The Pitfalls of Open Sourcing Your Startup

31st May 2012
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Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) refers to software whose source code is freely available for modification and redistribution. Typically open source projects tend to have strong communities of programmers, developers and most importantly, uses backing them, and it is this community support which ultimately drives these initiatives to succeed. Open Source Software can be found virtually everywhere, from programming languages like Python, the Mozilla suite of applications, the Git version control system and the largest collaborative project in computer history, the Linux kernel.

On the surface, releasing the source code of your startup’s application/service to the general public might seem like a good way to advance one’s startup for a very low price, but in reality there exist a few pitfalls. As stated earlier, a startup’s strength lies in its community support, and open sourcing one’s startup right from its inception will mean that your progress is linked to the whims of the community. If the community around your projects begins to lose interest and dwindle, your startup will be in jeopardy. The developers not directly working for your company but contributing to your initiative may have different goals and objectives, and tightly controlling the direction of your startup will be extremely crucial in the first few months to ensure that it doesn’t lose focus. The community may disagree on a number of matters, such as scaling or implementing new features, and as owner of the project, it will be your job to mediate and resolve any such disagreements. Similarly, every time you decided to implement a major change, you will need to convince the community and gain their approval.

Moreover, since the code is open source, it is visible to all, which presents a potential threat that a competitor may use it to their advantage. If your startup requires confidentiality in its operations, for e.g. A financial or e-commerce startup, open sourcing the whole code is a bad idea as you are compromising on the security of your customers. (Even Mozilla, one of the biggest proponents of Open Source Software, does not release information about its security bugs for obvious reasons)Implementing deadlines may not be easy as many of the people working for you may be working remotely, on a volunteer basis. Things like documentation and translation are tasks which are not very popular with the community, and get people to take up these tasks will present a challenge as well.

Open Source can be suited very well to certain kinds of startups and can be a great way to popularize your idea early on. Having a community will only propel your initiative to greater heights, but it’s important to keep in mind some of the potential pitfalls. One needs to be really careful and if you manage to do that there's every possibility of making it big like a RedHat which brings home more than a billion in revenues. One can always open-source after launching, and there is a strong business model in place which is independent of code, it is worth going for.

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