Building Sustainable Open Source Businesses. An Interview with Mike Perham
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your work.
I’m the founder and CEO of Contributed Systems, my own software company based in Portland OR. Historically I’ve been a server-side web application developer for almost 20 years now.
I’ve worked on dozens of open source projects as part of my work at many different web startups. My attention is now 100% focused on Sidekiq, my open source project and its commercial siblings: Sidekiq Pro and Sidekiq Enterprise.
You’ve successfully transitioned your open source work into a full time sustainable business. Was it your goal from the start, or did you recognize an opportunity along the way?
I created Sidekiq almost four years ago because I wasn’t satisfied with the available background job systems on the market. However, having worked on so many different OSS projects before, I wanted to try some different things to see if I could make my OSS work financially sustainable long-term. So from the very beginning, I was thinking about the project not only technically but also how to position it from a legal and business perspective.
How has the community reacted to Sidekiq becoming a business?
I’ve found Rubyists are really happy to see a fellow Ruby developer who can both:
- support their open source project
- make a good living doing it
In my opinion, sustainable open source benefits the community with higher quality and more diverse products. OSS is dominated by twenty-something white men because they are the largest group in our society that has the free time and income to support the many, many hours of free work required to build OSS. I am one of those privileged white men. Sustainability only became a concern of mine when I started a family and needed to justify my weekend hours working on OSS away from my family.
If a developer could focus on a project as a full-time job, rather than a few hours here and there, we’d have a lot more high quality tools rather than “just good enough” that dominates today.
For example, I’d love to see what could happen if Luca Guidi could work on Lotus.rb full-time.
As a business owner, what are the implications of offering a free open source version of your product?
Having an open source product is fantastic. It allows the potential customer to see everything about the product: how it works, the test suite, even the development process is open on GitHub so people can enter issues and follow the project if they desire. Effectively it acts as my “trial” version.
Obviously there is some tension between the fully open Sidekiq and the closed source Pro and Enterprise versions. But reality is the source for those products is available, just not for anyone on the internet. Customers can open the gem and see the full source code for Pro and Enterprise, but they must pay for that privilege.
What lessons have you learned from Sidekiq?
Most of my issues were my own ignorance: pricing my products, the sales process, starting a company, accounting and law, etc.
Pricing must use a subscription, not one-time. Software is never “done” and support is an ongoing requirement. Selling software for a one-time price means you’ll struggle to make upgrades or long-term support viable.
What would be your top tip for someone who just posted his first open source project?
Evanglise it as best you can: post to forums with users who’d find it useful, be responsive to questions/issues, help people use your product. Roll that feedback back into the product to make it as dead simple to use as possible. That support role never stops: four years later, I’m still answering Sidekiq questions every day. Happy users are the best form of marketing.
How do you prepare for a new product launch?
This is a huge question. With each product, technical, legal, marketing and sales are all concerns:
- Build and document the product
- License the product
- Marketing site with copy / images
- Pricing? Purchase process? Accounting?
OSS developers typically only think about the first point. Business is “hard” only because I have to play the role of all those departments when running my business. A lawyer can help with 2, a designer with 3, an accountant with 4. This is all especially hard if you are doing it in your spare time.
What’s the secret sauce to creating a project site or README?
Put yourself in the mind of an average user and explain why your project will make their life better and business more successful, aka “Why do I care about this thing?” Startups talk about a “30 second elevator pitch” to explain their business to outsiders; you’ll find it very useful to have the same for your OSS project, even if only to explain to non-technical family members.
What motivates you to participate in the Open Source community?
I love to solve problems with software and share with others. The first non-trivial software I built, I released as open source 20 years ago! I naturally scratch my own itch and help others scratch theirs too.
What’s in the future for Contributed Systems?
Currently I’m polishing Sidekiq 4.0 and stabilizing Sidekiq Enterprise for its 1.0 release. In the near future I’m 100% focused on supporting Sidekiq, Sidekiq Pro and Sidekiq Enterprise.
I have no meetings, no investors and no plans to expand; I enjoy the simple lifestyle that working solo allows but who knows what the future will hold?