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The Open Source CEO: Bob Walters, Untangle (Part 17)

In this seventeenth installment of the Open Source CEO Series, we talk with Bob Walters, CEO of Untangle.

Most of the CEOs profiled run commercial open source ventures that have always been open source (or had a strong open source component to them). In this seventeeth installment of the Open Source CEO Series, I caught up with Bob Walters, CEO of Untangle, a recent convert to an open source business model (though Bob, himself, has been involved with open source before while at Linuxcare). I wanted to find out lessons learned by Bob (and Untangle) on the shift to open source, and was not disappointed....

Name, position, and company of executive
Bob Walters, President and CEO, Untangle, which delivers on-demand software to small businesses.

Year company was founded and year you joined it
Untangle was founded in February, 2003, and I joined in June, 2006.

Stage of funding and venture firms that have invested
We've raised a $10.5 million Series A round from CMEA Ventures and Rustic Canyon Partners.

Background prior to current company
I started my career in the US Marine Corps as a fighter pilot. [Matt's note: This is not the CEO with whom you want to pick a fight. :-) ] Later, I served in a variety of executive roles with several startups:

  • Vice President and General Manager, Informix Software;
  • Vice President, Linuxcare
  • Vice President and General Manager, Securant
  • CEO, Teros (now Citrix)
My last three companies were all substantial users of open source software, and Linuxcare was a major player in the "Generation 1" class of commercial open soruce vendors. I believe in this model, especially for the maturing (and commoditizing) software market that we face.

Biggest surprise you've encountered in your role with your company
The passion - some would say dogma - around "What is OSS?" I would have expected this to have been cleared up. Just the opposite has occurred.

Hardest challenge you've had so far at your open source company
Recruiting great engineers is as tough today as it was in 1999. We have just moved to an open source model, and we hope that this will help us get great people faster. We need four more engineers today.

If you could start over again from scratch, what would you do differently?
Release the product as open source sooner. This is clearly the correct model for the time and space. We would be that much further along in community building had we started sooner.

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

  1. You've got to be willing and able to walk-the-open-source-walk, not just talk-the-talk. If you aren't, the open source community will sniff this out and either ignore you or attack you. Either of these responses makes community-building tough.
  2. Community = leverage. This is the core of open source gains. You may get some PR benefit from just announcing, but your net returns will ultimately be negative.
  3. Communities are harder to build than you think, and take longer to build. The open source model provides marketing/PR leverage first, sales leverage second, and development leverage last. The reason? Developer communities are so hard to build. But here's a hint: There are 150,000+ projects on SourceForge today. Do the math.

It's fascinating to see how Bob is shifting Untangle's business to be more community-focused and friendly. I wish him the best of luck in continuing to turn Untangle into a core member of the open source business community as he makes it a key contributor to open source development communities.

Next up in the Open Source CEO Series...Paul Doscher, CEO of JasperSoft, an open source, enterprise-class Business Intelligence vendor.