May 7, 2007

Open source software spurs Roaring Penguin

Author: Tina Gasperson

Open source advocate David Skoll launched Roaring Penguin Software in 1999 because he was restless in his job as R&D project leader at Chipworks, Inc. Roaring Penguin started strictly as a consultancy, but the next year, after Skoll was commissioned to create software to help the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons stem the tide of email viruses and spam to its servers, he decided the world needed a better email filter. Skoll wrote the now ubiquitous MIMEDefang email filter, released it to the community, and proceeded to build a successful business on top of GPL software.

"All my clients started saying, 'We need to do something about spam.'" After he wrote MIMEDefang and it started becoming popular, Skoll developed it further into a commercial product he calls CanIt. Even though it is built on open source software, CanIt is a proprietary product. Customers get access to the source code but are not permitted to distribute it. Skoll says there is also a no-cost, no-frills version of CanIt, as well as a plug-and-play server appliance.

Once he had the software, Skoll says, "I realized I needed a salesperson," so he hired marketing expert Bill White, a former programmer turned IT salesman for a variety of software companies. Skoll says having a good salesperson is crucial to success. "It won't sell itself, so you need somebody to call people and do other sales-related tasks."

White says the community project MIMEDefang is the biggest source of business leads for Roaring Penguin, because when Skoll released the code as GPL it "inadvertently created credibility and marketing for the new company.... People know the quality of our code."

"One of the smartest things I did was release the core as GPL, to build up a community around the product," Skoll says. "One of the hardest things about launching a new product is that you need initial clients you can use as references. We had these x-hundred people using the core of it; that was really important for getting references quickly.

"We found that it was better to release a product, even if it wasn't perfect, just to have something out there. If you wait until you get it finished, nobody will care." Skoll says he wishes he would have concentrated more on sales and marketing in the beginning, but he is "quite happy" with Roaring Penguin's current level of success. "We're profitable. We're not going to be pre-IPO or making $50 million a year any time soon, but that's not my goal. My goal is to have a nice, profitable little company with customers that really like our product, and people who have fun working here. We've met that goal."

White says the secret to reaching that goal has been open source software. "We compete in a mature market against venture-capital-funded companies many times our size," White says. "We also compete against free solutions like MIMEDefang and SpamAssassin. Our secret is that at every point in our growth, open source tools have let us keep our costs down, so we never needed to go out and raise tens of millions of dollars in order to become players."

Skoll says corporate attitudes toward Linux and open source software have changed since he started his business. "In '99 you really had to educate people. Most had never heard of Linux -- some were quite resistant. I find now people just accept it. It's part of the plumbing." He says it is a lot easier now to find drivers and peripherals that work with Linux -- so much easier that all 10 of his employees run Linux on the desktop. "The tech people use Debian and the non-tech staff use Ubuntu, with, Firefox, and Thunderbird. Training people is not a problem. We sit them in front of the computer and they go."

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