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Interview: Akeneo CEO Frédéric de Gombert about the rise and development of the Open Source PIM start-up.

April 13, 2015
Christian HolzschuhChristian HolzschuhOnline Marketing

Frédéric de Gombert is Co-Founder and CEO at Akeneo, an Open Source Product Information Management (PIM) system designed for retailers looking for efficient answers to their multichannel needs. In the interview with Alain Veuve he talks about the Akeneo success story, the rise and development of Akeneo PIM and about upcoming challenges for the start-up.

Frédéric, in January it’s been two years since you guys have founded Akeneo. As with every start-up I assume it’s been a bumpy ride. How do you feel?

Lucky and proud! When we started this project in the end of 2012 with Benoit, Nicolas and Yoav (my partners), we knew that there was a real demand for an Open Source PIM software and the vision of what we would need to do to fill this gap was quiet clear. But there's always a kind of unexpected magic in Open Source projects: seeing in a very short period of time more than 15.000 installations of our software all around the world, meeting clients and users telling us that we literally changed their lives (one of our client in the US even named one of its product line Akeneo!), discovering new stories and projects every day is an incredible experience. But also an important (but sane) source of pressure.

Two years ago, PIM was still a nebulous concept for a lot of retailers and e-merchants, even if Germany has always been a far more mature market. Now things are slightly different: PIM is now an obvious layer of a multichannel strategy and e-merchants raised their expectations. This is great opportunity for us but also a real challenge as we need to always continue to innovate.

From my previous article about Akeneo you know that I think that you filled a substantial gap in the Open Source toolkit for e-commerce merchants. How do you benefit from this constellation? How much do you depend on Magento?

For the past 15 years, Open Source has progressively disrupted a lot of traditional software markets. It started with CMS: before the rise of Open Source CMS like TYPO3, Wordpress, eZ Publish or Drupal it was not unusual for a company willing to create a corporate website to put hundred of thousands Euros to acquire and set-up an enterprise content management system like Vignette for instance. And the same thing happened to ECM (Alfresco or Nuxeo changed the game here), with CRM (SugarCRM), with e-commerce (Magento, Oxid, Shopware, ...) and many other markets. PIM was one of the last bastion for the old-fashioned enterprise software vendors. There was a strong and urgent need for an Open Source alternative, and your previous article was the very first one to highlight and "validate" this statement. And not only for cost reasons! A PIM software is a middleware that needs to be connected with a lot of heterogenous third party systems  like ERP, e-commerce platform, ETL, spreadsheets etc. Having a strong community able to provide plug&play connectors with those systems is the key differentiator.

We are very close to the Magento ecosystem. Because of Yoav of course and also because of my personal background (prior founding Akeneo, I was working for Smile: a very large Magento integrator in Europe). We knew that a very small number of Magento users were already using a PIM software and were struggling with Excel spreadsheets. Providing a native Magento connector was then quite natural for us. But surprisingly - even if we have a very good traction with Magento users - we quickly discovered that those concerns were also shared by other e-commerce platforms like Drupal Commerce, Demandware or even Hybris! Today 50% of our customers are not Magento users. 

How many of your projects are e-commerce related? Are there still print-only related projects?

About 75% of our projects are e-commerce related.  But we see more and more of these projects embedding print requirements in a second step. And we have indeed some print-only projects. Paper is not dead! But it will never be a very significant part of our business as e-commerce is a part of our DNA. I have to highlight here the amazing work of our friends from Naolis who have developed a very nice InDesign extension for Akeneo enabling users to directly create the layout of their print materials inside the tool before exporting it to InDesign.

Looking at your funding, it’s rather low from my point of view. Is there a new round planned already?

We raised the money we needed (~2M€ so far) to keep growing while keeping full control of the company strategy. Raising money is time consuming and can become a big source of distraction. We were profitable before our last round in September 2014 but had this opportunity to collaborate with a great VC (Alven) and accelerate our development. We might have similar opportunities in the future but we are not actively looking after a new round right now.

How is business doing in general? How many enterprise subscriptions did you sell so far?

We have a very nice momentum in Europe. We currently have more than 35 Enterprise Edition customers (since its release 6 months ago). And this number is increasing very fast. We are getting more and more demands from people who are already using the Community Edition and want to upgrade. And with a current trend of 1.500+ new installations of Akeneo per month, we believe that it's only the beginning of the story...

Any examples where you outed traditional proprietary PIM vendors in pitches?

You might believe that being Open Source is our main differentiator when competing with proprietary vendors, but the main reason why our customers chose us over our competitors is the intuitivity of our user interface. We are mostly talking to marketers who find in Akeneo a real viable alternative to their spreadsheets hell. Even if they already have an existing PIM/PCM software in place. We have for instance a customer in Switzerland that decided to use Akeneo to replace the Hybris PCM to gain flexibility. They are still using Hybris for the e-commerce layer but Akeneo is now their main repository for product information.

Looks like you give your release versions nicknames. What’s the story behind this?

We were looking for a nickname for our first public beta. As this beta, like any beta, contained a few bugs. One of our developers suggested to name this version "Bugs Bunny". We loved the idea but wanted to find a concept that we could easily reuse for future versions. We decided then to give to each Akeneo Community Edition version the name of a Bugs Bunny episode...  That's how our beta-1 ended up to be named "A wild hare", the very first episode of Bugs Bunny.

For the Enterprise Edition, we were looking for something more "elegant". We simply chose to use name of flowers producing akenes (an akene is a dry fruit which is a kind of seed for several flowering plants species).

I use to look at job postings if I want to know more about the strategy of companies. Looking at yours, I see that you are planning to increase the team by 30 FTE in 2015. What will these people do for Akeneo?

We are planning to grow the team to 55 people before the end of the year. We are mostly reenforcing the product team to increase our capacity to deliver new features and to improve the product. We also know that support and education of the ecosystem is key for an Open Source software vendor. We are currently investing a lot in this area to empower our partners and our community.

Looking at your channel activities, I think that Sébastien is doing a fantastic job. Nevertheless I think being present in the US and in Germany, these countries where Magento has a lot of gravity as well, is imminent to being successful at a global scale

Sebastien and his team is indeed doing a fantastic job! But you are right: this should be increased. Germany is a key market for us (second biggest source of traffic on our website) and we have more and more traction here. But we don't want to do the same mistake than Magento and believe than you can work with Germany like you work with France, UK or any other european country. Germany is a very different market compared to France. More mature, more fragmented and also more competitive! That's why we want to open an office here in 2015. We are currently searching for the right talents to build a team.

US is a different story. Even if we already have some large customers there (including for instance) this is a far less mature market but with an unique potential. We are still thinking about the best way to accelerate there but we will have for sure an US subsidiary in early 2016.

You list Yoav as advisor and co-founder on your website. What exactly is his role and influence on your project and on your company at the moment?

Yoav has been a great support from the very beginning of our journey. And he still is! You probably know that Akeneo (like OroCRM) is based on Oro Platform. This platform was a very ambitious project as we needed to develop three softwares in a very short timeframe in parallel: the platform, OroCRM and Akeneo! Only a true visionary could have achieved such a thing. And Yoav did!

Even if he do not have any executive role Yoav is still very involved in the life of the company. We are frequently talking about the strategy of the company and his experience with Magento is priceless for us.

I remember you guys writing that you “love being unpredictable” (in the best possible meaning, when you announced to skip 1.1 and 1.2 and directly release CE and EE 1.3.). What can we expect from you guys in the 12 months ahead?

Nice try! But we won't be unpredictable anymore if we revealed everything here! The only thing I can tell you is that we will release a new product in 2016. ;-)

We're curious about it. Thank you very much for the interview.