Interview with Mitchell Baker

July 1, 2009

Series: Entrepreneurial Toolbox

Where law and the internet and innovation and open source collide, there you'll find Mitchell Baker.

Mitchell Baker


As the leader of the Mozilla Project, Mitchell Baker is responsible for organizing and motivating a massive, worldwide collective of employees and volunteers who are breathing new life into the Internet with the Firefox Web browser and other Mozilla products.

Baker was born and raised in Berkeley, California, receiving her BA in Asian Studies from UC Berkeley and her JD from the Boalt Hall School of Law. Her law career included working for Sun Microsystems and Netscape. She has also sat on the board of the Open Source Applications Foundation.

Baker has been the general manager of the Mozilla project since 1999, helping shape the license under which Netscape's source code was released. In 2003, she became president and founder of the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to openness and innovation on the Internet. In 2005, Baker led the creation of Mozilla Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation.  Baker served as as CEO of the corporation until January 2008, when Mozilla’s rapid growth encouraged her to shift her focus back to the scope and mission of the project. As Chairman of the Mozilla Foundation, Baker continues her commitment to an open, innovative Web and the infinite possibilities it presents.

TIME Magazine profiled Baker under “Scientists and Thinkers” in its 2005 TIME 100. She has also appeared on “The Charlie Rose Show” and “CNN Global Office” to discuss open source software and the Firefox phenomenon. In April 2009 she was awarded the "Woman of Vision Award" by the Anita Borg Institute.



Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders, I'm the CEO for the National Center for Women & Information Technology or NCWIT, and with me today, Lee Kennedy who is a serial entrepreneur. She just started a new company called Bolder Search. Lee why don't you tell us a bit about that company.

Lee Kennedy: Sure. Bolder Search is a search marketing firm. So we do everything from search engine optimization, pay per click advertising, all sorts of Internet marketing.

Lucy: Well that's exciting new venture for you. Also Larry Nelson from Internet radio.

Larry Nelson: And TV now.

Lucy: And TV now, so he is probably going to get everybody on TV. He's already working on TV.

We are very excited about this interview. It's the next interview in our series called the Entrepreneurial Toolbox. And this is a series really focused on different subjects that entrepreneurs need to know about.

We've talked about networking. We've talked about failure. We've talked about business competition. We've talked about how to get an NSFSBIR grant.

And today we are going to talk about open source. And everything that entrepreneurs need to know or at least some of what entrepreneurs need to know in 15 minutes our less about open source.

And we are really excited to have as our interviewee, Mitchell Baker who is the chairman of the Mozilla Foundation.

And Larry and Lee, there is really no better person to talk to us about this topic. She has a very distinguished past.

And I just wanted to read you Mozilla's mission because I just think it says who Mitchell is.

"We are helping make the Internet a place where you and your neighbors build the world you want. That generates not only economic value but also civic and social value that is optimized for multiple languages and locales that is trustworthy and has minimal risk for users."

I just love that.

Larry: I love it too.

Lucy: I just think Mitchell you have such an awesome career, and welcome. And really congratulations again on your recent award, the Women of Vision award from the Anita Borg Institute.

Mitchell Baker: Oh thanks so much. It's really great to be here. I love to talk to people who are thinking about open source or thinking about new ways of doing things. So I'm excited too.

And it is very exciting to hear our mission described that way. It's taken us many years to learn how to talk about what we're doing in a way that conveys the reasons we do it and yet doesn't sound wishy-washy.

Lucy: Well it caught my attention on your site and I just loved it. I thought it was really quite thoughtful. And also you know we're really happy for you to have that award.

The Anita Borg Institute is one of our founding organizations as well so give them a shout out on this interview as well it's a very wonderful organization.

Larry: [crosstalk] All right.

Mitchell: That was really fun. That was a very rewarding evening. It was really wonderful to see. Oh, 600 women in the technology space all together and of course the award is quite meaningful too. Impressive company there, that's for sure.

Lee: Cool.

Lucy: Absolutely. Well, as a leader of the Mozilla Foundation you live and breathe open source and yet some of our listeners may not really know what it is.

So can you just spend a few minutes and give us a quick summary of what open source is and what the Mozilla Foundation does?

Mitchell: Sure. It's easy to be confused about open source because it's used in a number of different ways. So I'll go through them in what I hope is a logical order.

The first thing is a very technical meaning, that open source means software which is available for use under a license, meaning under terms which meet certain criteria.

So the software has to be available in a way that says it's free of charge. You are free to access and have the source code version of the software, that's a version that human beings can understand.

You can get that source code version free of charge. You can use that source code version however you want. That I can take a piece of open source software, I can change it, I can modify it. I can brand it differently. I can make a new product out of it and I can use that product either myself or as a basis for a commercial business.

And so the ability to get access to the source code, the ability to change it, the ability to do what you want with it is the core criteria for being open source.

Now, the term open source is often used to mean the way software is developed. Once you have a piece of software that is technically open source software, meaning I can take it, change it and do what I want with it.

There's a way of further developing the software where people choose to work together, an open source development method. And that's the method that Mozilla uses. Where not only is our source code available to you anytime you want it, but we invite people to come help us build our version of it.

Our version is a public asset and Mozilla is actually a non-profit organization. In our case that causes many people to come join us. But not only do we want people to have access to the source code but we produce better products if people come work with us and help.

A browser is a product that that needs to be useful for many people and do many different things, so many people help us build it.

And so sometimes when you hear open source, it's worth thinking about whether people actually mean the method that they use to create the software.

People will go even further and use open source to mean an open collaborative way of developing something whether or not it's software.

So you'll see things like open source governments. Or open source sewing actually.

Lee: Interesting.

Mitchell: Sewing organizations says open source sewing because their patterns and intellectual property is available in some collaborative fashion.

So sometimes open source means the idea of working collaboratively together and sharing the work product whether or not it's software.

Lucy: I was going to say it's a word that is just creeping into common usage in other areas.

Lee: That was really helpful.

Mitchell: Oh, I'm glad to hear that.

Lee: So Mitchell, let's say that I'm an entrepreneur starting a new company and we're producing an iPhone application. How would I go about deciding if open source could help us out?

Mitchell: Well the first thing is to have a clear view of what you're trying to accomplish, who your audience is, and where you hope to generate revenue. So those sets of things will determine in large part whether open source is useful.

So, if actually getting access to the software is the way of generating revenue, that's the old model. You know, it used to be any piece of software you wanted you'd have to pay 20 or 30 or 50 or a 100 dollars for. The old licensing model.

If that's the way you are going to make your revenue, than open source is less likely to be interesting. Now it may still be interesting but you have to go further to figure it out.

Lee: You have to look at the licensing and stuff right?

Mitchell: And you have to figure out... it maybe that I want to license my software eventually, but if the real burden is getting people to adopt it... so if for example what matters is having more people use my software makes it more valuable to other people than open source can be a very effective tool because the software's available, people can get it, they can use it easily.

So that's one. So I'm not sure if this is quite clear yet.

Lucy: I think it's clear.

Lee: Yeah.

Lucy: I think one thing you're telling us is that really you need to pay attention how you are going to monetize your product.

Lee: Exactly. Whether it's going to be a service or....

Mitchell: Because the question you've asked is for entrepreneurs starting companies. It's a little different if you're saying, "I really want to solve a particular problem."

Lucy: Exactly.

Mitchell: So I would look at that. I would say, "So what are you trying to do and what are the barriers?" So if it's an iPhone application, it needs to go into the iPhone store, and so you have a distribution channel along with many other applications, so somehow or other you have to get attention.

How are you going to get attention? And what draws people to your application?

Another thing to look at with open source is what is the development of you application like? If it's very small and you can control all the factors to it and you're pretty sure you know all the answers, than open source might be of less value to you.

If it's a complex, a large scale application, or it interacts with many other things or if it's part of a network in which there are many layers or if people are using lots of devices to connect to your application - it's not true in your question - but anyway in all of those cases open source can be a giant advantage.

So in our case we produce a browser and it's used of course by hundreds of millions of people and it connects to millions or tens of millions or how many different websites and it's part of this giant network the Internet and people use all sorts of machines and devices on it. Even testing it is hard.

And so in our case, we probably couldn't even hire enough people to test the product for us. We need massive scale, you know we need 75, 000 or 100, 000 or 200, 000 people to be running a version to provide enough test coverage for us, so in a case like that open source is your friend because as people get involved they help you.

And, in our setting some people are involved because they are individual people and they want the browser to be good, some are involved because they are producing our product in their language, but many commercial entities are involved in our software and they'll check it everyday or every two days or every three days, because they want to make it works for their site.

And, so because it is very complex we need massive participation of people to actually figure out how good is our software, so if you are in that kind of setting then open source is important.

And, if you are in a setting where people want to be sure that this application won't disappear. You know I'm invested a lot.

I have put a lot of my information in it and a lot of my life and work flow in and stuff that is really convenient for me is in that application, and if it ever stops existing or goes away or the creator of it stops updating it or gets bad, I need to be able to fix it.

Like, most of the time I don't ever want to touch it, but if something goes bad with it is so important to me I have to have a way to fix it. If that is your market or if your market feels that strongly then open source is important.

Open source is what gives them the comfort that if worst comes to worst and they need to get their hands dirty and fix a piece of software that is important they can do so.

Lucy: Well, it is almost like vaulting. I mean you know the old version of vaulting software in case a company went out of business and it really gets to our third question. I think it's a partial answer. Let's say this same small company produces software and is wondering if their valuable components to contribute to the open source community.

What should they think about in that regard, and I think that you have mentioned one of them, which is this is a great way for you to assure customers, especially if you are a small company that the software as an asset is part of a larger community that can indeed maybe help take care of it.

Mitchell: Yes.

Lucy: Do you see any other; like say the same small company decides they want to perhaps create some components. Do you see any other reasons why should contribute them as part of the open source world.

Mitchell: Right. Well, contribute has a particular meaning there.

Lucy: I probably didn't mean it so, you may.

[laughing] [Recording cuts]

Mitchell: In the open source world when I think of contribute something. I think more specifically of taking something and contributing it to an existing project making it a part of something larger.

Lucy: OK.

Mitchell: Whereas, I think what you mean in this case is: I've got a component that might be good as open source, how do I think about whether or not I aught to make it a piece of open source software.

Lee: Right.

Lucy: That is much better stated.

Mitchell: Because there are enterprises that are open source software that are venture backed enterprises that are about generating return on investment, from the open source methodology as technique that they use, either for the reason we described; like an escrow software, you can always get to it either because you want your customers be able to look at it and to test it either because you want to seed the market.

Like MySQL for example, the company known as MySQL is a good example of this database company. They found that by being open source, technically also free software they found more customers, so the classic sales cycle of how do you go out and find the customers.

One thing open source makes easier is that customers can find you much more easily and you take away many of the barriers to someone trying your product.

Price for example, long negotiations, lot of decisions between "Is this the right product?", "How do I know it's the right product?". So, all of those things are reasons to think about joining the open source world.

And I think, I can't recall I think your question would I go about making this happen and that is a multi-step process.

The first step is to release the software under an open source license, and then wallah you have open source software. So that is wallah you have open source software, but you don't have open source development method, and that is a separate decision.

If you want customers to be engaged and help you, not just find you, but tell you what is wrong, help you figure out what they need, how to grow you market, then you need an open source development method and that is a more complex project than making your code open source software.

Lucy: That is a very important point.

Lee: Definitely. So, if we jump back to this question. There are definitely different licenses involved with open source and there are also rules of etiquette. Could you jump into that and help explain it for entrepreneurs to understand how they should interact with open source?

Mitchell: That is a really, really good question. And there are some things that are mostly true in most open source projects, and then there are some things that vary quite a bit between projects.

Probably the most important place to start is to recognize that open source projects if they are successful enough for you to be using them, or to want to interact with them, will have some ways of working among themselves already, and usually they are online tools whether they are the old style newsgroups or mailing lists or whether they are newer more web-based tools.

So, the first step to is poke around and search around a bit, you know use the name of the open source project you are interested in and look for the tools.

Maybe you go to Google Groups and you find out what newsgroups do they work in or you'll find online forums and probably the best thing to do is just watch for a little while and see how things work because when you find these tools what you'll be seeing is the actual work flow of the software development project.

And so if you imagine as a small start-up you've got a small team let's say five people and they are building a piece of software and someone barged into the building and they didn't know anything about you, and they were eager and excited and friendly, but they had lot's of questions that were really basic questions and they really hadn't really done their homework.

You wouldn't necessary want your developers to always drop everything and be the perfect hosts and spend the day with them and serve them tea and coffee. Sometimes to get your product done, you want your developers to answer really informed questions, and the same thing is true of an open source project.

Those questions will be out in public and maybe you can find them, so you can ask them those questions, but if you are not informed it maybe the 100th time that someone has done that.

Whereas, if you watch the forums and watch the other newsgroups or whatever it is and see the interaction a little bit then you'll get some sense of; this is really a user question and they people to ask user questions over here or oh you know this is a Linux product only, so I don't even sit here because I'm living in a Windows world.

So, number one, try and watch for a little bit and just try and see what is going on.

And then a second one is, often help people understand, when you first appear somewhere what your context is.

So, if you say look I'm a newbie, I'm using this product, I have a user question is there someplace I can go or you know I've got a business question, I want to use this in a business; give some context rather than simply asking a very precise question, because that way people can understand who you are.

We try very hard to respond well, but at Mozilla sometimes we'll see these questions go by and we just don't know what to make of them, and so they don't get answered and that is frustrating for the person asking them.

But somehow or another we'll meet them, or they come to a developer day and they'll tell us who they are and then once we understand we'll be like; oh, now I get your question now I can answer.

Like, we had one very embarrassing moment where there were all these questions, we just couldn't make sense of them and then finally, we learned that the person asking them was a native Japanese speaker who was doing a bunch of work from a villa in Japan (work, I mean volunteer work), across a wide range of topics.

And then we understood from the questions why they were from every perspective of we could imagine and why couldn't actually make sense of them and how to translate them into the onlines. We, were on the verge of alienating a really valuable contributor because we didn't have any context about where the questions came from. I think that is the basics.

And, then projects have their own way of working. Apache for example which produces much of the infrastructure that people use for building web applications today, they work in newsgroups and they have a particular way of voting on things and of deciding contentious issues.

We work in all different forms and we make our decisions differently, so just keeping that in mind and finding someone who is happy to talk to you in detail about the project you are working on would be important.

Lucy: I think those are just good rules for life, you know get informed and give people your context, you know and understand how things work.

Mitchell: Yeah, if they are good rules for life, they are even more important here.

Lucy: Especially, in electronic communities.

Larry: You've talked about rules but you also mentioned the word license and of course that immediately brings up.

Are there legal issues, intellectual property issues that we have to be aware of, concerned about as it relates to open source, as well as, now we are going to have a company exit whether we are selling a product or selling a company. Are there special issues there that we have to be aware of?

Mitchell: Whenever you use software that you didn't write, you need to make sure that you have the legal right to do with it what you're doing, to incorporate your product or particular. And so that's true with open-source software and it's true with proprietary software.

You can't just go grab Photoshop, for example, and drop it in your product and resell it. The same is true in open-source software so you need to look at the licenses. All of the licenses will give you the ability to do what you want with the source code.

Some of them will say, if you take my open-source software and combine it with your code, now all of your code, that entire combination has to be treated a certain way. In particular, there's the license, the new public license which does this.

So if that's the case, then you need to make sure that you're treating this whole combination in the way that you're obligated to. People often worry about that, but the general concept is no different than if you'd license a piece of proprietary code somewhere else. You have to make sure you can do what you want with it.

Another issue that comes up with open-source software is when you have a product, or when you sell a company, or sell an asset, the acquiring company often- well, even a product, there's always the issue of warrantys and indemnities, that's who's responsible when something goes wrong.

And so, lots of times when you incorporate open-source software into your product there will be no warranty or indemnity to you. Whereas if you license a piece of software from a proprietary software company, and you're paying them, then part of that discussion of license and payment often includes indemnities.

But since you're not paying anything for open-source software, you're very unlikely to get an indemnity back. And so that's a legal issue that often comes up.

Lucy: Important things to know.

Lee: So Mitchell, when we think about open-source, its come such a long way. I mean, not only do we have Mozilla, we've got Linux, MySQL, PHP are huge open-source tools and projects.

If you think about the future in open-source, where do you think it's going to go? What's it going to look like down the road? And are there going to be additional advantages for entrepreneurs there?

Mitchell: Well, let's see, open-source has come a long way. I think we're already starting to see open-source opening things up in general. I think all of those will continue. We'll see more open-source software and we'll see it used in more and more places.

Partly it's price at first, it's easy to try something that's free, but there's a range of other advantages, some of which we've talked about here. So I think that will continue.

I think the idea of open-source, or collaboration - opening up your development system enough to allow collaboration is an idea that's spreading right now and will continue to spread.

Open-source software opens that up through changing the intellectual property structure (the open-source licenses), and the open-source development method opens up possibilities for collaboration by saying-

"We, the management team of this company, don't know exactly around the world who are the best people to help us develop our software or who's really interested in it. Let's open it up so those people can find us as well."

And I think we'll see more and more of that. That is related to user-generated content, related to the number of companies who are allowing customers more ability to customize what you make, you know, design your own shoes and so on. So I think those forms will continue.

How entrepreneurs might use this to their advantage, I would say, we're in a phase where people are really interested in interacting with other people, whether we call it social networking or we call it collaboration.

But we're beginning to see both how much fun people can have, and how much value can be created when we release the constraints on who can do what, who we permit to work with us, and who we permit to have some leadership and authority. So I think those trends will continue.

One aspect of open-source that I didn't actually include in the definition in the first question, but maybe I should have, are some of the traits of how open-source projects generally work, which is based on merit and reputation, and who does things. Sometimes open-source projects are called "meritocracies"; sometimes they're called "do-acracies". It means you do things.

Lee: People do things, right?

Lucy: [laughing] I haven't heard that one before but I like it.

Lee: That was all so insightful though.

Mitchell: And of course, like for a strong project, you need your do-ers, and your people who are really good at it, to overlap a lot, so that your "do-acracy" and your "meritocracy" have a giant space where they overlap. Where you gain authority by gaining respect, and by gaining the respect of your peers.

Many open-source projects don't have an employer in them, even those that do have employers like Mozilla. You have to operate where someone gets authority, because the people he or she works with respect her or respect him.

It's much harder to say, "I'm the manager, I am telling you this person will make the decisions, because I, the manager, have picked her." Whereas everybody else feels like that person's not really competent.

So open-source is a lot about saying, "The people who are doing the work are the best people to recognize the leaders among them," in competence, not maybe social traits, but certainly in competence.

So I think, going forward, for entrepreneurs to recognize that there are settings in which people are working together, you will find competence, and not always trust your manager or your middle-manager instead of the people who are actually working on a problem.

So that's a very useful tool. And then in general, the empowering of people to have more emotional engagement in what they're doing. For an open-source project it's critical. Why do the volunteers volunteer to do an open-source project? Why do they participate? Why do the Mozilla volunteers spend so many hours?

It's partly because what we're doing is important, partly because they enjoy it, but also because there's space for them to grow, and to earn authority, and to have people want their opinion, and to [inaudible 26:41] and to actually do things. So those are tools which spread well beyond software into other parts of life.

Lucy: Sounds to me like they'd be useful-

Mitchell: Entrepreneurs that figure out, "Where in my business world is that appropriate? And can I really legitimately let people have some space to move?"

Lucy: Well, I think people like to participate in "do-acracies", I just love that, rather than what they find in some other jobs today, I'm sure.

So, Mitchell, is there anything else about open-source or about entrepreneurs that we haven't asked you that we should have? I mean this has just been fascinating, I think everybody's going to love to listen to this interview, but we just wanted to get that one last thought.

Mitchell: I do have one thought. One of the things that surprises people about open-source software is that it turns out not everyone wants to be a couch potato all the time. People are surprised: "Why would somebody volunteer? Writing software or testing, that's work! Why does anybody do that if they're not getting paid?"

So part of it is the personal satisfaction that we talked about a few minutes ago. Another part of it is many of us live in a land right now where we can consume. We know there are consumers and we have almost a luxury of consumption of the things that are available to us.

And that's true on the Internet where we're also very accustomed to getting things for free. So not only do we have things, but we have things for free, so we have consumption for free. And that is a luxury that most of human history, most human beings, have never remotely approached.

But many of us live, in some portion of our lives, in that setting. But what open-source does is actually to say, the true luxury-after you eat, you know, you have the goods that you need-after consumption, the true luxury is to create.

To be in a setting where all of this stuff is arrayed in front of me, like my browser or my Internet or this piece of software is there and it's free and I can use it... but when it doesn't work for me, or when I need something different, or when it's not in my language, or where I want it to be on a different device, I can do that!

So that, yes I'm the consumer when I want to be, which is a lot of the time, but when I want to go beyond that and impact my own life and improve my life, and actually create something, the opportunity is right there. That's the big picture of what we're trying to accomplish.

Lucy: And in fact, that's exactly what we, at NCWIT, we've been working on the image of computing, not just for women but for everybody for the discipline.

That was just a very powerful statement of an image that can attract people to the power of computing, and what you can do with it to not only change your own life, but to change the world. That was just really, very well said and we've just loved talking to you Mitchell. Thank you so much for taking time to talk to us.

Larry: Yeah, thank you, that was great.

Lee: Thank you Mitchell.

Lucy: And I just wanted to remind listeners that they can find these podcasts, our Internet radio partner, and at the NCWIT website at So thank you very much Mitchell, we really appreciate it.