Two years ago I started putting my plans for a technical cooperative into practice. I put up a site at coopercate.org, and I started cold-calling charter schools who I thought would be interested in a community of education technologists and the associated IT services we would provide. I got a few paying customers, but not enough traction to become self-funding, and my opportunities with Centeva and, then Alfresco, took me away from the endeavor. However, before moving on I summarized my ideas, experiences, and lessons-learned in a presentation I gave at the Utah Open Source Conference in 2009. You can see that presentation here.
In retrospect, I think their were two big problems that made it hard to bootstrap Coopercate:
- The first big problem was me. I’m at a stage of life where I have a lot of opportunities, a lot of mouths to feed, and little time or patience for long bootstraps. Every hour I spend on a side project is an hour I am not spending with one of my kids at this precious stage in their lives. I want to do good but I won’t trade what is best, so I need to be careful in how I prioritize. There will come a time in life when I have more flexibility to work on experimental visions.
- The second big problem was market size. Choosing Utah Charter Schools as my target market was a good way to focus on a market where I had a lot of expertise, but it is a very limited pool of customers who were very risk-averse and cash-strapped. It only took me a few months to reach out to every potential cooperative member and pitch my idea. In five months I had combed the pool in some detail, had one paying customer, three interested potential customers, and an empty pipeline. The only way to grow at that point was to change opinions in my limited pool, or expand the pool. Option one would take time, and option two would add risk and complexity to an already precarious initiative.
However, I came away convinced that the ideas behind an open source technical cooperative are sound, and the challenges were details of execution. I am pleased to say these ideas are being successfully put into practice by the dedicated group at OpenCoopt. OpenCoopt avoided both of these problems:
- The founding team, lead by Blair Preston, is able to provide a focus and dedication that I did not.
- The customer pool is bigger, as they are focusing on all non-profits, and are mostly located on the East Coast where the customer density is bigger than in the Mountain West.
I was pleased when Blair reached out to me and encouraged me to participate in the OpenCoopt community. I was still nurturing Coopercate, and it was clear that everyone would be better served by influencing my small community to join with theirs (maybe one day we will start a special interest group for educators under the OpenCoopt umbrella). I can’t say that I have made much of a contribution yet, but it is a pleasure to participate and see their organization grow. It is gradual and organic, but they are helping real customers solve real problems with open source tools.
Why don’t you join the community and participate with us?