Acquia's first decade: the founding story

This week marked Acquia's 10th anniversary. In 2007, Jay Batson and I set out to build a software company based on open source and Drupal that we would come to call Acquia. In honor of our tenth anniversary, I wanted to share some of the milestones and lessons that have helped shape Acquia into the company it is today. I haven't shared these details before so I hope that my record of Acquia's founding not only pays homage to our incredible colleagues, customers and partners that have made this journey worthwhile, but that it offers honest insight into the challenges and rewards of building a company from the ground up. If you like this story, I also encourage you to read Jay's side of story.

A Red Hat for Drupal

In 2007, I was attending the University of Ghent working on my PhD dissertation. At the same time, Drupal was gaining momentum; I will never forget when MTV called me seeking support for their new Drupal site. I remember being amazed that a brand like MTV, an institution I had grown up with, had selected Drupal for their website. I was determined to make Drupal successful and helped MTV free of charge.

It became clear that for Drupal to grow, it needed a company focused on helping large organizations like MTV be successful with the software. A "Red Hat for Drupal", as it were. I also noticed that other open source projects, such as Linux had benefitted from well-capitalized backers like Red Hat and IBM. While I knew I wanted to start such a company, I had not yet figured out how. I wanted to complete my PhD first before pursuing business. Due to the limited time and resources afforded to a graduate student, Drupal remained a hobby.

Little did I know that at the same time, over 3,000 miles away, Jay Batson was skimming through a WWII Navajo Code Talker Dictionary. Jay was stationed as an Entrepreneur in Residence at North Bridge Venture Partners, a venture capital firm based in Boston. Passionate about open source, Jay realized there was an opportunity to build a company that provided customers with the services necessary to scale and succeed with open source software. We were fortunate that Michael Skok, a Venture Partner at North Bridge and Jay's sponsor, was working closely with Jay to evaluate hundreds of open source software projects. In the end, Jay narrowed his efforts to Drupal and Apache Solr.

If you're curious as to how the Navajo Code Talker Dictionary fits into all of this, it's how Jay stumbled upon the name Acquia. Roughly translating as "to spot or locate", Acquia was the closest concept in the dictionary that reinforced the ideals of information and content that are intrinsic to Drupal (it also didn't hurt that the letter A would rank first in alphabetical listings). Finally, the similarity to the world "Aqua" paid homage to the Drupal Drop; this would eventually provide direction for Acquia's logo.

Breakfast in Sunnyvale

In March of 2007, I flew from Belgium to California to attend Yahoo's Open Source CMS Summit, where I also helped host DrupalCon Sunnyvale. It was at DrupalCon Sunnyvale where Jay first introduced himself to me. He explained that he was interested in building a company that could provide enterprise organizations supplementary services and support for a number of open source projects, including Drupal and Apache Solr. Initially, I was hesitant to meet with Jay. I was focused on getting Drupal 5 released, and I wasn't ready to start a company until I finished my PhD. Eventually I agreed to breakfast.

Over a baguette and jelly, I discovered that there was overlap between Jay's ideas and my desire to start a "Red Hat for Drupal". While I wasn't convinced that it made sense to bring Apache Solr into the equation, I liked that Jay believed in open source and that he recognized that open source projects were more likely to make a big impact when they were supported by companies that had strong commercial backing.

We spent the next few months talking about a vision for the business, eliminated Apache Solr from the plan, talked about how we could elevate the Drupal community, and how we would make money. In many ways, finding a business partner is like dating. You have to get to know each other, build trust, and see if there is a match; it's a process that doesn't happen overnight.

On June 25th, 2007, Jay filed the paperwork to incorporate Acquia and officially register the company name. We had no prospective customers, no employees, and no formal product to sell. In the summer of 2007, we received a convertible note from North Bridge. This initial seed investment gave us the capital to create a business plan, travel to pitch to other investors, and hire our first employees. Since meeting Jay in Sunnyvale, I had gotten to know Michael Skok who also became an influential mentor for me.

Wired interview
Jay and me on one of our early fundraising trips to San Francisco.

Throughout this period, I remained hesitant about committing to Acquia as I was devoted to completing my PhD. Eventually, Jay and Michael convinced me to get on board while finishing my PhD, rather than doing things sequentially.

Acquia, my Drupal startup

Soon thereafter, Acquia received a Series A term sheet from North Bridge, with Michael Skok leading the investment. We also selected Sigma Partners and Tim O'Reilly's OATV from all of the interested funds as co-investors with North Bridge; Tim had become both a friend and an advisor to me.

In many ways we were an unusual startup. Acquia itself didn't have a product to sell when we received our Series A funding. We knew our product would likely be support for Drupal, and evolve into an Acquia-equivalent of the Red Hat Network. However, neither of those things existed, and we were raising money purely on a PowerPoint deck. North Bridge, Sigma and OATV mostly invested in Jay and I, and the belief that Drupal could become a billion dollar company that would disrupt the web content management market. I'm incredibly thankful for Jay, North Bridge, Sigma and OATV for making a huge bet on me.

Receiving our Series A funding was an incredible vote of confidence in Drupal, but it was also a milestone with lots of mixed emotions. We had raised $7 million, which is not a trivial amount. While I was excited, it was also a big step into the unknown. I was convinced that Acquia would be good for Drupal and open source, but I also understood that this would have a transformative impact on my life. In the end, I felt comfortable making the jump because I found strong mentors to help translate my vision for Drupal into a business plan; Jay and Michael's tenure as entrepreneurs and business builders complimented my technical strength and enabled me to fine-tune my own business building skills.

In November 2007, we officially announced Acquia to the world. We weren't ready but a reporter had caught wind of our stealth startup, and forced us to unveil Acquia's existence to the Drupal community with only 24 hours notice. We scrambled and worked through the night on a blog post. Reactions were mixed, but generally very supportive. I shared in that first post my hopes that Acquia would accomplish two things: (i) form a company that supported me in providing leadership to the Drupal community and achieving my vision for Drupal and (ii) establish a company that would be to Drupal what Ubuntu or Red Hat were to Linux.

Acquia com march
An early version of Acquia.com, with our original logo and tagline. March 2008.

The importance of enduring values

It was at an offsite in late 2007 where we determined our corporate values. I'm proud to say that we've held true to those values that were scribbled onto our whiteboard 10 years ago. The leading tenant of our mission was to build a company that would "empower everyone to rapidly assemble killer websites".

Acquia vision

In January 2008, we had six people on staff: Gábor Hojtsy (Principal Acquia engineer, Drupal 6 branch maintainer), Kieran Lal (Acquia product manager, key Drupal contributor), Barry Jaspan (Principal Acquia engineer, Drupal core developer) and Jeff Whatcott (Vice President of Marketing). Because I was still living in Belgium at the time, many of our meetings took place screen-to-screen:

Typical work day

Opening our doors for business

We spent a majority of the first year building our first products. Finally, in September of 2008, we officially opened our doors for business. We publicly announced commercial availability of the Acquia Drupal distribution and the Acquia Network. The Acquia Network would offer subscription-based access to commercial support for all of the modules in Acquia Drupal, our free distribution of Drupal. This first product launched closely mirrored the Red Hat business model by prioritizing enterprise support.

We quickly learned that in order to truly embrace Drupal, customers would need support for far more than just Acquia Drupal. In the first week of January 2009, we relaunched our support offering and announced that we would support all things related to Drupal 6, including all modules and themes available on drupal.org as well as custom code.

This was our first major turning point; supporting "everything Drupal" was a big shift at the time. Selling support for Acquia Drupal exclusively was not appealing to customers, however, we were unsure that we could financially sustain support for every Drupal module. As a startup, you have to be open to modifying and revising your plans, and to failing fast. It was a scary transition, but we knew it was the right thing to do.

Building a new business model for open source

Exiting 2008, we had launched Acquia Drupal, the Acquia Network, and had committed to supporting all things Drupal. While we had generated a respectable pipeline for Acquia Network subscriptions, we were not addressing Drupal's biggest adoption challenges; usability and scalability.

In October of 2008, our team gathered for a strategic offsite. Tom Erickson, who was on our board of directors, facilitated the offsite. Red Hat's operational model, which primarily offered support, had laid the foundation for how companies could monetize open source, but we were convinced that the emergence of the cloud gave us a bigger opportunity and helped us address Drupal's adoption challenges. Coming out of that seminal offsite we formalized the ambitious decision to build "Acquia Gardens" and "Acquia Fields". Here is why these two products were so important:

Solving for scalability: In 2008, scaling Drupal was a challenge for many organizations. Drupal scaled well, but the infrastructure companies required to make Drupal scale well was expensive and hard to find. We determined that the best way to help enterprise companies scale was by shifting the paradigm for web hosting from traditional rack models to the then emerging promise of the Cloud.

Solving for usability: In 2008, WordPress and Ning made it really easy for people to start blogging or to set up a social network. At the time, Drupal didn't encourage this same level of adoption for non-technical audiences. Acquia Gardens was created to offer an easy on-ramp for people to experience the power of Drupal, without worrying about installation, hosting, and upgrading. It was one of the first times we developed an operational model that would offer "Drupal-as-a-service".

Acquia roadmap

Fast forward to today, and Acquia Fields was renamed Acquia Hosting and later Acquia Cloud. Acquia Gardens became Drupal Gardens and later evolved into Acquia Cloud Site Factory. In 2008, this product roadmap to move Drupal into the cloud was a bold move. Today, the Cloud is the starting point for any modern digital architecture. By adopting the Cloud into our product offering, I believe Acquia helped establish a new business model to commercialize open source. Today, I can't think of many open source companies that don't have a cloud offering.

Tom Erickson takes a chance on Acquia

Tom joined Acquia as an advisor and a member of our Board of Directors when Acquia was founded. Since the first time I met Tom, I always wanted him to be an integral part of Acquia. It took some convincing, but Tom eventually agreed to join us full time as our CEO in 2009. Jay Batson, Acquia's founding CEO, continued on as the Vice President at Acquia responsible for incubating new products and partnerships.

Moving from Europe to the United States

In 2010, after spending my entire life in Antwerp, I decided to move to Boston. The move would allow me to be closer to the team. A majority of the company was in Massachusetts, and at the pace we were growing, it was getting harder to help execute our vision all the way from Belgium. I was also hoping to cut down on travel time; in 2009 flew 100,000 miles in just one year (little did I know that come 2016, I'd be flying 250,00 miles!).

This is a challenge that many entrepreneurs face when they commit to starting their own company. Initially, I was only planning on staying on the East Coast for two years. Moving 3,500 miles away from your home town, most of your relatives, and many of your best friends is not an easy choice. However, it was important to increase our chances of success, and relocating to Boston felt essential. My experience of moving to the US had a big impact on my life.

Building the universal platform for the world's greatest digital experiences

Entering 2010, I remember feeling that Acquia was really 3 startups in one; our support business (Acquia Network, which was very similar to Red Hat's business model), our managed cloud hosting business (Acquia Cloud) and Drupal Gardens (a WordPress.com based on Drupal). Welcoming Tom as our CEO would allow us to best execute on this offering, and moving to Boston enabled me to partner with Tom directly. It was during this transformational time that I think we truly transitioned out of our "founding period" and began to emulate the company I know today.

The decisions we made early in the company's life, have proven to be correct. The world has embraced open source and cloud without reservation, and our long-term commitment to this disruptive combination has put us at the right place at the right time. Acquia has grown into a company with over 800 employees around the world; in total, we have 14 offices around the globe, including our headquarters in Boston. We also support an incredible roster of customers, including 16 of the Fortune 100 companies. Our work continues to be endorsed by industry analysts, as we have emerged as a true leader in our market. Over the past ten years I've had the privilege of watching Acquia grow from a small startup to a company that has crossed the chasm.

With a decade behind us, and many lessons learned, we are on the cusp of yet another big shift that is as important as the decision we made to launch Acquia Field and Gardens in 2008. In 2016, I led the project to update Acquia's mission to "build the universal platform for the world's greatest digital experiences". This means expanding our focus, and becoming the leader in building digital customer experiences. Just like I openly shared our roadmap and strategy in 2009, I plan to share our next 10 year plan in the near future. It's time for Acquia to lay down the ambitious foundation that will enable us to be at the forefront of innovation and digital experience in 2027.

A big thank you

Of course, none of these results and milestones would be possible without the hard work of the Acquia team, our customers, partners, the Drupal community, and our many friends. Thank you for all your hard work. After 10 years, I continue to love the work I do at Acquia each day — and that is because of you.

Our quest to see the Northern Lights

In February we spent a weekend in the Arctic Circle hoping to see the northern lights. I've been so busy, I only now got around to writing about it.

We decided to travel to Nellim for an action-packed weekend with outdoor adventure, wood fires, reindeer and no WiFi. Nellim, is a small Finnish village, close to the Russian border and in the middle of nowhere. This place is a true winter wonderland with untouched and natural forests. On our way to the property we saw a wild reindeer eating on the side of the road. It was all very magical.

Beautiful log cabin bed

The trip was my gift to Vanessa for her 40th birthday! I reserved a private, small log cabin instead of the main lodge. The log cabin itself was really nice; even the bed was made of logs with two bear heads carved into it. Vanessa called them Charcoal and Smokey. To stay warm we made fires and enjoyed our sauna.

Dog sledding
Dog sledding
Dog sledding

One day we went dog sledding. As with all animals it seems, Vanessa quickly named them all; Marshmallow, Brownie, Snickers, Midnight, Blondie and Foxy. The dogs were so excited to run! After 3 hours of dog sledding in -30 C (-22 F) weather we stopped to warm up and eat; we made salmon soup in a small make-shift shelter that was similar to a tepee. The tepee had a small opening at the top and there was no heat or electricity.

The salmon soup was made over a fire, and we were skeptical at first how this would taste. The soup turned out to be delicious and even reminded us of the clam chowder that we have come to enjoy in Boston. We've since remade this soup at home and the boys also enjoy it. Not that this blog will turn into a recipe blog, but I plan to publish the recipe with photos at some point.

Tippy by night
Campfire in the snow

At night we would go out on "aurora hunts". The first night by reindeer sled, the second night using snowshoes, and the third night by snowmobile. To stay warm, we built fires either in tepees or in the snow and drank warm berry juice.

Reindeer sledding
Reindeer sledding

While the untouched land is beautiful, they definitely try to live off the land. The Fins have an abundance of berries, mushrooms, reindeer and fish. We gladly admit we enjoyed our reindeer sled rides, as well as eating reindeer. We had fresh mushroom soup made out of hand-picked mushrooms. And every evening there was an abundance of fresh fish and reindeer offered for dinner. We also discovered a new gin, Napue, made from cranberries and birch leaves.

In the end, we didn't see the Northern Lights. We had a great trip, and seeing them would have been the icing on the cake. It just means that we'll have to come back another time.

From imagination to (augmented) reality in 48 hours

Every spring, members of Acquia's Product, Engineering and DevOps teams gather at our Boston headquarters for "Build Week". Build Week gives our global team the opportunity to meet face-to-face, to discuss our product strategy and roadmap, to make plans, and to collaborate on projects.

One of the highlights of Build Week is our annual Hackathon; more than 20 teams of 4-8 people are given 48 hours to develop any project of their choosing. There are no restrictions on the technology or solutions that a team can utilize. Projects ranged from an Amazon Dash Button that spins up a new Acquia Cloud environment with one click, to a Drupal module that allows users to visually build page layouts, or a proposed security solution that would automate pen testing against Drupal sites.

This year's projects were judged on innovation, ship-ability, technical accomplishment and flair. The winning project, Lift HoloDeck, was particularly exciting because it showcases an ambitious digital experience that is possible with Acquia and Drupal today. The Lift Holodeck takes a physical experience and amplifies it with a digital one using augmented reality. The team built a mobile application that superimposes product information and smart notifications over real-life objects that are detected on a user's smartphone screen. It enables customers to interact with brands in new ways that improve a customer's experience.

Lift holodeck banner

At the hackathon, the Lift HoloDeck Team showed how augmented reality can change how both online and physical storefronts interact with their consumers. In their presentation, they followed a customer, Neil, as he used the mobile application to inform his purchases in a coffee shop and clothing store. When Neil entered his favorite coffee shop, he held up his phone to the posted “deal of the day”. The Lift HoloDeck application superimposes nutrition facts, directions on how to order, and product information on top of the beverage. Neil contemplated the nutrition facts before ordering his preferred drink through the Lift HoloDeck application. Shortly after, he received a notification that his order was ready for pick up. Because Acquia Lift is able to track Neil's click and purchase behavior, it is also possible for Acquia Lift to push personalized product information and offerings through the Lift HoloDeck application.

Check out the demo video, which showcases the Lift HoloDeck prototype:

The Lift HoloDeck prototype is exciting because it was built in less than 48 hours and uses technology that is commercially available today. The Lift HoloDeck experience was powered by Unity (a 3D game engine), Vuforia (an augmented reality library), Acquia Lift (a personalization engine) and Drupal as a content store.

The Lift HoloDeck prototype is a great example of how an organization can use Acquia and Drupal to support new user experiences and distribution platforms that engage customers in captivating ways. It's incredible to see our talented teams at Acquia develop such an innovative project in under 48 hours; especially one that could help reshape how customers interact with their favorite brands.

Congratulations to the entire Lift HoloDeck team; Ted Ottey, Robert Burden, Chris Nagy, Emily Feng, Neil O'Donnell, Stephen Smith, Roderik Muit, Rob Marchetti and Yuan Xie.

Acquia's next phase

In 2007, Jay Batson and I wanted to build a software company based on open source and Drupal. I was 29 years old then, and eager to learn how to build a business that could change the world of software, strengthen the Drupal project and help drive the future of the web.

Tom Erickson joined Acquia's board of directors with an outstanding record of scaling and leading technology companies. About a year later, after a lot of convincing, Tom agreed to become our CEO. At the time, Acquia was 30 people strong and we were working out of a small office in Andover, Massachusetts. Nine years later, we can count 16 of the Fortune 100 among our customers, saw our staff grow from 30 to more than 750 employees, have more than $150MM in annual revenue, and have 14 offices across 7 countries. And, importantly, Acquia has also made an undeniable impact on Drupal, as we said we would.

I've been lucky to have had Tom as my business partner and I'm incredibly proud of what we have built together. He has been my friend, my business partner, and my professor. I learned first hand the complexities of growing an enterprise software company; from building a culture, to scaling a global team of employees, to making our customers successful.

Today is an important day in the evolution of Acquia:

  • Tom has decided it's time for him step down as CEO, allowing him flexibility with his personal time and act more as an advisor to companies, the role that brought him to Acquia in the first place.
  • We're going to search for a new CEO for Acquia. When we find that business partner, Tom will be stepping down as CEO. After the search is completed, Tom will remain on Acquia's Board of Directors, where he can continue to help advise and guide the company.
  • We are formalizing the working relationship I've had with Tom during the past 8 years by creating an Office of the CEO. I will focus on product strategy, product development, including product architecture and Acquia's roadmap; technology partnerships and acquisitions; and company-wide hiring and staffing allocations. Tom will focus on sales and marketing, customer success and G&A functions.

The time for these changes felt right to both of us. We spent the first decade of Acquia laying down the foundation of a solid business model for going out to the market and delivering customer success with Drupal – Tom's core strengths from his long career as a technology executive. Acquia's next phase will be focused on building confidently on this foundation with more product innovation, new technology acquisitions and more strategic partnerships – my core strengths as a technologist.

Tom is leaving Acquia in a great position. This past year, the top industry analysts published very positive reviews based on their dealings with our customers. I'm proud that Acquia made the most significant positive move of all vendors in last year's Gartner Magic Quadrant for Web Content Management and that Forrester recognized Acquia as the leader for strategy and vision. We increasingly find ourselves at the center of our customer's technology and digital strategies. At a time when digital experiences means more than just web content management, and data and content intelligence play an increasing role in defining success for our customers, we are well positioned for the next phase of our growth.

I continue to love the work I do at Acquia each day. We have a passionate team of builders and dreamers, doers and makers. To the Acquia team around the world: 2017 will be a year of changes, but you have my commitment, in every way, to lead Acquia with clarity and focus.

To read Tom's thoughts on the transition, please check out his blog post. Michael Skok, Acquia's lead investor, also covered it on his blog.

Tom and dries

Friduction: the internet's unstoppable drive to eliminate friction

Friduction

There is one significant trend that I have noticed over and over again: the internet's continuous drive to mitigate friction in user experiences and business models.

Since the internet's commercial debut in the early 90s, it has captured success and upset the established order by eliminating unnecessary middlemen. Book stores, photo shops, travel agents, stock brokers, bank tellers and music stores are just a few examples of the kinds of middlemen who have been eliminated by their online counterparts. The act of buying books, printing photos or booking flights online alleviates the friction felt by consumers who must stand in line or wait on hold to speak to a customer service representative.

Rather than negatively describing this evolution as disintermediation or taking something away, I believe there is value in recognizing that the internet is constantly improving customer experiences by reducing friction from systems — a process I like to call "friduction".

Open Source and cloud

Over the past 15 years, I have observed Open Source and cloud-computing solutions remove friction from legacy approaches to technology. Open Source takes the friction out of the technology evaluation and adoption process; you are not forced to get a demo or go through a sales and procurement process, or deal with the limitations of a proprietary license. Cloud computing also took off because it also offers friduction; with cloud, companies pay for what they use, avoid large up-front capital expenditures, and gain speed-to-market.

Cross-channel experiences

There is a reason why Drupal's API-first initiative is one of the topics I've talked and written the most about in 2016; it enables Drupal to "move beyond the page" and integrate with different user engagement systems that can eliminate inefficiencies and improve the user experience of traditional websites.

We're quickly headed to a world where websites are evolving into cross­channel experiences, which includes push notifications, conversational UIs, and more. Conversational UIs, such as chatbots and voice assistants, will prevail because they improve and redefine the customer experience.

Personalization and contextualization

In the 90s, personalization meant that websites could address authenticated users by name. I remember the first time I saw my name appear on a website; I was excited! Obviously personalization strategies have come a long way since the 90s. Today, websites present recommendations based on a user's most recent activity, and consumers expect to be provided with highly tailored experiences. The drive for greater personalization and contextualization will never stop; there is too much value in removing friction from the user experience. When a commerce website can predict what you like based on past behavior, it eliminates friction from the shopping process. When a customer support website can predict what question you are going to ask next, it is able to provide a better customer experience. This is not only useful for the user, but also for the business. A more efficient user experience will translate into higher sales, improved customer retention and better brand exposure.

To keep pace with evolving user expectations, tomorrow's digital experiences will need to deliver more tailored, and even predictive customer experiences. This will require organizations to consume multiple sources of data, such as location data, historic clickstream data, or information from wearables to create a fine-grained user context. Data will be the foundation for predictive analytics and personalization services. Advancing user privacy in conjunction with data-driven strategies will be an important component of enhancing personalized experiences. Eventually, I believe that data-driven experiences will be the norm.

At Acquia, we started investing in contextualization and personalization in 2014, through the release of a product called Acquia Lift. Adoption of Acquia Lift has grown year over year, and we expect it to increase for years to come. Contextualization and personalization will become more pervasive, especially as different systems of engagements, big data, the internet of things (IoT) and machine learning mature, combine, and begin to have profound impacts on what the definition of a great user experience should be. It might take a few more years before trends like personalization and contextualization are fully adopted by the early majority, but we are patient investors and product builders. Systems like Acquia Lift will be of critical importance and premiums will be placed on orchestrating the optimal customer journey.

Conclusion

The history of the web dictates that lower-friction solutions will surpass what came before them because they eliminate inefficiencies from the customer experience. Friduction is a long-term trend. Websites, the internet of things, augmented and virtual reality, conversational UIs — all of these technologies will continue to grow because they will enable us to build lower-friction digital experiences.