Redundant Army

We saw this article on ByteStart last week about the next wave of business entrepreneurs, or ‘Essentialpreneurs’ as the author Tim Latham dubs them. This group is typically characterised by redundancy and meagre prospects of re-employment, and in our view brings with it shedloads of business experience and a few firm ideas about what the new businesses will deliver, and how. We had already identified this group as we believe open source can make a significant contribution to the start-ups just waiting to happen. We termed this group The Redundant Army, and this is the article we wrote on the subject:

Changes to the UK economy over the next few years will inevitably mean massive job cuts and redundancy, freeing up a huge pool of talent to create new businesses. It’s unlikely this new wave will want to stick with the old ways of doing things: it will be looking for newer and better ways of working, a better work/life balance and a more human-friendly approach to business. Large faceless businesses that place little or no importance on the individual customer will find themselves competing with new and dynamic companies that leverage the democracy of the internet.

Kevin Dontenville, founder of OpenSure and with a history of corporate IT management and directorships, knows about balancing work and home life and for the last 15 years has been using Open Source Software to achieve that balance. “I started OpenSure because I think I understand how people starting out in a new venture feel. There is excitement and fear as all the pressures and risks of keeping the new venture alive become very real. At worst it can overwhelm you as you juggle all the disparate demands. I know that the Web or IT need not be one of those demands.”

The most common barrier to exploiting the web and its social and business benefits is the initial cost, both in time and money, particularly for non-technical users and new start-up companies. Anyone can have a website and that door to their business can be as easy to open as any other on the web, but a decent custom-built website with all the services a modern web 2.0 business needs is still quoted from web designers at £8,000-£12,000. That level of investment can be a daunting prospect, or simply a show-stopper. Cheap, cheerful and pseudo-‘free’ DIY solutions bragging about numbers of GB aren’t safe pairs of hands for new business owners sinking their redundancy money on a new venture.

Until recently, the only option to setting up business internet services involved buying into a product that tied an entire business to a software house more concerned with locking companies in to their model than servicing business needs. Now, however, every business has access to a wealth of tremendously powerful software which is free, efficient and flexible – the Open Source Software (OSS) that Kevin has used to such effect. The problem for most companies is that they don’t have the technical skills to get the full benefit of OSS, or the time to spend acquiring the requisite skills.

OSS is not some weird hippy movement but simply a different approach to the development of software, significantly one which requires no license fees. In many ways it pre-dates the proprietary (ie license-based) model most people are used to. Essentially, OSS gets the developer much closer to the user, ensuring the software meets every day real and practical needs. This can present the developers with a problem: how do they put food on the table when no one pays for the software? In the past this has been achieved in several ways: by donations, a commercial resale license, sponsorship, paid for support contracts or within academic or government projects.

Here OpenSure also sees it has a significant role in helping to bridge the gap between the communities of developers, users, and money. Kevin describes it as completing the circle, “I know there needs to be a way for open source projects to generate income for themselves, but some of the ways they have approached this have eroded the trust and link with their communities. Most developers want to code and develop software, they don’t want to run competing hosted services nor start charging for support to millions of users to the detriment of the development model.”

In order to support these vital developers, OpenSure will donate 35% of its profits to sponsor ongoing development to projects it uses. Offering financial and userbase support to projects means everyone keeps on doing what they do best: OpenSure hosts and manages the technology, the developers improve the software to meet users’ needs, and users get a high standard of free software plus a fully managed service for far less than most would spend on license fees alone. Brian Rixon, head of finance at OpenSure, says “In the future, we won’t stop at the 35%. We will also award finance and services to new startup projects and collaborate with other parties to help get larger initiatives to happen”.

Will it all pan out as we expect? Can a vision like OpenSure succeed in a spin- and marketing-led Web 2.0 world? Kevin Dontenville sums it up like this, “The deciding factor as to whether this will work is going to rest on the ability of OpenSure to deliver the great service we’re passionate about, as we deliberately have no proprietary license, secret file formats or lock-in contracts to tie customers to us. To paraphrase a saying, if you love your customers, set them free!”.

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