MySQL Co-Founder: Success = Humility + Passion (Not Exit Strategy)MySQL Co-Founder: Success = Humility + Passion (Not Exit Strategy)
There's nothing more charming than a humble entrepreneur like MySQL co-founder David Axmark. Zero ego, maximum success, achieved from a place of pure personal passion and the observation of need rather than blatant commercialization. Axmark made it clear to the Startup Camp audience in London this past weekend that while most companies start up with a business plan that includes an exit strategy, Axmark and his partner Monty Widenius started simply to create, to fill a need, because it was fun.
March 10, 2008
There's nothing more charming than a humble entrepreneur like MySQL co-founder David Axmark. Zero ego, maximum success, achieved from a place of pure personal passion and the observation of need rather than blatant commercialization. Axmark made it clear to the Startup Camp audience in London this past weekend that while most companies start up with a business plan that includes an exit strategy, Axmark and his partner Monty Widenius started simply to create, to fill a need, because it was fun.Axmark started the work in 1989 in Helsinki, Finland, and was looking for an open source database that didn't exist, so they decided to create one, maybe scratch out a little cash along the way. It wasn't until 2001 that the venture world got involved in MySQL. Axmark hated all of the startup drudgery, the contracts that took him weeks to get to because they were laborious and distracting.
"If we had it to do over, we would have started a company early to get all of that headache from the beginning." Without someone to do this (he had to be "in the mood" he told an appreciative crowd made up of more developers and technology types), the company was missing opportunities. After a round of funding from a Nordic investor (they found that there was too big of a culture gap with U.S. investors; 2003 was the first time the company took U.S. VC capital), MySQL was able to bring in Marten Mickos as CEO. Axmark said that MySQL got lucky with its investors, who were patient when so many try to "compress the time frame when they don't see traction right away." Patience was valuable, given the business strategy. In 2000 the company moved to an open source license and the revenue dropped by 80% in one day. "Good thing we didn't have a board," Axmark chuckled. But while revenue went down, usage climbed. The founders desperately wanted to be the most common database and took a huge risk to do this. Most of the company's money comes from OEMs that embed MySQL, like Cisco, Adobe, Nokia. But lots of MySQL's growth came from the Web, where the customer list looks like a who's who of today's Web 2.0: Google (including its ad system; Axmark said "Google doesn't even remember when they started using it"), eVite, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia. "And these guys helped make it better." The enterprise accounts have come in only during the past few years. The company's earliest customers came strictly through word of mouth, from people downloading the software and then asking how they could pay. MySQL's goal wasn't just to be the lowest cost option, however, but also something that was easy for the masses, something that solved a small handful of common problems, the most necessary problems to solve. They established the 15-minute rule: They wanted users to be able to download and compile MySQL in 15 minutes. Axmark gave Startup Camp attendees some practical advice, including the many benefits to the open source approach. For example, before he even knew what Ruby was, someone had written a MySQL debugger for it. The only technologies the company supports are C, Java, C# / .net, and ODBC; the rest is maintained by the community. He said code should be written with portability in mind from the beginning. And take an open source approach to everything, like making bug reports public, because they do get fixed, and the transparency is good because you get much better and faster developer feedback. He also emphasized that the little innovations are sometimes the ones that really count. They "may not work well in marketing presentations" but they made all the difference in practice. There also was an early backlash by insiders about the name. "It's like 'My Little Pony,' "Axmark said. Its origins are from a version of his daughter's name, My. Most everyone told him they couldn't succeed with this name, but now nobody says it; indeed, it's become part of the naming convention for many popular technologies (MySpace, MySAP, etc.) The Startup Camp crowd smiled upon David Axmark, an entrepreneur who followed a righteous path to success without fanfare and grandeur. When he got to the end of recounting his journey, recounting the climatic $1 billion purchase of MySQL by Sun, nobody begrudged him a dime; they applauded him. Plenty of people became wealthy and Axmark said he was fine with his "slice of a billion dollars" but that he and most of the people who came with him to Sun would be staying. Because if it's a product coddled and tilled and coaxed from a place of passion, why would you abandon it now? Even in the penultimate exit moment, there's no exit strategy.
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