“We began to realise that applications in the future would all be built on the cloud”: Interview with Aiven’s CEO and cofounder, Oskari Saarenmaa

Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Helsinki with offices in Berlin, Sydney, Toronto and Boston, Aiven is the epitome of success of an early-stage business. The 5-year old startup has recently enjoyed a new influx of funds and has set one ambitious goal for itself: becoming a Finnish unicorn.

The team provides solutions to manage open source data infrastructure in the cloud, with support for technologies like MySQL, Elasticsearch, Apache Kafka, M3, Redis, InfluxDB, Apache Cassandra, PostgreSQL, and Grafana.

As Aiven explains, the wide range of products that they offer help their clients drive business results and trigger a true digital transformation. To deliver on its promises, the startup is betting everything on an innovative, collaborative business approach that centers on an open source programme and a wide community of developers.

EU-Startups sat down with Aiven’s CEO and cofounder, Oskari Saarenmaa, to talk all things tech, the future of cloud infrastructure in Europe, and bouncing back from the pandemic on top of the game.

In just a few years, Aiven has positioned itself as a ‘one to watch’ in the cloud infrastructure sector and has recently raised around €83 million – increasing the company’s value to over around €660 million. How will you use the recent funding to develop your platform?

At Aiven, we ease developers’ burden by managing their cloud data infrastructure so they can focus on what they do best – creating applications. The open source technologies that we offer as a service are the heart of our offering. We want to double down on our investments to develop these technologies and cultivate sustainable communities, and make sure open source remains truly open.

This funding round will allow us to establish an open source office at Aiven that employs open source developers to contribute towards projects on a full time basis.

Aside from that, we are continuously looking at new, innovative technologies emerging from the world of open source that we believe will generate real business value for our customers and prospects. For example, two particularly interesting technologies our customers are looking for at the moment are time series databases – which we have responded to by launching an M3 service – and analytics capabilities, which we will be looking into in due course.

Lastly, we plan to expand our global footprint from North America and Europe to Asia and have ambitions of doubling our headcount in the next fiscal year.

Aiven is set to become a unicorn. When you founded it in 2016, did you expect it to go that far? What were the steps and know-how that were instrumental to the startup’s success?

My co-founders and I wanted to build something that we would have liked to use ourselves to make the most of open source technologies. When we first launched Aiven, we were conscious of ensuring that every move we made was in line with three core principles; work hard to create simple solutions for complex problems; automate everything, and hire the best people.

This has been the foundation of our success so far. Aiven has gone from zero to global in five years, covering over 90 regions worldwide, so it certainly has been very fast paced. However, we have kept things simple and also made sure we have the best possible team in place. There’s no question that without such a strong team, we wouldn’t have made it this far.

You take pride in your love for open source communities and will launch a formal open source programme office in the near future. Tell us more about the philosophy behind your startup and how it is rooted in making tech accessible.

When I started programming, I wanted to learn and experiment on projects without really needing to have the full picture. I found that open source was perfect for me to do exactly that as it didn’t just give me the tools to create but more crucially, it gave me behind-the-scenes access to the process people went through to create the technology in the first place, so I could really work on expanding my skills.

A little later on in life, while working at F-Secure with Hannu Valtonen and Mika Eloranta, we watched as AWS, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure materialised and grew in popularity and pretty early on, we began to realise that applications in the future would all be built on the cloud. That’s when we launched Aiven.

At its core, Aiven strives to make developers’ lives better. We enable companies of all sizes from all over the world to set up, maintain and monitor a secure and scalable open source data infrastructure.

For example, we centred our own product around Apache Kafka but knew it was incredibly difficult to operate, so we decided to offer Apache Kafka as a service to make it as easy as possible for our customers to use, while also allowing them to get the most out of open source software. Another trend we identified when we first started out was the increasing demand for open source databases in the cloud. That’s why we offer PostgreSQL as a service – to assist companies in doing just that.

How’s COVID-19 impacted your business and your sector? What are the challenges that you have been facing during the pandemic? And what are the possible solutions?

All businesses have been impacted by the pandemic in one way or another.  In the beginning of the pandemic a lot of businesses put everything requiring long term commitments on hold as the future looked uncertain. The cloud, however, enables business models that allow fast iteration and require no long term commitments, and we worked with a wide variety of old and new customers as they navigated the pandemic.

What we’re witnessing is an acceleration in digitalisation efforts across industries, as businesses need to adjust on how people work, shop and go about their lives under the current restrictions. A lot of this innovation happens in the cloud and building on top of open source, because the two can really support rapid development and experimentation cycles required to meet that demand.

What is the future of cloud infrastructure in Europe? What role will the EU’s cloud infrastructure initiative, GAIA-X, play in developing a competitive European cloud infrastructure and furthering technological sovereignty?

We at Aiven follow the EU’s cloud infrastructure initiative, GAIA-X, with great interest. The aim for the effort is to create standard ways of access to cloud resources meeting the stringent requirements on respect for data rights and privacy. If GAIA-X succeeds, it means European companies can utilise cloud technologies far better than they currently are.

GAIA-X, will enable open and secure data management while giving people better control and transparency over data infrastructure. As a European initiative with European values, GAIA-X will lay the foundations for a new system that facilitates interoperability and interconnectivity throughout the region. More importantly, it will give businesses the freedom to pick and choose cloud providers without fear of vendor lock-in and open up many doors for data exploration and innovation.