Co-founder of $8 billion database startup MongoDB on why your customers should be your marketing department


Eliot Horowitz, co-founder and chief technical officer of MongoDB. Source: Supplied.

Though it’s an unassuming and largely hidden side of business, the database industry is set to be worth nearly $100 billion in just a couple of years, and US startup MongoDB is poised to dominate it.

Just over 10 years old, the unusually named database startup was founded by Dwight Merriman, Kevin Ryan and Eliot Horowitz, formed after the three sold their previous company DoubleClick for $US1.1 billion ($1.5 billion) in 2005.

MongoDB is document-oriented database software, and Horowitz tells StartupSmart he and Merriman developed the idea for the startup (originally called 10gen) as they were frustrated with dealing with other database options when working with data.

“We had spent what felt like the last decade trying to work around databases every time we had a problem. We were constantly having to re-build our databases,” he says.

With a lot of databases working as relational databases, MongoDB operates as document-oriented. For the non-technical, Horowitz explains instead of having a single excel spreadsheet containing rows and rows of different contacts and all their associated details (as relational databases do), document-oriented databases place all information on a single contact in one instance, or document, making life easier for programmers.

“We wanted developers to be producing more natural databases while still having the power they wanted from a database. It was the best of both worlds,” he says.

He and his co-founders started building MongoDB in early-2007, but it wasn’t until two years later the company unveil its first public release. A year after that was when developers really started “getting interested”, and Horowitz describes the four years between 2010-2014 as a “blur of trying to survive”.

In 2017, the company listed on NASDAQ, making it a rare case of an open-source business which is publicly listed. Initially trading at $24 a share, the company’s shares now trade for more than $150, and it boasts a market cap of more than $8 billion.

Asked why the successful startup decided to IPO, Horowitz says it’s a “good question”, and reveals it was largely to help the young company land big-name clients.

“There are the traditional reasons, like liquidity, but the number one reason we went public was so when companies are tossing up if to bet their database on MongoDB, they could see how stable our business was,” he says.

“No companies want a database that’s going to go out of business in two years, so going public gave everyone a look under the covers to see what’s going on, and that gave them confidence.”

An $80 billion industry

While he admits he may be “a little bias”, Horowitz says the database industry is growing like crazy, set to be worth $80 billion by 2022 (and he thinks that might be an underestimation).

“The data space is enormous, every company is struggling with data right now, and some of the biggest ones have almost 100 years of customer data to try and make sense of,” he says.

With all this data floating around and companies struggling to secure it, Horowitz says a potentially catastrophic ‘black swan’ event could certainly happen, but notes MongoDB is pushing products to try and prevent the likelihood of that happening.

That includes MongoDB’s Stitch product, which provides people with serverless access to data, cutting out potential risk points which could lead to data breaches or other failures.

Turning users into marketers

As a co-founder and chief technical officer, Horowitz says he’s still quite involved in the day-to-day operating of MongoDB, and while he doesn’t write a lot of code for the product, he does write code using the product.

“I like to be one of the earliest people playing with new features, so I’m still pretty close to the product,” he says.

Horowitz says one of the main things the company has put a “laser focus” on since its inception is making its users as successful as possible, which in turn creates advocates for MongoDB. This is how startups can turn their customers into their own “marketing departments” he says.

“Too many companies do too many different things and forget to focus on what’s interesting. When we were building MongoDB, there were two things that we really cared about: the document model, and our distributed systems. For everything else, we took the approach that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” he says.

“We just focused on those things, and then from there, we focused on our users. We would go to them, show them how to use MongoDB, make them successful, then make them so successful they’d tell their friends.”

“That’s the fundamental model of how we became successful. It’s not about having a huge marketing budget or buying a lot of flashy ads, for the first two years we had one person running events, and that was our whole marketing budget. The key was making users into our very own marketing department.”

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3 years ago

Leaving your customers to “be your marketing department” is only wise if you invest the time after sale to ensure your product is used efficiently and correctly. Ideally you also then need to check in on them periodically – which could be done remotely with their permission – to make sure things are ‘all well’. Quite frankly, if I knew any company stored ANY of my data in a MongoDB database I wouldn’t buy from them regardless of how desirable their product or service was at the moment. With recent news about the data breach due to a public facing MongoDB database at that company ( resulting in quite alarming assemblages of personal data (DOB, addresses, employment, mortgages, etc.) in 750+ MILLION records being released/sold on the internet, I’d suggest Mongo should forget about ‘black swans’ and start looking for ‘snakes in the grass’ amongst its customer base. I’m no IT expert but it seems crystal clear that the very ‘feature’ of their MongoDB database product – everything about each person/thing in one record instead of multiple records spread across various systems – is also its potential fatal flaw. Even though Mongo systems were not the source of any breach, misuse or improper securing of systems running their product were at the heart of it. And while they go through their current customer base looking for other issues, they should also hire a real marketing department, customer training department and security oversight department and create new licensing agreements with customers going forward that would require agreement for Mongo to attempt periodic hacks into the customer’s database systems. As it stands now, every consumer should not only ask about a company’s privacy policy but also what method they use to store customer data. If that company keeps all your eggs (data) in one basket (record), consider walking away.

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