Sometimes when I tell people that all the projects I am making are open-source, people think I am crazy, especially other entrepreneurs. Of course, it looks crazy compared to the classical way to start a hardware startup.
A typical hardware startup founder will come with an idea of a product, make a prototype, and then get a patent to protect his/her idea. Only then he or she will actually make the product and expose it to the world. Let’s see how the open hardware approach is different.
By going 100 % open-source with my hardware ventures, I chose a different approach. And I can already tell you it does work and it is not crazy, simply because I have many examples of successful businesses that adopted the same model. These companies have been very successful by selling open-source hardware products. For each product they build, you can find a nice description on their website, and if you want you can download all the schematics, layouts and list of components.
So it means that if somebody want to build the exact same product at home, it is actually possible and these companies would not gain a dime. Crazy, right ? And still, it works. You will find four examples about successful companies that are using Open-Source Hardware in another article on our website. So why did I decide to follow the same principles for my hardware businesses? Here are my reasons why:
1. You can get faster feedback from your customers
The first reason that comes to my mind is that sharing all the sources from your products really engages your users in the development of your products. Compared to the traditional model of protecting your ideas as much as possible before selling the product, the idea here is to put the first version of the product out there as early as possible.
It is the hardware equivalent of the model that Eric Ries presents in The Lean Startup: develop a first usable version of your product (called a MVP for Minimum Viable Product) and then put it in front of your potential customers to get some feedback. Then, based on this feedback, you can iterate on several versions to have the product your audience really wants to buy. Not only your customers will comment and give feedback on your product in early stages, but because it is open-source some of them will also modify the product themselves and actively participate in its development.
2. It creates a community around your products
By sharing your design with the world, you will also get much more people interested by your craft than if you were just protecting everything with patents. And because of that, the website of your hardware company will become more than just a place to sell your products: it will become a real community where people can speak about your designs and share what they realised with what you are selling.
This community around your products also solves a lot of customers support problems: because your customers can directly talk to their peers, for example on forums, they can also help each other if they have problems with your products.
3. You avoid the patent nightmare
I remember having a 2-days course about patents when I was still a student. The instructor was directly coming from the European patent office and was very competent, but even if he tried it’s best to make the process to get a patent as simple as possible, it still seems like a nightmare to me. There were so many steps, you had to hire a patent lawyer to get you through the process, and of course it involved a lot of costs.
And this dissuaded me for a while from ever starting a hardware company: the barrier of entry was just too high. For me, using Open-Source Hardware is a way to remove this barrier of entry to start a hardware business: you just share everything instead of protecting what you are making.
4. You help hardware innovation move forward
The last reason won’t save you or get you any money, but it is also very important for me. By sharing your designs with the world, you also help to move things forward. Hardware is cool again these days, and I am sure that hardware innovation wouldn’t progress as fast as it every design was protected by a patent. Releasing products under Open-Source Hardware licenses will help to inspire other people looking for ideas and push the hardware innovation forward.
What about reasons NOT to use Open-Source Hardware?
Of course, there is the typical objection: what if your visitors just takes the sources from your products and build them themselves? You’ll go bankrupt! It’s true, and it can happen. But looking at the successful examples at the start of the article, it is very unlikely that will happen. Of course, some expert customers will do it and just build the products themselves. Other people will even build their own version of the products and sell them under their own brand.
Look at what happened with Arduino: there is a lot of Arduino clones out there that you can buy. And still, Arduino has not gone bankrupt. And simply because it actually concerns a few users: if you are doing a good job on your community, and giving excellent content to your users, most of the people in your community will be willing to thank you by buying your products. Also, most people don’t want to go through all the process to fabricating the PCB, buying all the components, soldering them … they just want to use the product.
So what do you think about the four reasons I mentioned? Are you also using open-source for your hardware business?