Meta business plan for Free Software online services

Bonjour @apxltd,

I understand that you would be happy to setup a new company, get it running and see it grow even after you decide to move on. That is something you are good at and your chances of success are excellent. It is gratifying and that may be all you are looking for.

But there may be a way to make this even more appealing. There are a wide range of online services based on Free Software that are in the same situation as Hostea: a technical solution with no prospect to become sustainable, to pay for the costs of running it. The problem is so wide spread that you have initiatives like https://sustainoss.org/ dedicated to it and no real solution to propose. For various reasons this is a problem that is getting an increased level of attention and this is what I refer to when I write “in the wake of the sustainability crisis”.

If you can crack the case for Hostea, there is a very good chance it will also solve the problem of a large number of similar projects. In a sense, the business plan you will come up with may very well be the mother of all Free Software business models.

Just a thought :slight_smile:

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If I can help people that are really passionate about their craft build a sustainable small businesses, I’ll be happy. I think the world needs more of those :slight_smile:

I’ll be honest, I don’t really get FOSS, and I probably never will. But I love how you put it - “foss vegetarian” or something. There’s an analogy here.

Years ago, I apparently “saved” a local restaurant that was really struggling. I tried their food, told them it was actually good, and they should drop the whole “vegan thing” and just focus on healthy. Put vegan in the fine print or something. Hardly anyone cares about vegan food, but there’s a plenty of people who want healthy stuff.

That’s super-obvious, and somehow no one else told them that. But focusing on that simple branding change brought them enough attention and customers to survive.

Anyway, hopefully I can help y’all with some observations and some small business and marketing basics :wink:

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Your candor regarding your lack of understanding of FOSS is precisely why I suggest you aim higher than Hostea or Gitea and help the entire FOSS community. Not at first but eventually.

By helping out Hostea you will inevitably gain key FOSS insights that are hidden in plain sight. FOSS has unique properties that cannot be replicated by proprietary software and each of them is a differentiator that could be used as a competitive advantage in a business model.

For instance when a government agency demands sovereignty, it automatically disqualifies anything but FOSS. Non FOSS based solutions may slip through the cracks, for instance when the ministry of defense accepts to acquire Microsoft product on the condition that the source code is deposited in a vault. But the tools that would allow them to reproduce the binary are out of reach, although they are essential. Once a company understands this, and Red Hat certainly did very early in the late 90’, it can strategize to leverage this unique quality.

This particular FOSS quality and how it can help a FOSS business models is easy to get in 2022 because it has been explained and exploited for over 20 years. It will become increasingly obvious over time and there is no way around it: proprietary software is, by definition, something with strings attached. Sovereignty is, by definition, the absence of strings attached. Satisfying sovereignty requirements with proprietary software amounts to trying to create dry water.

Another example, directly relevant to Hostea, is that it is in the nature of online services to be federated. In other words, trying to create an online service that is not federated is ultimately a self-defeating proposition. This is not a widely understood idea, by a long shot, and I’ve never read anything articulating this. I even doubt anyone said it publicly. But it has a direct impact on everything Hostea does at the technical level.

There is no need to dive into this particular idea (federated online services) now. But whatever successful business model is implemented for Hostea, it could leverage it as a differentiator from GitHub and any other proprietary forge because there is no way to make a federated online service based on proprietary service. At best it is possible to fake it, but you’ll never get the real thing nor the properties that you can derive from it. When we come up with a business model that incorporates this idea and we demonstrate it works in practice, you will have gained enough FOSS knowledge to significantly influence how FOSS, as whole, becomes sustainable.

To summarize, I think it’s worth keeping in mind there are untapped FOSS differentiators that may be key to the success of Hostea. We have a unique opportunity to find a treasure hidden in plain sight. The kind of treasure that does not need to be kept secret because it takes decades to be understood. The kind of treasure that we may be able to discover because, between all of us, we have a combination of skill set that is very rare.

P.S.

This is all very seriously philosophical :slight_smile: I’m tempted to tune it down by adding that we are more likely to run in circle and miss the discovery of the century by an inch. But that it won’t stop me, at all. Then @aschrijver would gently remind me that expressing myself in a negative way is not good way to inspire anyone. So I won’t do that. Or did I ? :crazy_face:

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It sounds like the biggest challenge will be helping the community understand that hardly anyone cares about FOSS, and if they want to build a business, they need to drop the whole “FOSS thing” and focus on what more people care about :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

I guess it’s like veganism. If you want to people to go vegan, then go work for some organization like PETA that tries to educate people, lobbies politicians, etc. If you want to be a vegan and sell vegan food, then call it health food and accept that most of your customers will never be vegan. And if you reaaaaly want to do both, then make a bunch of money so you can donate enough money to PETA to make a difference. Otherwise, you’ll accomplish neither.

Spoiler alert. The business model will be very basic, in that it (1) will provide solutions to problems that people are willing to pay to solve, (2) communicate that solution clearly to those people, and (3) find enough customers to sustain the business :smiley:

I suppose it’s like losing weight; Ultimately you just “eat less and exercise more”, but learning how to actually do that isn’t so easy.

My feeling is that having “true” federated online service is not one of those problems that a lot people are willing to pay to solve, but I could be wrong. Hence, all that market research I assigned… and will assign :sweat_smile:

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I think (1) is covered already: that’s what SourceForge, GitLab & GitHub do. Hostea has everything it needs to do the same, that is (i) a software codebase (Gitea) and (ii) engineers who are skilled enough to provide services to customers.

What it does not have, at all, is (2) and (3).

Not quite – but those are two really important pieces that go into making a great a solution :slight_smile:

We don’t know what the solutions are yet, because it’s still not clear what niche problems Hostea can solve. Market research will drive that discovery.

I’m very new to this and it would greatly help me focus on what you need if I had an example to get inspiration from. Market research document(s) that you would consider representative of what is needed for Hostea. Do you have something like that?

This is very similar to how confusing it can be for someone to write a grant application without any example to get inspiration from. I did that early 2021 and it took me weeks of back and forth adjustments similar to the discussion we’re having now until I was able to write down something that was good (and it was since the funding was granted). I since published half a dozen grant applications (see this one or that one) and I’ve been told they were instrumental in creating other successful grant applications.

I don’t have any representative examples, unfortunately.

The type of research we’re doing right now is internal research that we’ll all use as a team, and is mostly fact-finding and list creation. I’m a bit hesitant to share some of examples because they lack context, they’re internal products, and they’re intermediate work (so they’re not good quality). But I’ll try anyways :slight_smile:

List-based research is all about lots of data compared similarly. The first thing that comes to mind, is a research project we did that researched CI servers. It took several iterations to figure out what facts were important to compile - but it ended up as a 20+ page word document with copy/pastes of text from the web pages, links, etc. Each CI tool has itts own page in the document, and was easy to print/read/digest for everyone.

I found a version of that, but it’s just some intermediate report. The final report was used for a lot of things, including making a “listicle” for alternatives to Jenkins.

Here’s another example of fact-based research on the topic of Edge computing: [Lerna] Edge Computing Report V2.docx (364.4 KB). This report was used, in part, to develop a solution specific to this niche, and create key talking points for content about edge:

As you’ll see, it’s just a bunch of information that’s largely copy/pasted.

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This is very helpful as it is, thanks.

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An aspect of “Tragedy of the Commons” lies in the fact that precious few FOSS projects are able to make the competitive advantage clear enough as selling points. I agree with @apxltd that if this is not clear, then “FOSS” is meaningless to many companies. They might use FOSS, but more in the sense of “free beer” than of “freedom”.

There’s important requirements / objectives to be made part of the Hostea business plan: all software is FOSS, certain cultural / ethical values must be guaranteed, and the company must be on a level of transparency rarely seen. These requirements if not listed and explored may be deal-breakers, so we should make them SMART goals. But that is just a start.

→ A requirements wiki post to list those?

Most of all we want to think about bootstrapping a Sustainable Business. Finding an attractive enough value proposition that can generate revenue. FOSS plays a role there, but just as one part of the whole story. It would be a good exercise to formulate FOSS in a way businesses understand, and as a “Healthy food” → “Vegan” trajectory. A path you want to guid them to.

→ Start of a FOSS marketing campaign cheat sheet (also wiki post)?

Forge federation - or rather what it enables - is an interesting outlook, but not a major selling point right now. The same is true for the benefits that could flow from an Ecosystem Alliance ( which can be along the full scope of the Free Software Development Lifecycle, FSDL). All this will not be available / production-ready for some time.

I agree very much that this could be a strong differentiator in the long run. And a smaller differentiator in the short term: By showing you have vision, are on a path of exciting innovation, and there’s more to the company than just hosting services. That can help in the decision-making to become a customer.

But federation is a purely technical concerns. It is as meaningless as the mere mention of “FOSS”. If you’d be pitching Hostea you should speak in business terms. What does federation enable for companies, what is the added value? Why would I get :heart_eyes: eyes as a business owner hearing you talk about what federation will unlock for me? Think this is a good exercise for you @dachary and @realaravinth to learn to toggle the switch from technical to business / product mindset.


A tool that I recently used myself is the Community Open Canvas, a derivation of Lean Canvas created by Mozilla. For Solidground I created this canvas. (For @apxltd: Solidground/Groundwork is a non-commercial, AGPL-licensed project, and a foundation for more to come)

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:100: – and as a niche player, this is essential. Hostea is not IBM, so whoever risks their career to choose will look beyond the product into the founders, the roadmap, etc. Definitely need strong “About Us” talking points to capture all this.

:100: x :100:

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Anything that depends on me learning how to do that has a no chance of success. I can however understand and appreciate the work done by someone with such a mindset and help them on the technical side of things. I am, first and foremost, a software engineer.

@dachary you weren’t born knowing how to engineer software, right? You can learn this too :wink:

But @aschrijver is right; you guys absolutely need to be able to speak business/product so you can articulate your vision. You’ll be better at that than anyone else, and once you climb the first peak of the learning curve, you’ll be able to just keep climbing.

You really don’t need to be that great at this aspect, but you need to be “good enough”. You’ll know when you’re there.

I’m a software engineer that had to learn all this too. We all did. I did it the hard way. Soo… much… failure, with no mentorship or guidance. Not that I’d have probably listened anyways :joy:

Once we have the market research, we can start to “reverse engineer” what problems and solutions those companies solve, and you can start to see how the language works.

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