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Doing It Wrong, Getting It Right

By Marc Fleury

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS. While I was analyzing my mistakes and missteps, a funny thing happened. Users of the JBoss application server began contacting me through the Web site and user forums. They wanted to know if onsite training was available for JBoss. Being a firm believer in giving customers what they want, I told them it was. Then I scurried to write a training class. One company commissioned me to deliver a training course, which I then presented to that company and to others. When I began to get inquiries for open-enrollment training, I scheduled a course in Atlanta. At $3,000 per trainee, the first course quickly sold out, grossing me $60,000 for one week's work.

Listening to the customer and the market seems like Business 101, but the allure of the dot-com boom caused this to be less apparent the first time around. And, frankly, it had to hit me over the head the second time around. In retrospect, it seems like a no-brainer, but it can be pretty tough to hear opportunity knocking at the door when you're looking out the window.

FIND GOOD COLLABORATORS. As training took off, I began to get requests for support, consulting and documentation as well. For the first half of 2001, I worked as an independent consultant, but it soon became apparent that I would need to find people to work with me if I wanted to exploit the opportunity I had. In August of 2001, I formed JBoss Group LLC, in order to provide training, support and consulting services by the programmers who were most familiar with the product.

In order to accommodate the needs of the very best programmers, I developed an employment model where developers work half time developing the free, open-source product, and half time providing associated services. JBoss Group paid them for the time they spent doing consulting, training, and support, but at a consulting rate. It took some time for business to ramp up, but, under this scenario, the money they earn as part-time consultants has come to equal and often exceed what they could earn as full-time employees. They spend the rest of their time programming in open source, which gives them a lot of creative freedom and experience. They can improve their skills working on a project they enjoy, while still making a comfortable living.

We've since moved away from this model a little, as the success of the company now allows us to offer programmers a minimum salary guarantee, with an upside based on the amount of consulting work they do. This method provides customers with access to people with the highest level of product knowledge. Everybody wins, yet developing this strategy also required some thinking outside the box to come up with a scenario that made sense.

TRY AGAIN. JBoss Group now employs 30 people, and competes with companies like IBM and BEA Systems in the Java application server industry. The company is still self-funded, and revenue has doubled every nine months since our founding. We have been operating profitably since Day One.

I found that working from the bottom up - building the product, going after the business is better than working from the top down -- looking for the money first to fund a raw idea. For fledgling entrepreneurs, the lesson is clear: Focus on your core competencies, do the work yourself -- don't count on someone else. And keep your costs under control, so that revenues stay ahead of overhead.

Very early on, I knew I had a product that people wanted. I just had to figure out a way to make money from it. After a false start, I was able to do that by believing in the product, listening to the customer, and finding the right people to work with me. After that, the money followed pretty quickly.

Marc Fleury, 34, founded Atlanta-based JBoss Group in 2001 to provide professional services, including training, support, consulting, and documentation, for customers of the open source JBoss application server.

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