Contextualisation, personalisation to drive next wave of digital: Acquia CEO

Helping companies deliver personalised digital experiences a focus of the company founded by Drupal creator Dries Buytaert

A focus on delivering personalised online experiences is a big part of the next wave of digital transformation for businesses, according to the chief executive of Acquia.

Working with organisations to develop a digital presence that can deliver context-relevant content is a focus for Acquia over the next 12 months, according to Tom Erickson, the CEO of the Boston-based tech firm.

"A good example might be in the sports world and recognising what type of fan you are," said Erickson. "If you're a rabid, super fan of the AFL, we'd serve up one type of information to you on an AFL team site of it, but different information if you were a casual fan. Or a totally different thing based on [demographic factors].

"What you're going to see out of us is this very big push to help organisations understand that the next generation of digital experiences is all about personalisation, contextualisation."

"It's more efficient for you as a visitor — you get a better experience — and for the brands and the organisations that are presenting that experience, they're able to get better conversions because they're serving up relevant information to the individuals, so therefore it's more valuable," the CEO said.

The innovation is not concentrated in one single firm: It's out in a community that stretches across the world. That is what I find exciting and what is driving the success of open source in this, the second wave

Acquia was founded by Dries Buytaert, the creator of the popular open source content management system Drupal.

The US-headquartered firm most recently made headlines in Australia when it won the contract to . The whole-of-government CMS will be based on Acquia's Drupal-based cloud platform.

In November last year, became the first site to be migrated to the new platform. Use of govCMS by government departments and agencies is not mandatory, but the platform is available to them as an as-a-service option.

govCMS is hosted in the Acquia Cloud, whose infrastructure is delivered Amazon's public cloud. govCMS will be delivered out of Amazon Web Services' Sydney region.

The contract is worth up to $24 million over four years for Acquia, depending on uptake of the service among government agencies.

The government sector, along with higher education and media, has traditionally been a strong market for Drupal.

"We've had government business at Acquia for a long time — we have government customers across the globe at different levels, including the European Commission. There's several federal government [customers] in the US, and state governments here in Australia and in the US," Erickson said.

govCMS is part of a broader shift occurring among governments, which are seeking to consolidate their Web platforms and develop a more strategic approach to their digital presence.

"We see a pattern particularly with federal governments, but I think increasingly you'll see it among state and provincial governments, to try to consolidate and rationalise their online presence," Erickson said.

Erickson believes that the govCMS project will have an international impact. "I think it's very visionary," the CEO said.

"There are some concepts in the US federal government that are similar. They have a notion of what they call 'share first', which is one of the primary motivations around govCMS: To create capabilities that different agencies and departments can share...

"[This] has many implications. First of all: Better quality and better capabilities, and of course lower costs as well. But also better collaboration between the groups around what they're doing, so you don't end up getting so many 'unicorns'... I think government is starting to realise that there needs to be more consistency around the way that they engage with their citizens."

Historically, government has been around a fifth of Acquia's business, Erickson said.

"Our business in other sectors has begun to grow, so logically as a percentage of our total revenue you could say it might decrease, but as a raw figure — what we're doing in terms of revenue — we see tremendous growth," the CEO said.

The 'second wave' of open source companies

Erickson was a founding director of Acquia and became the company's chief executive in 2009. (Buytaert is Acquia's chief technology officer.)

"Open source has an opportunity to really innovate much faster than proprietary solutions. And so personally I made the decision to join [Acquia] because I thought we could be extremely disruptive," Erickson said.

"We were early in what I call the second wave of open source," the CEO said.

"Today if you look at other technology companies that are growing rapidly — Hortonworks, which just filed for an IPO, or Cloudera, which raised US $740 million from Intel, or companies like MongoDB — all across the board there's really just a plethora of these companies coming to the fore," the CEO said.

One reason for this is "the accessibility of open source to people on a global basis", the Acquia chief executive said.

"You can get contributions from all over the world," Erickson said. "So as Acquia, we have a phenomenal employee in New Zealand, we have a team of give or take 30 people in Australia , a dozen or so people in India, we have a guy in Siberia, we have people in Hungary — you get the idea.

Read more: Social media delivering for Australian organisations, analysts find

"We have an opportunity to get contributions from amazing places and amazing people around the world and because it's open source, you develop this community.

"The innovation is not concentrated in one single firm: It's out in a community that stretches across the world. That is what I find exciting and what is driving the success of open source in this, the second wave."

Working with the broader Drupal community has been important for Acquia, the CEO said.

"govCMS is a good example of this," Erickson said. "The people that are going to be involved in a lot of the work are other people from the community, particularly in this case people from the Australian Drupal community, and so everyone gets a chance to benefit.

"I think the biggest lesson that I would say I've learned is involve the community in your success, so that it's a win-win across the board and you don't create a notion of Acquia's success at the expense of the community."

Acquia IPO

"We certainly think about our roots being in open source, for sure," the CEO said. But today as a company Acquia really defines itself based on the solutions it provides in the area of "digital experiences", he added.

"So when we talk about it or you see a press release, you'll probably see it says 'digital experience company' or 'digital business company' or something like that. So that is a migration away from saying 'hey we're solely open source' or 'we're solely that' — I mean the core of what we do is still based around an open source offering."

There has been speculation for a number of years around the timing of an initial public offering for Acquia.

"We don't have an internal timeline from a perspective of when we would want to float," Erickson said.

"That's based around the fact that there are so many variables that go into this; some of them under our control and some of them not. [For example,] if the market's not open to new companies floating, then we simply can't do it."

"We have plenty of cash in the bank after our last fundraising round; it'll last us several years. So we're not in a position where we need to make a decision," the CEO added.

In May last year the company announced it had closed a $50 million financing rounding, bringing total investment in Acquia to $118.6 million.

"The business itself is ready both in terms of size and consistency of execution and value proposition, yet there are always other things you can do when you're a private company that you can't do when you're public," the CEO said.

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

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