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.
Prototype faster: 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.
Find teammates: 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 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.
(Source: Emmanuel Gilloz, Foldarap)
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