It was hardly the proudest moment in Mark Fleury's life. Nearly broke after his first company went under in 2001, Fleury, with his wife, Nathalie, their new daughter, and their dog, gave up on Silicon Valley and moved into his in-laws' house in the leafy Buckhead section of Atlanta. "Silicon Valley was not good for us," says Fleury. "It was too expensive."
But Fleury's defeat was only temporary. He had an idea. A physicist by training who fell in love with Sun Microsystems's (SUNW) Java programming language while working as a salesperson there, Fleury helped develop a computer program called the JBoss application server.
An application server acts as the software foundation for today's big corporate computer networks. The JBoss server, developed as an open-source software project, is a free version of business software that's written with Java and was being sold by the likes of IBM (IBM), BEA Systems (BEAS), and Sun. Fleury was being flooded with requests for training on his software. It didn't take a genius to figure out he could make some money running a few seminars.
PROFITABLE FROM BIRTH. His first training session in the fall of 2001 proved so popular that he pulled in $60,000. The second drew $90,000. Out of humble roots in Fleury's in-laws' garage, JBoss was born. "People like to say we're the ultimate garage startup, but that's not exactly true," says Nathalie, who runs communications for JBoss. "We're more like the ultimate startup in your father-in-law's garage."
Today, the Fleurys are proudly living in their own house in Atlanta, and 70-employee JBoss has become the classic post-bubble tech startup. It's run on the cheap with employees all over the world and a founder who's a bit more worldly than the entrepreneurs of the dot-com years.
Also, happily unlike startups of the '90s, JBoss isn't bleeding money. It was profitable from Day One, and it still hasn't had to use $10 million in venture financing it received last year. "That capital is more to give their customers peace of mind," says David Skok, a general partner at venture-capital firm Matrix Partners in Boston. Matrix, the lead investor in the JBoss, put $8 million into it.
"DISRUPTIVE MODEL." While an application server may sound geeky, the market potential is enormous. Analysts estimate the market for all infrastructure software is creeping toward $30 billion per year. It's must-have stuff for Internet-savvy companies. And JBoss's product could be to that market what open-source Linux has proven to be to operating systems -- the low-cost alternative that keeps the big guys up at night. "I believe we truly have a disruptive business model," says Fleury.
Now 36 years old, Fleury has proven to be a savvy chief executive while maintaining his cyber-credentials. Born and raised in Paris, he was a paratrooper in the French military before heading to the U.S. to attend graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While living in Boston's Back Bay, across the Charles River from MIT, he met and married Nathalie, who was attending nearby Wellesley College. They moved to France, where he worked in sales for Sun before heading to Sun's corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley.
But working at a giant company proved boring to Fleury, an amateur disk jockey who still attends annual techno-music festivals. In 1999, he started a company called Telkel. He wanted to host and run software for customers, but after spending $500,000 of money he and his family invested, the company was a bust.
LIKE A MUSIC LABEL. "We learned an important lesson," says Fleury. "Listen to what your customers say. They didn't want hosting, but they did want someone to teach them about JBoss and to support them." The JBoss business model was fairly obvious to him. While there are literally hundreds of thousands of copies of the free software floating around the Internet, corporate customers want the proverbial neck to choke when something goes wrong.
Fleury sees parallels in open-source software development and his beloved techno music. A good techno DJ samples music from all over the world, everything from the instrumentations of India to American soul music. Open-source software is the same way, he says. You work with people from all over the world to assemble one terrific product. "Great computer programming is not done on a production line," he says. "It's much more a work of art."
In fact, he thinks his company is more than a bit like a record label. Hire the best talent, Fleury says, and help them get their product to market.
While privately held JBoss doesn't disclose its financials, it has gotten plenty of attention from industry bigwigs. Not long ago, Fleury says he was "just a peon" at Sun. But "he's a peon that's roaring right now," says Sun President Jonathan Schwartz. Maybe the entire tech industry will hear him soon. By Jim Kerstetter in Silicon Valley