In business speak, an “emerging market” is a market that is not yet well developed but on the rise and shows strong potential to be as robust as other developed markets. The Wikipedia definition focuses purely on countries, but this is a limited view of the meaning of “market.”
Whether a market is developed or emerging depends entirely on the product or service being offered and the receptiveness and awareness of a market to that product or service. For instance, Italy would not qualify as an emerging market by the Wikipedia definition. Yet, with an Internet penetration of only 58.5% of the country, it could be considered one for broadband Internet providers.
By this more inclusive definition, free and open source software (FOSS) is an emerging market for most of the corporate and business world. It’s a new land, abundant in resources and promise, and businesses are getting very excited about the possibilities. It’s also an entirely foreign culture, and many businesses are struggling to learn how to operate in this new land.
A new land
The place where business meets an emerging market is a liminal zone, which is space that is neither here (standard business practice) nor there (Wild West mentality), and where transformations are more likely to occur. In literature and mythology, all of the most exciting things occur in liminal zones. Operations in a liminal space, such as the meeting of an emerging market and a business, are not as constrained by a “business as usual” mentality; therefore, they are free to explore new solutions. The meeting of diverse approaches and philosophies can lead to incredible innovation in processes and products. With such potential, a growing number of businesses are looking to enter the FOSS emerging market, which is no surprise.
Entering a market is entering into a relationship, and like all relationships there is more than one perspective to consider. According to a study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, this is where many organizations fail when attempting to enter emerging markets. Being very familiar with and confident in “how things are done,” organizations enter emerging markets with a business-as-usual attitude. They fail to do the necessary market research and don’t learn enough about the culture, the market needs, or even the communication norms and language. Unsurprisingly, their efforts lead to disappointment and a withdrawal from the market, usually to the benefit of local competitors.
This business-as-usual approach leads to expectation mismatch. Businesses expect that their usual go-to-market strategies will gain them entry, their usual processes will get things done, their usual messaging will gain them positive attention and brand recognition, and their usual language is appropriate for all communication. Some companies entering a FOSS community or project expect to mold them to their needs through force of numbers, either human or financial. This works about as well as you’d imagine. Companies expect Step 3: Profit will follow. Disappointed by unmet expectations, businesses decide that FOSS will never work for them. They withdraw from participation in FOSS and leave that emerging market to their competitors.
When businesses are unable to participate in FOSS, doors close for everyone. It deprives companies of the benefits of FOSS participation, including faster development and innovation, more efficient recruiting, word-of-mouth marketing, and lower total cost of ownership. The community or project becomes deprived of the benefits of corporate support, such as wages for maintainers, support for essential infrastructure, and sponsorship of events and participants.
How to step foot onto new land
As businesses set foot on the foreign land of FOSS participation, they should take care to treat it as they would any emerging market: with the respect and consideration due an unfamiliar culture. Businesses should tailor their entry to the market and not engage the autopilot to business as usual. Taking the time to pause, reflect, research, and listen can pay remarkable dividends and better ensure success. Part of this reflection should be confirming that the FOSS organization knows what it wants to get out of the relationship, and ensuring that this is a mutually beneficial arrangement. As with entering any new endeavor, you can reduce the time required to ramp up the team by hiring someone already familiar with this emerging market and its pitfalls.
While those of us on the management and business side of things learn how we enter the emerging market of FOSS, there’s no reason FOSS communities, projects, and supporters can’t do a little to help out our end. As with any relationship, meeting in the middle is the best way. For a successful entry into this emerging market, a business must learn the FOSS language, culture, and needs. The FOSS community can do its part to help a business do this, perhaps even by reaching out and offering to teach them. This may be one of the best approaches, because it also allows the FOSS community the opportunity to learn the language, culture, and needs of the business, making all communication more efficient and successful.
Most importantly, the FOSS community must try to be patient, non-judgmental, and empathetic when businesses inevitably stumble. Many people still retain an old-fashioned perception of emerging markets as savage or unsophisticated, although this is a view that has no place in technology or in business. The same can be said of business’ perceptions of FOSS. Many still see free and open source projects and practitioners as dogmatic, phlegmatic, and anarchic. Assisting businesses to enter the FOSS emerging market and picking them up should they fall will go a long way toward dispelling these misconceptions and we will all reap the benefits of broadening the scope of our collaborations.