What Does Open Mean For Business Today?

photo credit: O'Reilly - Oscon 2002

The advent of open source software has sparked a big debate in the global economy, an economy that is so used to secrecy for the sake of control. Open is a trend that is not going away. Open source software is created by volunteers from all over the world at no cost to the end users. These volunteers work for free because they need something, not because they see money in it(ie: http://zenfoc.us). They help themselves while helping others in the process.

But what does open mean for business today. Does open reduce the potential for profit(aka making a living)?

This is something I never thought I’d have to answer for myself. I always thought the answer was obvious(open is good for everyone), but when your livelihood is involved, the topic really hits home in a different way. If you support open source software that limits the amount of billable work you do for your customers, is it worth it? Won’t that make it harder to make a living?

For example, my Small Presence clients want a way to make simple changes to their websites themselves. It doesn’t make financial sense to pay someone $20 to change a sentence, does it? I don’t think so and neither do they. At the same time, I could develop a custom solution that forces my clients to use a system that I can charge money for. Ya it re-invents the wheel, but it’s custom and that takes time to create and, we all know, time is money.

Clearly,  using open source software greatly limits my ability to make money from re-inventing the wheel. So what good does it do for my business?

First of all, the fact that I can’t re-invent the wheel is a huge benefit. It makes me focus on skills that are more valuable to my clients, like knowing how to help them expand their online exposure without giving up a small fortune or understanding their needs and finding the right solutions. A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink is an excellent book that emphasizes the need to decommoditize your skills by tapping in to the emotionally in touch side of your brain(the right side). After all, programmers in India(left-brainers) can do almost anything for a fraction of the cost of what we 1st world workers can.

Second, having the standard foundation that open source software provides allows developers to build more advanced solutions in much less time. Rapid Application Development is all about reusing standard pieces to make a greater whole with less effort. This let’s your creativity shine since you don’t have to worry about all the boring logic that goes into making your ideas working solutions.

Last, using open source software really shows your sincere personal interest in your customers needs. You are lowering the initial investment for them while reducing the long-term maintenance costs of revising and adding to the solutions. You aren’t just nickel-and-diming them every chance you get. You are looking for ways to help them out. See a need, fill a need. This honesty(aka transparency) goes a long way in keeping your customers coming back for more. They have good reason to trust you.

Therefore, open means opportunity to differentiate your business from others. If you are stuck in the past of re-inventing the wheel for every client, then you are wasting valuable time developing real skills that will translate to real value, both for you and your customers.

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