How to Get Customers by Making Your Product Open Source

My open source story began with the first product I developed. It was a tool that I created to be able to mock API responses for testing and development purposes. I worked hard for months to finish the first version of the product. Then, it was finally time for The Big Launch. I posted a link to my product on sites such as Hacker News and Indiehackers and expected a huge spike in traffic and revenue. What did I get? Maybe a hundred visitors and no revenue. This made me realize I needed a way to build long term and sustainable source of traffic. I watched everything I could find about SEO, referral traffic, paid marketing and content marketing. With my new knowledge, I sat down to think of how to use my new knowledge to get people to visit my site. Simply reaching out and begging someone to put a link to my very much revenue driving site wouldn’t work. People simply did not want to give away what is essentially ad space for free. I needed something that would be easy for someone to share without thinking twice. It had to be free and it had to bring some sort of value to the visitors. That is when I decided to make part of my product open source.

The way I did it for my API tool is that I made it possible to run it locally and without a slick UI for free. Users could import my open source library, create their API configuration as code and then run it on their own machine. If they wanted to use a more user friendly UI and have their API hosted in the cloud, they had to pay. This way, I could get users into my ecosystem and later convert them to paid customers.

Today, that product is making me consistent recurring revenue and I, together with my co-founder, have started a similar strategy for my new project - the NodeJS / React SaaS template Volca.

Below I have shared four reasons why you should offer an open source version of your product and how you can get the most out of each opportunity.

⌨️ Get traffic from GitHub

Simply exposing your code on GitHub can drive tons of traffic to your product. Developers often use GitHub to find code to use for their projects. If you manage to provide them with value and receive your first few GitHub stars to establish your repo as a trusted one, more will come. Creating a good repository is a topic for another article but make sure that you have a good README. Preferably one where you make sure to mention your paid product and a link to your landing page.

👷 Have your users improve your product

The very core of open source is to enable developers to contribute to your project. By exposing your code and opening it up for other developers to modify, you might get help with bugfixes or introducing new features. It can also act as a way to collect feedback about your product through GitHubs “Issues” feature.

📚 Get included in open source directories

There are numerous directories and websites that promote open source tools on the internet. One example are “awesome list” repositories that collect open source repositories in a certain category. To be added to these repositories, simply create a PR and hope that an active maintainer can approve and merge it. If you are lucky, these kind of repositories also have a website on a separate domain with a high Domain Rating. If they though, you might have received a high value backlink simply by putting up a tiny PR.

Today, website owners get tons of requests for adding various companies links to their site. There are even tools out there that automatically find and email relevant sites begging for a link. This might work in some cases, but in many cases you will at best get an email back saying a backlink costs $100 a year. And why should they bother adding your product to their site? If they would bindly publish a link to your paid product that would be giving away valuable advertising space for free. You need to be able to offer something that can be of instant value to the websites readers. One such thing could be an open source repository. Developers are always happy to share tools and technologies that they use. Pitching a link to an open source repository could be your golden ticket to getting backlinks easier.