RethinkDB and sustainable business modelsThree weeks ago, I spent the evening of Sept 12, 2016 with Daniel Mewes, who is the lead engineer of RethinkDB (an open source database). I was also supposed to meet with the co-founders, Slava and Michael, but they were too busy fundraising and couldn't join us. I pestered Daniel the whole evening about what RethinkDB's business model actually was. Yesterday, on October 6, 2016, RethinkDB shut down.
I met with some RethinkDB devs because an investor who runs a fund at the VC firm Andreessen-Horowitz (A16Z) had kindly invited me there to explain my commercialization plans for SageMath, Inc., and RethinkDB is one of the companies that A16Z has invested in. At first, I wasn't going to take the meeting with A16Z, since I have never met with Venture Capitalists before, and do not intend to raise VC. However, some of my advisors convinced me that VC's can be very helpful even if you never intend to take their investment, so I accepted the meeting.
In the first draft of my slides for my presentation to A16Z, I had a slide with the question: "Why do you fund open source companies like RethinkDB and CoreOS, which have no clear (to me) business model? Is it out of some sense of charity to support the open source software ecosystem?" After talking with people at Google and the RethinkDB devs, I removed that slide, since charity is clearly not the answer (I don't know if there is a better answer than "by accident").
I have used RethinkDB intensely for nearly two years, and I might be their biggest user in some sense. My product SageMathCloud, which provides web-based course management, Python, R, Latex, etc., uses RethinkDB for everything. For example, every single time you enter some text in a realtime synchronized document, a RethinkDB table gets an entry inserted in it. I have RethinkDB tables with nearly 100 million records. I gave a talk at a RethinkDB meetup, filed numerous bug reports, and have been described by them as "their most unlucky user". In short, in 2015 I bet big on RethinkDB, just like I bet big on Python back in 2004 when starting SageMath. And when visiting the RethinkDB devs in San Francisco (this year and also last year), I have said to them many times "I have a very strong vested interest in you guys not failing." My company SageMath, Inc. also pays RethinkDB for a support contract.
Sustainable business models were very much on my mind, because of my upcoming meeting at A16Z and the upcoming board meeting for my company. SageMath, Inc.'s business model involves making money from subscriptions to SageMathCloud (which is hosted on Google Cloud Platform); of course, there are tons of details about exactly how our business works, which we've been refining based on customer feedback. Though absolutely all of our software is open source, what we sell is convenience, easy of access and use, and we provide value by hosting hundreds of courses on shared infrastructure, so it is much cheaper and easier for universities to pay us rather than hosting our software themselves (which is also fairly easy). So that's our business model, and I would argue that it is working; at least our MRR is steadily increasing and is more than twice our hosting costs (we are not cash flow positive yet due to developer costs).
So far as I can determine, the business model of RethinkDB was to make money in the following ways: 1. Sell support contracts to companies (I bought one). 2. Sell a closed-source proprietary version of RethinkDB with extra features that were of interest to enterprise (they had a handful of such features, e.g., audit logs for queries). 3. Horizon would become a cloud-hosted competitor to Firebase, with unique advantages that users have the option to migrate from the cloud to their own private data center, and more customizability. This strategy depends on a trend for users to migrate away from the cloud, rather than to it, which some people at RethinkDB thought was a real trend (I disagree).
I don't know of anything else they were seriously trying right now. The closed-source proprietary version of RethinkDB also seemed like a very recent last ditch effort that had only just begun; perhaps it directly contradicted a desire to be a 100% open source company?
With enough users, it's easier to make certain business models work. I suspect RethinkDB does not have a lot of real users. Number of users tends to be roughly linearly related to mailing list traffic, and the RethinkDB mailing list has an order of magnitude less traffic compared to the SageMath mailing lists, and SageMath has around 50,000 users. RethinkDB wasn't even advertised to be production ready until just over a year ago, so even they were telling people not to use it seriously until relatively recently. The adoption cycle for database technology is slow -- people wisely wait for Aphyr's tests, benchmarks comparing with similar technology, etc. I was unusual in that I chose RethinkDB much earlier than most people would, since I love the design of RethinkDB so much. It's the first database I loved, having seen a lot over many decades.
Conclusion: RethinkDB wasn't a real business, and wouldn't become one without year(s) more runway.
I'm also very worried about the future of RethinkDB as an open source project. I don't know if the developers have experience growing an open source community of volunteers; it's incredibly hard and its unclear they are even going to be involved. At a bare minimum, I think they must switch to a very liberal license (Apache instead of AGPL), and make everything (e.g., automated testing code, documentation, etc) open source. It's insanely hard getting any support for open source infrastructure work -- support mostly comes from small government grants (for research software) or contributions from employees at companies (that use the software). Relicensing in a company friendly way is thus critical.
Company IncentivesCompanies can be incentived in various ways, including:
- to get to the next round of VC funding
- to be a sustainable profitable business by making more money from customers than they spend, or
- to grow to have a very large number of users and somehow pivot to making money later.
For me, SageMath is an open source project I started in 2004, and I'm in it for the long haul. I will make the business I'm building around SageMathCloud succeed, or I will die trying -- therefore I have very, very little tolerance for risk. Failure is not an option, and I am not looking for an exit. For me, the strategy that best matches my values is to incentive my company to build a profitable business, since that is most likely to survive, and also to give us the freedom to maintain our longterm support for open source and pure mathematics software.
Thus for my company, neither optimizing for raising the next round of VC or growing at all costs makes sense. You would be surprised how many people think I'm completely wrong for concluding this.
Andreessen-HorowitzI spent the evening with RethinkDB developers, which scared the hell out of me regarding their business prospects. They are probably the most open source friendly VC-funded company I know of, and they had given me hope that it is possible to build a successful VC-funded tech startup around open source. I prepared for my meeting at A16Z, and deleted my slide about RethinkDB.
I arrived at A16Z, and was greeted by incredibly friendly people. I was a little shocked when I saw their nuclear bomb art in the entry room, then went to a nice little office to wait. The meeting time arrived, and we went over my slides, and I explained my business model, goals, etc. They said there was no place for A16Z to invest directly in what I was planning to do, since I was very explicit that I'm not looking for an exit, and my plan about how big I wanted the company to grow in the next 5 years wasn't sufficiently ambitious. They were also worried about how small the total market cap of Mathematica and Matlab is (only a few hundred million?!). However, they generously and repeatedly offered to introduce me to more potential angel investors.
We argued about the value of outside investment to the company I am trying to build. I had hoped to get some insight or introductions related to their portfolio companies that are of interest to my company (e.g., Udacity, GitHub), but they deflected all such questions. There was also some confusion, since I showed them slides about what I'm doing, but was quite clear that I was not asking for money, which is not what they are used to. In any case, I greatly appreciated the meeting, and it really made me think. They were crystal clear that they believed I was completely wrong to not be trying to do everything possible to raise investor money.
BasecampDuring the first year of SageMath, Inc., I was planning to raise a round of VC, and was doing everything to prepare for that. I then read some of DHH's books about Basecamp, and realized many of those arguments applied to my situation, given my values, and -- after a lot of reflection -- I changed my mind. I think Basecamp itself is mostly closed source, so they may have an advantage in building a business. SageMathCloud (and SageMath) really are 100% open source, and building a completely open source business might be harder. Our open source IP is considered worthless by investors. Witness: RethinkDB just shut down and Stripe hired just the engineers -- all the IP, customers, etc., of RethinkDB was evidently considered worthless by investors.
The day after the A16Z meeting, I met with my board, which went well (we discussed a huge range of topics over several hours). Some of the board members also tried hard to convince me that I should raise a lot more investor money.
Will Poole: you're doomedTwo weeks ago I met with Will Poole, who is a friend of a friend, and we talked about my company and plans. I described what I was doing, that everything was open source, that I was incentivizing the company around building a business rather than raising investor money. He listened and asked a lot of follow up questions, making it very clear he understands building a company very, very well.
His feedback was discouraging -- I said "So, you're saying that I'm basically doomed." He responded that I wasn't doomed, but might be able to run a small "lifestyle business" at best via my approach, but there was absolutely no way that what I was doing would have any impact or pay for my kids college tuition. If this was feedback from some random person, it might not have been so disturbing, but Will Poole joined Microsoft in 1996, where he went on to run Microsoft's multibillion dollar Windows business. Will Poole is like a retired four-star general that executed a successful campaign to conquer the world; he been around the block a few times. He tried pretty hard to convince me to make as much of SageMathCloud closed source as possible, and to try to convince my users to make content they create in SMC something that I can reuse however I want. I felt pretty shaken and convinced that I needed to close parts of SMC, e.g., the new Kubernetes-based backend that we spent all summer implementing. (Will: if you read this, though our discussion was really disturbing to me, I really appreciate it and respect you.)
My friend, who introduced me to Will Poole, introduced me to some other people and described me as that really frustrating sort of entrepreneur who doesn't want investor money. He then remarked that one of the things he learned in business school, which really surprised him, was that it is good for a company to have a lot of debt. I gave him a funny look, and he added "of course, I've never run a company".
I left that meeting with Will convinced that I would close source parts of SageMathCloud, to make things much more defensible. However, after thinking things through for several days, and talking this over with other people involved in the company, I have chosen not to close anything. This just makes our job harder. Way harder. But I'm not going to make any decisions based purely on fear. I don't care what anybody says, I do not think it is impossible to build an open source business (I think Wordpress is an example), and I do not need to raise VC.
Hacker News Discussion: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12663599
Chinese version: http://www.infoq.com/cn/news/