Small Business Marketing of Linux

Linux is a good business product. This article deals with the why, how and who of selling Linux.

I have a standard Linux sales pitch that goes like this: “Linux is not what it was, but what it has come to be. Born of an idea by Linus Torvalds, evolving from infancy as an OS just powerful enough to control a disk drive, it grew into a very powerful, Unix-like operating system with the ability to meet the needs of such demanding users as medical centers, theoretical physicists and communication corporations, as well as the more modest needs of small businesses and end users. Linux offers you the power to accomplish whatever task you may have at hand with unparalleled stability and reasonable ease of operation. Software is abundant, help is as close as the Internet, and the potential is limited only by your imagination and computing skill. The bottom line is that this incredibly flexible and powerful OS is free.”

What I like about selling Linux systems is that my sales pitch is absolutely true. I haven't embellished anything in order to score a sale. I have given the client the whole truth and nothing else. From that modest beginning, I can listen to the client's needs and design a Linux system tailored to meet them. Tucked into a spare bedroom, my small business, cybertronics (http://cwolf.uaa.alaska.edu/~asacs7/main.htm), is not a Microsoft-sized operation by any means. From my home workshop I conduct repairs of various electronic equipment from TVs to computers, build customized systems and maintain contact with the array of suppliers, clients and persons to whom I contract out various jobs. My partner, my wife, manages the paperwork end of the business, and I run the technical side.

One would think in this day and age of big conglomerates taking over the technology industry, that small businesses like mine would be rapidly shoved out of the way or swallowed up, but Linux is an asset that has allowed us to remain competitive. I offer an unusual, powerful product. The open source code allows this OS to be customized for whatever specific uses a client might have. And the fact that it is free allows my prices to remain extremely competitive.

I have come to specialize more and more in Linux systems, and I hope within a year or two to focus on Linux systems as my primary commercial product. That will all depend on how Linux continues to evolve, as the literature I have read on the Internet indicates the OS is again at a crossroads and experiencing the associated growing pains. On the Internet, two opposing sides can be seen arguing over the way Linux should go in the future as it continues to grow and become more powerful. On the one hand, those opposed to the simplification of Linux usage to expand its mass appeal argue the OS should remain complex to force the user to learn something and ensure that only dedicated computer hobbyists and aficionados will use it. On the other hand there are those that would have the development of Linux travel down a road of utter ease so that it resembles Windows 95. At cybertronics, I have drawn my own conclusions (and sell Linux systems by them) based on the hard practicality that makes business work:

  • Linux is a powerful OS. It has been so for a long time. But it is only recently, due to advances made largely by Red Hat and Caldera in making Linux more user friendly, that it has become a truly marketable product to a diverse client base.

  • The growth of Linux and related software depends on the mass acceptance of the OS. The more users there are, the more people and companies will be turning out applications and making improvements.

  • The option of simplification is a good thing,

    as long as Linux is left with enough complexity to make the full power of the OS available for those users who desire or demand that kind of control. It is also desirable to leave that power and intimate control capability in place, right down to manipulation of the source code, to maintain the unique flavor and spirit of Linux.

Linux is now at this crossroads. Simplification has been added so the end user can use the system, while full control can be accessed by the experienced user for greater power and enhancement of the OS. This is what makes Linux different and marketable today to a broad range of clients. I can sell it to an average end user who simply wants a good, inexpensive system to balance his books, do word processing or access the Internet—and this represents the majority of computer users—because it has become relatively easy to use. I can also sell it to a client who must maintain a huge database of corporate records or run a powerful web server because that power is also easily accessible. Because Linux currently maintains a healthy balance of end user simplicity and ultimate user control, it is a highly attractive product to a wide range of people.

The second aspect of Linux which I emphasize strongly to my clients is the incredible stability of the system. I own three computers: an AMD-based system, a Cyrix-based system and an older Intel-based system. Linux has never crashed on any of these. On a couple of occasions, applications have misbehaved or have closed down, but this always turned out to be the result of a poorly programmed application, a user error, or the program's use of some new, experimental aspect of Linux that hadn't yet been tested and proven. But never, in all the time I have used Linux, have I seen it crash a system due to an instability problem. For businesses that believe time is money, stability is a major advantage. When computers crash, businesses lose not only the unbacked-up data on the system, but also time paid to employees while they wait for the system to come back on-line. If a network server crashes or becomes unstable, it can cost many thousands of dollars as computers throughout the company are affected. Even worse, customers tend to have little tolerance for businesses with faulty equipment. They will take their business elsewhere, sometimes for good.

A third and extremely important point in selling Linux is all of the software that is available, most of which is free. I have tried on several occasions to search the Internet for all Linux software to develop a comprehensive list for my clients. But the list is always growing and changing. And there is just so much software out there, much of which is good yet hard to find, that I've given up creating a comprehensive list. I doubt there is enough time in a month of Sundays to gather up Internet addresses to all the software and evaluate everything I can find for Linux that is free. This brings up an important point.

From the standpoint of business, professional software that is designed and sold commercially for Linux is extremely affordable, such as the office suites sold by Caldera (Star Office) and Red Hat (Applixware). In many cases, a company can purchase and outfit an entire network with professional quality productivity software that takes advantage of the full networking, stability and processing power of Linux for less than a thousand dollars. This selling point is truly great. The trouble is, it sounds too good to be true. You know the old adage, “You never get something for nothing.” Well, business people tend to be very cautious with money (especially the small to medium-sized businesses I often work with), and they become dubious at hearing how Linux can offer so much for so little. This point in the pitch is a good place to have references and demo software available, and it is also an especially important place to understand the aspects of Linux that make such high quality so affordable.

  • The Linux OS is free and freely developed by computer program developers around the world. Therefore, there are no royalties to be paid by software companies making professional business software, and development costs are cut to almost nothing.

  • Companies producing Linux software for profit are engaged in hard competition with software giants, including Microsoft, and are turning out superb products to gain an edge since they cannot compete in financial and advertising resources.

  • The spirit of free software is active even in the businesses involved with Linux. While those businesses are not running charities, they help promote the growth of Linux by making their products more widely available through reasonable prices—and anyone familiar with the Unix business knows that the price tag behind that OS and its software has killed its presence in the end-user market (a sad way for such a fine OS to go).

The only downside I have found is that for the private consumer wanting a more powerful computer system, professional Linux software is often too expensive. More competitively priced items are available for Windows for many applications—but this is changing. Caldera makes Star Office freely available to private users. Also, I have found a number of practical, good applications available at more reasonable prices within the last year—everything from web design software to data backup tools.

Moving on, it is important to note in selling Linux that there are many less obvious reasons for a client to turn to a Linux system.

  • The way Linux manages memory is very effective. No need to worry about high memory and low memory—Linux uses it all.

  • Linux's ability to communicate with other operating systems enhances its flexibility.

  • Linux's efficient and powerful programming enhances its speed.

  • Source code availability allows Linux to be entirely customized to fit the needs of the user.

  • A good distribution of Linux comes with so much free software that a business can often find most of the applications it needs on the Linux CD.

For the business person considering marketing any product, a question as important as “What product shall I sell?” is “Who shall I sell it to?” One would think with the broad potential for client usage I have described above, that anyone who uses a computer would be a potential client. In some ways I have found that to be true. I have sold Linux to casual end users who want more power than an old DOS-based system has to offer. I have also sold it to people who just want to learn what makes their computers tick. I have found that to compete, Linux must and does appeal to certain groups of people in particular. Since advertising costs what it does, it is important to target your business' ads and make each dollar count.

Is Linux a gamer's OS of choice? I am sorry, but it's not. Yes, there are a lot of games out there for Linux. Unfortunately, most of them are reminiscent of the earlier days of computing when two dimensional arcade-style games like Asteroids and Space Invaders were the rage. There are some other, more advanced games, I'll grant you, like Quake. But Linux is really lacking in the intense, power demanding, multimedia games that are available these days for other systems. And, let's face it, currently Linux is too demanding for the needs of someone who only wants a super gaming machine. And that is, in my opinion, too bad, because Linux has so much power and stability to offer. On other platforms, games crash or move jerkily. Both are frustrating, and I believe that Linux harnessed for such applications would make the ultimate gamer's computer.

Nor is Linux the first choice for the end user who wants as little to do with his computer as possible. One of my best customers, an elderly gentleman who has been coming to me for a couple of years now, wants his computer to get his stock quotes and publish his letters—that's all. The learning curve of Linux is still too high for him. He wants to do his work, and then get off his computer. He calls me from time to time with frustrations about how his current OS has led to another computer crash, but the occasional crash is an easier burden for him to bear than learning even the simplest administration of a Linux system. Until a shell for Linux is created which greatly simplifies its usage for the least demanding of end users, Linux will not appeal to this market.

My primary sales strategy is aimed at end users who want a system strictly for some form of business, be it personal bookkeeping, writing or running their small business. They like Linux because of the strong sales points I have already mentioned. Linux's stability ensures against losing time or work and is the biggest selling point for these individuals. Often they run their businesses with little or no help. They need to get things done. They don't have time to waste. That stability helps ensure that they will be able to do their jobs in the least amount of time so they can move on to other projects.

For representatives of larger companies, power is the factor to emphasize. Knowing that they can take this OS and put it to serious work, thereby saving their companies thousands of dollars by not buying commercial operating systems such as Windows NT or some other Unix is very impressive. Of course, the stability of Linux is also appealing to them. It is like icing on an already delicious cake.

Certainly, there are many other people for whom Linux could prove to be a useful and desirable product. However, the two groups I have just mentioned form the lion's share of my Linux business, and they are the market segment where, in my experience, advertising dollars should be aimed. At this time, these two groups comprise the broadest consumer market to which Linux seems most appropriately tailored. Both of these groups represent practical people with things to do.

I have found a brief, one page brochure with lots of illustrations that quickly and plainly point out the facts is a great way to introduce clients to the idea of a system based on Linux. If they are interested, I will happily take a system to their place of work and demonstrate it along with the features that make it particularly beneficial to them. I keep these presentations to fifteen minutes unless they indicate a desire to go deeper into the system. I can expand these presentations as needed to give potential customers all the information they want.

Since Linux is a complicated system, I deliver a Linux computer to the client already configured. I maintain good communication with these busy people by regular follow-up to make sure everything is going according to their expectations, and I go the extra mile to help them incorporate their Linux computer into their business as a vital and necessary component of administration. The most common complaint I hear from any of my customers is, “I've found something I just can't understand,” so I offer up to six free hours of consultation to help my clients over the obstacles that inevitably crop up.

Finally, you wouldn't attempt to fly without a little formal training. Nor would you buy a new car and not receive an owner's manual so you could learn how to take care of it. Well, in the same way, I don't turn over systems without documentation. My systems come with a copy of an easy to read, good reference on Linux. Que's Using Linux by Jack Tackett, Jr. and Dave Gunter (1997) has proven especially useful in that respect. To get my clients excited about their Linux system, I also give them a free issue of Linux Journal as a way of introducing them to the growing world of Linux users everywhere that they have just entered.

Linux is a fine and marketable product. At cybertronics, I foresee a bright future for the OS and for businesses marketing and selling it. It is my hope that Linux will continue to evolve, becoming easier for everyone to use and maintain while retaining all of its power and accessibility. With this combination and a little enthusiasm, Linux can rekindle the days of the eighties when computer companies sprung from home basement workshops and pioneered new frontiers.

Cliff Seruntine owns and operates cybertronics, a computer and electronics service center, from his home in Anchorage, Alaska. Currently a student at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, Cliff spends his spare time engaged in writing, reading, hiking and boating. Cliff can be reached via e-mail at asacs7@uaa.alaska.edu.

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