Kona's Scott DeFusco: Open Source Advocate in a Closed Source Firm
"When we looked at a number of different factors, open source became the obvious answer to this particular project," said Kona vice president Scott DeFusco. "That's not to say the proprietary platforms we were using on our other products were not good for those. For us, open source was the better choice for a couple of reasons. One is keeping the cost down so we could pass on a lot of value to our users in the free version. Also, we could maximize our values when we monetized."
Kona, an innovative social networking platform for businesses and organizations, was launched in late 2012. It grew out of a vision developer Scott DeFusco had for a way to solve communications issues shared in peoples' business and social lives.
DeFusco and Kona cofounder Jeff Eckerle developed the new approach to online collaboration as an internal start-up within Deltek, an enterprise resource planning vendor heavily invested in proprietary software. To reach the goals expected of Kona, DeFusco, Deltek's vice president of product strategy and management for Kona, and Eckerle decided to build the new social networking platform around an array of high-profile open source projects. DeFusco credits that decision as a milestone in making Kona successful quickly.
Deltek was running one of its ERP lines focused on small and mid-sized businesses. DeFusco sensed frustration from the company's customers tied to a collaboration breakdown among Deltek's teams. To find a solution, the company took a fresh look at that problem.
"We stepped away from our own Deltek customer base and did a broad interview of firms from as diverse an audience as we could find. We discovered that the communications breakdown symptoms occurred in all aspects of the lives of people we interviewed," DeFusco told LinuxInsider. "The problem was not limited to just their business activities. The bridging of communication in users' business and personal lives was very interesting to us. That is how we started developing Kona."
In the background was the recognition that social networks were connecting people and helping them stay connected. What Deltek needed to find was a way to apply that concept to solving the problem. That is how Kona started: the company literally treated it like a start-up, DeFusco said.
His team went offsite and worked in a different office. He took a few Deltec people with him, but brought in new staffers to round out the development team while also working with some advisors from Silicon Valley, DeFusco noted.
In this interview, LinuxInsider talks to DeFusco about how he developed a new product line with open source software, and charted new ground in integrating social networking with connected group problem-solving.
LinuxInsider: Based on your experience with Kona, is social media becoming the de facto advertising media for the enterprise?
Scott DeFusco: We approached this very differently than others. I was not an avid user of social media. Being an outsider to it was a good thing. I didn't come into starting Kona with the bias of, "Let's just create a Facebook for businesses." Others have done that, but I really don't agree with that approach.
What I think is the key ingredient with social media that we are applying is people being more connected. That is the bottom line of what Kona is designed for: Getting people more connected and social with a purpose.
LI: What distinguishes Kona.com from other business connectivity platforms?
DeFusco: What Kona is all about is connecting groups of people to get things done. Where Kona really shines is that it is private by default.
Let me give you an example of where Kona really shines: When someone has an activity they are trying to get done like a fund-raiser -- something that is very goal oriented and purpose driven -- they create a Kona space and bring that group together to connect in a way that just is too cumbersome or doesn't happen in an email. That really is the secret sauce that is Kona, getting people connected. But we didn't start out to create a Facebook for business.
LI: Is Kona a stand-alone service or something that is integrated into existing social media platforms?
DeFusco: It is both. Kona is separate in its own way. If you look at the thousands of businesses using Kona today, they are mostly using it as a standalone basis to bring their groups together within their own companies. Having said that, we do integrate with other platforms to facilitate this.
For example, you can invite people to a Kona space via your Facebook friend list or your LinkedIn connection list. However, when you do that, we are not making anything public to those people. You are making the decision that when you bring in five LinkedIn friends into an initiative you are driving, it is for the sole purpose of that initiative and not for the purpose of sharing things with their connections.
So it is very private by nature, which is different than what you see on these other social platforms. When we connect with them, we do it to bring them into your own private network.
LI: So once you and I were to set up a Kona connection from Facebook, does that reside on Facebook, or does it link us to Kona?
DeFusco: You would see your contact's information on the social networks you have joined to bring selected contacts to your private space that you are setting up in Kona.
LI: How much did you rely on open source when you were building the Kona platform?
DeFussco: If you look at my roots and Deltec in general, it is very proprietary software-oriented. When we started Kona, we did not want to assume that anything we did previously would be accelerators or the right solution for this. We didn't want to exclude them either. We knew we were moving to an agile cloud-based environment, and we were also moving to a new business model that was more of a freemium model, where people could use a portion of our service for free and upgrade to a premium service if needed.
LI: What led you to select the open source approach? What convinced you that you could monetize your new business that way?
DeFusco: We knew there was going to be this free offering that we needed to subsidize. When we looked at a number of different factors, open source became the obvious answer to this particular project. That's not to say the proprietary platforms we were using on our other products were not good for those. For us, open source was the better choice for a couple of reasons. One is keeping the cost down so we could pass on a lot of value to our users in the free version. Also, we could maximize our values when we monetized.
LI: Was cost-savings your primary decision maker?
DeFusco: That was not the number one reason. However, it was significant. The second big reason was the community. I liked having a community available for when we ran into a problem.
For example, we ran into a problem with one of the controls we were using. We hit a brick wall, and it was not doing something that we really need in our product. We can always reach out, add functionality, fix something. We don't have to wait months before a proprietary vendor prioritizes a solution for us.
With open source we just have so much more flexibility with that community out there to get things fixed. I had been through that a lot in the proprietary world where you would run into a problem. We just needed to be more agile than that in developing Kona.
LI: What kinds of open source projects have you tapped into to make Kona work your way?
DeFusco: We have been very careful about it. We did have some initial concerns. One of the advantages with proprietary software is you have more consistency with who is affecting the code base. However, you can get that consistency if you look at the open source code.
Ruby on Rails is one of our key foundations, and we do a really good job of managing being the gatekeeper on that code so that you are not having something that turns into this Frankenstein monster, with the kitchen sink thrown in that dilutes the value and the purpose of the original offering.
LI: That is an insightful observation. What other open source projects have met that test for you?
DeFusco: Some of the products we use are the Linux OS, Apache on the web server side, MySQL on the database side, and Ruby on Rails -- as I mentioned -- for server side architecture.
LI: So you really are well-invested with open source in developing the Kona platform.
DeFusco: Absolutely. We are all in on the value of open source.