Kentico’s journey to where it is today is a fascinating one and one that has been told many times. We wanted to uncover a new angle, something fresh, so we picked the brains of the man who is the father of this brainchild. Prepare to meet Kentico founder, employee number one, and visionary, Petr Palas.
Let’s go back to 2004. What was going on in the background before you started Kentico?
Back in 1998, I was responsible for managing intranet websites and portals for a company, which entailed lots of manual work. People were sending content they wanted to be put on the intranet, which I converted into some static HTML pages—and I felt it was a highly inefficient way to do it. So I came up with the idea to provide an article editor to allow these people to manage the content themselves. Later on, I came up with a concept of a CMS that could be productized and reused across many projects. As my employer at the time didn’t want to work on this product, I started my own company and built an early version of Kentico CMS.
What was your typical day like when you were the only employee?
When I started in June 2004, I came to the office at 7:00 AM and worked until 6:00 PM, and then I continued working in the evening at home, so about 12 or 14 hours every day. I split the time between programming, marketing, customer support, and administration like banking and documentation. And after the first year, I hired my first employees.
Did anyone give you any valuable advice when you started?
I think the best advice I received was from a friend of mine. He told me I just needed to get the first order and once I get it, it's a real business. I was really struggling for almost five months without any revenue, and a few weeks later, I actually got my first deal, and it helped me not to give up.
At what point did you think I have a real product and potentially a company here?
I approached Kentico as a real company from the beginning, but I got confirmation of this from the first deal, which was Gibson. So it was the moment when I felt ”yes, now I'm in business”.
How did you get Gibson as the first and very impressive first client?
I did some basic SEO, and we scored very highly in Google search for ASP.Net CMS. It helped me build some initial awareness, and that’s how Gibson found us. I spent significant time with their team to show them how to use the product, and it helped me build the trust between them and me, and they have been on Kentico ever since.
When your employee count started growing into double figures, did you have a sense of, wow, this is real, or oh my, what have I created?
I didn't have a vision of building a huge company. I planned that it would be myself and a few more people with me and I would build a micro ISV (Independent Software Vendor) business. So when I hired the first employees, I expected it would help me build the product faster, and, I was also going to be able to delegate some of the work.
Kentico relies heavily on its partners. How were those initial days with partner recruitment?
We launched our partner program early because we saw many of our clients were digital agencies, and they were looking for a productized CMS because they were typically using a site generation tool like Dreamweaver or had their own homebuilt CMS—which they realized wasn’t very sustainable. They needed to have a professional CMS if they wanted to stay competitive in the market. So that's how we got our initial partners, and then we decided to establish a formal partner program. We didn't do any proactive partner recruitment at the time. It was very organic—they just found us and tried the product on their first project, liked it and became a partner.
What would you say were the milestones that influenced Kentico and its products today?
The first milestone was to release the first version, which was very simplistic and very far away from being a complete product. The next big step for us was version 2.0 when we significantly rebuilt the product and architecture. We introduced something quite visionary called Portal Engine, which allowed customers to build websites using a drag-and-drop interface. This was very important at the time because many agencies and customers struggled because they didn't have enough back-end developers. This made the CMS more usable for front-end developers who were just doing code.
The next significant milestone was EMS in 2011. We saw a growing trend in the market that customers wanted not only to publish content, but to use the website to provide great experiences for their customers that would drive business. We significantly enhanced our functionality with things like personalization, marketing automation, AB testing, and so on. This helped us position Kentico EMS as a much more mid-market-to-enterprise solution. So that was a huge tipping point for the company. And we were actually one of the very few vendors that provided something that combined CMS, e-commerce, online marketing functionality.
Then came Kentico Cloud, and that's something that started as an idea in 2014 when we realized that the market was changing. Customers wanted to go to the cloud and use technologies such as microservices and front-end frameworks. And, we realized that traditional CMSs previously built for on-premise deployments weren't something that would help us maintain our leading position over time and we needed to innovate and rethink the way we worked with content.
As a man who is always looking to the future, how easy is it for you to see where the market is going and differentiate between hype and true possibility?
I read and listen to the noise coming from the market, try to find patterns, and build my vision of where the market is going based on that. It is also a question of timing. In the past, we have been super innovative before our customers saw the need. For example, with Kentico+, we were actually one of the first in the market that introduced a cloud-based CMS solution provided through managed hosting. As we were quite early to the market, we received lots of pushback from customers and partners that didn’t yet see a future in the cloud. But this experience helped us to learn faster than our competitors.
Who do you admire in the field of innovation?
A good example is Microsoft or Apple, where they had strong innovators in people like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, who were my inspiration. And then there are people like Satya Nadella, who succeeded in restarting that innovative spirit in Microsoft’s culture.
As a Czech man with a Czech company, how has it influenced you and Kentico?
It wasn't easy to start a technology company here 15 years ago because there wasn't a mature infrastructure for the business overall. On the other hand, it was a big advantage from a geographic and economic perspective. We were able to find lots of talented people in Brno because there are multiple universities and Brno has always been an important technology center in the Czech Republic.
Fifteen years later, what does your typical day look like?
Well, as I have a family, my morning is centered around them. I typically spend eight hours in the office, and then I go home and deal with a few emails in the evening. So it’s no longer the 14 hours it used to be because I was so lucky to find capable people who could take over many of the roles I was performing and do them better than me. My role is more about defining the strategy and direction of the company. I still find time to write blog posts from time to time, but there is no coding for me. In a way I am still a developer, but instead of writing code, I am programming the company.
If you could travel back in time, what would you do differently?
When I think of those early days, I wish I had delegated things sooner and hired more senior people earlier. I would definitely invest more in marketing and brand. I would have built a more focused product rather than going too broad. It is hard to say because sometimes you have to make mistakes just to learn from them.
How important are the company’s mission and vision to you and why?
The vision and mission come primarily from myself, and I work on them with the management team. For a long time, we didn’t formalize the vision. It was only recently when we spent substantial time looking at why we are doing what we are doing, the direction we are taking and the meaning in all of it that we realized we have been carrying out our vision for all these years already, and the thing that connected all those points in history was our commitment to providing our customers with the best way for them to work with content. It is really the backbone of our history. There’s always something to improve, and we know that we will have to reinvent ourselves constantly. It's like a moving target. We can get closer and closer, but when we feel we have the best way to work with content, the needs of the customer always move one step ahead.
In terms of mission, where we make an impact is that we are not only a company that builds the technology but are enablers for our customers to tell stories. And these stories are what change the world, whether it is on a global level, for example, Red Cross uses Kentico to publish their stories, or on a micro level, for example, Snooze, a company that makes beds tells their story about how people will get better sleep with their products. We realized that we've always been this technology enabler that makes this possible, and this is our mission.
What’s next for Kentico and Petr Palas?
For Kentico, the biggest opportunity ahead of us is to become the leader in the Content as a Service market and again get closer to our vision to provide the best way to work with content. We can see that customers will need to have a new way to work with content in the future that will make them more efficient internally and allow them to deliver more impactful customer experiences externally. For me, it's all about how to succeed in leveraging this opportunity we see in the market today, and how to get closer to that vision of providing the best way to work with content.