23. Pioneers. with Pierre Burgy, co-founder & CEO of Strapi

"Strapi.js is the first headless CMS I've heard of. How they pivoted from a mobile backend platform (MbaaS) to headless CMS? How they're funding the Open Source development? Open Source Business models. The recipe for getting 30k stars on github and still growing? How to built a vibrant and active community around the project. The most interesting use cases for the headless CMS"- Piotr Karwatka

Topics discussed:

What’s a Headless CMS?

Strapi was actually the first headless CMS I heard of. How did it all start?

Tell us about your founding team?

How much time did it take you to develop the first version?

When did you realize that this is it. I mean that you found the product market fit and the adoption?

What category of tools are you in? Developer tools or rather marketing?

Why Open Source?

What are the most popular Open Source Business models?

Which model is your core business?

Are you VC backed?

How is it to fundraise for an Open Source project?

Strapi is very popular on Github (30k stars). Did it grow organically?

What marketing hints can you share for the open source developer tools?

Please tell us about your community? Are they mostly the users, maintainers, extension developers? 

How do you build such a vibrant community?

Isn’t there a conflict between the commercial product and community? 

Do you manage to onboard the community users to commercial products? What arguments do convince them to pay?

How does your pitch differs if you talk to biz compared to tech buyers to explain headless CMS?

Strapi has a pretty amazing ecosystem around the core product. Please tell us how it works.

Do you have plans building a marketplace?

OK let’s talk about the product. What are the key use cases people are using Strapi for?

What makes it unique?

How can Strapi be used in eCommerce?

OK, let’s talk about more general questions. What’s the most important learning of building a Strapi?

How do you see the future of enterprise software? 

Which tech-trends are over and which are under-hyped?

If not Strapi, what other product would you like to build starting now in 2020?


Transcript:

Piotr Karwatka: [00:00:36] Today my guest is Pierre Burgy. Co-founder of Strapi, the first open source headless CMS. We are going to talk about the headless content and IPA management, open source business models, and how to grow the community. I can wait to ask the first questions. Hi Pierre, I'm very happy you accepted my invitation. 

Pierre Burgy: [00:00:56] Hi, thanks a lot for the invite. It's nice to be here. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:01:02] That's awesome. Let's start with a very basic question. What is the headless CMS? 

Pierre Burgy: [00:01:09] Yeah. So, first of all, I think we can start with a definition of what a CMS is. CMS stands for content management system. So this kind of software is used by companies to manage their content on their websites. Um, so typically if a company has a blog then they're going to use a CMS to write blog posts, and then they will be displayed on the website. So, um, CMS's have been around for a while. I mean the first CMS's were released in 1995. Um, so that's not new kind of software. What is new is that the content is not only displayed on websites nowadays, but on certain mobile applications, IOT, and it needs to be connected to other services. And even the way to create a website has changed over the past few years because developers want to use modern technologies such as React, Vue JS, Angular, and all of these technologies are designed to be connected to APIs.

So the traditional CMS 's are not designed for all of these needs. So that's why there is this new kind of CMS, which is the headless CMS. So headless CMS, I see it as a backend, dashboard managing content. This is where you're going to write your blog posts, but it's still managing the front-end. So the visible part of the website includes a new API, um, which makes the content available to any platform. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:02:43] Gotcha. So it's no longer in charge of rendering the content but rather for providing the content for applications or other media to render it. 

Pierre Burgy: [00:02:52] Exactly because a traditional CMS has a backend to manage your content and frontend to display it. So a headless CMS that didn't have the front end anymore. And that's why it's called a headless CMS. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:03:07] Yes, absolutely. Actually Strapi was the first headless CMS I heard. So how did it all start? 

Pierre Burgy: [00:03:15] Okay. Glad to hear that. Um, so, uh, it started in 2015, with my two co-founders, Aurélien and Jim. Uh, we were working a lot as freelance developers while being students. So we did lots of websites using traditional CMS's, but we had to do a mobile application or using a modality content framework; it was not a great fit. So we decided to create something for our client projects and that's how it got started. Yeah. And, um, we quickly realized that we are not the only ones having these needs.

So we decided to make Strapi public. And that's how we went from a private project to releasing it as an open source. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:04:06] Was it the idea from the very beginning to have an open source or just it evolved this way? 

Pierre Burgy: [00:04:12] It was, um, it's not the gold from the beginning.

Um, because we are using lots of traditional CMSs. Especially the most popular ones, such as Wordpress. So for us, it was a no brainer that CMS had to be open-source. We realized the reasons behind this is that developers want to be able to customize a CMS. Um, both in the dashboard, but also in the front end or now in the API. And it's also because big companies prefer to own the CMS on their servers, especially for their privacy reasons. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:04:57] That's awesome. Can you tell us more about your founding team? Uh, it was you and your  two colleagues, right? Uh, what were your roles in the team. All tech or maybe somebody was more product oriented?

Pierre Burgy: [00:05:11] Yeah. So we were, uh, the three, uh, students and the same university. So at the beginning, you know, we were out just three developers working full-time. Well, not full time because we had to study, but we were only developing, so creating features and so on. And the separation of the different positions came a bit later.

Especially when we incorporated the company. So there is Aurélien, our CPOs chief product officer. He has been a developer and since he's 13 and started using a traditional CMS like Wordpress when he was 14. So he is really experienced with CMSs and really bodes the vision with the roadmap.

And manage the product team. And there was also Jim who was at the beginning really on the technical aspects of Strapi. And then he was the one who discussed the most with the community. So now he provides support guidance, and then they do the documentation for the community, which is extremely important for an open-source project because we not only have to provide support to our customers, but, uh, especially to the community to make sure they are successful. That's the mission of Jim and I took the CEO role. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:06:47] Gotcha. Perfect, perfect team. The roles evolved organically, which makes a lot of sense. Um, how much it took you guys to, to build the first version, the MVP. 

Pierre Burgy: [00:07:01] I think it took about a year, maybe a bit less. And I especially ran that full-time on the project. So, um, maybe the recommendation here that the sooner that you release the first version better, it is open source is all about iterating and it's okay if you use a product which is not finished. Um, yeah, that's my recommendation. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:07:30] Yeah, absolutely. I can totally relate to that. Uh, with our story of Vue Storefront, uh, we have pretty much the same, uh, situation that we released very, early, maybe not you know perfect product, um, but sufficient to get engaged by the community.And that was the key. When did you realize that this is it? I mean, you know, uh, when you found the product market fit and you use it, so this adoption growing up,

Pierre Burgy: [00:08:02] Let's see a really good question. Maybe you say that this is maybe never said, you never say "this is it" because you always want to improve things.

Um, but yeah, I mean, I think you, you realize that you are onto something when you get really positive feedback from your users. Um, and I think the word that we received the most at the beginning was promising. It was as frustrating as it was encouraging. Because promising means, um, people aren't satisfied yet, but they want to see more so that's um, how it started.

So those were typically the kind of comments we received after the release of the first version of Strapi when we released Strapi V3 in alpha version at the end of 2017. Um, so it is two years after the first release. Two years because we were still students.

So we switched full-time on the project in the middle of 2017 and for the V3, we almost completely rebuild Strapi from scratch, but with the feedback we had from users for two years. So it was a completely new product. Lots of technical changes, completely new. And so when we released the V3 alpha version, we also released our website with our new documentation. And we did create a lot of communication and we saw the metrics like jumping like never before. So at this moment we knew that we were really on to something. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:09:44] Makes perfect sense. So also with more thoughtful communication, after your first experiences, you found that it's working pretty well from a marketing standpoint and it starts growing rapidly. What category of tools are you in I mean, is it more like developers tools or marketing tools? I suppose that there are lots of different categories of users using it, but what is your major focus? 

Pierre Burgy: [00:10:16] Yeah, that's a really good one. So most of the CMS is our first set up by developers and then there's developers providing access. To the CMS, to the marketing teams and that's marketing teams are going to use CMS in the long run to manage your content updates, blog, posts, and so on. So at Strapi we must target the developers, because it's in our DNA. And also because we're convinced that they have a very big impact on the decision process.

When a company needs to choose a new CMS. Most of the time developers or CTO's or technical teams are going to say, okay this one looks really nice. I will come and do this one and then it's going to be validated by the marketing teams and the marketing teams would say, okay, so can I do this and this and this? And then the product team would say, okay, with this one, yes, you can do this and this and this, maybe not this and so on. So the decision is made obviously with everyone who runs the table. But most of the time, the list of CMS's comes from the developers team.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:11:37] Gotcha. So it's like, you need to attract the developers with the product. They are the entrance to the company in a way, then you need to stand the requirements from content and marketing departments, right? 

Pierre Burgy: [00:11:54] Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So we, we do communicate with the communication only for developers, no paid acquisition, early, mostly contact marketing is tutorials, some events and so on for developers.

And then they become and strep into our companies.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:12:15] As you said, you decided on Open Source because it was like pretty much a no brainer for CMS or the products or most of the products. Most of the popular CMS are open-source at the moment. Um, but I guess if you start to build a company, you need to pay the bills in the end. How can you do this? With the open source? Well, the, what are the business models, uh, for open source 

Pierre Burgy: [00:12:42] products? Yeah, it's certainly a longer journey with the open-source because you first have to build the community, but it's definitely worth it. So there are three main business models with the principles. The first one is support. And so since you have the technical expertise on your product, you can help companies using your product. And they're ready to pay for it. So that's the first option. But, first it doesn't really scale because you have to sell time basically. And so the more you'll improve your documentation, the less your support is going to be useful.

So that's the first one. And then it's not when we decided to go with the second one is open core. So you basically create an open-source project with this scope of features. And then you add so release an enterprise edition, which is basically an extension of the community edition. And it typically includes features, for enterprises, for teams for security.

Yeah, these kinds of things. And the third business model is SaaS (software as a service), since you already developed your product, uh, in a principle in the, in the open with the open source project, you just have to create SaaS, which is actually selling buffering your product. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:14:21] And which one is your core business model?

Pierre Burgy: [00:14:24] So we decided to go with, open core at first. Because, there are already some headless SaaS out there. And to be our main differences, really that's one of this unique positioning, having a, an open-source customizable CMS and all of the companies that contact us at the moment for additional features, they want to keep Strapi and use it on their servers. So that's why we decided to actually do what our users wants, which is additional features at the moment. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:15:07] So you are selling the license for more sophisticated enterprise version of Strapi, right? And this is the core business model. So we have open core, which is open source, and then you have some additional features. Probably some better handling of security, privacy, things and permissions in this enterprise commercial version.

Pierre Burgy: [00:15:33] Yeah, exactly. It's just to give you a few examples. So the first feature we really think the enterprise edition is world based access control. So it's really to restrict content management settings configuration to some users. I mean, at the end of the day, it celebrates security. And the other features where I going to add in this enterprise edition is a single sign-on publication blue. As you know, all of these features are really entrepreneurs are.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:16:06] Yeah, absolutely. Makes perfect sense. I'm just wondering if there is no conflict between commercial product and the community version, because this is something I saw very often with all the communities I was engaging in. I mean, Magento, even Vue Storefront there was always, you know, this biggest competitor you had on the market was your open source version, right? Because there was always this balance between how many features should be there in open source too, to have it successful to get the adoption versus the additional features you have in commercial.

And there is always somebody who's saying like, okay, fine. I'm okay with the open source, do you see the same problem? Or maybe you have some solution to just finalize those discussions. 

Pierre Burgy: [00:17:06] Yeah, I think this is a very common problem in every open source project. And, um, I think the best option is really to understand who you are selling to. What are the use cases? What do you bring? I mean, in terms of with this enterprise edition, the, for example, Strapi we put everything open source, except if it is really dedicated to marketing teams. And I insist on marketing and teams because, uh, we want to keep everything for developers for free.

Um then we consider that we add lots of value to the marketing teams who features such as, or based access control, publication, workflow, and so on. And it also helps to  keep a very good relation with our community members. Most of them are developers, so we don't create any frustration and another good example of the businessmen that I've since our pricing is, are different tiers and each tier is dedicated to personnel. Like developers, managers, and executives. So it's also a good way to explain easily for the community and even for yourself, why you are putting this feature in the open source edition or in the enterprise edition. Yup. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:18:31] That makes perfect sense. And I really like this idea of positioning. So Open Source is for developers, but usually the budgets are within the marketing and business departments. And for them is the commercial edition. Uh, and you are trying to hear what they need very well and accommodated to have all the features that require that that's really great. Let's maybe switch to community for a moment. And you have, uh, 30 K stars and D hubs still growing. Uh, did you grow it organically or maybe investing into some marketing?

Pierre Burgy: [00:19:12] Um, so it's mostly organic. Um, first of all, it's all about building a great product and good documentation. And so we never did any beta pre paid acquisition, like Google ads and so on, but yes, we did some marketing. What we do the most is content marketing, especially publishing tutorials. That's our main strategy. Digital Ocean is a  good example of this. And we also organize events. So these are obviously most of the sequence of your tool. Um, and we really try to empower the community of Strapi because we have thousands of people into the community and they all love Strapi.

So, um, some of them really would like to write blog posts, uh, to be speakers at events. So we will try to provide them resources. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:20:19] Gotcha. That makes perfect sense. Um, Can you tell us more about this community itself? Like who are the members of it? Mostly users or maintainers extension developers. 

Pierre Burgy: [00:20:31] Um, so now mostly users, like in every open-source project, I think because you always have more users and contributors. But we do have more than 500 contributors on the project, which is really nice. Contributors all over the world. And we also have extension developers. Um, and you're raising a really interesting topic here. Um, so at Strapi, we really believe that what made the success of CMS is like Wordpress is not Wordpress itself, but it's really the ecosystem of plugins around it. So we are convinced that the same story will happen in the headless market. Yup. So our main focus next year is going to provide a plugin API. So that way anyone in the community can build plugins and extend Strapi according to their needs. Uh, so that's something we really plan to increase. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:21:37] That's amazing. Actually, my next question was about the marketplace. If you have plans, building it, as I understood you have such plans with this growing ecosystem of partners. 

Pierre Burgy: [00:21:51] Yeah, we definitely have planned to provide a marketplace and it's not necessarily to make revenue, but it's really to centralize all of the efforts made by the community. To extend Strapi. So yes we would provide a marketplace, which would be 100% free at first. And then, um, we’ll eventually give the possibility to developers to sell plugins for the marketplace. And again the goal is not specifically to make money, but to uh let people make money from their plugins. So that's where they can get revenue and are very much encouraged to maintain their plugins overtime. 

Piotr Karwatka: [00:22:50] Awesome. I really like it. I'm a fan of Gatsby JS as well, like different products, but the ecosystem is amazing and growing so fast. 

Pierre Burgy: [00:22:58]Yeah. The guys are doing a good job.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:23:02] Okay. Uh, Pierre that's perfect. Thank you. Uh, let's talk about the product. Um, what are the key use cases people are using Strapi for? 

Pierre Burgy: [00:23:09] Yeah. So the main use cases are, um, editorial websites, websites, e-commerce and elevator publications. And then we also see a C where to see a bit of IOT, um, knowledge bases, um, and, and lots of different use cases, uh, which is really interesting in the, um, headless landscape. I think it opens doors for new possibilities and that's interesting, but yeah. Then you mentioned that that's our main use cases.

Piotr Karwatka: [00:23:46]  Yeah that's perfect. I heard a lot about the, uh, the cases of using the strappy as a backend for mobile apps. So actually this, the second case you gave, and also for e-commerce. And that makes perfect, uh, combination to manage the whole digital experience. And on the other hand, it even could be used as a kind of database, where you store all the, uh, objects for, for the mobile 

Pierre Burgy: [00:24:14] Yeah, exactly. 

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