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Startup diary: You'd be crazy not to tap into open-source software and communities



Screen test: Sponsoring individual projects is a great way to gain community respect and open the door to the open-source world

Screen test: Sponsoring individual projects is a great way to gain community respect and open the door to the open-source world

Screen test: Sponsoring individual projects is a great way to gain community respect and open the door to the open-source world

Last week in this diary I discussed our remote-working strategy. By adopting a company culture of remote and flexible work, we gain access to much larger pool of global talent. The trade-off is that you have to work harder to ensure team cohesion.

Making this work is not just about fancy tools like Slack, it's also about setting up transparent information flows, and embedding routine-driven processes. Have strong routines allows you to give staff greater autonomy since they already know what to do next most of the time. Lower the need for continuous management intervention is a big productivity win.

These strategies are something that I have adapted from the open-source software community, as they have proven very effective in allowing large numbers of distributed people who barely know each other to work together.

The most important borrowing is the idea of transparency - that everyone's work happens in the open, and anybody can review and verify it. Peer pressure is much stronger that management pressure.

By 'open-source software' I mean not only such famous examples as the Linux operating system that runs most of the world's websites, but also large swathes of system infrastructure that goes unseen but is essential internet 'plumbing'.

It's a strange hobby, as most open source is coded in software developers' spare time, but very valuable. The large US company RedHat (which bought one of the startups where I was CTO in the early days - RedHat now has a 60+ person office in Waterford) was recently acquired by IBM for $34bn. Yes, that's thirty-four billion dollars. You can make a lot of money as a plumber.

A technology startup can leverage this world of open-source software and it's hobbyists and communities. You'd be crazy not to. Think about it - those who choose to continue doing the same work as their day job when the get home after a long day are going to be some of the best people you can find. They care - a lot.

If you support this community, you will build up a reputation for being developer-friendly, and this will make recruiting much easier - and cheaper. The commission for hiring a single senior developer is pretty steep, normally a sizable fraction of first year salary. And if you get it right, you won't have to go searching, your developers will recommend you to their friends. That's a really big win, because great developers want to work with other great developers.

So how can a technology startup tap into this open-source world? By explicitly supporting it. Make sure your marketing materials and messaging acknowledges this world, the fact that it is probably the technology infrastructure that makes your business possible in the first place, and affords it the respect necessary.

You should think about sponsoring community events. Lots of great companies do this. You can provide meeting space to hold tech meetups. You can provide the beer and pizza. You can provide direct monetary sponsorship to the organisers.

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When it comes to larger events, you can sponsor them directly, especially the community conferences. It's not that expensive and does mark you out as a 'good' company. If you're ambitious, hold your own community conference. We did this in my last company, and it was hugely successful (and very stressful - don't just jump into this like we did - you'll lose money).

You can sponsor individual projects directly. This is a really great thing to do. It enables the 'maintainer', the key person building the project, to work on it full time.

In terms of gaining community respect, this is a big one.

Ask your developers what code frameworks and libraries you are using, and help those projects. You'll get your logo right in front of exactly the developers you're trying to hire.

Finally, the big one, just like Redhat and IBM, you can hire and pay for developers to work on open source. These do not have to be full-time positions, although many large companies do support full-time open source developers on staff.

More realistically, for a later-stage startup, you can allow your developers to work on open-source projects.

You can allow them to work both on their own time, and during work hours. You'll need to put in place policies to protect intellectual property, and clearly delineate boundaries, but the benefits are immense.

I've found, and continue to find, awesome developers, and can hire at competitive rates, simply because we make this possible.

In my last company we would often make fun of older competitors who were obsessed with owning every last line of code - "they're me lucky charms!" You can't build charming software without developers. A startup needs to hustle against larger competitors, and this is an easy win.

The question of intellectual property is not something you can dismiss easily. Your investors, rightfully, will expect you to protect the company's assets.

It makes no sense to give away your code to competitors. But there is another approach you can take. Open source is most successful when it is 'plumbing'. To build modern websites that can operate at scale, you need an awful lot of plumbing. This is one of the ways that Amazon Web Services makes money - by selling ready-made internet 'pipes'. As part of your software development process, your developers will naturally build many small utilities, generic frameworks, and reusable components. None of these will be specific to your business, or even to your industry. For example, a component displays a calendar on a webpage could never be considered 'secret sauce'. Use these materials to accelerate your recruiting efforts.

Get a senior developer to register a public profile for your organisation on github.com (the Facebook of developers), and publish some of your generic component as open source.

This is a signal to high-quality developers that you are a high-quality company that cares about developers.

You've shown that you're sophisticated when it comes to intellectual property, you've shown that your developers can enhance their own professional status, and you've shown that you can contribute back to the community in meaningful way. And you've put some money into it.

Social signals don't work unless they cause you some credible pain.

As a startup you might be wondering how you can afford all this activity. You can't - at first. You have to build up to the point where you have the resources to support it. But you can do a great deal of it even in the early stages.

Setting up a github.com account and publishing utility code is free. Buying beer for a meetup is pretty cheap. Just saying that you support open source on the 'Jobs' page of your website is a big deal - most companies don't. And just deciding to recognise and respect the open-source community? Common sense is free too.

(Newsletter update: 5,133 subscribers, open rate 16pc - the machine rolls on. Podcast update: 27 downloads last week with five episodes published. We're about to start a proper social media campaign for this, so we'll see how that works out.)

Richard Rodger is the founder of voxgig. He was co-founder of Waterford-based firm Nearform

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