Open Source: A Way of Life for Small Business

When you opened your small business, chances are you didn’t do it with profit solely in mind. Sure, making an earning was your end goal, but it wasn’t what fueled you to take a leap into small business, especially given the risk—according to the Small Business Administration, about one-third of businesses fail within the first two years. You envisioned a product or service that would not only change the lives of your clients and meet a certain demand, but it would satisfy your passion and life’s purpose. In a sense, you wanted to give back and share your craft without being bridled by corporate red tape and bureaucracy. You wanted to do it your way.

Whether you know it or not, this philosophy is the open source way of life. It’s what we believe in, and it’s what we’ve successfully built our own small business on. Here’s why it works.

What is Open-Source?

Every small business needs software and technologies to remain afloat; it helps them communicate and build relationships with the clientele they serve or are looking to serve. Put simply, they can’t survive without it, and neither can you. You need these tools to relay your core message and services to clients and potential clients, but more importantly, you need them to retain and expand your client base. You also need to understand how your efforts are working so you can make adjustments accordingly.

If you are like a lot of businesses, you use software such as Microsoft Office, McAfee VirsuScan, Quickbooks, and the Adobe suite (e.g., Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign) to manage your finances, distribute your message and list of services online, protect your passwords and computer from pesky viruses, and create documents, spreadsheets and presentations. You probably even use a content management system to build and maintain your site, as well as web analytics software to understand how your site is performing and being utilized by your users.

Valuable yes, but all of these labors are locked into closed source software that can be costly and tie your hands, when as a business-minded owner, you need to have low overhead costs and tools that will adapt to your ever-changing business and clientele. This is why open-source technologies are much more advantageous.

Open-source software contains source code which is free and publicly accessible. This means it’s easily shared and modified. The source code within it can be analyzed, changed, improved, and redistributed by anyone, but this doesn’t mean it lacks security. Those involved in the creation and maintenance of open-source technologies are often programmers, many of whom are hired by and work for large corporations that suppress their ability to create because the software must be used in a certain way and cannot be shared or built upon by other great minds.

Open-source software gives them an outlet to, like you, pursue their passion and give back to a community at large. Programmers can improve programs by adding features and ironing out kinks—they are masterful technicians who see this work as art. In fact, most open-source projects have a committed, collaborative group that monitors and guides the heart of the software, ensuring new features are developed, bugs are corrected, and supporting documentation is up-to-date.

Benefits of Open-Source Software and Technologies

The possibilities of open-source software and technologies are practically endless, but there are some key aspects that make it prime for small businesses like yours.

1. No Large Overhead Cost

Save on heavy subscription fees. Just to access the Adobe Cloud Suite, you would spend $600 per year, and this does not even account for any other closed-source programs or technologies you may need. Open-source projects are typically free or, at the very least, are a fraction of the cost—and they come with a host of other benefits close-source software does not offer.

2. Control

You opened your business because you wanted control, and open-source software gives you exactly that. You can canvass source codes to see whether they are doing anything you don’t want and change those portions of the code. If you don’t know how to modify them, there is likely someone out there to help if you ask.

3. Flexibility

Programmers and developers understand that the majority of small business owners don’t understand development, and so they, as a public service, mold and groom software to meet the needs of a large variety of people. Closed-source technologies lack this flexibility, forcing many small businesses, and businesses in general, to conform to a marketing strategy or website interface unsuitable for their needs. Rigidity is produced by the architecture of the IT infrastructure modules; meaning, if your company changes over time, the platform’s flexibility is not likely to accommodate.

4. Community-Minded

Open-source software and technologies encourage a shared community approach to developing, extending, and patching software. Closed software has a proprietary outlook, where only the person, team, or organization who created it maintains exclusive control. Only the original authors can legally copy, analyze and amend the software. And if you noticed the agreement you had to comply to, you waived your right to do anything the software’s authors have not pointedly authorized.

5. Security and Stability

Knowledge is always shared, so that software never perishes. With closed-source technologies, if the company dies or decides to abandon a product or discontinue support for a product, the data and resources you’ve invested in the platform hit a wall and you are unable to move forward—you lose support, software updates and bugs cannot be corrected. Open-source software is frequently updated and upgraded, often more quickly than their counterpart. And should the original authors miss something in the code, anyone who spots these errors can correct or omit them without having to get approval or, most often than not, reach out to the software company’s support staff in hopes they will amend the issues.

6. Transparency 

Because the source code for open-source software is publicly distributed, everything is out in the open, including the program’s missteps and shortcomings. It is not viewed by the community as ineptitude, rather the community understands short sightedness occurs with any program, and they instead work together to improve its quality and allow that quality to continue to be enhanced.

Not tech savvy? Even if you don’t have programming experience, there is a large and well-founded community behind the open-source program to help you make enhancements and alter the platform to fit your needs. For practically any feature you can conjure up, there is someone in the open-source community willing to create and/or donate time to help with the product. They understand everyone’s degree of involvement dictates the success of the project. For this reason, you are supported from beginning to end, with live support chats, wikis, newsgroups, forums, mailing lists, forges and quality documentation—and these services, like the software/program itself, are all free.

We must note however, there are some instances where programmers charge users for software services and support, but not for the software itself. Should this occur, you still save more time and money than with anything closed-sourced.

At Facet, we rely heavily on open-source technologies, and we are constantly on the hunt for new solutions to improve our workflow, help us offer better marketing services, and save our clients time.

How Open-Source Technologies Can Help Your Small Business

Open Source for Small Business

You may think you have to be a developer to enjoy the benefits of open-source technologies, but this isn’t the case. Yes, the truth is, if you have an IT department or someone who is even slightly knowledgeable about development, they can take lines of source code, from say Github, and apply it to your software, services, and products.

However, if you are a start-up or a small business with only a few employees, none of whom have IT or technical backgrounds, open-source software and technologies are such that you can still perform necessary tasks and make great use of the tools they provide, all while saving time and reducing your overhead costs.

Here’s what we mean: If you want to try marketing automation for your small business, but are turned off by the upfront and monthly costs of popular platforms such as HubSpot and Marketo, open-source marketing automation solutions like Mautic are free and can help you easily manage your contacts, create and maintain email marketing campaigns, govern social media marketing expeditions, and track data on all of those efforts. Open-source allows you to experiment and learn best practices with a real marketing automation platform without significant investment.

And let’s say you want to create or improve the look of your website, WordPress and Drupal are both well-known open-source content management systems. Their open source code offers developers incredible control over the look, feel and functionality of a website theme—allowing them to give your website the customization it needs to set you apart from your competitors.

We Built Our Own Foundation on Open-Source

Sites like our own, and many of the ones built for our clients, are Drupal websites. We find the customizability of this open-source CMS allows us to create engaging and interactive websites that highlight unique services and move their intended buyer personas down the funnel.  

For marketing automation, we use Mautic. As highlighted above, Mautic offers us all the functionality of a big-time marketing automation solution with little overhead. This has also worked well as a solution for some of our clients—especially those who have the need, but lack the budget, for a robust marketing automation platform.

Recently we used Singer, and as early alpha testers we built our first “tap” integration with Harvest. We are thrilled to leverage and contribute back to this awesome open-source project in an effort to further our core mission: help our clients waste less time. Singer allows us to centralize marketing metrics in our data warehouse, and turn those into custom reports for our clients—modeling, tracking and making sense of how their business touches their customer’s lives.

We are just one of the many who are taking advantage of all that open-source technologies have to offer—and so should you. Software company Black Duck conducted its annual report called Future of Open Source Survey. Of the 1,300 survey respondents—which included companies of various sizes in 64 countries—78 percent run a portion of their operations on open-source software. And that figure is expected to rise.

The Future of Open-Source

The survey conducted by Black Duck gives us insight into the future of open-source technologies. It revealed there is a dedicated community that actively seeks to stimulate innovation, render exponential value, and foster fellowship.

According to the survey:

  • 67 percent of respondents report actively encouraging developers to engage in and contribute to open-source projects.
  • 65 percent of companies are contributing to open-source projects.
  • One in three companies have a full-time resource dedicated to open-source projects.
  • 59 percent of respondents participate in open-source projects to gain competitive edge.

By investing time and energy into improving the tools that make business operations possible, you and other businesses directly reap the benefits of the contributors’ labor. And you can contribute too.

Contributing to an Open-Source Project

If you aren’t a developer, no worries, these are three easy non-code contributions you can make:

  1. Report bugs - This may be the simplest of all three. If you find a bug in an open-source program, report it. The more bugs that are reported, the more bugs that are fixed. And the more bugs fixed, the better the software. This indirect action is consequential.
  2. Write about open source - Blog posts about open source technologies makes other small businesses aware of its benefits.
  3. Share your expertise - If you use a particular open source technology and are savvy at using it, share your knowledge in forums and support chats. You may even find useful tips you were not privy to. 

Contributing to open-source technologies is not just a way to give back and learn new skills or improve them by working with more experienced developers, you can enhance your standing in the community and develop a business network.

Take Softwire, for example, who in December 2015 came in fourth out of 10,000 teams in a global competition called 24 Pull Requests. Softwire was one of the companies that made the most improvements to open source code that were accepted and incorporated into existing projects.

Imagine how much exposure this company received, and this was on a large scale. You don’t have to throw as much of your effort behind open-source tools, just a small investment of your time can make the difference.