The Open Source CEO: Dave Rosenberg, MuleSource (Part 1)

First in a series highlighting the successes and challenges of being a CEO of an open source company.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
4 min read

I asked a range of open source CEOs to comment on some of the surprises and challenges associated with running an open source company. I figured it would be an interesting exercise since many of them came from proprietary software companies, and so would have a good idea of whether the grass is, in fact, any greener on the open source side of the fence.

In ease case, I asked for the following information:

  • Name, position, and company of executive
  • Year company was founded and year you joined it
  • Stage of funding and names of venture firms that have invested
  • Background prior to current company (Positions held and/or something that led you to open source/where you are now)
  • Biggest surprise you?ve encountered in your role with your company
  • Hardest challenge you?ve had so far at your open source company
  • If you could start over again from scratch, what would you do differently?
  • Top three pieces of advice for would-be open source CEOs

I got a wide variety of responses, which I'll be showcasing here at The Open Road over the next few days.

I decided to start off the series with my good friend and former co-blogger (at InfoWorld's Open Sources blog), Dave Rosenberg, CEO and co-founder of MuleSource:

Name, position, and company of executive
Dave Rosenberg, CEO and Co-founder, MuleSource

Year company was founded and year you joined it
MuleSource was founded in 2006 by myself and Ross Mason, creator of the Mule project

Stage of funding and venture firms that have invested
We closed our Series B in May. Our investors are: Hummer Winblad, Morgenthaler Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners.

Background prior to current company
Prior to starting MuleSource I was CIO of a financial services firm. We were heavily reliant on Java and the LAMP stack. I came across the Mule project as I was trying to solve an integration problem we encountered. Before that I was in business school and working a consultant working for LinuxWorld (IDG World Expo) developing the conference programs, OSDL trying to market Linux to the masses, and a variety of VC firms researching open source. I spent the majority of two years researching and writing full time about Linux and open source.
Before that I worked almost exclusively in Telecom. I watched as SGI got pushed out by Sun, which got pushed out by Linux. I also watched as Apache pushed out Netscape. My first Linux experience was in 1995 though most places I worked were on FreeBSD and Solaris up until about 2000.

Biggest surprise you've encountered in your role with your company
I think the biggest surprise is that while the market has become much more educated about open source, there remain two severely inaccurate perceptions:

  1. Open source means free
  2. Open source products are training wheel versions of proprietary offerings.

It's hard to believe that any industry would require more lawyers than Telecom but we have clearly succeeded in the open source world.

Hardest challenge you've had so far at your open source company
Scaling the business. This is the same as any other company, with the difference being that at least with open source we can see what our developers have done in the past, both on our project and on other things they have contributed to. So, hiring is (in some ways) easier, though it's by no means easy.

If you could start over again from scratch, what would you do differently?
I would have hired in-house counsel, and I would have hired someone whose entire job would be dedicated to getting things done (a strategic execution officer?). I found it extremely difficult in the early days to actually get stuff done. If I could have had a utility player with some finance or marketing skills life would have been much easier.

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

  1. Get high-quality legal counsel:
    • Get your licensing straight from day one and be able to explain it to potential customers and partners.
    • Contracts will kill you. Make sure you get bullet-proof contracts early that you can use your paper.

  2. Open Source or not, you have to market and sell your company and products incessantly. I will talk to anyone, anytime, almost anywhere if they are interested in Mule or even just open source. If the CEO is not constantly selling and marketing the company you can't expect to reach your potential level of success. If you are not comfortable and excited to be talking and writing about your business than no one is going to care.
    • A side note to this is that you should get yourself at least a bit of PR help to make sure you don't sound like an idiot. I was media trained when I worked for Comdex back in 2003 and it was hugely helpful.

  3. There is a distinction between leadership and management?unless you are the CEO. The CEO has to constantly have to balance the needs of the company (leading) with ensuring that you have employees and are generating revenue (managing).

An excellent start to the Open Source CEO series. Watch this space....