What do we mean when we say “Umbraco”?

tagged with Community

Spoiler: we don’t always mean the CMS.

If you’re reading this article, there’s a high chance you're acquainted with Umbraco, but perhaps you're not fully aware of the nuance that comes with the phrase. So what exactly do we mean when we say “Umbraco”?

The term encompasses more than just a CMS; it embodies a rich, open-source ecosystem consisting of the Umbraco CMS, the vibrant Umbraco Community, and our custodian and driving force, Umbraco HQ. Let's delve into all things “Umbraco” to uncover the multifaceted meanings and explore the intriguing interplay between these components.

Hex wrenches of multiple sizes hanging on a wall, surrounded by other tools

Photo by Anton Savinov on Unsplash

“Unbrako” the contraption

Unbrako is the Danish name for an Allen key - that’s a “hex wrench” if you want the real name - and although to most of you reading this article this one is unlikely to cause any confusion Umbraco HQ say they do occasionally get Allen-key purchase requests. But that’s not really what this article is about!

“Umbraco” the CMS

According to Umbraco HQ (we’ll get onto that!):

“Umbraco is a CMS that’s fully extendable, highly customizable, and user-friendly.”

Umbraco CMS is the product all this “Umbraco” hangs off of. Created in 1999 by Niels Hartvig and open sourced in 2005, Umbraco has undergone significant transformations, evolving from a basic CMS to a sophisticated platform that powers websites of all sizes.

Umbraco has always (at least since I’ve been around) been pitched as “The Friendly CMS” which, as well as hinting at its user- and developer-friendliness and open-source nature, indicates how welcoming the community is. Community is a large part of what makes Umbraco, Umbraco. But it’s sometimes important to make the distinction between the two.

Photo by Umbraco HQ on Flickr

“Umbraco” the community

The first Codegarden in 2005 is our first indication of the beginnings of the Umbraco Community and it’s grown hugely from there. Communities often form around open source projects as people from across the world problem-solve and learn together to produce something that benefits themselves and other users, all with a shared philosophy for free (as in beer and as in speech) software. But I’ve heard Emma Burstow, Director of Developer Relations at Umbraco HQ, proudly state that people refer to Umbraco as “the one with the community”, which surely shows we have something special going on!

The Umbraco Community is also set apart from other software communities because of who make up our community. In a recent conversation with Carl Sargunar, he pointed out:

“Very unusually Umbraco isn’t a community of developers, it’s a community of people who use the platform”

The Umbraco Community is so much more than the occasional developer making the odd code contribution - it’s a lifestyle choice! And I only mean that partially as a joke! Codegarden, community-run conferences, unconferences, meetups, gaming sessions, social media, podcasts, a whole digital magazine, a federated social network instance, and even daily Wordle-sharing mean we’re never far away from our friends in the community.

Although largely developers, the community very actively includes agency owners, account and project managers, CMS administrators, end users and Umbraco HQ employees - the Umbraco Community is more about the lifestyle surrounding Umbraco than the code.

Repeat offenders contributors are acknowledged by Umbraco HQ through the MVP programme.

Umbraco community members call each other “Umbracians” (um-brak-ians or umb-raishe-ans).

MVPs and a couple of HQers on stage at Codegarden 2023, celebrating the announcements of the new MVPs

Repeat offenders are acknowledged by Umbraco HQ through the MVP programme. Photo by Umbraco HQ on Flickr.

“Umbraco” the company

Umbraco, Umbraco HQ, or just “HQ” is the name we use for the company, Umbraco A/S (and Umbraco, LLC in the US). HQ are the maintainers of the Umbraco CMS but also own the Umbraco commercial products Cloud, Heartcore, Forms, Commerce, Deploy, Workflow and UI Builder. They also monetize Umbraco through the sale of support plans.

HQ hires a developer relations team including developer advocates (also called developer avocados 🥑) whose role is to encourage and grow the community.

Members of staff at HQ are “HQers”.

Just to confuse things even more “HQ” can also refer to the physical office locations of Umbraco A/S and Umbraco, LLC.

A group photo of HQ employees from Codegarden 2022. They have their hands raised in the air and are smiling and cheering.

HQers at Codegarden 2022. Photo by Umbraco HQ on Flickr.

Where paths cross

Community recognition

It surprises me how often a community-run conference, meetup or package gets attributed to Umbraco HQ or assuming organisers, speakers or community teams members are paid for their efforts.

Although I consider open-source as part of my job (and I’m lucky enough to have an employer who agrees), even I pour more emotional and time effort into community contributions than I do into the rest of my day job (it’s hard to get too emotionally invested in C#, eh?). And I’m one of the lucky ones: many community members are dedicating evenings and weekends to make their contributions.

The community can benefit itself by acknowledging non-profit community effort. Acknowledgement and appreciation go a long way to making a contribution feel worthwhile.

But also, open source is work and employers who profit from the Umbraco CMS and community should do more to support their own employees’ contributions as well as sponsor open source packages and community events that directly benefit their business. Umbraco co-founder, community member and Director at Docker, Per Ploug, has written about this and his Codegarden talk is available to watch online.

A man holding a Captain America-style shield with an orange Umbraco logo in the centre.

Not all heroes wear capes, but this one does have a shield. Photo by Umbraco HQ on Flickr.

Money for “nothing”

Umbraco CMS, being open source, is free to anyone who wants to download and use it. This makes things difficult for open source maintainers, like Umbraco HQ, who need to sustain a business while giving their primary product away for free.

Since 2021 Umbraco HQ has been owned by Monterro, a growth investor. Open source maintenance is an unusual business model, and since the Monterro investment, we’ve seen a larger push for commercial offerings from Umbraco but there remains a huge focus on open-source offering and the community.

Traditionally, open source maintainers make money by providing services and Umbraco HQ is no different. HQ sell Umbraco Cloud as a SAAS offering along with additional premium packages and support. Although Umbraco tends to avoid these situations, this business model can result in priorities misaligning with the community.

Joe helping himself to sweets at Codegarden, next to a sign reading “Candy bar - Self-service”

Rumour has it people like free things. Photo by Umbraco HQ on Flickr.

Community as a Commodity

It’s sometimes important to attach a business case to the value of a community to ensure a business like Umbraco HQ can continue to invest in their communities. And as pointed out by Emma Burstow, businesses are finally starting to see value in community because

“People are less inclined to buy things from sales people and far more likely to buy things from people like them”.

However, the attitude of community members and their contributions being seen as commodities can be difficult for community members.

“Venture capitalists are actually using community activity as one of the metrics that they’re going to measure against before they acquire companies”

Contributions aren’t made to keep Umbraco HQ valuable and afloat, they’re made for the betterment of the open-source product, to encourage the progression of individuals within the community and to grow the community itself. But in doing so, contributors provide value to HQ. And although we all see value in Umbraco HQ doing well, a volunteer contribution benefiting a profitable company can feel uncomfortable.

It is important to comprehend that businesses understanding the value of community does mean that they can justify investing more time and money into fostering the community. And Umbraco HQ does put a lot of time and effort into fostering the Umbraco Community: Umbraco now has a dedicated developer relations team and fund community-run events. A strong community (as a commodity) can ensure their stewardship of the open source portions of the platform for many more years to come.

Two people in rabbit costumes holding up a board covered in “bats” including a jar of rubber bat toys, a model Batmobile, a padel racket and two ping-pong paddles.

Are bats on a board a “commodity”? Photo by Umbraco HQ on Flickr.


Stewardship” is an important word there. Umbraco HQ own the trademarks around the name Umbraco, but the CMS itself is in the public domain. Under the MIT License, people are free to “use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies” of Umbraco CMS. If Umbraco HQ ceased to be, or made a questionable product decision, the Umbraco CMS would likely continue to exist under a different name, possibly along with the community.

This has happened before, with the death of Umbraco 5, members of the community split off from Umbraco and created RebelCMS. The CMS was short-lived, with the last commit now almost 12 years ago, but it does show that it can be done.

This is an important thing to remember because, although it’s very unlikely to happen, it makes Umbraco HQ accountable to the community - they can’t do something strongly against what the community wants and need to listen to the community’s requests to keep their stewardship. This fact helps to ensure that community-effort, although benefiting Umbraco HQ, means that HQ’s profitability benefits the community, in a circular way.

Codegarden 2023 attendees sat at long tables, with hands raised in the air ready to play bingo!

Photo by Umbraco HQ on Flickr.

A delicate balance

I don’t mean for this article to cause any controversy, but believe the discussion around profitability and open source is an important one and needs to be had out in the open. The Umbraco CMS can continue to provide a valuable product for both Umbraco HQ and the Umbraco Community, but it’s a delicate balance and as a community we need to acknowledge where conflicts of interest may arise.

As contributors we should know who our contribution benefits, and ensure we’re getting enough value for ourselves from that interaction to prevent feeling cheated or burning out.

It’s also vital that Umbraco HQ continue to recognise the value of the community in steering the direction of the Umbraco CMS.

Together, we’ve build something great and are continuing to build something even better.