Why this 'well-kept' secret for programmers is suddenly popping up in the Fortune 500
GitHub, the so-called Facebook for programmers founded in 2008, is valued at $2 billion. And Atlassian, the 13-year-old profitable $3 billion company behind tools like Jira and BitBucket, is reportedly working on a big IPO later this year.
But the market for code management is far from settled, as the demand for programmers continues to grow worldwide.
Enter Dutch startup GitLab, an unlikely challenger, first released as free, open source software in 2011, meaning any developer anywhere can look at the source code and tweak it as desired.
After enjoying a couple years as an under-the-radar hit with programmers, GitLab's founders decided to turn it into a serious business in 2013.
"GitLab has been a well-kept secret," says CEO and co-founder Sytse '"Sid" Sijbrandij.
Now, the secret is out.
These days, GitLab is backed by Y Combinator and Khosla Ventures, with a product that software engineering teams at IBM, Alibaba, and SpaceX all rely on. In the last eight months, it's grown from 10 to 30 employees, all working remotely from around the world. This week, GitLab announced the one millionth download of its software.
Even famed ex-NFL quarterback Joe Montana and actor-cum-investor Ashton Kutcher were investors in GitLab's seed round.
And it's only getting started, says Sijbrandij.
GitLab is a direct competitor to GitHub and Atlassian's BitBucket. In fact, it's based on the same "Git" technology that GitHub is built around, hence the similar name.
Before Git, building software with a team could be a real mess. It required careful tracking of who was working on which piece of the code at any given time. The old processes also made it hard to integrate code from outside contributors.
GitLab got famous for being an enterprise-focused Git-based code tracking tool that programmers could install on their own, local servers. Where GitHub found success by combining a social network with Git, GitLab was razor-focused on the enterprise.
GitLab co-founder Dmitriy Zaporozhets first created it as something he needed himself, and released it for free as a side project.
Seeing the rising popularity of GitHub and the like, Sijbrandij and Zaporozhets decided in 2013 that it was time to turn GitLab into a business, offering bonus features and support to businesses that wanted to pay $50/user/year for the good stuff.
Earlier this year, GitLab graduated Silicon Valley's famed Y Combinator startup accelerator program, and took in a $1.5 million seed round, including participation from Kutcher, Montana, and Khosla Ventures. In September of 2015, Khosla led a $5.7 million Series A round.
Making it a business
When GitLab first came out, the idea that you could install it on your own servers was a big part of the appeal: Big Fortune 500 companies and public institutions like the CERN research lab need tight control over their data and who can access the code behind their critical products.
"Some of our users are the most security-conscious businesses around," says Sijbrandij.
GitLab does also offer a web-hosted version of the service, called GitLab.com, but much of its traction has been with this on-premises idea.
Now, GitHub and Atlassian BitBucket both offer similar on-premise versions of their tools. But Sijbrandij says that GitLab's longtime focus on the area sets it apart with a better understanding of what enterprises want and need in their code management software.
Sijbrandij also says GitLab's open source roots are a plus. First, Fortune 500 companies can see what makes GitLab work and ensure there are no funny surprises.
"I think more and more enterprises, they're looking at open source offerings," Sijbrandij says. "They want to see what's under the hood."
Second, since it's available as a free download, GitLab makes its way into a business before the IT department even knows its there. From there, the IT department often just decides to buy a plan and stick to it.
"Somebody sets up a server in some corner of an enterprise, and coworkers flock to it," Sijbrandij says.
So while GitLab is still in the early stages of its enterprise ambitions, it's growing fast. And as more companies are building software, this market is only going to grow.
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