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Founding a Non-Profit FOSS Company
8 points by linguae 9 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 3 comments
One of the dreams that I have is to found a non-profit software company that develops and provides free, open-source software for the public good. I am passionate about personal computing and how it has empowered users for nearly 50 years. I am also increasingly concerned about market trends that serve to take power away from users and give it back to platform owners, such as subscription-based software, restrictive app stores and notarization requirements, adware, and surveillance. I believe that these market trends are not the result of malice, but are the result of market incentives; companies stand to make more money with today's business models than with the business models of the 1980s and 1990s. However, I feel that the notion of user empowerment has become not only an afterthought, but rather antithetical to today's business models, which encourage a sharp division between user (which is increasingly thought of as a consumer versus a producer) and programmer instead of some type of combination, such as the Smalltalk environment and Hypercard. I would love to found a non-profit company that is dedicated to the continued development of personal, desktop computing as an empowering tool rather than as a media consumption device that serves as a vehicle to serve ads and sell subscription services.

However, since I'm not wealthy, I need to consider how to procure funding to start such a company. Writing a competitive desktop and suite of applications is a major effort that will take many engineers. Assuming they are not volunteers, this is millions of dollars in salary alone. I'm also concerned about the viability of a non-profit FOSS company, given worries about the future of Firefox. I wonder if there are successful examples of non-profit FOSS companies, or if I would be breaking new ground by pursuing this idea?

So, a tangential answer to your question is to explore your premise that the business model of the 80s and 90s is better. As one who has programmed since then I can offer this perspective, which will apply equally to what you do.

Up until 2011 we "sold" our software. Users bought it, and it was theirs to use. We funded support (and development) out of new sales.

However this model is not sustainable. As the installed base grows we hired more full-time support which in turn meant less money for development. Or put another way, if new sales dried up, we'd close our doors. That is not helpful to the existing customers.

For a while we had a "support contracts" model, but customers not on contract "just want this quick question answered" and sets up internal fights between support and revenue over helping customers not on contract. (customers expect _some_ support on purchase and they get used to that)

So we changed to a subscription model. This is sustainable. Subscriptions pay for support staff, new sales pay for developers. Our goal is to get subscriptions to cover both, which takes the pressure off the "need to sell more"

Obviously we are doing commercial software, not FOSS, but the basic premise is the same - to be effective you need to be sustainable. So your model needs that built-in from the start. Alas "donations" is not sustainable, and only a lucky few get big company support (which could disappear quickly.)

I wish you success though - let us know if you find a better model.

How about a certified B Corp? IANAL, but it should allow you more commercial freedom, but still align with your goals?

What is wrong with Linux and/or FreeBSD?

I’m not saying there isn’t room for something else. More that the premise that money is required before progress can be made might not be sound.

Sometimes a bit of execution of a good idea sparks volunteers to step up.

Good luck.

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