Brussels / 2 & 3 February 2019


Consorting with Industry

Sustainability, FLOSS and building a local small business consortium

How can you become self-employed as a developer while building free software? In 2015, in a belief that FLOSS makes more economic and social sense, several of us, with a range of skillsets, worked to see where the boundaries are. Is it possible to scale beyond freelancing or contracting? Can you be a small, local, multifacted business and be paid to release code? What are the painful lessons...? And what really is a consortium anyway?

Based on learning from the Northern Ireland based Avata Industries members, this talk covers the reusable outcomes of building a small business consortium - one that is focused on using and creating open technology. In particular, it will focus on sustainability, building relationships, presenting an engaging free software business case, and the feasibility study commissioned to examine these.

When a call went out for small companies who could work on open source in public sector contracts, we saw little coordinated response in our local free software community. It became clear that having a FLOSS-focused job - putting food on the table - is not just about demand from FLOSS-enthusiastic customers. We need to have a coordinated means of supplying their needs. How can we quit our proprietary jobs, work on projects that inspire us, and increase the IP we can publicly release? Can we work on FLOSS projects as a main income, outside of specific big players?

We set out to answer this as systematically, and reproducibly, as possible - not solely freelancing or contracting, tied to pre-set IP requirements, but looking at the IP-based business landscape and thinking how we could structure differently to compete. Crucially, we did not start out with an exclusive project to fund or progress, but took free and open source software as our theme, and worked from there. Nearly three years later, this talk will tell the tale of that journey, finding a space to experiment with FLOSS business models, and how that can be replicated. This has taught us a lot about local business, collaboration, code and community; how they interlink, providing an opportunity to have a sustainability in the largely proprietary world of small business.

Amazingly to us, focusing on FLOSS in a highly competitive development market, made us even more creative in business than in code, and forced us to innovate faster in our business architecture than our software architecture. If only we had known when we started what we know now... and so, in the spirit of open source, we are keen to discuss this with the wider community.

Key outcomes for becoming self-employed in FLOSS will be briefly explained:

  • open source is only one critical piece of an open technology jigsaw
  • variety of skillsets is essential, and open source facilitates this
  • using FLOSS philosophy in building up business relationships
  • the role of research & development
  • how we reach agreement on the balance between private, open and free with clients
  • where the limitations are in all of this

This session will touch on working with non-technical users, in companies big and small, to meet their needs and keep ourselves going. It will show how we are aiming to support others in taking the same steps - in reusable template documents, R&D oucomes, lessons learned, and building a roadmap ahead.

From a case study perspective, this will reference OurRagingPlanet, a schools-focused tool teaching natural disaster impact; Lintol, an open data validation platform; and The Data Times, a data discovery platform for community journalist - all works in progress.

Finally, realistic alterations to the funding landscape will be discussed, to help existing projects become more sustainable, to streamline FLOSS support from local industry, and to improve the software ecosystem for all involved.


Photo of Phil Weir Phil Weir