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The Open Source CEO: Gianugo Rabellino, Sourcesense (Part 16)

The sixteenth installment of the Open Source CEO Series, this time with Gianugo Rabellino, CEO of Sourcesense.

Nearly every CEO profiled in this series has several years of experience, and comes from a prominent open source company. I wanted to change lanes a little with this next one, so as to get the perspective of a new CEO with a freshly-born startup. Bonus points were given for finding someone outside the United States.

Therefore, for this sixteenth installment of the Open Source CEO Series, I reached out to Gianugo Rabellino, CEO and Co-founder of Sourcesense. Gianugo had been an early critic of my company, Alfresco, challenging our bona fides as an open source company. I credit Gianugo, in part, with helping us make the shift to a 100% GPL model (though he probably would have prefered we move to an Apache license, given his affiliation with the Apache Software Foundation :-).

Name, position, and company of executive
Gianugo Rabellino, CEO and Co-founder of Sourcesense.

Year company was founded and year you joined it
Sourcesense was founded in November 2005 as a spin-off from three open source companies that have been around since 1999. As a co-founder, I have been with Sourcesense there from Day 1.

Stage of funding and venture firms that have invested
Sourcesense is privately owned and funded. We have been offered external funding, but we are leaving our options open for later stages in the company's development.

Background prior to current company
Prior to co-founding Sourcesense, I was CTO at Pro-netics, one of our founding companies. Prior to that, my 15-years experience includes several executive positions in the Italian software services industry. My background, however, is much more relevant when it comes to open source: I founded the first official Linux organization in Italy back in 1994, then joined the Apache Software foundation as a committer first and a member later on. In Apache, I'm currently serving as VP for the XML Project. As the Pro-netics CTO, I co-founded Orixo, a network of six European open source companies doing business around XML technologies.

Biggest surprise you've encountered in your role with your company
This would have to be the different value chain of open source and the different role of system integrators (SIs). Most product companies in the commercial open source space are adopting a leaner, inside-focused, approach to sales, which calls for local partners and SIs to somewhat fill the gap and lead or co-drive the sales process. For this reason, we've been scaling up our sales force so that we can be ready to help open source companies hit the market.

I was also surprised by our traction. When we started, our plan was really about baby steps and manageable growth, something which should be extremely high on your list when you're selling services, as we do. Hitting a sweet spot on the market meant having to adjust to a much greater demand than we expected, and we had to catch up much more quickly than planned.

Hardest challenge you've had so far at your open source company
Building a proper international business with a strong local presence is extremely hard. You have to adjust not only to different laws (which is difficult enough), but also must cope with different cultures altogether. If you have entrepreneurial spirit and a distributed model such as Sourcesense's, there is a lot of room for frustration and hard work in understanding what should be part of a central, unified governance and what should be left to the local experience. Now that this initial challenge is over and the secret sauce is ready, I can see lots of room for sustainable growth.

If you could start over again from scratch, what would you do differently?
Having been through the international business roller coaster, starting from scratch would bring a tremendous head start in building a multinational presence. From a business point of view, I would be more active in getting new partnerships, and build from the start a consistent sales force to cope with the opportunities we are experiencing now.

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

  1. Work with open source, not despite it. A lot of companies have been embracing open source as their only alternative to get to market, and now they seem to be mostly in damage control mode. There is much more to open source as a business model than sticking an open source license on a piece of software and finding ways to have customers pay for it. For example, a thriving community can add a lot to your business. As an open source company, your first concern should be how to participate in the commons ecosystem.
  2. Hire as many prominent open source developers as you can afford, make them your internal champions, and listen to their advice. The people factor in open source is important: having experienced developers will help making you a good citizen of the open source ecosystem. Also, try to foster an environment that nurtures new open source developers.
  3. Understand the global value of open source and how it will impact your business as you try to cope with the sheer number of different market approaches on a local basis.

Gianugo clearly understands the role of the development community, having been "born and raised" in one of the industry's premier open source development communities (Apache). I remember at Novell that we felt it critically important to hire top open source developers, just as Gianugo suggests. It's a way of ensuring that your company stays true to the open source ethos, because no true open source developers will sell their reputations for a paycheck. They'll tell you when you're screwing up.

Next up in the Open Source CEO Series...Bob Walters, CEO of Untangle, to glean lessons learned from a company's shift from proprietary to open source software.