How do you develop a successful open source business that lasts? Of the more than 250,000 open source projects on SourceForge, few will be successful at that goal. But one way they might think about how to do it is by doing it in reverse: What should an open source project or business not do?
The negative advice has existed since ancient times, from one religion to another. The Ten Commandments are for the most part written as what not to do. We can go for a short walk or drive around our neighborhood: road signs give us, in very short messages we can read while driving, negative advice. Ask Warren Buffett about finance. He’ll tell you “Rule #1 is ‘Don’t lose money,’ and Rule #2 is… ‘Don’t lose money’”.
Open source can also be better understood through negative advice. The latter can be back-tested and endure the test of time. By following a positive framework (but without falling into platonicity), one can slightly increase the chances of success. But by ignoring a negative one, you will most certainly fail.
First negative rule: Reflexivity
Don’t try to sell the same product you are giving away for the same use case.
As a business, open source is built on sequential sets of events. Free software and openness create an economy based on non-monetary transactions. Instead of money, people trade their time and, generally, their mind share in exchange for value. It is the Mind Share Market. As this happens, another economy takes shape that follows the more common path of transactions using money: the commercial market. In order for the model to work, what is free and paid must necessarily be complementary, therefore different. Differentiation is at the core of all open source businesses, and its opposite, reflexivity, is where the business tries to sell the same good that it is giving away for freei. Reflexivity is destructive, as it starves the provider and prevents the business from developing financiallyi.
Second negative rule: Coercion
Artificial fences are self-defeating.
One of the key reasons customers choose open source is freedom. Coercion is the opposite and relies on forcing third parties to behave in a certain way. At its roots, open source exists because customers do not want to be forced. The practice is hence self-defeating, even if it can work on the commercial market in the short run. Coercion is viral: it can over time tarnish the broad perception of open source as a deceiving scheme and may invite others to do so if temporarily successful. Barriers to entry and exit are necessary, but in a Peter Drucker style that seeks customer respect.
Let others deal with legally acceptable deception.
Third negative rule: Isolationism
What works in some contexts doesn’t work in open source.
Ecosystems thrive on extensibility and die of bureaucracy. The ability to access code, to re-distribute it in certain scenarios, and to enable interactions with other components gives open source an advantage not readily available in many business other models. Hundreds of thousands of engineers (potentially one day, billions of people) working together and contributing value can outcompete a large corporation with the same number of engineers on its payrollii. But for this to happen, collaboration must be extremely simple. Observe technologies like Linux, Firefox, WordPress, MySQL, Android or Wikipedia: they make it easy for others to extend their platforms from the periphery to the core; almost invasively. Isolationism blocks collaboration, partnerships, application programming interfaces (APIs), and defeats the purpose of being open.
Fourth negative rule: The salary addiction
Don’t do anything only for money—especially open source.
The last capital mistake requires some context. There are situations where a job and a salary must take absolute precedence over purpose. A job may be “just a job” to support a family.
In other situations people end up in roles they didn’t have to accept, but did so only for financial reasons. Phoniness is the last capital mistake of open source: it is not only immoral, but often counterproductive. People with a sense of purpose would do what they do for free, regardless of incentive. The latter exists, but cannot be the primary driver of action. Matt Mullenweg likes to say that Code is Poetryiii. Poetry is not created on a mechanical assembly line. Passion does not always translate into business momentum. Revenues do matter. But if you see open source as only business you will never understand it.
i. Even Wikipedia, a nonprofit with nothing for sale, does not give everything away. It retains its brand, infrastructure and ad space (used today for donations).
ii. This applies to code and to any other value generation and collaborative work; you are reading this article on opensource.com.
iii. Tagline of the open source CMS Wordpress