Why Startups Are Good for Open Source

By Natasha Postolovski, writer, maker, traveller.

WordPress Meetup at the Envato Offices

The relationship between startups and open source is more complex and intertwined than ever before. Startups use open source platforms to bring their ideas into reality. Rather than being a one-sided relationship, startups are increasingly giving back to open source by training developers, open-sourcing internal tools and favoring hires with a history of open source contributions. The relationship is mutually beneficial, and has helped lead us into one of the most exciting eras in the history of open source.

Open Source is Good for Startups

I asked Envato CEO Collis Ta'eed why the company is passionate about open source:

"Open source aligns with Envato's values of community and collaboration. And while this means Envato cares deeply about open source, I'm happy to say that open source doesn't really care about us.

"In fact, open source doesn't care who you are, where you are, or sometimes even what you are doing; it's accessible for everyone. It's completely universal. And that's amazing."

Even further, what we do wouldn't be possible without open source. All of our products are supported by open source platforms. The Envato Marketplaces, Envato Studio and now Tuts+ are powered by Ruby on Rails. We used WordPress to launch Tuts+ and continued to use it for several years. We chose Ghost for the company blog you are reading now. This is coupled with dozens of other open source tools and frameworks our staff use and contribute to on a daily basis. We've even released a few of our own.

Open source is democratized tooling that makes great ideas possible. Startups and established companies alike are passionate about open source because:

  • The first versions of their products might never have been launched if it weren't for the open source tools and frameworks that enabled them
  • Open source is freely available, allowing precious funds to be diverted to things like marketing, sales, and hiring developers
  • The democratized nature of open source means companies can be confident their platforms and tools won't be discontinued or slapped with heavy licensing fees
  • Companies can have confidence that major bugs in the open source tools and frameworks they rely on will be swiftly resolved by a talented and dedicated community of contributors

All the reasons above and more explain why startups so-often choose to use open source tools and frameworks, and why so many companies genuinely care about open source.

Our Rails Story

The first line of code for the Envato Marketplaces was written way back in early 2006, right around the release of Rails 1.0. At that time there were few major applications being developed with Rails, and we were one of the earliest adopters. Ryan, our first developer, had the foresight to choose Rails as the right tool for the job, regardless of its youth as a platform.

Early access to the immense benefits of Rails came with a trade-off: the framework was so new that there weren't many Rails developers for hire. As a result, we hired developers who had worked with Ruby (the programming language used by Rails) and helped them to learn the Rails framework. We also hired talented developers with non-Ruby backgrounds and trained them to become efficient with Ruby/Rails.

We suspect that hundreds of other startups around the world have found themselves in the same boat: adopting a new open source technology and training developers to work with it comfortably. This is great for open source, as more developers becoming comfortable with a tool or framework means more contributions, more great things being built with the technology, and more startups and companies willing to give the tool or framework a try, just as we did with Rails.

Open Source Contributions

Most developers know that a history of contribution to open source is looked upon favorably during the hiring process. John Nagro, director of Engineering at HubSpot, says:

"The more you can do to demonstrate your ability to code, your work ethic, the types of technology you have experience in, the easier it's going to be for a hiring manager to assess you."

In an ideal scenario, a person charged with hiring a developer will also know how to code. Open source contributions demonstrate several things to a hiring manager:

  • The developer codes well enough that their open source contributions were accepted by other contributors
  • The developer has meaningful experience with the technology they're contributing to
  • The developer cares about open source as much as the company does
  • The developer is passionate enough about programming to do it in their free time

The manager can read through the developer's publicly accessible code on GitHub and vet it for clarity and quality. Managers especially value contributions to open source projects used within the company, as it shows a deep understanding of the tech they'll be using on a daily basis if hired.

The culture of encouragement around open source contribution, particularly strong within startups that need to quickly judge the merit of a potential hire, is great for open source. It means that more talented developers will spend time on open source contributions as a way to not only give back to the community, but to boost their resume as well.

Some developers have taken it a step further, embarking on open source projects specifically because they felt it would make them more hirable. Ruby developer Giles Bowkett is a famous case — featured in the book So Good They Can't Ignore You — of a developer taking this approach. He created Archeopteryx, an open source program that creates music with code.

"The best way to market yourself as a programmer is to create remarkable open source software. So I did."

The program was remarkable enough to lead to speaking engagements and exciting job offers for Giles. Social proof is powerful, and a popular open source project is strong social proof for the creator.

For newly minted developers looking for their first job, an open source contribution could be the best chance they have to prove their skills. Open source doesn't care about your credentials, the school you went to, years of experience or your job title: it cares about your code.

The symbiotic relationship between open source contributions and hirability at startups and tech companies is good for open source.

Lastly, startups and technology-based companies are constantly solving new problems for the business and for users, and trying to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the development team. At Envato, our developers regularly create new tools to help accomplish their goals, whether that's working more effectively with AWS, talking to new APIs, or making our apps faster. With a little extra work we've been able to release many of these tools to the public as open source. Other companies are increasingly doing the same. Twitter is leading the way in this arena, and Facebook are making waves with React.

It's a mutually beneficial cycle. Companies contribute to open source, and in return, they receive greater recognition in the development community, which may help bring in new and talented hires. Developers with a passion for open source look more favorably on companies where open source contributions are encouraged; companies where 'on-the-clock' time is set aside to prepare internal tools for open source release.

Giving Back

Early-stage startups and companies must be scrappy. There's no money to spare. The focus is on finding new and creative ways to save money, rather than ways to give it back. At that stage the relationship with open source is much more take than give.

Once a startup has achieved product-market fit, the dial turns slightly in the other direction. Time can be allocated to open-sourcing internal tools. A profitable company may be in a position to give back to some of the open source tools that made its success possible. It can also offer financial backing to new tools that might facilitate new products and future successes.

At Envato, one of the ways we've started doing this is by backing notable open source Kickstarter projects like Ghost, Rails.app and Aesop Story Engine. We chose these projects because they benefit our community, and our industry. Other companies will have different criteria for choosing open source projects to back, but we expect to see more companies get on-board with supporting open source financially, as well as through developer training, open source contributions and sharing internal tools with the world.

In the end, startups are just one part of a massive open source ecosystem that helps make the web and software better. We're proud of our participation in open source, but there's still much more to be done. We hope one day to be as good to open source as it has been good to us.

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