Jonathan Schwartz from Sun has a good post about the nature of developers, and why building a relationship with them is key to creating opportunities.
One of the smartest software execs I've worked with had a saying, Developers don't buy things, they join things." That's been a pretty focusing statement for us over the years, and as we enter the new year, you should expect 2005 to be one in which we place an ever heightening focus on our dialog with the community, and the developer community in particular. And not simply maintaining the dialog we have today, but finding new constituencies, and expanding our reach. Establishing a relationship with a developer is all about starting a conversation - one that always flowers. And often into opportunity.
I totally agree with Jonathan on this. The key, however, for any small company is to do this economically and efficiently. Let me give you an example. Let's face it-many companies selling into enterprises end up going through some "pilot" or "beta" period where a sales prospect's developers and technologists get to use the software and deploy it on a trial basis. When I look at a sales pipeline, I always want to know who in the organization the company is selling into and why. You see, I have more often than not seen a number of early stage companies selling into enterprises but not selling high enough to the people with budget. In other words, the vendor ends up getting excited about the number of pilots in the market, many of which are with technologists who by nature like to try things and rarely end up buying. The vendor spends an inordinate amount of time reaching out to the developer or technologist to set up a pilot and then leaves with no defined criteria on when the pilot ends and how it automatically converts into a sale. The developer uses the product, sucks up lots of our resources, and moves on to the next new technology. While it is imporant to court developers and technologists in the sales process since they typically have to give the technical buy-off and can just as easily squash an opportunity, it is not a great and economical use of time to have your most expensive direct sales resources and sales engineers doing this.
Enter the web and the open source movement. Sure, "try before you buy" works if your users can download the software for free either on a trial basis, say 90 days, or if you open source a version of your product and build a real community. One of my portfolio companies is laying the foundation and groundwork to open source some of its software to help build a community and buzz around its product. We know that developers and technologists are key to the sales process. We want developers and techies to download and use the product and bang on it. However, we just want to reach them in an easier, more efficient way. Why have our most expensive sales resources do this when we can leverage the web? We want to build community around the product, gather great feedback, and land and expand our relationship with the developer. We hope this open source strategy will work as we build a relationship with the developers who ultimately will drive decision making from the bottom-up while our expensive sales reps can reach the execs with budget from the top-down. Hopefully, the two ends will meet in a selling process with less friction. We shall see. I will keep you posted as this experiment evolves.