Tom Erickson of Acquia: How to work with a strong founder

How does a professional CEO work with a strong founder? Tom Erickson of the wildly successful open source company Acquia, commercializing the wildly popular Drupal open source platform shares his advice.

  1. Base the relationship on mutual respect and of an appreciation of the technical and professional competence of the other. This requires both to know the skill sets of each other.
  2. Be open to what each one contributes to success and how you can learn from each other.
  3. The founder is the business partner of the CEO.
  4. Ensure that there is cultural fit. That will take you through the hard times.


Marten: Welcome to the School of Herring, Tom Erickson, CEO of Acquia, commercializing the wildly popular Drupal open source platform.

Tom: It’s great to be here, Marten.

Marten: It’s great to have you here.

Tom: I’m particularly excited about the School of Herring, of course, given that both have Scandinavian blood in us.

Marten: Exactly. We love herring!

Tom: Yes.

Marten: Tell us about working with a very strong founder and a leader of an open source project. What is it like to be the CEO, the commercial CEO in a company with a very strong founder?

Tom: Well, the first thing is, you hold them in a lot of awe. When you have someone who’s as well known as Dries, and as capable, and has done what he’s done, it’s a lot of respect. You start from that position. You have to really build a relationship with that individual based around what you can provide and how you can mutually learn from each other.

I think one of the key principles is thinking about it from a mutual experience, as opposed to “I’m the CEO and he’s not.” It’s “I’m the CEO and he’s my business partner.” That’s how I explain him. He just happens to have a more technical world.

Marten: How was it when you joined as CEO of Acquia?

Tom: Well, we had a very interesting conversation as Driese invited me to join. As I was thinking about it I said “Dries, what kind of company do you want to create?” He said “I want to create a company that will last a long time because I hope this is the only job I’ll ever have.”

We got very good alignment right from there because certainly my mindset is to grow lasting organizations. Then I said “Well, now you’re going to have a boss. You’re going to have a CEO. Give me some advice.”

The first thing he said back to me is “I never want to feel like I have a boss.” So I had to really set my mindset as “Okay, how can I work with him so that we’re working together rather than there’s a boss or not a boss?”

The other thing he said was “I want to always have a lot of fun.” Right from day one, the culture that we tried to create and put together here has also been one of mixing fun together with a lot of hard work.

Marten: That’s excellent advice. Now if you would talk to a young company founder who’s looking to hire a commercial CEO, what would your advice be to that founder?

Tom: Well, the first thing is the cultural fit for sure. Is this a kind of individual who you think, in the long run, even when you don’t agree with them always that you’re going to be able to work together and work through it? You’re going to have moments where you are very frustrated with each other and you have so have so much respect you can do that.

Marten: Excellent. You’re saying cultural fit, respect each other, and respect the technical and professional competence of the other.

Tom: Yeah. You really need to know each other’s skill sets. They have to understand also mine too. Yeah, absolutely.

Marten: Thank you Tom. That was wonderful advice to founders and to startup CEOs.

Tom: Thank you very much Marten. It was a great pleasure to be here.

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