Multi-account Twittering from the command line

While working on our migration from Joomla to Drupal over at, I’ve been keeping folks apprised of what I’m up to by posting the highlights to Twitter on our virtualmin Twitter account. So, I’ve had to switch back and forth quite a bit from my personal account. It also means I have to have another tab open quite frequently for Twitter. I looked around for a standalone Twitter client that supports multiple accounts, and found the pickings were pretty slim on Linux (a few Air clients run on Linux, but not very well, unfortunately). But, I got to thinking that a command line client would be ideal…so I searched the web, and found a brief article here with a simple one-liner to submit a tweet to Twitter. The fact that Twitter works with a one-line shell script is awesome, and explains why there are so many Twitter clients.

Anyway, I first thought, “I could just make copies of that for each account.” The I could call, “twitter-swelljoe” for my personal account and “twitter-virtualmin” for my business account. But that seemed wrong, somehow.

So, I wrote a version that accepts a command line argument of the username, and then sends the rest as a tweet.

curl -u $USER:$PASS -d status="$TWIT">/dev/null

Nothing really fancy going on here, but the “shift” is saying, “drop the first token from the arguments list”, and then $@ says “give me the rest”. So, no quotes required for the tweet. I saved the filed as tw, and use it like so:

tw swelljoe Tweeting from the command line!
tw virtualmin Business-y kinds of tweets from the command line.

This assumes one password for all Twitter accounts, which is exactly what I do anyway (I use SuperGenPass, which always generates the same password when given the same URL and passphrase). You could instead store the passwords in an associative array (gotta be using Bash 4.0+ for that), something like this (I can’t test this, as I don’t have bash 4.0!):

declare -A PASS
curl -u $USER:${PASS[$USER]} -d status="$TWIT">/dev/null

There are ways to fake associative arrays in older versions of bash, or use other tools, but since I don’t need multiple passwords, I’m going to just hand-wave that away.

I find it amusing that the first version of this twitter client, at 137 characters, is a valid tweet. It makes me want to go golfing and see how small I can make an even more functional version…at the very least, I can’t resist:

tw swelljoe `cat tw`

And then I have to go change my password after realizing I tweeted the real version rather than the demonstration version. Good thing nobody follows my personal tweets.

Community, or not community

I chatted with an applicant to the Y Combinator Summer Founders Program this afternoon, and he brought up a really interesting question that I’d never really thought about before.  His question was, roughly, “Do community-based or value-based Y Combinator backed businesses do better?”  Let’s assume that a “community-based” business is one where the user base creates the vast majority of the value (like reddit), and a “value-based” business is one where there is value even with only one user (like Zenter).  So, by this definition, a community-based site must reach a certain level of popularity before random folks on the Internet want to use it, while a value-based site can make life easier for a single person and that single person will keep coming back.

The reason this is interesting, to me, is that Y Combinator likes community-based companies, and my impression (admittedly supported by merely anecdotal and circumstantial evidence) is that they prefer them to value-based businesses, though this preference may be changing over time.  So, the question it raises is whether having a preference (even a mild one) for community-based businesses results in better outcomes for Y Combinator.  I suspect that it has a negative impact, but I don’t know that for sure.

We can break it down by exit, though:

Community-based YC exits

  • Reddit – Rumored 12-ish million dollar acquisition by Condé Nast

Group of men at Ellis Island

Value-based YC exits

  • Zenter – Undisclosed acquisition by Google
  • Parakey – Undisclosed acquisition by Facebook
  • Auctomatic – 5 million dollar cash+stock acquisition by Live Communicate
  • TextPayMe – Undisclosed acquisition by Amazon
  •* – Undisclosed acquisition by Imeem

Farmer turning sod

I’ve put an asterisk by above, as I’m certain some folks would consider it a community-based business…but it provides most of its value even with only one user, so it fits my requirements for a value-based business, and I think it’s fair to say they were not acquired based predominantly on the size of their community or traffic growth but on the strength of the application they’d built.

Of course, since all but one of those acquisitions in the “value-based” category are for an undisclosed sum, and I’m basing the reddit acquisition price on rumors (though rumors from disparate sources, I’ve never heard the numbers from any of the people actually involved), it’s hard to say with any confidence that the five exits in the value-based group are worth more to YC than the one community-based exit.  But, one can safely say that value-based businesses have made a lot more young YC-backed entrepreneurs rich than community-based businesses.

This isn’t the whole picture, of course.  Some of the biggest potential YC success stories have yet to have an exit.   It’s hard to argue that Loopt isn’t going to  be a big success story for YC, and it’s pretty much purely community-based, though they have the added hurdle of having to sell to mobile providers to attain their customer base.  Scribd has seen tremendous traffic growth and it’s a community-based site with a small amount of value independent of the community.  Obviously, “going viral” is a fantastic marketing opportunity that is only generally available to community-based businesses, but historically it seems that building a useful application is more likely to result in a successful exit than building a product that relies on a large community to have value.

I found this result surprising when I began listing off the exits and thinking about what kind of business they were.  I’ve always thought of Virtualmin as an outlier among YC companies, since we build a traditional installable web-based application, but when broken down into value vs. community, we’re not so far out.

Anyway, I don’t think I’ve stumbled onto anything earth-shaking in this little exercise, of course, but I do think it would be interesting to break down all YC companies (and perhaps even everything in the TechCrunch Crunchbase) into this categorization and see how things shake out with regard to who is still around and growing.  Maybe later…right now I’ve gotta go build some value.

The new face of Webmin

After much deliberation (a bloodbath!), Jamie, Kevin, and I (and a little help from some friends) have chosen a new logo for Webmin, from the seemingly infinite great options offered up by our recent logo contest at SitePoint. Without further ado, I present to you the new face of Webmin:

The figure represents the letters W and M, but there is also the additional symbolism of three Ms to represent Webmin, Usermin, and Virtualmin. We agonized quite a bit over leaving behind the spider web themed branding of the old logo, but in the end, decided that a web was simply meaningless in a modern context where everything is web-based. When Webmin began, almost nothing for system administration ran on the web, and it was the defining characteristic of Webmin. Jamie is still justifiably proud of being so far ahead of the curve on adopting the web-based paradigm, but felt it was time to move on. The future of Webmin is virtualization and grid computing, mobile devices, public APIs, clustering, and more. The web-based UI is merely one aspect of a large swath of interesting facets.

We’d like to thank all of the designers who took part in the contest. They were patient, enthusiastic, and really good. We came into the final round of judging with a dozen or more entries that at least two of us loved, and only after two days of debate and seeking advice from friends and family, did we finally come to a concensus on one that we could all love. We’re extremely excited about the new logo, and plan to roll it out to the website, and the default Webmin theme in the next few days. We’ll also be printing some T-shirts, as soon as I find someone good here in the Bay Area to make them for us.

Thanks also to Kevin Hale, of Particle Tree and Wufoo fame for being our celebrity judge and providing adult supervision during the contest. His magical designer-y ways kept us thoroughly on the right path. Jamie’s sister Lara Cameron
also loaned us her eyes and expertise.

See also

Webmin Logo Contest

Getting a great logo: Reducing the field

It’s just not a contest until you see a goatse

As I’ve mentioned here and here, we’re holding a logo contest for Webmin’s tenth anniversary. We’ve gotten a ton of fantastic entries, and we’re coming down to the final hours of the contest. We are feeling really good about quite a few of the entries, but today the entries finally achieved what all great contests should aspire to: an unintentional goatse troll.

The finest goatse logo troll of all time, of course, appeared during the BBC Olympic “Lisa Simpson doing something naughty” logo coverage (pay attention at about :29 on the clock). But, now we’ve got one of our very own:

I’m so proud.

See also: Article at the Register

Getting a great logo: reducing the field

We’re holding a logo contest over on SitePoint. We mentioned it in an article a few days ago and since then it has become the most popular contest running right now on the site! Awesome. That’s the good news. There’s also great news: The designers entering the contest are really good! There’s at least half a dozen designs that we’d be proud to call our logo, and at least a dozen of the designers are folks I would love to work with in the future. Hundreds of entries would do us no good if they all sucked, but these guys are doing really solid work.

We’re about 30 hours from the end of the contest, so I wanted to post a summary of the work so far, and offer some advice to the designers, as well as offer up our thought process on why we like the logos that we like, and a few for logos we want to like, but don’t, and why. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list. For that you’ll need to check out the contest itself and the feedback on each of the entries.

Our Judging Guidelines

These are the guiding principles in our decision making process. We don’t all agree on how they should be reflected in the end product, but we all agree that these are right for the Webmin logo. It helps to know, in advance, the general feel of the branding you want, as it makes it really easy to rule out some possibly great executions of ideas that don’t fit. I think this is one of the leading causes of a failed branding effort; if you don’t know what you want, you’ll almost certainly not get it. So here’s the guidelines we’re using in our judging and advice to the designers:

  • We’re an Open Source project, so super corporate looking logos probably aren’t right.
  • We’ll be printing T-shirts, so too much complexity is a negative. Costs more to print, and looks stupid when screen-printed. It also leads to a weaker brand image…takes a long time to remember a really complex logo, but a simple one can stick on first or second viewing.
  • Colors aren’t set in stone. We’ll have the SVG vector version, and can change the colors, as needed. Though poor color choices might indicate a lack of skill on the part of the designer, and we might be wasting our time trying to guide them towards perfection if the logo has problems other than color. I’ve noticed some of the designers take advice much better than others. Some of these folks are pros, while others are well-meaning amateurs, and one of the things that separates the pros from the amateurs is an uncanny ability to read my mind. We aren’t going to miss out on a great logo just because it is by an amateur, but we’re also going to choose a perfect execution of a good idea over a mediocre execution of a great idea.
  • Be gentle, and have fun. We’re encouraging everyone to get involved, so we’ve got a few entries that are, frankly, not great. You can be harder on an entry that you really like a lot, because it’s easy to soften the criticism with praise. But, if one of us picks something that another hates, be gentle in vetoing it.
  • Jamie has veto power (we all do, but Jamie really does). It’s his baby, and he gets to say no to any logo, no matter how much one of the other judges loves something.

The Top Ten (give or take a few)

This is a bunch of logos that Jamie or I loved. Kevin is reserving judgment until the end, so we’ll have to wait for the professional opinions, but here’s where we stand, right now. This is definitely not an exhaustive list of the good to great logos in the contest, but it’s the ones that we picked out as being our favorites. Some of these won’t actually be going into the final round, due to a veto by Jamie or I, but these are all great by either my estimation or Jamie’s, so they’re worth commenting on.

Modern stylized spider web by vjeko

I like everything about this one. The spider web is clearly a spider web, it feels kinda like the Pentagon of spider webs: a place where Serious Internet Business takes place. The font is fun and the colors are soothing and modern. It scales small and large with no loss of impact and handles limited colors like a champ. Jamie also likes this logo. He’s unsure of hanging on to the spider or spider web branding of the old Webmin logo, so many of my favorites are in limbo (most of my favorites are spider related). But the strength of this logo won Jamie over, and he’d be happy with this concept.

vjeko deserves special mention for poking fun at me with this variant that adds a fitting tagline:

Fat, friendly spider by Haetro

I love this spider! Every time I see it, I like it more. It’s got real personality, and with only one color. It looks great in any color, and even with fonts I don’t care for, like the one in this particular instance. Some of the other variants of this logo have better fonts, but miss out on the purity of this one. I like the single color, and I like the square spider icon better than the later instances that round the spider or add more colors to the Webmin text (though other instances do have better fonts). Haetro has a great sense of style and a minimalist approach that I find very appealing.

Unfortunately for me, and for this design, Jamie vetoed it. The white space is pretty deeply offensive to him, and when scaled up he finds the spider frightening (I can see that…the eyes get really scary when he’s big). That said, Haetro is among the best designers in this contest, and I hate that none of his entries will make it to the final round. So, an interesting lesson to learn from this is that perhaps some of the most compelling images can also be the most off-putting. I asked around about this one, and it’s a very polarizing logo, you either love it or hate it.

Solid Webmin surrounding racks full of servers by RetroMetro Designs/Steve

This one is out of left field, and that’s a big part of why I like it. It’s unlike any other entry, so far, and gets bonus points for that originality. The feel I get from the green blocks in the center is clearly “look at these modern server racks filled with systems doing Serious Internet Business”. And the big fat WEBMIN sitting on either side makes it real clear who’s in charge. It’s simple, clean, clearly relevant, reduces nicely, and looks good. Steve’s entry prior to this one is really nice, too, and in fact, Jamie likes it better. Steve has done some revisions of that idea, which Jamie and I both like better, so it may find its way into the final round.

Interestingly, while Jamie and I both like Steve’s sense of style, we diverged on which of his designs we like best. But, at least one of Steve’s entries will be in the final round.

Give me a “W”, Give me an “M”, What does that spell? Spider! by highendprofile

Awesome execution on the idea of a spider built from the letters W and M. This is a gorgeous illustration. I wasn’t so sure about highendprofile’s skills based on his first entry, which was a nice idea but not very well executed, but this spider immediately blew me away. Beautiful execution and the spider is among the best illustrations in the contest. I don’t love the font on this one–it’s a bit tall and thin, but the colors are nice, and the spider is what draws the eye, so even with a not quite right font, I really like this logo.

This is another of the spider-based logos that has gotten the axe by Jamie. In this case, the cuteness that I love is a turnoff for Jamie. It won’t, unfortunately, make it into the final round, but highendprofile is a great designer, and I wish we had another idea or two from him in the contest.

Ooh, shiny spider makes me happy, by demonhale

What a champ. Give demonhale an idea and he runs it all the way in. This is a great spider illustration. Cute and shiny, very modern, very friendly. The font looks spidery, and the whole thing just screams “New Technology!” Great color choice, but color isn’t necessary for this one to look good. I like that the spider is hanging by a thread…perhaps going some place new. And, who doesn’t love shiny things?

Jamie, surprisingly, did not veto this spider. It’s shiny and serious enough to pass the “is it too cute?” muster, and it’s also a really simple design. The colors are subdued and the execution is clean. So, shiny spider is going to the final round.

Webmin is like a box or a building block, by joswan

This is another nice idea, that breaks from the old spider web and spider tradition. A box built from the letters W and M, with a nice solid font and cool colors. It’s quite pleasant to look at, and has some relevance for what Webmin does. Boxes don’t have a lot of personality…but it looks good nonetheless. It degrades nicely, and makes for a good favicon and icon version.

Jamie doesn’t love the colors here, and I have to agree. Orange and blue have a feel that is distinctly non-high tech. But joswan is an excellent designer, and does really nice work, so we can probably chase him into getting the colors right.

The fleur de Webmin, by ulahts

This designer has submitted nothing but great entries, but this is my favorite. The WM here is subtle and pleasant, the Webmin is bold and distinctive in red and gray. Nothing says Serious Internet Business like some sturdy red text. A stylized WM doesn’t mean much, but it sure looks nice as hell. It feels like it’s got the weight of Webmin’s ten year history behind it (ten years in Internet time is like 20 generations, so this is kinda like a family crest or family plaid to represent the Webmin family of products for the next 20 generations, or more). This is a very distinctive logo.

Jamie found this one a bit boring, but likes some of ulauts other work. We might end up pulling another of his logos into the final round, instead of this one.

Life saving technology, by dumples

This designer came out of left field with this one. It’s his only entry, but man did he ever knock it out of the park! Jamie and I both like this one a lot. The bubbly WM is just very pleasing and it feels familiar in a good way. I trust this logo. It feels kinda like a lifeguard. And, I can even kinda see one swimmer being helped to shore by another, now that I try to figure out why I think “lifeguard” when I look at it.

So, dumples, has swept in with one lone entry, and found himself as a shoe in for the final round. You don’t have to do lots of entries, if the one you run with is great, and this one is great.

Infinity needs system administrators, by fbarriac

Another one that Jamie and I agree on. We like the subtle use of color here, and the lovely dark gray Webmin in a round and friendly font. The infinity shape doesn’t mean much in reference to Webmin, except maybe that there are seemingly infinite things Webmin can do, but it looks good as hell doing it. I can picture this on great looking T-shirts (that cost an arm and a leg to print, because it requires shading to look this good), and it really shines on the web.

Webmin is sorta like a castle…or maybe a rook in a game of chess, by rust3dboy

Jamie likes the colors and sturdiness of this one. But it’s one that I vetoed. I’m not wholly aghast at the “WM as castle or rook” idea, but this execution feels like a logo for a BBS from the 80s. I think I broke several federal laws in order to call that BBS for free when I was thirteen. Jamie might have fond memories of calling that BBS, too, and that may be clouding his judgment. So, this one won’t be in the running, but another of rust3dboy’s logos will be, as we both really like most of his ideas…in particular the next one in the list.

Do you have a flag? by rust3dboy

In general, a great designer is one that can produce numerous really great logos, and rust3dboy has done that. We don’t all love all of them, but at least a couple of his entries are among our favorites. This is another good, abstract “it’s a W and an M!”, concept, implemented by a real pro. I like the color symmetry here, and the WM looks kinda like a flag (I’ve always thought people who have a Black Flag tattoo are super cool, and this looks kinda like the Black Flag logo). Nothing to complain about here.

Links in a chain, open source style, by BeeOsx

This is another the both Jamie and I really like. The colors are beautiful and professional. Very modern feel all around. We have no clue what those dots and lines are all about. It’s like they’re being dropped into a shredder or something, or maybe it’s a wood chipper and those are the chips flying out. I think my favorite thing about this one is actually the colors, and the really professional execution rather than the idea itself. It just looks really clean. BeeOsx is a really good designer with some interesting ideas, and I suspect at least this entry will be in the final round.

What else?

So those are the ones that bubbled to the top in the first round of discussions. Except for three or four vetoed entries those will definitely be considered in our final round of judging. There are a few that have come up since we had our discussion a couple of days ago that deserve special mention, as they are interesting new entries.

Swooshy wavy W and M, by babitaverma

This one is nice and subtle. I have no idea what the waves mean here, but they look awesome, and the color scheme is amazingly pretty. The font is a bit squat, but otherwise this is a great, simple, idea executed brilliantly. I’m going to unilaterally pull it into the final round of judging, but it may bounce right back out if Jamie or Kevin veto it.

This designer showed up after the first round of judging, so he missed out on getting feedback from Jamie, but I think at least two of his designs are final round calibre entries.

Butterflies, by babitaverma

Another by the same designer as the previous one. If we’re going to go with a new mascot, rather than a spider or web, butterflies would be a great choice. This illustration is lovely and simple, and looks great in all sorts of colors.

WM is a box, by RetroMetro Designs/Steve

This is the other entry by Steve that Jamie and I both liked, but had some reservations about during early discussion. Steve touched up the problem spots, and now it looks pretty darned good. Definitely a contender.

WM is another kind of box, by DaHoNK

This is another early entry that we had some reservations about, but the designer cleaned up those problems, and now it looks really good. This one takes such a different route on color scheme that it’s notable for that reason alone.

Tell us what you think!

What’s your favorite logo, so far? Any gems we’ve missed that you think ought to be make it into the final round? Let us know! This is the future of Webmin’s branding we’re talking about here.

Open Source and Business: a Precarious Partnership

The business world has thoroughly embraced, by some definition of “embraced”, Free and Open Source software. No longer is it the sole province of the barefooted ideologues, MIT AI lab vagabonds, or bearded Berkeley beatniks. The biggest businesses in the world now have an Open Source deployment plan. Even Microsoft, the historical protagonist in the FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) story, has begun making vaguely conciliatory gestures towards the community alongside its traditional FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) and Embrace and Extend tactics, because their biggest customers have started demanding better interoperability, better standards compliance, and more transparency: features that are core beliefs of the FOSS world. So, big money has come to FOSS, but so far, the majority of big winners have been traditionally proprietary vendors adding FOSS solutions to their portfolio.

There are a few success stories from pure play OSS companies. Red Hat Software is one, Mozilla is another. But, I see a lot of great Open Source projects floundering with poor business plans and even poorer execution on those plans, wasting time that could have been spent developing and spending it instead on plugging the holes in the business. Most Open Source entrepreneurs start out with the goal of being able to work full-time on their project, but end up having even less time for the project and being broke, to boot. So, I’d like to offer some advice to budding FOSS entrepreneurs.

I’ve now built two businesses based on Open Source software, and I’ve learned a few things about what works and what doesn’t. Many of the “standard answer” solutions to the problem of making money on something that is available for free have died out over the years, as it’s become apparent, at least to the folks who’ve tried them, that they simply don’t work. I’d like to talk about some of those failed models, as well as some of the models that do seem to be working across a wide range of Open Source based businesses.

Service and Support (or, “what’s wrong with being a consultant?”)

This is the old standby for lots of Free Software and OSS purists. The argument goes, “don’t charge for the software, charge for the service and support that you offer”. Most of the people putting forth this as a viable business model haven’t actually built an Open Source based business based on this model. It is possible, but the scale on which you’ll be operating will never be very large.

Here’s why:

  1. Support is fundamentally a consulting business. To increase sales revenue you have to increase head count. Increasing head count is expensive, and your best employees will eventually start their own consulting business and likely compete with you. If you’re lucky, they’ll pick a niche that doesn’t overlap much with your core business.
  2. Expertise is hard to find. You may be the absolute master of the popular Open Source Frobnosticator project, and people come from all over the world to pay you for that expertise. But when it’s time to scale, see item 1 and contemplate finding or training someone to have your level of expertise with the Frobnosticator.
  3. The only advertising that works is word of mouth. You can’t easily have someone else sell your services for you. Most of the businesses (IBM, for instance) that might be well-placed to do so have their own services arm that they’d sell before they’d sell your service. Sure, IBM professional services doesn’t have any Frobnosticator experts on staff, but they’ll wing it and bill $200/hour while they figure it out. Thus, you have to pound the pavement to drum up your sales. Do not underestimate the cost of getting and keeping customers.

That said, if I can’t talk you out of building a service and support business around an Open Source project, there are a few things you can do to improve your chances and reduce the pain of the above problems.

Making the best of an Open Source service business

Pick a popular project. I mean a really popular project. Apache, MySQL, PostgreSQL, Linux for an interesting and growing niche (like mobile and embedded devices), one of the more popular web application frameworks, etc. By picking a popular project, you insure there are a lot of users. You also guarantee that you can find other experts to hire when it’s time to scale your business from a one-man consulting shop to a real business with employees.

Become an established expert on that project. Your name needs to be on the core developer list. If it isn’t, you’ll always be picking up scraps. If you can’t see a way to get yourself into this position, you don’t have a business.

Write a book about that project, or at least start a blog. The money for technical documentation isn’t very good, and you’ll spend a lot of time on it, but nothing says “expert” like “You can pick up a copy of my Frobnosticator book at Amazon, for more details on this subject”. If you’ve got a blog, people searching for help on a particular topic related to your area of expertise will find you. There is no better marketing than helping someone solve their problems.

Swell Technology: Joe’s case study OSS service business

Back in 1999, I started an Open Source service business called Swell Technology. I actually intended to build a product company, but the only aspect of the business that ever made money was service. So, it remained a service business until it closed up shop in December of 2005.

I accidentally picked a reasonably popular project, Squid, because I had used it and thought it was really cool. I accidentally became a core developer, because I submitted a few patches, helped out a lot on the mailing lists, did lots of hardcore testing, and made myself extremely useful to the other developers on the project. When one of them needed hardware, I sent it to them. When they needed to make some money, I hired them to build things for my company.

But, it failed to scale. Swell Technology was throughout its life a small business. It bought me a 350Z, and kept me in food and houses all those years. But, I took only two vacations during that time. I also managed to avoid doing a lot of things that I enjoyed, because I was always too busy with the company and its customers.

Hardware Bundling (or, “It’s an appliance!”)

This one is frightfully common. The basic premise is, “Open Source software is hard to install, hard to optimize, and hard to use, so I’ll put it on a box, and sell the box!” This is a horrible idea, and here’s why:

  1. You can’t afford to be in the hardware business.
  2. If you’re not already in the hardware business on a large scale, you really can’t afford to be in the hardware business. Dell does not leave room for companies selling a billion or more dollars worth of hardware each year (see Compaq)…how do you think you’re going to hold up doing $1mil, or even $10mil, a year in sales?
  3. Hardware is really a service business. When you sell an all-in-one solution and charge a premium for it, customers want 24 hour, top of the line, support. If you’re a one or two man shop, that means you’re answering the phone at 3 AM on a regular basis.
  4. You can’t charge enough. Your customers will talk specs, and the moment they do, they’re going to realize you’re selling equipment they can buy from Dell for a third the price. You’ll actually find that customers want to buy Dell hardware and pay you an hourly rate to install your products on it. The moment you accept such a deal, you have a pure service business, limited to the number of hours you can summon each day.
  5. Being in the hardware business means that you have one more thing to distract you from your core competency. You develop software, right? What are you doing futzing around with hard disks and RAM and processors all day? Every 12 months your hardware platform changes, by necessity. Do not underestimate the time expense of managing a hardware-based business.

Hardware bundling is the worst possible solution to the problem of “how do I make money with Open Source software”, but it crosses every OSS entrepreneurs mind at least once. I can’t think of a single pure-play OSS “appliance” company that has been an enduring success. Not one. The success stories I can think of have ended up selling proprietary products along-side their Open Source core (Barracuda), or pretending there is no Open Source core (InfoBlox). The really lucky ones sold out to a bigger vendor before things had a chance to go south (Cobalt). The ones that lasted a few years had time to burn through their capital and find themselves on the wrong side of the profit line. (Swell Technology, my first business, was one of those that lasted long enough to lose money on hardware sales…the hardware business was subsidized by service pretty much the whole time it was in operation.)

Plugins (or, “the coffee table is free, but the doilies are going to cost you”)

This one actually crosses the line from pure play OSS business model to a hybrid model, since the plugins aren’t Open Source. Not coincidentally, this is the point at which the business model begins to make sense as a scalable business where your core competency is what you do all day: write software. There are actually a few examples of this that work. MySQL AB doesn’t charge for the core database, but they charge for various extensions and management tools that work with the database. Because databases are a huge market and MySQL is the most popular relational database in the world, in number of installations, they can build a nice company, with employees and everything.

Of course, this is also the point at which Free Software zealots begin to squirm. It’s generally legal, as long as you comply with the relevant licenses, or hold the copyright on the software, so you aren’t restricted by the license. The majority of folks aren’t going to begrudge you making a living. But, there will be some pushback if you’re taking a historically Open Source project, and building proprietary products on top of, or alongside, it. Depending on the community, this pushback could be dramatic and ugly or peaceful and friendly.

Mambo is a fine example of handling this approach poorly. Very, very, poorly. I don’t know the whole story, but the end result was a loud and angry fork and exodus of developers to another project. So, here’s a few tips for how to avoid the OSS death penalty (a fork which takes away all of your best developers):

  1. If you aren’t a core developer of the project in question, stop here. You need to become more important to the project. You don’t have the clout to pull off a commercial venture based on this project. There is at least one shortcut to this clout: Hire one or more of the core developers, after making sure they’re on board with where you’re going. With Virtualmin, Inc. we have the original author of Webmin, Usermin and Virtualmin, as well as the second best known Webmin guy whose previous company actually funded the original Virtualmin development (that’d be me and Swell Technology). Even so, we got a bit of pushback on building proprietary products.
  2. Don’t screw with the license. If you don’t hold the entire copyright, you must abide by the license, religiously. Respect the license, and respect the developers, and the users will generally keep quiet. With Virtualmin, we actually hold all of the copyrights, but we are, nonetheless, respectful of the license of Webmin. Everything good we do in Webmin for Virtualmin, Inc. purposes, gets rolled out to the Open Source Webmin immediately.
  3. Make the core project better through your involvement. Be the best friend the users of the OSS project have. Be involved on the mailing lists or forums, make large contributions in the form of code or money, and make great things happen with the core project. Don’t be pushy about it, and make sure the big ideas you have aren’t at cross-purposes with the other developers on the project. Since we’ve started Virtualmin, Inc. we’ve rolled out a huge swath of usability and UI enhancements to Webmin, as well as several new plugins for Virtualmin GPL. Even though the Open Source users don’t get everything we build, they get more than they would have gotten had Virtualmin, Inc. not existed.

Freemium (or, “the grass is greener on the other side, but your wallet is a bit slimmer”)

This one is sort of an extension of the shareware model of yore, and it’s roughly the model we’ve chosen for Virtualmin, Inc. In this model, you’re distributing the majority of your software under an Open Source license, but for a few premium features, you charge money and protect them with a different license. So, you continue to enjoy the popularity that free software brings, while still knowing that there is a pretty good chance lots of people will pay for the extra features. Our Open Source core has millions of users, so we have a reasonably large pool of potential customers, though the percentage of converts is still quite low (Webmin is downloaded 2 million times per year, and we have 700 paying customers for Virtualmin), but increasing at a steady rate.

This is, perhaps, the riskiest of all Open Source business models, from the perspective of keeping your Open Source users happy. We have effectively forked our own software into two versions, and because the Open Source version of Virtualmin is under the GPL, it attracts the most vocal of OSS fanatics to its defense. We hold all of the copyrights to Virtualmin, and there have been no other significant contributors to the codebase besides me and Jamie, and so the gnashing of teeth didn’t last too long. But, we still rigorously follow the advice given in the section above for keeping our OSS users happy. We give away more than we hold for paying customers. This is probably a mistake in the short term, but we suspect it will pay off in the end, when the de facto solution to a wide array of systems management problems is based on our software.

Dual Licensing (or, “you don’t have to admit you’re using Free Software”)

This is, perhaps, the oldest Free Software business model, and thus one that has stood the test of time. The basic premise with this model is that there are lots of businesses out there that would like to make use of your code in their software, but they don’t want to release their own source code under a Free Software license. So, they buy a non-viral alternative license. SleepyCat, makers of the BerkeleyDB, ran on this model for many years. Likewise for the makers of the Ghostscript Postscript library.

We even tinkered with this model for a while with Virtualmin. Very early versions of Virtualmin exist in two other commercial products, licensed under traditional copyright terms, for which we made a few thousand dollars each. But, this model works best for libraries, because the software really needs to be invisible to the end users (otherwise, users figure out that it’s just some Free Software re-branded and complain about it). This is another case where your market must be huge for it to make sense. Databases and typography are both pretty big and are used behind the scenes in thousands of products.

Note that this model only applies to software that has a viral license, like the GPL. BSD-style licenses are already liberal enough to permit re-branding and distribution without source or without any particular restrictions. So, while our underlying software, Webmin, is used in hundreds of products, we don’t see any licensing revenue from this usage, because it is under a BSD license.

Hosted Applications (or, “Web 2.0!”)

This one is a beauty. You don’t have to worry about licenses, much. Your end users never need to know you’re using FOSS, though you can still get lots of goodwill by tossing out crumbs now and then. The vast majority of Web 2.0 companies (Facebook, MySpace, Digg, 37signals, etc.) fall into this category to one degree or another, as do the big search (Google) and internet media companies (Yahoo). In these cases FOSS is your lever, and some big problem is the world you want to move. It’s kind of like TV, in that you can offer premium services like HBO, or advertiser supported services like the big three networks.

I won’t go into too much detail about business models for web applications, as it is pretty well-covered ground, and I’ve never actually built a pure play web application business, so my knowledge is all anecdotal. But, there’s a lot to be said for hosted applications.

  1. You don’t have to worry about platform compatibility. At least 25% of my development time goes into making Virtualmin Professional run easily on several Operating Systems, versions and architectures. It’s a serious drain on productivity, and yet it’s a necessary expense.
  2. Bugfixes can roll out immediately. At Virtualmin, we manage update repositories for our software, so it’s easy to update to the latest versions…but we still find customers running versions over a year old. Having many versions in the field is another big drain on productivity, because you’re answering questions about bugs that have long since been fixed (sometimes I don’t even remember that it’s a bug that’s been fixed, so I end up helping a user troubleshoot the problem from scratch again, only to find at the end of it all that all they had to do was update to the latest version).
  3. Licensing is a hard problem. Selling software and protecting it from illicit use requires walking on eggshells. Your honest users (luckily most of them, in our field) will be offended if the license management gets in their way. Users who don’t want to pay will do nasty things to avoid it. One of our serious headaches is chargebacks due to fraudulent credit card purchases. Of course, if your hosted app business model involves credit card billing, you have this problem, too…but since the software isn’t installed elsewhere you can lock the account after the chargeback comes through and the user loses their data and the service. Our stick is much smaller: We shut down updates, and make the red license violation box show up on the front page of the software whenever they use it. We could be more harsh, but then we’d risk treating honest customers poorly in the event of problems contacting the licensing server, which we won’t do.

So, those are the obvious business models for Free and Open Source software. A couple of them are known to fail. A couple are known to be difficult and require a lot of luck and a lot of popularity. And a couple are proving themselves effective in a large number of cases. Which one is right for you and your favorite Open Source project, if any, is up to you to figure out.

See also

Getting Real A book by the founders of 37signals about starting a web application business on the cheap.

Paul Graham’s essays. Virtualmin, Inc. accepted funding from Paul’s company Y Combinator in 2007, and many of his essays inspired the business we’ve built over the past couple of years. We’re big fans.