June 2009

"If technology is felt to be becoming more and more inhuman, we might do well to consider whether it is possible to have something better--a technology with a human face."

E.F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful

In 2005, two Canadians began a one-year experiment in eating only locally grown foods, starting what is now known as The 100-Mile Diet. In the open source world, we know about giving back to our software community, but this is sometimes to the detriment of our physical community. It is hard to see the businesses around us when so many interactions take place online and in the digital neighbourhood. The world has gotten smaller in the last hundred years and products made on the other side of the world are common in businesses and households.

As we muddle through our current economic crisis, we are encouraged to support our neighbours, their jobs, and to "buy local." Many household repair services must be locally obtained, but this is not necessarily true for software-related services. Many businesses are choosing to outsource the production of software and related support services to a cheaper labour force in other countries. As consumers, we know that buying locally often costs a premium; we also know it supports our neighbours and recycles our money back into our own physical community.

This article examines the importance of giving back to the local community. It uncovers ways for businesses to expand and gain new revenue streams when they focus on open source software (OSS) and use open business models.

Connecting with the Local Community

In 2007, I organized my region's first-ever local technology conference. It was called HICK Tech and celebrated all forms of technology, especially rural technology. I tried to emulate the feeling of a "big city conference" with 33 sessions presented during the one-day conference, kicking off with a keynote presentation the night before the sessions. For the second year of the conference, I relaxed into the reality of what it means to be local. I bought cowboy boots and rented the local hockey arena for the conference venue. The experience was both more local and more global. Speakers came from thousands of miles, and hundreds of yards, away. Top presenters included Nora Young (CBC), Heather Champ (Flickr), Meg Pickard (guardian.co.uk) and Michael Murray (formerly of nCircle).

The emphasis on local in the second year included a commitment to good brain fodder. All food served was grown, caught and produced within 100 miles of the venue. Although the coffee wasn't locally grown, it was roasted locally. Even the bag pipes, jazz duet and beer at the after-party were local. During the course of the day, over three hundred meals were served and less than one garbage bag of waste was produced. Coffee was poured into mugs, water into glasses, and mouths were dabbed with cloth napkins. The caterer took one small pail of food waste back to their garden. The conference was carbon neutral and carbon offset credits were purchased for the international speakers at the Gold Standard from Planet Air. The most expensive part of the carbon offset process was paying an electrician for an energy audit of the hockey rink.

Providing a local experience meant showcasing the region's unique characteristics. Owen Sound is a retirement community and many of the community's active volunteers are retired women. They engage in technology to connect with their grandchildren. HICK Tech was an experience these women felt comfortable engaging in. The speakers and attendees for both the first and second year of the technology conference were 50% women. Women registered early and sometimes even brought their husbands. The face-to-face experience made technology more human and more accessible to a group of people that were used to feeling left out.

The Experience Economy

In the meantime, my Web site development business was expanding its reaches and I had increasingly fewer local clients. I started to feel the local clients I did have were too small to be worth the hassle. They wanted on-site technical support and I felt uncomfortable charging my regular rates for the work I was doing. I needed to change the way I was doing business. To support local clients, I did something that was both simple and radical: I started offering my best service for free. For two hours each month, I meet in a central location with my clients and a wifi network. They bring their laptops and their questions and we work together to solve their Web site problems.

The idea to give away my services for free was in part inspired by my cousin, Nancy Jacobi, who runs a successful paper shop in Toronto. She does not offer store-wide sales nor does she discount her prices. In her twenty years in business she has come to realise that customers who buy things on sale feel entitled to a discount, but those same customers never feel entitled to a free gift. Instead of having sales, Ms. Jacobi gives away small samples of hand made paper to interesting customers as a gift for shopping with her. She gives the samples with integrity and intention. She tells the customer the story about the time she visited the small Japanese village where the maker of that very paper lives and works. Through this gift giving she promotes loyalty--both her loyalty to the paper maker and her customers' loyalty to her shop. Customers often feel obligated to purchase something in the future as a thank you for their free gift. Although not everyone feels this compulsion to return the favour of a gift, many do. She is giving much more than the gift of free paper, she is also giving people the gift of the paper's story. In the experience economy, we find the cheapest price for a commodity, but we will spend an extraordinary amount of money for an experience.

The Experience Economy was first described in the 1999 book of the same title by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore. In their book, the authors describe five types of business offerings: commodities, goods, services, experiences, and transformations. Each of these offerings has a greater value to the consumer. While a chair is worth more than a tree, an experience is worth more than a service. The ultimate experience is one that can transform the consumer from one state to another. Whereas experiences are merely memorable, transformations are inspirational and have a sustained impact on the consumer that extends well beyond the experience.

The free help nights extend my business from being merely a service provider, to a transformational business which enables clients to maintain their own Web sites. As they are transformed, clients become aware of new services they want to purchase and thus move into a new business cycle where they purchase new services because of their transformation. The business cycle is transformed from a circle to a spiral.

Within the open source model, the concept of "free" is well known. It typically encompasses both the freedom to consume and the freedom to alter the product that is being consumed. Successful businesses are successful because they serve their clients--they meet a need and they do it well. To be successful in business, we need to first define success for ourselves. I consider my business successful when diverse communities are able to maintain vibrant and productive interaction using appropriate tools and open business practices. I also have monetary goals, but these are not directly tied to how I define success.

The free help nights that I provide my clients are a scalable business model. Each evening can accommodate up to ten businesses, and each of the businesses attending is able to afford a simple Drupal deployment. This is a task I can accomplish in less than a half day using Drupal's multi-site install. However, the client who has priced Web site development from a proprietary software developer knows that the value of this work is exponentially greater.

An Open Business Model in Action

OSS needs to support open business models. My clients know how fast I can deploy Drupal and I charge clients the full social value of their Web site. My speed, however, does not change the social value of the Web site. In the world of "good, cheap, fast: pick two" this speed actually increases the social value of the new Web site. The faster I get at deploying Drupal, the more profit I make. That is what makes this model scalable: it focuses on rapid deployment with technical support at my convenience. In theory, I could have ten nights a month each with ten clients who wanted two hours of free, but shared tech support. Contrast this with the old model of helping out "just this once" to a small business who needs support, and it becomes obvious the traditional model of one-on-one support is not scalable. Supporting too-small clients with free help nights may start out as an income supplement, but by promoting client self-sufficiency, and managing support expectations effectively, these clients have the potential to become a full income for several people.

The group of people who attend the free help night, over half of whom are women, are a delight to work with. Their businesses include shops that sell food, yarn, books and bikes--the essentials in life. These are businesses that I want to buy from. They are businesses that I care about, run by people that I care about. As individual businesses receiving on-site tech support, they asked the same basic questions over and over again, but as a group they have started to develop a new comfort with technology. During the free help nights they are not the centre of my exclusive attention. There is less pressure to perform and they do not feel they are wasting time or money if they work quietly on their own. By working in a group, they see that others experience the same problems. From forgotten passwords to questions about installing modules, the group has begun to support itself. When someone else has already asked the first "dumb question" it is much easier to ask the next. Not including these first few questions, I have found the overall quality of help that each business is requesting to be more insightful. It's as though waiting a week or two to ask the question has made each person a little bit smarter. It encourages participants to solve problems they can fix on their own, and to leave the "tough ones" for the free help night.

You've heard of "monkey see, monkey do"? This group has more of a case of "monkey see, monkey want." As the confidence of the group develops, the competition increases. "Colleen has a mailing list? I want a mailing list!" As their confidence increases, the group members take ownership over their Web sites and begin to help one another with their Web site problems. As the group becomes more comfortable with the technology they use, they are more likely to help one another--often answering each others' questions before I can get to them. Ownership and empowerment leads to growth and ideas. These ideas lead to feature requests that are larger than what I can accomplish in a single help session, which leads to paying work.

Lessons Learned

What does it mean to be a small, local business in the digital age? When is it appropriate to outsource and use a local work force? If your workers are remote, and you have no bricks and mortar location, how can you still support your local economy, and what is local anyway? These are difficult questions that every business needs to address. Having a monthly free tech support evening has given me the freedom to work with clients who otherwise would have felt "too small." What was once a sense of obligation to help a small business, is now a vibrant community of local businesses. The free help nights mean less of my time is wasted going to and from meetings and sending out invoices. I no longer get phone calls with, "just one little question" which the client feels should be answered for free. Clients know that only help night is free. We've established the rules. They are delighted to get free tech support when it is convenient for me, and I am able to pursue larger clients.

As our businesses continue to change and grow in the digital age we must not forget our physical communities. Free help nights enable businesses to dream bigger and open source technologies allow businesses with limited budgets to explore these dreams. The free help nights have transformed my too-small clients into a source of additional income. Now is the time to look back into your own community, to think creatively and to see the potential of your own free help night.


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