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Everyone complains about enterprise software. Yes, even the sexy new cloud variety. And yes, sometimes even us. So KnowledgeTree took a novel approach: Let those would-be whiney customers just recreate it. (Within reason, of course.)

The Raleigh, North Carolina-based company, which originally started in Cape Town, South Africa, peddles software for sales teams to manage and edit materials for pitches. Think things like slide decks and data sheets. But it also helps to provide feedback on what works and doesn’t work for pitches, giving recommendations as to what methods are helping teams to win new customers. It lets teams use social features like commenting and liking while planning a pitch. KnowledgeTree’s customers include Software AG and Miramax.

KnowledgeTree began as a free, open source Web program in 2006, when founder Daniel Chalef put a predecessor to the application online as an alternative to Microsoft SharePoint. While the product is no longer open sourced – it’s now software-as-a-service – the company seems to embrace its developer-friendly past.

Make no mistake, the company – which raised $4.75 million in its second round of funding last summer – is now a SaaS company, but Chalef is proud of the product’s ability to be adaptable. “It’s a flexible engine, customers are able to customize,” he says. “We’re no longer open source, but we still support open source tools.”

That’s a good thing. One of KnowledgeTree’s customers, Software AG, had its developers customize the platform to provide them more insight into how their pitches were working. One add-on to the platform the company created was a field akin to a win-loss column, where team members judged what documents worked and what didn’t. Other customers hacked the software to tailor it to their own teams.

Then all KnowledgeTree did was ask those companies how they were using the software, and they built those features into subsequent versions of the product.

Today, in the heyday of consumer Web and mobile apps, it might seem cutting edge for an enterprise company to give its customers that much freedom. After all, several of the major consumer platforms are hackable, and having an open source code is like the developer’s version of having a canvas and a paintbrush, especially for those building on top of social platforms. And the response to something like the Ouya console seems to give the open source narrative a consumer bent.

But open source actually started in the enterprise. Software like Linux, SugarCRM, MySQL and JBoss are all open source platforms. KnowledgeTree simply drew on that tradition to improve its SaaS product.

It’s not revolutionary for a company to ask its customers for feedback. That’s why every nondescript office in the country probably has a wooden suggestion box hanging on a wall somewhere. But it is significant that the product is at least malleable enough to be versatile, and that flexibility no doubt came from its open source heritage. When you allow smart developers to mess with your product – even just a little – sometimes pleasant surprises occur. That’s the beauty of having an open source mentality, even if your product no longer is.

[Image courtesy: Hash Milhan]