Marketing Advice From Open Source Founders

Face it, if you want to make your open-source project your day job, you’re going to have to put some effort into marketing it.

This doesn’t mean clickbait titles and fluffy articles, but rather a clear layout of what your product can do and an easy path for users to discover why it’s awesome.

This article is aimed at commercial open-source software (COSS) because if you want to live off your project, you’re going to need more than just stars coming in.

Focus on positioning your product

This is the foundation of your marketing strategy.

Who is your target?

If you don’t know this, how can you speak to your audience?

Mikael Nida from Lotus, an open-source tool that lets you optimize, test and deploy new pricing packaging models said,

“Take more time than you think you should to properly understand your positioning.

This aspect is so important because it helps you iterate on who your true customer is, which in turn helps you build a better product.

Positioning is the key aspect of marketing I would tell other founders to focus on.”

Ask questions to your early users or go directly to people from your perceived target audience.

This feedback will be crucial, as founders can easily get caught up in their own thinking and become too close to their product.

You need that unfiltered feedback, as while it might suck to hear, it will save you lots of time in the future if you discover a pattern.

Be specific in your questions.

Avoid asking questions that can be answered with yes or no.

Do you find our product useful?

What feature of our product did you find most useful?

Did our product save you time during your work day?

What task did [product name] save you the most time on?

Think of these like icebreaking questions and then dive deeper depending on the answers you receive.

The goal is to figure out what makes your product special and repeat that experience with other potential clients.

Be clear with your monetization strategy

If you have big plans for your open-source project, it needs a way to survive.

A recent letter by open-source Kite founder, Adam Smith, illustrates this perfectly.

With a user base of over 500k developers, the product failed to generate the necessary revenue needed.

The most important takeaway from this letter, was when Adam said,

”We failed to build a business because our product did not monetize, and it took too long to figure that out.”

The longevity of an open-source project in most cases comes down to funding.

When going the monetization route with open source, be as transparent as possible with how you plan to make money throughout your marketing materials.

Large organizations want to build on open-source tools that are going to be maintained, so being upfront on pricing, will stop users from feeling tricked later on.

Launching on Hacker news

Marketing is all about getting your product in front of the right people.

Technical audiences are the ones most likely to see the benefit of open-source and be curious to get their hands dirty testing it out.

This makes Hacker News an important channel for you to launch on.

I spoke with Shri Sukhani from Metlo, they are an open-source security API platform that lets you inventory, test and secure your API.

Shri highlighted the importance of launching correctly on this channel and shared the YC Launch HN instructions which helped them prepare.

Key takeaways from this guide:

  • Avoid marketing speak, this audience will rip you apart if you use it
  • Talk as if you are explaining to a friend, skip the jargon, be clear and concise
  • Highlight what you think is most interesting and let the audience come to their own conclusions, don’t hard sell them
  • Be factual, explain your journey and thinking that has gotten you to this point on your product
  • Remove barriers to test out your product, you want feedback, make it as frictionless as possible for people to try your tool
  • Be clear on pricing, open-source comes with the baggage of people expecting everything for free. If you’re going down the open-core route, be upfront about your pricing or plans to charge in the future

When asked when knew they were ready to launch Metlo on Hacker News, Shri shared,

“I think in many ways we are still not super ready to have a big launch even now. But the important thing in startups is to launch very quickly so you can actually get user feedback and iterate on your product.

So, looking back, our view is that we should have launched much earlier still.

I think you’re ready to launch when you have a usable product that might break in some edge cases, but as long as it’s something a user can sign up for and get started with, you’re ready to launch.”

Always give value in your content strategy

When some people hear blog, they think SEO-targeted articles or long ‘guides’ talking about sweet nothings.

This doesn’t work when marketing open-source tools.

The majority of the time, you are targeting a technical audience, so you need to write things of value.

Jan Cizmar from Tolgee, an open-source app localization tool, gave some insights into their content strategy,

“What has worked best for us is to build the product publicly and share content about that.

For example, we write articles about the technology we use and the approaches we follow.”

Technical audiences need to see the value or they will write you off as some shammy attempt at marketing.

One strategy you can use to find topics for your blog articles is to look at the questions you receive about your product.

Instead of just giving a quick answer, elaborate a bit on your thought process of why the product is like that or future plans you might have and the thinking behind delaying adding that feature.

Of course, it’s best to have a TLDR; at the top for those that just want a quick answer.

Think like a developer

When it comes to open-source tools, developers are going to be a big influence on whether their company decides to use your product.

You’ll need to think outside traditional marketing channels to get your tool in front of the right audience.

Jannis Gebauer who solo-founded and eventually sold his open-source tool took a very interesting approach.

“When thinking about how to get this in front of a technical audience, I came up with an idea that was actually helpful and able to get the tool in front of other developers interacting with projects.

I automated pull requests for dependency updates on projects.

This turned out to be the most useful mechanism for bringing in paid enterprise clients and also getting my project out there.”

When marketing to developers, think about how you can bring value, rather than talking in hyperboles or being the “world’s first”.

Don’t become another open-source project lost in the abyss

The popularity of open-source continues to grow and now organizations are beginning to truly see how important it is to global operations.

Countries like Germany are even pledging to open source have their own software development.

A deciding factor for many development teams when it comes to choosing to build on an open-source tool is the longevity of the project.

Is there a high probability that the tool will continue to develop?

The best chance for an open-source tool to succeed comes down to getting it in front of the right people, so don’t delay your marketing efforts, start them early.

Written on January 7, 2023