Stephen Walli last week published a graphical representation of why it is important for the vendors that lead vendor-led open source projects to separate their community users from their sales pipeline.
The post graphically articulates a trend that I have identified in recent conversations with open source-related start-ups: they are less fixated on trying to convert community users into becoming paying customers compared to the previous generation of start-ups.
As Stephen notes, the conversion of community users into paying customers has long been a concern for open source-related vendors. It has also long been a source of friction, with vendors that offer proprietary extensions being accused of “bait and switch” or otherwise undermining the value of the open source software in an attempt compel community users into becoming paying customers.
In recent years the next generation of start-ups has learned that the best way to encourage a frictionless relationship between a vendor and its community is not to attempt to “convert” users at all.
As Stephen notes, there has been an acceptance that “the community enables customers. It is correlative not causative.”
Thus we have Basho Technologies, the company behind Riak, the open source NoSQL database, stating that it has no intention of trying to up-sell Riak Open Source users to EnterpriseDS, its value-added subscription product. The company fully expects open source users to be attracted by the additional features and support, it is not trying to qualify them via Riak.
Similarly while Calpont is expecting the open source InfiniDB Community to drive demand for InfiniDB Enterprise, it has also ensured that InfiniDB Community can be used stand-alone for scale-up data-warehouse use cases, albeit without formal support.
Likewise, Neo Technology does not offer support services for the open source Neo4J other than through the community mailing list, and primarily sees the open source model as a means of growing interest in graph databases and its Neo Basic Server, advanced Server and Enterprise Server products.
The title of this post is taken from a comment made by Funambol CEO Fabrizio Capobianco at OSBC 2009. While many open source-related vendors at that time talked up the idea of separating open source users from paying customers they also often offered those open source users paid support. It was almost as if they saw dollar signs instead of download numbers and couldn’t help themselves.
In comparison we see newer vendors being much stricter about not offering paid support to open source users while still investing in support forums and other resources that enable the vendor to support users and track the user profiling statistics that enable them to identify those likely to enter the customer pipeline.
There is some correlation here with Jay’s recent report on sales and marketing strategies for open source vendors and the fact that open source can enable significant savings in software sales and marketing, but it is often a case of spending differently rather than spending less.
Additionally, I think Stephen’s post highlights a fundamental difference between the strategies employed to target true organic communities compared to vendor-led captive communities.
In response to Stephen’s post Andrew Oliver stated that vendors shouldn’t make customers “differentiate out of the community for the ‘W’.” While that is very probably true for vendors targeting users of true community software, or open source software developed by another vendor, I’m not convinced it is true for vendors targeting the members of their own user communities.
The reason, as noted above, is that those vendors do want to actively differentiate between community users and paying customers in order to reduce the friction caused by trying to serve two groups with a different strategy. If community users have time but no money and customers have money but no time, then a vendor needs very different strategies to “address each group’s selfish needs,” as Stephen puts it.
However, I would also clarify that the desirability of this differentiation is specific captive, vendor-led user communities. There is a very different community/customer dynamic between vendors targeting users of true community software, or open source software developed by another vendor.