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Open-source software as guerrilla marketing strategy

Executives at the SDForum's Global Open Source Conference say that they have a distinct marketing advantage over proprietary software companies, thanks to Google and other tricks.

SAN FRANCISCO--Chances are if you're running a commercial open-source company, Google is one of your best friends.

That's because a search on Google for "open source and (whatever company X sells)" can yield the largest volume of referrals to an upstart in that business.

"Two-thirds of our leads come from Google, and more than half come from the search term 'open source'," said Ismael Ghalimi, CEO and founder of Intalio, which develops software for business process applications. Ghalimi spoke here Monday on an entrepreneurs' panel at SDForum's Global Open Source Conference.

Daniel Chalef, CEO of KnowledgeTree, which develops document management software, added that he has an unfair advantage over proprietary software because his company gets linked in many open-source directories. That linking puts KnowledgeTree in the top three or four vendors on Google searches. That drives an enormous amount of traffic.

"It's a way for a young South African company to get 5,000 downloads at a time," said Chalef.

Executives here said because of its economic and developer appeal, open-source software has marketing advantages over proprietary software, especially in a slumping economy.

"It's free. It's cheap. Everyone wants to cut costs," said Don Brown, a product manager at Atlassian, an open-source software company that develops wiki tools.

Venture capitalists, which have poured money into open-source companies but at a slower clip in recent quarters, agreed with the premise.

"The economy makes open-source companies more attractive because it's easier to get a global customer footprint, and people want to do more with less," John Occhipinti, a venture capitalist with the Woodside Fund, said during a panel at the confab.

Another advantage: the open-source developer community serves an incredibly important function as evangelist for a commercial open-source provider, according to Kevin Efrusy, a partner at Accel.

"The developers are the people who bring you in; they're your salespeople," said Efrusy, whose firm has investments in JBoss and OpenAds, among other open-source software companies.

"In some cases, they write code. And if there's a really good contributor, you hire him," said Efrusy. "At the end of the day, you want to control the direction of the innovation."

Marten Mickos, head of Sun's database business, said at the conference that MySql's community of users are its best marketers, even if they're critical. When one person says they hate MySql, he said, 10 others say "I love it."

"You must realize that criticism can be very valuable. Never be defensive. If you can forget about your ego, that's the power of open source," said Mickos.