RPA market surges as investors, vendors capitalize on pandemic-driven tech shift

When UIPath filed its S-1 last week, it was a watershed moment for the robotic process automation (RPA) market. The company, which first appeared on our radar for a $30 million Series A in 2017, has so far raised an astonishing $2 billion while still private. In February, it was valued at $35 billion when it raised $750 million in its latest round.

RPA and process automation came to the fore during the pandemic as companies took steps to digitally transform. When employees couldn’t be in the same office together, it became crucial to cobble together more automated workflows that required fewer people in the loop.

RPA has enabled executives to provide a level of workflow automation that essentially buys them time to update systems to more modern approaches while reducing the large number of mundane manual tasks that are part of every industry’s workflow.

When UIPath raised money in 2017, RPA was not well known in enterprise software circles even though it had already been around for several years. The category was gaining in popularity by that point because it addressed automation in a legacy context. That meant companies with deep legacy technology — practically everyone not born in the cloud — could automate across older platforms without ripping and replacing, an expensive and risky undertaking that most CEOs would rather not take.

RPA has enabled executives to provide a level of workflow automation, a taste of the modern. It essentially buys them time to update systems to more modern approaches while reducing the large number of mundane manual tasks that are part of just about every industry’s workflow.

While some people point to RPA as job-elimination software, it also provides a way to liberate people from some of the most mind-numbing and mundane chores in the organization. The argument goes that this frees up employees for higher level tasks.

As an example, RPA could take advantage of older workflow technologies like OCR (optical character recognition) to read a number from a form, enter the data in a spreadsheet, generate an invoice, send it for printing and mailing, and generate a Slack message to the accounting department that the task has been completed.

We’re going to take a deep dive into RPA and the larger process automation space — explore the market size and dynamics, look at the key players and the biggest investors, and finally, try to chart out where this market might go in the future.

Meet the vendors

UIPath is clearly an RPA star with a significant market share lead of 27.1%, according to IDC. Automation Anywhere is in second place with 19.4%, and Blue Prism is third with 10.3%, based on data from IDC’s July 2020 report, the last time the firm reported on the market.

Two other players with significant market share worth mentioning are WorkFusion with 6.8%, and NTT with 5%.

By Ron Miller

Drupal’s journey from dorm-room project to billion-dollar exit

Twenty years ago Drupal and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert was a college student at the University of Antwerp. He wanted to put his burgeoning programming skills to work by building a communications tool for his dorm. That simple idea evolved over time into the open-source Drupal web content management system, and eventually a commercial company called Acquia built on top of it.

Buytaert would later raise over $180 million and exit in 2019 when the company was acquired by Vista Equity Partners for $1 billion, but it took 18 years of hard work to reach that point.

When Drupal came along in the early 2000s, it wasn’t the only open-source option, but it was part of a major movement toward giving companies options by democratizing web content management.

Many startups are built on open source today, but back in the early 2000s, there were only a few trail blazers and none that had taken the path that Acquia took. Buytaert and his co-founders decided to reduce the complexity of configuring a Drupal installation by building a hosted cloud service.

That seems like a no-brainer now, but consider at the time in 2009, AWS was still a fledgling side project at Amazon, not the $45 billion behemoth it is today. In 2021, building a startup on top of an open-source project with a SaaS version is a proven and common strategy. Back then nobody else had done it. As it turned out, taking the path less traveled worked out well for Acquia.

Moving from dorm room to billion-dollar exit is the dream of every startup founder. Buytaert got there by being bold, working hard and thinking big. His story is compelling, but it also offers lessons for startup founders who also want to build something big.

Born in the proverbial dorm room

In the days before everyone had internet access and a phone in their pockets, Buytaert simply wanted to build a way for him and his friends to communicate in a centralized way. “I wanted to build kind of an internal message board really to communicate with the other people in the dorm, and it was literally talking about things like ‘Hey, let’s grab a drink at 8:00,’” Buytaert told me.

He also wanted to hone his programming skills. “At the same time I wanted to learn about PHP and MySQL, which at the time were emerging technologies, and so I figured I would spend a few evenings putting together a basic message board using PHP and MySQL, so that I could learn about these technologies, and then actually have something that we could use.”

The resulting product served its purpose well, but when graduation beckoned, Buytaert realized if he unplugged his PC and moved on, the community he had built would die. At that point, he decided to move the site to the public internet and named it drop.org, which was actually an accident. Originally, he meant to register dorp.org because “dorp” is Dutch for “village or small community,” but he mistakenly inverted the letters during registration.

Buytaert continued adding features to drop.org like diaries (a precursor to blogging) and RSS feeds. Eventually, he came up with the idea of open-sourcing the software that ran the site, calling it Drupal.

The birth of web content management

About the same time Buytaert was developing the basis of what would become Drupal, web content management (WCM) was a fresh market. Early websites had been fairly simple and straightforward, but they were growing more complex in the late 90s and a bunch of startups were trying to solve the problem of managing them. Buytaert likely didn’t know it, but there was an industry waiting for an open-source tool like Drupal.

By Ron Miller