Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Dmitry Barashev and I am the guy who is working on GanttProject, a popular free open-source project scheduling application for desktop operating systems. GanttProject may be thought of as a replacement for Microsoft Project for those who can’t afford to spend $1000 on a Gantt chart drawing software. It is used by small and medium-sized businesses in construction, mechanical engineering, media production, and other industries, as well as at colleges on project management classes.
GanttProject is free for any purpose, however, there is an option to pay-what-you-want and, to my big surprise, quite a few people choose this option. This, along with a few ad banners, generates about $3000-5000 monthly. Quite far from the Forbes list, but not bad for a pet project.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
GanttProject was started in the early 2000s by Alexandre Thomas, a guy from France, during his study at the University of Marne-la-Vallée. I joined a few months later just by coincidence.
We tried to use project management software (read: Gantt charts) at my main job. Most of us worked on Windows and used Microsoft Project, and I was the only one who worked on Linux. I searched for open-source Gantt chart drawing software and found GanttProject. I needed a command-line export, which was missing. However, the source code was open, so I implemented it myself and sent a patch to Alexandre (those days there were no GitHub, no pull requests) and it was my first contribution.
GanttProject version 1.+
A few years later Alexandre mostly lost interest in GanttProject. This happens to almost every open-source pet project with no big company behind. However, I stayed and took over the leadership and administration.
In 2007 I started an experiment with Google ads on the website and it turned out to be successful: the first month with ads generated about $6 (six dollars)! I had already started working at Google in a software engineer position by that moment, and the income from ads was quite negligible. But working on GanttProject was fun, and it is still fun today, 15 years later.
Take us through the process of revamping & designing the software.
Project management software is quite an established and conservative business, and the most requested or expected features are very well known. If you are just like Microsoft Project, except that you are free, you rock. We didn’t try to copy all the features of Microsoft Project or clone the look of Gnome Planner, an open-source PM tool for Linux which was popular at that time, but the basic features of such applications are really very similar.
Have fun and go ahead!
It also was very easy to distribute. In the 2000s there were no self-contained application bundles, no application signing was required, there was just one vendor of Java Runtime and you could rely on Java being installed by default, yes, even on Mac OSX! So all you had to do was to build a JAR or ZIP file and publish it on SourceForge. It was easy and the cost was zero.
We iterated quickly, published new versions nearly every week, and quite soon GanttProject became very popular.
Describe the process of getting the product out on the market
The good thing about open-source pet projects is that you have no stakeholders or investors, who are worried about their ROI, strategy, execution, traction, and all that fun stuff. You can just write code and build a great product. Well, provided that there is someone who pays you at your main job. We didn’t do anything to attract customers and have never spent a single dollar on paid traffic.
We hosted a simple website on SourceForge and basically, that’s it. However, GanttProject was a good product, and the choice of free alternatives to MS Project was not so big at that time, so new users kept coming. The growth has never been exponential -- the dream of the modern startup! -- but it was steady for well over a decade.
We had some ads revenue (ironically, it seems that one of the best-selling ads was placed by our commercial competitors), and at one moment one of our users gave us good advice to start “selling” GanttProject using the pay-what-you-want model. We added a “paid download” option and the revenue turned out to be comparable with the ads.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
In my opinion, GanttProject customers are very loyal. Once they decide that GanttProject fits their purposes, they stay with us for many years, and that’s for a reason! GanttProject is very reliable when it comes to compatibility. We can read our project files created years ago, moreover, we can import aged Microsoft Project documents which can’t be opened by the recent versions of Microsoft Project itself! The user interface evolves slowly, and even in the latest GanttProject release, it looks quite similar to the first published version. Users don’t need to change their habits every year and in my opinion, this is a great way to retain them.
New customers mostly come from the web search engines where GanttProject appears on the first page, and sometimes as just the first result by the relevant queries like “free gantt chart”. In the last years I have been using a Facebook page for collecting likes and recommendations, and sites like Capterra for the reviews and hope that it increases the awareness of the target audience, however, I am not sure that the impact of that is significant.
GanttProject is desktop software and thus, once project managers install it, they can keep using it for a long time without getting back to our website. To keep them informed, there is a simple news channel that is built directly into GanttProject. It sends an HTTP request once per day and reads an RSS feed from our blog. The entries in the feed are tagged with labels and allow for showing a notification to the users of some specific version or all versions up to the given one. This news channel is very efficient for usage analytics purposes, as we have an estimate of how many people are using GanttProject and what versions do they use. And of course, when we release a new version, we post an announcement to the channel and see a good spike in all metrics.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today many activities move to the cloud and project management is no exception. There is a good choice of online PM tools, and many of them offer free usage plans. GanttProject customers still love complete freedom and that no Internet access is needed, but we feel that the demand for collaboration features is pretty high. That’s why we started building a low-cost commercial product, GanttProject Cloud. It is a project and collaboration server which provides online project storage with access permissions and version control, generates charts and reports, and adds collaboration features to the desktop GanttProject. Customers pay for the actual usage, so it is safe for their budgets to run projects even with many collaborators who mostly stay idle.
GanttProject Cloud is at the beta testing stage. There are just 2-3k monthly active users and just a few paying customers. However, given that we spent $0 on ads or any other kind of promotion, this doesn’t look like a failure.
20x growth in 8 months since the moment of public beta launch looks impressive! Okay, it is just 2000 MAU vs 100MAU, not a big deal actually.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I am an engineer, not a businessman, and not even a product manager, and sometimes it was challenging for me to stop thinking about code and switch to the user's needs. It turns out that users don’t care too much about your code architecture, they just need a tool to get their job done and want new features to be added quickly. Long pauses between the releases have always had a negative impact, while fast and small iterations usually worked well. On the positive side, from the engineering perspective, you learn to write your code so that you would not have to spend weeks rewriting it afterward.
Also, customer support teaches me to be very patient, forgiving, and kinda meticulous. The end-users often are not very tech-savvy, and sometimes the process of getting the issue details from them is a long and exhausting challenge. I am not very good at communicating with people from the outside of the software engineering universe, but I honestly do my best.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Gumroad for easy pay-what-you-want payments. They are cool and they remove a lot of bureaucracy hassle, in particular, all tax-related issues are on them. Talking about the engineering stuff, GanttProject, just like pretty much any open-source project, uses GitHub and we’re very happy with its services. The servers are on Google Cloud Platform and it works very well.
We use the open-source forum software called Discourse for the support portal and it is just awesome.
Sometimes we hire engineers for some particular tasks on Upwork or similar platforms. This is handy when you have a well-scoped task that is safe enough to be outsourced.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
GanttProject is a fun pet project and of course, the most influential book was Just for Fun by Linus Torvalds, the founder of the open-source Linux operating system.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Have fun and go ahead!
Where can we go to learn more?
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