John Roberts is CEO and co-founder of SugarCRM. He established SugarCRM’s commercial open source business model. Today the Sugar community is one of the largest open source communities on the Web.
SM: Take me back to where your story begins. What in your background has helped you arrive where you are today?
JR: I was born in Washington D.C. in the late 1960s. My father was a cardiovascular scientist at the National Institute of Health for 30 years. My story is a little odd in that I am the youngest of four. My older siblings were excellent in school: one has an MBA, another is a heart surgeon and the third an engineer. I had a really bad case of dyslexia, and I was failing out of school. As a result, I was this crazy rebel growing up; I did not understand why I could not excel at school.
In the early 1990s my parents bought me a PC and it really helped me. I went to Virginia Commonwealth University. I wanted to go there and earn my degree the old-fashioned way. I graduated in 1990 during the recession with a bachelors in science. I knew I wanted to be in software. I had been reading about Silicon Valley for about five years, and knew I wanted to get there. I went to Georgia to work for IBM for a couple of years, but I still felt a pull to go to California. I started working on an early generation customer relation management system which was client server-based.
SM: What company or system was that?
JR: It was called Sales Technologies. They offered me a couple thousand dollars to move to California, so in 1995 I moved out there. It was a small software company, but it went all the way through IPO and was acquired. I spent 12 years in the trenches as a sales engineer, product management and product strategy.
I ended up working for three companies in the Valley. The first was Aurum Software from 1995 to 1995. I then moved to BroadVision, where I was the director of the e-commerce product line. During the recession I was kind of bored in my career, so I went to a company called E.piphany because they had a CRM product, which was my DNA. A year later I looked at the market and started thinking the market and the Valley were both inefficient. This notion of building proprietary software that was a complete secret, followed by ultra massive high-end salesforces selling it door to door did not make sense when in reality only a dime per dollar was really used on the product the customer was buying.
I decided I had learned enough. I had been in tech companies my whole life. I had always been big into the Internet and I started to focus on open source. I was really frustrated with the notion of building ultra-serious business applications in a very proprietary manner. I could care less about sales and marketing; I am interested in building the best software on the planet and the enterprise behind the process.
I knew the Internet was really changing things, and I was fortunate that I had been able to travel a lot. That helped me realize that smart people were expected to move to Silicon Valley to have their ideas included in a product. There are smart people all over the world.