Sushi Profitable

Paul Graham is one of the people whose advice I always welcome, even though I don’t always agree with it. Most of the time, however, he is spot on.

This week he posted an entry called “Ramen Profitable“. Ramen profitable means a startup makes just enough to pay the founders’ living expenses.

There was a time in the life of OpenNMS when we were ramen profitable. Heck, when I first started out I paid myself solely on commission, which means I was profitable from Day One (and believe it or not, that first year I only spent $5000 out of savings to survive).

Paul writes:

Another advantage of ramen profitability is that it’s good for morale. You feel like you’re finally earning your keep. A company tends to feel rather theoretical when you first start it. It’s legally a company, but you feel like you’re lying when you call it one. When people start to pay you significant amounts, the company starts to feel real. And your own living expenses are the milestone you feel most, because at that point the future flips state. Now survival is the default, instead of dying.

I love that last line: survival is the default. It’s something I’ve been trying to explain about our business model (spend less than you earn) but I haven’t been as succinct. Profitability gives you options. Profitability, especially in open source, means you have the time you need to build your product and your community, and you can remain true to both.

But as Paul mentions in the footnote, ramen is one of the cheapest foods out there. It is one thing to survive and another to survive in comfort. So I’m going to call us “sushi profitable”.

While we don’t pay the highest salaries out there, we are able to pay good salaries. While we work on used office furniture, we can afford new laptops. And if any one of our employees wanted to go out for sushi, they could without hardship.

Those of us who work on OpenNMS every day realize it is something special, and so we are willing to sacrifice immediate financial gain in order to help the company grow faster. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t comfortable. I’m not sure what the next phase after “sushi profitable” will be (Mercedes profitable?) but I’ll let you know when we get there.

New York

I’m writing this from the Admiral’s Club lounge at LaGuardia. It is on Concourse D, but my flight is leaving out of Concourse C. Unlike other airports, there is no way between the two concourses without leaving and returning through security, so I’ll be visiting the x-ray machine for the third time on my way out.

Despite that quirk, I’ve had a fun time in New York. I came up to teach a three day class on OpenNMS for Lime Wire. It has been a good trip and if the storms hold off long enough for me to get home on time, it will have been a great trip.

Lime Wire is in the process of moving into new offices in Tribeca. They are amazingly decorated, as if Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel had a love child. There are some issues, however, such as a problem with the elevator buttons that resulted in a post on Failblog.

Friday night after class I met a friend of mine from high school, and he was kind enough to take me to a restaurant called Corton. After figuring out that Broadway was not the same street as West Broadway, I was able to meet up with him and dine on some very fancy dishes (the type where each little morsel comes on its own oversized plate that matches the shape of the food). We ate, drank and caught up on each other’s lives since we’d last met in DC, about 10 years ago. It’s the occasional night like this that makes the travel bearable.

Saturday night the Lime Wire guys took me out to the Odeon. It was a lot of fun, although Stuart (the manager) was they only one who got some of my cultural references, since we are both about the same age and somewhat older than the rest of the team. I visit a lot of companies and I’ve come to be able to recognize certain vibes, and from what I can tell Lime Wire is a great place to work. Plus, they’ve been using OpenNMS for a long while so they are obviously well above average in intelligence, and as you can see, extremely good looking.

Just before I came up someone pointed me to the Techcrunch article on the “Lime Wire Pizza” fiasco, so I was eager to get the whole story. Unfortunately, while some of the guys were at the party, no one was near enough to give me an first hand account. In the beginning of the story I was definitely sympathetic to the Dovecote guys, but when I got to “One of the Dovecote guys grabbed a whole pizza and tried to run away with it” that vanished. When one decides to escalate things to the point of theft, you’re kind of signaling that anything goes. But I guess when you think it is okay to publish stolen documents from Twitter, the theft of a pizza is nothing.

Even though I was asked to teach on the weekend, I had fun (well, as long as I make it home on time). Plus, it gave me a lot of ideas for decorating the OpenNMS offices when the time comes.

Purists and Pragmatists and Zealots, Oh My!

I didn’t make it to OSCON this year (thanks for everyone who voted for us for the CCA, by the way, even though we lost out again to Firebird) and I am quietly thankful for it, because it seems like the conference kicked off a new round of hyperbole and hypocrisy from the fauxpen source crowd and I’m going to try to stay out of it (instead of any kind of rational discussion, this round seems even more full of ad hominem attacks).

I’ve been labeled both an open source purist and a zealot simply because of my assertion that the term “open source” is defined by the open source definition. And while no one calls me a pragmatist, only a pragmatist could have kept a company like OpenNMS going through good times and bad without investment.

Heck, I’m even pragmatic about open source – in the realm of enterprise network management nothing works better, but that doesn’t mean it works for everything.

But no matter how successful we are, someone will think we aren’t successful enough. Luckily, I haven’t spent much of my life worrying about what others think, and we have been so busy lately that I can easily lose myself in helping our customers and our community.

However, at the risk of boring my three readers, I wanted to share an epiphany I had at dinner Thursday night.

We were discussing open source and I reexamined why a number of commercial open source companies see so little contribution that they resort to calling their users “leeches” and free loaders.

It is just natural that in a gift economy like open source, those who give back in a substantial fashion will be few. I’m am always grateful for any positive contribution while having the expectation of none. OpenNMS enjoys a wide range of contributors, enough so that I would never feel the need to refer to our community as leeches. I was wondering what was so different about us from other companies.

The answer came to me straight from Dan Ariely’s fine book Predictably Irrational. In it he talks about “Social Norms” versus “Market Norms” with an example from a day care center in Isreal:

A few years ago, [Uri Gneezy of UC San Diego and Aldo Rustichini of the University of Minnesota] studied a day care center in Israel to determine whether imposing a fine on parents who arrived late to pick up their children was a useful deterrent. Uri and Aldo concluded that the fine didn’t work well, and in fact it had long-term negative effects. Why?

Before the fine was introduced, the teachers and parents had a social contract, with social norms about being late. Thus, if parents were late — as they occasionally were — they felt guilty about it — and their guilt compelled them to be more prompt in picking up their kids in the future. (In Israel, guilt seems to be an effective way to get compliance.)

But once the fine was imposed, the day care center had inadvertently replaced the social norms with market norms. Now that the parents were paying for their tardiness, they interpreted the situation in terms of market norms. In other words, since they were being fined, they could decide for themselves whether to be late or not, and they frequently chose to be late. Needless to say, this is not what the day care center intended.

Vibrant open source communities operate under social norms. I am often approached by people who say that they really love OpenNMS, but then they sheepishly admit that they don’t buy support or contribute in any other way. They tend to smile when I say that I’m cool with that – just finding our work useful makes my day and they’re probably not a good fit as a support client in the first place.

But the open core realm operates under market norms. If some restaurant is handing out free food samples, rarely does one feel guilty about taking some. In much the same way, when users see a company that sells commercial software, there is no obligation associated with taking the free stuff and being done with it.

So the problem of leeches is one of their own creation, and as research has shown, once you set the basis for interaction based on market norms, it is hard to move back. This may be one of the main reasons a least one such company seems to be changing its message away from open source.

Once again, I’m just thinking out loud, and in that vein let me state that I’m thankful OpenNMS still seems to be operating under social norms. I’ll work hard to keep it that way.

Open Source for America

It’s been a pretty busy and interesting week. OSCON is going on out in California, and David and Matt are there for OpenNMS. As it is the probably the premiere open source conference it seems important to attend, but when I went a couple of years ago I really didn’t enjoy it.

Part of the reason is that I am not a developer, and the conference is very developer-centric. The other part is that while I maintain an e-mail correspondence with a number of open source “superstars”, the vibe is all strange at OSCON. If I meet these people in any other situation or conference we’re cool, but at OSCON it is different. I don’t want to say they are standoffish, as that isn’t the case, it just seems that it is harder for me to just walk up to them and start talking.

I know I’m not making any sense, so I’ll move on.

Oh, a big “congrats” to Brian Aker and the other winners for their Google O’Reilly Open Source Award. It is well deserved and I’m a little jealous, sort of the same way I felt when Tobi Oetiker got his SAGE achievement award at LISA. The jealousy stems from the fact that I’d love to get awards like this, but it should never happen. Not because I don’t work hard, but OpenNMS is such a community driven project that there really isn’t a single person we can recognize as being responsible for OpenNMS. I’m just a cheerleader, and my reward is being able to watch such an incredible team of people take the field.

Another announcement made this week was the founding of Open Source for America. This is a lobbying group designed to promote free and open source software in the US government. Their first goal is stated:

Aligned with our commitment to the four principles, our goals are to help effect change in the U.S. Federal government policies and practices to allow the federal government to better utilize free and open source software;

I think this is a great idea, but I was seriously confused when I read the list of founding members, which include such companies as Oracle, most likely involved due to its purchase of Sun; Medsphere, which sued its founders out of the company for daring to open source their “open source” software, and Alfresco.

I find that last company’s involvement amusing, since their most vocal employee often rants on about how “open source” is not free software, yet they helped found an organization, with “open source” in its name, blatantly based on the four principals of free software. It comes across as a little hypocritical and self-serving.

However, quite a bit of the organization reads like a Who’s Who of free and open source software, and so I asked one of the advisors to help me explain the discrepancy. He replied:

.. the companies involved wanted the biggest tent possible. Also, there are no dues being charged, so there’s no reason for people to think twice about joining up. The belief of the parties putting this together … is that the Administration will not speak to individual vendors, but will greet an association in proportion to the size of its membership, so they are bulking up.

Makes sense.

I am one of those guys who always thinks twice about signing up for stuff, so I am going to wait awhile before getting involved (I am also surprised that they didn’t involve Mark Taylor of Sirius IT who has a lot of experience with promoting FLOSS in government for the EU).

Unfortunately, this “thinking twice” gets me labelled some sort of free software zealot, and I’m not invited to cool parties with lots of shrimp cocktail and free drinks. It did land me a free sushi lunch with Andrew Oliver, a board member of the Open Source Initiative.

We met yesterday in Chapel Hill and the one hour lunch turned into more like a four hour gabfest on free and open software (those that know me are probably not surprised).

One of the cool things he brought up, and which I had not considered, came up during a discussion of venture capital. VCs usually fund rather novel ideas (well, for certain values of “novel”). Perhaps the idea of an open source company has grown past that novelty stage and is more mainstream than we think. For example, no one would go to a VC firm if they wanted to open up a restaurant. They’d go to either the bank or to individual investors, most likely family and friends. Heck, that’s what we did with The OpenNMS Group. I think it would be an indication that open source has arrived if the idea of starting an open source company did not immediately begin with “get VC money”.

He also complained about our lack of marketing with respect to OpenNMS. I have often resisted doing any kind of formal marketing because it is hard to reconcile my core beliefs of transparency, openness and no bullshit with what usually passes for marketing. Yet it would be great to be able to communicate that OpenNMS is a real company with real customers and a long track record of delivering the highest quality management solutions, and not just a bunch of open source zealots hanging out in North Carolina.

So I was happy to find a company called Bold Interactive that does marketing but shares our ideals that clients are partners and not checkbooks, and that doing good, besides being the right thing to do, has positive financial benefits. We are just getting started on what will be our first ever formal marketing effort, and I expect the community to provide feedback and keep us honest.

In addition, Bold introduced us to a really talented public relations person named Margaret Gifford. She has an amazing amount of marketing experience coupled with the same attitude we look for in all of our partners (she resigned from a very powerful position due to quality of life issues) and we are happy to have her apply that experience to getting the word out about OpenNMS.

Well, if you’ve read this far you really should get a hobby, and I want to apologize for the rambling and newsy nature of this post.

One Million Miles

I travel a lot, and I tend to travel on American Airlines. Not that they are really any better or worse than the other airlines, but from Raleigh they are convenient and they tend to be competitive in price.

Last month I broke the million mile mark on my frequent flyer account.

Note that this was not “in seat” miles but the total of all miles from all promotions that I’ve logged with the airline.

The last time I checked the AAdvantage website didn’t have much on what happens at the million mile mark (or marks, I’ve seen some travelers with 3 and 4 million miles). So I thought I’d post the letter one gets when you hit this milestone.

The one really cool thing is that it appears I am “gold” (the lowest elite level) for life. I’ve gotten used to things like boarding early, so I appreciate that. Perhaps at two million miles you get to be lifetime Platinum.

I am simultaneously eager and scared to find out.

Professional Commune

Scott Adams has been blogging recently about Cheapatopia.

Cheapatopia is a hypothetical city, designed from scratch to be an absurdly cheap place to live with a ridiculously high quality of life.

It got me thinking about an idea some friends of mine and I had back in my younger days. We called it the Promune, for Professional Commune.

I have been exposed to two examples of intentional communities in my life. Back in 1984 I spent a week at Twin Oaks, which is near Louisa, Virginia.

From their website:

We do not have a group religion; our beliefs are diverse. We do not have a central leader; we govern ourselves by a form of democracy with responsibility shared among various managers, planners, and committees. We are self-supporting economically, and partly self-sufficient. We are income-sharing. Each member works 42 hours a week in the community’s business and domestic areas. Each member receives housing, food, healthcare, and personal spending money from the community.

It was a really amazing week. You might be thinking to yourself “Hey, 42 hours a week is more than the 40 I work” but this includes meal preparation, laundry, yard work – pretty much a lot of what you would do outside of your actual job. What amazed me is that these 100 people live near the poverty level as calculated by the government, yet their standard of living is much, much higher. Meals are prepared and served for you, your laundry is done for you – some of the things we associate with the rich.

Me at Twin Oaks, circa 1984

Flash forward 15 years and I am buying a farm in Chatham County, North Carolina. Right next to me is another intentional community called Blue Heron Farm.

Blue Heron is more individualistic than Twin Oaks in the sense that there really isn’t as much shared housing and living (folks at Twin Oaks live in a dormitory style arrangement and share meal preparation, etc.) The folks at Blue Heron tend to have their own houses, but they also have a lot of community oriented activities such as a community garden, project weekends and “pot luck” meals. I was there this weekend dropping off a load of horse manure and I couldn’t help but notice how pleasant it was on their land. Again, here is a group of people living together with a much higher standard of living than they could accomplish individually.

Note: At least one person who reads this blog also knows Blue Heron, and there is a chance that someone from Twin Oaks may see this as well, so let me stress than I am oversimplifying the experience at both these places, and in the case of Twin Oaks, my time there was nearly 25 years ago.

So, back to the Promune. Think about things that we usually associate with wealth in this country: land, big house, nice cars, etc. In almost all cases most of the “luxury” items are rarely used. Unless you have a big family my guess is that most of your house is often empty. In my own modest farm house someone is upstairs less than 30 minutes a day on average, unless we have guests.

But it is still nice to have that space when we do have guests, just like it would be nice to have a billiard room, a library, a gym, a music room, a home theatre, a gourmet kitchen, a swimming pool, a Ferrari and a ski boat.

While my experiences with intentional communities revolve around people who are into sustainability (“live simply so others might live”), the idea of the Promune was to see what would happen when you throw, for lack of a better phrase, conspicuous consumption into the mix. If people near the poverty level can live like the middle class, what would happen if you started with the middle class?

Like Blue Heron, the Promune would be organized as a corporation in which people would buy shares. The initial investment would go to buy land, since we’d want on the order of 50-100 acres just to have the room. Central to the community would be the “manor house” which would be similar to what a single wealthy individual might build. While it would contain the billiard room, library, home theatre, guest quarters, etc. no one would actually live in the manor house. Instead, everyone would get individual small bungalows around the property. These would contain a kitchen, living area and bedrooms. You wouldn’t need specialized rooms since those would be in the manor house.

Being geeks at heart, the Promune would be technologically advanced. There would be a fat pipe to the internet, which would be shared around the property. So-called “green” building techniques would be used, and each house would have an electric cart to easily get from their bungalow to the manor house (recharged via solar cells – natch).

Many of my friends have jobs where they work from home, so it would be possible to have a business center in the manor house where people could work together. Depending on how much money was available, there could also be a staff to help keep the common areas clean and perhaps even a cook to plan and prepare meals.

Of course there would be the stable of toys such as sportscars, motorcycles and a boat or two. The swimming pool and tennis courts could be added near the manor house as well.

Sounds good, huh?

I’m not sure why we never gave this a go. Part of it is that we all went our separate ways. Another part is that society isn’t really structured for shared property. Most home owners in the US have a good portion of their assets in their house (along with value appreciation), so how would equity be split? It would be easy to do on a per share basis, but the shares wouldn’t be very liquid.

So speaking of splits, how would one handle a divorce within the community? Would there be limits on children? Twin Oaks realized early on that it had to have a certain ratio of children to adults in order to function (I had been told that communities such as The Farm in Tennessee were nearly 50% children) but would that be required or even work on the Promune (our original vision of the community was primarily for DINKs)?

The Promune would have the best chance of working with a small group of people, unlike the “city” that Adam’s envisions in Cheapatopia, but would it be possible to find enough people to make it viable? I would think that having about 5 families to begin would be enough to get started. Once the Promune was in operation I believe it would attract others.

What does this have to do with OpenNMS? Not much, except that people involved in the project seem to like thinking about stuff like this. OpenNMS itself is a little like an intentional community. Respect is built on merit, and while the community itself is large there is a much smaller group of people at its heart.

Also, OpenNMS is able to compete with products like OpenView and Tivoli, which are definitely “wealthy” products, yet it is produced on a middle class budget. Seeing how successful OpenNMS has been (and where it is going), the Promune doesn’t sound so far fetched.

Sourceforge CCA Voting Ends Monday

Just in case you haven’t voted yet, this is one last reminder that the Sourceforge Community Choice Awards voting ends on Monday.

If you like OpenNMS, please be sure to give us some love with a vote (the link should pre-select OpenNMS for “Best Project for the Enterprise and if you don’t have a Sourceforge account you can just enter in an e-mail address).

Remember to vote early and often, and we really appreciate your support.

Plus, if you haven’t had a chance to check out our video, I think it’s worth a look.

Reports on the Death of the GPL …

… are greatly exaggerated.

It’s funny, from my small corner of the world it seems like the GPL is under attack of late. First, back in March, esr questioned the usefulness of the license. And now a lot of discussion has built up around a post by Benjamin Black comparing the GPL to DRM. Since I am nothing if not fashionable, I felt I should throw my opinion into the mix.

I have to disagree with Mr. Black’s premise that

it [the GPL] acts as a virus to force the release of ever more source. the gpl serves to rigidly control what you can and cannot do with software covered by it, and is thus the license equivalent of digital rights management

The GPL is a rather simple license, and I don’t view its requirement that changes to GPL’d code must also be GPL’d as “rigidly controlling” what one does with it. I can run GPL’d code on any device I want. I can modify GPL’d code any way I want. I am free to do whatever I want with GPL’d code as long as any changes I make are given to whomever I share the code. Heck, if I don’t share the code the license doesn’t apply, since it is based on the making of copies (copyright) and not possession.

DRM, on the other hand, exists to lock digital works to a particular device, or to limit the number of copies one can make, or to otherwise limit what one can do with the code.

Mr. Black’s viewpoint seems to be that the GPL should exist to empower users and that it is wrong for developers to have much, if any, control over their work. He states “the license intended to protect the rights of users is instead being optimized for the rights of developers”.

Huh? This seems a little insane to me. Software licenses in general are designed for the developers (publishers) of software, not the users of software. As far as I know the GPL puts no restrictions on “use”. As the creator of a piece of work, shouldn’t I have some control over it? If I wish to share it with others, don’t I get to create the rules by which this sharing occurs?

The problems he raises are not licensing problems, but management issues, specifically community management issues.

I visit a large number of companies each year. Some clients have serious limitations on internet access, whereas others are very wide open. I was at one client where I was talking with the director of the management group, and I pointed out that I was very surprised at how open their internet policy was. He pointed out that if there was a employee spending time surfing for porn or playing World of Warcraft, that wasn’t a technology problem but a management problem. It wasn’t necessary to limit the technology. I should point out that he had an amazing group of productive people working for him.

The same thing applies to the GPL. The GPL is not flawed nor is it overly controlling. It is just one set of rules that the creators of software can adopt. Don’t like it? Don’t use GPL’d code. As a contributor to an open source project, you can choose whether or not to contribute. It is a management issue to insure that your community it happy with what you do with the code. It is them you have to satisfy and no others. A license doesn’t help you do that.

There is a lot of discussion that the Apache license is better for open source projects. That most certainly is not the case with OpenNMS. We have built an amazing platform that is highly scalable, and all we need now is a small amount of investment in order to work on the webUI and make it easier to use and more attractive. If we were under a permissive license there would be nothing preventing a company with a couple of million in VC from taking our work, finishing it, and making a huge profit. Heck, they wouldn’t even need to release their final product under an OSI-approved license at all. Is that fair to the developers? Is that even fair to the users?

In my very first post on the subject of open source in business, I went over a number of business models, including the dual-license model. To me, the dual-license model is a great compromise – as long as 100% of the code is available under an open license, it should not be considered wrong for a company to also generate revenue from another license, like MySQL used to do. The only caveat I had was that some developers would not be happy with that arrangement, and thus it might reduce the amount of contribution.

MySQL used to require that any contribution they accepted also include the copyright. We found that to be a little restrictive – what if you contribute a cool algorithm you came up with but you also want to use that in another program? Shouldn’t you be able to own your code?

So we were happy to discover the Sun Contributor Agreement which implements the idea of dual copyright – the project gets the copyright to the contribution and the author retains the copyright to their work. This was acceptable to our team – it may not work for everyone.

Since the copyright to OpenNMS is now wholly owned by The OpenNMS Group, we are considering offering a commercial license for the platform to other companies who wish to build a custom management solution. Any code we write, however, will also be published under the GPL. This is a promise we have made to our community as well as the governing body of that community, the Order of the Green Polo. They trust us to use any revenue we make to better the product, and a dual-license may be the best way to accomplish this quickly.

But while the GPL works for OpenNMS, sometimes a more permissive license is better. In fact, some of the work we are doing with another project will be published under the Apache license. As the developers of the code we wish to have some say in how it is used, and our choice of license allows us to do that.

Mr. Black seems to take issue with this. It seems like he wishes to be able to commercialize others work so that he can decide “who gets paid” versus those that create the software. Since the GPL makes this difficult, it must be wrong and we can compare it to DRM. His definition of free is close to public domain, and anything else is too restrictive. I have to disagree and insist that there are shades of grey from commercial software with content under DRM to the public domain, and that the GPL is much closer to the latter than the former.

Cook's Country FAIL

This is another one of those customer service-centric posts with no OpenNMS content, so please feel free to skip.

I like to cook. It goes well with the fact that I have a physique designed for eating. Two of my favorite magazines on cooking are Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country.

Both are great. They accept no advertising and tend to base a lot of what they print on experiments in the “test kitchen”. I like stuff that is backed up with lots of testing.

The downside? They have the worst subscription/marketing team on the planet. I dropped Cook’s Illustrated because they kept calling my house (at least twice a month) to try to sell me things despite repeated requests to be taken off their phone marketing list. But I couldn’t bring myself to cancel my Cook’s Country subscription since I like it so much.

Looks like I didn’t need to bother, as yesterday I received an e-mail telling me that my subscription had ended, even though I’d paid until 2010.:

I called them and verified that, yes, I would continue to receive the magazines I’ve paid for, but what a way to put a black eye on an otherwise great magazine (outside of allowing their servers to be hacked, of course). The publisher claims to be some sort of “country” down to earth guy, but this kind of marketing is just wrong. Either they have a poor database, and are spamming people with incorrect e-mails, or this is some ploy to boost subscription revenues early.

In either case I don’t like it, and if it happens again I’ll drop even Cook’s Country.

NOTE: Wikipedia has a entry about the company’s aggressive sales practices.

Le quatorze juillet

The 14th of July, or Bastille Day, celebrates the beginning of French independence with the storming of the Bastille prison on this date in 1789.

I haven’t been able to spend as much time I would like in France. My friend Alex lives in France near the Alps and the Swiss border (he works in Switzerland so I assume he didn’t get today off) and I’ve been able to visit him a couple of times, and we have a customer in Paris that I was able to visit on a whirlwind trip there last year. The French seem to have a natural understanding of our free (libre) and open source philosophy.

One of the major IT companies over there, Bull, uses OpenNMS as the platform for its SmartOSS offering. They are presenting it at the Open World Forum and I was hoping to be able to attend, but I’m not sure that is going to happen (hint: if anyone wants me there, drop me an e-mail).

Also, I received an e-mail while I was on vacation from Samuel Mutel about OpenNMS Sans Effort, a distribution of OpenNMS on CentOS to make it easier for people to get started with the application. It is really exciting to see things like this happening and is one of the joys with working on free and open source software.

Here is hoping that all of our friends in France had a wonderful holiday today.