About an hour or so after Jeffrey Hammond from Forrester Research gave his keynote address at All Things Open, in which he spoke of a survey which found that three out of four programmers use open source development tools, I had the opportunity to talk with an entrepreneur developer who’s definitely sold on FOSS. “The days of closed source software are kind of over,” he says, “except for special cases.”
Dwight Merriman is a likable chap, quiet and surprisingly laid back for someone who’s called New York City home for nearly twenty years. He’s the co-founder and executive chairman of MongoDB, the popular NoSQL database that drives the back end of Craigslist, eBay, SourceForge, Viacom, the New York Times and others. Before that, he was most well known for co-founding the ad serving company DoubleClick in 1996, which was sold to Hellman and Friedman in 2005 for $1.1 billion and acquired by Google in 2008.
He began his tech career about five years before starting DoubleClick, working in Atlanta for a company called DCA.
“We had a R&D group there that we started,” he said. “Started by my boss there, Kevin O’Conner. That group and his kind of vision for how you innovate on things is really what got me interested in trying to be creative, trying to come up with ideas either for products or businesses, whether it’s inside an existing big company or starting something new that is a startup. So, that was really the catalyst.”
O’Conner would eventually partner with him and become a co-founder of DoubleClick, which began as an operation out of O’Conner’s basement in an Atlanta suburb, before it relocated to New York City.
“I was there for ten years,” Merriman explained. “After DoubleClick, I was in New York and at that point had done a startup, which worked out well and I kinda liked it. So, with another Kevin, who was also DoubleClick, Kevin Ryan, he and I started some new companies, including MongoDB, and that’s really how the ball got rolling.”
Ryan had been president and later CEO at DoubleClick and currently serves as a board member at MongoDB.
While many in the tech business like to look back at the 1990s as something of a golden age for up-and-coming tech businesses, Merriman seems to keep his focus on the present while looking ahead to the future. When I mentioned the last decade of the twentieth century as “a good time to be an entrepreneur with some technical cred,” he replied, “Yes. I think now is just as good though.
“You really need technical capabilities, for sure, to do a startup,” he continued. “You also need someone who has business capabilities to do the startup, to figure out, ‘Okay, how are we going to go to market; how are we going to market it?’ If you build the coolest thing in the world and nobody shows up to look at it, it’s not going to work. So you need both. Sometimes people have both skills and sometimes people have one or the other, but you can team up and kind of round that out.”
So which skill set does Merriman bring to the table?
“I definitely consider myself an entrepreneur,” he said, “but wearing a tech hat. I’ve written a lot of code over the years and I try to keep my hands in that.”
Not surprisingly, Merriman is nothing but enthusiastic when he talks about MongoDB, which started getting off the ground in 2007. It almost seems as if he’s amazed by the project’s success.
“There’s tons of usage,” he said. “One thing that’s exciting to me is that lots of startups use it…, but big enterprises are using it too. You know, Fortune 500 companies, lots of them are using it.”
Because MongoDB is released under the GNU AGPL v3.0 license, meaning anyone can download and use the software for free, it only makes sense that most of MongoDB’s paying customers come from big enterprise. “They have more money, so they tend to be the paying group,” said Merriman. “And also, government, whether city or federal. We see usage in that world too.”
Another thing that seems to amaze Merriman is the global scope of the database’s adoption. “It’s just world wide,” he quietly exclaimed. “There’s like, per developer capita, at least as much usage in Asia, Russia and places like that as there is here. Maybe more.”
Most of our time together was spent discussing FOSS, especially in a business context. With DoubleClick, his first big success, open source wasn’t really part of the picture in any meaningful way.
“DoubleClick was basically SaaS, at the core product,” explained Merriman, “so it was not open source. But because it was SaaS, it wasn’t really a topic of conversation to make it such. We used a lot of open source things though. We also bought software just because back in the late 90s some things just didn’t exist as open source.”
So what led Merriman and his team to release their database under an open source license, especially a copyleft license?
“Well, I guess we wrote the first line of code about seven years ago,” he said. “I think it was clear to us when we first started that to do software these days it has to be open source. The days of closed source software are kind of over, except for special cases.”
Which brings us back to where we started.