Have OpenSource, Will Profit?! 5 thoughts from Battery Ventures OSS event

As “open source eats software” the profit imperative becomes ever more important to figure out.  We have to find ways to fund this development or acknowledge that software will simply become waste IP and largess from mega brands.  The later outcome is not particularly appealing or innovative.

wp-1465310489656.jpgLast week, Battery Ventures hosted a “Venture and Open Source Software (OSS)” event that crystallized several key points around OSS business models.  The speakers (really, check out the list!) were deeply experienced with thoughtful points that reflected a balanced perspective.  In those post, I’m trying to synthesize rather than give attribution.  Please review the vibrant #BVOSS twitter stream for specific quotes and pictures.

There is no valuation difference between for OSS and Proprietary.  OSS is a business model, you are running a software company.  

It’s hard to monetize a company with OSS.  While there are limited IPO benchmarks; the model is clearly being adopted deeply.  It’s also not clear if it’s better to be the primary driver for a project or to ride a larger effort.

Should companies avoid OSS?  It’s hard to monetize any idea – OSS is not a deciding factor.  At the end of the day, it seemed pretty clear that open source strategies are simply a new components of building software companies.

Big companies are willing to fund OSS projects (but late in the cycle).

Companies are recognized that they have a role to play in open source by funding projects.  They do this to ensure the project is sustained, maintain influence and ensure road map direction.  It’s often via support contracts.

This influence appears to be late in the OSS cycle.  It’s not clear how companies invest in early phases of development that are critical to start-up success.  In my daily business, I’d love to see companies set aside low-barrier $20-100k exploration funds to seed PoCs so that early stage projects could afford to hand-hold enterprise adopters.

I can think of many examples where the project is effectively spun out of other corporate or consulting efforts (including RackN core OSS IP, Digital Rebar).  IMHO, it’s less common to have an organic OSS company.

OSS companies need to hold something back to monetize.

This point was made emphatically multiple times.  Customers do not fund OSS projects out of good will, some hook is needed to entice payment.  It does not take much (Marten Mickos called it a pinch of salt) but having something was considered important.  Generally these are extras that are needed for advanced or scale users.

While this approach draws negative comments, the “open core” approach seemed to be the expectation from the room.  An all-things-open approach would result in trying to sell consulting services as the primary revenue model – this is generally not considered an attractive venture strategy for start-ups.

OSS value to the business increases with ubiquity/popularity of the project.

This may be obvious; however, an effective OSS model needs to have community validation.  The concept is that there is some conversion ratio, so having users makes up for a poor ratio.  Overall, the room assumed that community was a good thing.

I can think of cases where having a HUGE user base did not immediately translate into monetization.  In some cases (OpenStack, Docker), it translated into a large ecosystem and brisk competition.

As a Service (Hosted OSS) may be critical monetization path.

It was recognized that service providers (Amazon was the goat here) are doing a very robust job monetizing OSS.  For example, users pay significant premiums for MySQL hosted by RDS while they are much less willing to pay Oracle when they run it themselves.  It’s very clear that managed service models rely on cheap software.

It’s equally clear that users are willing to pay for services when they are reluctant to buy licenses.  The room felt that OSS companies should seriously evaluate this path to revenue and adoption.

Overall, it was a fantastic summit that left me, as a OSS start-up entrepreneur,  thinking carefully about how we are shaping businesses to create and exploit OSS.  Getting these models right is essential to maintaining our pace of innovation.

4 item OSCON report: no buzz winner, OpenStack is DownStack?, Free vs Open & the upstream imperative

Now that my PDX Trimet pass expired, it’s time to reflect on OSCON 2014.   Unfortunately, I did not ride my unicorn home on a rainbow; this year’s event seemed to be about raising red flags.

My four key observations:

  1. No superstar. Past OSCONs had at least one buzzy community super star.  2013 was Docker and 2011 was OpenStack.  This was not just my hallway track perception, I asked around about this specifically.  There was no buzz winner in 2014.
  2. People were down on OpenStack (“DownStack”). Yes, we did have a dedicated “Open Cloud Day” event but there was something missing.  OpenSack did not sponsor and there were no major parties or releases (compared to previous years) and little OpenStack buzz.  Many people I talked to were worried about the direction of the community, fragmentation of the project and operational readiness.  I would be more concerned about “DownStack” except that no open infrastructure was a superstar either (e.g.: Mesos, Kubernetes and CoreOS).  Perhaps, OSCON is simply not a good venue open infrastructure projects compared to GlueCon or Velocity?  Considering the rapid raise of container-friendly OpenStack alternatives; I think the answer may be that the battle lines for open infrastructure are being redrawn.
  3. Free vs. Open. Perhaps my perspective is more nuanced now (many in open source communities don’t distinguish between Free and Open source) but there’s a real tension between Free (do what you want) and Open (shared but governed) source.  Now that open source is a commercial darling, there is a lot of grumbling in the Free community about corporate influence and heavy handedness.   I suspect this will get louder as companies try to find ways to maintain control of their projects.
  4. Corporate upstreaming becomes Imperative. There’s an accelerating upstreaming trend for companies that write lots of code to support their primary business (Google is a primary example) to ensure that code becomes used outside their company.   They open their code and start efforts to ensure its adoption.  This requires a dedicated post to really explain.

There’s a clear theme here: Open source is going mainstream corporate.

We’ve been building amazing software in the open that create real value for companies.  Much of that value has been created organically by well-intentioned individuals; unfortunately, that model will not scale with the arrival for corporate interests.

Open source is thriving not dying: these companies value the transparency, collaboration and innovation of open development.  Instead, open source is transforming to fit within corporate investment and governance needs.  It’s our job to help with that metamorphosis.

Doing is Doing – my 10 open source principles

2013-07-14_17-28-21_468Open source projects’ greatest asset is their culture and FOSS practitioners need to deliberately build and expand it. To me, culture is not soft or vague.  Culture is something specific and actionable that we need to define and hold people accountable for.

I have simple principles that guide me in working in open source.   At their root, they are all simply “focus on the shared work.”

I usually sum them up as “Doing is Doing.”  While that’s an excellent test to see if you’re making the right choices, I suspect many will not find that tautology sufficiently actionable.

The 10 principles I try to model in open source leadership:

  1. Leadership includes service: connecting, education, documentation and testing
  2. Promotion is a two-edged sword – leaders needs to take extra steps to limit self-promotion or we miss hearing the community voice.
  3. Collaboration must be modeled by the leaders with other leaders.
  4. Vision must be articulated, but shared in a way that leaves room for new ideas and tactical changes.
  5. Announcements should be based on available capability not intention. In open source, there is less need for promises and forward-looking statements because your actions are transparent.
  6. Activity (starting from code and beyond) should be visible (Github = social coding) – it’s the essence of collaboration.
  7. Testing is essential because it allows other people to join with reduced risk.
  8. Docs are essential because it reduces friction for users to adopt.
  9. Upstreaming (unlike Forking) is a team sport so be prepared for some give-and-take.
  10. It’s not just about code, open source is about solving shared problems together.  When we focus on the shared goals (“the doing”) then the collaboration comes naturally.