Open Source and the Impotence(sic) of Being Earnest

Oscar WildeQ. What do the questions…

“How do porcupines make love?”


“How do you ‘sell’ open source software?”

…have in common?

A. The answer to both is “Carefully!”

Software sales is a funny business.  Push too hard and you’re open to accusations of potentially ripping people off through aggressive tactics, don’t push hard enough and you end up having had many nice discussions (tea and biscuit meetings as they are known) with many nice people but your children go hungry.  It’s a balance.  And nowhere is this more in evidence than in the open source world.

I was chatting to an ex-colleague last week about the issues they have taking their open source software products to market.  I know that sounds like an oxymoron “taking open source to market” but there is usually a business model somewhere when commercial organisations put effort behind open source projects.  And so it is with my mate’s organisation.  They supply documentation, services and support in addition to taking the responsibility for ensuring the stability of releases of the open source projects that they are behind.  They allow organisations to see open source as a viable and low cost alternative to commercial-off-the-shelf software.  And by all accounts, despite what my colleague Steve Craggs said about open source adoption slowing in his 2009 predictions, their business is doing well.

Many commercial software organisations have invested in open source initiatives.  I’m not talking about the pure-play open source vendors such as JBOSS, Apache, Red Hat or MuleSource, but rather commercial-off-the-shelf software vendors who have put their “support” behind open source initiatives. They donate code, they place key people onto committees, they even open up divisions of their own commercial organisations dedicated to providing commercial support services.

In doing this, you have to wonder at their motives.  I mean, if their open source initiative is wildly successful does that spell the end for their commercial products?  Is it a hedging strategy?  An obfuscation strategy?  An intelligence gathering strategy?  Either way they can’t afford to run these efforts at a loss for too long, but neither can they bring their usual commercial sales and marketing tactics into play.  Open source market dynamics are very different.

Open source economics rely on getting “market” reach, having the best community/product, attracting a volume of users and therefore achieving critical mass.  Open source projects that achieve these things in their particular software segment are likely to find their software in use within end-user enterprises and can then expect these companies to require services.  And hence a market for support services around the open source project is born.  It happens almost by osmosis.  As a result, being first and biggest in open source matters more than it does in the commercial-off-the-shelf world.

The issues for those second movers in open source markets who can’t rely on the critical mass in open source are many and varied:

  • How do you force the sale?
  • How do thy get new users?
  • How do they move on from evaluation of the software to generating revenue?
  • How do they promote the commercial offer behind the open source project?
  • How do they sell?

The dilemma for second movers in an open source market is that open source communities can’t be built to order.  They can’t be pulled together solely by the actions of a commercial entity.  Sure they can be encouraged and all the right ingredients can be put in place.  But open source is about the community working for the good of the community and is not about hard sell.  Selling to open source communities is seen as a no-no.  Open source is “free” software.  There is no selling to be done.  Like worker bees in a hive or ants in a mound, the community en mass decides to use the software, or not.

So all open source vendors can do is put passive offers to deliver services out there in the hope that the community reaches a critical mass and the need for these services occurs.  “Build it and they will come”  It’s a little bit like a shy teenage boy that goes to stand close to a girl, but stops short of asking her for a date.  If you don’t ask you don’t get.

Whilst this approach is earnest and admirable, it doesn’t help to drive sales.  And if you represent a commercial vendor who has sales expectations from the services you wrap around open source projects, then you will be judged on your quarterly performance and not how earnest you may or may not be.

My question however is what is wrong with making statements about the value you can provide the open source world, and for asking for money for that?

If you’ believe that you’ve got a valid commercial offer that delivers value, then why not shout about this and ask for money for it?

In the coming months, we’re going to track a few open source project “vendors” with our REPAMA Methdology to take a look at how they tackle some of these problems.  I’ll report back some of our findings.

Danny Goodall.

Posted in All Blog Categories, communication, go-to-market, marketing, Marketing Strategy, Marketing Tactics, product marketing, prospects, Vendor-Related Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

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