Open Web Vancouver 2009: Open Source Business
Liza Kindred of Lullabot (news, site) began her talk at the Open Web Vancouver conference on open source business with a video of Dr. Vandana Shiva discussing saving seeds to preserve the right of farmers to grow their crops the way they have for thousands of years. Dr. Shiva referred to this practice of preserving traditional knowledge as open seeds, and compared it to open source.

Her point was that by going into an open source business, you have the opportunity to do more than just make a profit. By playing well with others, you can do so much more.

Dr. Shiva discusses open seeds, traditional knowledge and open source.

Open Source and Ideas

Kindred isn't a technical person. She has an art and fashion background and came to the world of open source through joining Lullabot four years ago. Yet, her passion for the open source movement and what it can accomplish is palpable.

In case you somehow don't know, Lullabot is a company that does consulting and education around the Drupal (news, site) open source web content management system. With fourteen employees, Kindred considers it a kind of magic that they take free software and turn it into jobs with benefits that help support even more people through the employees' families.

She sees open source as a way for businesses to "espouse the qualities of openness and collaboration, and harness them into successful, modern business models."

Going Beyond Profit

One movement that excites her is the B Corporation. This entity is a new type of corporation that allows you to place multiple bottom lines into a corporate charter.

One of the bottom lines would be profit, like any corporation, but another could require, say, focusing on helping a village in Africa on an equal level with the mandate for making a profit. Whatever your cause, you can work it into this structure.

Having worked in the nonprofit world and the corporate world in the past, Kindred found both models lacking, and finds that she really likes this blend of the two. It allows you to make money -- we all have to eat -- plus the whole company feels enriched because they're also working for something bigger than themselves, something tangible beyond just money.

As proof that open businesses are a strong path to follow, Kindred asks everyone working for an open source company that's hired recently to raise their hands. Many hands in the room go up, even in the middle of economic hard times.

How Lullabot Does It

Lullabot succeeds by following a model of creating value, and then determining how to capture it. If you focus on this order then you can help grow the entire pie of opportunity, so that your piece and everyone else's piece gets bigger over time.

Kindred mentions Twitter as an example of a company that has created immense value without bothering to capture it as yet for a profit. As Kindred puts it, the situation "drives professional business people nuts."

Giving Away Value

One industry she cites that really gets this model is that of celebrity chefs. The big, well-known chefs are constantly doing cooking shows and other things where they basically give away their knowledge to their audience, and potentially to their own competitors in the process. Those who are most successful in this field are actually the ones who are best and giving it away.

What value does Lullabot create? Podcasts, Drupal books and articles and other resources on their site for starters. Of course, not all of these are free, but the company asks their employees to spend twenty hours a week on client time, and the rest of the week working on projects that mean something to them. These projects might be writing a book, acting as a Drupal release maintainer or otherwise contributing to the community.

Of course, Lullabot also got lucky in its timing. It was early enough to ride the wave of Drupal's growth. Kindred is even willing to take a little credit that maybe the thousands of people they've trained in Drupal helped to accelerate that growth.

Ultimately the company's aim is just to be the most kick ass Drupal company out there. If they can pull that off, then people want to contract and work with them.

Not having to worry about sales lets them focus on what they do best: helping organizations make the most out of Drupal.