Dev

Can this startup steal Node from Joyent? VCs bet $8M on it

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We got an interesting email from a PR firm yesterday telling us about an $8 million first round of funding for “the company behind Node.js, founded by the Node.js core contributors.”

On Background

    Node.js is server-side JavaScript. It was started as an open-source project in 2009 and has been maintained and supported by Joyent, a cloud computing company. Node is one of the hottest and most popular code repositories on GitHub, and it’s spawned a small but fascinating group of startups.

Node.js was founded by Ryan Dahl; its second contributor was Isaac Schlueter. The project has a total of 447 core contributors to date. Dahl was employed by Joyent during much of Node’s development, and Joyent continues to sponsor Node. Currently, Schlueter leads the project and is also employed by Joyent. To date, Joyent has raised in the neighborhood of $100 million in venture capital and has an employee headcount in excess of 120.

But this funding deal had nothing to do with Dahl, Schlueter, or Joyent.

Rather, two programmers named Ben Noordhuis and Bert Belder have founded a new company called StrongLoop. And they’re apparently attempting to hijack the Node brand and community for themselves.

We’ve got a few problems with the first and subsequent statements we’ve been given by this company. First, there’s no such thing as “the Node core contributors”; that’s a community of several hundred people. One of the founders is currently the most prolific Node contributor; the other ranks seventh. (The second most prolific contributor is a Joyent employee.)

Second, StrongLoop is one of many startups in the Node.js ecosystem, most of which are trying to make money by offering Node-based services. While StrongLoop is to be commended for its mobile-backend-as-a-service, it is one of the many companies around Node, not behind it.

That kind of exaggeration is the wrong way to start off a conversation with the press, so we decided to dig a bit deeper.

Sources close to the Node core told VentureBeat Noordhuis and Belder have been difficult to work with on the project and have actually slowed its momentum at various points. The first contributions the pair made to Node were more than a year after the project’s inception when the Node bandwagon was well on its way already.

Other sources tell us the two are excellent programmers; however, their and others’ commendations for the project are almost entirely about Noordhuis and Belders’ programming skills and the value of the Node project overall, not about StrongLoop.

In an email conversation with StrongLoop CEO Isaac Roth, the exec described Joyent as “a major user of Node.js” rather than its corporate steward. StrongLoop, he claims, is “the largest corporate sponsor of Node.js” — a dubious claim from a startup that just launched today.

Roth also played down Schlueter’s position in the Node ecosystem and community, something we chalk up to “developer drama” rather than an actual slam on Schlueter’s credentials.

The CEO continued, “Joyent doesn’t carry the project forward. It has become a community project. Joyent does keep their copyright on the original codebase, of which there is less and less left as the project moves on.”

Roth was an adviser at Shasta Ventures, where he says StrongLoop was incubated and received seed funding. While Shasta says it provides mentorship and partner-level involvement to its portfolio companies, it is not an incubator, nor can we find any evidence of an incubator specifically connected to it. Roth is not currently listed on the Shasta website as a team member, and StrongLoop is not listed as a portfolio company, although these could be due to other factors. Roth was a board member at a startup called NodeFly, which was acquired by StrongLoop in July. Previously, he worked at RedHat, the enterprise-grade Linux company.

In a phone call with VentureBeat, Joyent vice president of engineering Bryan Cantrill had diplomatic words for StrongLoop.

“We at Joyent very strongly believe in the democracy of open source,” he said. “In all the open-source projects we lead, if people want to fork, they should be encouraged to do so. … We’re not afraid of new ideas, and if they’re valuable, people vote with their feet. If they want to fork Node, go ahead. We believe in the community of Node and their judgement.”

While Roth told VentureBeat his company does not intend to fork Node, we are left wondering what in the world these guys could have told their investors that would lead to such a large Series A round. Most of their claims are easily refuted, and while they might have a good product, they’re also starting off with a bad reputation in the community they claim to represent.

So why did we do all this digging to check up on the claims of a small startup?

We know Node. We’ve been following Node since before Noordhuis and Belder made their first contributions. Three of this author’s articles are referenced in the Node.js Wikipedia page — a tenuous badge of honor, but we’ll take it. We’ve written countless articles about Node-based startups, and we’ve never seen attacks or audacity quite like this.

To date, there isn’t an official “Node platform,” and both StrongLoop and Joyent are competing for that title.

Ultimately, the Node community is an entity unto itself, and the Node community alone will decide who is the real force behind Node. Not a group of VCs, not one mouthy reporter, and not a pair of developers who clearly have a lot of passion for the project but little respect for its origins.


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