From soy sauce to open source

It’s gone 1.30pm and it’s been a long morning. James Governor and I are sitting in the Hanoi Café in London’s Kingsland Road watching the owner’s two daughters run, play and generally get in the way of the ever-smiling kitchen staff as they try to prepare food.

When the Vietnamese waitress finally arrives with plates of steaming Cha Nem Chay (spring rolls), Pho Xao Dau Rau (stir fried tofu) and Dau Xao Sup Lo Xanh (Spicy Broccoli tofu), we tuck in, hungry.

James and I were due to meet earlier but he has had to wait in for a special delivery – which it turns out was DHL coming to pick up his postal vote for the US presidential election. (Anyone who follows James on Twitter will be painfully aware that he’s an American citizen and there was no way he was going to miss his chance to assist an Obama win).

So, over Cha Nem Chay, we get to discuss the merits of open source business.

RedMonk, the industry analysis firm James co-founded in 2002, publishes research papers for free and is 100 per cent funded by ‘supporters’, ‘sponsors’ and ‘patrons’ who pay subscriptions for additional service packages. This is an entirely different model to others in the sector.

“The open source model came out of our frustrations with editing each other’s work,” says James, between mouthfuls. “We just started blogging and thought, let the internet be the editor. We don’t agree with companies writing white papers for vendors. You claim you’re independent but you’re really a PR man. Blogging became a much more natural way of developing our content.

“I am sure some white papers are ok. Mostly we don’t like doing them. When I started RedMonk I used to rail against our industry’s ethics – but these days I prefer to focus on value. I think the internet model, with internet based peer-oriented production, has significant value.

“[Before RedMonk] Software developers and information architects thought they couldn’t actually talk to industry analysts. But that’s exactly where our community is. We’re neither buy side or sell side, we’re ‘make’ side.”

In 2004, James and his partner Stephen O’Grady wrote a paper on compliance-orientated archictecture and published it under a creative commons licence.

“[The IT company] EMC took our paper and built on it, and gave it out to their customers. We told people they were allowed to create derivative works. We never got paid for it. Another company got back to us and said [what you’re doing] is completely changing our business model. That was great. But again we got no money.

“Then, in 2006, Thomas Otter [now Gartner Group, then SAP] got in touch wanting to use one of our papers in a workshop. This eventually led to SAP becoming a client.

“When you’re open in this way, other people become your evangelists. You don’t need a huge sales and marketing team.”

RedMonk is a bit like marmite to the IT industry – people either love it or hate it. Oracle was apparently none too pleased when James and Stephen merged names associated with Microsoft (Redmond) and IBM (Armonk) to christen their new business. And other industry analysts no doubt watch RedMonk’s rise with trepidation.

But James, Stephen, and the new team members, Michael Coté and Tom Raftery (who heads up sustainability initiative, GreenMonk) are popular speakers on the global IT conference circuit. Meanwhile, clients include IBM, Sun, Abobe, Atlassian, BMC, Dell, Eclipse, Loglogic, Microsoft and Redhat.

For James, the recipe is simple:

“We don’t sell content – at least, not white papers – but we sell services around that research. It’s all free, but when people want to take it somewhere else, then they have to pay. We’re out in these networks, without any groupthink, and that’s increasingly valuable.”