize the growth, if you are still profitable, having a strong customer base that this renewing year after year is what makes a big difference, especially when there are some situations that they want to do, are facing now.
Because, of course, if you don’t have that, and for some reason, you just stop signing new customers, or signing the new customer database that you were signing before. If you have a strong customer base, you’re going to suffer more than others. So, I will be back to that concept of sustainable growth because I think it’s what makes the company less risky, more sustainable in the long run.
Advice For Entrepreneurs
Mike Schwartz: You know, startups are roller-coasters. I personally don’t recommend starting a company, especially a tech company, to anyone who’d asked me, but for those people crazy enough to dive into entrepreneurship – do you have any advice for new entrepreneurs who are launching a business around open-source product?
Miguel Valdés Faura: I will have one. It’s obvious that I think it is good that we remember that from time to time, which is, there are no two companies that are alike, so, the same applies to founders. Don’t pretend to be somebody else. Of course, listen and learn from others in your ecosystem, but be yourself. And if you create a company, as you mentioned, if you are crazy enough to create the company, try to be surrounded by people that share the culture that you have in mind, the strategy that you have in mind. Don’t pretend to be a CEO that you are not. And that’s – I go back to – not all the companies need to be the same, not all the companies need to be unicorn, not all the companies need to follow the same business model, but you need to be really comfortable about the choices that you make, otherwise, it is going to be even harder than you know it simple journey.
Mike Schwartz: It’s 55 podcast. I always ask that question at the end – no one’s actually given that answer yet, but I have to say I agree with that a100%. So, thank you for being the 55th guest, and best of luck this year. And thank you so much for being on the podcast, Miguel.
Miguel Valdés Faura: Thank you very much, Mike, for inviting me. It was a real pleasure.
Mike Schwartz: Special thanks to the Bonitsoft team for helping us to schedule the interview. Editing by Ines Cetenji. Transcription by Marina Andjelkovic. Cool graphics from Kemal Bhattacharjee. Music from Broke For Free, Chris Zabriskie and Lee Rosevere.
This is the last episode of 2020. Next year, I’ll keep going, although probably at a somewhat slower rate. If you have any ideas for the direction the podcast should go in 2021, I’d love to hear your feedback. You can contact me on the website opensourceunderdogs.com. Happy holidays, founders! Hang in there, and keep an eye out for new Season 4 episodes after the New Year.