With buyout, Cloudera hunts for relevance in a changing market

When Cloudera announced its sale to a pair of private equity firms yesterday for $5.3 billion, along with a couple of acquisitions of its own, the company detailed a new path that could help it drive back toward relevance in the big data market.

When the company launched in 2008, Hadoop was in its early days. The open-source project developed at Yahoo three years earlier was built to deal with the large amounts of data that the internet pioneer generated. It became increasingly clear over time that every company would have to deal with growing data stores, and it seemed that Cloudera was in the right market at the right time.

And for a while things went well. Cloudera rode the Hadoop startup wave, garnering a cool billion in funding along the way, including a stunning $740 million check from Intel Capital in 2014. It then went public in 2018 to much fanfare.

But the markets had already started to shift by the time of its public debut. Hadoop, a highly labor-intensive way to manage data, was being supplanted by cheaper and less complex cloud-based solutions.

“The excitement around the original promise of the Hadoop market has contracted significantly. It’s incredibly expensive and complex to get it working effectively in an enterprise context,” Casey Aylward, an investor at Costanoa Ventures told TechCrunch.

The company likely saw that writing on the wall when it merged with another Hadoop-based company, Hortonworks, in 2019. That transaction valued the combined entity at $5.2 billion, almost the same amount it sold for yesterday, two years down the road. The decision to sell and go private may also have been spurred by Carl Icahn buying an 18% stake in the company that same year.

Looking to the future, Cloudera’s sale could provide the enterprise unicorn room as it regroups.

Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insight & Strategies, sees the deal as a positive step for the company. “I think this is good news for Cloudera because it now has the capital and flexibility to dive head first into SaaS. The company invented the entire concept of a data life cycle, implemented initially on premises, then extended to private and public clouds,” Moorhead said.

Adam Ronthal, Gartner Research VP, agrees that it at least gives Cloudera more room to make necessary adjustments to its market strategy as long as it doesn’t get stifled by its private equity overlords. “It should give Cloudera an opportunity to focus on their future direction with increased flexibility — provided they are able to invest in that future and that this does not just focus on cost cutting and maximizing profits. Maintaining a culture of innovation will be key,” Ronthal said.

Which brings us to the two purchases Cloudera also announced as part of its news package.

If you want to change direction in a hurry, there are worse ways than via acquisitions. And grabbing Datacoral and Cazena should help Cloudera alter its course more quickly than it could have managed on its own.

“[The] two acquisitions will help Cloudera capture some of the value on top of the lake storage layer — perhaps moving into different data management features and/or expanding into the compute layer for analytics and AI/ML use cases, where there has been a lot of growth and excitement in recent years,” Aylward said.

Chandana Gopal, research director for the future of intelligence at IDC, agrees that the transactions give Cloudera some more modern options that could help speed up the data-wrangling process. “Both the acquisitions are geared towards making the management of cloud infrastructure easier for end-users. Our research shows that data prep and integration takes 70%-80% of an analyst’s time versus the time spent in actual analysis. It seems like both these companies’ products will provide technology to improve the data integration/preparation experience,” she said.

The company couldn’t stay on the path it was on forever, certainly not with an activist investor breathing down its neck. Its recent efforts could give it the time away from public markets it needs to regroup. How successful Cloudera’s turnaround proves to be will depend on whether the private equity companies buying it can both agree on the direction and strategy for the company, while providing the necessary resources to push the company in a new direction. All of that and more will determine if these moves pay off in the end.

Equity Tuesday: Everyone is raising money at the same time

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is Equity Monday Tuesday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here.

We are back from a long weekend here in America. But not break here in the States can stop the flow of global tech news. So, here’s the rundown:

Welcome back, America, to the week. It’s nice to see you, everyone else. Maybe Robinhood will file this week.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

Cloudera to go private as KKR & CD&R grab it for $5.3B

Cloudera was once one of the hottest Hadoop startups, but over time the shine has come off that market, and today it went private as KKR and Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, a pair of private equity firms announced they intended to purchase Cloudera for $5.3 billion. The company has a market cap of around $3.7 billion.

Cloudera and Hortonworks, two key startups in the Hadoop space, merged in 2018 for $5.2 billion.Cloudera was likely under pressure from activist investor Carl Icahn, who took an 18% stake in the company in 2019 and now stands to gain from the sale, which the company stated represented a 24% premium for shareholders at $16 a share. Prior to the market opening this morning, the stock was sitting at $12.86.

Back in the day, about a decade ago, when Hadoop was the way to process big data, venture money was pouring into the space. Over time it lost some of its glow. That’s because it was highly labor intensive, and companies began moving to the cloud and looking at software services that did more of the work for them. More modern technologies like data lakes began replacing it and the company recognized that it must change its approach to survive in the modern data processing marketplace.

Cloudera CEO Rob Bearden sees the transaction as a way to do just that. “We believe that as a private company with the expertise and support of experienced investors such as CD&R and KKR, Cloudera will have the resources and flexibility to drive product-led growth and expand our addressable market opportunity,” Bearden said in a statement.

While there is a lot of executive jargon in that statement, it basically means that the company hopes that these private equity firms can give it some additional financial resources to move towards a more modern approach for processing large amounts of data.

While it was at it, Cloudera also announced a couple of acquisitions of its own to help it move towards that modernization goal. For starters it grabbed Datacoral, a startup that abstracts away the infrastructure needed to build a data pipeline without using code. It also acquired Cazena, a startup that helps customers build cloud data lakes, giving the company a more modern approach to processing big data.  Bearden sees both of these services helping Cloudera reposition itself in the big data self-service market

“Both businesses will enable our combined customers to enjoy a reduction in complexity and faster time to value for their data initiatives, leading to improved insights, faster innovation, and stronger engagements with their customers and partners,” Bearden said in a statement.

Cloudera went public in 2018, closing at $18.09 a share after raising a $1 billion. The vast majority of that was a $740 million investment from Intel Capital in 2014.

Hortonworks raised another $248 million. A third Hadoop startup, MapR raised $280 million. The company’s assets were sold rather unceremoniously to HPE in 2019 for a price pegged at under $50 million, showing just how far the market has fallen since its earlier glory days.

The Cloudera deal includes a brief “go shop” provision that allows it continue to look for a better deal. It’s doubtful it will find one, and if it doesn’t the transaction with KKR and CD&R is expected to close in the second half of this year subject to typical regulatory review. The company will announce earnings later today.

Airbyte raises $5.2M for its open-source data integration platform

Airbyte, an open-source data integration platform, today announced that it has raised a $5.2 million seed funding round led by Accel. Other investors include YCombinator, 8VC, Segment co-founder Calvin French-Owen, former Cloudera GM Charles Zedlewski, LiveRamp and Safegraph CEO Auren Hoffman, Datavant CEO Travis May and Alain Rossmann, the president of Machinify.

The company was co-founded by Michel Tricot, the former director of engineering and head of integrations at LiverRamp and RideOS, and John Lafleur, a serial entrepreneur who focuses on developer tools and B2B services. The last startup he co-founded was Anaxi.

Image Credits: Airbyte

In its early days, the team was actually working on a slightly different project that focused on data connectivity for marketing companies. The founders were accepted into Y Combinator and built out their application, but once the COVID pandemic hit, a lot of the companies that had placed early bets on Airbyte’s original project faced budget freezes and layoffs.

“At that point, we decided to go into deeper data integration and that’s how we started the Airbyte project and product as we know it today,” Tricot explained.

Today’s Airbyte is geared toward data engineering, without the specific industry focus of its early incarnation, but it offers both a graphical UI for building connectors, as well as APIs for developers to hook into.

As Tricot noted, a lot of companies start out by building their own data connectors — and that tends to work alright at first. But the real complexity is in maintaining them. “You have zero control over how they behave,” he noted. “So either they’re going to fail, or they’re going to change something. The cost of data integration is in the maintenance.”

Even for a company that specializes in building these connectors, the complexity will quickly outpace its ability to keep up, so the team decided on building Airbyte as an open-source company. The team also argues that while there are companies like Fivetran that focus on data integration, a lot of customers end up with use cases that aren’t supported by Airbyte’s closed-source competitors and that they had to build themselves from the ground up.

“Our mission with Airbyte is really to become the standard to replicate data,” Lafleur said. “To do that, we will open-source every feature that addresses the need of the individual contributor, so all the connectors.” He also noted that Airbyte will exclusively focus on its open-source tools until it raises a Series A round — likely early next year.

To monetize its service, Airbyte plans to use an open core model, where all of the features that address the needs of a company (think enterprise features like data quality, privacy, user management, etc.) will be licensed. The team is also looking at white-labeling its containerized connectors to others.

Currently, about 600 companies use Airbyte’s connectors — up from 250 just a month ago. Its users include the likes of Safegraph, Dribbble, Mercato, GraniteRock, Agridigital and Cart.com.

The company plans to use the new funding to double its team from about 12 people to 25 by the end of the year. Right now, the company’s focus is on establishing its user base, and then it plans to start monetizing that — and raise more funding — next year.

 

Cloudera pulls sensitive files from its ‘open by design’ cloud servers

Enterprise cloud giant Cloudera has pulled several of its cloud storage servers offline, despite initially claiming the servers were “open by design,” after a security researcher found sensitive internal files inside.

Chris Vickery, director of risk research at security firm UpGuard, found the cloud storage servers — known as buckets — hosted on Amazon Web Services in late July. The data largely contained legacy Hortonworks data from prior to its $5.2 billion all-stock merger with Cloudera in January 2019.

When reached, Cloudera spokesperson Madge Miller told TechCrunch that the buckets were supposed to be open and contained files and code that were open to its customers, users, and the wider community. The company said, however, that it identified three files that contained confidential information and were removed from the buckets.

But soon after, the company reversed its position and pulled the buckets offline altogether.

Vickery, who shared his findings exclusively with TechCrunch, said that although the vast majority of files in the cloud buckets were for public and community consumption, he also found files containing credentials, account access tokens, passwords and other secrets for Cloudera’s internal Jenkins system, which the company uses for building and testing its software projects. The buckets also contained entire SQL databases for its internal build databases, Vickery said.

A “secrets” file containing passwords and credentials for Cloudera’s internal systems. (Image: UpGuard/supplied

Later, Cloudera confirmed the security lapse in a later email to TechCrunch.

“Thanks to the questions from the security researcher, we did a deep dive and found some credentials and SQL dumps in the public buckets which should not have been placed there. The credentials were for our internal Jenkins build process and the SQL dumps were of our build database,” the spokesperson said.

“We have since removed this information from the public buckets and taken further remediation steps by changing credentials and rotating keys. We also concluded we could close access to a few unused publicly accessible buckets.”

The company said that the sensitive data, since removed, did not contain any customer data or any other personally identifiable information.

In all, the security lapse could have been worse — even if the incident could have been avoided altogether.

But Vickery said the incident was important to disclose as it reveals the inherent risk in using overwhelmingly large cloud storage containers. In other words, the buckets were so big and had so many files that it becomes nearly impossible to notice when something sensitive is added to the bucket by mistake.

“When that many directories and files of varying format are all stashed away together, it becomes all too easy for something to be mistakenly put among them and remain unnoticed, as is what appears to have happened here,” wrote Vickery.

A COVID-19 resilience test for B2B companies

COVID-19 has transformed the global business landscape.

So much so that in a matter of weeks after the onset of the pandemic in the United States, Congress provided more than $1.1 trillion in fiscal stimulus directly to businesses and distressed industries — four times more than was distributed during the 2008-09 financial crisis.

It came as no surprise when, at the start of COVID-19, venture capital investors largely went pencils-down for several weeks and shifted their focus to their existing portfolio companies. Extending company runways, preparing for longer funding cycles and managing operations in a novel business environment became the crux of company resilience. Now, moving into May, we can see this shift reflected in both the decline in number of early-stage companies funded and total capital invested.

As investors begin acclimating to this new normal, they have begun wading into new opportunities in time-proven, healthy industries and new emerging industries that are positioned to succeed during the pandemic. While we are seeing lower valuations, we believe certain B2B technology companies may be uniquely poised to thrive, and are pursuing investment opportunities in this space with a renewed focus.

Image Credits: Crunchbase Data via Tableau Public

*Excluding Biotech & Pharmaceuticals (Source: Crunchbase Data via Tableau Public)

Prior to COVID-19, early-stage B2B investors wanted to see strong growth and healthy unit economics; 3X year-over-year sales growth or 10% monthly growth was the gold standard. An LTV-to-CAC ratio over 3X signified a healthy payback cycle. There was less focus on capital efficiency; for every $1 million invested, investors were happy with $500,000 in generated revenues. Get to these numbers and your next funding round was guaranteed — but no longer.

During COVID, and likely beyond, company expectations and goalposts have been adjusted; 2X year-over-year growth may be the new 3X. While growth and unit economics are important, there are now new health indicators that will determine if a B2B company will thrive in a post-COVID world. With that in mind, we have put together a COVID reslience test that startups can use as a north star to grow their business in this new world.

This COVID-19 test is meant to be a gated checklist that will indicate where efforts should be focused, whether it be sales, product or finance. Before we leave you to your own devices, we wanted to walk through a couple of these new post-COVID questions that you should try to answer (and why they are relevant).

Kobalt, Apple and smartwatches, Hadoop, customer support, and social work and AI

The Kobalt EC-1: How a Swedish saxophonist built Kobalt, the world’s next music unicorn

My favorite pieces we host on Extra Crunch are our EC-1 series of in-depth profiles and analyses of high-flying, fascinating startups. We launched Extra Crunch with a multi-part series on Patreon, and then we covered augmented reality and Pokémon Go creator Niantic and gaming platform Roblox.

This week, Extra Crunch media columnist Eric Peckham launched the first part of his three-part EC-1 series looking at music “operating system” startup Kobalt. Kobalt is not perhaps a popular household name like Roblox, but it’s influence is heard pretty much every single time you listen to music. Kobalt is upending the traditional infrastructure to track music plays to capture royalties for artists, an industry that today still involves people literally walking into bars and writing down what’s playing. From that base, Kobalt wants to expand into services to empower the next-generation of stars and mid-market talent.

What I loved about this story is that not only is Kobalt completely rebuilding an otherwise stagnant industry, but its founder and CEO is also such a dynamic individual. Willard Ahdritz was a former saxophonist whose band was essentially abandoned by their music label — even while that label wouldn’t give up the economics that would allow the band to continue (some founders may have similar experiences with their venture investors). Ahdritz would eventually start his own music label called Telegram, and a bit later started Kobalt to solve the problems he kept running into on the music publishing side.

It’s been almost two decades, but today, Kobalt offers a suite of technologies and services and has its crosshairs on the big three labels — Universal, Sony, and Warner. It’s also raised a boatload of venture capital and is closing in on a unicorn valuation. Read the full story, learn more about this analytically fascinating business, and get ready for parts two and three coming soon.

Refer a friend to Extra Crunch

With MapR fire sale, Hadoop’s promise has fallen on hard times

If you go back about a decade, Hadoop was hot and getting hotter. It was a platform for processing big data, just as big data was emerging from the domain of a few web-scale companies to one where every company was suddenly concerned about processing huge amounts of data. The future was bright, an open source project with a bunch of startups emerging to fulfill that big data promise in the enterprise.

Three companies in particular emerged out of that early scrum — Cloudera, Hortonworks and MapR — and between them raised more than $1.5 billion. The lion’s share of that went to Cloudera in one massive chunk when Intel Capital invested a whopping $740 million in the company. But times have changed.

2018 china ipos

Via TechCrunch, Crunchbase, Infogram

Falling hard

Just yesterday, HPE bought the assets of MapR, a company that had raised $280 million. The deal was pegged at under $50 million, according to multiple reports. That’s not what you call a healthy return on investment.

Verified Expert Brand Designer: Stitzlein Studio

After spending years working for in-house design teams and well-known brand agencies such as Nike, Google, and Pentagram, Joe and Leslie Stitzlein, who are also husband and wife, decided to launch their own branding studio. You’ve seen their work in many places; from launching the identities for Netflix, Mac OS X, Nike Flyknit, dwell and Lilly.

Stitzlein Studio has ushered in a new chapter for the couple who now works with a global network of independent designers, illustrators, and developers to help companies develop or expand their brands. It doesn’t matter whether it’s designing an identity or launching a new product, the founders of Stitzlein Studio are eager to share their vast experiences and take on a new challenge.

Advice for startup founders

“Be yourself, and be courageous. That is not easy, especially when you have investors to satisfy and payroll to make [we’re business owners too at the end of the day and totally get it]. We’ve seen founders try to mimic successful brands rather than spending time and energy on what makes them unique. Instead of trying to look like Google, figure out what you are and amplify the shit out of that. It’s surprising how many companies underestimate themselves when what they do is amazing. Our job is to find what makes them distinctive and pour gas on it.”

Stitzlein Studio’s branding philosophy

“Each brand has its own DNA, just as each person is unique. A company’s DNA comes to life both on a surface level by how they look, but also how the brand interacts with people in the world.”

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup brand designers and agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.


Interview with Stitzlein Studio Creative Directors Joe and Leslie Stitzlein

Yvonne Leow: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and why the two of you decided to create a studio together?

Joe Stitzlein: Leslie and I had been working at a lot of different places before this. I had been in-house at Nike for seven years and spent three years at Google. There’s not a lot of opportunities to take risks in life, and we thought why not pivot from climbing the in-house ladder and share everything we’ve learned about branding with smaller startups as well as larger companies.

One aspect of our work that we really enjoy is taking a wonderful technical innovation and translating it into communications that are beautiful, helpful and inspiring. This is true for everything from a new running shoe to a new cryptocurrency; we love boiling complicated innovations down into a striking image or experience.

We wanted to take some of those lessons from the Nikes of the world, and the nonprofits and interactive clients Leslie had, and bring those to smaller scale clients. It was a fun opportunity.

How open source software took over the world

It was just 5 years ago that there was an ample dose of skepticism from investors about the viability of open source as a business model. The common thesis was that Redhat was a snowflake and that no other open source company would be significant in the software universe.

Fast forward to today and we’ve witnessed the growing excitement in the space: Redhat is being acquired by IBM for $32 billion (3x times its market cap from 2014); Mulesoft was acquired after going public for $6.5 billion; MongoDB is now worth north of $4 billion; Elastic’s IPO now values the company at $6 billion; and, through the merger of Cloudera and Hortonworks, a new company with a market cap north of $4 billion will emerge. In addition, there’s a growing cohort of impressive OSS companies working their way through the growth stages of their evolution: Confluent, HashiCorp, DataBricks, Kong, Cockroach Labs and many others. Given the relative multiples that Wall Street and private investors are assigning to these open source companies, it seems pretty clear that something special is happening.

So, why did this movement that once represented the bleeding edge of software become the hot place to be? There are a number of fundamental changes that have advanced open source businesses and their prospects in the market.

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

From Open Source to Open Core to SaaS

The original open source projects were not really businesses, they were revolutions against the unfair profits that closed-source software companies were reaping. Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and others were extracting monopoly-like “rents” for software, which the top developers of the time didn’t believe was world class. So, beginning with the most broadly used components of software – operating systems and databases – progressive developers collaborated, often asynchronously, to author great pieces of software. Everyone could not only see the software in the open, but through a loosely-knit governance model, they added, improved and enhanced it.

The software was originally created by and for developers, which meant that at first it wasn’t the most user-friendly. But it was performant, robust and flexible. These merits gradually percolated across the software world and, over a decade, Linux became the second most popular OS for servers (next to Windows); MySQL mirrored that feat by eating away at Oracle’s dominance.

The first entrepreneurial ventures attempted to capitalize on this adoption by offering “enterprise-grade” support subscriptions for these software distributions. Redhat emerged the winner in the Linux race and MySQL (thecompany) for databases. These businesses had some obvious limitations – it was harder to monetize software with just support services, but the market size for OS’s and databases was so large that, in spite of more challenged business models, sizeable companies could be built.

The successful adoption of Linux and MySQL laid the foundation for the second generation of Open Source companies – the poster children of this generation were Cloudera and Hortonworks. These open source projects and businesses were fundamentally different from the first generation on two dimensions. First, the software was principally developed within an existing company and not by a broad, unaffiliated community (in the case of Hadoop, the software took shape within Yahoo!) . Second, these businesses were based on the model that only parts of software in the project were licensed for free, so they could charge customers for use of some of the software under a commercial license. The commercial aspects were specifically built for enterprise production use and thus easier to monetize. These companies, therefore, had the ability to capture more revenue even if the market for their product didn’t have quite as much appeal as operating systems and databases.

However, there were downsides to this second generation model of open source business. The first was that no company singularly held ‘moral authority’ over the software – and therefore the contenders competed for profits by offering increasing parts of their software for free. Second, these companies often balkanized the evolution of the software in an attempt to differentiate themselves. To make matters more difficult, these businesses were not built with a cloud service in mind. Therefore, cloud providers were able to use the open source software to create SaaS businesses of the same software base. Amazon’s EMR is a great example of this.

The latest evolution came when entrepreneurial developers grasped the business model challenges existent in the first two generations – Gen 1 and Gen 2 – of open source companies, and evolved the projects with two important elements. The first is that the open source software is now developed largely within the confines of businesses. Often, more than 90% of the lines of code in these projects are written by the employees of the company that commercialized the software. Second, these businesses offer their own software as a cloud service from very early on. In a sense, these are Open Core / Cloud service hybrid businesses with multiple pathways to monetize their product. By offering the products as SaaS, these businesses can interweave open source software with commercial software so customers no longer have to worry about which license they should be taking. Companies like Elastic, Mongo, and Confluent with services like Elastic Cloud, Confluent Cloud, and MongoDB Atlas are examples of this Gen 3.  The implications of this evolution are that open source software companies now have the opportunity to become the dominant business model for software infrastructure.

The Role of the Community

While the products of these Gen 3 companies are definitely more tightly controlled by the host companies, the open source community still plays a pivotal role in the creation and development of the open source projects. For one, the community still discovers the most innovative and relevant projects. They star the projects on Github, download the software in order to try it, and evangelize what they perceive to be the better project so that others can benefit from great software. Much like how a good blog post or a tweet spreads virally, great open source software leverages network effects. It is the community that is the source of promotion for that virality.

The community also ends up effectively being the “product manager” for these projects. It asks for enhancements and improvements; it points out the shortcomings of the software. The feature requests are not in a product requirements document, but on Github, comments threads and Hacker News. And, if an open source project diligently responds to the community, it will shape itself to the features and capabilities that developers want.

The community also acts as the QA department for open source software. It will identify bugs and shortcomings in the software; test 0.x versions diligently; and give the companies feedback on what is working or what is not.  The community will also reward great software with positive feedback, which will encourage broader use.

What has changed though, is that the community is not as involved as it used to be in the actual coding of the software projects. While that is a drawback relative to Gen 1 and Gen 2 companies, it is also one of the inevitable realities of the evolving business model.

Linus Torvalds was the designer of the open-source operating system Linux.

Rise of the Developer

It is also important to realize the increasing importance of the developer for these open source projects. The traditional go-to-market model of closed source software targeted IT as the purchasing center of software. While IT still plays a role, the real customers of open source are the developers who often discover the software, and then download and integrate it into the prototype versions of the projects that they are working on. Once “infected”by open source software, these projects work their way through the development cycles of organizations from design, to prototyping, to development, to integration and testing, to staging, and finally to production. By the time the open source software gets to production it is rarely, if ever, displaced. Fundamentally, the software is never “sold”; it is adopted by the developers who appreciate the software more because they can see it and use it themselves rather than being subject to it based on executive decisions.

In other words, open source software permeates itself through the true experts, and makes the selection process much more grassroots than it has ever been historically. The developers basically vote with their feet. This is in stark contrast to how software has traditionally been sold.

Virtues of the Open Source Business Model

The resulting business model of an open source company looks quite different than a traditional software business. First of all, the revenue line is different. Side-by-side, a closed source software company will generally be able to charge more per unit than an open source company. Even today, customers do have some level of resistance to paying a high price per unit for software that is theoretically “free.” But, even though open source software is lower cost per unit, it makes up the total market size by leveraging the elasticity in the market. When something is cheaper, more people buy it. That’s why open source companies have such massive and rapid adoption when they achieve product-market fit.

Another great advantage of open source companies is their far more efficient and viral go-to-market motion. The first and most obvious benefit is that a user is already a “customer” before she even pays for it. Because so much of the initial adoption of open source software comes from developers organically downloading and using the software, the companies themselves can often bypass both the marketing pitch and the proof-of-concept stage of the sales cycle. The sales pitch is more along the lines of, “you already use 500 instances of our software in your environment, wouldn’t you like to upgrade to the enterprise edition and get these additional features?”  This translates to much shorter sales cycles, the need for far fewer sales engineers per account executive, and much quicker payback periods of the cost of selling. In fact, in an ideal situation, open source companies can operate with favorable Account Executives to Systems Engineer ratios and can go from sales qualified lead (SQL) to closed sales within one quarter.

This virality allows for open source software businesses to be far more efficient than traditional software businesses from a cash consumption basis. Some of the best open source companies have been able to grow their business at triple-digit growth rates well into their life while  maintaining moderate of burn rates of cash. This is hard to imagine in a traditional software company. Needless to say, less cash consumption equals less dilution for the founders.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Open Source to Freemium

One last aspect of the changing open source business that is worth elaborating on is the gradual movement from true open source to community-assisted freemium. As mentioned above, the early open source projects leveraged the community as key contributors to the software base. In addition, even for slight elements of commercially-licensed software, there was significant pushback from the community. These days the community and the customer base are much more knowledgeable about the open source business model, and there is an appreciation for the fact that open source companies deserve to have a “paywall” so that they can continue to build and innovate.

In fact, from a customer perspective the two value propositions of open source software are that you a) read the code; b) treat it as freemium. The notion of freemium is that you can basically use it for free until it’s deployed in production or in some degree of scale. Companies like Elastic and Cockroach Labs have gone as far as actually open sourcing all their software but applying a commercial license to parts of the software base. The rationale being that real enterprise customers would pay whether the software is open or closed, and they are more incentivized to use commercial software if they can actually read the code. Indeed, there is a risk that someone could read the code, modify it slightly, and fork the distribution. But in developed economies – where much of the rents exist anyway, it’s unlikely that enterprise companies will elect the copycat as a supplier.

A key enabler to this movement has been the more modern software licenses that companies have either originally embraced or migrated to over time. Mongo’s new license, as well as those of Elastic and Cockroach are good examples of these. Unlike the Apache incubated license – which was often the starting point for open source projects a decade ago, these licenses are far more business-friendly and most model open source businesses are adopting them.

The Future

When we originally penned this article on open source four years ago, we aspirationally hoped that we would see the birth of iconic open source companies. At a time where there was only one model – Redhat – we believed that there would be many more. Today, we see a healthy cohort of open source businesses, which is quite exciting. I believe we are just scratching the surface of the kind of iconic companies that we will see emerge from the open source gene pool. From one perspective, these companies valued in the billions are a testament to the power of the model. What is clear is that open source is no longer a fringe approach to software. When top companies around the world are polled, few of them intend to have their core software systems be anything but open source. And if the Fortune 5000 migrate their spend on closed source software to open source, we will see the emergence of a whole new landscape of software companies, with the leaders of this new cohort valued in the tens of billions of dollars.

Clearly, that day is not tomorrow. These open source companies will need to grow and mature and develop their products and organization in the coming decade. But the trend is undeniable and here at Index we’re honored to have been here for the early days of this journey.