Free ELNs are an accident waiting to happen

Every now and then we see “Free” ELNs pop up, make a bit of a splash on the forums and then quietly disappear from view.

I’ve always wondered what the business plan for these systems is; there seems to be a lot of optimism and little long-term thinking. I think some of it comes from looking at the numerous Internet-based services which are around with “Free” or “Freemium” models. A few people in their spare time use one of the amazing array of tools to quickly build a SaaS ELN, launch it, and see what happens.

Which is really great; we use a lot of those tools ourselves, and we have taken the Free approach when launching other products – but not an ELN.

Some of the reasons why I think free/freemium is not a viable platform for an ELN offering are:

  • Long term viability is important. Google Reader, Delicious and others are reminders of how this story can end, which is nicely summed up in this post on the Pinboard Blog.
  • The market is too niche to generate the user numbers which would allow anything other than direct monetization to work. There wouldn’t be the traffic for advertising etc.
  • Most “free” business models involve selling or re-using the data in some way or another (“If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”). Which is a huge problem for information which should often be confidential.
  • There’s a lot of boring infrastructure stuff that goes into running an ELN safely which is too easy to “save” on. Paying means the vendor is accountable for backups etc.
  • The cheap way to do infrastructure is generally outsourcing to a “cloud” provider. Not knowing which country your data in is just the first of the problems that this brings.
  • Users need support, both in use but also in the decision making processes. I don’t know what revenue number you need to provide a decent support operation, but it has to be over $500/user/year.

I just don’t see how free ELNs will work out as a viable long term offering. I can see the attraction of Open Source ELNs and created one myself; but if you take a look around, most Open Source ELNs have fallen into inactivity (including mine!).

I’m not saying all ELNs should be charged for; we provide our PatentSafe ELN for free to teachers, and strongly discounted to startups and individuals. But those offerings are our way of getting smaller companies started, or “giving back” to education – underpinned by a strong and profitable business.

There’s a couple of interesting effects as well:

  • When people pay, they increase their expectations and feed them back to the author – who is motivated to make the product better.
  • Asking for money requires the supplier to align themselves with the market and pay attention to what’s really needed rather than what they think – and then to be able communicate the value back to the market. That’s hard, but very important for long term viability.

Broadly, Free ELNs are a disaster waiting to happen, and I’d strongly encourage people to avoid them. If your budget is genuinely too tight to be able to pay for an ELN, I’d suggest using Microsoft Office (or even OpenOffice!), or Evernote, or WordPress, or something. All of those solutions combine useful functionality with a viable business model.