First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Ludovic Dubost: We are doing fine, thank you. Of course, it required some changes and adaptation as I used to go most of the time to the office and it’s tough to limit interactions with friends and family. However, as people working in IT, we feel quite lucky being able to work remotely since the beginning of the pandemic.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded XWiki.
Ludovic Dubost: In 2003, I left my previous company, an audience measurement startup, where I was CTO because I wanted to create something new. I have always been interested in web and intranet software, even since my time as a Consultant at Netscape. The wiki engine I was using at the time (Twiki or FOSWiki since it was forked then) lacked the capacity to structure data and I felt it had technical implementation weaknesses as well. As I discovered and implemented a Wiki, I found it amazing how it changed information sharing and improved collaboration for my team.
After 6 months of work on my own, I had a first version that I published as Open Source and thus created a free wiki service online – this is how XWiki was born. Then I began trying to make it more well-known by getting users to install it and advertise its extension capabilities to build collaborative websites on top of it. I got my first service clients which allowed me to make revenue and start funding improvements of the software. That was 16 years ago and since then we became a 40 people company, with more than 7000 companies using XWiki and over 500 customers of all sizes. Our XWiki platform is used internally by many large companies, including Amazon, who funded some development, and is also available for self-hosting or a cloud service.
How does XWiki innovate?
Ludovic Dubost: XWiki innovates, first of all, through its Open Source nature. As I built XWiki and discovered more about Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS), participating in this movement has become something very important. Free Software is about control. The movement was created with the objective of users regaining control on software and, while it has made progress, we are still lacking the FLOSS based end services and software that allow us to keep control. What XWiki does today, providing both software and services fully as Free Software is even more relevant and important.
Open Source has been my main answer, knowing that by building our software as Open Source it would still be there whatever happens.
Another of my objective was to build software that matters. When I discovered wikis, I discovered software that matters. Wikis matter because they help share knowledge. This is important for companies not only because it helps them become successful, but also because it encourages individuals to grow and empowers them to become team members instead of tasks executors. For us, at XWiki “Knowledge is Power … so it should be shared”.
Secondly, since I already mentioned control over our software, the subject of privacy has emerged more and more lately. The progress of cloud as a more convenient system for users both in terms of usage and price, combined with the greed of businesses fighting for the “winner takes it all” spot, is driving us into a wall. At XWiki we had the opportunity to do something about it, so we took it – that’s how CryptPad came to be.
With CryptPad, we wanted to build an Open Source alternative that users can believe in and support – allowing new types of applications which are “privacy by default” and “Zero-Knowledge”, while aiming to allow end-to-end encrypted real-time document editing. Not only are we breaking new technological ground with this project, but we are also trying a new business model, through low-cost subscriptions and crowdfunding. However, we want to keep things simple and easy to use while increasing the security level. We hope that if the tool is easy enough, then educated users recommend it to others as an alternative to the big guys’ solutions, even if it can’t do it all. With 50,000 weekly users and more than a million pads open per month, CryptPad is gaining ground, so we are hopeful that this can become a reality.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Ludovic Dubost: On the business side, while in the end, it was a balanced year according to our financial plans, I think it’s still unclear to say how COVID will really impact us in the long run. When Europe closed down in early spring, it clearly slowed down our projects as we were working with customers that were not yet ready for remote work. At the same time, we observed an increase in demand for our ready-to-use solutions because teams were looking for tools to ease the transition. Generally, I believe COVID has increased and will continue to increase our customers’ needs to improve their collaboration tools. However, this will have to be balanced with the post-COVID effect on the economy when we will really see the full effects of the global recession it caused.
Now, our CryptPad service has seen tremendous growth because of COVID-19. Being available for free and being used by educators in particular in Germany it saw a 4x usage growth since the start of the confinements in Europe. This has accelerated people’s knowledge of the CryptPad tool which, unlike the major company’s software, protects users privacy using end-to-end encryption. This also had an impact on its business, which is still as small as a new business inside our company. But given that usage is key for the business model of CryptPad, we have really increased the chances of its long term sustainability.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
Ludovic Dubost: Initially it was not simple. The government was sending mixed messages, so we were not clear about whether or not we should act. We decided to tell people that they can choose to stay home (initially we had 2 days per week of remote work unless you were a permanent remote worker). Shortly after, the government sent recommendations on their own and the lockdown started.
Fortunately, we did not have to make any drastic choices in the end. As I mentioned, remote work and flexible working schedules were already part of our company culture. Because of this, online collaboration was a norm and we had plenty of resources at our disposal to make the transition smooth. I feel lucky that we were able to go full remote and allow our employees to be as safe as possible that fast.
Since then, we’ve learned or better said, emphasized, the importance of staying connected, up-to-date with each other, but most importantly to disconnect. Be it through chat, email, video calls or our internal intranet, we try to maintain communication within the working schedule. I know these interactions don’t replace the ones face to face, but I believe it’s still an important part of every employee’s involvement/development.
As we wanted to share the way we also work remotely, our team has published various articles to share some resources, tips and tricks, impressions and more.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Ludovic Dubost: We have made many changes to our CRM tools. We mostly used newsletters and marketing automation. However, this year we decided to move to an Open Source marketing automation tool – Mautic – managed by French company Webmecanick in order to guarantee it’s hosted in Europe by a European company.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Ludovic Dubost: In France, the government has set up special loans that companies could request in case of a possible slow down of the activity. As it was the case for us in March, we requested such a loan which is useful in case we have some clients that would fail us or a bigger slow down in 2021.
Otherwise, we do usually a candidate for research projects which is something regularly available in Europe. In particular, we received specific funding for CryptPad from the Next Generation Internet initiative from the European Community from NLNet and NGI Trust. This is helping us a lot to build more Open Source.
Your final thoughts?
Ludovic Dubost: At XWiki, we believe that in such situations as the COVID-19 crisis, Open Source is a very valuable answer to deploy freely available tools to the maximum of users and organizations, while at the same time respecting user privacy and not locking them in. A lot of the “free” tools users choose are unfortunately tracking them and recording their activity for commercial interest or even more problematic ones (as the Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown). We hope that in the future users and organizations will become more educated and will be careful about which tools they choose.
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