We created this article for Straight Up, a monthly startup resource that tackles common sticking points of early stage startups. Get yourself on the list for the next Straight Up edition here.
Loomio was created by a group of Occupy activists, social entrepreneurs, and software developers who met at Enspiral. The team wanted a way to make decisions collaboratively, without needing a meeting every time. They tried all the usual suspects like Facebook, Yammer, Slack, mailing lists, and survey tools, but none of them worked. So what did they do? They started building a simple tool where people could have a conversation with their colleagues and bring it to a clear conclusion.
We had the opportunity to talk to Richard Bartlett, co-founder of Loomio and he told us about a world where it is easy for anyone to participate in decisions that affect them. Loomio is a social enterprise, so the ethical commitments trump any other priorities. This has affected every part of the business: from supporting activists to use the tool for free, the decision to structure the business as a worker-owned cooperative, financing, all the way through to their decision to be open source.
What is open source in a nutshell and what does open source mean for your business – Loomio?
The Loomio software is open source, which means the code lives in public: anyone can read it, learn from it, copy it, make their own modified version and propose changes back to the master version.
The main effect is that people can trust us, not because we have great marketing that tells them we are trustworthy, but because they can examine the code firsthand. From a commercial perspective, this gives us an advantage as an increasing number of people are concerned about security, privacy and data sovereignty. Governments, in particular, are starting to mandate the exclusive use of open source software.
What do you see for the future of open source software? What can we learn from open source?
Huge companies like Facebook, Tesla, Microsoft and Google are all putting huge energy into open source because they appreciate the benefits of open innovation. There’s no reason to think this would slow down anytime soon.
Open source means your software is designed for re-use. So if you look under the hood you’ll see the Loomio codebase is composed of hundreds of modules that other people have built, that we’re using for free. On top of those, we’re producing our own modules and sharing them back into the community, so everyone benefits from faster innovation and less duplication of effort.
Have you come across any limitations or challenges working this way?
In my mind, the main challenge is having to think of other stakeholders.
There’s the challenge of expectation management. Some open source projects are set up with an emphasis on having as many contributors as possible. Because we’re a consumer-facing app we’re a bit different: we’re more strict about what kind of changes we make to the software, to ensure we’re always maximising accessibility. So if someone turns up with a suggested improvement that they think is brilliant, but we know it’s going to impair the experience for new users, it takes a bit of effort to convey that context.
Another limitation is if we were building closed source software that was exclusively going to be hosted on loomio.org, we could take a lot of architectural shortcuts: duct tape solutions. But we have to think about how other people are using the code, so that puts a continuous pressure on us to maintain a high standard of quality. I think it is a productive constraint, but you could argue that sometimes a quick-and-dirty solution is necessary for a startup.
What advice would you give to a software startup looking to become an open source company?
On the one side, you’ll have people scaring you about how some competitor is going to copy your idea. On the other side, you’ll meet the fanatics who will tell you that you have to meet some imaginary standard before you can join the open source club.
I would say: Go for it! Expect resistance! And find some friendly supporters! (hint: I’m @richdecibels on Twitter.) There has not been a day that we’ve regretted going open source.
What would you say to those startups worried about IP and open source?
I would say ideas are cheap and a motivated competitor can copy you whether you’re open or closed. What matters is execution: holding a team together, finding a business model, developing a credible brand, and nurturing a community of supporters, investors and customers.
Look at the numbers, startups are so much more likely to fail due to relationship breakdowns than IP issues. Honestly for most startups, I think the best strategy, from a commercial perspective and an ethical perspective, is to trademark your name and give away as much of your IP as you possibly can.
Open is how the web works: give people stuff that they value, build a relationship with them, then sell them something you can provide better than anyone else.
How does open source offer up new possibilities and perspectives to solve problems?
Being open absolutely requires a shift in perspective. It used to be expensive to copy information, so huge industries were built around recording and distributing cultural artefacts. That paradigm is dead, but it has still got a huge legacy in terms of business models, capital investment, physical infrastructure, legislation and cultural attitudes towards copying and sharing.
It’s cold comfort for me to say to my author friend, ‘sorry that paradigm is dead and you can’t make a living selling books anymore.’ We’re in a transition phase which is necessarily painful and experimental.
I have no doubt that we’re inexorably moving in the direction of open, though. So you can put your energy into squeezing the last drops of value out of a dead system, or you can embrace the opportunity of a new way of working.How does the open source philosophy multiply knowledge, effort, inspiration, creativity, capital and customers, for startups?
US Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, despite being a despicable slaveholder, has a pretty good description of the multiplication effect. He said, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
Ideas are social creatures. Nobody ever came up with an idea on their own. Ideas breed, collide, multiply and mutate. Open source simply provides the framework to enable ideas to mate in a structured, legal, manageable way.Where do we find Loomio’s services, how do we make the most of Loomio and how would you suggest we get involved in the open source community?
Maybe you’re working in a startup and you’re starting to feel the pain of trying to make decisions over Slack or in email. Or maybe you’re on a board, feeling frustrated about having to wait for the next meeting before you can discuss an important issue. If you’re in a group of people that want to make decisions together, without needing a meeting every time, go to loomio.org and try out the software.
We’re always happy to meet with people face-to-face too, so drop us a line if you’re in Wellington.
If you want to get involved with the open source community, the first place to go would be the OS//OS conference. It’s going to be a really friendly place for newcomers!
For more insights from local mentors and startups, get yourself on the list for the next edition of Straight Up – Creative HQ’s monthly startup resource that focuses on a different topic startups struggle with each month.