Couchbase CEO - ‘Ignore the engagement economy and you will lose’

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez September 25, 2017
Matt Cain joined the company back in April and is hoping to make his mark in the competitive NoSQL by pushing Couchbase’s ‘engagement database’.

Couchbase CEO, Matt Cain
Couchbase CEO, Matt Cain

The NoSQL database market is fiercely competitive. Not only are the NoSQL vendors competing against each other, but they are also up against the likes of AWS and Oracle, which are having a very public database war all of their own.

Combine that with the recent news that one of the ‘leading’ NoSQL providers, Basho, recently entered receivership after defaulting on its payments - resulting in it being acquired by one of its biggest customers, bet365 - it’s becoming increasingly difficult to predict how this market will play out.

It’s important to remember that this market is still relatively immature, but it is gaining popularity as the Internet giants - such as Netflix - run entirely on NoSQL and publicly tout the benefits. And given the nature of the Internet experience - scalable, mobile, flexible, ever changing - it’s easy to understand why relational databases don’t entirely fit the mould.

NoSQL document stores are proving incredibly popular - most notably, MongDB gaining traction - because of the flexible schema and the horizontal scalability. Another fast growing contender is Couchbase, which is hosting its European user event in Paris this week.

I got the chance to sit down with Couchbase CEO Matt Cain, who joined the company in April from Veritas, and has been pushing the idea that Couchbase is the database of choice for the digital engagement economy - the data platform to use to get closest to your customers through the use of new digital technologies, in a quickly changing environment.

In Cain’s view, Couchbase has the technical platform to fulfil these requirements - requirements that the traditional database providers can’t cater to. And the engagement proposition, Cain argues, differentiates Couchbase from the rest of the market. He said:

When I look at the market, there are two fundamental transitions that are occurring. For me, it starts with digital transformation. Enterprises are literally facing an existential threat if they don’t figure out how to use technology to get closer to their customers. In order to enable applications to successfully take advantage or mitigate the challenges that come with that, you need a new data structure. Legacy databases are not suited for that.

We believe that we are living in an engagement economy. And therefore companies need a database or a data platform that supports the applications that are going to allow them to meet their customer needs. First and foremost, we are building an engagement database. From the very beginning of our company we have been focused on the enterprise. So, how do we build a scalable platform with the performance requirements, the elasticity requirements, the way in which we secure things?

When you get to the next level of technical detail, it does get into our core architecture. We are an in-memory, scale out architecture. We can run everything from public cloud, all the way out to the edge, running on mobile clients. Those are differentiated capabilities.


As mentioned above, Cain joined Couchbase from Veritas back in April. Since then, he said, his focus hasn’t been on disrupting Couchbase’s core model, but rather scaling it and building on the framework that it has put in place - which has won customers such as Sky, BT and Louis Vuitton.

This framework is made up of three core components - differentiation, execution and employee capability. He said:

There is a framework that we use to think about the company. We think about it in three buckets. In the upper left we have sustained differentiation - what are the markets we are playing in? What are the biggest, most important jobs that are hiring us to do? How do we have a unique value proposition?

That maps to what I call profitable growth, which is all about execution. How are we taking that value proposition to market? How are we helping customers to understand what we do? And then how do we take our technology to market with our sales organisations and customer success teams?

And all of that needs to fundamentally be on a foundation of the third bucket, which is a world class team. I think a big part of what I’ve been doing is understanding where the company sits across those three aspects. And just as important, making sure that the linkages between all of them are harmonised.

Interestingly, Cain wasn’t keen to push Couchbase as a pure developer tool. Winning over developers has been the mantra for the likes of MongoDB, which have invested in their marketing efforts to convince developers that its NoSQL offer will make their lives easier (with the aim of winning business via a grassroots shift).

And whilst this is important to Couchbase too, given its focus on the enterprise, Cain is aware of the need to meet the requirements of technology buyers throughout an organisation. He said:

[We are] very mindful of all personas that make up an enterprise. So it’s not just about the developers, it’s about the operations teams, it’s about the lines of business owners, it’s about the CIOs, it’s about the chief data officers. At the end of the day, for an enterprise, to be successful, all of those personas are going to be touched when it comes to something as critical as a data platform.

When I brought up Basho’s quick demise, Cain was quick to convince that Couchbase wasn’t ready to suffer a similar fate. He said:

I think you are going to see many companies, both at the engagement database tier, the analytical database side, that are growing organisations because of these fundamental transformations. I can’t speak to all competitors, I can certainly speak to us, we aren’t struggling, we are growing, we are seeing prosperity that the company has never seen. We are increasing the momentum of that customer acquisition and expansion within accounts, and acquiring new customers. What we are relentlessly focused on is building a sustainable company for the future.

Outcomes and challenges

In recent years NoSQL vendors have argued that their technology was mostly being used for greenfield projects, alongside the core relational database, to help companies compete with the Internet-first giants that are posing a threat. However, this rhetoric has changed in recent years, with some claiming that companies are now ripping out this core and quickly moving to a more pure NoSQL environment, because of the benefits being realised.

For example, a recent study carried out by IDC on behalf of Couchbase, found that customers were:

  • generating on average $5m incremental revenue through improved customer experience engagement
  • accelerating time to market by an average of 19%, with 40% faster response times
  • reducing infrastructure and operations costs by an average of 14%, with an ROI of 27% over 5 years and 7 months payback.

On the types of use case that Couchbase is seeing, Cain said that it varies, but that customers were focusing on the above three outcomes. However, what’s promising, he added, is the pace that customers are expanding their Couchbase footprint. He said:

Now, the extensibility of our platform would allow people to layer in our database next to a relational system. We are not suggesting people need to rip and replace. Yet we have customers that are saying ‘we are going to stand up a new application, it’s a greenfield application, what data platform do I need to choose to provide the experience and the flexibility for the developers?’. And we are often deployed there.

I think what’s particularly exciting for us as a company, is not the pace at which we are acquiring new customers, it’s the amount of expansion we are seeing within the customer base. Some of our largest customers are up to 12 or 15 use cases across lines of businesses, front office, back office, cloud-based apps, mobile apps.

Given Cain’s recent entry into the company, I was also keen to find out what he has identified as Couchbase’s current and anticipated challenges/risks. At present, Cain’s primary focus is on ensuring that the company grows and scales at a pace that means it can continue to operate effectively. He said:

As I hope is becoming very obvious, we are customer led and customer focused. Making sure that we are constantly listening to our customers and helping them be successful. And ensuring that we have a culture and set of people that is living and breathing by that mantra, on an everyday basis. Increasing our sophistication and how we are listening and satisfying our customers. Just like we talk about the disruption change of digital transformation, ensuring that we as a company are changing the experience that we deliver to our customers.

I’d say that the other is that we are growing very rapidly. So, how do we continue to support our growth? But do that in a responsible way and ensure that we maintain all of the things that have made our company great. The very nature of the organisation is going to be very different from now, because it’s going to be so much bigger, so how do we grow in a way that’s responsible for our company, our shareholders and our customers.

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