Some of the most traditionally conservative investors at Bain Capital Ventures have jumped on board, hosting the Open Source Start-up Summit this past spring.

In a blog post entitled “Why you should open source your start-up”, Nick Winter, co-founder of CodeCombat, described the amazing community engagement that followed from their first open source release. He closed with “Everyone goes closed source by default, but we believe the convention should be reversed”.

"But open source isn’t simply a matter of flipping a switch. It’s less like being “gluten-free”, and more like being Catholic."

A renaissance

As of this writing, Hortonworks (HDP), the most recent IPO of an open source company, is worth roughly a billion dollars. And the last few years have seen a true renaissance of open source companies, with OpenROV, Hashicorp, Docker, CoreOS, and others headlining a list of large funding rounds and major partnership announcements.

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My own employer, Pivotal, is a two-year-old spin-out of VMware and EMC composed almost entirely of the open source assets of those parent companies. Our flagship product, Cloud Foundry, is one of the fastest growing open source projects in recent history.

But open source isn’t simply a matter of flipping a switch. It’s less like being “gluten-free”, and more like being Catholic.

Introducing a third group

In 2015, from Global Climate Change to Free Speech issues in France, we are finally waking up to what economists call “externalities” and social scientists call “The law of unintended consequences”—what most of us would call side effects.

Ordinary business has two primary stakeholders—the people you pay (generally called employees or vendors), and the people who pay you (generally called customers). Everyone else who is impacted by your business is thought of as unimportant.

In many modern organizations however deliberate thought is given to this third group—generally called the “community”. They may include “users”, who take advantage of your business but don’t actually pay for it. They may also include “contributors” who help to develop or support your product, even though you don’t pay them. At least, not directly.

Most companies are not well structured to operate as part of a larger community. As a brief look at any typical org. chart will show you, we arrange roles and responsibilities and titles around our two classic stakeholders—the people we pay, and the people we get paid by.

So if you’re serious about being an open source company, how do you get started?

Let’s look at what ‘not’ to do. The original “open source” community site SourceForge is liberally littered with the generous detritus of “thrown over the wall” so-called “open source” efforts.

At the dotScale conference in Paris a few summers past, I waxed verbose on the idea that your project’s codebase will always end up reflecting the community that contributes to it. More importantly, that community will reflect the culture of the original team.

For most new start-ups, the most important effort should be to engage in ‘existing’ open source communities; through osmosis, the key cultural behaviours of “rough consensus and working code”, assuming positive intent, and honoring contribution at all levels, should rub off.