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 When Penguins Roar

Orange Crate is pleased to announce an interview with David Skoll of Roaring Penguin Software. David was kind enoough to talk to me about his experience in running a successful open source based business model for his company. I hope you find the interview as rewarding as I have.

 (Submitted by Chuck Talk Sun Jul 18, 2004 )

  Chuck Talk: Hi David, thanks for agreeing to an interview. It is appreciated. For my audience's sake, could you tell me a little bit about yourself and Roaring Penguin Software?

David Skoll: I started Roaring Penguin Software in 1999 because I'd always wanted to be self-employed. One of my first contracts was to hook a customer's Linux firewall up to his DSL provider. "Sure, no problem," I said. Then I discovered PPPoE, and no good Linux PPPoE implementations. So I wrote rp-pppoe, which is now the de-facto standard PPPoE implementation in most Linux distros.

In 2000, I had a contract to write an e-mail virus filter. That evolved into MIMEDefang, which I released under the GPL. In 2002, I saw an opportunity to commercialize the mail filtering product, and developed our CanIt and CanIt-PRO product lines.

Right now, Roaring Penguin Software has 10 employees, mostly concentrating on developing and selling CanIt. Chuck Talk: How did you first get involved with Free and Open Source Software?

David Skoll: I've been involved with UNIX since 1989, and a lot of what made UNIX more useful was Free Software like emacs, X11, etc. I released my first free software package (Remind) in 1990.

In 1995, I joined a startup company called Cadabra that was producing engineering software for Solaris. We needed Sun equipment to develop on, but couldn't obtain any for six weeks. So we bought a few 486 PC's and loaded Slackware Linux from about 40 floppies. That's when I first started using Linux.

Chuck Talk: I know that a lot of companies are building infrastructure on open source software, what made you decide to build Roaring Penguin as a business based upon that foundation?

David Skoll: Well, I'm an old UNIX and Free Software guy, so it was natural. I saw a big opportunity for Linux in "infrastructure" locations like Web servers, firewalls, etc. I knew that Linux could save companies a lot of money, and I helped a lot of customers introduce Linux
into their networks.

Now, Linux has moved into the EDA (Electronic Design Automation) industry, mainstream server applications and even the desktop. In 1999, most people didn't know what Linux was. Now, almost everyone has at least heard of it.

Chuck Talk: Do you find that contrary to the opinion of several pundits, open source can be a successful business model?

David Skoll: Yes and no. It's pretty easy to make a decent living as a one-person consulting shop doing open-source. It's very difficult to make a living as a pure open-source product developer. The idea that you can give away products and charge only for support doesn't work, in my experience, unless you have a lot of credibility to convince customers to pay for support.

Our business model is built on a GPL'd base product (MIMEDefang) with a proprietary product built on top (CanIt). The two products have a symbiotic relationship: Patches and ideas for MIMEDefang improve CanIt, and some of the new features we add to CanIt make their way into MIMEDefang. Importantly, sales of CanIt pay for our programmers who maintain MIMEDefang.

Although CanIt is not open-source, we do ship with source code and customers can modify it for their own purposes.

Chuck Talk: Where do you see the future of open source in business growing the most, will it be a "server, inward" growth, or do you see the desktop as a viable component of a true open source based business?

David Skoll:Open source will be ubiquitous. It will be on the desktop, on the servers,
everywhere. As long as the software works, the low price and the freedom are compelling.

Chuck Talk: What has the experience of Roaring Penguin been like so far?

David Skoll: We really enjoy working with open source software. All of our company is on Linux, even the non-technical departments like sales and marketing. Most customers, even Windows shops, are quite open to the idea of using Linux, so we don't have to spend much time educating or convincing people (which we did in 1999).

Chuck Talk: What advice would you have for anyone thinking of starting their own business with open source products and services?

David Skoll: Write, distribute and maintain a free software project that lots of people use. That will give you credibility in the Open Source community.

You must be able to write and speak well. Give seminars, write magazine articles and promote yourself. That gets your name known, gives potential customers useful information, and proves that you have technical ability.

And don't forget sales and marketing. You can have a great product, but without people on the ground selling it and promoting it, your business will not survive.

Chuck Talk:Are there any impediments to building a open-source based business that exist other than the will to do so?

David Skoll: The impediments to building an open-source based business are similar to impediments to building any kind of business, I think. It's tough to build credibility and to get those first few critical reference customers. In that respect, open-source is like any other business.

However, open-source is easier in some respect, because the barriers to trying out an open-source product are almost nonexistent. So if you write a good open-source product, you'll have early adopters with very little effort on your part.

Chuck Talk: How do you feel that open source gives your company a competitive edge in the marketplace?

David Skoll: Our overhead is much lower than competitive companies -- our IT budget for traditional software licenses is $0.00. And the fact that our products ship with source has helped us gain some customers. Furthermore, when our customers encounter bugs, they frequently submit a patch along with the bug report -- our customers are intelligent, and many of them can patch small problems themselves. This increases customer satisfaction (they don't need to wait for a vendor patch), helps us fix bugs more quickly, and generally improves our products faster than if they were closed-source.

Chuck Talk:Some pundits say that open source is actually destructive to companies and the software industry, do you find that to be true, or do you find that it provides you with greater opportunities?

David Skoll:Open-source is destructive to certain business models, but it opens up opportunities in others. The automobile destroyed the horse-and-buggy business, but opened up a myriad of new business opportunities.

The businesses that are threatened by open source are, unfortunately, quite powerful, and they can take many destructive steps to try to stem the open-source tide. Ultimately, however, their efforts will be futile.

Chuck Talk:Thanks David, I do appreciate your time to talk to me, and to answer my questions. To my audience, I would like to say that ther are successful companies that are being built out there delivering highly successful open source products. Roaring Penguin is an excellent example of powerful product being built and delivered by excpetional professionals.

Thanks to David and all the folks at Roaring Penguin for their hard work and determination, it is an inspiration for us all. :)

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