The Open Source CEO: Fabrizio Capobianco, Funambol (Part 5)

The fifth installment in the Open Source CEO Series, this time with Fabrizio Capobianco, CEO of Funambol and leader of the mobile open source world.

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

In this fifth installment of the Open Source CEO Series, I talked with Fabrizio Capobianco, CEO of Funambol, the mobile open source company. In one of my only happy moments as an Arsenal fan, I watched Arsenal (my club) beat Juventus (Fabrizio's club) in the Champions League quarter-finals at Fabrizio's house. I'm not sure he has ever forgiven me for this....

Fabrizio brings a very different perspective to open source than those I've interviewed up until now. His company, Funambol, is focused on the mobile space - think an open source Blackberry server. Very cool stuff, and it couldn't have happened to a better person (with worse taste in football :-).

Name, position, and company of executive
Fabrizio Capobianco, CEO, Funambol

Year company was founded and year you joined it
The company was founded in 2003, but I was working on it before then.

Stage of funding and venture firms that have invested
We raised a Series A round in 2005 from Walden International (Mary Coleman) and HIG (Fred Sturgis). We then did a follow-up round in December of 2006, for a total of $10.5 million. [Interesting note from Matt: Funambol has been a hot property - Fabrizio kept having to answer incoming VC pitches during the Arsenal/Juventus game noted above.]

Background prior to current company
Funambol is the third company that I have started. The first one, in 1994, was Internet Graffiti - the first web company in Italy. The entire operation was run on Linux machines, loaded with the slackware distro (yep, that's A1, A2, ... floppies). In the late 1980s I was enlightened to the path of open source by Alessandro Rubini, a colleague in my university lab, where he wrote the Linux mouse device driver. My last serious job was at Reuters in 2002, where I ran operations around an online trading platform.

Biggest surprise you've encountered in your role with your company
The speed at which the industry has warmed to commercial open source. In late 2004, people started to believe me when I told them that I had found a way to balance being open source and making money, also known as funambolism or tight-rope walking. Before that, people dismissed me with "Yeah, right. Good luck with that." It changed so quickly - almost overnight. I was shocked.

Hardest challenge you've had so far at your open source company
Convincing salesmen to filter out 99% of their leads. The biggest issue for an open source company is defining its focus in the sales process. Going after anybody that comes to your door - even if they want to pay you - is guaranteed suicide. Commercial open source is all about qualification and filtering. It is tough to tell someone, "Sorry, we are not going to sell to you, even if you want to buy," but particularly if you're a salesperson. But you must if you want to succeed.

If you could start over again from scratch, what would you do differently?
I would try harder to hire Matt Asay. Letting him go to Alfresco was a mistake. Hey, you makes mistakes here and there.... :-)
[Asay note: Little known fact, but I was very close to joining Funambol. I loved (and love) the company, deeply respect Fabrizio, and genuinely wanted to join. The stars just weren't aligned....Not that Fabrizio has been the worse for it. He's kicking tail.]

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

  1. Do not chase every lead that comes in the door. They might be few at the beginning, but if your project is a success you will be inundated by them. Build processes and tools to qualify your leads and make tough choices or you will drown quickly.
  2. Fire anyone that says "We win simply because we are open source." Being open source is just a component of your strategy and most likely your big differentiator. But if all you have is that you are open source, someone else will do the same and kill you.
  3. If you realize your project is not growing fast enough, maybe you made a mistake to make it open source in the first place. You need a big market to have a large open source project. If you attack a niche, you won't make it. If this is the case, look for the next gig. There is probably nothing you can do about it. De-open sourcing is not an option.

Excellent counsel, Fabrizio. For those who don't know Fabrizio, he's one of the industry's sharpest minds on open source. Very focused. But not obnoxious about it. In other words, he's Italian. :-)

Next up in the Open Source CEO Series...Boris Kraft of Magnolia, a leading open source content management company/project.