It’s been a busy 10 months since Kirk Cameron decided to give away his software company’s main product for free. Granola, a software program that makes computers more energy efficient, has been downloaded nearly 200,000 times since April. And in December, TIME named it a top 20 green tech idea.
Cameron, the CEO of MiserWare, recounted his unusual business decision in a recent interview, excerpted below.
Q: How did you decide that your company would give away its main product for free?
A: It didn’t come easy. We had a lot of discussions when we first started the company three years ago about whether we should be open source or whether we should be free with ads. We were trying to figure out our business model. About six months prior to the launch of Granola last year, we had created a smaller version. It was called MicroMiser. We sent it out to a dozen people we knew. They said, ‘This is pretty cool software. Can we share it with other people?’ Before we knew it, we had a user base of about 2,000 to 3,000 people.
We decided to survey them to see why they were using the software. They wanted to be energy conscious in their everyday lives. We realized this might be an opportunity to launch a product in the consumer space. The idea was we would let people use it, but somehow build off that and be able to sell it in some capacity later. It’s almost like outsourcing testing by giving it to people for free. They test it for you.
We re-branded MicroMiser as Granola. We released on Earth Day 2010. We had 100,000 downloads in the first 100 days.
Q: How did you get the word out about your product so quickly?
A: We didn’t have money [for marketing]. We had a user base of a couple thousand people. We asked them to tell as many people as they could. We had people that wanted to blog about us. We had people watch the blogosphere in case there were any questions or issues. Most of the blogging was really positive. Then we got picked up by Lifehacker. We had a spike of 7,000 [downloads] in one day. That’s how you get to 100,000 people in 100 days -- you have prominent people blog about you. We used the blogosphere to help us. We didn’t spend any money.
Q: How many downloads are you up to now?
A: We’re nearly at 200,000. We didn’t keep up the pace, but that pace would have been very difficult to sustain. We average between 300 and 500 downloads a day.
Q: Is there a price tag for Granola now?
A: It’s still free. We have figured out how to make money. You can download and install Granola on up to five machines for free. You’ll be able to track your energy savings across five machines. After we launched the software, people contacted us saying they wanted to use Granola for their business. In September, we launched Granola Enterprise. If you have Granola running across a thousand systems, they all report back. In order to get that functionality, you have to buy the enterprise license.
Q: If you were to do it over again, would you still make the decision to give your product away for free? How would you advise other business owners?
A: There is absolutely no substitute for people using your software. [But] you have to give it some thought. It’s all about lowering the barriers for people. We can say that 200,000 people thought our software was valuable enough to download and tens of thousands use it everyday. That carries a lot of weight, especially when you try to sell it.