When you hear “GitLab,” you think “community.” From the very beginning, GitLab functioned as an open-source collaboration tool with a wide community involved in helping each other and growing the product. As community growth increased, the product itself grew in size and revenue. It owes much—if not all—of its success to product champions and the community as a whole.

Sid Sijbrandij, CEO of GitLab, discusses GitLab’s journey as an open core SaaS business, balancing high revenue potential and community contributions, and delivering safer software faster by collaborating with the wider community.

An active wider community is an incredible, irreplaceable asset.

Your company’s relationship with your community is symbiotic. More comments and contributions lead to more features, more features lead to more users, and more users lead back to more contributions.

“Something you collaborate with is also something you can contribute back to.”

GitLab’s community includes all users: GitLab team members, customers, volunteers, translators, and code bug hunters. Every active person who contributes to our community is incredibly valuable to the growth of our product and how it helps all of our customers.

We have millions of users and 335 code contributions each month, on average. These empower us to consistently release a new product version every month—a record we’ve been able to maintain for 121 months in a row. Because of our community, we can mature at a faster rate, create a more complete product, and iterate more quickly on new features or requests.

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An open core business model empowers customers and fosters brand loyalty.

At GitLab, we run on an open core business model. A subsection of our product is free and open-source, while additional functionality is proprietary.

We have a dollar-based gross retention rate of 97% and it’s in part because of our open core model. With open-source code and functionality, our customers feel empowered to make contributions or suggest features that would help them, which in turn benefits many of our other customers.

“By making proprietary code source available, customers feel empowered to co-create the product they need. They don’t need to sit around and wait until we’ve prioritized the features they want.”

If you think monetizing some of our products hinders our ARR, it does the exact opposite. Users in paid tiers made over 50% of overall wider community contributions in 2021 because they feel invested in improving the product for themselves. When it came to deciding which features to monetize, we decided to go with a buyer-based open core model, which prices out features based on the size and needs of each buyer. We don’t punish smaller companies for needing multiple features to succeed when they simply don’t have the budget larger enterprises have.

The key to success with an engaged community is building trust and fostering honest engagement.

If you encourage open community discussion but keep your own values and business practices behind closed doors, you can’t sow the trust you want with your community and customers. The best ways to be transparent about your company direction are:

  1. Align your company’s values with open source ethos. Commit to transparency with product development, business practices, and a clear overall direction.
  2. Clearly and publicly state your business practices. GitLab’s stewardship page, for example, includes not only a business model explanation, but a list of criteria for paid-only features and how open-source benefits from our open core model.
  3. Make specific stewardship promises and hold yourself accountable for them. For us, we maintain that our free features will always remain free, we will never limit or delay features for anyone in the free tier, and everyone will have access to essential features so they can run both public and private repositories.

“A great community makes for a great project; it’s hard to build and easy to lose. Invest heavily in your community and keep it top-of-mind with every decision you make.”

Key takeaways

Creating a strong, active community around your product and business can be the key to success if fostered the right way. Remember: a community isn’t just a free idea bank for you, and it doesn’t have to be a complaint forum for them. Community growth needs to be something integrated with your business model and KPIs from the beginning, not something you haphazardly add at the last minute.

Every single active user is a member of your wider community, whether they contribute once a month or twice a day. Engage with everyone—and consider setting different activity levels with achievements and rewards or community recognition for top contributors. The more you invest in your community, the more they’ll invest in you.

You can listen to the full episode with Sid Sijbrandij or subscribe to weekly updates from SaaStr.

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