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Fear and Loathing in Open Source Marketing

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If you're going to be crazy, you have to get paid for it or else you're going to be locked up.

Hunter S. Thompson

Drupal recently made a deal with the devils (venture capitalists) by virtue of the a $7 million investment in Acquia. Acquia owns the Drupal brand (or at least legally they do). Drupal lead (and Acquia co-founder) Dries Buytaert and the fine people at Acquia along with their backers are now at the crossroads faced by every vendor who sells free software... How do they supply a return on their investment without recommitting the sins of their proprietary software brethren or alienating the community that so far has driven their success.

Drupal - Open Source CMS

Despite being the owner of the Drupal brand and employing the project lead Dries Buytaert, Acquia has to figure out how to balance their commercial concerns as well as the care and feeding of the vibrant Drupal community. Luckily on the announcement of their funding Dries is saying all the right things:

However, a good number of Acquia people will be working 100% on Drupal, alongside the rest of the community. This is an important investment,because Acquia succeeds only if Drupal succeeds, and we're going to do our part. We'll contribute code, QA testing and other important things like user experience design, marketing, documentation, etc.

Being an open source marketeer myself I read with interest Sandro Groganz's thoughts on the dissection of Drupal marketing. He speaks about the Drupal marketing challenges:

  • Growth of the Drupal community, who until Joomla's explosion came on the open source CMS scene was probably the biggest by community size. Ironically Joomla! started by forking from a commercially supported open source project. By that Drupal has and have an opposite legacy (commercial sponsorship to purely free and open source).
  • Competing with the group of vendors already active in the Drupal marketplace. Many of whom have already been supporting the Drupal project while making a living as consultants.
  • Co-existing with an already established Drupal marketing force.

With that being said there's a critical balance to strike between the traditional product marketing and the evangelistic word-of-mouth marketing that has grown the Drupal brand. I hope in their ambition to become commercial they don't become the soulless snake oil salesman that defined tech marketing in the past.

Shoving Your way into a Crowded Market

I can't imagine walking into a venture capitalist and saying, I want to enter a market that already has hundreds of competitive vendors without getting laughed out the door. That's unless you have hundreds of thousands of community members and users. Acquia is in that enviable position. They have a huge active community. They have thousands of users of their software including many reputable and high profile companies. The things that so many traditional companies are craving these days. Their next critical step is to continue to move forward in parallel with their community.

So far Drupal has benefited from the most powerful software development, distribution, and marketing mechanisms today. That looks something like this:

  1. Develop a good free product
  2. Grow a community around that product
  3. Achieve wide spread adoption and brand recognition
  4. Find complimentary, not antagonistic, ways to monetize this success which is their next step

This formula is what has worked for Red Hat, MySQL, and all indications show that it's working for companies like SugarCRM and Alfresco.

Since I opened with words of wisdom of Hunter S. Thomspon maybe I should paraphrase one of his more famous sayings, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

There is nothing more helpless and irresponsible than a man in the depths of an ether binge.

In the technology start-up world the reality often goes:

There is nothing more helpless and irresponsible than a bunch of software developers in the wake of their funding.

I sincerely hope that Acquia will flourish (along with Drupal) and I wish them the best of luck just remember where you came from.

For more Mark Hinkle, visit his Socialized Software blog.

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