Sleep! The fastest way to burn out is to not sleep enough. I travel a lot in my job and jet lag can be a problem. The only solution is sleep. In order to stay ahead in any technology field, you have to constantly learn and keep ahead by improving on the ideas that came before. I can’t tell you how many ideas that I have had simply by sleeping on a problem. I personally think sleep is a very important element of innovation.
As part of my series about the “5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Newton, CTO and founder at Alfresco. John has had one of the longest and most influential careers in content management. In 1990, John co-founded, designed and led the development of Documentum®, the leader in content management acquired by EMC®. For the next ten years, he invented many of the concepts widely used in the industry today. In addition, he built Documentum’s marketing and professional services organizations in Europe. John has also been an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Benchmark Capital. John was one of the founding engineers at Ingres® where he helped develop the world’s first commercial relational database. John graduated with a BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of California at Berkeley.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My entire career has been devoted to information management in some way. I grew up consuming large amounts of curated information: encyclopedias, almanacs, technical magazines. When I discovered relational databases, pretty much right after they were invented, I knew I wanted to that. It was like an electronic version of the information I had been consuming. My first job was as one of the very first engineers in commercial relational database. This was a technology that I thought could also be applied to the organized information that I had also been consuming. When my partner, Howard Shao, brought me the business plan for what would become Documentum, I already had a pretty good idea of what needed to be created as I had thought about it for over a decade. I have always been around these technologies and I guess I always will. It must be in my DNA.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
In the early 2000s, I was interested in creating a company that could be successful from Europe. I saw success from Europeans creating open source projects and companies like Linus, MySQL, JBoss, etc. and thought that some of us could do the same thing for content services. There was no open source Documentum, Filenet or Sharepoint, but there will be. I thought it might as well be us. That’s when we created Alfresco, an open source platform for content, information and process services.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I was successful at one point for too long. I lived through two boom cycles and never had to lay off anyone. I started a company focused on managing product information for financial products and aimed at finance firms in the financial district of London. The concept was good — it would answer questions like “What is my exposure to sub-prime mortgages?” Unfortunately, this was before the crash of 2008. Managing and reporting to clients was a manual, intensive job that cost a lot of money, but unfortunately that didn’t matter then. We had to fold and lay off a lot of people. That really hurt. However, it allowed us to focus on what we were really good at — Content Services. Thus, we re-emerged as Alfresco.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Our lessons showed that it is worth sticking to what you are good at and what you enjoy. At a recent offsite, we went through an exercise of the Japanese concept of Ikigai or “reason for being”/raison d’être. It looks at the intersection of What You Love Doing, What Are You Good At, What the World Needs and What Can You Be Paid For? Find the intersection of those and you can stick through anything. I am very fortunate that my intersection has been clear to me for a very long time. I especially love working with the technology. Solve the world’s problems and resilience is easy.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I have to go back to my very first job as a developer at Ingres, the database company, straight out of college. The company had been set up by three of my professors at Berkeley and run pretty much like a research project, at least initially. One of the professors wrote an extremely high-level specification of the products to be built and the rest “is intuitively obvious.” Coming up with the plans for what I was going to build, I was expected to do everything, design, build, test, document, to a commercial level. Of course, it all had to be done is 6 months.
I was both excited and scared out of my wits as time went on. I was literally inventing stuff as I went on. I even ended up doing some of the marketing stuff for the product. After 6 months, it wasn’t all done as any sane project manager would expect. We had performance reviews every 6 months back then, because rapid pay inflation back then meant they had to them frequently. I was sure I was going to be fired. Imagine my surprise when I given a nice raise and promotion. They were surprised that someone could actually do all those things.
I guess there is an underlying insecurity that drives me to try to do more things. I rarely think I am doing a good job. Even so, it was a real surprise when I went to GM almost 20 years after that event and they were still using that same software that I thought was going to be fired over.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Open source easily makes our company stand out in an industry that has been around for a long time. Even though our competitors end up using open source all the time, they still don’t get it. Leadership comes not from hiding your software and paying a ransom to access it. It comes from demonstrating technical and product excellence out in the open and innovating as fast as you can. With open source built on other open source, you innovating as fast as the sum of the parts.
It was especially interesting to see Alfresco win over Documentum’s very first customer, a large aerospace company. I was there both times. They loved the fact that it was open source, they could test the security of the product themselves as the source code was in the open, and they loved the fact that they could innovate on it in ways that they couldn’t on their old platform.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Sleep! The fastest way to burn out is to not sleep enough. I travel a *lot* in my job and jet lag can be a problem. The only solution is sleep.
In order to stay ahead in any technology field, you have to constantly learn and keep ahead by improving on the ideas that came before. I can’t tell you how many ideas that I have had simply by sleeping on a problem. I personally think sleep is a very important element of innovation.
Sleep is not wasted time. It is time put to extremely good us and health!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Growing up as a Navy brat, you learn to be very independent. To a certain extent I thought that I really didn’t have any mentors. However, as I get older, I know that is not true.
My first boss at Ingres, Paul Butterworth, the same one I thought was going to fire me, taught me the value of calmness and clarity, even if I can’t achieve it all the time. There is one thing that my co-founder at Documentum, Howard Shao, and I had in common, which is to think of the world in models. I think we influenced each other in that way. Jeff Miller, the first CEO of Documentum, taught me the value of focus and execution, things that I try to teach the companies that I am mentoring.
One person that has been especially influential for me is Geoff Moore, of Crossing the Chasm fame. He ended up on the board of Documentum and through his books and personal interactions, I have learned so much about building technology companies. He provided the foundation of Jeff Miller’s focus and also a set of tools and frameworks to achieve that focus. I am still constantly quoting him in many situations whenever we come up with new challenges.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
The numbers of users of Alfresco goes into the millions. Ever since founding Alfresco in 2005, the open source community has downloaded millions of the Alfresco content services platform and Activiti, our process engine. Some portion of those systems end up as enterprise customers, some 1300 enterprise customers, mainly large corporations or government agencies. The number of end users runs well into the millions.
Our sales success is in some part due to the innovative approach that we have taken to integrating and deploying the product into the cloud and building excellent user experiences. Some is due to the power of open source in the customers ability to download and try the system. Open source is the original Freemium model.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
Our monetization model is to provide enterprise customers the ability to run Alfresco and our integrated Digital Business Platform at scale and to make it easier to build and deploy the next generation of digital solutions. Process and information are core ingredients in many digital transformation initiatives, such as streamlined customer onboarding, superior customer service or eliminating waste in the value chain. We also demonstrate on going value to our customers, not by charging huge upfront perpetual licenses, but providing excellent customer service and annual subscriptions. Very different from our legacy competition.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!