Crowdfunding & Open Source: Better Together

A couple of decades ago, open source software was the domain of a small group of activist developers and computer scientists. By and large, they fancied themselves revolutionaries, fighting back against a system of faceless, greedy, corporate monoliths and their closed, proprietary technology. (If you haven’t seen the movie “Revolution OS”, we highly recommend it.) Today, open source software can be found in the boardrooms and servers of those very same corporate monoliths. In fact, entirely new monoliths have been built on the foundations laid by open source. Open source has become ubiquitous to a degree that it is a de facto standard for a lot of IT infrastructure, including the internet itself. There’s a reason for that, of course.

Open source brings a lot of advantages to the table, and even the largest companies have figured that out. But what can it do for Crowd Supply’s creators?

  • Cost benefits: open source projects benefit from having lots of engaged volunteers working on them. This is a particular benefit to small, start-up organizations who can’t maintain large payrolls.
  • Quality benefits: all of those volunteers represent a lot of brains and eyeballs who are looking at the project and thinking about how to make it better, faster, more reliable, and more powerful. Open source is a force multiplier.
  • Flexibility benefits: open source tends to not get locked into a given platform or vendor. It can be ported, branched, and revised for other platforms or standards by anyone with access to it. It’s also easier and faster to put out patches and fixes and prototypes can be iterated more rapidly.
  • Exposure benefits: By definition, Open Source projects have a community around them. That community can go on to become both your customers and your evangelists. Contributors are personally invested in the success of the project, and they will work to help it succeed.
  • Security and safety benefits: Unlike closed, proprietary projects, it’s much easier to see and know how secure and bug-free a project is when it is open and available. Open source projects are much easier to audit and review, so vulnerabilities are easier to spot and faster to fix.
  • Credibility: ongoing, broad-based peer review means that open source projects are less likely to suffer from marketing hyperbole and unresolved, unreported bugs and issues.
  • Market validation: open source projects can serve as a good indicator of the health and size of a market even before a project launches a campaign. Contributors will let you know what they like and don’t like, and the level of engagement can be a bellwether of how likely the project is to gain widespread acceptance.

These benefits hold true for both open source software and it’s younger cousin, open hardware. Projects that are open benefit their creators and their consumers alike.

Why Not?

At this point, some creators might be saying “not so fast, surely there are downsides to making a project open.” That’s true, but they may not be what you think they are.

One objection we hear frequently from creators is “won’t my idea get stolen?” The answer to that is almost certainly not. To begin with, generally speaking ideas are easy to come up with and ubiquitous; what gives an idea value is the time and effort put into implementing it. Until an idea comes to fruition and succeeds, no one is likely to care about it. Developing, manufacturing, and marketing a project is a non-trivial task. And once you’ve established market dominance, it matters far less what others try to do with your concepts. In the unlikely event that your idea really is something steal-able (say, the formula for limitless energy from Portland rain), then crowdfunding is not the direction you should go. It’s also possible to only make a project open source after the campaign funds, but we don’t encourage that since it is far less effective at building community and providing market validation. We should add that after working with hundreds of creators, we have never gotten any report of an idea from a Crowd Supply project getting stolen.

Another, less common, objection is that open sourcing something is a hassle and will take up a bunch of valuable time. While it's true that building and cultivating a community of contributors requires some time up front, the benefits of having an involved community will quickly pay that investment back. Besides, for any crowdfunded project, you need to spend time building a community anyway. With open source, your community is more than a revenue source, it’s also your source for troubleshooting, help with coding, designing, and testing, and cheerleading (don't underestimate the value of this). We should also note that with open source hardware projects in particular, the initial community tends to be a small group of committed individuals that doesn’t really grow until after the project is funded and out in the wild for a while.

Lastly, a few people persist in believing that open source projects are lower in quality than standard, commercial offerings. This simply isn't true. Like anything humans produce, there are high quality and low quality open source projects. But there is nothing inherent to open source that makes it produce low quality projects. In fact, one can argue that because there are many brains working on a given project, and the people who have those brains are personally committed to the project, that there is more potential for a high quality product to come out of an open source process. For example, open source software is usually updated very rapidly when technology changes, often much more so than monolithic commercial titles.

In the end, for course, it's up to you whether or not to open source your project. But we strongly encourage you to do it. In our experience, it's the best way to make a good project, great.