This guest article was authored by Prosper Chikomo, an internet entrepreneur and author of Turning Iron into Gold: Golden Opportunities: How to Spot Them, Create Them, Make Money from Them, and How Not to Miss Them (Available on Amazon.com)
Several years ago I got my first taste of open source software and it has been one heck of a ride and learning all the way. When I started I knew no programming at all, and the best I could do was Frontpage and other “html” programs, but through delving inside open source software I started to learn a lot of things bit by bit and to expand my knowledge. I have benefited from using and studying open source software tremendously. I became a WordPress fan because I was able to easily change a lot of things in WordPress with no coding experience at all.
Free yet profitable
What impressed me about the “WordPress” project was how it was organized and how it was able to survive for so long offering a world-class product for free.
I found it fascinating that Automattic, the company behind WordPress is completely virtual, has employees scattered throughout the world, and makes millions of dollars. I loved the model of Automattic’s organization.
If you were ever a victim of Operation Murambatsvina you will understand why I loved the model, and why I consciously avoid brick-and-mortar business.
Although the Zimbabwean economy is now stable, several companies continue to close and the unemployment rate as we know it is still over 80%. While open source mostly refers to software, I believe it can also apply to economic development programmes and that such programmes can play a huge role.
In my case, I am in favour of a technology-based and export-led economic development programme (Programme) simply for reasons of higher value addition and the promise of higher paying jobs, unlike in agriculture and mining.
Open source elements
Here’s how I envisage it would work. Just like in open source software projects, people can volunteer to participate in the Programme, offering skills and time. Volunteers can participate or leave the programme at any time.
Unlike with open source software projects, in the case of an economic revival and development programme (Programme), a range of skills will have to be involved. That means volunteers can be from different sectors of the economy and different professions, and not just from a single profession e.g., software engineering.
Open source benefits
Working with WordPress, I started to understand code bit by bit and learned new skills in the process. And if you are a contributor to the project, you also get to learn from the WordPress community as well, which adds to your skills set.
The same will be true for an open source economic development programme, in which case anyone and from anywhere in the world, will be able to contribute and participate, and at different levels. Participants will be able to learn from other participants and the input of others.
The WordPress project produces WordPress software and other products like BuddyPress and Akismet.
The Programme, just like it is with WordPress, can also produce products and opportunities that community members and other participants can benefit from, even financially. You can volunteer (unpaid) but what the Programme produces or even the production process itself may benefit you or somebody else somehow, even financially.
The Programme can develop a technology businesses incubator (technology factory I call it) that is run and maintained by volunteers, resident start-ups, and/or paid employees, while providing funding for infrastructure. The Programme can also provide funding for resident businesses and non-resident businesses using money that is saved through volunteering etc…
(On non-resident start-ups, believe me, technology hubs or technology parks cannot accommodate all promising technology start-ups. Some start-ups are based in homes, in bedrooms and garages. I do not believe that those must be ignored, but rather, they should become non-resident Programme participating start-ups. They should get just as much support as technology-factory-based start-ups. So long as they are not hardware businesses that can be destroyed by Operation Murambatsvina Tadzoka Zvakare (Part 2))
Think of WordPress.com which is run by paid employees of a virtual company. It is free for anyone to use, but some things (upgrades) are paid for. Then there are third-party plugin and theme developers who code free and paid open source and proprietary plugins and themes for WordPress. Many even run businesses offering WordPress services.
Then think of WordPress.org, the home of the open source software, where unpaid volunteers contribute code and time.
Why volunteer to be part of an open source software development project?
Contributors who volunteer in the co-production of WordPress do have benefits, even though not financial, otherwise there would not be any contributors. Contributors volunteer in the production of WordPress for all sorts of reasons. Besides the ability to download a better WordPress product, some do it for recognition, like when your name is mentioned in the WordPress code for having contributed code. Prospective employers will be chaffed to read in your CV that you are one of the officially acknowledged WordPress contributors and they even find your name in the software.
Many contributing volunteers use their participation as a way to demonstrate their skills like when someone pastes a whole page of code in the WordPress community to fix something without getting paid for it. It will clearly show that the lady can code, and how well, judging by the quality of her code.
Some plugin and theme developers do it to show prospective employers their initiative, ability to work without supervision, and project management skills. This happens in many ways like when you develop your own theme or plugin, which you continuously update, how fast you upgrade your project to the latest WordPress release, and how fast you respond to bug fixes etc.
Telltale signs of your communications skills will also be easily verified. If you respond to questions from newbies or customers using only expletives, it will be hard for any recruiter to be convinced it was a one time or five time thing that will not happen in the company. Imagine what hiring you or such a person would do for the company.
Recruiters looking for WordPress skills can scrounge the WordPress community for potential employees. I can imagine how easy it is for Automattic to recruit that way. Visibly participating in the WordPress community can also show whether you can work as part of a team or not.
Others volunteer in the WordPress production effort to learn new skills while others do it to develop their skills. In the WordPress community, you can ask questions and get answers etc., developing your skills by learning new things.
Some do it for the love of it, like a hobby, for leisure, fun. Others do it to connect and network with other coders. Some non-coder entrepreneurs join the WordPress.org community to hunt expert coders they can hire for their WordPress projects or WordPress-based start-ups etc. The reasons are too many to mention.
What can an open source economic development programme offer a volunteer?
Well, since it has never been done before in the way I imagine it, just like WordPress.org, there are no guarantees, but I can imagine the networking potential, personal satisfaction, marketing opportunities, talent demonstration opportunities, learning opportunities, even money-making opportunities, and even funding opportunities (if you join the Programme’s “start-up stream”).
It all really depends at what level you will operate. For example, on the Facebook page, you will read the progress going on and even participate, just like you do with any of your favourite Facebook pages. There is the serious leisure element, the intellectual stimulation element from the hundreds of posts that will come in, and the usual jokes and opportunities to laugh that litter Facebook.
A career-marketer who volunteers to mentor start-ups in the areas of marketing may at the same time learn about starting and managing a start-up for example, thorugh mentoring the start-ups. A student on attachment or a volunteer may also learn how to start a technology business by studying start-ups that will be incubated and funded by the Programme.Start-ups can get marketing support, and mentorships, the whole shebang through non-financial contributions from volunteers.
The opportunities to network with like-minded people and even those with complementary skills will be many. The whole Programme will be a win-win entrepreneurial ecosystem that has unlimited potential. The opportunities that can arise are many.
In Zimbabwe, there are people who left formal jobs at the height of fuel shortages in 2002 to join the informal sector who have a 10-year “formal employment” gap. To get these people marketable in the formal sector, they can volunteer to work in the Programme at office level or other appropriate level and establish a recent work track record and references, get some experience, and make connections in their industry that can get them back into formal employment. The same will be true for a university student with no experience etc.
Just like with any open source software project, benefits are many and varied and depend on what you volunteer to do. I cannot mention all benefits. It is entirely up to you how you will benefit.
Can this work?
It depends what one calls a success of a national economic development programme that is not of the government, is not government-sponsored, and does not involve the government. As far as I’m concerned, if the Programme builds even one technology factory and nothing more, it would have more than succeeded. Everything else will be built on top of that. The only challenge I see is just building the infrastructure, everything else will be easy.
The more the merrier
From my studies in the last four months of 2012 I learnt that “large” open source projects with just 50 000 participants or less than 100 000 members are hardly successful and that those with 100 000 or more participants stand a greater chance of succeeding and having a meaningful impact. You can succeed with a ten-lady open source project, but there is a scale that gives the project momentum and a long life.
WordPress has many contributors and users and that is why it is a success. Because of its sheer size, even venture capitalists and potential acquirers knock on WordPress’s (Automattic’s) doors.
Now, if the Programme should succeed in getting the attention of venture capitalists throughout the world, and should venture capital start knocking on the Programmes’ doors, it would be a relief to start-ups of many young Zimbabweans who have no hope of ever getting venture capital at all at the moment.
If the Programme should command a huge following, it would have the clout to raise funding from investors, unlike if it has just 50 000 or 80 000 followers/participants. This means it would be in the best interests of potential beneficiaries and participants (e.g. start-ups, entrepreneurs, mentors, employees, volunteers etc.) to spread word about it, giving the Programme more muscle and ultimately for their own benefit. Another reason to volunteer.
Funding the programme
Whenever open source is mentioned, things like donations, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, and anything “crowd” start to visit one’s imagination. In my view, open source project funding does not have to mean “donor-dependent”. WordPress is open source and not donor-driven, yet it is self sustaining although it offers its software for free.
Funds for an open source economic development programme can be raised the same way traditional companies raise funds. That means the Programme can raise funds even from the stock market, competing against “for-profit” companies for investment.
I especially favour this approach because it holds the greatest promise. If you look around, there is more money in the for-profit circles than in the donor circles. The total amount of money that is donated throughout the world does not compare to the massive amount of capital that is available from stock markets and other “for-profit” sources.
You can only raise up to a certain amount from donors, and with conditions attached, unlike when you raise funds from the stock market. There is a reason why there is no single project that was crowdfunded to the tune of US$20 million when US$20 million is very heard of in “for-profit” circles.
On the stock markets, however, where there are big institutional investors like pension funds and asset management companies that have billions of dollars to invest, billions of dollars can be raised.
The money raised on the stock market can then be used to venture fund a lot of start-ups and a lot of activities. Ultimately, the stock market is the way to go. Listing on the stock exchange, even abroad, say in London, has the ultimate benefit of marketing the Programme and its activities to investors and raising the profile of the Programme.
Forces of gravity
WordPress is open source and because of its huge following, Automattic has managed to get venture capital funding and even the New York Times is now an investor in WordPress. Fortune 500 companies are now also doing business with Automattic and one of the reasons why is because of WordPress’ higher profile.
A huge open source economic development programme for Zimbabwe that has over 100 000 participants/contributors – and that does not have the participation of a government that is under sanctions – is certain to make noises and get the attention of the world, who will wait to see what it does and what comes out of it. (Or what will be done to it. (a laugh))
If the Programme should succeed in launching start-ups and a few noticeable world-class products self-funded, it would have set the stage for venture capital to flow into Zimbabwe. The world’s finances are attracted to places where big things are happening. Think Kenya, M-Pesa, and the rise of Kenya’s venture capital industry. You could also think of Silicon Valley, Silicon Roundabout, the Cambridge Phenomenon, and the rise of the venture capital industries associated with those places. Then obviously China which it is said is now the factory of the world.
Conclusion: You can be the development you want to see
You – yes you – can be the development you want to see in your country, in Africa, or anywhere.
According to legend passed on from generation to generation, and as said about Matt Mullenweg (the founder of WordPress.com) was not satisfied with b2/cafelog and the limited things it could do. He wanted a better blogging software, and he decided to fork WordPress out of it. That is how WordPress got its start. He became the change he wanted to see and he can see it. Today WordPress reportedly powers over half of the websites on the web.
I believe an open source and open access economic development programme will work. If open source software projects can create value, I don’t see how an open source economic development programme can fail to do so.