Igor Sysoev, The One-Man-Show Behind NGINX
NGINX is a mega-popular, multifunctional web server designed by a man who doesn't even enjoy publicity. In his 20-year career, the man behind the software - Igor Sysoev - has given only a handful of interviews to the public.
He may be modest at heart, but his professional resume and accomplishments are far from it. The main reason for his success it's his knack for solving problems - which is how he ended up creating NGINX!
How Igor Fell In Love With Computers
Igor did everything by the book and to some people, these stories can be boring.
However, his story is not to be underestimated.
Born in 1970 in a small town in Kazakhstan, he graduated from high school in 1987 and applied for the Bauman Moscow Higher Technical School.
He wasn't accepted.
So, back in his hometown, he began working as a laboratory assistant at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the USSR Ministry of Geology. This wasn't his first time working on a computer, as in his high school years, he had a chance to use a Yamaha KUVT (standard MSX), a machine mostly used for sound and music production.
The computer he was working on in the Institute was a bit different, one of those old Iskra-226 computers. The programming language he used was BASIC - yes, it was that long ago!
So how did this random Russian develop his programming skills? Well, he had been a long-time fan of the magazine ‘Radio', which published a series of articles on how to create your own computer.
Igor found those quite helpful.
Thanks to these articles, he was able to understand how computers function and get a good grasp of their main features.
The man learned how computers work from a magazine - genius, right?
Well, a bit later he applied to college again, but this time to the Computer Science Department at Bauman Moscow State Technical University.
And this time, he succeeded!
He graduated in 1994 and began his journey of becoming a prominent software engineer.
The road, however, had its bumps.
Getting Fed Up With C10K Problems
Igor was not a man of change, as he claims about himself in one of his few interviews. He got a job as a SysAdmin with a company in the oil business, where he worked for seven years. Then, he switched to XXL.ru, a then-relevant e-commerce site, but that didn't last long, as in 2000, he joined the largest internet portal in Russia, Rambler.
Here is where his journey towards NGINX started, as Igor had plenty of free time to dedicate to coding. He worked for Rambler for a full decade, writing NGINX in his spare time. Later, this would have him sued over copyright claims, but he was quickly absolved and the case was dropped.
Anyway, his main concern after Y2K, was how to solve the C10K problem. C10K was a term used in 1999 to describe the inability of web servers to handle large numbers of simultaneous connections - more than 10,000, and you had a C10K problem.
He focused on solving that very specific problem - handling more customers per single, existing server. NGINX was able to handle requests with an asynchronous event-driven approach, which turned out to be a very cost-effective solution for every website.
Once he solved this, all the other problems with currently-existing systems such as Apache started to surface, and NGINX quickly became popular among users, who promptly expressed strong desires for more.
He started working on the code in 2002, and it took two years to develop the final product before the open-source version was launched in 2004. The updated NGINX was much faster, stronger, and it could handle many simultaneous connections without suffering performance issues.
From Curious Idea To Top-Quality Product
Igor says his initial idea wasn't about building a web server - he just wanted to fix the issue with handling too many requests.
But thanks to his curiosity, he developed a solution that would ultimately help many individuals and companies. He says he wanted to solve both practical and academic problems that a person may encounter while using a computer - and he did!
For him, the hardest part was writing the structure for the first code. After that, development went much more smoothly.
NGINX became viable as a web server in 2007, and they've been growing ever since.
In 2011, NGINX was officially formed as a company and received its first funding from investors.
This was the year when Igor left his job at Rambler and decided to invest all his time in NGINX.
The engineering team? Russians only!
How NGINX Became So Popular In An Age Without Digital Marketing
Even with the first version of the product from 2002, Igor was able to get clients. His first customer was an Estonian dating site that still exists - rate.ee. But, once the final version was launched in 2004, big names started to come in.
Russia is a great market to launch a product of this size and that helped NGINX a lot with its first clients. Later on, programming and Internet enthusiasts from other countries started to learn about it and spread the word around. Soon enough, Igor and his team received an English-language mailing list with potential clients, and from that point on, it was smooth sailing!
From today's perspective, it seems impossible to do any of this without the power of digital marketing or an effective PR strategy. From Igor's point of view, the best product is the best PR.
Word of mouth is key here - NGINX grew its popularity based on it. People started using it, shared their experiences with other people, and that's all it took.
Another important element of NGINX's success is timing. Igor was able to anticipate problems and provide a solution far before any of them actually appeared. From the product's reception, it's now obvious that there was a need for it on the market, but it took real genius to predict it.
Hindsight is 20/20, right?
Once it was out there and people saw it worked perfectly, they wanted to use it, which quickly scaled NGINX's success.
However, they needed funds to back up this success and scale the company, and they hadn't gotten any investors - yet!
Persistent Business Angels
In 2008, Igor received a letter with an offer to invest in the project, but at that time, a lot of people were trying to get in on the NGINX action. There had been a dozen of these letters so far, but Igor wasn't having it - he didn't want to be a businessman, and he already had a job at Rambler! He refused and forgot about it.
But it wasn't long before he realized the potential in his idea, turning to Sergey Belousov, the creator of Parallels and Runa Capital. Sergey was the complete opposite of Igor, full of positive energy and enthusiasm, so he quickly took the lead at NGINX.
As part of a Serie A investment, NGINX received a $3 million investment from Runa, along with BV Capital (now e.venture) and MSD Capital.
Getting Sergey on board turned out to be a life-changing decision - Igor was a genius, but he wasn't a businessman, so he didn't enjoy negotiating and managing documentation. Sergey, on the other hand, used every skill he had to turn a profit on the product and the company.
Most of NGINX's success happened in 2013. The company surpassed Microsoft IIS in the web server market with more than 22 million active users. Also, this was the year when the team launched a paid version of the product, NGINX Plus - and moved its headquarters to San Francisco.
Where's NGINX Today?
NGINX made its first million in 2014 and investors' offers started to pour in almost immediately. They received a $10 million Series B investment by NEA in 2013, and another $20 million in 2014, with the participation of other investors. In June 2018, the company raised $43 million as a part of a Series C round led by Goldman Sachs and NEA.
Today, NGINX is an absolute market leader.
More than 60% of the top 100,000 websites use it, some of which are the most popular ones like Airbnb, Dropbox, Netflix, Tumblr, Instagram, etc. Thanks to its amazing performance, more than 374 million websites are connected to it.
In the last few years, NGINX managed to grow its product range significantly, launching the NGINX Unit, the NGINX Amplify, and the NGINX Controller - cost-effective solutions for improving the performance of any given company.
All of this was possible thanks to Igor's incredible vision, knowledge, and potential to believe in his idea and skills. He was ahead of his time and managed to put that to good use.
He also had a team of qualified engineers and salespeople who helped him get where he is today - the founder of NGINX, the industry leader that showcased such a revolutionary piece of software, it changed how investors see open-source projects.