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Young is now spending his time focusing on his most recent business venture, Lulu.com, a print on demand service where content creators can sell their books, comics, movies, or any other content that can be digitized and sold over the Web. The company handles sales and distribution of the work, and takes a cut from the sale price as well as a charge for the media itself. Users can also purchase copies of their work to sell directly.
How did Young make the leap from Linux to self-publishing? Lulu.com actually has its roots in the short-lived Center for the Public Domain (CPD), a non-profit Young founded with Mark Ewing in 1999. The CPD's mission was to help combat the expansion of intellectual property laws that were, as Young put it, "the biggest single threat to the open source movement."
The CPD shut its doors in 2002, and Young expressed dissatisfaction with working in the not-for-profit space. According to Young, what led to Lulu.com was the idea that the expansion of intellectual property laws was tied to the consolidation in the publishing industry, and wanting to solve the problem from a business point of view.
"You know, there really is a problem associated with the expansion of intellectual property, and if in a free market democracy, the citizen and the consumer are the same person, there's got to be a way of solving the problem in the marketplace."
Still, one might wonder why Young chose now to exit Red Hat. Young said that the work he was doing on Red Hat's board, while important, wasn't his cup of tea because the "bulk of your time is spent on the minutiae of dealing with SEC regulations and you're not really spending that much time helping the executive team fashion strategy; you're spending most of your time doing defensive things for the company, making sure that the company stays on side of all these arcane rules." At the same time, Young said that Lulu.com is "booming" and he wanted to devote more time to "helping Lulu get to the next stage."
Lulu isn't doing quite as well as Red Hat just yet, but the company is growing at a respectable pace. Young said that the company's sales are increasing at a rate of more than 10% a month. "We're selling in excess of 35,000 books a month. I believe we sold 40,000 in September. We have well over 30,000 books in our library, so to speak, of books. Gives you an idea that if you grow those numbers 10% a month, it doesn't take too many years before this is a very big business."
Open source makes it possible
Just because Young is no longer with Red Hat, it doesn't mean that he's lost his passion for open source. Young said that Lulu wouldn't be possible without open source software. "It is safe to say it would have cost well in excess of twice the investment, and it's cost several million dollars' worth of investment to get to Lulu where it is today. And it would have cost twice as much as that if we'd had to use proprietary software to do all of that."
In addition to cost savings, Young said that having access to source code has allowed the company to move more quickly. "Because when you're a startup, innovation is everything. Whatever you decide to do on day one is not going to work -- I mean, that's just a given. So therefore you have to be able to adapt your offering very quickly, going forward in response to your customers. And you can't do that if you're using Oracle databases and proprietary Web servers and proprietary programming tools.
|Bob Young of Lulu.com (Photo by M.J. Sharp)|
"It improves your ability to build better tools, because you're not guessing at what's going on inside the database or inside the Web server. You're actually looking at the code, and when you build your application on top of it, you're not guessing at whether you're doing the right thing. You can actually watch the code cycle through and you can go, 'Jeez, now I see why it hiccupped on line 56.' You're not guessing at it anymore and that's simply a dramatically better way of building tools, especially building Internet-based tools, than trying to do it on proprietary software where you actually don't know what's going on."
Lulu.com contributes to some of the open source projects that it uses in the course of its business. The company has contributed to the development of the content management framework bitweaver, as well as LJBook, a program that converts blogs in a LiveJournal format into a PDF document that's ready to print. (Lulu.com uses PDF for sending books to the printer.)
Looking back at Red Hat
Now that Young has closed the door on his involvement with Red Hat, we asked if there was anything he would have done differently, given the benefit of hindsight. Young's response is that "you don't look gift horses in the mouth -- the point being that as an entrepreneur, to start a business in your wife's sewing closet and to have it be valued by the international financial market at over $3 billion 10 years later, you kind of go, 'No.' That's one of those size of success, quantity of success that you simply can't second guess."
Young had mentioned that he originally encouraged his engineers to use Fedora Core rather than Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), but that the company was now standardized on RHEL 4. Now that Young is on the customer's side, we asked what he thought of Red Hat's pricing model, which has drawn more than a little criticism as the company has grown. Young said that he thought Red Hat was approaching it the right way.
"Red Hat's offerings have to get better. They are not nearly good enough yet. And the people who are demanding these better offerings are major Fortune 1000 corporations around the world. So for the startups, or the Lulus in 2002, our Red Hat made Fedora available so all of the code Red Hat distributes, they distribute under an open source license, and as a consumer of open source and Linux technology, that's all I would ask them to do. How they then come up with a business model that enables them to pay for the engineering that major Fortune 1000 corporation need is a separate issue, and one that's between Red Hat and its customers."
We also asked Young about the rumors that Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik had met with Microsoft's Steve Ballmer. If Young were CEO, would he be willing to sit down with Microsoft? Young said he couldn't comment on whether Szulik had sat down with Microsoft, but that he would be willing to talk to Microsoft. "You talk to everyone. As my father points out, talk is cheap. But the key way to think of it is unless you sit down with everyone, you will not be properly educated."
On the GPL and the future
Earlier this year, Eric Raymond ruffled a few feathers by saying, "We don't need the GPL anymore." We asked Young if he too thought that the GPL was no longer necessary. Young said that he "couldn't disagree more," though he was quick to point out that he is simply "disagreeing with an interpretation of a friend of mine ... Eric and I are approaching this from different perspectives."
Because everyone is familiar with the GPL, Young said, there's no need for developers to read the license or worry about someone sneaking something in the back door. "So I would strongly argue just the reverse: that we will never outgrow the GPL. And that the GPL will continue to be the dominant open source licensing model, not because the GPL is the best license, but because it is the standard license."
What about Linux on the desktop? If Young's habits are any indication, it will be a while. Young's desktop of choice is Apple's Mac OS X. "I could not bring myself to go to Windows, of course. And one of the little-known facts -- 'cause, you know, I'm a skinny guy who wears glasses, everyone assumes that I'm an engineer by training -- I'm an old typewriter salesman by training. So maintaining my own Linux desktop was just something that I didn't have the training to do." He did note, however, that Lulu.com's engineers are all using Linux on their desktops.
Looking forward, we asked Young what other areas in the tech industry he found exciting. Young said that he still found the Internet exciting, though many people think that "there's no real opportunity for the little guy anymore.
"My take on it is just the reverse. It's that the big guys on the Internet today are gonna look small compared to the big guys on the Internet 10 years from now. And that there will be household names on the Internet 10 years from now that you and I have yet to hear of today."
Read the entire transcript of the interview ...