Drupal’s journey from dorm-room project to billion-dollar exit

Twenty years ago Drupal and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert was a college student at the University of Antwerp. He wanted to put his burgeoning programming skills to work by building a communications tool for his dorm. That simple idea evolved over time into the open-source Drupal web content management system, and eventually a commercial company called Acquia built on top of it.

Buytaert would later raise over $180 million and exit in 2019 when the company was acquired by Vista Equity Partners for $1 billion, but it took 18 years of hard work to reach that point.

When Drupal came along in the early 2000s, it wasn’t the only open-source option, but it was part of a major movement toward giving companies options by democratizing web content management.

Many startups are built on open source today, but back in the early 2000s, there were only a few trail blazers and none that had taken the path that Acquia took. Buytaert and his co-founders decided to reduce the complexity of configuring a Drupal installation by building a hosted cloud service.

That seems like a no-brainer now, but consider at the time in 2009, AWS was still a fledgling side project at Amazon, not the $45 billion behemoth it is today. In 2021, building a startup on top of an open-source project with a SaaS version is a proven and common strategy. Back then nobody else had done it. As it turned out, taking the path less traveled worked out well for Acquia.

Moving from dorm room to billion-dollar exit is the dream of every startup founder. Buytaert got there by being bold, working hard and thinking big. His story is compelling, but it also offers lessons for startup founders who also want to build something big.

Born in the proverbial dorm room

In the days before everyone had internet access and a phone in their pockets, Buytaert simply wanted to build a way for him and his friends to communicate in a centralized way. “I wanted to build kind of an internal message board really to communicate with the other people in the dorm, and it was literally talking about things like ‘Hey, let’s grab a drink at 8:00,'” Buytaert told me.

He also wanted to hone his programming skills. “At the same time I wanted to learn about PHP and MySQL, which at the time were emerging technologies, and so I figured I would spend a few evenings putting together a basic message board using PHP and MySQL, so that I could learn about these technologies, and then actually have something that we could use.”

The resulting product served its purpose well, but when graduation beckoned, Buytaert realized if he unplugged his PC and moved on, the community he had built would die. At that point, he decided to move the site to the public internet and named it drop.org, which was actually an accident. Originally, he meant to register dorp.org because “dorp” is Dutch for “village or small community,” but he mistakenly inverted the letters during registration.

Buytaert continued adding features to drop.org like diaries (a precursor to blogging) and RSS feeds. Eventually, he came up with the idea of open-sourcing the software that ran the site, calling it Drupal.

The birth of web content management

About the same time Buytaert was developing the basis of what would become Drupal, web content management (WCM) was a fresh market. Early websites had been fairly simple and straightforward, but they were growing more complex in the late 90s and a bunch of startups were trying to solve the problem of managing them. Buytaert likely didn’t know it, but there was an industry waiting for an open-source tool like Drupal.

Alan Pelz-Sharpe, who has been tracking WCM as an analyst for more than 20 years got his start writing a report for Ovum on the developing market for these tools in those early days. “Web Content Management arrived in the late 90s and it was a dot-com darling topic — [early entrants like] ATG, Vignette, Interwoven, Broadvision and Open Market — were all well-funded and lucrative stars of the time. But along with them came a great deal of complexity,” Pelz-Sharpe told me recently, adding “To be clear, WCM was for big organizations with big budgets. They were notoriously difficult to implement, incredibly expensive to license and a gold mine for system integrators and consultants alike.”

He pointed out that when Drupal came along in the early 2000s, it wasn’t the only open-source option, but it was part of a major movement toward giving companies options by democratizing web content management.

“What Dries seemed to understand well, and many others didn’t, was the importance of managing an open-source community effectively, and in turn incrementally building on many minor successes in development. This in turn helped to trigger the growth of a legion of small agencies and developers that are still with us today,” he explained.

Building an open-source company

After graduation, Buytaert went to work for a startup in Belgium, giving him a taste of startup life that would eventually help encourage him to launch a company of his own. While he would continue to nurture Drupal, mostly as a hobby project, he later got his Ph.D. in computer science. Around 2007, Drupal was growing in popularity and he had a choice of going into academia or seeing where this Drupal project would take him. He chose to launch Acquia with partner Jay Batson to help commercialize the open-source effort.

“I met Jay in 2007, and we started kind of scheming and brainstorming about what our career could be. And then I basically pulled the plug [on my academic career] to start Acquia while I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation. I defended my Ph.D. and literally the next day, I was full time at Acquia,” he said.

Even before he exited academia, Buytaert was working directly with Drupal users. They had some early conferences (still called DrupalCon) with several hundred people attending, and it was beginning to attract attention. One well-known early customer was MTV and Buytaert says that he worked with their engineers for free at night because he wanted to make sure that they would succeed. He also realized he could make money offering that kind of help.

“I felt if Drupal was going to get really big, if large enterprises were going to adopt it, there needed to be a company that can support them and make them successful with Drupal, that could help them scale — you know, all the things that we do [at Acquia],” Buytaert explained.

Raising cash

Tony Byrne, founder and principal analyst at Real Story Group, a company that has been following web content management for two decades, says that one of the things that impresses him most about Drupal is the sheer longevity of the platform, and he gives Buytaert full credit for that.

“Drupal has evolved over the years and this helped it from getting too pigeon-holed. It morphed from a community-oriented platform into a content management platform that eschewed traditional page management, to a kind of content application platform accessible to novice PHP developers willing to learn the unique peculiarities of the system,” Byrne told me.

When Buytaert and Batson came together, they had the open-source project, but not much else beyond a vague idea for a commercial company. They put together a pitch deck and started shopping their idea to venture capitalists.

“Obviously, there was Drupal, but basically with a PowerPoint and a spreadsheet with a financial model, we went to VCs and ended up raising $7 million, and that’s how we got started. After that is when we started writing code, which is very different from today. Obviously, today you would prototype something to do a seed round, but we went straight to a $7 million Series A round without a team, without any code written, just based on an idea and a plan,” he said.

Another hurdle the team faced with investors was that unlike today, it was not commonplace to build a company on top of an open-source project. There were just a handful of model companies that had reached at least $10 million in revenue out there like Red Hat, MySQL and JBoss. Finding an investor to believe in that model was challenging.

But with the Series A money in the bank, they started hiring and started building and continued to raise money on a yearly basis until 2016.

A different revenue model

Prior to fundraising, Batson and Buytaert went around to other open-source companies and learned that the prevailing way to generate revenue was through service contracts. So that’s what they did too, at least for the first year or so of the business. Then the duo decided to do something audacious.

“We made a pretty big pivot because Amazon [was in the early years of] AWS with EC2 and S3, and they were actually pretty unreliable [at the time], but we saw a big opportunity to deliver open source in the cloud, and we started building the Drupal platform as a service — and we really helped pioneer [the idea of] open source delivered as a service in the cloud,” Buytaert explained.

It was a huge move away from the traditional open-source maintenance business model. But the move helped fuel the startup’s growth. “Obviously today, new open-source companies, that’s what they do. They deliver open source in the cloud, and it really caused rocket ship growth for Acquia because it made it a lot easier for our customers to use Drupal at scale,” Buytaert told TechCrunch.

The company faced some major challenges trying to sell a service that was both based on open source and hosted in the cloud. While there were SaaS companies operating by the time Acquia launched its cloud service including Salesforce, Workday and ServiceNow, the biggest hurdle was convincing early customers that the cloud was safe and secure.

But Buytaert speculates that perhaps the idea of managing the company website was low risk enough to consider using a cloud service, and that opened the door for his startup. In fact, Acquia was such a successful example of moving to the cloud that AWS eventually made an investment in the company in 2014 (although the parties never revealed the exact amount).

Vista Equity Partners bought Acquia in 2019, and Buytaert says that deal was and remains about helping achieve his long-term goals for the company. “It’s about this bold vision and how do we get there, and how do we get there in a reasonable time. We’re competing against technology giants. We are a small fish compared to the Adobes and the Salesforces of the world, and we know that in order to get to where we want it to be, we need access to deep pockets of capital. And so this helps us do that.”

He advises companies just getting started to think in those same bold terms as he did with Acquia, but to also understand it takes hard work and patience to build a billion-dollar company, suggesting founders think in 10-year time frames.

Pelz-Sharpe says that Buytaert should get credit for building a successful community, a successful company and having a tremendous impact on the web as a whole. “Though the commercial arm of Drupal (Acquia) has been very successful in its own right, the Drupal community remains vibrant and growing. How much of that is down to Dries himself, and how much down to good timing and the community is debatable, but without Dries there would not have been a Drupal community in the first place.”