As a YC alum and co-founder of Mattermost, I often get asked by early stage YC companies about what it’s like to build a commercial open source business. With the start-up’s permission, we’ve started recording some of the Q&A sessions, transcribing them and sharing the more popular questions on the Mattermost blog in short form articles. For this conversation, I discussed the challenges of finding a market for developer tools, the role of open source in our business strategy, and more.
When it comes to developer tools, you can go very broad and try to solve a problem that everyone has, or you can focus on a very specific, niche use case. How do you decide which direction to go?
We built Mattermost for ourselves — we were originally a video game company, and we were frustrated with the SaaS messaging platform that we were using, which was failing. It was bought by a larger company and was somewhat neglected. It would crash, it would lose data, and we couldn’t use it. We couldn’t export our data. So we decided to solve our own problem and built an open source messaging platform for ourselves that we could trust. We could trust it because we had the source code and we ran it ourselves.
When we released it, we didn’t say “here’s a platform that can do a million different things.” It was just focused on our own use case–a messaging platform we could fully control and trust– but we welcomed feedback from the community, and it grew from there. We didn’t explicitly focus on a DevOps audience in the beginning, but because we were building it for ourselves, and we were a team of software builders and operators, that’s how it evolved.
You get basically like a nanosecond of a developer’s time, and they make decisions very quickly on what they want to learn more about. So it was essential to have precise and clear use case that could capture their attention. Ideally you want to find the clearest possible use case that is still broadly applicable. We were lucky to find that.
How did you think about understanding your audience and marketing to developers?
We weren’t sophisticated in our marketing. In the early days, we weren’t doing marketing so much as we were doing documentation, and just sharing what we were working on and being factual. For developers, that’s what they’re looking for — they want information and authenticity. And they love the excitement of trying out something new.
But once we introduced a commercial solution, we were also very focused on system admins. That’s the person who is going to make an infrastructure purchase and turn on the paid features like user management, corporate directory integration and compliance reporting that IT needed. And it’s important to understand that most system admins don’t want excitement, they want ease-of-use and stability. We offer them clear documentation, a straightforward upgrade process, and the ability to quickly set up Mattermost for success so they can move on to one of the dozens of other projects on their backlog.
So we’ve had to lay out different journeys for our developer audience and the system admin buyers, which is how it should be.
How has open source been a differentiator for you?
Yes, open source has been a differentiator, but it’s important to understand that it’s the start of your differentiation, not the end. We have had over 1000 people contribute code to Mattermost and the key benefit is the immense creativity and energy out in our community. We had 400 pull requests in the month of October, our biggest month ever, and it’s grown every year.
One of the biggest advantages of open core infrastructure is that it’s very fast to get to adoption. You don’t have to drag people through a long sales cycle. Software builders and operators are excited to try out open source products. They can get in and see that it works for themselves. It’s a very developer and DevOps-centric way of demonstrating ROI. So as a business, you have a lot of opportunity.
Finally, open source has extensibility and flexibility that non-open source solutions just can’t compete with. And that kind of feeds into another key vector for open source, which is trust. They have access to all the source code, they can see everything about how it works, and they have control over it. That’s perfect for teams who want more control, or privacy, or want to shape the platform to meet whatever their productivity or compliance needs might be.
When you think about building an open source business, these are the kinds of advantages you can try out. Not everything is going to work, but you’ll have at least a reference for models that are out there.
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