Entrepreneurship for Engineers: Side Business or Full Time?
Around this time of year people often wonder about their career trajectories and think about goals for the new year. If you’re the creator and/or maintainer of an open source project, you might also be wondering if now is the time to make your part-time open source project a full-time job or continue working on it in your spare time.
Hearing from other entrepreneurs can be useful in making this kind of decision, but when asked how to determine if something is ripe to go from side hustle to business, the entrepreneurs I spoke with often responded with a version of, “I wish I knew.”
That’s because whether or not an open source project might be monetizable is one question, whereas whether or not a particular person is going to be able to pull off that shift — and whether that is the best career move at the time, for that person — is another entirely.
“It depends on what you want to do,” said Tobias Kunze, co-founder and CEO of Glasnostic, a cloud operations solutions company. “Do you have a cushy job and you just want something meaningful on the side? Or do you want to make it a bigger part of your life?”
The point is that pursuing an idea that is absolutely commercially viable isn’t necessarily the right choice for every individual. It depends on risk tolerance, how responsibilities and expenses you have, whether or not starting a business sounds like a thrill — or a nightmare.
Going from side hustle to business requires a huge mindset shift. Nonetheless, here are some things to think about.
What’s the Path to a Full-Time Business?
There’s often a tendency to think there’s only one “right” way to monetize an open source project, or that a venture-funded startup is the only route. That’s not true — and even founders who eventually do go that route don’t always do that first.
Selling consulting and/or services related to an open source project, or even just getting sponsorships from companies that depend on a project, is a way that many open source maintainers start out.
Though not everyone thinks this is a good idea.
Neil Cresswell, CEO and co-founder of Portainer, a service delivery platform for containerized applications, said that trying to monetize a free and open source software project with support or consulting isn’t a good plan. “This never works,” he said.
That’s because the type of engineers who generally adopt open source have the skills — or at least think they have the skills — to support themselves. The need to pay for support doesn’t usually come up until a project is used widely, and/or in production.
Can You Adjust Your Thinking?
Rather than monetizing your project by offering it in conjunction with consulting, Cresswell advocated making the open source project a flavor of your commercial offering, rather than having the commercial offering be a flavor of the open source project.
It seems like a subtle shift, but it’s a major change in mindset from the maintainer/founder point of view because it forces the maintainer/founder to focus on the commercial product first, rather than the open source project.
Kunze echoed this point, saying that he fundamentally thinks that open source projects have become, in most situations, a marketing initiative that companies launch and maintain to reach some kind of strategic goal (one of which is selling a commercial flavor of that open source project).
Can This Open Source Project Scale?
Not all projects are going to be easy to commercialize, and before taking the leap it’s important to be clear on what your project’s prospects look like.
How close is it to mission-critical capabilities for users? Is it a must-have or a nice-to-have for users? Is it most useful in production environments or is a tool used by individual developers that doesn’t make it into production? All of those factors help determine how easy it will be to commercialize the project.
“There are so many open source projects that are used heavily in businesses, such as OpenFaaS, that struggle to get any kind of commercial compensation,” Cresswell said. So just seeing a lot of downloads or uptick in stars isn’t enough to base your decision on.
Is Now the Time to Launch a Business?
Let’s say you’re pretty confident that you want to make your open source project a full-time business. Is now the time? “Once you see sufficient evidence of uptake of your product in commercial settings, and you know why they are using your product, then that is the time to get serious,” said Cresswell.
This kind of feedback is one benefit of starting an open source company as opposed to just building a company based on ideas only. The community can be an important source of information and support, as well as reducing the friction to jumping into the business, Kunze said. And anything that reduces resistance, especially in the early days, is good.
Should You Just Keep Your Day Job?
Some people are pushed to start a company and see what happens, but there’s nothing inherently bad about wanting to keep working for a steady paycheck. It also doesn’t have to mean that you can’t dedicate a significant amount of time to an open source project.
There are many examples of maintainers whose work on the project is essentially sponsored by the company they work for, giving the maintainer free reign to work on the project and promote it, without having to worry about the challenges of entrepreneurship. Sometimes this work is supported by internal open source program offices.
So if your goal is to spend more time working on an open source project but entrepreneurship doesn’t sound appealing, there are other ways for open source to become a more integrated part of your career.