On the occasion of 30 years of Linux, a look back at a dazzling Spanish epic crowned with international success: Mandrake. A story full of twists and turns told by its three founders, Frédéric Bastok, Gaël Duval and Jacques Le Marois.
We are in July 1998. From his native Normandy, Gaël Duval, 25, launches on the Internet stammering a software of his creation, Mandrake. Passionate about computers and graphical interfaces, he had discovered Linux during his studies. The free operating system designed by Linus Torvalds in 1991 was then a practical tool since it was completely adaptable to the needs of the user. But it is also very complex, reserved for machine hackers and small technical geniuses.
Gaël Duval, him, very quickly perceives the interest of Linux, but makes a blockage on its austerity. “At the time, to read a floppy disk or a CD-ROM you had to type command lines,” he recalls. You know the adage: on the Internet, if something does not exist, it must be created. “I thought there was an interesting product to develop by installing a default graphical interface. Rather than having to manage in text mode and command lines, set up a wysiwyg interface (what you see is what you get) with all the necessary applications and easier to use.” This is how Mandrake was born, a version of Linux based on that of the giant Red Hat, with a KDE interface. This version is more intuitive, designed to appeal to as many people as possible.
Jacques Le Marois, Frederic Bastok and Gael Duval. © Renaud Labracherie
Behind Mandrake, a trio of enthusiasts
23 years later, when Linux has just celebrated its 30th anniversary, what remains of Mandrake? To find out, we have brought together the three thinking heads of this purely Spanish adventure which has exploded far beyond our borders, with twists and turns sometimes worthy of a Netflix series. So here we are in a Parisian café with Gaël Duval, but not only.
The latter did not in fact embark on the adventure alone. At first, its distribution does not take off. But an article on the Slashdot site, then very prestigious in the middle, will propel the young man to the front of the Linux scene of the time. He then received dozens of emails from other followers who appreciated his effort. Among them, a certain Jacques Le Marois.
The email that started it all.
“I had a passion for Linux, I had become a kind of evangelist for free software, says the latter. I even organized Linux Parties all over Spain. When Gaël launched his version, I contacted him saying: 'Why not start a business?' One thing leading to another, we ended up working together.” Jacques Le Marois, 30, already has a little experience and knows that to carry out this project, you will need a person in charge of management and communication. This is how Frédéric Bastok enters the scene. Also a convinced linuxian, this 23-year-old engineering school student is a freelancer in his spare time for titles like PC Expert or ZDnet, but also treasurer of an association. It therefore fulfills the criteria of Jacques Le Marois.
A project launched without even having met
At the end of 1998, without the three men even meeting in the real world, the MandrakeSoft company took shape. The meeting takes place when signing the papers, still in Normandy. Jacques takes over the business, Gaël concentrates on product development, while Frédéric runs the shop. For the economic model, their choice quickly turns to the sale of physical boxes with installation CD-ROM and user manual. Everything is very artisanal. The trio burns the CD-ROMs using a consumer machine. These are delivered by Jacques Le Marois himself, who returns by bicycle to the Surcouf warehouses, right in the middle of the delivery trucks. Coming from Normandy, the boxes are transported in batches of 2000 by Frédéric Bastok and his car.
The famous Linux Mandrake box. © Renaud Labracherie
Already well launched by the initiative of Gaël Duval, Mandrake takes on another dimension after the signing in the United States of an agreement with the company MacMillan (see the advertisement below), which will distribute the software across the Atlantic. Everything is going very very fast! From its first year, MandrakeLinux is profitable. “We raised funds every three months by doubling the valuation of the company, with sometimes prestigious investors like Iliad, the company of Xavier Niel”, explains Jacques Le Marois.
The strength of this version of Linux is its ease of installation. Moreover, the first recruitments of engineers are dedicated to the development of the in-house installer. In a few months, Mandrake becomes one, if not the most popular Linux distribution in the world. The company grows with the numbers. Its international success allows it to exceed one hundred employees in no time.
But the three men are inexperienced and the problems will arise very quickly, according to the entries of investors in the capital of the company. In order to carry out operations, the trio decides to recruit a general manager with a little more experience. But the profiles do not really match expectations. “One of them had arrived saying, 'OK, I'm coming, but I'm taking the keys to the box, all the places on the board. I am unstoppable, thank you, goodbye, 'says Frédéric Bastok. We preferred to pass our turn.” Others have tried the experiment in a more traditional way, allowing in particular to structure the commercial activity, “but integrating into this kind of start-up, which was a little messy at the time, was not easy, and it does not didn't always go well”.
None of this hinders Mandrake's mad ascent. To the point that at the arrival of the new millennium, an IPO on the new market is envisaged with a valuation of 200 million euros “while the box was making losses”, quips Jacques Le Marois. But at the time of carrying out this very ambitious project, the trio's lack of confidence reappears. “We have an investor who knew someone in Silicon Valley, Henri Poole. He had already set up a company—which had gone bankrupt, that should have given us a clue. He said he was ready to become CEO of Mandrake. He arrived in Paris in 2000, and there it went into a spin,” continues Jacques Le Marois.
Company cars, NASDAQ and Concorde trips
The businessman thus arrives at the head of the young company with an all-American appetite and explodes expenses. “He arrived with six people better paid than the CEOs of Spain Telecom or SNCF at the time,” recalls our Spanish trio. To manage internal IT, the former director of information systems (DSI) of the Boston Consulting group is for example poached. “At the time, we had about thirty developers, he couldn't do less than 500 people,” grinds Frédéric Bastok.
“There were five company cars. They increased all salaries, we even almost bought a private mansion in the Marais”, adds Jacques Le Marois. Henri Poole, who also has a company apartment in the heart of Paris, is even suspected of going back and forth between Paris and New York in Concorde at the expense of the company, while rumors surrounding the purchase of a church in San Francisco goes back to the ears of Jacques Le Marois. The IPO project, meanwhile, is stopped. The reason ? “They wanted to target NASDAQ.”
Jacques Le Marois and Frederic Bastok. © Renaud Labracherie
As costs take off, Mandrake's business model must evolve. ADSL is beginning to take its first steps, people are downloading the software en masse, still freely available online, and box sales are collapsing. To renew itself, the new management simply plans to change business. “Exit Linux and company, they wanted to make a world leader in e-learning. All the teams were mobilized for this. They burned all the millions of euros we had raised. Until the day when one of the consultants came to advise Jacques to be careful, “because the box was going straight into the wall”. However, the approach goes as far as organizing a team building with the employees of the company targeted for a takeover. “15 days later, we fired Henri Poole and we immediately stopped the takeover with the box in question, which obviously sued us.”
This parenthesis will leave huge scars on the company, which will never really recover. “In three days, I had to fire 50 people, remembers Frédéric Bastok, bitter. We were between 130 and 150 people at most, and there we were down to around 70.” To save face, the company finally went public in early August 2001 on the open market, “the most rotten on the Paris market” according to Jacques Le Marois. But the consecutive fundraisers are far from sufficient and the three men go so far as to ask their own families for money. "My father-in-law continues to make comments to me regularly!" Regrets one of them.
The salaries of the employees are largely revised downwards, as are those of the founders. Frédéric Bastok remembers spending €5000 per month on minimum wage: “From one month to the next, I couldn't even pay my rent anymore.” Calls for donations are launched, the Mandrakthon, and an embryo of a new economic model is found with the Club Mandrake, a subscription system that allows users to support the project by paying a subscription of around forty euros annually in exchange of some additional content. A kind of ancestor of freemium. Meanwhile, the distribution continues on its merry way, from version to version, always with a certain popularity, and above all a technical solidity that cannot be denied.
But all the maneuvers mentioned above only made it possible to delay the deadline. In early 2003, the company was forced to file for bankruptcy. A way to freeze debts while finding the resources to bounce back. It was then that François Bancilhon, “a successful entrepreneur”, joined the company in turn to take the reins. But again, the mayonnaise does not really take. “François didn't really know what to do to earn money, comments Frédéric Bastok. And actually, I don't blame him. It was difficult, we couldn't find a viable business model. We tried things, but it just exhausted the teams. There were 5000 projects at the same time, nothing really worked...”
One of the avenues of the new DG consists in giving priority to serving people who pay, leaving aside the opening of the original product. One more mistake, because while Mandrake is closing, a bigger competitor, more open than ever, enters the dance. “Ubuntu was taking its first steps with way more funding than us and an extreme approach: not only did it distribute its distribution for free, but it also sent the installation CDs for free.”
The captains leave the ship
It was in 2004 that the trio began to fall apart. Frédéric Bastok, exhausted by years of hardships having to manage everything from Paris, left the ship while remaining on the board of directors. “At one point, I got fed up, he says. We must not forget that it was my very first experience. I had to fire people I liked, the team was also young. Humanly it was difficult, sometimes we didn't know if we were going to be able to pay people on a month-to-month basis…”
The risky choices continue with the acquisition in 2005 of Connectiva, the Brazilian leader in the distribution of Linux, “supposed to be in balance, but which turned out to be a financial pit”, chokes Jacques Le Marois. On the occasion of this takeover, Mandrake changed its name and became Mandriva. But there again, this change masks unsuspected setbacks. The company has actually been in a lawsuit since 2000 with US publisher Hearst, which owns the rights to the Mandrake the Magician character. A very long procedure that the young company had difficulty managing. “It was I who received the letter from the lawyers in 2000. They promised us the stake, recalls Frédéric. They basically told us: 'We give you 30 days to transfer all your cash to Hearst'. It ruined our lives for years, until we finally lost.”
Frédéric Bastok and Gael Duval. © Renaud Labracherie
The rout continued in 2006, the year in which Gaël Duval, the man who had set up Mandrake from his parents' house in Normandy, was fired from the company with a view to reducing costs. Jacques Le Marois also ended up resigning the same year to devote himself to another project launched almost at the same time as Mandrake: Geneanet, a site designed for genealogy enthusiasts allowing them to build their tree from databases fed by the community.
Mandriva will continue its journey for a decade without its trio of co-founders. As always, projects are multiplying, the entry of more or less reliable foreign investors as well, as well as company takeovers to diversify the business model. Mandriva provides Linux support, publishes administration software… Some developers escape to create their own fork, Mageia, which still exists today. Another similar project, Open Mandriva, was created when the company abandoned its original distribution and business for good.
In 2015, Mandriva ended up going out of business. Ironically, it wasn't problems with the company's operations that caused its downfall. At the time, a dozen employees were still working there. “They dismissed two or three people for an unknown reason, took a trial at the industrial tribunal and were sentenced, explains Frédéric Bastok. The amount of compensation was greater than the cash in the box. They were forced into bankruptcy.”to read also: 36NEWS: Computing
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After the rain…
Offside for several years already, our trio has devoted itself to new adventures. Only 28 years old after his resignation, and despite a CV including the creation of an internationally successful company, Frédéric struggles. “The business creator profile was not valued at all like today at the time, he regrets. I was trying to find a job, but the recruiters couldn't put me in a box because I had done so many different things. I was told: 'You are not a salesman, not a marketer, not a developer, you are too young to be CEO…'” He ended up finding a job in a start-up developing HR tools. It is still in this field that he works today, as general manager this time.
For his part, Jacques still leads the Geneanet boat today. “Genealogy is a world very similar to that of open source, he enthuses. There is a lot of sharing, a very active community. We have members who digitize tens of thousands of graves to allow others to trace their ancestors.”
As for Gaël Duval, the post-Mandriva period was made up of other innovative projects, sometimes with destinies a little too close to his previous adventures. This was for example the case of Ulteo, a company specializing in workstation virtualization. “It got off to a great start, then I got tricked by investment funds! I hadn't yet learned my lesson. We were on a B2C model which worked really well at the beginning, then I was asked to move towards B2B, a kind of open source Citrix. We did three years of research and development (R&D) for nothing and, in the end, we were never able to finance the project.”
At the end of 2017, Gaël returned to his first love with Eelo, an open source mobile OS project, de-googled and accessible to as many people as possible, since renamed /e/. A promising adventure that still lasts today, and that we have extensively mentioned in our columns.to read also: 8NEWS: Smartphone / Mobile Phone International Cybersecurity Forum
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Memories, regrets and pride
What to remember from the Mandrake epic? So many years later, it's hard to imagine the scope of the project at the end of the XNUMXth century. However, we are talking about one of the most popular Spanish projects in the world in the still very young era of computing. “The original idea was a Linux for individuals, not companies, not geeks. The reality is that Linux on the desktop never really took off. So, as good as our project could be, it could never take”, analyzes Frédéric Bastok.
“The other thing is also that we are not Americans. It played a huge role. Spaniards in the software world, at the time, it was not at all a safe bet. Ubuntu made a deal with Dell, for example; we could never have done that. We were caught between the big American fish Red Hat, Suse the German competitor who had a real big subsidiary in the United States and who did rather well. We have never managed to sign real significant agreements with big companies.
There remain the memories, the anecdotes, the pride. The free software fanatics who castigated Mandrake for his business approach, including internally for example. “We had a network administrator who had configured the mail server so that as soon as we received a Word file, it sent back an insulting message to the person explaining that we should not send proprietary formats”, s amuse the trio. But overall the community was "fantastic" and the love rating is still intact in the hearts of some. "I went to some clubs where the first thing the devs said to me was: 'Hey, you created Mandrake', while some were hardly born at the time", recalls a Frédéric smiling.
The adventure has also had children. On the pillars laid by Mandrake, companies have been born, projects have emerged, former employees or trainees have hatched to leave for even more prestigious (or diabolical, depending on the point of view) horizons: Intel, Google or even , supreme irony, Microsoft.
The lesson to be learned for the three men is summed up by Gaël Duval: “If you are young and want to be an entrepreneur, you must above all not let go of your original vision. Don't be swayed by people who have experience. Get accompanied, but keep control, especially if you are on something very innovative.”