Open-Source Investment Begins to Pay

Opinion: Venture capitalists are giving open-source businesses a multimillion-dollar twirl; care to follow their lead?

Theres more than one way to make money from free software.

In the last couple of weeks, Ive talked about how to make moolah from making the right business plan decisions about open-source software and how its all too possible to lose your shirt. Ive also written about how to make money working with Linux software with the right certification.

What I havent done, though, is write about making money from open-source investments. Theres a reason for that: For the most part, people have lost money investing in open-source companies.

Take VA Software, for instance. The company started life as a hardware vendor, left that business in June 2001 when it became clear that wasnt going to work, and now its best known as the publishing company behind Slashdot and other open-source-friendly sites.

When VAs IPO (initial public offering) opened up in December 1999, its stock price rose on the first day to close at $300 a share.

There was a brief time when its investors were talking about being Linux millionaires. That talk didnt last as long as most dot-com fortunes. In the first half of 2000, Linux stocks crashed.

Many Linux businesses lost over 90 percent of their value. Today, Red Hat trades in the mid-teens, a far cry from the day when it traded around $150 a share. VA hovers below $2 a share.

They were the lucky ones. Some companies simply ceased to exist. The Linux business had been caught in the great tech crash at the end of the 20th century.

Now, however, VCs (venture capitalists) are beginning to seriously invest in Linux and open-source companies and startups. When I say seriously, I mean seven and eight figures worth of serious.

Thats not chicken feed.

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Still, most of you probably havent heard of these deals, so let me spell out some of them.

Theres Black Duck Software, with its open-source licensing compliance software, getting $12 million from Fidelity Ventures.

Then, theres SpikeSource, an open-source IT services company, which just got $12 million from Fidelity Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

And theres ActiveGrid, with its LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP/Python/Perl)-based application server, which landed a cool 10 million from Worldview Technology Partners.

I could name a half dozen other open-source companies that have hit the financing jackpot. So, whats going on here?

"It appears to me that VCs are looking for investment opportunities that offer manageable levels of risk and short- to medium-term positive return on the investment theyre making," said Dan Kusnetzky, IDCs program vice president for system software.

Theyre not looking for Linux businesses per se, though, he said.

Instead, Kusnetzky said, he sees the venture capitalists as usually interested in "open-source applications with some focus on development and deployment tools. It seems that the VC community believes, although use of Linux and BSD is growing, that these technologies are increasingly seen as commodities."

Next Page: Investors are regaining faith in open source.