It’s common these days to launch an enterprise startup based on an open source project, often where one the founders was deeply involved in creating it. The beauty of this approach is that if the project begins to gain traction, you have the top of the sales funnel ready and waiting with potential customers when you move to commercialize your business.
In the past, this often meant providing help desk-style services for companies who appreciated what the open source software could do but wanted to have the so-called “throat to choke” if something went wrong. Another way that these companies have made money has been creating an on-prem version with certain enterprise features, particularly around scale or security, the kind of thing that large operations need as table stakes before using a particular product. Today, customers typically can install on-prem or in their cloud of choice.
“A key aspect of these kinds of technology-developer data products is they have to have a combination of bottom-up adoption and top-down SaaS, and you actually have to get both of those things working well to succeed.” Jay Kreps
In recent years, the model has shifted to building a SaaS product, where the startup builds a solution that handles all the back-end management and creates something that most companies can adopt without all of the fuss associated with installing yourself or trying to figure out how to use the raw open source.
One company that has flirted with these monetization approaches is Confluent, the streaming data company built on top of the open source Apache Kafka project. The founding team had helped build Kafka inside LinkedIn to move massive amounts of user data in real time. They open sourced the tool in 2011, and CEO and co-founder Jay Kreps helped launch the company in 2014.
It’s worth noting that Confluent raised $450 million as a private company with a final private valuation in April of $4.5 billion before going public in June. Today, it has a market cap of over $22 billion, not bad for less than six months as a public company.
Last month at TC Sessions: SaaS, I spoke to Kreps about how he built his open source business and the steps he took along the way to monetize his ideas. There’s certainly a lot of takeaways for open source-based startups launching today.
Kreps said that when they launched the company in 2014, there were a bunch of enterprise-size companies already using the open source product, and they needed to figure out how to take the interest they had been seeing in Kafka and convert that into something that the fledgling startup could begin to make money on.
“There have been different paths for different companies in this space, and I think it’s actually very dependent on the type of product [as to] what makes sense. For us, one of the things we understood early on was that we would have to be wherever our customers had data,” Kreps said.