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Commercialising a community

Teenage developer Jamie Rumbelow is all for open source but argues that creating a side business surrounding a community can actually help it grow and flourish

The web is a remarkable industry, in that no other trade seems to have so many little cliques: various CMS users' groups, programming languages, design techniques and a plethora of others. There are masses of blogs, podcasts and forums. There are bundles of magazines, screencasts and slides. You can find any form of media imaginable dedicated to the craft of creating for the web.

And it amazes me that people don't use these groups to make money.

Don't get me wrong; I'm all for open source. I believe strongly in the mantras of sharing, developer philanthropy and openness. But that doesn't mean we have to utterly ignore the financial possibilities. I want to cry every time I see a potential revenue stream being wasted.

Money maker

Okay, I'm being overdramatic. Ignore the hyperbole. Even so, the web is – and should be – a capitalist's wet dream.

We only have to look vaguely in the direction of the CMS crowd to see the effectiveness and sustainability of the 'open source with icing on top' business model. Take a look at WooThemes; a totally bootstrapped company raking in seven-figure revenues each year. WooThemes design, implement and sell themes for the open source WordPress CMS platform; and they've proven it to be an immensely successful model.

Sidestepping WordPress, let's look at PeepCode. PeepCode create boutique instructional media – a flourishly term for screencasts and ebooks – on a variety of subjects. They started off by creating screencasts targeting Ruby on Rails developers and have expanded into a bunch of different web niches. They're a successful, profitable and expanding business.

The thing is, commercialisation is very rarely a truly bad thing. You only have to look at these companies to see how they're using their communities for the purpose of good, as well as to turn a profit. Commercial products encourage competition, which encourages innovation within a community. The revenue that comes from these products can help fund more development that pushes the core system / community forward.

And this is brilliant for everyone. The consumer (usually) gets a polished, tested and supported product. The creator is reimbursed for their hard work and is given an incentive to improve whatever it is they're basing their business on. The community gets choice and most importantly attention.

Providing balance

Open source works on the premise that people will devote their time to a product because they love it and want to support it. And this works, usually. But adding a commercial layer doesn't harm or spoil this premise; it augments it. In fact, creating a commercial community around a product can be one of the best things to help the community grow and florish.

Naturally, it requires a balance. Commercialisation, while a wonderful thing, can strangle a community, and entrepreneurs need to be careful not to bastardise their products.

Why not create freebies? Smaller products that take less time to make can not only help contribute back to the community but also provide a bunch of good marketing/PR for your commercial products. It's a win-win situation all round.

The last remaining problem is time. Creating polished, professional supported products is time consuming, and keeping up motivation can be challenging, especially if you're doing it during your few spare hours. Chances are you're creating these kinds of products through your day-to-day work with the community anyway. Instead of releasing them for free, why not invest a few more hours' work and release them as commercial products instead?

It only takes a small bit of time and a dash of motivation in order for you to create a product you can sell. If you love what you do, you should already be creating work you're proud of. If you're proud of your work, you might as well make some money from it. If it turns into a profitable business, fantastic. If it stays as a small side project, great, you've got some more beer money.

And who knows? You might end up changing the world.

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