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I was the mentor of an up-and-coming middle management planner in an ASEAN country. Mentor is a huge word: I more or less make sure she keeps her professional goals in order and on track. A few weeks ago, an European firm keen to jump into the space reached out to her with the offer of a lifetime. She would be leading the first women-only agency. It would send a signal about how the company supports local talent and initiative. It could also be a unique opportunity to gain unique insight into the Burmese women behavior.

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She found the offer interesting. Later on, she found it odd. Over the days, the suspicion had a lot of ground. For the first year, possibly farther than that, she would not be able to hire any male talent. As well-intentioned as the Europeans might be, that would put her at a disadvantage. Limiting the talent pool not only sounds risky. It is unclear this trait would help when competing for new clients.

As an Open Source advocate, the proposition hit home. Is openness a way to put yourself at an unnecessary disadvantage? Or put another way: Are we expecting more from our customers just because our source is free?

Open means twice the effort, half the money

Ever heard of “the first million is the hardest”? I take that sentence in a very pragmatic, financial sense. Startups should have no other incentive: To generate and capture as much value as possible, as quick as possible. While headlines flood our feeds with news of companies reaching sky-high valuations and never turning a profit, the rest of us in the real world cannot sustain millions of free users at under-single-digits conversion rates; or ballooning acquisition costs.

The fact that Open Source is synonymous with free in the eyes of many (likely most) deserves attention. I’ve been there myself, using whatever piece of free software lets me fix a quick problem, then forgetting all about it. Nevermind I’m freely benefitting from the hard work of a team that promotes values I’m supposed to be backing. It’s probably no consolation for them that I am an annual Mozilla and Wikipedia donor.

Should entrepreneurs hope for the best from the Open Source community, even when even the ones aware of its importance do not feel the obligation to chip in? It’s the kind of question that takes a lifetime to respond. There are, however, examples worth considering:

  • An increasingly common practice is to achieve sustainability first, go open later. The latest prominent example came from BlazingSQL, developers of the database solution of the same, high-expectations name. It could be a similar play to that of Instructure, developers of the Canvas LMS, where releasing their code (part of it anyway) allowed inspection by bigger customers and partners, as a way to gain trust.
  • Another path, which can be seen complementary, is to brand the organization in terms of the quality of the support and the added value. We find plenty of examples in open source, including what could be argued as the most successful of all: RedHat.
Spoiler alert: IBM owns Red Hat now.
  • More closely, we have the Partnership programs from LMS vendors. Moodle and Totara have one, with seemingly great success. Sakai also has a similar model. Nothing, however, prevents the Partner’s brand to grow larger than the Open Source LMS, rendering the trademark licensing unnecessary. Small partners often use their Moodle or Totara certification as a way to upheld the quality of their technology and services. But as Moodlerooms or Remote-Learner shown, it is perfectly possible to translate the source of credibility away from the original brand.

To protect yourself from the perils of Open: Open yourself further?

I reunited with my “mentee” a couple of weeks later. She rejected the opportunity. Instead, she got a blank check. Kind of. She has the opportunity to design her own agency and pitch it to the big guys. They would do well to see it as more reasonable than their own. After all, she’s been a social leader since her teenage years. She has turned her place of privilege into a unique opportunity to be aware of the critical social issues faced by people at various types of risk in her country, minorities and women. If she wants to create a sustainable model that tackles the issues she’s been close to throughout her adult life, nobody who claims to be wanting to help should impose her any further restrictions.

Unfortunately, these are lessons not easy to assimilate when we talk about Open Source. For those of us who remain adamant that Openness in technology and data is worth defending, there are critical issues to address. Not the least of which: What is our possible best position to defend Open Source? And I mean one that takes financial considerations into account.

I do fear that in the midst of all of our grievances, we forget about the virtues of Open Source. Those that made us invested into it in the first place. And those that very well might hold the key for a new age of thinking about Open, especially as we approach the Industrial Revolution 4.0.

  • Open Source is about community: Efforts in building engaging discussions (including both people and media) should be considered as valuable as the actual code generated. It is undeniable that without code there is nothing to support. But code is but one aspect of a thriving community. Just as artists or political leaders, they thrive within invested masses.
  • Open Source is about unique problem solving: We economists are great at masterfully crafting explanations about how things are, but not at why they aren’t any other way. We can explain why free markets provide such a powerful organization method, but don’t do so well when the pesky reality hits with “asymmetries” and “imperfections.” I try to be frank, but likely losing on the rigorosity front, when I share my belief that Open Source communities could be a much more effective way to coordinate social problems and solutions. (I’m a big Alfred Chandler fan after all.) We live in a profit-seeking environment where not even Open Source advocates have incentives to be thoroughly cooperative with one another. Still, the hopeless romantic within me believes that, at the very least, the pursuit of higher-order goals can coexist with market competition.
  • Open Source is about coordinated sustainability: For many (even myself at the beginning), the economics of Open Source do not make sense. This is actually still true, if you stick to your first year lesson of microeconomics. But while the law of supply and demand still rules everything around us, our digital economy continues to put into question what those really are. The share of our spending going into basic sustenance needs continue to dwindle, and our willingness to pay for intellectual, emotional and social experiences keeps growing. It is time for Open Source technologies to migrate from a cost-cutting or functional message, and leverage their irreplaceable value as a communal experience.

In conclusion, Open Source companies need to be aware that the software they give away for free is not the product. Going back to the Red Hat case, there is a seemingly unsavory lesson to learn: By focusing too much on making your open source technology ubiquitous, you could end up “out-engineering yourself.”

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