Success of Open Source software projects hinges on project site design

This isn’t tested research- just a gut feeling, but after watching several open source software projects grow or go bust- I believe there are some key factors in successful open source software projects- and they parallel marketing issues for other projects.

There are an overwhelming number of tasks for a software project to succeed, typically requiring a dedicated core team. This is the basis of open source- in that the core team can be as large as there is interest. A lot of people use or have need for your project- a lot of different people get involved. However- depending on the type of project you are working on- you may not get a good cross pollination of talent. Coding geeks often have narrow skill sets- that can leave some critical parts of the development process lagging.

I’m going to try to outline some key areas for you to consider:

Installation ease

After having struggled with installers for several open source projects, I can’t stress enough the need for a stress free install. One of the key WordPress early bragging lines was a 5 minute install process. Even after doing many installs of the early versions manually- I wouldn’t call it a five minute install process for the non-geek.

The inclusion of your open source project in a software installation script wizard early is key. This improves the likelihood of sampling, adoption and even awareness.

Some installation script packages are : Fantastico, Installatron, Softaculous, SimpleScripts.

Including data import tools from your main competition was also a brilliant strategy employed by WordPress - making it easy to import from other major platforms like TypePad and Blogger.

I’m also going to venture to say that worrying about installing on Windows or Mac servers should be a non-worry for open source projects- if you don’t run on Linux Apache MySQL PHP (LAMP) you aren’t an open source project.

User Interface

It wasn’t until WordPress turned 2.5 or so that a User Experience design professional  (or User Interface) was engaged by the core team- with usability being a key factor in the early success of WordPress- the dev team probably felt they had it covered. They didn’t.

The success of open source projects requires easy adoption- which means intuitive interfaces should probably be a key focus.


Too often, it’s code first- and worry about documentation later. Or let the users write the documentation for you in true open source fashion (FLOSS manuals come to mind) after you code and release. This may be the biggest failure point- unless your user community is so large- all answers are just a google search away.

Instead- consider the documentation the true road map of the project- starting with a manual outline may save your project a lot of problems because if it’s too hard to explain- it’s probably too hard to use. Clear goals and directives on where the project is going can make the going that much easier.

Think of Stephen Covey- “Start with where do you want to end up” and the path will seem that much clearer to all.

Versioning- Releases

There are two schools of thought to release cycles- fast and furious, as soon as a new feature is ready- ship, and a  more ordered process. While the fast and the furious may keep the geeks happy- it plays havoc with those involved in implementing and maintaining it in a business environment. Explaining to your boss why you had to update the software 6 times in one month can be a bit difficult. Only release serious bug/security patches like this.

Set a release schedule, with milestones and stick to it. Mature packages do this.


Adhering to industry standards is critical. If you don’t, you risk being marginalized. Take accessibility, microformats W3C standards seriously- and don’t mix open source with proprietary code (ever). Standards are the way to gain a solid foundation of functionality- no matter how dumb you think they are- they were set by a whole bunch of people and that’s what you need to be successful.


There are three areas where WordPress got it right- and then perfected it- and they got is by studying Mozilla.

  • Updating- a one-click internal updating process will guarantee the largest number of updates and less compatibility issues. If it’s hard to update- you’ll be fighting a versioning compatibility hell. Mozilla doesn’t even give a choice anymore- the updates within a major release are mandatory.
  • Extending- again, WordPress is a model of success. Both themes and plugins are maintained in a central repository with ratings, reviews, bug trackers, FAQs. If you hope to have a large community, you have to grant easy access to your user base.
  • Customization of interface: While plugins and themes are great- and allow for infinite tweaking- the fine control of an interface using AJAX may be the ultimate brilliance. Users like easy- and reordering a UI via AJAX is the true WYSIWYG experience. I can’t think of any technology that makes me as a user happier in using software.

Of course, you’ve separated content from presentation, built in search functions, RSS feeds and paid heed to what makes Web 2.0 what it is.

Community support

The size of your installed base will only grow if you make it easy for them to connect and work together. If you don’t have a well moderated and managed forum you are doomed. Unanswered questions, spammers, and the same question asked over and over are good indications that your project isn’t on track for greatness.

It’s also impossible to move forward if you don’t have a good handle on what your user base wants.

None of this is done in a vacuum, and there is nothing wrong with empowering people to make a living with your product- enable some kind of rating system for your contributors as well as a donation system, reminding people that even small donations are key to keeping the project going.

Even if you don’t agree with an approach taken by a plugin developer- don’t ostracize them or their methodology- build bridges not walls, and look at the communities acceptance of their project. WordPress alienated a coder named Dr. Dave who had developed an open source Spam solution that competed with their own Akismet- eventually forcing his Spam Karma II plugin into deprecation.


While the project may be open source- and the software is free- you still need to make an effort to get your product name out and to let people evaluate it.

If you have created your product to replace something you feel is inferior- make sure you find some bloggers to do some comparison reviews. If you are in a brand new space- get some press coverage- and ask thought leaders to evaluate your business model. Google started out with a great service- but had no clue of how to make money until Bill Gross came along with his idea of sponsored search. Who will give you the impetus to get your strategy on track?

In most cases there are people already evaluating options in your field- make sure to reach out to them and get some press and ask for assistance to get the project seeded.

Your project website

I’ve been evaluating Customer Relationship Software (CRM) packages for a while- in fact, it’s what got me to write this post. The difference between packages- and what they do, is key to your business model and where the user first decides on if your project will be a viable option.

There are some critical things you must have in order to put your project on par with your competition:

A feature list- even a comparison to your competition. There are no secrets- if you don’t do it- someone else will. As a developer you should know who your competition is better than the others- and in Open Source- the idea is to create the best version possible- not ownership. Cooperation and integration with other projects should be the goal.

The SugarCRM vs vTigerCRM split is interesting- and why the two forks can’t work together more is embarrassing. One is targeted toward enterprise the other toward small business- there should be no need for acrimony.

The real competition are the closed source companies - that develop slick products that might lock a user experiencing great growth out of needed features. This is where we have to decide which platform makes sense as users- do we go with Salesforce because it’s a leader- or do we invest in an open source project because it will give us ownership of our business model?

Look at the closed source/proprietary software sites- you see an intro video on the home page, a clear feature set, support options, cost of ownership information, user testimonials and case studies, user forums, tutorials, documentation and even a blog- if you don’t have a site that answers questions about your project- you will end up relying on someone else who may not fully understand why your project exists.

If you want to see a comparison- look at the open source Ruby on Rails project- FatFreeCRM site- and then compare it to Highrise a commercial product based on the same technology. Of the open source sites- Feng Office may be one of the better front ends- simple, clean - not confusing. Compare it with the  Magento site- which you’d almost not know was Open Source.

Getting paid

While Open Source software is free- there doesn’t seem to be any reason not to build a way to get paid into your model. Google makes a lot of money with a free service- there is no reason why your code expertise shouldn’t be able to support you. The current model seems to be offer a free unsupported code base and have a hosted, supported version in parallel.

While this may support a small core team- what about the rest of the contributors? Think about your project as an ecosystem that requires both user and developers and build a community support tool that will give your experts the ability to generate revenue from their work. After all- maintaining the pace of progress can have a toll.

I’ve yet to find a project that has built a system- for instance, WordPress has been through several rounds of venture capital and Automattic now owns a bunch of other properties- there should be some kind of revenue share for the most popular plugin package developers. They’ve done a good job of allowing premium theme and plugin developers into their hub- but, there are still people working for love on what has become a decent sized business.

Google and Amazon have both  built in opportunities for the small guy with affiliate systems- this model should be integrated into any open source development project.

The structure of cooperative software design sites

While the developers can talk endlessly about the advantages of codebases like SVN, GitHub, SourceForge, Google Code etc as repositories for code in development, the real problem may be that what is needed is a CMS designed for software collaborative construction and deployment.

I’ve seen software communities use all kinds of tools for their own hawking of wares - Drupal, Joomla, are the ones I notice first- yet it seems there is still room for a dedicated package to handle all parts of a successful open source software project.

Learning how to do it right

One of the things I’ve been searching unsuccessfully for over the last 2 years is an institution of higher learning that is actively teaching how to build and manage open source business models. I’ve found lots of places willing to share their courses- led by MIT opencourseware there are more and more universities offering classes you can audit classes from your home- but, I’ve not found a collegiate program focused on this growing business model.

The University of Advancing Technologies has an “Open Source Technologies” program- but it doesn’t mention the business side of the equation in the description.

For Students looking on how to get involved in Open Source Projects- see this post:

If anyone has any information to share- please include it in the comments.

Some resources:

Here is a link to an academic paper I found when doing some research on this subject:Defining Open Source Software Project Success PDF

Found a short list on being successful with Open Source software:

A post about Open Source Business models- and a case for Open Source vs. Proprietary software:

A kinda snide “Top 10 Reasons I won’t use your open source project”

An overly corporate post from Vmware on “Open Source Governance”- Written in 2009- it has zero comments- but, the part about the code license checkers is interesting and a part I left out.

Check into this FAQ on Governance by FOSS Bazaar

If you find others- again, please contribute in comments.

Handwritten marketing with a high tech crm backend

Some universal facts in the new marketing landscape:

  • There is no more mass media- you can’t just buy any one media and hope to reach a very big audience (unless you buy Superbowl spots- and even then…)
  • Even if you can reach all of your current and potential customers- they are still being barraged with messages- making yours stand out is increasingly difficult.

And then, factor in the age old rules-

  • People do business with people they know,
  • It costs way more to get a new customer than to continue to sell to an existing one.

Put all the above factors together- and all of a sudden, handwritten notes start making sense. The “Thank You” note, long a staple of non-profit fundraisers- and boutique clothiers- is now becoming a very effective tool to implement in any business.

Here is a bit of a story from American Public Radio’s Marketplace show:

Then, a couple weeks later they both got letters in the mail from the saleswoman who’d helped them. They were thank you notes.

Siewert: It was a fully hand written note, referencing the exact bag we purchased. And on my note, she even had a nice reference to our alma mater.

Turns out they’d gone to the same school. And, I’ll admit the purse Sarah bought wasn’t exactly cheap. It was Marc Jacobs, about $400. But it’s not just pricey department stores that are beefing up their manners. When the recession hit, JCPenney started a customer service program called GREAT. It’s an acronym for salespeople: Greet. Respect. Engage. Assist. And Thank. And other retailers are following suit.

Brett Brohl: I’ve written, at least 2,000 thank yous just in the last 12 months.

Brett Brohl owns He sells medical scrubs. You know, those pastel-colored outfits, doctors and nurses wear. Brohl says he hand writes a thank you note for every single customer. Scrubadoo is a new company, and Brohl says there are a lot of websites out there selling the exact same products he does.

Brett Brohl: If you Google the word “scrubs,” we’re not on the front page, we’re not on the second page. And just like every other industry right now, competition’s tough and with less people buying, it’s even tougher.

Brohl says, a new company like his can’t afford major marketing like TV commercials. Instead, he says, he’s counting on thank you notes to help Scrubadoo stand out. So is this the beginning of a new trend of exemplary customer service?

Nancy Koehn is a retail historian, at Harvard. She says for smart businesses it is.

Nancy Koehn: We’re returning to civility, courtesy and a way of actually honoring customers that has seemed far too absent, I think, for the last 20 years.

Koehn says the role of the salesperson has changed a lot over the decades. Before the recession, a salesperson’s job had morphed into managing transactions: Bagging groceries, dispensing coffee, ringing up a sale. She says the more we’ve absorbed technology, like self-service check-out at the grocery store, the more retail businesses have reduced service.

Now, the role of the salesperson is changing again. I’m at a perfume counter at Saks Fifth Avenue with James McLaughlin. He works for a fragrance company called Jo Malone. McLaughlin says its sales people have been sending thank you notes for years. They’re scented. But now, he says the company spends 20 percent more time, on expressing gratitude — everything from hand and arm massages to wine tastings for customers.

James McLaughlin: We oftentimes will liken the experience as dating. You have a really great first date, and then the person calls you three months later when there’s a sale going on and says, “How about a second date?” Why would they bother? You didn’t keep in touch.

via The power of a simple “thank you” | Marketplace From American Public Media.

But just saying “Thank you” isn’t really enough- you need to build a customer relationship management system- one that has all their quirks, likes, dislikes- size etc. in it. Good clothing salespeople used to keep little 3×5 cards with all the data on their clientele- as did smart hair stylists- and even a few bar keeps.

The more you know about your customers- the better able you are to solve their problems and be a trusted part of their business.

Luckily, today technology offers us all kinds of tools to do this. First we had Personal Information Managers- with software like ACT and Goldmine. Then they became enterprise level- where all the data was stored centrally. SAP, Salesforce are some of the better known systems. Of course, there are also “free” Open Source alternatives- like SugarCRM and its stripped down fork vTigerCRM.

I included the intro to ACT video to introduce you to the concept of CRM systems- not as an endorsement of one over the other.

Having a lot of social media contacts might be nice- but it’s what you do with them that matters. We have lots of information- it’s how we utilize it that counts these days. Integrate a CRM tool with your website- and you have a lead collection system.

There are plenty of options out there- we’ve been using vTigerCRM at The Next Wave. We consider it, along with internal wikis, part of our toolbox for building our own media channel- and of knowing everything there is to know about our clients, to strengthen the relationships.

Sending a handwritten note is good, but making sure to follow up is even more important. Utilizing the high tech CRM systems to keep track of all our efforts gives us the best chance of keeping doing business with our existing clients- and in prospecting for new ones.

So, before you spend $3.5 million on a Superbowl spot- think about how you can build a CRM system to keep close to the clients you already have.

Groupon or Advertising? Plus Google?

With Google about to spend $6 billion to buy Groupon it looks like validation of this business model. But, as a local business person, why would you choose to use Groupon in the first place- and will it be a good investment for you?

To understand how Groupon works- it’s a no upfront cost advertising tool. And while that sounds great, The stinger is you are going to get 25% of what you would normally make on a sale. That’s a VERY high cost of advertising. No one would jump into a deal and say spend 75% of your gross price on advertising- in fact, much over 10% and you better be selling things that have crazy markups like booze, diamonds or some professional service (I haven’t hear of a brothel using Groupon yet- but, that’s the kind of business that would do best with this marketing ploy).

The beauty of Groupon is it’s the ultimate sampling/awareness tool. The cost is the killer. Take the local Ben & Jerry’s franchise that offered $8 of ice cream for $4. I give Groupon $4, they give Ben & Jerry’s $2, and Ben & Jerry hope I don’t redeem the coupon (which is the only way they make money- unless they convert the Grouponee into a regular customer). There is also a transaction fee- which further cuts into their margins. So- since we already go to Ben & Jerry’s they just treated us to 1/2 price ice cream. We live nearby. They haven’t grown their market at all. It cost them $6 dollars to sell us $8 of ice cream- and this is a recipe for going out of business.

Now, if B&J had religiously collected emails, sms, and addresses from customers- and built a customer loyalty program- even using tools like Foursquare, they could have made us very happy with a Buy One Get One offer- and only spent 50% of their margins. Or rewarded all frequent customers with 20% off- and been ahead. No payment to Groupon, no mad rush- followed by a lull, and targeting a much more relevant demographic. Because unless you have a lot of locations- Groupon probably over delivers your market as well. While you and I live in an internet connected world, there are a lot of Americans who still by ice cream that don’t live and die by the browser. In fact, 1 in 12 can’t even get access to high speed internet in this country even if they want it.

Groupon doesn’t change one fundamental rule of business- it always costs more to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one. Remember that.

So, when does Groupon make sense? If you have an innovative product that no one else has and you need people to sample it- this works well for professional services, hair, nails- where one fantastic job can convert a customer. It also works to introduce people to your new lasagna pizza (the “Pizzagna” - don’t say it fast) that no one else has.

Launching a brand new company- may also be a great way to minimize your initial customer acquisition time, but at a very low price. Remember, it’s always easier to drop prices than raise them- and your $4 deal on an $8 garbage burger may just end up being the most you can ever expect to charge again.

Doing a little searching- here are some recommendations from another site:

* Do the math and make sure the discount you’re offering won’t damage you financially. Don’t be bullied into offering a steeper discount than you’re comfortable with.

* Are prepared to serve a large influx of new customers; you may even need to hire more staff temporarily. If quality and/or service might suffer with more business, think twice.

* Come up with incentives for those new customers to come back at full price, or offer a more modest discount.

* Understand that many companies use companies like Groupon simply to acquire new customers and are willing to break even or even lose a little money on their offerings.

via Should Your Company Use Groupon to Increase Sales? | BNET.

There are many people who think Google has lost their mind offering $6 billion for Groupon- this writer included. Yes, they gain 3,100 sales people- which Google is desperately in need of, but, almost anyone can build the Groupon model into their business with minimal effort. This type of deal brokering has been done by others - here’s a link to 50 Groupon like sites.

There are a lot of out of work radio, TV and newspaper account executives that Google could hire and train for a lot less than $6 billion. As it is, Google is already the leader in directing customers to business online- but, does an absolutely horrible job of teaching people how to use it’s tools effectively. Sometimes technology still doesn’t beat personal, face-to-face sales. Every city should have a Google office- just like Apple has rolled out their Apple stores- where Google can show off it’s technology, train people to use it properly- and build real relationships based on trust. Somehow, with Groupon’s huge windfall- along with their high costs, I can’t see this model staying viable for more than a flash in a pan.

If you need to devise better ways to reach new customers, look into CRM, talk to a company like The Next Wave (us) on how to market in the digital world, but, be very careful before committing to Groupon.

Black Friday, Cyber Monday and desperation….

If retailers wonder why they don’t make money for 3 quarters of the year- it’s because they seem to forget that customers want deals everyday- not just 2 days a year.

Somewhere along the line- they’ve forgotten that customers always want things- like great service, prompt delivery, honest sales, product in stock, reliable products. Do you think people really enjoy standing in line for 3 days in the cold waiting for you to open your doors?

The old adage about “give a man a fish, he eats for a day, teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime” plays just as well in teaching customer behavior. By playing into this “Black Friday” madness you aren’t building customer loyalty, showing respect for your customer or delivering a positive shopping experience.

Remember when a few “lucky shoppers” were crushed to death in the stampede trying to get into a store for a “Black Friday” deal?

Relationship management is the key to building loyalty, trust and customer satisfaction- which all will lead to long term profitability. This “Black Friday”- show your customers some respect and leave the circus stunts for the competition- offering the first 10 customers some great deal- just pisses off the other hundred.

Is that your idea of “marketing” or is it desperation?