A year on — our experience launching a paid, proprietary product on Linux.

By David Power

The journey so far

Just over a year ago, my company, Hiri (www.hiri.com) was approached by Canonical to create a Snap of our email client. Turns out there aren’t a lot of email clients for Linux users that work with Exchange / Office 365. Although we were delighted that Canonical had reached out, we were reluctant.

Six months prior, we had produced a tarball (mainly as our own development team wanted a Linux version) and we thought we’d try marketing to Linux users. First stop, Reddit. We wanted to engage with the r/linux community and get a sense of whether or not they would pay for a proprietary product.

Although we received a lot of support, based on the majority of the comments, it didn’t sound promising. Just two examples; “This is going to be a very hard sell being a proprietary closed source system to Linux users, many use Linux because they have bought into the idea of open source. Good luck with it anyway” wrote one user. Another said “If it were FOSS, I would have downloaded it and compiled it 20 minutes ago.” We promptly shelved our Linux ambitions.

But the guys from Canonical were persuasive. They had a vision. They wanted to bring Ubuntu to the widest possible audience. To do this, they needed to attract more software to the OS. More than that, this software should be easy to find, update and install. They created Snappy, a software deployment and package management system. The resultant Snaps would be available on the Ubuntu Software Center (amongst other places) — essentially an app store for Linux.

We bit the bullet and spent some time creating the Snap. The opportunity to reach a new market at scale was too good to miss. Building the Snap itself was not that easy — Snaps were pretty new at the time. For example, strict confinement meant that we had to limit some of our product features. But a little help from Canonical and we were up and running.

That was over a year ago. Was it worth it?

The short answer is yes. Although with some caveats.

By far, most of our Linux downloads now come through Snaps, although tracking exactly where those Snap installs are coming from isn’t possible at the moment, as Snaps are available online and on other distros. Success on any app store is contingent on the amount of exposure you get on the front page/editorial sections. And getting exposure is reliant upon the good will of editors of the Software Center — not something you can, or should be able to, rely on. This is also a problem on the Mac and Windows stores — developers will never feel like they are getting enough exposure.

However, the store certainly increased awareness in the early days. And the effect has been lasting. That early user base has been spreading the word. Most of our paid Linux users are a result of word of mouth. This is not the case for Windows/Mac guys.

Financially speaking, I do believe you can make a living out of selling software to Linux users alone. But we couldn’t rely on just Linux users right now. I will say that it pays for itself though, and the numbers are gradually increasing. The market is definitely large enough to support a business like ours. Worth noting that Hiri is Exchange/Office 365 only at the moment. We are working on Gmail/IMAP support, and we think this will attract a lot more Linux users.

Pricing wise, we haven’t noticed anything that distinguishes Linux users from everyone else. They are no more cost conscious than Mac / Windows users. They are definitely willing to pay for software.

The main challenge remains getting the word out. Unfortunately, the fundamentalist FOSS mentality we encountered on Reddit is still alive and well. Some Linux blogs and Podcasts simply won’t give us the time of day. This is not a problem with the mainstream tech blogs and is a problem unique to Linux. Thankfully, many publishers are OK with closed-source, paid-for software. It’s my firm belief that there is plenty of room for both models. There is a lot to be said for products that have been shaped by free market forces. If Linux as a platform is going to succeed, Linux users should think about the richness of the entire ecosystem rather than seek to limit it.

The takeaway here? Well, maybe we should open source. But that’s not so easy in our case. We have professional VC’s and they would like to see us hold onto our intellectual property. And before you cry “support model!” — it isn’t going to work for us — our product simply doesn’t require that much support.

The more obvious fragmentation problem is still a barrier to success. Snaps don’t cover some well known distros — Redhat, CentOS and Gentoo to name a few. Of course, we can create a Flatpak, but that’s one more platform to support, and making builds for different distros is not trivial.

Unsurprisingly, security is a major concern for Linux users. Thankfully, we learned this lesson early after watching several of our competitors getting roasted online for laissez-faire data collection. In many ways, we are lucky that our product is secure by design (we don’t store or process data online — strictly between you and your mail server). None the less, we are very open with users regarding the data we collect, and users can turn off what little data collection we do. Of course, the boundaries are much clearer now thanks to GDPR. Startups are less likely to make privacy related blunders. But if you are creating a product, think twice about using 3rd party services.

Privacy is something you need to be mindful of when it comes to marketing too. We used to send automatically triggered emails welcoming you to the product and teaching you how to get the most from the product. A fairly typical startup tactic used to overcome adoption issues. This isn’t a problem for Mac/Windows users, but this is a step too far for Linux people. We simply stopped doing this. Of course, there are ways around this. Nobody minds getting in-app notifications for example.

The most surprising and delightful aspect of this journey has been the feedback from Linux users. To put it mildly, they care about software. Many of them are software developers themselves. We call it professional sympathy! Their generosity, quality insights and willingness to help us squash bugs have accelerated the pace of our development and learning dramatically. So much so, that if I ever end up building another product, I’ll be going Linux first.

Do I have any tips for those of you considering selling on Linux? You bet.

  • Engage with Canonical. They are approachable, super helpful and want your Snap to succeed. They have a strong marketing department.
  • Forge strong relationships with your Linux users. Make it easy for them to get in touch. Listen to them. Linux is a community — word will spread!
  • Use the Snap beta channel. It’s a great way to set realistic expectations and get feedback on new features. It’s another great way to build relationships with your users. Wish we had done this sooner.
  • Allow your users to contribute, but reward them for their contribution. We’re offering a free license to anyone that will help us translate Hiri.
  • There’s no escaping the grind. Link build, reach out to journalists. Talk to Podcasters.
  • Release often. We didn’t update for quite some time because we were working on something big. A lot of users wrote to us wondering if we were dead! Nobody wants to buy a product that is no longer supported.
  • Give users somewhere they can add, vote and comment on ideas. Linux users want to help you shape the product. This is a great way to improve product/market fit.

Questions? Comments? Ask below and I’ll do my best to answer!