Open source technology has led to the development of many great things. It powers the new wave of Android phones. You can buy a laptop developed almost entirely on open source and automobiles with open source apps that find the nearest hotel. Companies’ mission-critical data centers run on open source Linux. When you think about it, open source is in practically everything you touch today: the posts you put on social media, the browser you use to surf the Web, the mobile app that you use during lunch and even the enterprise apps that power your day-to-day work.
For me, the whole idea of open source has guided my career. My love of code and an idea for a business took me down a journey that started with a small open source project and turned it into an international business called Bonitasoft. The process, while fun and enduring, has taught me a series of lessons about how to build a business around open source — some good, some bad, some ugly and some quite beautiful. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned.
1. Develop and create great open source software
A Forrester Research report last year titled “Development Landscape: 2013” from Jeffrey Hammond stated that “76 percent of developers have used open-source technology ‘at some level.’” Open source by itself is no longer a differentiator for any company — not for a startup or a goliath of an enterprise. It is ubiquitous in software and needed by almost all software developers to keep up with today’s rapid pace of development.
One would be naïve to think that just creating an open source project would lead to profit. There are successful companies that started from a project and learned how to monetize; however, this success is more about the software’s ability to solve a problem. I’ve learned the key to success is developing and creating great open source software that has important product differentiators beyond just being based in open source. You need to add value to your software for the end user to truly benefit and utilize your project to meet his business goals.
Open source is an approach to software development. It does not define the software. Differentiation is the key. Is your software faster, better, cheaper than the competitors? If yes, then you have viable open source software business.
2. Build, manage and engage with an active community
Looking back, I couldn’t have built Bonitasoft into the company it is today without our strong community. It is our backbone and it is what drives our software, business and innovation. To truly build a great open source company, you need a community behind it. Behind every piece of software is a group of passionate, sharing, active members that form a community. For us, the community provides endless benefits; and we’re active in building, managing and having constant engagement with our members.
The “open” in open source needs to go beyond available code. It needs to be a mindset for how you engage.
The word “community” needs to be synonymous with “contributions” for a community to truly succeed. The two concepts go hand in hand. There are so many ways to contribute beyond a post or comment. We constantly see the community members share ideas, code snippets and connectors to third-party systems.
The discussion on communities is great for learning but the true sharing and collaboration is what sets companies and technology apart from competitors.
How do you cultivate a great community? Start by investing in a dedicated community manager, or a team, that is a daily advocate for the community. A strong manager can engage the community and help set the tone and direction. He will be able to identify product extension points or contributions that will add value and differentiators to your software. The manager can also develop and work on content that encourages technology and product adoption.
One lesson I’ve learned with our community is that it should never be viewed as a “user community.” It is so much more than that, and we want to be welcoming to all different types of people. We view our community as our entire ecosystem — employees, users of Bonitasoft software, paying enterprise customers, systems integrators and basically anyone else who has an interest in open source business process management.
It’s important to never be exclusive or limited; you need to be open — just like the software we’re talking about. The community manager should help keep the community open, encouraging all different types of people to contribute and keep the conversation digestible for even newbies or first-timers.
I’ve also learned that to get the best benefits from the community, you need to be involved — monitoring and actively participating in your forums, analyzing discussions, highlighting active community members and gathering their feedback. This will truly drive your community to be engaging and strong.
Finally, there needs to be active engagement in other communities. Because we view our community as an ecosystem, that includes going out and cross-pollinating with other communities. Companies tend to become too internally focused and forget about the element of new users and new partnerships and what that brings to a community. The reality is that community is similar to open source: It’s a mindset and it needs to be open to grow.
3. Create a high-volume business
Open source business models are different from those that rely on traditional software — it needs to scale quickly. Depending on the business model for your software, if you have fast adoption, you could have a lot of customers quickly. Thus, you need to constantly think about the future and resources for exponential growth.
When building Bonitasoft, I always prepare at least six months in advance, thinking of employee headcount, setting budgets, analyzing resources and planning for growth.
Where to start? Begin with measurement and define your key performance indicators (KPIs). KPIs are different for every business. As a leader, you need to define your KPIs and how they will guide decision making. It’s okay to not track everything (e.g, your Twitter followers may not impact your revenue), but make sure to find what makes the most sense for your company and track it.
Acquire technology that tracks key indicators such as CRM systems, financial systems and marketing systems. Put that infrastructure in place now. Tune these systems to your KPIs and constantly monitor performance. If something isn’t working, make adjustments quickly.
4. Develop and maintain partnerships
Just like with the community, your business needs to be open and welcoming to partners. Developing and maintaining partnerships is a key to having a successful business around open source. However, it is important to choose your partners wisely. You need to identify, recruit and maintain the right technology partners, system integrators and other types of partners for your business to succeed.
The first step is to establish an appropriate way to look at the partners, the investment made in the partnership and a vetting process. The partnership needs to be beneficial to both parties and have a strong commitment to success.
There’s no reason to be an open source purist. This can be limiting to your growth. Remember, it is about the software and a customer’s need for your software. Focus on recruiting partners that can help the customer be successful. Their expertise, skill set and relationship with your company are more important than their open source experience.
5. Become a global leader with an open product
You never know if that code you’re working on today could be developed into a larger company tomorrow. My Bonita software project was created over a decade ago and now the company Bonitasoft has enjoyed strong growth in open source downloads (more than two million), customer acquisition (more than 1,000 in 60+ countries), and internal development (from 10 to 150+ employees of more than 20 nationalities in Paris, Grenoble and San Francisco). If you have a clear differentiation or something special about your software, it will grow rapidly.
Always be in the mindset to take that project to the next level and continue to succeed. With an open product, you start getting adoption quickly, and that’s a good thing. You have to be ready to let the adoption and community help drive where your global expansion happens. The adoption will take you to different places and locations, and you need to have the mindset to be willing to be taken wherever it grows.
As open source technology becomes more and more ubiquitous in our culture, it’s driving a new wave of entrepreneurship. Expect this wave to build. Innovators have already mastered the art of converting available technologies into saleable products. Now the challenge will be to cultivate lessons learned along the way to create more successful companies that will drive our economy for years to come.
Miguel Valdés Faura is CEO and co-founder of Bonitasoft. He leads the charge in Bonitasoft’s mission: to democratize Business Process Management (BPM), bringing powerful and affordable BPM to organizations and projects of all sizes. Prior to Bonitasoft, Miguel led R&D, pre-sales and support for the BPM division of Bull Information Systems, a major European systems provider. Miguel is a recognized thought leader in business process management and passionate about open source community building. Follow Miguel on Twitter.