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Open-source strategy: Documentation = dollars

If you want to drive sales in an open-source company, improve your documentation

Ian Howells, Alfresco's Chief Marketing Officer, just shared with me some intriguing data that I thought would be useful for more than just Alfresco. I've long suspected that documentation was a key driver of purchases in open source, and here's some data that confirms this view:


To make sense of the graphic, it's helpful to note some nomenclature we use:

  • "Hosted Trial" is just what it sounds like: a trial of the Alfresco (Enterprise) software in a hosted fashion;
  • "Enterprise Trial" is when the prospect downloads our Enterprise code (Certified, tested binary of our open-source code - think Red Hat Enterprise Linux versus our Fedora, which we call "Alfresco Community").

With these in mind, the vast majority of our deals are fed by two direct sources: those who read our documentation and those who actually download and try our Enterprise code. Now, we also know that most of these people first start with our Community code (and often evaluate it for months, reading documentation and visiting our website in the meantime).

What does this mean? It means that if our demand generation software is telling us that someone has both read documentation and evaluated Enterprise, the odds of them buying support from Alfresco are huge. We want to be calling that prospect immediately.

But it also means that documentation is a huge opportunity for open-source companies to drive sales. Documentation is often treated as the shabby cousin of software development, but it is really the essential link between development and dollars. It's hard to motivate good documentation.

Software development without documentation is self-centric. Documentation is a signal that the developer actually cares about her downstream users. For projects that actually want downstream users, write good documentation. It won't cannibalize buyers: it will create them.

On this topic, it's important to have open-source company websites heavy on product information, and light on fluff. Here's where people spend time on Alfresco's website:


People don't visit a software company's website to read about the executives. They visit the website to get information on the software. If your website is light on that information, you're killing sales, especially in an open-source software company.

Transparency and information are the lifeblood of open source. Funny how different this is from the old software world. Yes, I know many of these companies are superlative examples of providing information, but mostly information that is packaged by the company (i.e., skewed in its favor). Open source provides information on the information's terms, not the companies'.