The name Mendix has its roots in the verb ‘to mend‘, an apt metaphor for the founders of this Boston-headquartered company with roots in the Netherlands that saw application development as being broken, especially when it came to that eternal conundrum of aligning IT capabilities with business needs.
The company was bootstrapped in Rotterdam 10 years ago by college friends with a vision of simpler development that was fast, iterative and could provide some much needed visibility for non-techie project stakeholders. But co-founder and CEO Derek Roos always had his eye on an American HQ.
“It’s a global market and we realised we needed to be a leader in the US too,” says Roos, speaking from Boston where he now lives and works. “It was totally logical: we knew it the day we founded the company. I love the US: it’s a fantastic country to build a high-growth company in.”
However, Roos didn’t follow the modern American dream of raising capital and racking up loss after loss in pursuit of scale. Instead the company is cash-flow positive despite more than doubling revenues in the last year on revenue of “tens of millions of dollars”.
“If I could go back I’d do it the same way,” he says. “It’s not the American way but it was our way. We were a bunch of friends and families and we all wanted to do great things - we didn’t even have formal HR or hiring until year six and a lot of those people are still with us in leadership roles. We started out in a dorm room with a bed in a corner and working seven days a week to build great technology.”
That developing applications in the orthodox manner was tough going was demonstrated by first-hand experience as Roos and friends had started a custom software house at college. “That was my first encounter with how hard it was to build the traditional way,” he says. The end product of that learning is the Mendix cloud platform today.
The original and remaining big goal was to shrink the time it took to stand up projects, taking them form months to weeks, to “speed up application development and help customers become more innovative, and to bridge between IT demands and the business.”
Of course, that’s been an ambition of software development companies for decades but Roos thinks the time is right.
“When we founded the company I don’t think the market was there and I don’t think the awareness was there at all. Makers of RAD [rapid application development] tools made all these promises and never really lived up to them. That was the right vision but it was the first generation and we’re a few years older… and as with many technologies it takes a few iterations before you’ve nailed it. It’s changed in a big way: it’s high on the agenda of not just for CIOs but CEOs too, and the board.”
OK but there are still other tools out there that are described as RAD or low-code approaches – what’s changed, and what’s so different about Mendix?
“What’s unique is how we think about the roles of IT and business,” Roos says. “Our vision is that speeding up development is not really that interesting. We’ve been doing that for 40 years and not improved the success rates of projects. The genesis of Mendix was that we need to fundamentally change the way [business and IT] move together. It’s much more about the relationship and enablement. The driver of RAD is the same as the driver today but there are some big differences. It’s no longer just about RAD but the entire delivery process. Developing is only one small part of the process; it’s the deployment and management that take up the majority of time and cost.
“Cloud means you no longer need to worry about security or hardware elasticity so the cloud is a huge enabler and we’re no longer generating proprietary code. It’s open and there’s nothing happening that you can’t access or touch so it’s much more open.
“The last part is more about the consumerisation of IT and how [company executives] think about apps. They want to have them quickly and they want the same ease of use as they have in their private lives. They’re a lot more tech-savvy so there’s a much larger potential community of developers. It’s a perfect storm almost and the technology has been there for years but it’s all coming together now.”
A topsy-turvy world
Many “low code” providers talk about democratising development and stress how quickly people can learn how to use systems but Roos says Mendix is far away from being just for ‘newbies’.
“Our goal is not to eliminate code or professional developers,” he says. “If you can write code you should still feel comfortable with the platform to do mission-critical development.”
The other big sell for RAD/low-code has been how quickly projects would come to some sort of fruition.
“It’s a very iterative approach,” Roos says. “It’s not uncommon that on the first day you have something that’s functional and will scale; it’s a question of how much you need to call it version 1.0. You can certainly see real results of projects in 20 days and with daily iterations. The bottleneck is usually that the business can’t give feedback fast enough. That’s the world turned upside down.”
Mendix is far from being alone in the field of course.
“On the competitive side there’s OutSystems for sure, and Salesforce.com [with its Force.com platform], even more so given our focus on the Fortune 1000. Where we’re different is not only are we much faster but Salesforce is great if you want to build an extension on the CRM but if you want to automate a claims process you’re not going to want to do that on Force. Also, we’re ‘multi-cloud’ and we’ve always liked being an independent with an open ecosystem, focus and philosophy, so we work with IBM, HP, Microsoft and AWS…”
What’s keeping Roos busy? One big job is recruitment and adding to the 250 staff that Mendix currently employs.
“Top of my list has been people: finding enough great people fast enough,” he says. “I spend half my time doing that. People who joined Salesforce 10 years ago, or five years even, could be a good source. I always ask what is important to people and I find most people haven’t thought about that, not just in work but in life generally. I hope we can fulfil some of those needs or dreams. If people talk about work/life balance as if they’re seeing work as something that’s taking away from your personal life, that is a waste.”
An IPO could happen at some point but Roos says it’s not something he thinks about much at present. As for the future, he is excited by smart applications where “you don’t come to the app, the app comes to you” because they’re packed with sensors, context-awareness and they’re driven by machine learning, but again he emphasises a partnering model.
“We don’t see ourselves as the ultimate AI platform or data platform like AWS or IBM Watson. We see our role as making it as easy as possible to consume those services and build great apps on top.”
His main focus, he says, is on growth and staying focused on that relationship between business and IT where he ventures a bold prediction:
“In 10 years there will be no such thing as an IT department and we want to be building that new world, democratising application development at scale. I still think the market is early and in Geoffrey Moore terms just crossing the chasm right now and maybe entering the early maturity stage.”
In other words, there’s still plenty of mending to be done.
Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond