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Open-source companies' developer dilemma

Developers are the lifeblood of an open-source company's valuation. But after an initial rush for support, it's a tough slog selling support to developers.

Open source offers a fantastic way to reach developers and users of one's technology. Ironically, however, the very group most inclined to adopt open source is the least likely to pay for it.

Therefore, to make an open-source business thrive in enterprise software, vendors must learn to distinguish between developer-users and IT operations-buyers. As I'll explain, however, open-source companies may need to guard against becoming too successful in order to preserve their exit opportunities.

It is, of course, quite possible to make money in open source. Lots of it. Red Hat, for example, is approaching $1 billion in annual revenue. MySQL had generated more than $90 million in sales the year it was acquired by Sun Microsystems for $1 billion.

That's real money.

It doesn't, however, come from the developers that download open-source code. Developers, in former MySQL CEO Marten Mickos' words, "spend time to save money."

Hardly the ideal customer.

Developers download software, which a great way to initial a buying conversation but a terrible way to finish it. Open-source companies talk about selling support, but this is a losing proposition. Developers, after all, are highly likely to support themselves through online forums or other means. They don't pay for software, and they don't buy support. Not most of them, anyway.

This is one reason that pure-play support models simply don't scale in open source. They focus on the exact wrong audience.

Sure, there's a honeymoon period for new open-source companies that launch support offerings around established community-led projects. Some developers buy support, either through personal need or corporate requirements. After that initial rush for support, however, it's a tough slog selling support to developers. It's like selling ice to Eskimos.

This brings us back to a real dilemma in open-source companies: how to monetize popularity (i.e., downloads).

Developers are the most efficient way to spread adoption of one's product but perhaps the least efficient way to monetize it. To get paid, vendors must learn to separate IT developers from IT operations, and build offerings for both.

Red Hat is a classic example. People think that Red Hat sells support. It doesn't. Not really.

The primary reason enterprises buy a Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) subscription isn't for Linux support, and certainly isn't for the bits: you can get the bits free from CentOS, and support comes heavily discounted from Oracle.

No, the reason companies purchase a RHEL subscription comes down to certification that RHEL works with a wide variety of hardware and software, as well as with the Red Hat Network, which delivers updates to an enterprise's RHEL servers.

In other words, IT operations pay Red Hat to help manage their Linux servers in production. The money is in operations.

Red Hat isn't alone. Look at JBoss. The company started minting money, once it licensed Hyperic's software to build the JBoss Operations Network.

SpringSource took it one step further and actually bought Hyperic, the company, as the foundation for its Build-Run-Manage message, a message founded in selling to IT operations, not developers. (Rob Bearden, chief operating officer at SpringSource, was deeply involved in both decisions and remains one of the smartest people in the industry on building open-source businesses. If there's any wisdom in this post, it is his.)

For new open-source companies grappling with how to supercharge sales, the answer is operations. It may not be a systems-monitoring tool like Hyperic or Zenoss, but it likely is about systems management, as operations need and pays for it.

There you have it: the secret to your billion-dollar open-source opportunity. Except for one niggling fact: despite the value of IT operations to make sales, it's really developers who create the most company value, from an asset perspective. SpringSource's sales didn't justify its $420 million valuation. Its developer base did. Developers have strategic value, in terms of IT operations and creating tactical value.

In fact, SpringSource's valuation might well have gone down, had it been making more money, just as TechCrunch's Michael Arrington astutely argues could happen with Twitter. Sales provide a measurable, tangible valuation. Developer traction creates an amorphous, strategic value.

Hence, while IT operations is the crux of making sales in open source, it might well be that open-source companies should focus on community development and avoid making too much money so that they can maintain a healthy valuation. But not too healthy: there isn't an incredible amount of IT vendors that can swallow $1 billion acquisitions, the IPO era seems to be over.

Is this the new open-source entrepreneur's dilemma?

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.