How difficult is it to sell an open source solution?

I saw the article “Four Insights to Selling and Marketing Open Source Software” by Paul Salazar, and I’m a bit surprised. I am not sure that Mr. Salazar can relate well to the customer side of the open source business. In his article, he presents an argument that selling a piece of open source software requires service and a large customer commitment. That is opposed to selling the software as a common off the shelf piece of software.

He is partially right. It does take a lot of commitment, but the issue is not due to the product being open source, it’s more of an issue due to a lack of reputation, and support. Enterprise-ready software is expensive. This is a given. Microsoft, Oracle, HP, RedHat, and other vendors charge A LOT of money for their software. They charge this, because the requirements are more complex for the customer size, fixes-post sale are required, support is required, and a reputation is required. Open source also has the disadvantage to be flexible enough to have frequent changes in the product compared to proprietary software. Many customers look at this issue and are concerned that this may hurt their ability to perform their operations and makes them a little reluctant to use the product. This requires yet another individual to oversee development for an external tool.

Often times open source solutions are better [personal opinion] than proprietary solutions. However, the solution is merely a tool. If an organization is looking to use a tool, they must know who is responsible for maintaining the tool, and where they can find other people that know how to use the tool. Companies are frequently focused on solving the problem within their constraints, not about becoming a fan boy for solution X over Y.

I would not have any qualms with his article, if he had mentioned that the problems that he saw with the business side of open source technologies were very similar to those of new startups. Startups have the same issues of open source software. They do not have the reputation, the ability to scale to the needed level to support the product and are often unprepared for the level of customizations needed for corporate clients.

3 thoughts on “How difficult is it to sell an open source solution?”

  1. Thanks for the insightful commentary, Steven. 

    I agree that for many organizations, buying into an Open Source software solution is like buying from a small start up, and that there is reluctance to take any risks, real or perceived. In my original article, I already assume that the open source solution is acceptable on face value, but this is a vendor perspective where we have years of experience doing what we do. It’s illuminating to hear your perspective and recognize that as a customer, there are other factors that enter into the buying process (and hence should be factored into the marketing and selling by the vendor).

    — Paul 

    1. Personally, I’m in an odd situation. I have never been the customer, but I have been the developer inside the company, and I’m currently an IT Consultant. I’m learning more and more how enterprise software is encouraged, despite how frustrating it might be. The issue is that OS is viewed as more of a teenager. A little awkward, unmotivated, immature, and may be good for a limited amount of things. 

      If you’re in the market for selling that, you have to consider changing the customer’s understanding of the product. Providing full service to the software is how that helps overcome the misconceptions and provides rapport. Another angle is: Its hard to convince someone facing PCI/HIPPA/etc compliance to use something open source, when the enterprise alt is available via a sales guy. Also, you have to consider that enterprise software may have a sales guy around the corner spreading FUD about their competitors.

      Thanks for the response! Now I have 3 readers to my blog. 🙂


      1. Vendors like OpenNMS do a fantastic job in this arena – there is 0 charge for the code, documentation, and mailing-list “support”.

        If you want ProServe, custom development (which will be folded into the main distribution), or on-demand support, then (and only then) do you pay.

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