This article was originally published on EETimes.
A few days ago, I received an email that was full of mystery. It was short but intriguing. Jonathan, its author, was telling me about a great product he was working on. He needed advice on how to get started and take his prototype to the next stage. He was not actually explaining the idea or the market he wanted to address. We met, and after a few minutes of hesitation he finally told me about his great idea. He said he was scared to talk about it because his idea might get stolen.
I get a lot of these mysterious emails. Fear of getting your product idea stolen is a major concern for most entrepreneurs — and, I would say, even more for hardware entrepreneurs. There is a belief that as soon you share your idea, someone somewhere will copy it and launch it a few days later.
The fear of being stolen is what stops most hardware entrepreneurs from choosing open-source hardware. Before I show you the benefits of open-source hardware licenses for early-stage startups, I want to emphasize two points:
- Your idea is not unique.
- If someone wants to steal it, they will.
Oh… and patents are expensive.
Let’s explore together some of the main benefits of open hardware for your company project.
Open hardware is good for your product development
The open-hardware movement started with prototyping tools. Building together tools that everyone can use is at the core of the movement. For a hardware entrepreneur, there are now plenty of them to use for creating your prototype — microcontrollers, sensors, machines, and associated software are all available for you to use at very affordable cost. Massive communities of inventors/entrepreneurs just like you develop their products while contributing to each other’s success.
Open hardware is a trade-off between having access to great resources and giving back to the community.
Access to open-source prototyping tools will quickly make you realize that you can also leverage a full community of skilled enthusiasts who are able to tell you what you do wrong and how to directly improve your product.
In exchange for their help, you give them the right to use, modify, and sell your product under the same license (if you decide so). Because you are the one behind the project, you are also the one who sees the big picture, who knows how everything works. With open hardware comes great responsibility — you have to be in charge.
Iterate faster and better
Constant feedback from your community is like heaven for any company ready to launch and improve products often. Sparkfun is leading the way by offering new products every week.
Open Source hardware is good for your marketing
Build your dev community
This community of makers who participate on your product development will stay with you if you don’t screw them up. Your job is to make it easy for your community to understand your documentation and participate to the development of your product. You need to create and manage communication channels, or at least keep track of conversations and be part of them.
Underwater exploration robot OpenROV gathers around it hundreds of active members who are both teammates and true fans.
Build your brand
Because a product itself can be copied, marketing plays a big role in open hardware. It pushes entrepreneurs to be clear on their values. As such, branding is an important way of keeping your open-hardware company alive and well. Arduino, Adafruit, SparkFun, Makey Makey are all very strong brands. They are associated with strong values and ethics. They are watching over their behavior as well as the community is.
When just starting, make sure to clearly indicate authorship information and rules you want others to follow when modifying your project. If you are the original author and are planning to launch a company, make sure to have a name, visual identity, and clear authorship and license information before sharing your documentation.
Foldarap — the foldable, open-source, 3D printer designed by Emmanuel Gilloz — is a great example of open-hardware best-practices: a great name, a real identity, a strong author voice, while fully giving back to the RepRap community.
Open Source hardware is good for your users
Respect your customers
Open source hardware is the best choice you can make for your customers. By allowing them to open and modify your product, by sharing information on what your product is made of, how to repair it, and how to build it yourself, your customers will trust you and support you.
When we buy patented products, we don’t really buy a product but simply the right to use it. With open hardware, products are not lended properties; they become available for the community.
Learn from your users
Many entrepreneurs don’t really see the point of being open source, as they don’t expect their final users to open and modify the product. In many cases, makers are not your main market even if they are interested in working on your product.
Build your product for your final user, not for your development community. And remember that it can be very beneficial to make your users understand how your product works, how to repair it, or how to copy it. They will start talking with you, give you feedback about it, and share improvement ideas. Open hardware is beneficial if you know how to listen, love your customer, and want to actually improve your product.
Make your products affordable
All in all, making the choice of open source hardware is a great way to lower costs and offer more affordable products. From prototyping to market studies, HR to R&D, open hardware offers a very competitive alternative to the traditional patented road. It explains why so many successful open-source hardware companies started from scratch and why so few need outside investors.
As a final thought, I’d like to share this great quote found in a 3D printing blog post from 2012. It just says it all. Brook Drumm, founder and CEO of Printrbot — a leading open-source affordable 3D printing company — wrote:
For the record, Printrbot will always be an open-source company. Only time will tell if that’s a good idea or not. It may help distinguish us from the competition, or we may die trying. We have already played a small part in pushing the 3D printing forward, and there is much more to do. I’d rather die with a legacy behind us that stretched as far and wide as the open-sourced information can spread than to be driven by fear and hold tightly to every last dollar we can squeeze from the market with closed hardware.
Do you think open-source hardware is beneficial for early-stage startups? Let’s discuss in the comments below.