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Bootstrapping from Belgium: iText CEO Bruno Lowagie (Part 3)

Posted on Wednesday, Apr 29th 2015

Sramana Mitra: Was this something that you created on the side? It was your own intellectual property.

Bruno Lowagie: Yes.

Sramana Mitra: This was in 2000?

Bruno Lowagie: Yes.

Sramana Mitra: What does that first release mean? Did you give it to the open source?

Bruno Lowagie: I released it initially in LGPL library but then a couple of months later, to be useful in business, people wanted it to be available under the MPL too. It was free as in free beer in 2000 because the LGPL and MPL are rather liberal. I always compare iText with an engine. If you improve the engine, you have to distribute the improvements but if you build a car, then the car can be a commercial product. During the first few years, we saw that more and more people had started to use it. There was a Portuguese developer who joined the project. The moment we introduced Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages, we saw an exponential growth in downloads.

Sramana Mitra: How many downloads are we talking?

Bruno Lowagie: In those days, I don’t remember but now it’s millions a year.

Sramana Mitra: Was it in the 10,000 range?

Bruno Lowagie: I think it was in the 10,000 range.

Sramana Mitra: People were basically using the engine and powering their applications.

Bruno Lowagie: Yes. One of the first big companies that used iText was IBM in 2002 where they already wrote small tutorials on how to use iText. In 2002, we saw the first few third-party tutorials. I had written a tutorial too, but in 2004, I received so many technical questions from people on the mailing list that I almost didn’t have time to do my day job. I took some time off in 2004 to write a free online tutorial. I was one of the early adopters of Google AdSense. The free online tutorial was a real success because in 2005, I had about between $1000 and $1500 just in ad revenue a month.

Another effect was that in 2005, I first received a book contract offer from O’Reilly and a couple of months later from Manning Publications. At first, I panicked because writing a book seemed like an enormous task for a developer. I went for Manning Publications because at that time, O’Reilly was the bigger publisher. They had about 500 books a year. Manning was really small in 2005. They had about 50 books a year. I thought, “If one of the books fails at Manning, it’s 2% of their yearly production. If a book fails at O’Reilly, who cares?” I chose Manning because I wanted the book to be a success. The first book sold about 11,500 copies.

Sramana Mitra: All this while, you were not making any money from the software?

Bruno Lowagie: No.

Sramana Mitra: You kept your Gent University day job?

Bruno Lowagie: Yes.

Sramana Mitra: So we are now in 2005?

Bruno Lowagie: The book was published in 2006. It took me a year to write it. I thought I will now have less technical questions. That wasn’t true because the book turned out to be great marketing tool. It gave an edge over products that don’t have a book.

Apparently, not everyone reads the book. The number of questions increased but there were also a lot of legal questions. For instance, iText was part of a project that was released with Eclipse. IBM didn’t’ want to put iText on their servers unless they had some control over the source code. There was a lot of pressure on me to change from the LGPL/MPL to the EPL. My feeling was if I change the license to the EPL, that’s practically giving away my project to IBM.

This segment is part 3 in the series : Bootstrapping from Belgium: iText CEO Bruno Lowagie
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