Is Open Source the Original Product-Led Growth?
Take a journey with me back to December 2022. I’m in job-hunting mode, and in interviews the term “PLG” comes up. I haven’t heard the term before, so after a quick Google search I learn that “PLG” stands for product-led growth, and it’s been around awhile. I read some articles and the more I learn about PLG, the more I realize that this is the open source software use model I’ve been working with for nearly a decade. Wow, I didn’t know it had a name!
To give you a little history, according to a blog post at OpenView Partners, the term “product-led growth” was originally coined in 2016 by Blake Bartlett at the venture capital firm, “although the principles that define it had been around before that.” It started between 2012 and 2014, when Bartlett saw that when promoting products, product-market fit was only part of the battle. We need to be obsessed with product distribution too.
“Great companies pay close attention to how to remove friction and turn their product into a marketing asset,” the blog post states.
Pivot Back to Open Source: Part 1 — Developers
I’ll be clear, open source software was not started to support a PLG model. Open source software has a set of benefits that we all know and live by.
What I am saying is that in the organizations I’ve worked at, bringing in users at the open source software level is a great first step in giving users hands-on experience with the technology.
Let me give you another reference point. Stephen O’Grady’s book, “The New Kingmakers: How Developers Conquered the World,” “explores the rise of the developer class, its implications and provides suggestions for navigating the new developer-centric landscape.” (If you haven’t read it, you should!) To summarize, developers are the most important asset organizations have. With the availability of open source and free versions of software, they go out and find the tool they need. They don’t ask, they just download and start using it. Or they take the technology they find, build upon it, contribute their enhancements (or not) to the open source project and use it to make their day-to-day tasks better.
Then organizations figure out they need to give these highly talented developers, DevOps teams and operators (collectively “practitioners”) the freedom to get what they need to do their job. If they don’t, these talented individuals will go to an organization that will let them do their job, and your organization will be stuck with the super-hard problem of replacing that talent.
So the practitioners in an organization are the people having a huge influence on the technologies an organization is using.
Pivot Back to Open Source: Part 2 — Technology Decisions
We know that with open source software, anyone can download and use it. They can fork it, contribute to it, deploy it in their environment. Use the software, ingrain it in their environment, and when it comes time for the CIO to say, “Hey we need something that does <this>,” the practitioner tells them they have <this thing> they’ve been using, it solves <that> problem, and they love it. The CIO says great, and the technology is blessed.
Then, maybe the CIO says, “Maybe we should get support with this so you can focus on your job and not have to keep this thing up to date in our infrastructure.” The practitioner says great but may be a little sad because they don’t get to use and contribute to open source; however, they also realize that there are other open source projects that are pretty nifty. The CIO calls the 1-800 sales number or fills out a form, and someone in sales does the paperwork to sell it to the organization.
How Is Open Source Like Product-Led Growth
This simplified example is product-led growth in a nutshell. The practitioner looks for a tool that will do something in a better way than the roundabout way they had been doing it. They find an open source project that works for what they need, and they become a fan of the technology. In PLG, the practitioner finds the free version of the software and … well, you get the picture.
Which brings me back to PLG. I was brought into my current organization because I know open source, I have worked with developer communities, and I know how to build a community of users. What I think about is education, creating content the practitioner audience cares about, giving individuals a sandbox to play in, having a clear and user-focused journey for getting started with the technology, and then figuring out where these individuals are getting their information and being in those places. Marketing 101.
The practitioner audience — developers, operators, DevOps, DevSecOps and contributors — is the people we should focus on. They are the people for whom we are developing technology — to help make their cloud native environments easier to use, more secure, faster to get information out of — all of those and more. When we let go of control and put the technology decision in the hands of the users, people will choose to use something because it’s good.