February 03, 2005
Open Source and Entrepreneurship

A commenter asks:

Mitch, you are a big supporter of open source, but do you think you would reach the same position you are in today (in terms of money and credibility) if you were starting now in the software business embracing the open source model?
I do not mean to be antagonistic, I am truly curious of what your opinion is about this. I am sure this is a question people ask you a lot, and maybe you have written about this already.

This is a fair question, and it's not the first context in which it's come up. If VisiCalc, the original spreadsheet, had been patented, we couldn't have brought Lotus 1-2-3 to market. Had VisiCalc come to market in 1990, not 1980, it surely would have been. What would I then have done? Assuming I was interested in starting a business to make a lot of money, I used to say I would have sought a different opportunity.

In fact, though, I was motivated by a combination of factors: the desire to do a great product, to have it widely accepted, and to make enough money not to have to work for anyone else. I always had problems with authority, and concluded if I wanted to have food with my dinner, I needed to be my own employer. I didn't have the desire to build a big empire or become fabulously wealthy. I would have been ecstatically happy with a much smaller outcome at Lotus. I would have been even more happy had the competitive landscape then been more like it is becoming today. Open source levels the playing field and makes it more difficult for monopolists to triumph with technically inferior products which are also hard to use.

If I were starting today, do I think I would have had a shot at achieving financial independence? Yes. I look at today's entrepreneurs, people like Dave Sifry at Technorati and Ross Mayfield at Socialtext. Do they have a shot? Sure. So would I.

I also think that the role models for entrepreneurs today are broader and more socially enlightened. Had there been a wider menu of choices of who to emulate back when I was starting out, I might have pointed myself towards "social entrepreneurship", i.e., starting a company with a double bottom line of financial success and positive social impact.

Posted by mitch@osafoundation.org at February 03, 2005 09:31 AM

But isn't technorati / socialtext just moving the source code to the server side?

I applaud what they're doing, but I personally see them as closed source companies.

Eg: why aren't they releasing all their server code for free?

Mitch, you really have an opportunity to lead here because you're one of the few open source advocates that truly can bridge the divide.

Open source, and I hope you read this as it seems to be falling on deaf ears everywhere else, is an opportunity for the entrepeneur to subvert the monopolies and the distributors who think they are the ones with the power and can chose what is good and what is not.

GPL, CC is about creating a meritocracy. It is about creating more choice. It is *NOT* about giving everything away for free, regardless of what the twits in charge think.

When the Stallman's of the world chatter on about everything should be free, or the Lessig's go on about Free Culture and about reducing the power of Copyright -- they are committing the same crimes as the Monopolist.

They are reducing the size of the ecological pond, they are attacking the evolution of ideas. Rather than giving people more choice, they are simply trying to replace the existing choices with the decisions that they would make.

Copyright and intellectual property has its place. While the implementation may be a little problematic at times, the idea of rewarding the creator with a monopoly does not.

So lets stop all this nonsense about free this free that and let's do what we makes sense. Lets trumpet our ideas about the Creative Commons, lets show people the value of Open Source - but lets stop attacking anyone that disagrees with us.

Because who knows - they might be right in the end, and they should be given a chance to prove themselves. Let time and evolution decide. Not the strong opinions of a vocal minority.

Posted by: blaze [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 3, 2005 04:56 PM

Better examples of companies building business models around open source include mySQL, Sleepycat (Berkeley DB), and Sendmail. And then there are new companies like divmod (web mail and calendar), whose server code is open.

Entrepreneurs who are going after the biggest gains may not find open source attractive. As I tried to point out, society would benefit from a model of entrepreneurship that emrbaces a more balanced view of profit and making a positive difference. Open source, for these folks, is a bright new horizon.

Posted by: mitch@kapor.com [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 3, 2005 05:13 PM


Socialtext is a hybrid open source business model, similar to MySQL. We adopted and make significant contributions to Kwiki. We re-architected our hosted service and appliance offerings on top of the Kwiki core and they share the same plugin architecture. We foster choice and often turn customers towards the open source option when its a better fit. This model simply makes better strategic sense and will prove itself out in the long run.

To Mitch's point, at Socialtext, we are social entrepreneurs. A founding principle was to serve non-profit and academic markets with discounted rates and serve them with the same zeal we do all our fantastic customers. Even in the shorter term this makes business sense and is part of the reason we gained support from the Omidyar Network.


Posted by: Ross Mayfield [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 3, 2005 09:14 PM

The only thing I disagree with is with:

"Entrepreneurs who are going after the biggest gains may not find open source attractive"

I believe this is completely untrue. The future is all about IP supercharged by the viral power of open source software. IMO, if you are not finding open source attractive, then you are obsolete.

Unfortunately, we have elements in the faction that wish to chip away at the IP part, which completely boggles my mind.

How are we going to make money? Beg?

Notice the phrase "hybrid model". Do you see IBM giving up all of its IP? No.

My point being, and I believe we all agree with each other .. let's leave IP alone. In fact, lets show the world that we strongly believe in IP and I believe that they will give a lot more respect to our ideas on open source.

Posted by: blaze [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 3, 2005 11:01 PM

You don't have to be a software developer to "embrac[e] the open source model." Google, Yahoo and Amazon have all built proprietary advantages while embracing open source.

Posted by: Derek Scruggs [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 4, 2005 11:42 AM