No Slinky Companies

I attended the 2007 iteration of the Esprit Entrepreneur Awards last night here in Boulder, Colorado. The Awards are held each year as the culmination of a nearly week long series of events honoring the local entrepreneurial community in Boulder. Organized by the Boulder Chamber of Commerce and run largely by volunteers from the entrepreneurial community, the Esprit events have really grown organically over the years to reflect and embody the community they seek to honor.

Among the notable winners, local VC, angel investor, entrepreneur and blogger Brad Feld was honored with the Rob Planchard Award. Named in honor of the late Rob Planchard, the award goes each year to an individual who has brought exceptional energy and support to the entrepreneurial community. As Brad noted in accepting the award, when he moved here in 1995 he knew only one person (who moved away 3 months later) and had few expectations of doing any meaningful business in Boulder. What Brad and others (including yours truly) have found is that Boulder is home to an outstanding entrepreneurial community and is a truly inspiring place to live. The rest as they say is history and Brad’s track record with Intensity Ventures, Softbank, Mobius, the Foundry Group, TechStars and other endeavors speaks for itself.

Capping off the night, Bill Perry of Softbridge Advisors won the Lifetime Achievement Award. I do not know Bill very well (yet), but really appreciate and admire the work he has put in helping Boulder become the hub for technology entrepreneurism that it is today. As Bill noted in his acceptance speech, it wasn’t always this way and there have certainly been low points. In Bill’s words, times when there were far too many “Slinky Companies” — those that “aren’t very useful but are fun to watch as they tumble down the stairs.” A line to remember — in large part because of its truth.

It really is true that behind any successful entrepreneur is a strong community — and Boulder is no exception. As this year’s master of ceremonies Mark Weakley noted during the event, while this year’s award winners are all in the audience tonight, what we should all remember is that next year’s award winners (and the winners for the year after that) are also all in the audience — we just don’t know who they are yet. Kudos to Brad, Bill and the other winners, and thanks to all those who have helped build our entrepreneurial community here in Boulder.


OLPC, Now for You and Me (Too)

For those of you who do not already know, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project was established by MIT Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte with the stated mission of developing and providing a means for “learning, self-expression and exploration to the nearly two billion children of the developing world with little or no access to education.” The means for accomplishing this mission? Place a low-cost, functional, durable, networked, laptop computer in the hands of each of these children. The result? The XO laptop computer. While the XO did not meet the initial $100 per laptop target price tag set by OLPC (the XO comes in at around $188), it is quite impressive in its own right. And, yes, the software stack on the XO is comprised entirely of free and open source software — allowing children who choose to freely modify, build and innovate on top of the software installed on their machines.

In part to help offset the increased cost of the XO, OLPC announced today a “Give 1 Get 1” Program. Under the program, U.S. donors will be able to buy two laptops, one for themselves and one to be shipped to a child in either Afghanistan, Cambodia, Hati or Rwanda. The program is scheduled to run for only two weeks starting Nov. 12. More information is available on the Program web site.

While OLPC has garnered its share of criticism, I for one am hoping that they prove their critics wrong. As someone far wiser than me once said, “Knowledge is power, but shared knowledge empowers,” and I can think of few things more empowering than sharing this much knowledge with the world. I encourage you all to check out OLPC and the Give1 Get 1 Program. In the meantime, you can also “give” an XO laptop right now by making a $200 donation to OLPC or get involved as a volunteer.


Pity the Source Code Escrow Provider

Like most lawyers, I receive calls on a fairly regular basis from third party service providers looking to sell me one of any number of legal-related services — translation, legal research, drafting, advertising, the list goes on and on. Today’s call was from a source code escrow provider. Thankfully, I was out of my office at the time, so the call went to voicemail. When I listened to the message it began as most do. The caller explained that she had reviewed my firm’s web site and determined based on my biography that I was involved with software licensing. She then went on to explain the services provided by her company and to extol the value of those services to someone in my area of practice.

It was clear from the message that the caller was reading my biography as she was leaving the message, and I would probably have stopped listening to the message once I realized this if I had not been fairly impressed with her ability to interject facts from my bio into her message as she spoke. Just then, at about the time that a typical reader of my bio would reach the part mentioning my work with open source software, the caller suddenly paused in mid sentence and said that she (ummm) saw that I was also involved with open source software licensing. Then, switching to a slightly more serious tone (and clearly reading from a prepared script), she began again just about as suddenly as she had stopped, indicating that open source software licensing was, as I surely knew, one of their biggest competitors and a “real threat” to their industry. Without missing a beat, she then asked that I call her back to discuss my involvement with open source software to help her “help” me better understand the advantages of source code escrow over open source.

What a hoot! I never really thought of open source software licensing as sufficiently threatening to strike that level of fear in the hearts of those in the source code escrow industry, much less sufficient fear to merit canned sales scripts to try to deal with the threat. It certainly makes sense though — with each software licensee who receives source code under an open source license there is one less licensee in need of a source code escrow or a third party escrow provider. I am not sure that open source is yet poised to send the source code escrow industry the way of the dinosaurs, but based on my call today, the escrow industry sure seems to be looking at it that way.

I still may call the salesperson back to hear what she has to say. Who knows, if I play hard to get maybe she will throw in a set of steak knives or even a toaster. ;-)

Open Source Dilbert

I enjoy reading Dilbert once in a while. Who doesn’t? The genius of Dilbert creator Scott Adams is that he has a knack for capturing subjects that resonate with the experiences of most all of us who have worked in or with corporate America. I had a chuckle from the Dilbert cartoon below (forwarded to me by a friend who received it as part of today’s Daily Dilbert email from the official Dilbert web site). If you have been involved in assessing whether to use open source software within an organization (particularly at the behest of management), this cartoon likely strikes a humorous chord with you as well.

Open Source Dilbert

While the term “open source” never took on the aura of a dot com era buzz word, I have seen plenty of instances where the adoption and use of open source (or even just the allure of associating a company with being “open source”) has been looked upon as far too much of a panacea (and a free one at that). The fact of the matter is, however, that while there is often little actual cost of acquiring open source software, the use and implementation of open source does have a cost. Likewise, while it is relatively easy to adopt the term “open source” into a corporate marketing and PR plan, there is a cost involved with actually leveraging open source in your business model (or actually becoming an “open source” company).

On the legal side, these costs involve dealing with license and intellectual property management and compliance issues. The good news is that not unlike proprietary software, these issues and their associated costs are increasingly quantifiable and manageable. However, also not unlike proprietary software, these issues and costs tend to increase in magnitude if not recognized and dealt with up front and in real time. Nonetheless, while many of the “trade publications” actually do a decent job of giving equal time to both the acquisition and compliance costs of open source software, it always seems to be the “free” (as in “free beer”) part of open source software that garners the most attention – often leading to open source compliance being done in hindsight only well after the choice to use and implement open source software has been made (and at far greater cost).

I suppose part of the genius of Dilbert is that it captures this truth. If you find yourself in the situation of dealing with a decision to use or implement open source software, just don’t let this be your truth as well. ;-)