Libre Graphics Meeting 2009: community fundraising campaign

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Click here to lend your support to the Libre Graphics Meeting and make a donation at www.pledgie.com !

After the successful community fundraising campaign last year, the Libre Graphics Meeting will be back in Montreal again this year, and once again the organisers need your help to make the event a success.

In fact, this year we need your help more than ever. With the crisis/recession/slow-down/depression upon us, companies are puckering up tighter than a snare drum (to borrow a quote from the Shawshank Redemption) when asked for sponsorship this year.

Support the Libre Graphics Meeting 2009

Support the Libre Graphics Meeting 2009

It’s true, the Libre Graphics Meeting lives on the margins of the business cases people can make right now. There are not millions to be made in appealing to graphic designers working on Linux. And yet, as a community event driving co-operation and development of creative applications on Linux, the Libre Graphics Meeting is valuable, and unique to the free software community.

We need the help of the people to whom it’s valuable to make it happen. And that’s why we’re asking the community to give what they can to support the conference. To allow us to bring people together to share ideas and hack on code. To make better Free graphics software for everyone.

List of Free Software non-profits

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Michael Dexter of Linux Fund spent some time last week putting together a list of non-profit corporations which exist to support free software, free software projects, or free culture worldwide. It’s an impressive list of 68 non-profits from around the world, with varied goals and focuses, but with the common theme of wanting to improve the world through the sharing of information. He published the list on the FLOSS Foundations site, which is appropriate, since that group brings together representatives of almost all of these organisations, sharing information useful to everyone.

Some of them have, in my opinion, a more tenuous link than others to projects – such as regional satellites of the FSF for example, or the organisers of SCALE – but the list does show the breadth & depth of the domains where free software has made an impact in the past couple of decades.

Maemo Community Council referenda: the results are in

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The voting is now closed in the Maemo Community Council referenda on election procedures for the upcoming and future Maemo Community Council elections.

The provisional results, which will stand unless successfully challenged within the next 7 days, are as follows:

  1. Which of the following criteria do you want applied to the Maemo Community Council elections to be held in March 2009?
    • 25 karma and 3 month old account (status quo) (71 votes)
    • No karma requirement, anyone with an account for more than 3 months
      may vote (64 votes)
    • None of the above (4 votes)

    139 votes were cast of an electorate of 601 (23%)

    We will maintain a 25 karma requirement for the next elections.

  2. Which of the following criteria do you want applied to future Maemo Community Council elections?
    • 10 karma and 3 month old account (48 votes)
    • 25 karma and 3 month old account (status quo) (46 votes)
    • 10 karma or 12 month old account (22 votes)
    • No karma or account age requirement – everyone with a maemo.org account may vote (13 votes)
    • None of the above (0 votes)

    129 votes cast of an electorate of 601 (21.5%).

    For future elections, voters must have a karma of 10, and have created their maemo.org account more than 3 months before the closing date of the election.

  3. Which of the following voting systems do you want used for Maemo Community Council elections?
    • A single transferable vote preferential system (60 votes)
    • No change – single vote, with top 5 candidates elected (51 votes)
    • A reweighted range voting system (score candidates between 0 and 100) (13 votes)
    • None of the above (3 votes)

    127 votes cast of an electorate of 601 (21%).

    Future elections, including the election to be held in a few weeks, will be by preferential vote, and will be counted using the Single Transferrable Vote system.

I will be modifying the Maemo election system (stolen borrowed from the GNOME Foundation) before the next elections to implement preferential voting, and we will likely be using OpenSTV to count ballots after the next election.

Governance best practices

community, freesoftware, inkscape, maemo 2 Comments

Jono asked on the AOC blog for successful governance stories, and while I’m happy to comment on the blog, now that I’ve taken the time to write some down, I thought I might as well share them :-)

Governance comes in many shapes & sizes of course. My favourite governance stories are about federating individuals, who manage to channel community efforts, maintain a meritocracy where code talks, and yet don’t come across as authoritarians.

Outside of Linus (who’s a good example), Ton Roosendaal of Blender has this kind of presence. Talking to Ton, it is easy to see that he cares about Blender and about the Blender Community. The care and attention that he brings to projects like “Elephants Dream” and “Big Buck Bunny”, or to the supporting documentation and conferences he organises for the community, illustrate the esteem in which he holds his users and his developer community. Even the way the Blender Foundation came into being was amazing.

One of my favourite communities is Inkscape. When they broke from Sodipodi, there was this acrimonious flame war, and something of a bitter taste in people’s mouth. So what Bryce Harrington, Nathan Hurst, MenTaLguY and Ted Gould did when they split was decide to throw open the doors, and accept code from all comers. They set a direction and some ambitious goals, but they were very clear from the start – come right in, you’re welcome. And this gave the project some great results, especially early on when it was still establishing itself. Bryce describes one of them in this article.

The success of the Inkscape project’s governance model is borne out by its ability to escape founder’s syndrome – Bryce, Nathan and Ted have now backed away from the project to some extent, they’re still there as wise heads, but they have passed off the direction of the project to other capable people.

I think the way that Drizzle was born bears some resemblance to this, and I really like the way they have consciously broken down the walls which were necessarily up around MySQL. Brian Aker’s been something of an inspiration on this. His mission statement at the announcement of the project was astounding.

Subversion‘s governance model is an exemplar of best practices too. Set a clear project scope (“Subversion is a compelling alternative to CVS”), clear goals, establish transparent and fair community processes, and open up the gates. Anything within the scope of the project is fair game. And once again, code talks. This story, from Karl Fogel’s “Producing OSS” illustrated the robustness of their governance, and the confidence the project’s leaders had in their ability to influence the project.

The Maemo Community Council has the potential to be a very good governance structure, I think.  The idea of a governing body of the community, by the community, for the community, whose goal is to canalise the efforts of a disparate group into something coherent, and to provide a legitimate point of contact for technical decision-makers in Nokia, is a novel one, and hasn’t been tried, as far as I can tell, by other companies.

Counter-examples of good governance are all around, I won’t name any in particular to protect the guilty. But many of them stem from a misguided belief in absolute free speech, to the detriment of the quality of discourse and code in the project (“we are all created equal”) which results in very chatty, but unproductive, individuals taking senior positions in the community, or a sort of shyness of the founder or leader, who doesn’t believe that it’s his place to set a direction and tone.In company-run projects, excessive control or influence is an equally toxic characteristic. Companies who retain a veto on community decisions are companies who do not trust their communities.

Think you should have a vote?

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For those of you who believe that you should have a vote, but have not yet received ballots for the Maemo community council referenda please let me know. A reminder of the criteria for eligibility: all those who have had a maemo.org account for longer than 3 months from the election end date (the account was created on or before the 23rd of November 2008), and who had 25 karma or more on Sunday evening, have a vote. That makes 600 of you.

Hopefully, there is no-one in this situation, but if you feel that you should have a ballot, please drop me a line with your maemo.org account name, and I’ll look into it.

Maemo Community Council referenda: voting now open!

community, maemo 2 Comments

Voting is open for the 3 referenda around the election procedure for Maemo community council elections.

A wiki page has been created for each referendum, where arguments for & against each of the options can be listed. For the moment, these pages are skeletons, but feel free to debate in the Talk page, and perhaps add some arguments for & against in the main page (but they will be heavily moderated to avoid flame-wars).

A reminder of the 3 referenda:

  1. Election procedure for the next Maemo community council elections: The choices are the status quo in the election procedure document (25 karma + 3 month), or removing all requirements. The council is recommending a vote to remove requirements.
  2. Election procedure for future Maemo community council elections: The choices are the status quo, lowering the karma requirement to 10, and maintaining a 3 month requirement for accounts, lowering the requirement to 10 *or* 1 year since account creation, whichever comes first, or removing all requirements of karma and account age. The council is recommending lowering the karma requirement to 10, and maintaining a 3 month account creation limit.
  3. Counting method: Three choices are proposed: first past the post, preferential voting using single transferrable vote, or reweighted range voting.

Voting is open now, until midnight UTC next Monday, the 23rd of February. As we used to say in Ireland in the ’80s, vote early, vote often!

Migrating to Linux: Tip 1: Do DHCP and DNS first

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If, like most organisations, your client PCs get their IP addresses and DNS and routing information over DHCP, you can make your migration life easier by moving your DHCP server first, followed by your local nameserver.

Whenever you need to declare a server name or IP address for a service (mail, time, proxy, whatever), use a service-specific domain name: smtp.mycompany.office, imap.mycompany.office, ntp.mycompany.office and so on.

Since you control the DNS server, you can incrementally move these over to your Linux server and you only have to change the IP address once, in your central nameserver, rather than do the rounds of all the clients every time you switch a service, allowing a painless incremental approach to moving basic internet services which, if you do things right, people won’t even notice.

Next: the hard stuff: Exchange and Outlook.

Edit: Update .local to .office – .local is reserved for mDNS (thanks to my readers for spotting this!)

Server migration: the easy stuff

freesoftware, marketing, work 2 Comments

In gathering material for my series on migrating to free software, one thing immediately jumps out at me.

If your server software uses industry standard protocols to communicate with your client software, then finding free replacement software is easy, painless and transparent for the user. Need a DNS service? Bind’ll do, thank you very much. SMTP? You’re spoiled for choice – there’s  Qmail, Postfix, sendmail among others. IMAP, POP3 – try Dovecot, or the UWash IMAP server.  SSH – OpenSSH. FTP – PureFTPd, VSFTPd, proftpd are all fine.  HTTP – Apache os one of many web servers available.

Pretty much anything with an RFC has free software implementations that are complete, and compare well with commercial competitors. Often, as is the case of Bind or Apache, they are the leaders in their space.

In other words, by using only standard client-server protocols, you have freedom to leave.

However, if your server software “integrates” tightly with your client software, in the style of Notes and Domino from Lotus/IBM, or Exchange Server and Outlook, or Sharepoint and Office, or if it has its own proprietary wire protocol, then you may have a pain point.

So the first lesson, I think, is consider how replacable server elements of your infrastructure are at the acquisition, if you want to avoid lock-in later on. As hard as projects like Samba and Zimbra chase the tail-lights of proprietary wire protocols, the easiest way to avoid them is to rely, where possible, of standard, open protocols.

And that’s what I’m looking for more than anything. How do people get around their pain points? Have people had an Exchange or Sharepoint hang-over?  Now that PostPath has gone away, are people looking to get rid of Exchange stuck with Zimbra? Has migrating from MS SQL to a free database server been a pain in the leg? What have people used to centralise authentication and share home directories across the network? Is Samba with LDAP a drop-in solution?

Looking for case studies

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I hope to be writing a series of articles over the coming months on migrating from being a Windows shop to a free software shop, broken down stage by stage:

  1. Replacing Windows file sharing, web servers and services and email servers by Linux + samba/apache/postfix/bind. Move proprietary applications (SAP, Oracle) which have Linux versions to the new Linux servers. Migrate desktop software to open standards provided by these services (break the Outlook + Exchange habit).
  2. Replace proprietary desktop applications by free software equivalents (low-hanging fruit: Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice.org)
  3. Require use of open formats for company documents where practical (move from .doc to .odf)
  4. Identify desktops with no windows-specific business applications installed, and migrate them to Linux (thin-client, perhaps)
  5. Move from proprietary business applications to web-deployed free alternatives (Alfresco, SugarCRM, …) and start redeveloping vertical apps as web applications
  6. Migrate commercial server applications to free equivalents, where feasible
  7. Migrate remaining desktops & laptops to Linux (with some possible exceptions for task-specific desktops, like graphic design, accounting or CAD?)

My goal is to find people who have braved this storm, and have gone through the stages of migrating from windows to Linux, who can share the pain of each stage, and who can provide insights on making things easy for those coming after.

If you are one of these people, or think you might know one, or you’re just interested in telling me how (great|horrible) the idea is, give me a shout in the comments, or drop me an email at my gnome.org address: dneary.

Free Software consulting: marketing & business model

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Recently I gave a class for a friend of mine in Grenoble as part of an “Introduction to entrepreneurship” course he is teaching for a Masters in business studies. He asked me to explain my activity, how I set myself up administratively, and explain the business model and marketing plan of a services/consulting company.

I covered a lot of ground, and it was pretty interesting I think, so I’m reproducing the gist of what I presented here for posterity.

Make money giving stuff away?

After a fairly brief presentation of free software (what it is, some examples, why people are interested in it, the basic community mechanisms involved), I got my first question: how can you make money off something that you give away?

Having read “Free! Why$0.00 is the future of business” by Chris Anderson, I had some ready answers, and teased some more examples out of the students:

  • Free razors: Sell more disposable razor blades
  • Free newspapers: leverage higher distribution figures to get more advertising revenue
  • Free music downloads: sell premium products like box sets, concert tickets, merchandising
  • Free Internet services (search, email, film, photo management, …): Leverage the ability to follow behaviour patterns and high volumes to increase advertising revenue.
  • Free first version, pay for upgrades: Used effectively in the drug trade. Get your users roped in.
  • Free cellphones, monthly subscription: sell more of the high-margin recurrent product for the cost of the low-margin one-off purchase.
  • Free flights, make money off sandwiches, alcohol, advertising, …

In each of these cases, you can see a basic process at play: free drives volume, to drive the sale of complementary goods. For a musician, concerts are a complement to CD purchases. The bigger your fan base, the more concert tickets you will sell, all else being equal. For free newspapers, advertising space is a complement to distribution.

In general the following rule holds for complementary goods: when the demand for a good goes up, the demand for its complements also goes up. And assuming a normal demand curve, when the price of a good goes down, its demand will go up. So all we need to make a feasible business model based around free software is to find natural complementary goods to the software. There’s no shortage: training, books, custom software development services, support, upgrades, magazines, other software for the platform, the hardware the software comes on, services related to the software’s function (think: photo development services for a photo management application, or web search for a web browser). And there are all the loosely related things that relate to this, like the HR consultants who specialise in finding experienced free software developers.

For me, I chose consulting services, and training. Due to my experience in the free software world, I’m well positioned to help companies who don’t understand the mysteries of how everything works to grow healthy communities, or to become good citizens of the projects they work with. I’m developing training courses on working with free software communities, and developing GNOME and GNOME Mobile applications. And I’m working directly with communities doing the stuff that needs to be done to enable the community to be effective.

Selling your wares

Next up, we discussed how someone might sell those types of services. Of course, your personal network is vital for this, and you need to be working all the time to grow that network, because you never know where the next opportunity might come from. I make a point of talking to whoever I’m sitting beside in airplanes, and not just because the flights go quicker that way. You never know who might be able to help you, and who you might be able to help.

On top of that, you need to build credibility with the people who will be paying for your services, and the people who will be ordering your services. In big companies, this will often be two different people – the person who wants you to come train their team is probably not the person with signing authority on the training budget. So you need to work to build credibility with both. You also need to have credibility with the influencers of purchasing decisions. A manager may ask the opinion of the latest intern to join the group who “knows this open source stuff”.

One good way to do this is to write and publish. Regular newspaper or magazine articles, a well-maintained blog, perhaps authorship of a book or two are all useful references for someone when they are trying to figure out if you’re any good. You should try to target publications which your targets inside your prospects read. If you’re aiming for the CIO, then he probably doesn’t read Linux Magazine, but perhaps you can be a guest writer in something like CIO or 01 Net? The intern, on the other hand, might well have a Linux Magazine subscription.

Another great way to build your network, and to gain credibility, is to give presentations in conferences. This is something you should work at – make sure you give a good presentation. If in doubt, practice live first, in front of the mirror is a good start, real people is even better. There are lots of resources out there on giving better presentations, I enjoyed “Really Bad Powerpoint” by Seth Godin, “Presentation Zen” by Garr Reynolds (and related site), “slide:ology” by Nancy Duarte, and “The Back of a Napkin” by Dan Roam (related site) (thanks to Stormy Peters for the last two references). Target conferences that give you a good chance to meet the people who will be buying your services, or at least who will be influencing purchasing decisions.

If you’re trying to build credibility as an expert in a specific area, you should also actually be an expert in the area. If you’re trying to make money selling support of Drupal, then you should probably be on a first name basis with Dries. Ideally, you will be an active developer on the project, and will be able to point to major features you’ve contributed.

And nothing works better as a marketing tool than having good references. When you have made people happy, they will get you more work. So make sure you are doing that.

How much do you charge?

One of the hardest things to do as a consultant is to figure out how much to charge for your services. And we spent over half of our three hour course talking about this.

The first way to figure out how much to charge can be called cost-plus.

You decide how much money you need, how much time you’re likely going to work to earn it, and divide to get a daily or hourly rate. They you add an amount you think that you can get on the market, and at the end of the year, this is your company’s profit. Profit is handy, since it’s what allows you to grow – to hire new people, take on new projects, and maybe move from consulting to a product-based business model.

A well-known rule of thumb (which Stephen Walli recently restated to me) is that a successful consultant will bill roughly 50% of the available time in a year. Some years will be worse, some years will be better. But between looking for new clients, down time between projects, and handling everything that you need to do when you’re at the head of a company, 50% is a good target to aim for.

The work year is 52 weeks, 5 days a week. Some people might say 6 days a week, but for me, with 3 kids, quality time on weekends is important. If you take 4 weeks vacation a year, and take away public holidays, you’re left with a working year of 230 days, give or take. So if you do well, you’ll be billing 115 days a year.

One of the advantages of consultancy is that the overheads are low. You don’t have to purchase or store stock, and your gross margins are close to 100% since you’re basically selling grey matter. That doesn’t mean you don’t have costs, though – lawyers, accountants, insurance (liability, health, social, life…), government taxes, social charges on what you pay yourself, travel to conferences, dinners and lunches with clients, computers, various subscriptions (cellphone, internet, phone), rent, furniture for the office, the list goes on.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that you want to make €3,500 per month, or €42,000 per year, before tax but after social charges. You will need to invoice in the region of €70,000 to €80,000 during the year. Assuming, as we have, that you will be invoicing 115 days during the year, you need to be charging between €650 and €800 per day. When you say this to students who would probably take a job very happily for €30 an hour, they can be pretty surprised.

There’s a second method to pricing your services, which we’ll call value-minus. It is the reason CEOs, film actors and professional sports stars get paid obscene amounts of money. In short, they’re worth it.

Why would a film studio pay $15 million to Angelina Jolie to star in a film, when they could have had someone else for a tenth of the price? Because having Angelina Jolie in the film guarantees you attendance. It guarantees you a successful press tour. If Angelina’s’ last three films all grossed over $100 million, then the chances are her next one will too – at least partly because she’s on the list of stars. The same thing goes for David Beckham – a club pays for him because the extra merchandising, bums on seats and (presumably) improved results will earn the club back more than they are laying out for him. And Steve Jobs can argue convincingly that part of the blockbuster profits that Apple is raking in are thanks to his stewardship of the company – and as such it’s normal that he be paid in consequence.

If you can put a dollar value on the money that you will earn or save a company by working with them, then you can sell your services for that amount less a dollar, and it is worthwhile for the company to hire you.

As a consultant, it’s hard to do that, though. How do you measure how much more effective a development team is after your training? Feedback is helpful, of course, but you will be measuring the team’s perception of your training, not actual dollars on the balance sheet. Performance metrics are important. Are the team getting changes upstream quicker after your attendance? Are there fewer days being spent on maintenance of local patches? How many fewer? “Reduced maintenance cost by 18% in the year following intervention” is a great headline.

It’s not always possible to follow up and get exact figures, though. To measure the effect of your services, you would need to be measuring before and after for the measurement to mean anything – and in companies that have problems working with free software, they’re not measuring anything, and that’s part of the problem.

But there are ways to infer the value of your services. I have to give a hat-tip to Andreas Constantinou for pointing me to “Million Dollar Consulting”, which opened my eyes somewhat to this.

To work out the value you might have for them, it’s useful to think of substitute goods for your products and services.

Substitute goods are goods which can be used instead of each other. Substitutes can be perfect or imperfect. One brand of car or another are close to being perfect substitutes, but taking the train, or riding a bicycle, might be other substitutes that address the same basic need of getting from A to B.

As a consultant you’re selling information in exchange for time. You’re saying “there’s nothing I know that your team won’t find out eventually on their own, but I can help you get there quicker”, or “you could hire a graduate and train him up for 6 months, or you can hire me now and I’ll be operational Monday”. Other consultants might be perfect substitutes for you (although of course you’d argue they’re not, since you’re so much better), but training, subscriptions to market analysis firms, magazine subscriptions, mentoring programs, or travel to conferences might all be substitutes, since they all address the same basic need – save the client’s time by getting him the information he needs quickly.

A good way to see what the substitutes to your service are is to follow the money. What budget would your services be coming out of? What else does the budget get spent on? Do your services replace or complement other things coming out of the same budget?

As an example, a company might decide that sending 10 people to OSCON for a week is the best way to get them up to speed quickly. 10 plane tickets + 10 weeks in a hotel + 10 expense reports + 10 registration fees might set the company back somewhere in the region of $30,000. So if your one week intensive training course saves them the need to send 10 guys to San Jose this August, you’ve saved them $30,000. You can charge $20,000 + expenses, and they’ll think it’s a bargain.

There is no right answer to the question of how to set your prices, and you’ll quickly find yourself adjusting your price depending on how involved or risky a project is – it’s unlikely that you will have a one-size-fits-all price. But thinking about the price of your substitutes can help you at least be in the range of market expectations.

Market expectations are intimately related to price. You will learn quickly that a lower price does not necessarily make you a more attractive option than your competitors. Price communicates something – skill. As a consultant, you want to position yourself as an expert, and experts cost a lot.

That said, if your competitors’ prices are substantially lower than the figure that you got out of your cost-plus calculation, you might consider looking for a different line of work, or revise your needs down. If you want more money than the market is willing to give you, the chances are you will end up disappointed.

So – there you go. Food for thought, and there are probably plenty of approximations there for people to jump on. I stand by the basic thrust:

  • Base your business model on a complement to the free software you work with.
  • Figure out who will be influencing buying decisions, who will be doing the buying, and who will be doing the paying, and figure out how to build credibility with each of them
  • Price your services based on the value you give to the company, while keeping an eye on how much you get paid at the end of the month. Estimate value based on the market price of substitutes for your services.