Investor reveals secret to $1.6 billion in open-source success

Benchmark Capital's Peter Fenton has cracked the code on open-source venture investing, a code he's willing to share but which many will find hard to duplicate.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Peter Fenton

No other investor has had as much success in open-source software as Peter Fenton, general partner at Benchmark Capital.

A competitive triathlete, Fenton has turned the standard marathon of open-source business-building into a sprint, churning out four big open-source sales--JBoss ($350 million), Zimbra ($350 million), XenSource ($500 million), and SpringSource ($420 million)--while most investors have yet to turn a profit on any.

Not that Fenton is a one-trick pony. He also just sold FriendFeed to Facebook and sits on the board of Twitter. It's fair to say that Fenton can now afford a second Aston Martin.

But Fenton is still busy, sitting on the boards of open-source companies Pentaho, Terracotta, and Engine Yard. He's also willing to share the secrets to his open-source success, telling The Wall Street Journal the key to building a winning open-source business.

Spoiler? Build a direct line to your customers using open source and then ensure an excellent product to pave the way to adoption, then usage, then sales. According to the Journal article:

Rather than "expensive sales efforts and negotiations with the upper management to get the most money possible," the people that will be using the software can easily download and try the product. This helps the best products proliferate and weeds out the underperformers.

"If you don't have the best product, you're not going to make it in open-source," unlike traditional enterprise software, where customers often flock to good-enough products.

Having a well-received product not only results in plenty of downloads, users and developers, it also makes the sales process that much easier. With SpringSource, "anyone the company sold to was already using the product," he said.

Sounds easy, right? Well, no, not if you've ever been involved in an open-source business. Building a great product is hard enough, but doing so in a transparent fashion while encouraging active adoption without appearing faux to your community...? That's hard.

Venture investing may be more art than science to some, but Fenton has done more than most to turn open-source investing into a science, as VentureBeat reports. For instance, many open-source companies are ecstatic to have widespread adoption, but Fenton is careful to call out the difference between adoption and actual usage, as he does in this Benchmark presentation (PDF).

In this presentation Fenton calls out two strategies for investing in either "farm-raised" or "free-range" businesses. Think of these categories as company-led (e.g., Zimbra) or community-led (e.g., SpringSource) open-source businesses. Neither is better than the other: they simply refer to whether an open-source community predates a company set up to monetize it.

The strategies Fenton takes depends. For "free range," it looks like this:

Peter Fenton (Benchmark Capital)

For "farm raised," Fenton's strategy looks like this:

Peter Fenton (Benchmark Capital)

All of which means your next open-source investment or company should be a snap, right? Maybe not. It's one thing to call the correct shots--and quite another to make them. Part of the reason Fenton has been so successful is that he has invested in exceptional operators at each company, including Marc Fleury and Rob Bearden (JBoss); Satish Dharmaraj, Scott Dietzen, Andy Pflaum, and John Robb (Zimbra); and Rod Johnson and Rob Bearden (SpringSource), among others.

Perhaps this is really the key to Fenton's success, after all is said and done: he knows how to attract top-tier entrepreneurs to top-tier open-source communities. That's not something one accomplishes with a jog or casual bike ride. That's the work of a triathlete, which makes Fenton perfect for the job.

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