The enterprise experiment is over, leaving the founder of npm much more optimistic about its future.
Talking to npm founder and Chief Open Technologies officer Isaac Schlueter, however, the right strategy for "building a sustainable engine behind an open source labor of love" might well be a return to npm's roots.
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Getting lost, getting found
Which led to the founding of npm, Inc. in 2014.
As explosive as was the growth around npm, the company's success has involved more of a struggle. When Schlueter decided to take venture capital money, it stoked controversy, with developers worried that capitalists would overrun a fabulous community resource.
Several years later, that concern remains.
As Schlueter tells it, raising venture money "allowed us to get some help in commercializing npm and to fund the experiment for a longer time." Indeed, if you review the last year or two of npm, Inc.'s existence, the company has clearly been in serious experimentation mode. Most visibly, the company introduced a direct-to-enterprise approach, one that "really doesn't leverage our strengths," Schlueter admitted. Going big with enterprise requires an equally big go-to-market motion, which means expensive sales and marketing people and processes. As one npm registry user told me, "npm needs a way to make money that doesn't involve extorting money from big tech companies. If not, folks will flock to alternatives."
In retrospect, Schlueter says, this simply isn't who npm is. Instead, he goes on, a bottom-up, developer-led approach is both right and feasible for the company (and its community). At the same time, npm, Inc. remains focused on ways to keep its registry open to all for free, while limiting overuse of the registry "commons" by a small population of larger enterprises.
So where does npm/npm, Inc. go from here?
Listening to the community
"The most successful products we've built have been where the community has dragged us along," Schlueter said. The key for npm, Inc., he continued, is to "watch for patterns and try to remove friction for developers in getting things done with npm." Developers will pay for this convenience; no, not enterprise sales kind of cash, but enough for npm, Inc. to flourish, Schlueter believes. "This gives us a much more npm-y way of growing into the enterprise space."
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As for proposed new product areas, it's not yet clear what npm will do. The company has built an impressive degree of testing security software, and sits on one of the world's largest corpuses of malware, putting the company in a position to boost the security of payloads pushed to npm from GitHub. Maybe someone will pay for this?
As is his comfort level at going back to his developer roots. In his mind, "A bottom-up strategy gives you the chance to really focus on the day-to-day welfare of the developers who work for and with you. A top-down strategy introduces friction: You're constantly selling something you don't yet have." Getting back to a bottom-up, developer-led strategy for npm, Inc. has Schlueter reenergized and hopeful. Perhaps the best of npm is yet to come.
Disclaimer: I work for AWS but in that work have no involvement, direct or indirect, with npm. The views expressed here are my own and in no way reflect those of my employer.
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