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Startup Catalyst: Open Source Software

I’ll start out this post with a confession. I’ve been a big fan of open source since I administered my first FreeBSD server in 1993, and I’m a charter member of the FOSSLC community. Phew, I’ve finally gotten that off my chest. Now let me explain why I think that open source is the best thing that could have ever happened for the 2009 startup.

Firstly, some background. When you enter the market with your own shingle dangling in the breeze, you realise two things almost immediately; (1) there are a ton of opportunities out there and you really need to prioritise wisely. The ‘build vs. buy’ tradeoff becomes very real when every hour of yours can be allocated to paid consultancy, invested in strengthening (or laying the groundwork of) your business, donated to help others (mentorship and charity work), or spent with the family. Even if you can avoid the temptation of purchasing a million labour and time saving devices (which I am fortunately good at), you will need to automate aspects of your business to allow you to get things done. You need to spend ‘something’ in order to make money, whether it is time/effort, calling in favours or plunking down the cash.

Then you also have to grapple with the fact that when you’re going toe-to-toe in the marketplace with the likes of IBM, PriceWaterhouseCoopers or Google, you’re faced with both formidable brands and formidable technology. Fortunately, there are strategies available to deal with both.

Fighting the formidable brand problem involves finding an underserved (or neglected) market. It’s been done before. Sony beat out RCA by selling sucky walkmen to teenager (who finally could listen to their music without shocking their parents). Google beat out Yahoo by automating the search index creation, and making irrelevant (and a veritable white elephant) the incumbent hand-built directory. This strategy has been very comprehensively covered in The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth

A solution also exists for the formidable technology barrier; ideally, you are in working in a space where mature components are available that can get you part of the way there. This strategy has been described in Winning at New Products: Accelerating the Process from Idea to Launch, Third Edition. The crux of the matter is that the existence of building blocks, whether for your business, or the development of your product, can make your effort much more likely to succeed. These building blocks reduces risk of failures, whether it be that of your contact database being wiped out, or a key customer suing you for breach of contract, when your product fails on them.

Traditionally, these components have been sold by vendors for affordable rates, as price competition exists in a component based market. However, you have another choice nowadays, and that is access to open-source software (and even hardware if you like building phones, mobile devices and robots).

The open source solutions are usually as good as the commercial alternatives, and you can easily access either free support on forums, or have paid consultants available to help you out. There is no three months licensing/contracts dance, and once you have the software in place, it keeps improving as the community improves the software.

I use WordPress for my Blog, have 6 TikiWiki CMS set up to collaborate on different project and leverage the Wiki, forums, votings and file management capabilities. I am using Apache Nutch, Lucene, Hadoop, MySQL, Java and Eclipse for the search engine development, which easily saves me two years of development (and that is a conservative estimate). My primary platform is Ubuntu, which I’ve configured to suit my requirements. I author my documents in LaTeX and OpenOffice.

MY team creates our own logos and graphics via GIMP and Inkscape.

My conservative estimate is that this software is providing me over 100,000 dollars worth of value.

Now, its up to me and my colleagues to start with this seed which was essentially there for the taking, and realise our vision. There is no scope for excuses. The existence of big brands backed by big technology no longer has any relevance for us. By choosing open source, and selecting an underserved market, we’re just strategically out-maneuvered both competitive obstacles. It is time to reach for the brass rings.

Carpe Diem.

  1. LnddMiles
    July 21st, 2009 at 20:48 | #1

    Great post! I’ll subscribe right now wth my feedreader software!

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