Relentlessly eliminating barriers to growth

In my last blog post, I shared that when Acquia was a small startup, we were simultaneously focused on finding product-market fit and eliminating barriers to future growth.

In that light, I loved reading Eugene Wie's blog post called, Invisible asymptotes. Wie was a product leader at Amazon. In his blog post he explains how Amazon looks far into the future, identifies blockers for long-term growth, and turns eliminating these growth barriers into multi-decade efforts. As Amazon shows, eliminating barriers to growth remains very important long after you have outgrown the startup phase.

For example, Amazon considered shipping costs to be a growth blocker, or as Wie describes it, an invisible asymptote for growth. People hate paying for shipping costs, so Amazon decided to get rid of them. At first, solving this looked prohibitively expensive. How can you offer free shipping to millions of customers? Solving for this limitation became a multi-year effort. First, Amazon tried to appease customers' distaste for shipping fees with "Super Saver Shipping". Amazon introduced Super Saver Shipping in January 2002 for orders over $99. If you placed an order of $99 or more, you received free shipping. In the span of a few months, that number dropped to $49 and then to $25. Eventually this led to the launch of Amazon Prime in 2005, making all shipping "free". Members pay $79 per year for free, unlimited two-day shipping on eligible purchases. While a program like Amazon Prime doesn't actually make shipping free, it feels free to the customer, which effectively eliminates the barrier for growth. The impact on Amazon's growth was tremendous. Today, Amazon Prime provides Amazon an economic moat, or a sustainable competitive advantage – it isn't easy for other retailers to compete from a sheer economic and logistical standpoint.

Another obstacle for Amazon's growth was shipping times. People don't like having to wait for days to receive their Amazon purchase. Several years ago, I was talking to Werner Vogels, Amazon's global CTO, and asked him where most commerce investments were going. He responded that reducing shipping times was more strategic than making improvements to the commerce backend or website. As Wie points out in his blog, Amazon has been working on reducing shipping times for over a decade. First by building a higher density network of distribution centers, and more recently through delivery from local Whole Foods stores, self-service lockers at Whole Foods, predictive or anticipatory shipping, drone delivery, and more. Slowly, but certainly, Amazon is building out its own end-to-end delivery network with one primary objective: reducing shipping times.

Every organization has limitations that stunt long-term growth so there are important lessons that can be learned from how Amazon approached its blockers or invisible asymptotes:

  1. Take the time to correctly identify your long-term blockers for growth.
  2. Removing these long-term blockers for growth may look impossible at first.
  3. Removing these long-term blockers requires creativity, innovation, patience, persistence and aggressive capital allocation. It can take many initiatives and many years to eliminate them.
  4. Overcoming these obstacles can be a powerful strategy that can unlock unbelievable growth.

I spend a lot of time and effort working on eliminating Drupal's and Acquia's growth barriers so I love these kind of lessons. In a future blog post, I'll share my thoughts about Drupal's growth blockers. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you think is holding Drupal or Acquia back — be it via social media, email or preferably your own blog.

Optimizing your product strategy for the short- and long-term

Most products cycle through the infamous Innovation S-curve, which maps a product's value and growth over time.

Product lifecycle s curve

Startups are eager to find product-market fit, the inflection point in which the product takes off and experiences hockey-stick growth (the transition from phase one to phase two).

Just as important, however, is the stagnation point, or the point later in the S-curve when a product experiences growth stagnation (the transition from phase two to phase three). Many startups don't think about their stagnation point, but I believe they should, because it determines how big the product can become.

Ten years ago, a couple years after Acquia's founding, large organizations were struggling with scaling Drupal. I was absolutely convinced that Drupal could scale, but I also recognized that too few people knew how to scale Drupal successfully.

Furthermore, there was a lot of skepticism around Open Source scalability and security. People questioned whether a community of volunteers could create software as secure and scalable as their proprietary counterparts.

These struggles and concerns were holding back Drupal. To solve both problems, we built and launched Acquia Cloud, a platform to build, host and manage Drupal sites.

After we launched Acquia Cloud, Acquia grew from $1.4 million in bookings in 2009 to $8.7 million in bookings in 2010 (600% year-over-year growth), and to $22 million in bookings by 2011 (250% year-over-year growth). We had clearly found product-market fit!

Not only did it launch Acquia in rocket-ship growth, it also extended our stagnation point. We on-boarded many large organizations and showed that Drupal can scale very large. This helped unlock a lot of growth for both Drupal and Acquia. I can say with certainty that many large organizations that use Drupal would not have adopted Drupal without Acquia.

Helping to grow Drupal — or extending Drupal's stagnation point — was always part of Acquia's mission. From day one, we understood that for Acquia to grow, Drupal had to grow.

Launching Acquia Cloud was a great business decision for Acquia; it gave us product-market fit, launched us in hockey-stick growth, but also extended our S-curve.

As I think back about how Acquia approached the Innovation S-curve, a few important lessons stand out:

  • Focus on business opportunities that serve a burning customer need that can launch or accelerate your organization.
  • Focus on business opportunities that remove long-term barriers to growth and push out the stagnation point.

It's the most 'Wonderfund' time of year

Gift drive

Every December, Acquia organizes a gift drive on behalf of the Wonderfund. The gift drive supports children that otherwise wouldn't be receiving gifts this holiday season. This year, more than 120 Acquians collected presents for 205 children in Massachusetts.

Acquia's annual gift drive always stands out as a heart warming and meaningful effort. It's a wonderful example of how Acquia is committed to "Give back more". Thank you to every Acquian who participated and for Wonderfund's continued partnership. Happy Holidays!

Acquia highway billboards

If you're driving into Boston, you might notice something new on I-90. Acquia has placed ads on two local billboards; more than 120,000 cars drive past these billboards everyday. This is the first time in Acquia's eleven years that we've taken out a highway billboard, and dipped our toes in more traditional media advertising. Personally, I find that exciting, because it means that more and more people will be introduced to Acquia. If you find yourself on the Mass Pike, keep an eye out!

Billboard

Plan for Drupal 9

At Drupal Europe, I announced that Drupal 9 will be released in 2020. Although I explained why we plan to release in 2020, I wasn't very specific about when we plan to release Drupal 9 in 2020. Given that 2020 is less than thirteen months away (gasp!), it's time to be more specific.

Shifting Drupal's six month release cycle

A timeline that shows how we shifted Drupal 8's release windows
We shifted Drupal 8's minor release windows so we can adopt Symfony's releases faster.

Before I talk about the Drupal 9 release date, I want to explain another change we made, which has a minor impact on the Drupal 9 release date.

As announced over two years ago, Drupal 8 adopted a 6-month release cycle (two releases a year). Symfony, a PHP framework which Drupal depends on, uses a similar release schedule. Unfortunately the timing of Drupal's releases has historically occurred 1-2 months before Symfony's releases, which forces us to wait six months to adopt the latest Symfony release. To be able to adopt the latest Symfony releases faster, we are moving Drupal's minor releases to June and December. This will allow us to adopt the latest Symfony releases within one month. For example, Drupal 8.8.0 is now scheduled for December 2019.

We hope to release Drupal 9 on June 3, 2020

Drupal 8's biggest dependency is Symfony 3, which has an end-of-life date in November 2021. This means that after November 2021, security bugs in Symfony 3 will not get fixed. Therefore, we have to end-of-life Drupal 8 no later than November 2021. Or put differently, by November 2021, everyone should be on Drupal 9.

Working backwards from November 2021, we'd like to give site owners at least one year to upgrade from Drupal 8 to Drupal 9. While we could release Drupal 9 in December 2020, we decided it was better to try to release Drupal 9 on June 3, 2020. This gives site owners 18 months to upgrade. Plus, it also gives the Drupal core contributors an extra buffer in case we can't finish Drupal 9 in time for a summer release.

A timeline that shows we hope to release Drupal 9 in June 2020
Planned Drupal 8 and 9 minor release dates.

We are building Drupal 9 in Drupal 8

Instead of working on Drupal 9 in a separate codebase, we are building Drupal 9 in Drupal 8. This means that we are adding new functionality as backwards-compatible code and experimental features. Once the code becomes stable, we deprecate any old functionality.

Let's look at an example. As mentioned, Drupal 8 currently depends on Symfony 3. Our plan is to release Drupal 9 with Symfony 4 or 5. Symfony 5's release is less than one year away, while Symfony 4 was released a year ago. Ideally Drupal 9 would ship with Symfony 5, both for the latest Symfony improvements and for longer support. However, Symfony 5 hasn't been released yet, so we don't know the scope of its changes, and we will have limited time to try to adopt it before Symfony 3's end-of-life.

We are currently working on making it possible to run Drupal 8 with Symfony 4 (without requiring it). Supporting Symfony 4 is a valuable stepping stone to Symfony 5 as it brings new capabilities for sites that choose to use it, and it eases the amount of Symfony 5 upgrade work to do for Drupal core developers. In the end, our goal is for Drupal 8 to work with Symfony 3, 4 or 5 so we can identify and fix any issues before we start requiring Symfony 4 or 5 in Drupal 9.

Another example is our support for reusable media. Drupal 8.0.0 launched without a media library. We are currently working on adding a media library to Drupal 8 so content authors can select pre-existing media from a library and easily embed them in their posts. Once the media library becomes stable, we can deprecate the use of the old file upload functionality and make the new media library the default experience.

The upgrade to Drupal 9 will be easy

Because we are building Drupal 9 in Drupal 8, the technology in Drupal 9 will have been battle-tested in Drupal 8.

For Drupal core contributors, this means that we have a limited set of tasks to do in Drupal 9 itself before we can release it. Releasing Drupal 9 will only depend on removing deprecated functionality and upgrading Drupal's dependencies, such as Symfony. This will make the release timing more predictable and the release quality more robust.

For contributed module authors, it means they already have the new technology at their service, so they can work on Drupal 9 compatibility earlier (e.g. they can start updating their media modules to use the new media library before Drupal 9 is released). Finally, their Drupal 8 know-how will remain highly relevant in Drupal 9, as there will not be a dramatic change in how Drupal is built.

But most importantly, for Drupal site owners, this means that it should be much easier to upgrade to Drupal 9 than it was to upgrade to Drupal 8. Drupal 9 will simply be the last version of Drupal 8, with its deprecations removed. This means we will not introduce new, backwards-compatibility breaking APIs or features in Drupal 9 except for our dependency updates. As long as modules and themes stay up-to-date with the latest Drupal 8 APIs, the upgrade to Drupal 9 should be easy. Therefore, we believe that a 12- to 18-month upgrade period should suffice.

So what is the big deal about Drupal 9, then?

The big deal about Drupal 9 is … that it should not be a big deal. The best way to be ready for Drupal 9 is to keep up with Drupal 8 updates. Make sure you are not using deprecated modules and APIs, and where possible, use the latest versions of dependencies. If you do that, your upgrade experience will be smooth, and that is a big deal for us.

Special thanks to Gábor Hojtsy (Acquia), Angie Byron (Acquia), xjm (Acquia), and catch for their input in this blog post.