The Open Source CEO: Toby Oliver, Path Intelligence (Part 12)

In this twelfth installment of the Open Source CEO series, I talk with Toby Oliver, CEO and Co-founder of Path Intelligence.

For this next (and twelfth) installment in the Open Source CEO Series, I looked a bit farther afield, both in terms of geography and in terms of mindshare. Toby Oliver, CEO of Path Intelligence, is based in Portsmouth, England, where he and his wife, Sharon, have built a hugely interesting (and innovative) product on top of the GNU Radio open source project, key parts of which they've helped to fund.

Name, position, and company of executive
Toby Oliver, CEO and Co-founder, Path Intelligence.

Year company was founded and year you joined it
The ompany was founded in July 2004 when we first started developing the technology. By the way, the technology tracks mobile phones - indoors or outdoors - and is used by shopping centres to track shopper flow/traffic, and could be used for many other applications.

Stage of funding and venture firms that have invested
We received angel investment in August 2005 and are currently working on our Series A financing round.

Background prior to current company
For most of my career, I have been a software engineer in a variety of companies: Thomson-Thorn Missile Electronics, IBM Research Labs, and JP Morgan. It always struck me how much more productive I could be when I was able to use open source within a project rather than develop something internally. However it was when I was working as an adviser to an angel investor around 2000 that it really hit home to me that open source could act as a great leveller in software development and enabled small outfits to implement their ideas without huge resources.

Biggest surprise you've encountered in your role with your company
That it takes (so much) time for people to "get" the concept of open source.

Hardest challenge you've had so far at your open source company
The business world outside the [enterprise] IT sector is not hugely clued up on open source technology (particularly in the UK). When the topic does come up we have to explain how open source works, and that open source development really makes products better rather than cheaper.

If you could start over again from scratch, what would you do differently?
Scale faster, earlier, to create a bigger lead with the technology.

Top three pieces of advice for would-be open source CEOs

  1. Know your licenses. Keep an eye on what your product/service ultimately will do and ensure the open source projects you are using are compatible with that;
  2. Build relationships with your related open source commuities, both as a source for recruiting and to ensure you have some involvement with the projects' direction(s);
  3. Keep developing. One of the issues with putting open source as a core component of your business is that it potentially lowers the technical barrier to entry for a competitor, so you need to ensure that although the barrier is lowered it keeps moving.

Toby has undertaken an open source route that is somewhat analogous to what IBM, Red Hat, and others do: invest in an open source project but not run it. This means that it becomes doubly important to help guide and develop a project without steering it. This juggling act is non-trivial but from everything I've heard Path Intelligence enjoys a strong relationship with GNU Radio - it's a mutually beneficial relationship (not unlike EnterpriseDB's relationship with Postgres). I wish him well (as well as his wife, Sharon, who shares management duties with him at Path Intelligence).

Next up in the Open Source CEO Series...Danny Windham, CEO of Digium, one of the leading open source companies (yet sometimes overlooked).

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