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The story of Acquia - from a pet project to a $200 million company

The story of Acquia - from a pet project to a $200 million company

When doing a market research a year ago I stumbled upon a Digital Experience Platform I hadn’t heard before. It was called Acquia. There were two landmarks in Acquia's history that had a deciding impact on what Acquia is today with $200 million revenue in 2018.

The story

In 2000, Dries Buytaert, a student from University of Antwerp (The Netherlands), started a small forum site to communicate on a daily basis with his colleagues. They exchanged notes, shared interesting stories and posted content.

A year later, Dries decided to move his pet project forward and called it Drupal while publishing online it as an open source software. He wanted to let others experiment with a platform while excelling in web development. The project caught the interest of a large community of developers and soon to become one of the most popular CMS on the market. But it didn’t happen overnight...

While working on his PhD, the Drupal’s founder came to a conclusion that a strong commercial backing can offer a rapid growth to the open source project. The goal was to build scale and provide business, using Drupal in their projects, with enterprise support and digital services. It was an answer to the market gap, he found out about when MTV approached him to ask for help in their implementation.

With Dries still in Antwerp, 3’000 miles away was a guy called Jay Batson - a successful entrepreneur with his seat in one of the venture capital firms from Boston. He had a similar idea of building a business around an open source project. After evaluating hundreds of such solutions, Jay narrowed down his choice to two solutions including Drupal. Jay and Dries met in 2007 over breakfast and months later they decided to found a startup called Acquia with $7 million funding.

“Receiving our Series A funding was an incredible vote of confidence in Drupal, but it was also a milestone with lots of mixed emotions. We had raised $7 million, which is not a trivial amount. While I was excited, it was also a big step into the unknown.” Dries Buytaert, Acquia’s First Decade: The Founding Story

2 bold moves that made Acquia successful

There were two landmarks in Acquia's history that had a deciding impact on what Acquia is today with $200 million revenue in 2018.

In 2008, the Acquia team realised that to make Drupal scalable they needed to focus on the infrastructure, as the system itself had no problems with it. That when they placed their bet on an emerging technology called “the cloud”. It offered flexibility and scalability to server infrastructure that large Drupal projects required. It brought significant cost optimisation and improvement in reliability as well as a new set of tools for developers working on complex projects.

The idea behind Acquia was to build a company to be such a support to Drupal that Red Hat was to Linux. But enterprise support was not enough and these new cloud services were filling the gap and helping Acquia in commercialising Drupal.

In 2014, Acquia placed another bet to “build the universal platform for the world’s greatest digital experiences”. On Drupal's 13th birthday, its founder admitted it is time to go from content management to digital experience management. Acquia as a Digital Experience Platform was a big challenge as it was no longer about providing Drupal with scalability, usability and easy access to casual users. It wasn’t just about supporting business in their implementations of Drupal. It was about leaving an area of web development and moving towards a complex solution to manage digital experience of brands online - across markets, languages, target groups and devices.

The power of Open Source

Such bold moves required Dries and his team to work hard in growing the brand with new software acquisitions fitting their vision. Just in 2019 three new solutions joined the platform:

  • Mautic - an open source Marketing Automation tool,
  • Cohesion - a visual Drupal website builder made for non-developers,
  • AgilONE - a Customer Data Platform (CDP) using machine learning to build  customer behaviour models empowering 1-on-1 communication with clients

Competing with market leaders while contributing to open source communities of Drupal and Mautic required substantial investments to push the business forward.

With $173.5 million funds raised up to 2019, they went a step further and joined ranks with Vista Equity Partners through a $1 billion acquisition deal that gave their VC partner over 50% shares in Acquia.

Dries shared the news on his blog, stating:

“This investment should be great news for the Drupal and Mautic communities as we'll have the right resources to compete against other solutions, and our deep commitment to Drupal, Mautic and Open Source will be unchanged. In fact, we will continue to increase our current level of investment in Open Source as we grow our business.”

Vista is known from pump-up-and-exit investments but it looks like that with Acquia they may be aiming for long-term profits, as the brand is not only about the money but also about the community.

Money goes not only to business growth but also to “attract less technical and more diverse people to Drupal” as well “to enable people from underrepresented groups to contribute, attend community events, and more.”.

As Dries once wrote “The best thing a human being can do is to help another human being.”

 

2020 - a big year for Acquia

Jeff Bezos, an Amazon CEO, wrote in this famous letter to shareholders in 1997:
“Because of our emphasis on the long-term, we may make decisions and weigh trade-offs differently than some companies.”

Today, Amazon is a giant company with no market players that could threaten its position in the retail market. When you are a market disruptor, experimenting and trying new models take time. And this time is needed to check what works and what not.

That confirms that thinking long-term, while growing a company, is a strategy that made Acquia successful. Their vision and bold moves were acknowledged by Gartner in 2020 when Acquia was named a leader in the 2020 MagicQuadrant for Digital Experience Platforms. They joined a club of brands like Adobe, Sitecore and Oracle, which had already been leaders for many years there.

The hybrid of open source and paid business model is uncommon in this area of the enterprise market. But it made Acquia successful.

And this is just the beginning for the brand, as they reached the moment with a portfolio of solutions that can go head-to-head with the solutions acknowledged by Gartner and Forrester Research.  

I believe, these are one of the main courses of Acquia growth in the coming years:

  • Further growing excellence of Drupal with Drupal 9 released in May 2020 (over 19 years on the market)
  • Making integration of newly acquired tools ever more seamless for users
  • Bringing big brands to their portfolio of clients
  • Growing the network of partners as it is the best market model in the industry for such platforms
  • Working strongly on reducing “time-to-market” of their solutions and pushing usability to the next level for marketing departments to contribute from easy-to-use solutions
  • Making it easier for companies to build personalised content with the use of machine learning

 

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Paul Montwill

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Digital Strategy Director

Tell me about your digital challenges and I will propose solutions, schedules and cost estimates.