Interview: Dries Buytaert, founder of Drupal

Dries Buytaert, founder of open source content management system Drupal and distributor Acquia, on ambitions to run a $100m business

Dries Buytaert started open source content management system Drupal as a part-time hobby in Belgium while he was completing his PhD in 2000. He founded Acquia in 2007 to make a profit from Drupal products. 

“For the first seven years, Drupal never made us a single pound, euro or dollar,” he says.

Acquia is to Drupal what Red Hat is to Linux, and is the necessary face to give the open source products corporate credibility, he says.

Certainly Drupal has no shortage of high-profile users, such as Twitter, Al Jazeera and the Whitehouse. 

“We want to grow to be a $100m business. Right now, we are 250 people and there is only one big open source company now – Red Hat. They are doing $1bn in annual revenue. But I believe in open source so much, I think there should be more. I would like Acquia to be another one."

Last year, Acquia's revenue was reported at around $21m. Buytaert says his growth strategy will involve rolling out more products and expanding geographies. 

“We have 25 people in the UK already and looking to grow that number. And we have made our first steps in Europe as well as a couple of people in Australia.

“We do a lot of cross-sell on our customer base. That has proven as a really good way to grow.”

The next version, Drupal 8, will be built on the Symfony 2 Framework, which is written in programming language PHP. It is not always easy to learn Drupal so the partnership with Symfony should help, he says.

There are 5.5 million declared PHP programmers in the world, says Buytaert. As such, he hopes Symfony should make Drupal more accessible for developers.

Many other companies sell Drupal services, but they mainly build websites, he says. “They are like the mechanics. Whereas we do consultancy, security audits and so on. Some people also provide support and hosting and in these cases we may compete – but that is fine.”

Opening up to open source

Buytaert says the open standards consultation underway in UK government should also help push for open source, because the community lacks the same size suppliers as the proprietary industry has.  

He says in the US, the government encouragement of open standards has helped open source companies, such as moves by the Department of Defense to embrace open source.

 "As open source is getting bigger, the ecosystem around open source is getting more mature. And it is probably these sorts of companies that are starting to push for open source in government.”

“In America, it is the same thing. It is political in the sense that they don’t want to be dependent on Microsoft. 

Buytaert believes a lot of people are moving away from proprietary as they are getting frustrated with how slow it is. Lock-in is a big driver for adoption, he says.

PayPal was frustrated as it wanted to try a lot of new things, but were dependent on its proprietary supplier innovating, so it switched to Drupal.

“The web is changing faster and faster and often a reason why companies switch to open source solutions is because they need a more responsive tool," he says. 

“That is why we have so much adoption in the media. Look at the music industry – it has seen widespread open source adoption. And that is because its business was disrupted and it needed to figure out new ways to make money. It was one of the first to switch, because it needed to innovate in order to survive. 

“Another story is how the New York Stock Exchange had a big Java-based proprietary software system and was looking to standardise all its websites. That was a project it was working on for a year, but it had not launched a single site. Subsequently the organisation brought in AOL’s chief architect Bob Kerner to find out why it was taking so long.

“He quickly discovered that even to change an item on the menu page would take three weeks so one of the first things he did was switch to Drupal. As a result, they got a website up in four weeks.”

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