18 October, 2012
Open Ocean Capital is a Venture Capital firm established by the founders of MySQL. They invest in community and open source start-ups to help them build scalable global businesses. Tom Henriksson, has a long and solid experience on developing and investing in new businesses, both at Nokia Corporation and Holtron Ventures (round A investors into MySQL AB).
In his presentation, “The keys to identify and scale category-winning open source companies”, Mr. Henriksson will summarize his experience to explain what an open source start-up needs to do to replicate MySQL’s success.
Very soon we will announce other presentations and workshops at Zentyal Summit. Seats are limited and they are filling up quickly, so if you are interested in attending, do not wait to register!
Team building is a great philosophy in organizational development that helps considering employees as people working in collaboration with other people and teams, instead of as individual robots, achieving their goals due solely to their individual performance. Team building activities can range from simple exercises (like Helium Stick, Toxic Waste or Mine Field, to name a few) to multi-day retreats (full of such exercises).
Some people believe this is just cowpoo, and I agree that it feels a bit awkward and unnatural in the beginning to play silly games with your boss (or even with your boss’s boss). But on the other hand it is hard to break the ice and create the proper relationships in the typical work environment.
But in a start-up, team building is even more important, because you not only need to build teams from scratch, but also the whole company culture. And even worse, there is no budget nor time to set up such activities properly.
So, how do we do it at Zentyal? To begin with, it is common to meet after work once or twice a week to grab a few beers, have dinner, go to movies (the vintage old-fashioned movie theatre) or whatever comes to mind.
But the most enjoyable activities are the Zenmersions, consisting on several Zentyalers packing their bags and moving somewhere else (Internet connection is required) for 5-10 days of co-existence, recreational activities, brainstormings and telework. Usually they depend on individual initiative and funding and they are organized either at some colleague’s house (generously lent for the occasion) or at some city in Europe with an event deemed interesting for most of the staff. Obviously, it is voluntary to join the Zenmersion and for some it is hard to attend due to personal duties. Or some might just prefer keeping a clear division between work and pleasure, which is perfectly respectable. But most Zentyalers have participated in at least one Zenmersion and you can now feel a great comradeship atmosphere among he staff.
It all started from bencer, who invited the whole team to go and visit him in Germany during summer 2010. He eventually managed to gather eight of us and the experience was so good that we set up a similar gathering again a few months later. And again. And again.
Zenmersions are a lot of fun from the personal point of view, but they also help knowing your colleagues much better and creating stronger bonds within the team. Also, they are the perfect environment for brainstorming and many good ideas have emerged from them. Besides, there are plenty of funny stories during each Zenmersion that become good old chestnuts. I won’t publish them in this blog, but you can ask me during the Summit
Here are all the Zenmersions organized so far:
- Münster (Germany): the first and origin of all the barbarity. We came up with many of the catch phrases we use today at Zentyal.
- Arnedo (Spain): a memorable Zenmersion at exekias’ home town. Rioja wine and The Settlers of Catan helped fight the cold winter days.
- Brussels (Belgium): the first Zenmersion organized with the excuse of FOSDEM. We managed to close the Delirium Tremens four days in a row!
- Budapest (Hungary): a barbaric Zenmersion organized with the UDS as our background. Lovely city, very original night-life and good new contacts in Ubuntu/Canonical that eventually lead to two partnership agreements.
- Brussels (Belgium): second time in FOSDEM, the first time we reached 10+ attendees in a Zenmersion. It will always be remembered by a snow blizzard that collapsed the whole country. It took us four hours to get from the airport to the city!
- Helsinki (Finland): a board of directors meeting was the excuse to bring the team and spend several days in Helsinki. White nights, Molly Malone and plenty of broken hearts. Our investors joined me and a few metal warriors to attend Tuska, the biggest Metal festival in Finland. And a few brave guys continued to experience the Nordic wilderness and fight the swarms of mosquitos.
- Galicia (Spain): a delightful Zenmersion hosted by Javiv and J at Vigo, where eating was king. Oh, the lobster! Oh, the crabs! I got two kilos fatter in just 4 days!
Now you know what you are missing for not working at Zentyal
Here are a few selected pictures to give you an idea of what a Zenmersion looks like:
Original picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Disclaimer: the Indonesian children in the picture might be joyful for reasons not concerning Zentyal nor its Summit. In fact, they probably have not heard about Zentyal yet. Oh, unless they are gifted children with a passion for system administration, that could be. Anyway, they look merry.
Original picture courtesy of TontonJon
FOSDEM (the Free and Open source Software Developers’ European Meeting) is the largest OSS community developers’ meeting in the world, gathering 5000+ attendants each year, roughly double than it’s American counterpart OSCON. In both cases we are talking about thousands of attendees, really impressive figures.
Taking into account that there are way more system administrators than software developers in the world, it would be reasonable to expect a European conference for Linux sysadmins at least as big as FOSDEM, right? Well, that’s not the case. Maybe BOFHs are less social than developers. Maybe there is less need for community interaction among sysadmins. Maybe they are more product-dependant and they thus prefer attending more product-centric events. Maybe they just prefer attending events where it’s easier for them to find a girlfriend. Maybe a combination of all. But anyway, the best community conference for Linux sysadmins we found in Europe is Loadays (Linux Open Administration Days), in Antwerp (Belgium), and it sounds really tiny compared to FOSDEM.
As I needed to give it a try, I decided to I visited it last week-end and I must confess I am not disappointed. It is a young event (this was only its third edition), organized in a small school in the South of the city, with no more than 200 attendees, most of them from the Benelux. So, at first glance it looks more like a local event than a European conference.
However, the speakers did come from the whole of Europe (from France, UK and Spain to Germany, Hungary, Italy and Russia, and of course Benelux. Even some Americans) and the quality of their talks was very high. Just to get you an idea, there were lead developer and top consultants from CentOS, Puppet Labs, Percona, MariaDB, DNSSEC, Rudder, Zorp and even Zentyal, among others, in an event with no more than 30 sessions in total. Not the typical local event, right?
Also, being a small event made it easier to talk with everyone and the atmosphere was very relaxed and easy-going. It was also easy to set up pizza-diners and social events in the evenings.
Finally, I was impressed by the quality of the organization. I know how challenging it is for a small, volunteer-based team to close the required sponsorships and to get everything in place, so a big +1 for them.
In summary, Loadays is the hidden gem for European Linux sysadmins and it might get spoiled by trying to foster its popularity. So I do not encourage any reader to attend
Two months ago there was a discussion in our forum proposing to make it English-only (it was mostly English, but there were two small Spanish and Portuguese sections). Almost at the same time, there was a petition to open a Dutch-speaking board. Which decision should we take?
Both options had good convincing reasons. If we standardized to English-only, we could avoid dispersion of information and isolation of groups of users in language-specific islands. Every comment, suggestion, solution and improvement could be shared equally for everyone in a common language. And Zentyal users need to have some level in English anyway, because no one can work in IT nowadays without understanding Shakespeare’s language.
However, even if people can understand written English, interacting in a forum is a different matter. Many users would feel more comfortable if they could do so in their mother tongue. So, forcing everyone in English might make us actually lose many interactions from potential users who can then start their own Zentyal forum elsewhere in their own language. The result would be eventually similar with either option, except that with an English-only forum, users interactions would be scattered in different sites, instead of different boards in the same forum.
With this rationale we eventually opted for a multilingual forum. We can open as many language-specific boards as required, with three conditions:
- The main forum language will remain English
- A board needs to have at least one person responsible for its moderation and maintenance
- Every useful contribution will be translated and shared in the English sections and/or in the community documentation
So, once we set these minimal rules, and once mmullenders kindly offered his help, we launched the Dutch board. The results have been very positive: the board started to get alive and during the 7 weeks since launch, it has accounted for some 5% of all the forum posts during the same time. More importantly, the number of Dutch forum member has increased by an astonishing 40%!!! Which means that either there were many Dutch who did not feel comfortable writing English, or that our SEO in Dutch has improved and we have been found by many new users searching in their mother tongue. That is easy to prove: take the words “VPN achter een proxy server” (VPN behind firewall), one of the topics started during the past 7 weeks. Now google them and the first result is our forum Proost Nederland!
Encouraged with these results, this week we launched the French board, again after a petition from the community and with a responsible for it (christian, one of our Forum Moderators, who happens to be from France). The results are even better: in just two days the number of posts in French have surpassed the total number in Dutch, and a google search of a topic started yesterday, with such a generic title as “Comment envoyer et recevoir des mails” (How to send and receive emails) is on the top 10 results!!! All I can say is: Mes félicitations à la communauté francophone!
Now, when will we have boards in German and Italian?
Although this post might a bit off-topic, I believe it might be worth a try. At least, it brings back the blogging spirit I had some years ago, when I posted more often and spontaneously
So, I would like to summarize the lessons I found most interesting from a talk I just attended. It was delivered by Pekka Himanen at the conclusion of the 5th International Committee of Experts, a board created eight years ago by the city of Zaragoza among its efforts to promote knowledge society and become a hub of innovation.
Pekka Himanen, well-known by his best-seller “The hacker ethic” and his publication with Manuel Castell “The Information Society and the Welfare State: The Finnish Model”, is one of the internationally best-known researchers of the information age. He obtained his PhD in Philosophy as the youngest doctor ever in Finland at the age of 20 and was selected as one of the 200 Young Global Leaders in 2005. His talk was centered on the culture of creativity as a driver of economic and social development and here are the four most important lessons I found:
- Innovators, businessmen and culture. In order to create a hub of innovation you need three things: creative people, producers/managers (i.e. businessmen and investors) and a culture of creativity. I found particularly interesting the key role of entrepreneurs and businesses to foster innovation, specially in the current context when anything related to business is increasingly demonized (as so was shown by some of the attendants during the later debate).
- Athens, the innovation hub of all times. The most successful case of innovation hub in the Western world is in Athens, 2500 years ago. A relatively small group of people (a city-state estimated in 100,000 inhabitants) managed to develop by themselves the foundations of current Western culture, from philosophy to politics, law, science, literature and arts, in a relatively short time. Any small town has the potential of becoming a world-class innovation hub if the three previously mentioned ingredients meet simultaneously. By the way, the population of ancient Athens was 30% foreign. Food for thought!
- Innovation hubs happen in physical and reduced environments. Ancient Athens was 2 kms wide, and most of its cultural life happened in the Agora (the Greek forum), a 300×300 meters space. Physical proximity is not only important but necessary if you want to be innovative (heard that, bencer?)
- Switch the tragedy-mode off. In a reply to an attendee’s comment filled with bitter critics to politicians and collective self-pityness, Himanen explained the example of the Greek tragedy (yes, plenty of lessons to learn from our Mediterranean neighbors): it all started when the main character believed his fate was inevitably dreadful; after that deep conviction was attained, all his subsequent actions were just steps to meet his unavoidable final destiny. Real life is very similar: if we believe we cannot escape our dreadful fate, our actions will inevitably lead to self-destruction. Complementary to this line of thought, he commented that in nowadays society, there is a trend to outsource our own lives: we base our happiness in those who provide leisure and entertainment and we blame everyone else of our misfortunes, instead of trying to find the sources of our happiness and misfortunes in ourselves.
Pragmatic philosophy for a Tuesday evening…
Open source is an attractive badge that most software vendors are eager to wear, especially in times when customers’ budgets are being tightened and their ears are keen to hear about cost cutting. However, many vendors’ approach on open source are filled with myths and false expectations, most probably because they did not experienced it by themselves.
During the last 10 years I have being deeply involved with open source business almost non-stop and from multiple points of view (system integrator, business association, software vendor, etc) and I have had the chance to discuss about it with many different people (customers, vendors, VARs, public sector, contributors, users, etc). So, I will try to sum up what I have learned in the way in just 7 tips, hoping to do my bit in understanding how software vendors can sensibly embrace open source.
- Know why you do it: once you open-source a product there is no way back, so you better know why you are doing it. There are many reasons why it would make sense for a company to open-source its technology. For example to improve the quality/functionality of its products, to grow its user base, to gain visibility, to prepare for international expansion, etc. However, open-sourcing will have a profound effect in many of the operations, from sales to marketing, business development and, of course, R&D. Have a very clear understanding of why you are doing so and communicate it internally before going forward.
- Make it useful: it seems an obvious tip, but I found several vendors planning to open-source their core product, but keeping an essential part under a commercial license. The result would be a useless piece of software, with no way whatsoever of doing anything unless you pay for the license. Needless to say it is impossible to develop a user community around a useless product. In addition, making a product difficult to install or undocumented will turn it almost equally useless.
- Be active: when a potential contributor stumbles upon your project, one of the first things he/she will decide is whether spending a few hours testing and learning about it will be worth his/her precious time. That is, does the project seem active enough and thus guarantee some continuity to make use of initial investments of time. If you just publish it and “let them come and code for free” (sic) you are very much mistaken. You need to show commitment with your own project, by fixing bugs, releasing new versions or answering questions in the forum, especially in the beginning regardless nobody is downloading it. Otherwise, you will not find valuable contributors
- Get ready for different kinds of contributions: many vendors have the wrong perception that the main contribution they might receive are “free programmers”. However, the value received from the community will probably have very different forms. To start with, testing and debugging is a cumbersome task that usually consumes around half of the total R&D resources in a product’s life cycle. A large community, by trying it in very different scenarios and by very different users, can hunt the most hidden bug. Moreover, localization, a costly task acting often as an important barrier for internationalization, can be another benefit that the community can bring to the table. User requirements, documentation, expert suggestions and, eventually, code can be some other valuable contributions as well. However, you need to make it easy for users to contribute and be ready to receive and process these contributions in an orderly way
- Plan ahead: to outsiders it might seem that communities spring out around any project like magic and that “build it and they will come” is the way to go. But that is far from reality. Developing a community requires a continuous effort in communication and promotion, as well as investing much energy in providing technical support and documentation for free. You might also want to open up your community governance to externals, which will require a careful design of rules and a plan to make it happen. All these tasks mean precious time and resources that should be reserved in advance
- Hunt the community champions: members in a community do not behave uniformly. In fact, a year ago I had a look at the behavior of Zentyal forum members and the results were enlightening: just like in Pareto principle, 20% of members were responsible for 80% of posts in the forum. That means that a community will very likely have a small core of enthusiasts, surrounded by a bulk of occasional contributors and users. You need to spot your champions and focus your energies on them
- Be patient: developing a community is a complex and long process of engaging in a conversation, creating trust, educating your users, sharing common goals and developing in common. It is not something that you can build in one day, but it will probably take a few years before you can call it a community
A few weeks ago, the 451 group posted an update for their open source business strategy framework, which summarizes the different strategies that can be put in place by an open source vendor in aspects like license, copyright, development and business model.
The framework is comprehensive but at the same time condensed, and it is quite self-explanatory for anyone in the open source business. However, I wonder whether it would make more sense to extend the framework to apply to any software vendor, including also the strategies that could be implemented by a business choosing not to open up the source code. I believe it would be very interesting to be able to grasp at a single glance what are the different options a software vendor can choose regarding revenue, licenses and development models, without having to be previously categorized into open source or closed source vendor.
One reason to support a more generic vendor approach is that it is very hard to implement a purely open source strategy, when most of the possible options are just a combination of open and closed source licensing: dual licensing, open core, open platform, etc. So, the limits between an open source-based business strategy and a closed source one are at least fuzzy. How much different would be, let’s say, a business developing an open core product under a cathedral development model from another business not publishing any of its code but giving away a trial version for free? They might execute differently, but the results would be reasonably similar: they would both find it hard to have a developers community but they would both have good chances to create a successful users community. Just remember that the largest users community is that of Photoshop, not quite open source I would say.
Another reason is that a company needs to be able to explain its strategy to very different audiences, from customers, partners and media to community members and investors, and not all of them are open source savvy. Sadly, one generation after the first release of Linux, a large part of the market and influencers still see open source as a geek, idealistic, non-commercial movement. Explaining the plan of action of an open source-based business as a natural set of decisions within a generic software vendor strategy framework would do much to overcome their initial prejudices.
And finally, if you have a look at the 451 group’s framework, there are actually few modifications required to make it work for a generic software vendor. For example, the list of revenue generators are valid for almost any software company, from Google to Microsoft, from Oracle to Facebook, from IBM to RedHat, or from a system integrator to a local reseller.
I believe the 451 group is doing a great job in analyzing and modeling different viable strategies for open source-based companies. But I also believe that there is a risk in assuming that their management and direction are completely different from more “traditional” software companies. In my opinion there are way more similarities than dissimilarities and there is a lot to learn from, let’s say Microsoft, but I leave that for another post.