March 7, 2008

MindTouch learns the open source walk

Author: Bruce Byfield

How do two former Microsoft employees end up heading an open source company? In the case of Aaron Fulkerson and Steve Bjorg of MindTouch, the decision was based on the wish for independence and to work more closely with customers, according to Fulkerson. The two partners suffered some initial criticism because of their past employment, but have largely survived it by learning how to interact with the free software community.

At first, says Fulkerson, "There was a lot of FUD spread about how MindTouch was these Microsoft guys who had taken over open source code and made it proprietary," even though the company had been careful to resubmit its code to the community from the first. Some, too, remain concerned that Deki Wiki, MindTouch's product, requires Mono, even though Fulkerson says that "the only sections of Mono that we're using are those in the public domain -- we don't do anything with .ASP or Winform."

However, the truth is that both Fulkerson and Bjorg never fit the Microsoft culture very well. "Steve and I have always been very passionate about open source," says Fulkerson, "and that's difficult inside Microsoft. Mostly, they just don't understand it. But openness has always been something that's really important to me, and, prior to being recruited by Microsoft, I spent a lot of time building community technology centers in various neighborhoods, using predominantly open source software. And Steve was the one who was running around inside Microsoft installing MediaWiki everywhere."

After leaving Microsoft independently, the two reunited to form MindTouch in 2005. Funded by angel capital, they began Deki Wiki as a fork of MediaWiki, changing the back end to XML, and adding Lucene and a WYSIWYG editor for the initial release. Over the last few years, they have made Deki Wiki a cross-platform, cross-programming language distributed application platform until, Fulkerson says, "I'm not even sure it's a wiki anymore." Instead, he describes it as an "agile content management system" unlike anything else currently available, being more fully featured than a wiki and offering features not found in content management systems, including collaborative features, a less structured work flow, composite applications, and data mashups.

MindTouch released the first full version of Deki Wiki in June 2007, and began marketing support services in early 2008. Meanwhile, Deki Wiki itself, which is released under the GNU General Public License, averages more than 1,100 downloads a day on SourceForge.net. Fulkerson says it is being approached by larger companies as well, a development that he attributes to the "groundswell of community support" for the product. The company is now seeking further financial backing.

The atmosphere, Fulkerson finds, is very different from three years ago. In 2005, he says, "When I told people we were open source, nobody knew what we were talking about. It was like, 'Whatever, you're smoking crack.' But I can tell you now, things are very different. People understand the business model. It doesn't seem so fantastic or crazy any more."

Learning when to walk away

At first, for all his enthusiasm, Fulkerson was at a loss about how to interact with the community, especially with the unfavorable reaction to his and Bjorg's past association with Microsoft. When somebody attacked the company, Fulkerson was often so upset by the unfairness of the attacks that he tried to respond to them.

"That was what I did wrong," he says now. "I should have just ignored it. I should have been like, 'Whatever. These people don't know what they're talking about. They'll eventually realize that we're active members of this community and not somebody sucking it dry."

Paradoxically, Fulkerson also found himself on the other side of criticism, especially on the Open Source Initiative (OSI) mailing lists.

"There have been times that OSI hasn't done things that I approved of, or other companies have done things that I haven't approve of, and I've been vocal about it," Fulkerson admits. "Because, to be honest, I'm pretty religious when it comes to open source, and I've been accused of being somewhat radical about it. So in the past I've jumped all over people. Looking back, I think there are times I should have just said, 'I don't agree with these people, they don't know what they're doing, and the market will sort things out anyway.' Or the community -- I think the community is a big factor in the market, so the two are intertwined."

Learning to walk the walk

Unsurprisingly, Fulkerson notices a world of difference between a proprietary company like Microsoft and an open source one like MindTouch. He finds that the largest difference is the relation with the community. Instead of the one-way communication and unilateral decisions about product directions in a proprietary company, he finds MindTouch much more interactive.

"We take feedback from the community, and we just facilitate what they're asking for," Fulkerson says. "We have a grander vision, in that we're looking a little farther out, but what they're recommending, we just facilitate. You don't have that kind of dialogue in a proprietary company."

To keep that dialogue going, MindTouch devotes considerable efforts at opening lines of communication. "Everybody in the company is involved with the community. Everybody answers forms and posts, and -- even if I have to beat them to do it -- everybody blogs," Fulkerson states.

In addition, while MindTouch is currently developing its corporate marketing strategy, the majority of the marketing strategy remains focused on the community -- which means largely stickers and T-shirts. These simple bits of marketing are surprisingly effective in making the company memorable, Fulkerson finds. He recalls at least one instance in which community members were convinced that MindTouch was at a convention that it missed, solely because so many attendees were wearing the T-shirts the company had sent as a promotion.

One unique way that Fulkerson engages the community is that, "when people submits code patches, bug reports, extensions, or translations, MindTouch makes a small donation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation or a nonprofit of their own choosing. We always try to do that because it's about building tribe and makng them feel good about contributing. And not only that, we hope that in some small way we're impacting something else they care about, too."

For Fulkerson, the decision to engage the community was vindicated when he met MÃÂ¥rten Mickos, the CEO of MySQL. "I asked him what one of the smartest things he ever did was when working at MySQL," Fulkerson says, "and he said, 'Personally engaging the community.'"

Given that MindTouch is currently a 10-person startup, personal engagement is probably unavoidable. Still, it's a business method that Fulkerson seems committed to. "I don't want that ever to change. I think it so important to be involved in that capacity."

A warming reception

Perhaps the best sign that MindTouch has outlasted its early critics was its reception at the Olliance Group's last Open Source ThinkTank. "What was really nice about it is that MindTouch has been under the radar and nobody really knows who we are. Yet at that event, I was being approached by CEOs of open source companies asking me how MindTouch has managed to build up the community we have with basically no budget at all. That was the first time I'd really gotten that, let alone from people I respect."

According to Fulkerson, the mistake that other companies make is to talk a better game than they play. Too many supposedly open source companies, he says, "see open source as a check box. I can think of one competitor in particular which had everything going for it, with an amazing board of advisers, an amazing board of directors, and it was early to market, yet it took three years to release its source code and they didn't understand what open source was."

"It's nothing that you are," Fulkerson explains. "It's a process, part of your very fabric. I don't think you can fake that, though people often do try to fake it."

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  • Open Source
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