I’ve been staying out of the free vs. open source wars running around my little corner of the world of late. There is a lot of talk about whether or not open source has “won”. Open source is free software, so it seems silly to try to differentiate the two. The only way to do that is to focus on the people who care about the difference, and that just results in ad hominem attacks.
For years now I’ve been struggling to educate the market on the fact that the business around open source software is not about software. It’s about solutions. The clients I talk to are ultimately not concerned with what software to buy but instead want solutions to a variety of problems facing their business. Unfortunately, many of them only know the process of purchasing software, and they are unable to adapt to a solutions-based purchase.
Think about it. How does, say, the choice of a management solution usually play out?
First, a list of requirements are drawn up. Then, either through a VAR or just by searching the Internet, a list of possible software solutions is drawn up. The next step is to get demo versions of the software or perhaps talk to the vendor and get them to do a proof-of-concept. Finally, a choice is made and a check is written for software licenses.
In the “demo” step the vendor is usually asked to expend some resources on the sale. Those costs are recovered when the customer purchases a software license. Not only will they pay for the software, due to lock-in they will most likely buy maintenance for years to come. It is a nice revenue stream that makes a gamble on free demos worth it.
This doesn’t work very well for open source. Real open source software doesn’t have a licensing cost, so one can’t make up revenue there. Real open source software can’t prevent access to the latest and greatest code, so there is no requirement to purchase maintenance. Since the client isn’t required to purchase anything, that makes the “demo” phase of a sale a lot more risky.
At OpenNMS we are happy to do demos during the pre-sales process, but we have to draw the line when it comes to a large amount of pre-sales consulting. There is a product we offer called the “Getting to Know You” project in which a consultant will come and spend two days demonstrating what OpenNMS can do on their network, allowing the client to kick the tires and ask questions, and we charge for it. That way, regardless of the choice made by the client, our costs are covered. This is important, since our business model is “spend less than you earn”.
The reason I am writing about this now is that over the last two days I have had to deal with a potential client who is asking for a large amount of work above and beyond what we do with a normal sale. We have been trying to meet their needs for several weeks, but they wouldn’t come to training and when I pressed for a Getting to Know You project I was told no. Since the product has not been “approved” they don’t want to spend any money on it, even if by spending a little money they could save a ton in the future.
This reminds me of one of my favorite YouTube videos, where a woman goes to the hairdresser for a new hair style but doesn’t want to pay for it until after all of the work is done and then only if she likes it.
I run into potential clients like this from time to time, and what I’ve found is that it is better to cut and run instead of spending the time to try and win the business. Someone who isn’t willing to pay for your time most likely won’t understand the value you provide, and in these cases they are better off buying something traditional like Solarwinds than investing in OpenNMS.
I sometimes get asked “how do you make money selling free software?” and I have to answer that I have no clue. I don’t sell software, I sell solutions. The prevalence of Software as a Service (SaaS) businesses are making this easier, since people are being introduced to the mindset of getting a solution without having to purchase software, but the biggest challenge to my business is getting people to understand the value free and open software provides in creating a great solution without the “purchase software” mentality.
Luckily, there are enough people out there who “get it” that our business is doing very well this year. Their companies now have a competitive advantage, which, over time, will be demonstrated. Only when these advantages are demonstrated in the market place can open source be said to have “won”.