What can you open source to create impactful and innovative communities? (Part 1):

Robots and open source will make most goods and services available for free or close to free. Or so are the predictions of authors like Kevin Kelly or Jeremy Rifkin.

Why? Because once there is an open source alternative of equal quality, the proprietary solutions will make no sense to be used. So most entrepreneurs will eventually default to sharing their ideas in open source.  

At first open source organisations like Linux, Red Hat, Canonical, WordPress, Arduino, Sparkfun or Adafruit were outliers. These were the first projects to make the most of some quirks of the economic behavior of the internet.

But little by little we’re seeing more companies from traditional industries starting to experiment with open source. 

Tesla open sourced its patents just a few years ago to get other car manufacturers to help them create an infrastructure of electric chargers that would make their electric cars more valuable to their users. 

Levi’s open sourced their innovative procedures to decrease wasted water from their production.

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon or Baidu are all open sourcing their hardware and software to get ecosystems involved in the maintenance and development of their tools and infrastructures.

TED open sourced its TEDx brand and event organization manuals to go from 22 years organizing a closed event that invited up to a thousand attendees to a media platform that’s viewed by billions of people.

Even Disney is open sourcing things as different as their software or their sustainable packaging.

But why are they doing it? Isn’t it going to cannibalize their own businesses?

The answer is simple, but counter-intuitive: They are sharing things in open source because the benefits of doing so are huge. 

The unfair advantages of openness are hard to realize because they seem indirect, but they can be spectacular whether you are a single entrepreneur or part of a large corporation:

  • Lower Costs for R&D: The community helps you fix your bugs, typos, or improve the current manufacturing processes you are developing
  • Better Products: A community of peers can help you create more features, detect bugs and improve it faster than you can on your own.
  • Less time to Market: When a community from another country wants to spread  your idea to their families and friends, they can translate and distribute your project and allow it to reach new markets much faster nearly for free.
  • Lower Costs for Support: Enabling a community of experts passionate about your mission to support newbies has another benefit: it lightens the responsibility on your shoulders and helps your power users build a great reputation in the eyes of the larger community.
  • Collaboration and Synergies: Making it possible for others to integrate themselves to your project makes it more valuable. Outsiders can create plugins, add-ons or use your data in new innovative ways that make your initial idea even more powerful. And this benefits everyone.
  • Ethical Bonus for the Brand: Allowing others to study, modify or even distribute your idea as they see fit, creates a lot of goodwill towards your brand among users, but also among the media. When Tesla or Microsoft have shared their patents, it created quite a ruckus in the press and blogs. 
  • Attract better employees: Allowing people to build on top of your idea enables you to see talented people who share their work on the internet, lowering the risk of hiring an untested prospect  

How can you beat that?

Below and in the second part of this article, we’ll see more examples of how these advantages have materialized for the projects that opened their assets.

Let’s move on to the next question that’s burning your tongue:

How can you make money if you give it away for free?

It’s great to be generous. But being generous is not a straight path to making money to feed yourself and your family.

So how does an open project can become profitable while giving its ideas away?

Unless you sell patent license, there’s a pretty simple answer to that: You just make money the same way you used to.

Whatever you sell now can still be sold if you go open source.

Here’s a matrix developed by Lars Zimmermann that shows all the possible business models open source allows, and as you can see, the way you make money now is probably covered there (unless you sell licenses and patents):

So it’s that simple. There are powerful advantages to going open and there are simple ways to make it financially sustainable.

But why should you consider it now?

Because there are 2 important risks of not sharing your ideas, tools and projects with others:

  1. The change you seek to create in the world will be developing at a much slower pace that you could if you got other ecosystems involved. And if you can’t spread the positive impact you want for the world, this not only weakens you, but it weakens us all. Want to create an industry changing idea or spread new ecological practice? Doing it with others is always going to beat doing it alone or just with your employees.
  2. And the cost of hiding or remaining secretive will become too high. Once your competition starts sharing their own ideas in the open, innovating and building it with its ecosystem, you’ll have to work that much harder to remain relevant, and many times, when a great open source alternative enters the market, it takes 50 to 80% of the market.

Are you tired of seeing your innovations not making the impact you’d like them to have? 

In this post and in the next one, I’ll be sharing 8 ideas you can share right now to gather a community that will help you create and spread your wild projects:

1 / Open your designs

The first thing you can open are designs or artistic creations you’ve created or that are not making you any money.

Logodust, is a project created by a graphic design agency. They had unused logo designs piling up on their hard drives and they decided to make them available to the world for free. Sharing these logos in open source got them a lot of press and traffic. People developing mvp’s and mockups are now reusing those logos and experiment their quality, and when they are ready to launch or want a custom logo, they can order it directly from Logodust.

OpenDesk has opened its furniture designs which anyone can study, adapt and print at home if they want to. Other designers can print it at their place if they have the materials and the machines for free. And those who want them built and customized can go to a fablab and pay them to get it done. The payment happens in the Opendesk platform, and the money is split between the platform, the fablab where the furniture is manufactured, and the designers who created the blueprints.

Unsplash started from a very small idea. Crew, a marketplace to help find and hire design talent, used the leftover pictures of a photo shoot they did for their website. They shared 10 of these pictures that were gathering dust in their hard-drives in the public domain, so anyone could reuse them for free on their commercial or personal projects. 

The idea spread pretty quickly and other photographers started gifting a photo to help the community and in turn they got to be seen and used by millions of people. Now Unsplash has over 850,000 free photographs, a community of 100,000+ photographers contributing to their project and have become the fastest growing stock photo platform with tens of millions of visitors every month.

They are now making money by creating partnerships with big brands. The brands commission Unsplash photographers to create photo campaigns around one of their product. And then they contribute these images back on Unsplash so anyone can use them freely. 

The brands find skillful photographers from worldwide locations. Photographers get a commissioned contract with a world-class brand. Creators get quality imagery to create with. And the brand and the photographers reach more people with their photography than ever before. A pretty powerful model for everyone.

Mark Rober has become a famous youtuber followed by millions of people by showing his over engineered solutions, like the Moving Dartboard or the world’s largest Nerf Gun. But what makes it even more compelling is that he shares the blueprints of his inventions in open source with the bill of materials and the shops where you can buy the pieces to recreate his wicked ideas. His inventions would be popular just by themselves, but referencing the online stores where people can buy the materials he used allows he to do affiliate marketing and earn a commission on the business he refers to these shops.


  • Make a list of all the unused designs or creations you have in your hard drives that you’re not using or selling and that could be used or sold by others.

2/ Share the Software you are using for yourself and that could be made a hundred times better with a community

WordPress went from a tiny project in the remote island of Corsica to becoming the dominant force that makes  60% of all CMSs, and 30% of the internet websites, becoming the de facto standard over closed, yet free options as Tumblr, Weebly, Blogger, Wix or Shopify.

Automattic, the company responsible for WordPress, makes over $50 million in revenue, and it has enabled its WordPress users and ecosystem of plugin or theme developers, hosting providers, agencies, freelancers and consultants specialized in building wordpress sites to create a $1 billion market.

Linux, the free and open-source software operating systems built around the Linux kernel, has seen an ecosystem of commercial companies grow around it:

  • SpaceX uses a special design of Linux in each of its rocket engines.
  • Gopro uses it to run its cameras
  • 97% of the world’s supercomputers run on Linux — including clusters used by NASA
  • Red Hat makes over $5 billion in revenue by selling the services they’ve build on top of Linux, and has recently been bought by IBM for $34 billion.
  • Cars use linux to power their software
  • The tiny $5 Raspberry Pi computer is also powered by Linux
  • And about 1,000 drone companies develop drone services that run on top of this operating system

So you could say that Linux has empowered others to create over $5 billion in market value in 2015 across different industries. This makes every company using it interested in the success of the open source project, and that’s why they support the foundation responsible of maintaining it with hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Bootstrap was created by two Twitter employees to create the company’s graphical blueprint, and then shared in open source. 

It has since become one of the most popular HTML, CSS, and JS library in the world. There are millions of developers using it for their own websites, and now Bootstrap has created a platform where it’s community can sell its ready-made designs for those who want to save time or who would rather buy an off the shelf theme in Bootstrap’s theme marketplace

Facebook, Google, Microsoft or Apple are shockingly some of the biggest open source actors. They’ve shared a number of software tools and frameworks like Tensorflow, React, Swift or thousands of patents in open source. Thanks to this move they’re all getting the support of thousands of developers to improve their own tools and identifying potential employees among the community that works with their tools.


  • Make a list of the software tools and frameworks that you have and on top of which others could detect bugs, build new features or use cases. Could these be good open source projects to help you develop better tools with an interested community, or attract better employees and prospects?

3 / Share your Hardware and outrun obsolescence faster than anyone else

Electronic hardware is an industry that evolves at an exponential rate, making previous years products obsolete pretty quickly. So many organisations, big and small, are sharing their hardware designs in public to get the community’s input on their changing needs, so they can always offer things people want, but also to gather a community of co-creators who build things they couldn’t think on their own.

Nathan Seidle, from Sparkfun, first started by reinventing some of the electronics he didn’t like, and sold them on an off-the-shelf e-commerce platform along with the entire documentation of his schematics in open source.  He shared his documentation around the hard bits because doing electronics is hard, and he had to overcome many pitfalls and barriers himself. So to make it easier for his audience, he would document what he learned in tutorial so that others could avoid the same potholes and save time and money.

Since Sparkfun’s designs can be easily copied by chinese knock-offs, doing things in the open can feel like a risk. But instead of relying on patents for protection, the company has used it as a nudge to keep innovating faster than other entrants in the field. “The open source model just forces us to innovate,” reports their Marketing Project Manager. “When we release something, we’ve got to be thinking about the next rev. We’re doing engineering and innovating and it’s what we want to be doing and what we do well.”

Following this open strategy has gotten Sparkfun to reach over $100 million in 2017.

OpenBCI is an open source brain-computer interface platform created by Joel Murphy and Conor Russomanno. Its boards can be used to measure and record electrical activity produced by the brain, muscles, and heart.

From the moment they opened their project, they’ve seen the community send them new ideas like a remote-controlled shark-shaped balloon that swims in the air, a drowsiness detection headset developed by a community member for his thesis and a few other incredible applications of their OpenBCI platform. 

Both founders are brain-interface engineers. But without open sourcing their interface they wouldn’t have been able to imagine and develop so many different valuable use cases on their own. This openly accessible library of community additions makes the OpenBCI board far more valuable to its users than if it stood on its own.

Facebook is also a big player in the open hardware space. They have open sourced their Oculus Virtual Reality hardware and their data center infrastructures through Open Compute. From networking switches to designs for servers, power systems, storage and cooling equipment, Open Compute invites everyone to both build a data center in Facebook’s image, but then to extend it and improve upon it. Companies like Microsoft, Rackspace or IO have embraced their approach and are contributing to Facebook’s efforts.

Facebook is not directly making money selling open hardware or related services like maintenance or support. But this strong foundation of open software and hardware helps them drive and evolve rapidly the infrastructure that sustains over $10 billion in annual revenue. Not a bad investment.


  • Make a list of the hardware designs you are developing. If you shared them with others, would they be able to improve them? Or to create new use cases you can’t imagine on your own? List those that would benefit from becoming open.

4/ Share the internal manuals & the brand you have so carefully developed

Sharing both your procedures or methodologies with your brand can have an exponential effect to the visibility, impact and trust your organisation is able to create on its own.

Once TED saw how millions of visitors where coming to see their free content, they started running out of new content to post. So they thought it would be a great idea to let others organize independent TED events wherever they were and create their own content they could reuse.

So they shared the guide on how to organize a TEDx event with things like “how to find and coach speakers, how to find sponsors, volunteers, venues” and so on…  and people around the world who believed in spreading powerful ideas started organizing their own events. 

The organizers not only got the handbook on how to pull it off, but they also got for free a recognized TEDx brand that would make it easier to attract both speakers and a public. 

In exchange for the free use of the TEDx brand, the independent organizers would have to release the content created at their events in a creative commons license so TED could post their talks on their platform and attract even more viewers and sponsors.

Opening the procedures and the TED brand to independent organizers has helped them:

  • Increase the events they can organize from 8 to over 2500 events per year
  • Increase the numbers of talks they could create from a dozen talks per year to thousands of talks they can post regularly on their media platform 
  • Increase the number of people they can attract to the ideas displayed at their events from 1000 people per year at their conferences to 720 million unique visitors per year through their website and events
  • And increasing the number of people going to their events and viewing their online talks has also increased their sponsorship deals and raised TED’s revenues from $4 to $60 million per year. 

So opening their procedures and brand has literally multiplied by 15x their revenues, their capacity to organize events by 300x, and the number of people reached by their ideas by 720,000x. Can you imagine the kind of impact you could generate opening your manuals and brand?

The Repair Café is another impressive example. Martine Postma created the Repair Café, a free and fun repair meeting organized by and for civilians on a voluntary basis where you can have a chat, a cup of coffee and as a reward you go home with an object which is no longer broken and can be used again.

People started asking her how to do it at their own cities. So she wrote a manual on how to start your own Repair Café that guides you through all the stages of its organization. From finding volunteers to selecting a venue, to creating a safe working environment, and so on…

The Repair Café’s handbook helped the event grow from a single location event to 1.622 events in 36 countries, a worldwide community far larger than the founder initially envisioned. Opening her manual has allowed her to go from fixing a few items on her own, to creating a movement that has saved over 300.000 products from the landfill.

Afforestt is an indian company that has developed a way to regrow forests 10 times faster than what’s possible with traditional techniques. Shubhendu Sharma, its founder, applies Toyota’s industrial processes systematizing the production of its cars to scale the growth of permacultural forests, which help make it possible to grow forests and regenerate animal habitats in two years instead of 20.

They shared their methodology in open source through a simple dropbox and it has made it possible to create more than 3,000 forests worldwide.


  • If you’re developing a worthy cause, make a list of the tutorials or internal manuals you’ve developed or you could develop. Would any of those be inspiring to others? And would that allow them to reproduce your results so they can spread your impact beyond what you’re able to do now?

Let’s Recap:

Ok, now you know what you can open and how opening certain contents of your business can be beneficial to your own project. So what should YOU take out of this article?

1) There are plenty of projects you have gathering dust in your hard drives or in your mind that could be useful to other communities, which in return could help with their invaluable contributions. 

2) List these projects down. 

3) Be patient and wait for my next email. It will give you some other great ideas on 4 other powerful ideas you can open to gather and inspire your community and keep multiplying your impact and business potential. If you would like to get it, subscribe below.

4) If more people shared their stuff in Open Source, we’d all be better off. Go tell the others!

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Photo by CJ Dayrit on Unsplash

Jaime Arredondo
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