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Culture

Marten Mickos' rules for disruption

Want to disrupt an industry? Here's how

Marten Mickos has summarized his rules for how to disrupt an industry. This is advice worth heeding, especially when you consider that many of the companies recently acquired (or invested in) at outsized valuations (Zimbra, Blue Lithium, SurfControl, Hyperion, TellMe, Fotolog, YouTube, Facebook, etc.) have one core thing in common:

MySQL.

Marten's first rule for disruptors is also perhaps the most important: Follow no model.

There used to be a well-worn path to software success: build a proprietary product, sell a perpetual license, make service contracts imperative, and release a new version every few years in what amounted to a "mandatory" upgrade. This model worked for more than two decades.

What changed? IT buyers have taken over the driver's seat. As CIOs demanded change from their vendors, many new software vendors stepped up to deliver new types of efficient solutions with demonstrable ROI and no "hard sell."

At MySQL, we've set out to be a new type of company. We realized immediately that we couldn't look to other software vendors for a model for success. We took our cues from other industries - from Southwest Airlines to find out how to make customers happy in a cost efficient way, and from Ikea to learn how to build a high-volume, high-quality model, for example. Bringing these cross-industry best practices to the software arena has helped us fine-tune our offering.

The incumbent vendors in the software world want to pretend that things haven't changed, that it's still business as usual. It is anything but that.

In fact, it reminds me of an excellent song from The New Pornographers:

It was crime at the time but the laws, we changed them....
Pharaoh, all your methods have taught me,
is to separate my blood from bone.
It will all fail,
feel what I feel today.
when we peer into the great unknown,...
form a line to the throne....

Marten's other counsel is equally insightful and salutary:

  • Get rich slowly (This one is not quite as true for applications as it is for Marten, sitting as MySQL does in the platform/infrastructure side, but it's still good advice for open-source projects-turned-companies);
  • Make adoption easy;
  • Run a distributed workforce (70% of MySQL's 360 employees work from home, a competitive advantage that lets MySQL hire the best people...wherever they may happen to be);
  • Foster a culture of experimentation;
  • Develop openly;
  • Leverage the ecosystem;
  • Make everyone listen to the customer;
  • Run Sales as a science;
  • Fraternize with the enemy

All great ideas, and all ideas that I've seen put to good use by various open-source companies. If you want to be a successful open-source company, you need to disrupt someone. Marten's list suggests how to do it.