The other side of the Open Company argument
The Open Company Test was pretty well received. Check out how JotSpot and XWiki rated themselves. If I have time, I may see how the other wiki-makers stack up. I imagine that they all do reasonably well — they're young companies, run by people who understand the power of collaboration.
But what about other companies: the staid, the entrenched, the enormous, the sclerotic? What about all those vendors who haven't seen the power of collaboration first hand and are too afraid or too bureaucratically immobilized to change?
Well, this post is for them. Instead of focusing on how openness can help us as users, I want to explain why being open is in the interest of a software vendor. I'll use the same criteria that I outlined in the original post, but I will argue from the other perspective.
- Open Sourcecode: The advantages of open source code are extremely well known. In the best cases, software developers can get an enormous amount of value from user-contributed code. But even if you are not willing to open you source code under an OSI license, giving a developer license to your customers is still a smart thing to do. It allows your users to fix problems or build custom solutions that are not economically feasible for you to develop yourself. Customers who might otherwise have chosen not to buy your application now have another option. Failing to provide that option only forces them to look elsewhere.
- Open Data: If users are going to trust their data to your application you have to be worthy of that trust. That means returning the customer’s data to them intact, in a useable format, without hassle, whenever they ask for it. This is (or should be) a fundamental business requirement.
- Open APIs: Offering open APIs to your application gives your customers more that many more ways to use your product. It allows them to build innovative, customized solutions that you don’t have the resources to pursue. You can meet more needs, make more sales, and deeply integrate your product into their computing environment, all without one-off, custom development on your part.
- Open Pricing: Open pricing is all about saving time: yours and your users’. Users get immediate answers to their questions, and your sales people don’t waste time chasing up leads that never had a chance of going anywhere. Pricing is often one of the very first things that a potential customer wants to find0 out. Hiding that information, making him go out of his way and delay his investigation to wait on your response, does nothing but frustrate your potential buyer.
- Open Bugtracking: Opening your bugtracker empowers your users to find answers to their own problems. It saves you time and effort. (See my earlier post for a real world example.) And an open bugtracker takes less management because because users enter fewer duplicates.
- Open Feature Voting: Allowing your users to vote on bugs and features gives them a voice and an investment in your application. It engages your customers in conversation with you. And it is a cheap, honest and reliable source of customer feedback. And it helps you set your priorities to match what your customers really want.
- Open Communication / Open Community: The arguments for open bugtracking also apply here: building a community around your software allows your customers to help themselves and to help each other, all with a lower tax on your internal resources. You can pull your customers into the broader user community. Make them experts on your products. Allow them to develop personal relationships with people inside your company. This will bind them more tightly to your application, make then happier using your software and make them more likely to recommend it to others.
- Open Documentation: Participatory documentation, again, lets users help each other, saving you work. And it’s a great source of feedback about your product. You can immediately see aspects of your product that are confusing or don’t work as planned.
- Open Customer Support: Open customer support wherever possible to avoid reinventing the wheel. Once you’ve found a problem in your application, and spent time to diagnose and fix it, make that information available to the rest of your users — without forcing them to call a designated customer support person. It’s cheaper for you and easier for them.
In summary, openness can allow a software company to leverage resources far beyond what they actually have. There is no software company on the planet — not even Microsoft — that has extra time on their hands. Your users are willing and able to help themselves, and each other, if you give them the tools. It will save you time in the long run — time that you can devote on making your product better.
But even more than that, engaging your users as valuable contributors will create more satisfied customers. Users who love your product because of it allows them to do more. Users who will give you honest feedback. Users you are emotionally invested in your application. Users who will give you the benefit of the doubt if you have to make unpopular decisions. Users who trust your company because you speak honestly and deal fairly with them. Users who become partners in the success of your product instead of just customers.