Leadership Is The Secret To An Open Source Business Model
There is a good chance you’ve never heard of open source software and an even greater one that you’re using it every day without even realizing it. Open source software is computer software that is available under a variety of licenses that all encourage the sharing of the software and its underlying source code. Open source has powered the internet from day one and today powers the cloud and just about everything connected to it from your mobile phone to virtually every internet of things device.
#FreeNAS is one of two open source operating systems that my company, @iXsystems, develops and distributes free of charge and is at the heart of our line of #TrueNAS enterprise storage products. While some of our competitors sell storage software similar to FreeNAS, we not only give it away but also do so with truly no strings attached — competitors can and do take FreeNAS and build products based on it with zero obligation to share their changes. The freedom to do so is the fundamental tenet of permissively licensed open source software, and while it sounds self-defeating to be this generous, we’ve proven that leadership, not licensing, is the true secret to a successful open source business model.
We each have our own personal definition of what is fair when it comes to open source. At iXsystems, we made a conscious decision to base FreeNAS and TrueOS on the FreeBSD operating system developed by the FreeBSD project. We stand on the shoulders of giants by using FreeBSD and we consider it quite reasonable to give back on the same generous terms that the FreeBSD project offers us. We could be selective in what we provide free of charge, but we believe that doing so would be short-sighted. In the long game we’re playing, the leadership we provide over the open source projects we produce is infinitely more important than any restrictions provided by the licenses of those and other open source projects. In the face of this “legal piracy,” our secret to staying several steps ahead of the competition is to continuously innovate our “free” software and be the go-to source of information about it and the hardware to run it on. Our software runs on just about any personal computer, but the right hardware is critical to delivering quality, reliable data storage.
Twenty years in, we have no reason to change our free-software-on-great-hardware business model and giving away the software has brought an unexpected side-benefit: the largest Q/A department in the world, staffed by our passionate users who volunteer to let us know every thought they have about our software. We wouldn’t change a thing, and I encourage you to find exactly what win-win goodwill you and your company can provide to your constituents to make them not just a customer base but a community.
Here are some tips to use if you want to win the long game in computing:
Drive The Conversation
It took a leap of faith for us to give away the heart of our products in exchange for a passionate community, but doing so changes your customer’s relationship with your brand from priced to priceless. This kind of relationship leverages a social contract instead of a legal one. Taking this approach empowers your users in ways they will not experience with other companies and it is your responsibility to lead, rather than control them with a project like FreeNAS. Taking this approach requires mutual trust, but that trust is invaluable once earned. You will invariably slip up from time to time but if you handle it correctly, the trust only grows stronger.
Relieve Customer Pain Points With Every New Release
Responsiveness to the needs of your constituents is what distinguishes project leadership from project dictatorship. Be sure to balance your vision for your products and projects with the “real world” needs of your users. While our competition can use the software we develop, they will at best wow users with specific features rather than project-wide ones. Never underestimate how grateful a user will be when you make their job easier.
Accept That A Patent Is Not A Business Model
Patents are considered the ultimate control mechanism in the technology industry, but they only provide a business model if you have a monopoly and monopolies are illegal. Resist getting hung up on the control you can establish over your customers and spend your time acquiring and empowering them. The moment you both realize that your success is mutual, you have a relationship that will last longer than any single sale. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how the relationships you build will transcend the specific companies that friends you make work for.
Distinguish Leadership From Management
Every company has various levels of management, but leadership is the magic that creates markets where they did not exist and aligns paying customers with value that you can deliver in a profitable manner. Leadership and vision are ultimately the most proprietary aspects of a technology business, over every patentable piece of hardware or licensable piece of software. Whether you create a new market or bring efficiency to an existing one, your leadership is your secret weapon — not your level of control.