The jointly exhaustive relationship between open source and enterprise growth

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It’s been a few months since I last published a post on developer marketing. I’ve been busy with the holidays, a new role at AWS, not to mention life beginning to slowly return to normal (kids going back to school, people working vs doom scrolling all day, trying to burn that quarantine fifteen … you get it). I’ve also been mentally wrestling with a few changes that I’ve observed taking place in the developer tools space. We’ve heard it said many times that COVID accelerated key business trends like cloud adoption, remote working, and online learning. When the dust settles, I think that we’re going to realize that a lot more has changed, in fact it’s hard to believe that anything was completely un-impacted. Developer marketing, open source community building, and technical product marketing for dev tools is no exception. I think an argument could easily be made that our space was one of the more impacted areas and that the transitions we’ve seen from COVID are going to increase the scope of our space. In this post, I want to share a trend that I’m seeing develop between open source and the enterprise.

Last year I wrote a lot about the open source business model and developer marketing strategies, but what I didn’t hit on was the somewhat (maybe extremely?) symbiotic relationship between the two of them. For context, this post was inspired by two recent conversations with founders bringing products to market with an open source strategy. Our conversations center around how to maintain a balanced focus on both and ensure that both the project and the product are jointly successful. I find that this is always a point of tension, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Open source feels complex, but in reality, it’s not. Companies have been doing this successfully for decades now, but never at the level that we see it today. Open source projects have become dependent on the enterprise to fund their existence and the enterprise has become dependent on open source to champion industry standards and lower the barriers and cost of building new software. When we look at the growth of these joint strategies, the relationship is nothing less than jointly exhaustive. I can’t emphasize this enough, open source marketing/community building is demand gen for the enterprise, and demand gen for the enterprise is open source marketing/community building.

Open source has been skyrocketing in popularity lately, which amplifies the trend above due to competition and crowding in the space. Just a few years ago it wasn’t normal for a startup to open source their codebase, now it’s hard to find one in our space that hasn’t. Why? I think that there are a few reasons for this. Some are completely legitimate and others I can’t see as anything more than a corporate virtue signal. Let’s start by looking at why companies are open sourcing in regards to growth.

I’ve found that there are three main reasons, 1) awareness with developers (a.k.a. the end user). This is generally well intentioned, open source foundations are trusted by developers and developers flock to open source communities to find innovation and learn. By open sourcing your product you gain access to all of those developers who if interested might even help you advance your project. This is the open source world at its best. 2) Pursuing an industry standard. If your goal is to build an ecosystem around your project or you can benefit from the industry as a whole adopting your project, open source is the way to go. This strategy allows you to easily partner with other companies and tie your growth to their growth. This is the win:win open source utopia that companies often envision when exploring open source as a strategy … that is until someone bases a competitive solution on the project you pioneered. This is both the best and in a few cases the worst of the open source world. 3) Nothing but optics. Every now and then I talk to someone who open sourced a product for all the wrong reasons. They wanted to attract and retain employees, they wanted to be associated with a popular foundation, or they wanted to land a big deal that had open source in the criteria. This almost never works and is one of the reasons that there are so many dead projects out there. Open source is about the community and optics don’t build community … it’s not authentic.

If your reasoning is based on point 1 or 2, there is a very good chance that open sourcing will positively benefit the growth of your company. But, you can’t just open source and walk away. Remember the statement that I made above, open source marketing/community building is demand gen for the enterprise and demand gen for the enterprise is open source marketing/community building. The strategy only works when it has a healthy open source community to build upon. This is where the enterprise becomes really important. The enterprise has resources and open source projects need resources (developers, audiences, customers, MONEY). If you look at any of the top open source projects, the main contributors are developers who are employed by the enterprise for the purpose of contributing to these projects (if you’re curious about how they stack up, here’s the rankings). This gives the project a healthy baseline, meaning that it’s not growing stagnant. These enterprises then advocate for the project, which attracts individual contributors, forming a community. The enterprise also sponsor the foundation where the project lives which funds the things we never talk about but make a big difference, like project branding, an advisory board, community events, and foundation management.

Healthy projects have thriving communities and communities create awareness. Awareness of the upstream project creates awareness of the downstream product. And, vice versa product growth puts attention on the project, the more customers your product has the more invested they will be in the health of the upstream project.