The Open Source CEO: John Powell, Alfresco (Part 4)

The fourth installment in the Open Source CEO Series, this time with John Powell, CEO of Alfresco.

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
3 min read

For the fourth installment in the Open Source CEO Series, I walked over to the next virtual cubicle of John Powell, CEO and Co-founder of Alfresco. I've worked with John for the past 1.5 years (Disclaimer: He's my boss), and have greatly appreciated the perspective he brings to the company. John is perhaps the most experienced of any of the open source CEOs out there, with a strong background with several leading (proprietary) software companies.

But as John intimates below, sometimes that experience can be a curse as much as it's a blessing:

Name, position, and company of executive
John Powell, CEO, President, and Co-founder, Alfresco Software Inc.

Year company was founded and year you joined it
The company was founded in early 2005 by myself, John Newton, Paul Holmes-Higgin, and David Caruana.

Stage of funding and venture firms that have invested
Initially (for the first six months), Alfresco was funded by John Newton and myself. We then did our Series A in June 2005 with Accel and our Series B in February 2006 with Mayfield and Accel, raising $10 million total.

Background prior to current company
I started my software career as a sales and then senior manager at Oracle UK from 1986-91. I left in 1991 to start Business Objects' UK business, then ran France and eventually all of Europe. I was made COO and helped drive the company to profitability for our IPO and helped take the company's revenues to $450 million per year with a $6 billion market cap and the top market Business Intelligence market share position.

I left to co-found an enterprise software company post-September 11 with John Newton, called Activiti (It was sort of like Siebel for large banks). Once into it, we realized that the enterprise sales model was not what customers wanted, and that closed-source startups looked way too risky to customers. In addition, being closed disabled the key advantage of leveraging the Internet for software development, i.e. it's a two-way pipe for distribution and contribution. Finally, Activiti taught me that a model that operates globally is the only hope for a small UK operation to have global reach because the UK is too small a market to feed a company. You have to operate globally on Day 1. That led us to open source.

Biggest surprise you've encountered in your role with your company
The fact that open source makes virtually every aspect of doing business easier. No more smoke and mirrors to hide behind. (In fact, it has become clear that keeping secrets turns an early advantage to built-in obsolescence in just a few short years.) Open source facilitates every aspect of business by ensuring that all communication is open. This makes development easier, integration straightforward, partnerships based on reality, customers in control (and so empowered). Coming from a strong proprietary background, it was surprising how much easier (and enjoyable!) open source makes a software business.

Hardest challenge you've had so far at your open source company
The hardest challenge is opening up (all the way) and not thinking in the old ways. It's very hard to get rid of the proprietary crutch. It's also hard to make everything simple in a product, but that's another story....

If you could start over again from scratch, what would you do differently?
I would not have wasted time going through several iterations of our open source business model. I would have the confidence to go straight to a 100% open source model.

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

  1. Carefully analyze your target market to see if it's suitable for an open source play, as not all are (too niche, too futuristic, not enough value to fund a company that cares about customers, etc.);
  2. Make it simple. Then simplify the simple;
  3. Always step outside to review where you are and where you are going. It's easy to be self-delusional. You will make mistakes. The important thing is to have processes in place to ensure you can correct your mistakes quickly.

Great feedback, John. Btw, John also noted that it's a good idea to not live 120 miles from your office, which he does...John makes the commute almost daily and has for nearly 20 years. He is the main cause of global warming. Al Gore: here's your man! :-)

Next up in the Open Source CEO Series...Fabrizio Capobianco of Funambol.