Open Source is the Key to My Success
Interview with News Forge
J.T. Smith, founder and CEO of Illinois-based Plain Black Software,
didn't originally plan to work full-time on WebGUI, a user-friendly Web
content management system (CMS) he first released in 2001. Since then,
J.T. has built a profitable business selling WebGUI documentation,
training, and consulting. This article is the lightly-edited transcript
of an IRC conversation J.T. and I had on 5 January 2004. J.T. is as
open as WebGUI's source code about how and why his company is
profitable, which makes this article "required reading" for anyone
who's ever thought about building a company based on open source
Why did you start a new CMS project instead of working with Slash/Scoop/others?
JT: Slash really isn't a CMS so much as a blogger/news tool. And for that there is none better.
Roblimo: But weren't there others?
JT: I started WebGUI because there weren't any tools out there that did
what I needed them to do. Metadot and AxKit were the closest at the
time, but neither were user friendly enough for the target audience I
was going for. Also, neither of them really focused on being a generic
Roblimo: That target audience being...?
JT: The target audience was my mom. Well not literally my mom, but
people like her. Your average business user. I wanted anybody to sit
down and be able to build a site with only a little training and no
Roblimo: Before founding Plain Black, you were building sites for clients? That was your business?
JT: Yep, I've been building custom sites for people since 1996, through
various companies I've worked for, and freelance. Not to mention that
I've been running a few small sites of my own for the past 6 or 7
years. Don't get me wrong, I'm no designer. But I did go in and set up
web servers for people, and wrote custom web-apps for people.
Roblimo: Obviously the Sharon Baptist Church, presumably full of Mom-type people, has successfully created a site with WebGUI.
JT: Yep, they're one of thousands of WebGUI sites out there. In fact,
I've never talked to them, they've just downloaded WebGUI and gone
about their business.
Roblimo: How long did it take from idea to first release of WebGUI?
JT: I started at the end of June 2001 and put out the first release on
August 16, 2001. It wasn't much then, but it gave me the basic
components I needed to start building better sites.
Roblimo: Who was user #1? And are they still using WebGUI?
JT: Me of course! And yes I am. I don't remember who the first users
were other than myself. I know that by spring of 2002 it had been
adopted by Brunswick Corporation to run their intranet, and Troy 30C
School District, a local school district, adopted it around Christmas
of 2001 and had me and one of my trainers come in and train their staff
in January. I believe that the first users were small schools and
churches, then a few businesses started using it as an intranet
Roblimo: But Troy 30C was your first paying customer for WebGUI?
JT: No, there were many others who purchased documentation,
installations, and some minor support prior to Troy, but I would say
they were our first big gig. They purchased pretty much every service
we had to offer at the time. Here's the original success story we wrote
about Troy: http://www.plainblack.com/troy_school_district
Roblimo: So you're saying there's a substantial market for documentation, training, and support?
JT: Yes. We have over 1000 companies and individuals that have
purchased the documentation, training, and support (which are the core
services we provide). Our other services include performance tuning,
installation, custom development, site design, and general open source
Roblimo: This is your full-time job, right? And Plain Black has how many employees?
JT: If you mean I earn enough to live and work 40 hours a week plus at
it, then yes it's my full time job. The truth is that I also own
another small business, and spend some of my time leading another open
source project for another company, and sit on the Boards of Directors
for two other small companies. Plain Black has two other full-time
employees besides myself, and a small army of contractors that we use
for custom development, training, support, and site design.
Roblimo: What other business? What other project?
JT: I own The Game Crafter LLC. I work for a Brunswick New Technologies
division called WDI. And I lead the open source project called BIE for
Roblimo: Ah. We have written about BIE.
JT: Yes you have.
Roblimo: What kind of games have you written?
JT: deadEarth is a pen and paper role-playing game. It had some minor
success in the 90s. After we sold all of the books we produced, we open
sourced it along with a few other games we created. We are getting
ready to release Campaign Secrets, which is a political satire card
game. It should be in stores just in time for the big political season
ahead. We also did an electronic version of deadEarth called Survival
of the Fittest. Back in the day we actually got some good press about
that from Happy Puppy and Gamers.com, but that was a long time ago.
Roblimo: Does the game business make money?
JT: Yes, we haven't lost money on it yet. We basically produce a game
commercially, then usually release it as open source after we've made
back our money and a little profit. You may or may not know that the
profits in the game industry are pretty slim unless you are Hasbro or
Electronic Arts. =) It's more of a small business I do for fun. It's
just that I happen to have been profitable doing it at the same time. I
have a nice network of playtesters that work hard for me, and in return
they get free copies of the games as they come out.
Roblimo: Did you expect WebGUI to turn into a profitable business when you first started writing it?
JT: No, it was never supposed to be a business at all. I just intended
to use it to get my other work done. Then all of a sudden I was seeing
thousands of downloads and realized I might be on to something. That's
when I decided to start calling it a content management system.
Originally I called it a content management framework. About that time
is also when I wrote the first edition of Ruling WebGUI and started
offering support packages.Since then we've had some major players start
adopting it including several unnamed government agencies, Adobe
Systems, Cisco Systems, Reuters, Mercury Marine, etc.
Roblimo: How many millions in venture capital did it take to start Plain Black? Or was it billions? :)
JT: =) $35 to purchase plainblack.com. And I used The Game Crafter's
web servers to host it initially. Other than that I haven't spent any
of my own money on Plain Black. It's been profitable since I sold the
first copy of Ruling WebGUI for $50. A nice $15 profit.
Roblimo: But that's against Silicon Valley tradition!
JT: Yeah, I know, but isn't that the way businesses should be? They should grow organically out of a need from a real audience.
Roblimo: But what about your burn rate? And meetings with investors?
Aren't those supposed to be integral parts of founding a software
JT: Hehe. Dot-com era maybe. I do have that card game called Burn Rate.
It's very fun, but it's certainly no way to run a business.
Actually Plain Black makes enough money that I can afford to pay
myself, a business manager (handles the paperwork), and my partner
(handles all of the graphical stuff) as well as do things like sponsor
our just-finished community contest (http://www.plainblack.com/contest)
with cash prizes. And I can do all that without having ever talked to
an investor. I can't say I even know the name of any investors.
Roblimo: So you are out of the Silicon Valley mainstream... where exactly *are* you located?
JT: I work out of my home office in Highwood, Illinos, and my partner,
business manager, and contractors all work out of their respective home
offices around the world. So I guess you could say we're located
everywhere, yet nowhere.
Roblimo: Sounds like our OSDN editorial team - when people ask where
we're located, I say "On the Internet" or "Earth" depending on mood. :)
JT: Very cool. Can I use that? "On the Internet...." Incidentally,
Highwood, IL, is about 20 miles north of downtown Chicago, just so
people get a feel for where it is. We have people in 8 different states
in the US, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, UK,
Russia, Japan, China, Egypt, and Croatia.
Roblimo: Here's a big question: Do you think WebGUI would be as
successful and profitable if you'd gone the traditional, closed source
"sell a license" route?
JT: No I don't think it could. I would have had to spend a billion
dollars (probably a lesser amount, but who knows what it would have
been to compete with Oracle Portals and Plumtree and Microsft Portal
Server, etc. With open source, and a good word-of-mouth strategy I was
able to do all that marketing for free.