Business Leaders, Open Source and free Pi

I spent last night at a networking event organised by the Business Leaders Network on the subject of Open Source Business Models – this isn’t the usual sort of event I attend, being held in a very posh law firm’s offices overlooking the Thames and with some fellow attendees from venture capital firms and investment banks. Although the panel included speakers from Canonical, Rackspace and the Raspberry Pi foundation (the gently amusing Jack Lang, a Cambridge luminary who I could have happily listened to for the full hour) the theme was generally non-technical.

Questions from the floor (and via Twitter) showed that many outside the technical sector (and probably a few within it) are still bemused at how one can build a thriving business on open source, when the panel admitted that it can involve making your intellectual property available to your competitors, giving your product away for nothing and investing heavily in community building. One of the most interesting responses from the panel indicated that an open source entrant to an existing market can shrink that market by 40-50% – a venture capitalist I spoke to afterwards couldn’t understand why this can be a positive thing: however if a market is dominated by big players selling overpriced solutions, some disruptive deflation can re-shape the market considerably: this is certainly what we’ve seen in the search sector recently, and investment in the right place and time can still reap considerable rewards (consider Elasticsearch‘s recent funding).

The panel also made the point that a key part of open source success is investment in people – both within a business and in the wider community. Another question about what an open source business is actually selling prompted a range of answers: a brand, peach of mind, happiness, experience, platform were the answers given. It was clear that the discussion could have continued for a lot longer as the audience were keen to hear more, and the BLN may thus be running further open source themed events – the appetite for knowledge about open source business models outside the technical community is large.

Thanks to Mark Littlewood for organising such an interesting evening and particular thanks for the free Raspberry Pi – we have a cunning plan about what to do with it so watch this space!

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