Last night I met with a friend of mine, Mr. Doron Ofek. For those of you not familiar with the Open Source market in Israel, Doron is the one person most affiliated with RedHat in Israel, as Doron championed the adaptation of RedHat Linux servers in various enterprises and government offices in Israel. Doron is currently heavily involved in the OpenMoko project and its adaptation and promotion in Israel.

We spent a great deal of time last night, talking about the various aspects of Open Source training in Israel – as both us provide various training services to this market sector. While I’m mostly focused on Asterisk Training, Doron is focused on Linux and XEN training. Both of us have some our training routes knee deep in Israel’s computer/IT training companies, namely Matrix, Hi-Tech College and John Bryce. We both talked about our discontent with their inability to promote and market Open Source training courses, simply because they have no idea what these are.

For example, while Hi-Tech college were incapable of signing up a single person for an Asterisk Bootcamp course, I had signed up 10 people to a my first bootcamp – without any marketing or sales budget, simply by putting out the word in the right places. Now, Hi-Tech college has a list of over 5000 people who studied Linux and other Open Source and networking subjects in their college – should have they been able to gather up at least 10 people as well (less then 0.5% of their entire customer base)? the answer is a definite yes, why were they unable to do so? simply because they have no idea what Asterisk is, how it can be marketed, how it can sold and how the customer should be approached.

Doron had indicated a similar issue with both John Bryce and Matrix – however, due to other reasons. However, Doron had managed to sell quite a few training courses for Linux on his own – without any help from the big boys – how did that happen? how is it possible that Doron and I succeeded where the other colleges had failed? how can that be? – then we both realized why eventually, proprietary software will die and the Open Source movement, over the course of time, will simply negate the presence of proprietary software – simply because Open Source people provide for better marketing strategies and methodologies.

Did we learn how to do marketing on school? are we marketing people by nature? the answer is NO – we learned how to market our belief in the Open Source initiative over the course of time. We championed Open Source in various enterprises, events, public speakings and other places. We were the “soap box” speaker at Hide Park’s Speakers Corner, we were that crazy man on the street screaming: “The world is coming to an end, repent!” (well, you know what I mean) – but all in all, as time progressed we learned how to market the Open Source initiative and our belief – the large enterprises are stuck in their own belief and stagnant marketing strategies and plans. As time progressed, the various “champions” left the large enterprises, simply because they got fed up with the wrongful methodology of these and followed their own path – and doing so with moderate success.

In my belief, as time will progress, the large enterprises will surely migrate to the Open Source, and I won’t be surprised if within a period of 5-6 years Microsoft will be shipping out a version of Windows that is based on the Linux Kernel – or another Open Source distibution methodology. Call me crazy, call me chaotic, call me a dreamer – but mark my words – this will happen.

Last time, I’ve contemplated upon the various aspects of being an Asterisk consultant, mainly judging these from the Asterisk/Open Source point-of-view. Today, I’d like to contemplate upon a different approach of being a consultant, mainly, the various aspects that are usually not associated with Asterisk consultancy, however, can increase your overall perception by your prospective customer.

Be Targeted, Don’t be Limited

Most Asterisk consultant tend to restrict themselves to the Asterisk arena, at best, they will expand their knowledge into the realms of SIP and networks – but never beyond that point. It is true that telephony makes for over 80% of the Asterisk consultancy world, however, Asterisk isn’t limited to telephony only. More than 40% of the people using Asterisk are utilizing it for something completely different. Ranging from simple IVR to complex Micro Payment systems, Asterisk is there. Surely you can consult about Asterisk, but imagine the benefit your customer will gain if you are able to advise about other issues as well?

You are most probably saying: “I’m an Asterisk expert, I can’t be a **** expert as well!’ – you’re not being asked be one. You are being asked to expand your horizons beyond the Asterisk realm, being asked to be able to answer preliminary questions about various subjects. Over the course of my work I’ve been asked about subjects as: Google Adwords, Business Models, possible business partners, applicability of solutions and many more. Surely, there are people more qualified than myself to answer each of these, however, being able to answer my customer in a short time yielded something interesting, my customer became more at ease consulting with me about other matters as well – sometimes surpassing the realms of VoIP and Networking. When I was unable to answer I always replied with: “I’m not an expert about this, but I can check it out”. If I had an answer I would reply: “Per the information that I have, the answer is ………., however, I do suggest talking to someone more skillful than I on these matters”. This approach yielded an interesting response from my customers, mainly, their appreciation at me being able to supply a form of preliminary answer for a question – while on the other hand admitting at the same time that I’m not the best at this field.

Subjects that are fairly close to Asterisk include: GPL compliance, programmatic approach, platform design, billing considerations, scalability and redundancy and more. Again, always target your knowledge to Asterisk and VoIP, but don’t be limited to these.

Advocate for GPL compliance

As a consultant, you’ll be asked to perform various projects – some of these will most probably clash with the GPL spirit. If you encounter such a request, turn down this project immediately. There is no use or advancement by doing a project that violates the GPL code of conduct. No matter if you’re violating GPL v1, v2, v3 or any other of the Open Source license variants, at the end of the day, it will creep up behind you and bite you in the behind.

An Asterisk consultant who doesn’t advocate for GPL compliance is an outbound liar and a con-man. Consulting for the Asterisk market is prmoting the usage of GPL and Open Source software. Performing projects that violate both put you into the position of being perceived as a consultant without any code of conduct and no personal believes. You will be perceived as only being interested in money, thus, you will attract the type of customers you don’t want to attract.

Business Partners

The business partners you choose tell much about yourself. Sometimes, the big partners, which you really want to put their logo on your website as a partner is the wrong partner for you. Since the Q4 2008, my company had been approach by multiple companies wishing to become partners with my company – many have been declined. They were declined due to a simple reason – they were the wrong partners, even if they were companies generating over 25M$ of income per year. Does it make me sound stuck up and elitist, maybe, but there is no use partnering with a company that may clash with your own business model. Just like customers, partners tend to attract one another. Team up with the wrong partners, you’ll start attracting the wrong partners all over.

A while back, John Todd from Digium, had posted an entry on the Digium blog web site, regarding how to be a successfull Asterisk consultant. While I completely agree with John’s views on the matter, from obtaining a dCAP certificate to the involvement with the community – there are a few points missing from that post, at least in my view. I will try to add some additional information here, in the hopes that it may help you build your business.

Point 1 – Stay Focused

Most of us Asterisk consultants come from diversified areas of expertise. Most of us are plain old IP sysadmins or network managers who got thrown into the Asterisk world due to a requirement – got hooked on it and simply continued onwards. Some of us are developers, some web oriented, some core oriented, but developers yet. The diversity of most Asterisk consultants skill set can easily side track them.

When I say side track, I don’t meant that they don’t know what they are doing, I mean – it’s easy to try and swallow more than they can chew at one time. For example, example a sysadmin turning into an Asterisk consultant, after installing over 200 Asterisk systems. Now, a customer comes to him and says: “Well, I’m gonna give you the work, but I want you to also take over the various IT management aspects of the system.” – If at this point you will say: “YES” you are more of less dooming your business. You are an Asterisk consultant, no matter how a talented IT sysadmin you are, going about and taking both roles on your self would render you in a situation where you, at some point, will be in a situation where you are handling an extreme IT condition at that customer, rendering completely incapable of rendering services to your other customers. Remember, stay focused on what you do, you won’t run into a situation where you will be forced to hurt a customer.

Point 2 – Earning more is sometimes loosing money

This point relates directly to the previous one. Let us imagine that I’m an Asterisk developer with a background of Web development. When confronted with a project that may include both Asterisk and Web Development – the most logical answer would be “YES” – however, web developers tend to forget that they are working autonomously. Most web developers are backed up by teams of graphic artists, database developers, database managers and IT managers. Thus, a web application is much more than the web logic involved with it. Are you an all encompassing developer, capable of cater to all aspects of a web development project and an Asterisk project? if you have your own in house DBA and other resources, you should be fine, however, if you don’t – at some point in the project – you will be forced to outsource the work to a 3rd party – thus, lowering your net income on the project. So, by taking such a project you believe you will be earning more money, while in fact, at the end of the project you may end up in debt to 3rd party sub-contractors you hired.

Point 3 – Be true with yourself

Always be true and honest with yourself and always ask yourself: “is this really a deal that will advance me? or may it actually set me back?” – failing to answer these two questions for every project you are about to take on will end up with some disappointment. Remember, you can fool all people some of the time, you can fool a few people all the time – can you can’t fool yourself! You are your own worse judge, jury and executioner. If you end up doing a project that doesn’t feel right for you, or something with the various aspects of the project troubles your no a moral ground, at some point in time, it will creep up on you and bite you back in the ass.

Point 4 – Use it, don’t abuse it

We all deal with various aspects of the Asterisk project, an Open Source project at its core. It’s very easy to become side tracked by large sums of money, in order to either violate a GPL code or doing something which is completely negated to the Open Source spirit or the Asterisk community. Sure, you will abuse Asterisk and/or other Open Source Asterisk related projects, however, at some point, it will be discovered and your name will be smudged. For example, if you integrate ViciDial to a customer, tell them it’s ViciDial and don’t change its logo to something else. Same applies to FreePBX, A2Billing or other Asterisk related packages – at some point your customer will find out you integrated Open Source – and you will be branded a cheat.

For example, 2 weeks ago I was at a call center, where one of Israel’s leading Asterisk integrator had built a dialer platform for the call center. The call center manager told me that they paid a sum of about 120,000 Israeli Shekels (approx 30,000$) for that dialer. I was really interested to see the product, while the only thing I saw was a “logo” modified “ViciDial” with a couple of hooks into FreePBX (that also had its logo changed to the company logo). The customer was sure he was getting a personalised job, while actually, the entire amount of work done can be amounted to about 12-16 hours of work. Ok, so the hardware costs about 8000USD – still, 22,000$ for installing and modifying two pages on ViciDial – you can’t say that is right – is it?

Conclusion

Always be true to yourself, to your customers and to the community – you’ll never loose.

Today I sat down with a friend, a telecom consultant like myself. The main difference between the two of us is that, while I’m purely focused on Open Source technologies, he’s focused on proprietary technologies. Well, I can’t really blame him, after all, he used to be the CTO of a Tier-1 long-distance carrier in Israel and his track record of building large scale systems can’t be negated or dispersed at ease.

In any case, we were discussing the financial validity of obtaining an IP centrex platform vs. building one of your own based on Asterisk. On one hand of the scale, we had companies such as Broadsoft and the like, proprietary technologies for building IP centrex environments. In addition, we’ve discussed the various FlatPlanetPhone type companies, rendering IP centrex type services via Asterisk, in a hosted model solution. It is obvious that if you are going into the “retail” business, then you simply sign up as a reseller of anyone that hosts their own platform and go on from there – however, this was not the case.

Our discussion was based on the following assumption: a projected customer wants to host IP centrex like services to a total of 15,000 business subscribers, each one consisting of anything from 5 users at the low end to 60 users at the high end. The average calculation was 33 users and multiplied that by 7500 (half of the project users case) – giving us a total 247,500 connected phones. Ok, a Broadsoft of that size is WAY WAY WAY more expensive than our projected budget, and building our own IP centrex platform based on Asterisk would take too much time.

Recently, advances on the implementation of Asterisk utilizing Amazon EC2 had resulted with the implementation of a full office PBX system can be implemented within an EC2 instance. While the PBX is based on Asterisk + FreePBX, it surely can provide any of the required IP Centrex type of services a normal PBX platform will provide – in addition to the hosting environment which is highly reliable.

Now, a normal office works anything between 9 to 11 hours per day. Doing some Amazon math shows that running a PBX system, 11 hours per day, 22 days a week, yields a total of 242 hours per month. Thus, based upon a medium C1 instance, we’re talking about 49$ per month for running your PBX. Bandwidth for a PBX that size would cost around the 5$ per month, and the elastic IP is another 3$, thus, a total of 57$ per month, cost to the operator. The IP centrex model dictates a price per phone, thus, an office of 5 people, with a minimum charge of 39$ per phone per month, leaves us 137$ of profit per month. Let’s imagine that you’re using phones like SNOM 300 as your base phone, these are 80$ value at large quantities. Thus, the customer ROI is around the 4-5 months, which is normal in the services world.

Now, the PBX system can go online and offline on a daily basis, while being offline having its inbound calls directed to a company voicemail. This will save all the off-hours messages people may leave on the system and will also lower operational costs on a per day basis. If a company requires to have it’s PBX system up and running at all times, simply charge a bit more, no big deal.

In other words, the utilization of Amazon EC2 instances with proper AWS management and control can introduce a new business model – the Clouded PBX service. No more need to own large portions of data center realestate, no need to maintain large teams of IT and network personnel – just setup you AWS account, build your management system – and start earning cash. Look out Broadsoft, Asterisk and Amazon are coming – and a hail storm follows them.