Hire Open Source Developers -- or Partner With Them?

Monday Mar 9th 2009 by Matt Hartley
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For the many unpaid open source developers, here’s a better business model.

Everywhere we turn these days, we see evidence of open source developers trading their time and hard work for little more than the hope of benefiting the ever-growing open source community.

While there are many companies world-wide enjoying the benefits of a number of Linux and open source products, there are instances where creating sustainable employment for these talented individuals is problematic at best.

Then I came across the The Development Cloud. This is a company that has found it mutually beneficial to share fifty percent of its profit – which is derived from closed source software – to reward developers of associated open source software projects. (See details here.) I think this is fantastic.

While some FOSS purists will undoubtedly squirm at the idea of closed source software funding open source efforts, the fact remains that this funding rewards the hard work of individuals creating open source software. So despite any perceived controversy, I see this as a positive rather than a negative outcome.

Hired vs partnership?

In a perfect world, I would love to see open source developers working together in orchestrated harmony to make modern open source software available to all who wish to use it. And to a large extent, some variation of this has in fact happened, in part due to sponsorships and grants, in addition to those simply volunteering their time.

In other situations, companies that utilize specific open source software have opted to hire open source developers themselves in order to be sure that their own aims remain intact during the growth of their own businesses.

But what about new businesses that cannot afford to support development teams out of the box? Sure, they can try to create an ecosystem that provides a compelling reason to volunteer. Yet in the end, this still leaves the company to profit while the those who worked hard volunteering are left wondering if their work is really being recognized.

These problems, then, seem to lead naturally to the idea of companies opting to partner with developers for a share of the profits generated, instead of a typical paycheck. I see three big advantages to this over the typical “hoping to get hired” model many open source developers seem to work toward.

  1. Free enterprise at its best. Not only does this structure allow volunteers to potentially earn while they learn, it ensures that they’ll not bankrupt the company during the development process of the given software. In short, nothing is spent on wages before the product goes to market.
  2. A flat rate income now, or the opportunity to share something substantial later. With the exception of open source software offered with a dual license in place, most of the time the software is just given away. Yet there are instances where the software requires support, which translates into revenue. This means if the software is used in an enterprise environment, there is revenue available for the developer who wishes to support their product.
  3. Multiple projects being supported translates into plenty of work. As someone who does a lot of contract work himself, I see a real benefit to not being tied to one single company. It allows the person contracting their services to provide support for other projects as described above with other non-competing companies.

Software as a service - the missing ingredient

Many open source applications come into existence out of need as seen by those who develop the software in question. Often this translates into software supported by individuals rather than by groups of developers working toward a common goal. To that end, these projects will likely remain hobby-based projects, not really suitable for any kind of support business. Not saying this would be impossible, it just seems unlikely.

Next Page: Developers as Partners

Then you have open source projects that demonstrate clear benefit to businesses, non-profits and self-employed individuals. Projects that meet these requirements are able to position themselves to become software as a service. This ability, to provide a definable service with open source software, is largely where I see the future of the industry.

The only upgrade I think I could make to the idea, is the creation of what I like to call the true open source business.

Open Source is more than just code, it’s a way of doing business

There is really nothing new about contemplating different open source business models. Over the years, the vast majority of them have revolved around the idea of building up services around free open source software.

But what about taking the same open source products, and building a business around them in such a way that anyone with the right skill set can enjoy the fruits of their non-development contributions?

Imagine building up a community based sales team that not only has a vested interest in promoting the product for free to casual users, but they also make a commission for each enterprise user that signs up under their assigned user number. This translates into the software being freely available, at the same time finding a means of sustainability in hitting enterprise users that might be interested in the software as a service.

Those who are dead-set against profiting from their efforts could have the charity option in which their commission could go to the charity of their choice. In theory, one could even build up charity drives by selling subscriptions to the software as a service. This provides the community surrounding the project with three great options:

  • Take the Mozilla Firefox approach, which promotes the software to end users out of the desire to see its adoption take full hold.
  • Help to sell the enterprise version of the product, but opt to donate the proceeds directly to a charity.
  • Help to sell the enterprise version of the product, but instead choose to earn income from your efforts.

Developers as partners

To those companies out there interested in hiring open source developers in hopes of attracting others to follow along and work on your project for next to nothing, consider the following. Hiring new employees is fine, but bringing new partners from the open source development community could very well bring in the kind of grass roots support your company is looking for.

Despite the fact that many open source projects have done wondrous things from mere volunteers, imagine the rewards to be had simply by empowering those volunteers with financial incentives that go beyond the one time only software bounty.

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