Liferay's not dead yet - but what's keeping it alive?
Enterprise portals: U iz doin' it right
Open ... and Shut The enterprise portal market should have died years ago. With new-school collaboration tools like Yammer and newfangled integration frameworks like MuleSoft (ESB in the cloud) and Apigee (APIs), the market was being written off almost as soon as it began. More bluntly, in a market that was limping to single-digit growth in 2008, with growth stalling since then, how could an open-source player like Liferay hope to survive, particularly given its penchant for using the company as a vehicle for doing as much social good as company profit?
And yet Liferay is steering toward $100m in revenues, with financials that look dramatically better than competitors like Jive Software. Profitable for almost a decade and growing revenue at a healthy, double-digit pace (55 per cent in 2011), Liferay missed the memo that it should have died long ago.
Gartner recognises Liferay as a "Leader" in its Horizontal Portal Products Magic Quadrant. InfoWorld, in handing Liferay a BOSSIE award, calls out its "usability, architecture, security, integration, and portlets."
When I asked Liferay chief executive Bryan Cheung the reasons for Liferay's success, he indicated that while the portal market may have lost its media shine, it remains essential technology for a broad array of enterprises. Liferay has a bevy of customers, a veritable Who's Who of big enterprises, from AutoZone to Allianz to Volkswagen to Lufthansa. None of them seem to have figured out that portals are dead, either.
Nor have its partners. When I talked with Rivet Logic CEO Mike Vertal, he said Liferay is "killing it" and continues to be essential technology for a wide range of its customers.
The great thing about Liferay, however, is that it manages to consistently grow revenue while also doing a great deal of social good. Some deride Liferay as a "lifestyle business," never having taken venture capital money and having no burning desire to go public, but the company has managed to improve the "lifestyles" of many others, in large part because it has managed to grow profitably, without needing to appease shareholders who might like to see more money plowed into exploring the next sexy technology, instead of doing humanitarian work.
But this is who Liferay is.
For instance, when a major tsunami hit Japan, Liferay employees decided that they could afford to help out, and they did:
Liferay staffers pitch in (image via Liferay.com.)
No, not everyone loves Liferay. Some complain that it's hard to upgrade; that the documentation isn't great; that it's missing functionality. And yet the company continues to do extraordinarily well, both as a company and as a social mission. I doubt the people in Hamilton or Japan are complaining. Nor are the enterprises that continue to use portals, long after the media forgot about them. ®
Matt Asay is vice president of corporate strategy at 10gen, the MongoDB company. Previously he was SVP of business development at Nodeable, which was acquired in October 2012. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe (now part of Facebook) and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register. You can follow him on Twitter @mjasay.
Forgive my ignorance but
what is liferay again?
BTW for a lot of companies a $100m business would be classed as substantial.
Re: Missing the answer to why Liferay is essential technology
Perhaps Matt felt that the fact of our success and our customer roster demonstrates that it's clearly an essential piece of technology to a lot of organizations. I don't think this article was intended to make a strong case for a new technological "angle"—hey, everyone, here's the way you *should* be solving problem XYZ. Liferay provides a tool for easily creating personalized web experiences and spaces for people to share information, access applications, and work with other people. The business value case for those goals has been made many times over by now, and we call it "portal" or "collaboration" or "content management" for shorthand. Perhaps it would have helped to emphasize those aspects of our product more in the article.
Regarding the other stuff, I actually it's of utmost relevance to the public. Here's why.
What we're about has been referred to here as "charitable work," but it's much deeper than that—calling it so is a shorthand for people to quickly get it, but doing so kills the nuance. Fundamentally, at Liferay we believe that companies are not living up to their maximum potential as agents for positive change in society. We have grown so accustomed to a disposable approach to business. Ramp up revenue to $100 million, get 1500 customers, and get acquired by Oracle or IBM. That list is long—most recently Eloqua and RightNow come to mind, but there are tons of other examples.
And that's great for making money for founders and employees. But what used to be a nice by-product of building great companies has become the sole goal. And when that company dies, it's not just the technology that dies with it—it's the culture of the company and its ability to independently make decisions for the long-term health of the company, its customers, and the public. We lose the collective energy of a hundred or a thousand people working toward a vision and purpose bigger than itself.
We all mourned the loss of MySQL not only because of the technology at stake but because of what MySQL stood for as a company.
Even going public is not a guarantee of this kind of independence. Read the recent story about SurveyMonkey's CEO Dave Goldberg, who had this to say about why he's staying private: "I took my first company public and worked at Yahoo for seven years, and I saw plenty of decisions made because of what it would do to the stock price that week." That kind of short-term thinking is just as bad for long-term positive impact as being acquired is.
It's also important to note that we're not just about being "do-gooders." Our decision to open an office in Hamilton is not charitable in essence. We're talking about giving people opportunities to participate in their success through hard work, training and market-relevant skills. Our work in Northeast Japan was an exploratory trip to see what kind of long-term economic and social impact we can make in the area by bringing jobs and skills to an area that has long suffered from a talent drain as young people move to Tokyo and other big cities. Sure, we make decisions that benefit communities that have hit on hard times, but at the end of the day they have to make sense for the business, and it's not a handout.
So why should customers care? Or even technologists who might read this article? Because in order to be a strong company that can make this kind of impact, we have to develop good products and provide value to our customers. No rocket science here, just the basics of good business. But there's more than that. Since our vision impels us to make decisions that are not just about the bottom line, we've stayed private and unbeholden to investors, who need to monetize on a certain timeline. We don't have that pressure, which means we are free to make decisions that provide the best balance between what's good for the company, our customers, and the community. It means we've made more open source releases of our products over the last few years rather than fewer. Most importantly, it means we intend to stick around for the long-haul, which is always good for people who choose to build a relationship with us. People who invest in Liferay aren't going to be left holding the bag in five years because the engineering brains have left after an IPO or the products have been EOL'ed after an Oracle acquisition.
Seth Godin's recent blog is relevant here—take a look. http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/01/whats-it-for.html
Technology comes and goes. Liferay's already evolved way beyond what we thought "portals" would be back in 2001, and we will continue to do so. But at the end of the day we don't want to be known for what widget we built that was cool in 2013, because none of that will matter in 2053.
You said Matt missed the answer to why Liferay is essential technology. I think the bigger question, and what Matt's article begins to address, is, "What's the answer to why Liferay is an essential company to humankind?" Why do we deserve to exist? If we can consistently answer that question in a positive way, the rest will follow.
Nice to hear about a company that tries to do good and not just "not do evil". If you can pull it off, not taking venture capital and going public is a very good way to keep control of a company, and staying true to your goals. It is not easy of course.
Well done to Liferay