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Building In The Open: The Future of Open Source with Cockroach Labs, Timescale & Solo.io

To close out our last NY Enterprise Tech Meetup of the year, we assembled a panel of the top open-source enterprise infrastructure experts: Spencer Kimball, CEO and Co-Founder of Cockroach Labs, Ajay Kulkarni, CEO and Co-Founder and Timescale, Lin Sun, Director of Open Source at Solo.io, and moderated by Dan “POP” Papandrea, Director of Open-Source Community and Ecosystem at Sysdig and Host of The POPCAST Podcast.

This month’s topic: building in the open.

As open source continues to evolve in both practice and meaning, we sat down with leaders who have successfully built and scaled open source companies. See the full webinar recording here and the top takeaways from our panelists below.

First, what is open source? This may seem mundane to the developer community, but according to our panelists, the definition is vastly changing.

Historically, to be considered a true open-source project, you needed to get an approved Open-Source Initiative (OSI) license. However, over the past few years, the open-source community hasn’t been as religious about licensing, and instead has a much more practical definition of open source pending its free, dynamic functionality.

“I want to be able to look at source code and understand what’s being done, and modify and monetize it to my purpose. Those ideas are probably of the greatest value to humankind.” — Spencer Kimball

How do you decide what to open source? After all, businesses need to make money somewhere.

Our panelists broke down commercial pricing into three different waves:

  1. The 1st wave: sell customer / user support. This approach didn’t come highly recommended given that eventually most users won’t need to buy support and will create independent, free channels to find answers to their questions. Also, if your company is financially dependent on selling support, you’re disincentivized to make the project better.
  2. The 2nd wave: create an open-core model. Here you’ll have a free, open-source project with a layer of paid, enterprise features. Right now, most open-source projects tend to fall in this category.
  3. The 3rd wave: create a cloud model. According to our panelists, this is the most modern approach. The best time-to-value for developers is no longer downloading an open source project…it’s actually using a cloud service someone else is providing. Open source needs to contend with this new reality. Timescale has taken an extreme approach to cloud and has made all of its enterprise on-prem features free, only monetizing on features in the cloud.

But should you even open source? TL;DR: open source is not always a requirement. First figure out the problem you’re trying to solve. If an open-source community won’t help you solve that problem or other businesses won’t be able to build on top of the project, then open source may not be the best route. Snowflake is a great example of a cloud data infrastructure company that is cloud only with no open source.

How do you build an engaged open-source community?

Developers are a discerning audience. They are quickly turned off by anything too salesy or marketing heavy. Instead, make sure you are “authentically helpful.” How to do this will depend on what type of company you’re building, but generally, when you’re building an open-source project from scratch, it’s important to build engagement with one person at a time. Be responsive to your community and answer every question as quickly as possible in order to gain momentum and find your champions. Some other tactics include:

  • Post informational blog posts (on GitHub, StackOverflow, Hacker News, your own blog, etc.) or Youtube videos about new features or trends. This will help boost your SEO and create organic source traffic to your project. Getting on the front page of Hacker News is worth $500K in Google adword spend, so if you can do it organically, you’ve won!
  • Create and moderate a Slack or Discord channel so that you have an open feedback loop with your users.
  • Host educational workshops for users on how to get started and get the most out of your project.
  • Build an approval automation pipeline for contributors to minimize the manual work of reviewing contributions. This will also help you better respond to contributor requests.
  • Invest in large, related open-source communities by becoming a contributor in other ecosystems. While it will feel like you’re not directly impacting your own open-source project, over time you will grow as a thought leader and create a following that you can then introduce to your project when/where relevant.
  • Give away swag…ok this isn’t the most important, but everyone loves swag 😎

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