At the OSBC last month, there was a panel on ‘Online Strategies for Open Source Businesses’ that included John Roberts (SugarCRM), Mark Burton (mySQL), Mike Evans (Red Hat), and Mark De Visser (Zend).
It was a great discussion that went into a lot of detail on how each of these companies used their online presence to build awareness, promote community involvement and drive end user adoption.
As I listened it struck me that each of them had the benefit of promoting a product that was part of a large, well established enterprise software category. This first wave of open source companies did not need to do anything to overcome the basic objection: Why do I need a database? Why do I need CRM? etc.
The perennial problem that small companies face pioneering new markets is they have to educate the market on what they are doing and why it is better. This was true of proprietary software companies, and as the Open Source industry matures, its one that new Open Source companies will need to address as well.
When it came time for Q&A, I asked the panel what would they have done differently, and what would they recommend if the solution they offered were not part of a large, well established enterprise software category.
Their answers were polite and sincere, but I’m afraid not at all helpful.
I’ve spent some time thinking about this problem since then the best answer I can come with is: Free Beer!
I know the notion of ‘free beer’ within Open Source circles is a pejorative term used to describe no-cost proprietary software: i.e. free capabilities (beer), but restricted (no free speech).
However, lets not forget that the Open Source solutions in each of the large enterprise software categories were providing free speech (Open Source) and free beer (capabilities). Free, frosty foam flowed furiously simply by providing the alternative to the existing proprietary software.
So if you’ve got to pioneer a new market opportunity with Open Source software, you can’t simply rely on free speech, you’ve got to give some free beer as well.
Specifically, what I mean is that you’ve got to provide as much of a complete solution as possible. Something that can be used to solve an immediate, identifiable need within an enterprise. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of Open Source technologies out there and the ones that live on past the novelty phase and gain widespread adoption are the ones that solve real world problems.
I don’t think its too much of a stretch to say that every successful Open Source business server’s up a lot of free beer. So by this measure, Martin is wrong when he says he’s not serving free beer. For mySQL, it’s a full on kegger.