Couchbase CEO on the balancing act of creating an engagement database that caters to all

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez June 13, 2018
Matt Cain has uniquely positioned Couchbase as the ‘engagement database’ to enable digital transformation. But as CEO he is having to finely balance investment priorities.

Matt Cain, CEO Couchbase

We at diginomica have long covered the fiercely competitive NoSQL database market, highlighting how companies, particularly those that are digitally native, are relying less and less on traditional relational databases. However, Couchbase is positioning itself in a somewhat unique way, by branding itself as the ‘engagement database’ or ‘engagement platform’ of choice, aligning itself with line of business buyers that are looking for tools to enable ‘digital transformation’. This is interesting, when you consider that the likes of MongoDB have enjoyed great success by largely wooing the developer community.

That’s not to say that Couchbase is ignoring developers, far from it, but it’s certainly got its eye on other personas on the enterprise. And it has picked up some impressive customers along the way.

My colleague Jon Reed and I have written previously about how Couchbase looks to position itself alongside transactional and analytical databases within the enterprise, rather than sell itself as a rip and replace alternative. Making for a much more realistic buying option for enterprises.

And this week at Couchbase Connect in London, CEO Matt Cain gave a compelling keynote highlighting how, for example, e-commerce customers will typically have 1,000 engagements with a company, before the transaction takes place. This increases for 100,000 engagements for employees per single transaction when you take into account interactions across the supply chain etc. The argument being, transactional databases aren’t equipped for these new digital models. It’s a different thing entirely.

I got the chance to sit down with Cain to discuss how Couchbase is prioritising its development and investments and where it sees its future positioning in the enterprise. Cain’s key message was that the company is currently undergoing a fine balancing act to ensure that the platform suits the needs of a variety of buyer personas, whilst anticipating the future technology needs of the enterprise.

Cain said that the key is building out an end-to-end platform (note that he doesn’t say ‘database’). He explained:

I think a lot of companies claim that they are building a platform. But I think when you click and double click on it, there are very few that are actually building what we would define as a platform.

I think any time that you have an ambition of building an end-to-end platform, which is everything from caching technology, combined with our document-oriented database, from public cloud out to the edge, not just in-memory scale out high performing architecture, but one that’s also easy to manage - there are a lot of different vectors that you can take your next generation innovation on.

I think the balancing act and the conversations that we are having with our customers are, what are their biggest unmet, underserved needs? And how can we together innovate and ensure that we are taking our roadmap in that direction?

Cain said that the upcoming years will be driving innovation across all aspects of the Couchbase platform, focusing on making the core engine faster, increasing the sophistication of its query language N1QL, adding analytics to the platform for developers to access underlying data, extending mobile capabilities and integrating into other architectures, such as Kubernetes.

He added:

So, I think a lot of it is, how do we extend the platform in the most responsible way? And do that alongside our customers. I think the best companies in the world are very mindful of what their customers are trying to do and sit alongside them as they define next generation capabilities. I think we’ve navigated that pretty well.

Meeting the needs of customers

Cain said that he is very mindful of how customer demands are changing, particularly in terms of the demands on the enterprise increasing. For example, data continues to grow, expectations of customers rise, regulatory and compliance environments prove more challenging - and he hopes that Couchbase can aid customers in meeting those demands.

I asked Cain if he was aware of any gaps in the platform that needed to be filled in the coming years, to which he wouldn’t be explicitly drawn. However, he acknowledged that Couchbase is having to think carefully about its investment decisions. He said:

When you build a platform, you need to come at it from a lot of different perspectives to ensure you’re giving customers a toolset for them to be successful.

I wouldn’t point to any gap. One of the things that we talk a lot about is how do we continue to accelerate our own momentum and continue to be in service to our customers.

And so, when we think about our own resource allocation, it’s continuing to push the envelope on technology innovation, and it’s at the same time building the resources that customers need to get the most out of that platform. We’re not just building new technology, we’re also building a company that we want to be sustainable and durable. Having the balance and the discipline to think long term about all those aspects together, is a big part of our responsibility.

Cain said, however, that once Couchbase is in a company - even if that’s not explicitly to solve an ‘engagement’ problem, as it pitches - the customer does then typically begin to think about other opportunities for the platform and use cases expand. These expanded use cases often fall within the “engagement paradigm”, according to Cain. He said:

So somebody may start with an internal productivity application, see the benefits of that, and realise they have the very same challenges in how they’re interfacing with their customers and deploy the technology in that way. So we have a lot of customers where they are starting to invest in us as a strategic platform.

And key to Couchbase’s go to market strategy, is catering the platform to the needs of the entire business, not just the developer market. He added:

We aim to serve the largest enterprises in the world. And if those enterprises are making a data platform decision for mission critical applications, there are multiple people that are involved in that process. The enterprise developer is critically important, because they’re writing the application.

But so too is the operations person, so too is the architect, and more and more, so too is the line of business. And in the customer sessions I’ve had today, I’ve met with all flavours of people. I think the challenge for Couchbase is, how do we ensure that each one of those various constituents inside of our customers understands what the platform can do for them?

At the same time we’re investing in capabilities that will make them successful. The optimisation point for various constituencies can be different. When we think about differentiation, making sure we are meeting the requirements of all of those people, is really important.

Future verticals

Interestingly, Cain is already thinking about Couchbase use cases in a vertical market pitch. We’ve seen other platforms - although, more at the application layer - that have spawned new businesses built entirely on those native platforms. Cain anticipates that the same will happen for Couchbase, but also acknowledges that the company’s vertical sell might involve its own corporate initiatives. He said:

When it comes to verticals, I think companies like us have a decision to make. For one, is there a customisation at a code base that is required to be relevant across a particular vertical? And then, depending on the answer to that, what needs to be done on the commercial side to be successful.

We are very fortunate that our platform is robust and the value proposition spans all verticals. What we’ve found, however, when we think about our own marketing and how we tell success stories, there is a vertical spin on that. And what we’re investing in in seeing a big opportunity, is how do we build partnerships where there may be a vertical focus.

And I think that’s an area where we may start to specialise more than we have. Without having to change the core platform, but leveraging the great expertise that’s in our ecosystem, and is one of the reasons we have so aggressively built the channel and partner programme.

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