A purple cow in our OSS paddock

A few years ago, I read a book that had a big impact on the way I thought about OSS and OSS product development. Funnily enough, the book had nothing to do with OSS or product development. It was a book about marketing – a subject that I wasn’t very familiar with at the time, but am now fascinated with.

And the book? Purple Cow by Seth Godin.
Purple Cow

The premise behind the book is that when we go on a trip into the countryside, we notice the first brown or black cows, but after a while we don’t pay attention to them anymore. The novelty has worn off and we filter them out. But if there was a purple cow, that would be remarkable. It would definitely stand out from all the other cows and be talked about. Seth promoted the concept of building something into your products that make them remarkable, worth talking about.

I recently heard an interview with Seth. Despite the book being launched in 2003, apparently he’s still asked on a regular basis whether idea X is a purple cow. His answer is always the same – “I don’t decide whether your idea is a purple cow. The market does.”

That one comment brought a whole new perspective to me. As hard as we might try to build something into our OSS products that create a word-of-mouth buzz, ultimately we don’t decide if it’s a purple cow concept. The market does.

So let me ask you a question. You’ve probably seen plenty of different OSS products over the years (I know I have). How many of them are so remarkable that you want to talk about them with your OSS colleagues, or even have a single feature that’s remarkable enough to discuss?

There are a lot of quite brilliant OSS products out there, but I would still classify almost all of them as brown cows. Brilliant in their own right, but unremarkable for their relative sameness to lots of others.

The two stand-out purple cows for me in recent times have been CROSS’ built-in data quality ranking and Moogsoft’s Incident Room model. But it’s not for me to decide. The market will ultimately decide whether these features are actual purple cows.

I’d love to hear about your most memorable OSS purple cows.

You may also be wondering how to go about developing your own purple OSS cow. Well I start by asking, “What are people complaining about?” or “What are our biggest issues?” That’s where the opportunities lie. Once discovering those issues, the challenge is solving the problem/s in an entirely different, but better, way. I figure that if people care enough to complain about those issues, then they’re sure to talk about any product that solves the problem for them.

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