The Open Source CEO: Marten Mickos, MySQL (Part 3)

The third installment in the Open Source CEO Series, this time with Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL.

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 this third installment in the Open Source CEO Series, I caught up with Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL. Marten is one of my favorite people anywhere, and has been a great addition to the MySQL team. Marten is a fantastic speaker and incredibly adept at turning a phrase ("As if you could kill a dolphin by swallowing the ocean" or, my favorite, "Yes, MySQL will be part of a larger company, and that larger company will be MySQL").

I'm sure Marten has flaws, but I've yet to discover them. He certainly has some great insight, as found below:

Name, position, and company of executive
Marten Mickos, CEO, MySQL

Year company was founded and year you joined it
MySQL was founded in 1995, and I joined it in 2001.

Stage of funding and venture firms that have invested
We have done three rounds of funding. Key investors include Benchmark Capital, Index Ventures, and IVP, as well as strategic investors Intel, SAP, Red Hat and Sumitomo/Presidio.

Background prior to current company
I had always worked for growth companies with an international ambition, though prior to MySQL I had served as CEO and in other senior executive positions in my native Finland. I had known the MySQL founders since 1981, however, and gratefully took the opportunity and challenge that MySQL presented.

Biggest surprise you've encountered in your role with your company
There have been many surprises, but which one would count as the biggest? That's tough. Hmmm. Perhaps that there are as many definitions of "open source" as there are voices in the community. Interestingly, different definitions of open source seem to lead to different ways to build businesses around open source.

Hardest challenge you've had so far at your open source company
I think the hardest challenge is also the most rewarding: working with the people that make up the open source community, and my company within that community. There are strong opinions within MySQL and within the larger community, opinions as to what our business should be and how we should conduct it. We listen seriously to these different opinions, but invariably we offend or frustrate someone. As an open source company and project, outside voices are really part of the "inside conversation." Listening to this outside/inside conversation and making everyone happy is a difficult (indeed, impossible) challenge, but the process is fruitful.

If you could start over again from scratch, what would you do differently?
With an IPO sometime on the horizon I'm not sure I'm allowed to admit to any failures. :-)

Top three pieces of advice for would-be open source CEOs
I repeat the same thing I told my friend Mikko:

  1. Team - A superb team is a must in all start-ups. The special thing with open source startups is that they may have a history as an open source *project* before becoming a commercial business. The team must understand how to master this evolutionary transition.
  2. Innovation - It's not enough to be less expensive, or faster, or the same as others but open source. There has to be a genuine, value-adding innovation that users and customers get a new benefit from.
  3. Participation - The strength of open source lies in massive participation by users worldwide. It takes special dedication and skill to build an architecture of participation.
On the other hand, there are three things to avoid:
  1. Believing that open source is the silver bullet - Well, it isn't. It's dangerous to think that open sourcing something will solve all problems. It probably won't. Open source accelerates what would happen anyway. If you have a crappy product, it will die sooner if you open source it. If you have a great product, it will succeed sooner if you open source it. Open source also is not a business model in itself. You have to figure out the business model as a separate exercise (there is a handful of good alternatives).
  2. Raising too much money - If you have too much (VC) money, you may not notice soon enough that you need to change something in your model or your product.
  3. Impatience - Great businesses take time to build. Sure, you should have a very ambitious plan with success waiting around the corner. But you should also have the patience to keep going even when things don't look good. The night is coldest just before the sun rises.

Thanks for sharing, Marten. Next up in the Open Source CEO Series...John Powell of Alfresco.