With Ingrid Burton, CMO, Quantcast

Mastering OpenSource Marketing

With Ingrid Burton, CMO, Quantcast


  • What are the facets of Marketing and how do they relate to Open Source?
  • There isn’t a one size fits all Open Source GTM model
  • How to sell ‘The Squeeze’
  • Why not to over complicate Category Creation
  • Effective teaming between Sales and Marketing
  • When to hire your first Marketing VP

Setting the scene

Starting out as a software engineer, Ingrid quickly moved into Marketing during her long tenure at Sun Microsystems. Her deep experiences of Sun’s early pioneering move to Open Source key software components has fuelled much of her stellar career as CMO of many leading companies such as Hortonworks and H2O.ai. There aren’t many marketers who’ve had the same hands-on experiences as Ingrid, creating whole new categories and communities around key Open Source technologies. As an accomplished CMO she talks through the relationship between Sales and Marketing, and her thoughts on ‘the squeeze play’. A fascinating listen from one of Silicon Valley’s very best.

From Software Engineer to Marketer

I'm Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), but I actually started off as a software engineer early in my career, because I have a degree in maths and a bit of computer science experience too. As mathematicians graduated from the university, we got picked up as software engineers. I had done some programming in college, but I really hadn't learnt until I was on the job. So, about six or seven years into my career, I was doing hardcore software engineering and was a programmer.

I graduated from university in three years. I look back and I go, ‘Wow, how did you do that?’, but I worked extremely hard. When I got to Sun Microsystems in the late 80s, I was doing development of three dimensional graphics languages. I would have to present this new 3D graphics language to our customers, as a developer, and I would talk about gouraud shading and some of the methodologies you have to use to make it look like a realistic image. I’d present that to potential customers, they'd buy the systems, then I'd go on and develop some more software.

At the time, a marketing director, and now a really dear friend of mine, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “you should be in marketing”.  In my brain I was thinking ‘I'm an engineer and I’m very direct’, and I thought I would never go into marketing. But he persisted and said, “you're really good at translating technical concepts into real plain English, so why don't you start in product marketing as an engineer? You could still code, we'll give you a product and you can start marketing that”. I knew nothing about marketing, but I decided to go give it a shot and not really think about where the future would lead at all. I always thought, ‘what's the worst thing that can happen? If it doesn't work out and I hate it, I'll go back and be an engineer’. But as it turns out, I absolutely loved it! I loved every part of it from competitive analysis, positioning and messaging, where the market was going to go, launching products and making a mark in the market- I was hooked!

Company culture enables you to thrive against the big giants

I started at Sun Microsystems when the company was at half a billion in the first year that I was there, we then grew to a billion. We had a billion dollar party, and everybody went, but the culture was so collegial. It was this culture of we're here up against the giants- 60+ different computing companies (who have since disappeared!). We're the underdog, we're going to take on the giants and disrupt the market and do something that nobody else has done. It was a culture that all of us thrived in. We worked harder than anybody else, and we put a number of them out of business. We took on every major giant and our CEO & founder, Scott McNealy, who's also now a dear friend of mine, would stand up on the tables in the cafeteria every Friday afternoon and rally us. It was an incredible ride in the early days at Sun, and it never lost that culture of fairness, equity and integrity. I really do think that was instilled by Scott who would say things such as, 'we're never going to lie, we're always going to tell the truth, we're going to tell it like it is'. It was a sense of community that Sun instilled in not only the company culture, but in the culture and the big community that surrounded it.

The emergence of open source at Sun Microsystems

My open source background started at Sun in the late 90s. Ten years later, I was working for Bill Joy, who is co-founder of Sun and he had been in the lab, which is the who's who of computer scientists. They had about 100 of the best data scientists and researchers in Sun labs and Bill created what he called Aspen Smallworks, which was a skunkworks inside of Sun. I had the opportunity to be a part of that with new technologies, after Java was introduced. In order to get traction for these new technologies, we decided to open source. Richard Gabriel, who was part of the labs, was a researcher and other people in that group were researchers around licencing models. We started open sourcing many technologies at Sun, and ultimately Java and Solaris too, but we were big proponents of open source as a ways to a means to get the community around you to not only adopt the technology, but to take it even further. It wasn't about making money, it was about getting wide scale adoption. Money would follow and always did, but it was about getting wide scale adoption and grassroots movements going amongst developers in order to really get traction of new technology. That's still the case today with many open source companies.

I think we were one of the early pioneers of open source, and at the same time I think Linux was starting as well. Wikipedia was starting at that point too, and we were pioneering it. It was a lot of pioneering and trial and error of what works and what doesn't work, but really you wanted the community to be part of what you were doing. The community was what made the open source project so successful.

Who was the person(s) that shaped you and helped you, in terms of that marketing career?

That original guy that tapped me on the shoulder, he's now at HP Enterprise, Anil Gadrej. He became my manager, my mentor, my biggest cheerleader, even when we didn't work together, I would go to him with ideas and just ask him, “what do you think?” He took the time to nurture me but there were so many people along the way, the CEOs, Jonathan Schwartz, and Scott McNealy. I just learnt so much from just watching them in action.

I was considered Head of Marketing at Sun, but I didn't get the title as the company was going through an acquisition, which was a disappointment. My first CMO title was at Plantronics, in 2010. I took the Plantronics position and really loved that as well. It was a different industry, different space, all about communications, and I rebranded the company and started a developer programme there as well.

Marketing has multiple facets

Marketing has changed dramatically over the 20 or 30 years I’ve been in it. It's not just about brand, it's about demand, but it's also about community. There's various facets in there, there's a whole breadth from brand and communications and demand generation and the funnel, digital marketing, channel marketing, product marketing- the list goes on and on. I just net it out to three things:

  1. You’ve got to create the brand of the company and build the reputation and everything that ensues.
  2. You’ve got to drive demand and help the sales people sell through integrated activities.
  3. You have to build a sense of community, whether it's partners, customers or employees.

They're all important constituents for building the brand and helping the company gain traction in the market.

Understanding and valuing the community is essential when creating an open source company

I gravitate towards open source companies and admire a lot of the open source companies out there. Open source is a bit different; you're going after an audience of your community constituents. You need to:

  • Build community programmes
  • Understand what drives the community
  • Understand what helps the community thrive

Community marketing is essential to an open source company. That's one thing I think that some open source companies miss. Open source companies need to understand that they have to offer something that's unique and different in order to monetize that open source effort. We're not non-profit companies, and you have to understand that fine balance. In marketing, you've got to drive the demand around the product, around the capabilities and around what you can monetize. But, you also have to nurture that community, and be very mindful that whatever you do the community has to thrive, because without the community you can't monetize. It's a fine balancing act.

There is no one size fits all open source model

There's just so many models! There's hybrid open source and companies like Cloudera, who now have bought Hortonworks, talk about a hybrid open source model. I think that's closer to the pin of where you need to be, but the interesting part is, I really think it depends. You have to understand:

  • Your company
  • Your community
  • Your potential customers
  • The market itself
  • The partnerships that you're creating

Then you can craft a model that works, but it's not one size fits all. I think that's a fallacy to think that one size fits all; you have to really understand the dynamics of your market, your customers, your community, and adjust. What may work for one company may not work for the other. At H2O.ai, we had an open source framework called H2O, and then we also had a monetization strategy on top which we called ‘a closed source product’, but it was really an enterprise software model where we had a product that utilised some of the H2O open source componentry.

The squeeze play

I think you should do both. You need to have an enterprise enterprise selling mindset, but you can also do the community bottoms up. I call this ‘the squeeze play’. You’ve got the bottoms up influencer, so that’s the developers and the people using the technology, then at the very top, you've got the C suite at a Fortune 1000 company that has to make an investment in your technology. So, you need to influence both, and you have to do it through influencer programmes at the Fortune 1000 level. When you have that squeeze, it works and you make money, and the community thrives.

If you're in enterprise software, you've got to reach the C-Suite, whether it's a business user or the CIO. In the old days, maybe 15 years ago, we used to think the CIO would go away… well guess what they're not, they're still here and they're stronger than ever! They're protecting their enterprise from malicious software, cyber attacks, so they play a role in the enterprise in the enterprise software mix. Don't ignore the CIO and the IT department, it's really important to go partner with them.

Building a strong relationship with the sales team

First of all, everybody's a marketer! We all have an opinion, and everybody knows what's good and what's not good. So, everybody in sales thinks they can be a better marketing person, but I'll tell you, no marketing person ever thinks they're going to be a better salesperson. It's a different skill set. I tell my marketing teams, regardless of the size of the company, whether it's a Series A or a public company, you need to be best friends with your sales counterpart, and if you're not, you're not going to succeed. It's that simple. If you're not there to help, then go find someplace where they don't care about sales, because that would be a nonprofit.

I admire salespeople, because they bring it home every day. Every salesperson is important in the equation, because if we do not have sales, we do not have a company; they sell what we build as a company, and that is ultimately why marketing has to understand that they have to partner with sales. It is about meeting them where they are and finding out what they need. Sometimes I've walked into companies and they start complaining about marketing, so I ask them for their top ten list of things they want us to do. I always say “yes” to my sales teams within reason, because they're the feet on the ground, they're the ones doing the hard work of getting customers to buy, and if they can get a customer to buy, marketing and the company lives.

The rise of category creation

Category creation has been a bit of a trend for a few years now. CEOs will say to me, “I need to create a category creation”, and I don't think it's as simple as that. I think it's a big part of the brand, but don't overcomplicate it. Overthinking can get into a lot of swirl and churn, but no forward progress. One of the most brilliant jobs I saw in category creation was when MongoDB filed their S1 to go public. MongoDB had the simplest S1 filing I have seen today, where they said ‘we're a modern data platform. It's a modern one, because who wants the old one.’ You have to admire and learn from great work. Simplify things, don't overcomplicate it, sometimes it's just staring you right in the face. Category creation is important. You also need to figure out who you are and what you do. That's more important than category creation. Decide:

  • Who you are
  • What do you do?
  • What's your simple one liner statement about your company?

Establishing a marketing presence in early stage companies and Series B

The founders of early stage companies already have a good idea of what he or she wants to do- they know what problem they're trying to solve. They believe they know what problem they're solving and whom they're serving, because that's why they started the company. So early stage companies, if you have a really smart founder or set of co-founders and a good set of advisors, you can get by without a VP of Marketing. Then maybe in a Series B company, you should really look for a VP of Marketing. But again, be very clear and crisp about who you are, what you do and why you're doing it.

I think for a VP of sales, or a salesperson, it’s really important to test the market to see what's going to stick, and then maybe bring on an advisor that can do marketing and just see how it goes. Then, when you really have your traction, your first couple of wins, you should probably hire your VP of Marketing. The VP of marketing has to understand the product. If you haven't been able to explain it to them, then that's when you probably need to refine your messaging to be very simple.

Who are some key players in tech that inspire or excite you?

I just love tech! For me, it's about what is technology going to do for us? I've been a technology marketer my whole career, or after my engineering days, I get excited about the technology and what it can do. Then, I love seeing the flywheel effect of making money. I admire companies like MongoDB. I'm also a big fan of Twilio, which people didn't understand and they probably underestimated, but Twilio is hugely successful- it has a developer community and a monetization strategy. They really did do it and I had the opportunity to talk to their CEO a couple of times-  I'm always looking at their quarterly results!

Zoom, of course, look what Zoom did for all of us during this pandemic! I knew about Zoom back in 2013. My team actually used Zoom early on, because it was a free video conferencing service that allowed a lot of people to communicate very simply together. I've loved seeing the rise of Zoom! It's simple to use, my mother can use it, my family uses it, everybody uses Zoom. They kept the simplicity of the product, they're making money; they have a free version, but if you need more than 45 minutes you’ve got to pay. What better way to package that up, and it's a brilliant solution. I admire them tremendously, just from knowing where they came from back in 2013, and how they simplified the technology to benefit all of us- seeing a company like that take off gets me excited. Now they've established their position in the market. They are in the video conferencing space and they disrupted giants that were there years ahead of them. They disrupted them by simplifying the offering and making it simple for regular people: students, grandmothers, mothers, professionals. What an amazing success story that is!


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