How open-source manages to be a capitalist win-win

Imagine a big tree. A big tree with … cherries, because apples are overused. So a cherry tree with a seesaw under its treetop. On this seesaw, two kids are playing so that aside from having fun from the ups and downs, they can also pick and eat some of the cherries. They do so by keeping each other up so they can reach and pick the fruits hanging from the tree’s branches. They take turns so that neither gets angry, upset or bored.

This game is fun! Everyone is engaged and you get treats when it’s your turn.

Now imagine that the cherry tree is a project’s market and each cherry is a piece of this market. The seesaw is the project’s platform. The kid on the left of the seesaw is the project’s brand. The kid on the right is the project’s ecosystem. As long as the platform is big enough, the brand and the ecosystem constantly push each other up to get pieces from the project’s market.

The success of an open-source project depends highly on the strategic balancing between brand, platform, and ecosystem.

It is strategic because it is neither about equilibrium nor about the heaviest option. It is actually about timed imbalances and the lighter option getting access to market resources that keep it in the game. Like in kids’ play, you don’t want anyone to be angry, upset or bored.

The goal of the game is to get as many of the cherries from the tree. But to get as many cherries as possible, both sides of the seesaw have to get a chance to collect from their side of the tree. So, when, say, the brand side is up, it starts collecting cherries. As it does so, that side of the seesaw gets heavier and heavier, and, as a result, starts to lift the other side, the side of the ecosystem. Eventually, the ecosystem reaches high enough to get its fruits. It starts picking them, becoming heavier and heavier in turn, thus raising the brand, and so on, again and again.

All this balancing happens by using the platform, which is having the pivotal role of the product in the middle. 

A project’s platform is a very heterogenous thing, made of things like: 

  • the code
  • the features expressed by the code
  • the management tooling for coding
  • the management tooling for communication
  • design and product management
  • community organizing.

The platform rests and swings on the project’s product, which is part of the platform but has a major distinct role: it creates the possibility for leverage to exist.

The bigger the platform gets the higher can the brand and the ecosystem reach into the market.

The platform has no access to any fruits and is maintained by both the ecosystem and the brand. To make reaching ever higher possible, the players build on the platform and the product and get access to more and better parts of the market. 

The ecosystem of a project is made of things such as:

  • feature code (plugins, tools, themes)
  • training material and activities
  • service businesses
  • consulting businesses
  • the community itself – as in real people involved
  • users of the project
  • craft businesses
  • many other things.

Here are some fruits the ecosystem reaps:

  • new business opportunity
  • cheap fixed production means
  • access to prequalified talent
  • access to careers
  • cheap maintenance
  • basic human belonging
  • streamlined work and easy product development.

The brand of a project is a sum of the awareness people have about the project, the top of mind positioning, the captured associations (e.g. flexible, big, most used, stable, leader), the brand’s endorsements, capital investments, CSR and many other things specific to brand marketing.

The brand reaps the fruits of itself because the brand does not exist, like the ecosystem does, without its components, so it can only:

  • gain more awareness
  • more, better, stronger associations
  • more endorsements
  • more capital investment
  • cheaper easier CSR
  • more of the things specific to brand marketing.

When the ecosystem gets heavy the brand gets closer to the fruits. Every NGO which used Linux for frugality reasons made Linux stronger in the heads of people when they were on tight budgets. Every government that used Linux made Linux ever more tightly associated with robustness. Every agency, freelancer or theme shop using WordPress as the base for their business made WordPress the go-to keyword for making a website.

When the brand gets heavy, the ecosystem gets closer to the fruits. The more WordPress gains free publicity because of the huge share of the web it represents, sales come easier for all those small and craft businesses. The bigger the media, or, say, fashion, or influencer brand which endorses WordPress, sales come easier for all those enterprise b2b businesses. The more WordPress is associated with freedom, self-expression, democracy, strong legacy, signups come easier for all those WordPress hosting providers. The more popular WordPress is, the broader the pool of potential contributors becomes.

While this seems like a well-done clockwork, not everything works as well as one would expect. The reason for troubles is that both the brand and the ecosystem control the platform. Imagine a skewed seesaw, one that has the pivoting uncentered or the lever unequal.

The platform, because it is maintained by both the brand and the ecosystem, can be pulled towards either side, artificially raising the pulling side, giving it access to more fruits. 

Every time the platform is imbalanced towards one of the sides, that side will rise to the fruits, but not because the other side gained enough, but simply because it has leverage.

When leverage is used it feels a bit like cheating, by, of course, the side losing leverage.

The good news is that most of the times this is not intentional. In the case of WordPress, I could argue that while Gutenberg pulled the platform to the brand by baking in the core a huge feature (visual site/page building), the ecosystem as well pulled the platform on its side for leverage with the REST API integration or grassroots governance projects. The intent was never to create imbalance, but to simply improve the platform for, well the same goal: reaping more of the market. 

In general, the brand can pull the platform towards itself by mechanics such as feature bloat, paid to volunteer work ratio, governance, and more. The ecosystem can pull the platform towards itself by actions like opening core, white labeling solutions, forking, exploitation of common resources or product options, governance and more.

You also have those kids who will not play by sitting at one of the ends of the seesaw, but instead, climb and stand in the middle of it. 

Automattic, Google, Yoast are like those kids who sit in the middle of the seesaw and make you unsure about what to do with that.

One thing this sitting in the middle does is to keep the seesaw moving for when the sides have similar weights. Another thing is to help when there is an imbalance. And yet another thing is to do the best not to fall from that uncomfortable spot and break your nose.

All this is quite normal. The platform can only thrive because the brand and the ecosystem work to make it thrive. As long as any of the sides participate, leverage will be created, even with the best of intentions.

The strategy is to focus on the normal balancing and try to grow each of the sides individually and allow for time to raise the other side pivoting on the platform.

Successful open-source projects have managed, with all the normal hiccups of kids play, to conquer heights and win markets unavailable to many of their most ambitious commercial competitors. They did so by playing this seesaw game where win-win is the goal and the rule is sharing the gains. This is, in my opinion why open source won: competition with a shared goal, aka win-win.