An Open Source Story - Evolution of the Umbraco CMS

4 minute read
Barb Mosher Zinck avatar

Not all products are built with loads of venture capital in the coffers. Many are grown slowly and painstakingly over a number of years. A labor of love? Maybe. Some unseen driving force pushing them? Most likely.

During the work for our recent Umbraco CMS Review we stumbled upon the story of how this product came to be. It struck us as notable and inspirational, so we thought we'd share it more broadly.

In this article we bring you the history of the Umbraco Web CMS, from a .NET toolkit used as part of founder Niels Hartvig's consulting business to being one of the most popular .NET open source web content management systems in the market.

Sowing Umbraco Seeds

Niels Hartvig started building Umbraco in 2001 as a content management system that would help achieve his client’s needs.  Niels was working at a time when web content management systems weren’t nearly as prolific and mature as we have today.

So he worked with clients to develop custom solutions and the roots of what became Umbraco are based on those original problems solved and code libraries developed. Umbraco was designed not to limit Niels on what he could do and at the same time deliver to clients the functionality they needed.

Going Open Source

The first open source version of Umbraco was released in February 2005. Niels says there was no strategic thinking behind the decision to take Umbraco open source. To Niels “it just felt right”.

Working in a shared office space, Umbraco was often used by the other free agents for free. In return, Niels picked up some consulting hours. These consultants always came back with great feedback – whether they were developers or designers. At the same time, clients were coming with a list of improvements. It occurred to Niels that the more people who had access to Umbraco Web CMS, the better it would become.

But he needed to make money too. So he came up with the idea to charge 3% of each project. Of course everyone thought it was a “brilliant and democratic idea” until the time came to pay. So Niels continued consulting even though what he really wanted to do was work on Umbraco.

Crossing the Bridge

Over time the project was consuming more and more energy, and Niels found himself under-prioritizing client work. Client satisfaction was dipping, stress was rising and it became clear that he'd reached an all or nothing fork in the road.

Niels reports that he didn’t have the confidence he needed to make the leap. Not seeing how it could possibly work, he went pseudo all-in during 2006.

What he did was charge for support on a per ticket basis, to former clients who used Umbraco. In the end, it was basically doing the same thing as consulting and he realized the model was not working out.

Learning Opportunities

Becoming even more frustrated and still not making money, Niels sat in a meeting with the Danish IRS who threatened to close him down if he didn’t pay them the money he owed.

It was his wife who made him realize what he needed to do.  She told him that “this is what you get from not really believe in what you do. From only doing it half.” She asked him if he could do it 100% and he said yes, knowing he was going to be living for nothing.

Together they went to the bank and got the money to pay the IRS (Niels says it was magic). But he was still not going to have any money to finish the next version of Umbraco.

So he went to the Umbraco community and said version 3.0 would not be completed. He was broke. It was the end of the road.

And like any good community who believes in their solution, they blew his mind and together they raised $15,000 in donations to finish the version. This was the turning point for Umbraco.

Making it Profitable

In early 2007, Niels launched the Umbraco courses which were an instant success. In late 2007 he launched the professional version of Umbraco -- another instant success. And recently they've kicked off Umbraco.tv, a subscription-based service for online training which starts off at about 19 EUR per month for a personal account.

Last year Ploug Hansen, an active freelancer in the Umbraco community became a business partner. Three months later the project became profitable (and Niels paid off the tax office).

What are the morals of the Hartvig/Umbraco story? It seems to us that, a) never do anything half way, b) respect, develop and rely on your community, and c) if you doubt the open source paradigm be sure to consult your wife.

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