Open Source Moonlighters Need A Boost

Posted by Tracer on Apr 3, 2006 12:14 PM EDT; By SuperMike
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What FLOSS moonlighters with separate day jobs need are more friendly companies willing to help them bridge the gap by sharing tech support services. Recently, this can be done more cheaply than ever...

New Internet technologies can help get a tech support firm off the ground fast to assist FLOSS moonlighters. This is one area that really needs a lot of emphasis in the next decade of emerging democracies and rising economic need. Now, more than ever, this might be an actual possibility. If you believe in the free, libre, open source software (FLOSS) business model, which makes the bulk of its income from anything but selling the software, are you willing to make it a reality? Besides, the economics of some countries, especially emerging democracies, are such that they need the FLOSS business model to work, wherever it is used, because they could stand to depend on it more and more in the future. This intersection of need could be highly beneficial to many parties in this new movement.

Not all FLOSS startups have the same set of economic circumstances, yet may be sitting on the next big thing. Many, such as a recent survey in Italy have suggested, are struggling. For a one-man FLOSS startup trying to hold down a day job -- a moonlighter, essentially -- it's hard to bridge the gap between a new, budding project and a company large enough to make all its revenue completely off consulting, tech support, training, lectures, and books surrounding that project. If he's holding down a day job and moonlighting the whole operation, the tech support business model sometimes isn't well-suited for him to grow the business because he has too little time to invest in tech support and to improve the sourcecode and documentation for the project, as well as marketing it. He's going to need a boost. If he doesn't get that boost, then his project either may fizzle dimly for several years, or he may abandon it, or he may be forced to sell the software or do something unusual like offer two versions for awhile -- a free one that's somewhat crippled and doesn't have the docs, and a payware version that's got all the bells and whistles. Sometimes the cripplware/payware model, even if used briefly for a couple years until you go full-bore FLOSS because you can afford to do so, is not well-received by the Linux community. That's too bad, actually, because many fantastic ideas can pop up in these kinds of moonlight projects and never really get enough exposure to generate traction and profit incentive to grow it into a reality.

Here's the difference that you can potentially make. By having a corporation somewhere that manages an email and telephone tech support center for a variety of FLOSS projects, now moonlighters can leverage that. It can be a symbiotic relationship where the moonlighter pays nothing and yet can enroll and stand to make a good bit of money, just like the call/email center can make a good bit of money. As a call or email is paid for by a customer, the revenues can be divided after expenses. By offering this service, you now can generate more interest and trust in your project and your growth is now possible. It can help you bridge the gap until you're financially able to leave the day job and go full bore in the FLOSS model with your own consulting, tech support, book writing, and lecture services.

With the advent of payment services like PayPal, combined with a global PBX built on Asterisk that is hosted on the Internet, combined with Internet calling plans, now people from around the world can be hired and paid to support these moonlighters. Fairly cheaply, a team built on this kind of network can also utilize email, webinars, online training, surveys, online exams, IRC live chat, online forums, helpdesk tracking systems, bug tracking systems, and Internet calls to build a mentoring and tech support hierarchy beneath the expert moonlighter that started the project in the first place. The team could start small, such as a band of friends sitting in a college dorm room willing to make this happen. They could hire new workers and pay them just a trickle until the company takes off. Eventually it could really become something big, handling hundreds or thousands of FLOSS projects, employing workers from around the globe. Moreover, the exciting thing is that your company now gets an in-road with perhaps the next big thing. If your company also helps in steering venture capitalists towards these projects, you may stand to make a finder's fee or perhaps some early internal stock.

Now I've thought that it would be great if the project were a foundation, but it's obvious that the moonlighter can't just have "contributors" to do his tech support for him because of the level of risk and quality. You need a hired team, and this best fits under a corporation that hires, and unfortunately must fire, workers to deliver the best support possible. Unfortunately in many advanced countries, there are too many laws that can apply to such a company, putting too many restrictions upon it, burdening it, killing it with fees, costs, legal problems, and so on. Perhaps places like the UK and USA are not well suited for this kind of firm. What is needed is to place the company in a country that has friendlier laws and hire people from around the world, in all timezones, to support it. That is not to say that a company like that doesn't need a legal team, and doesn't need to spend a lot of money -- they will work a lot better if they have this, especially if later on they can hire international expertise. It's just that in a friendlier country, this is more easily achieved.

Now here's the catch from my perspective. I'm just the idea man. I don't have the cash or the time to start this. I live in a country with terribly restricted, difficult laws to start companies -- the USA. I also am one of the moonlighters in this case, working on a project of my own, still sitting at a separate day job, paying the bills from debts racked up when the dot bomb went off. All I can do is drop the note in the bottle and set it into the sea of the Internet, hoping it lands on a receptive shore. It's my way of sticking it to Microsoft, which throws too much of its weight around with too vast of a product line and is too deceptive, untrustworthy, and un-neighborly of a company to sit in the market next to other companies with different viewpoints. But given someone with the right circumstances to set up a center somewhere, they could stand to make a good amount of cash doing this. They could be out of reach from Microsoft's cold lawyer claws. And FLOSS moonlighters around the world could suddenly come out of hiding and actually begin to grow. You never know, the next big thing could be sitting out there and you might be able to tap into it.

» Read more about: Story Type: Editorial; Groups: Community, GNU, LXer

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