Wayde Gilliam

"Open Source" Startups

Apr 15, 2024

In the last couple years there's been a noticeable increase in startups promoting themselves as being “open source”.

There’s a range of how open or closed source a product is. These companies advertise themselves as being on the open source end of this spectrum, however it would be more accurate to label them as open core or even closed source due to how limited their open source offerings are.

Generally speaking, the open source product is a thin shell of features compared to what the paid, hosted version of the product is. As you start to dig into documentation on how to self-host, you realize that you’re going to be hosting a “Community Edition” of said product. Release cycles for this edition are on a bi-annual basis while the hosted version is updated weekly. You need to pay a subscription or insanely high licensing fee for any features that aren’t the core product such as authentication, user management, and analytics.

Sometimes it feels like these products are designed to be incredibly difficult to self-host. I’m not going to spin up and manage dozens of containers for web services, databases, caches, and cron jobs just to track errors thrown in my webserver – I’m going to pay a company to do this for me.

All of these companies are VC-backed and have to turn a profit eventually. It makes sense for them to grow the paid, hosted product and convert free users to paying ones. There’s no money in giving away free work forever. As a user you need to be aware of this and the inevitable direction these venture backed companies follow.

Many of the open source-labeled companies that come to mind really do have great products – I’m a paid user of many of them and am happy to continue paying for updates and support. I’d like to see more honest advertising and less plastering of the term “open source” on every other product I see though. I doubt this is ever going to change.