(Free)-and-Open-Source

(Free)-and-Open-Source

STARTUP EPISODE 1: What can you do with less than 200 EURO/year and with a little bit of technical knowledge?

(I am talking about business and software with a bit of dev flavour)

So, what’s the problem here? Is this a discussion about software in general? Nope, it is not. It is about business and about starting a new business. Let’s assume that you are in this point … you have a good idea (but not too much money to spend for buying stuff and hiring people) and you want to turn it into a new business. What can be so complicated in this, just make a business plan, find an investor and your problem will be solved. Simple as that! Or not? Of course, not … investors are not putting their money only into a nice business plan.

Anyway, we are now living the digital era. Probably you heard the words “digital transformation”. There are many definitions for this term, let’s choose one of them, probably the most accessible, from Wikipedia:

Digital Transformation (DX) is the novel use of digital technology to solve traditional problems. These digital solutions enable inherently new types of innovation and creativity, rather than simply enhance and support traditional methods. 1

For many business owners the meaning of digital transformation is still that office apps shall be used instead of traditional paperwork and communications shall be moved on Whatsapp because is trendy (don’t laugh yet! Whatsapp business may bring some fresh air). There is something I wrote about the impact of digital on people and organisations, you can find it in the article related to Future Organisations.

Now, going back to the subject … if, as (future) business owner you have these thoughts about the digital transformation, better not to read more of this article, you may get angry. If not, you may ask your self what to digitally transform to a new business? Nothing, I guess, because it is new. Instead, you may think of making it from the start as digital as you can. Easy think, easy do these days … but at what cost? And this brings us to the main topic … what should be the approach? traditional software products model or free open source model? Well, there is no right answer to this question … mostly if you would go for a cloud based external hosting services where everything is “as a service” (and why shouldn’t you do so?). To be honest, I believe that the old-fashioned on-premises systems will not be for too much time among us. I mean what reasonable business owner (especially SMEs owners) will have the availability to block his money on useless licenses and hardware and struggle with assets depreciation instead of having all of these as pure OPEX and always up to date? Anyway, let’s go back …

There are at least two perspectives here … The first one is from which angle are you looking at the digital environment for your new business, user or dev. This perspective is probably the most important because the result may depend a lot on which of which are you, a little bit of both will be ideal. If you are not a little bit of both, maybe is better to find someone who is because otherwise the outcome may look like the Frankenstein’s monster and can become at least as uncontrollable as that creature (and this does not have anything to do with how much “traditional” or ”open source” you are). Nevertheless, do not worry, whatever you will create you will always find enough power to bring it to life (thanks to cloud and hosting technologies) but this is not the main subject of this article.

Another major perspective is the cost … the main question that pops out is: IS OPEN SOURCE SO FREE? Wow! Don’t shoot, I know very well that I am not the first one who ask this question. However, it is a bit weird but I think that the answer lays in the first perspective mentioned in this article.

Let’s set a baseline. What it is absolutely necessary to have in place for a new business?

  1. you need your domain, some storage and email.
  2. you need your website (which means that you need for sure a web server and most probably a database server also).
  3. you may need a CRM, probably a HR also.
  4. you may need an online store to sell your products or a dedicated online platform to sell your services.
  5. very important!!! you know, the future is mobile (to some extend even the present is mobile), traditional web will give more and more ground to mobile apps and this will be accelerated thanks to 5G technology which is already at our door. So, when you think about digital transformation, sites, online business, it is crucial to think about mobile or at least about good responsiveness
  6. all of these must be integrated in order to automate the business activities as much as possible. Do not ignore integration and automation, without these your digital business will be no more than a single step ahead of doing business on email and messenger (that is digital only, not digitally transformed).
  7. once you have all of these, you may need to protect it and to ensure secured access to your resources. This means qualified SSL and trustful authentication of all requests for data coming from users or from external electronic services
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That’s the baseline. On top of this you can start to refine your digital business. How much effort/money/knowledge you will put into this it depends on the specific of your business, on the volume of revenue you can generate and on the interest of potential investors (if you decide to go on this way to accelerate your growth through external investments). However, building on an existing stable and affordable baseline can give you the comfort needed to focus on business and not on daily ops. Up to a certain level, the baseline can prove the concept and viability of your business idea or business model and this is something the investors will put their money into.

QUESTION 1: Could it be possible to have the baseline in place for less than 200 EURO/year OPEX?

Good question, big challenge! The answer is yes, you can, at least the most important part of it which will allow you to start and run your business. Go for a cloud based hosting service and you will have at least the domain, storage, web server, email and qualified SSL. Choose a service that offers also database servers within the same price, most of the relevant providers gives this option too (my pick is MySql). Then think on what web platform will be better for you. My pick is WordPress (PHP based). Yeah! You will hear a lot of bad words about it … is not secure (a lot of cyber attacks are going on against WP websites but hey! is there anything 100% safe in the digital world?). Despite all bad words, do not forget that close to 30% of all websites worldwide are running on WP and this is by far the biggest market share of any web platform. There should be a reason behind this huge market share, maybe this is related to the fact that the platform is free, extremely easy to be installed and maintained even by rookies or to the fact that it is so easy to create and publish good and nice looking content … I don’t know, just thinking at loud!

You will also hear a lot of bad words from programmers … like “PHP is old-fashion, it is for grandpa and grandma!”. Maybe they are right on this (although the latest versions of PHP were released very recently and there are also other very much alive and forever-young grand-grandpas’ like C++ on which nobody dares to complain yet) but PHP is perfectly doing the job, it is easy to learn and you will find tons of really useful and free PHP plugins and business applications to deploy on your digital environment.

Of course, there are also some dangerous cons, not only beautiful pros when we talk about WP and PHP. Cons are mostly related exactly with that tons of free plugins and business apps that you can further deploy. On one hand you have virtual unlimited freedom to choose, on the other hand this freedom the most easy way to create that Frankenstein’s monster I was talking about earlier. Don’t worry, it is not difficult to figure out what to put into the platform, you only have to read some reviews. Or to wait for the next episode of this article … 😊. Or, faster and better, to contact us here … advices are always free!

QUESTION 2: OK, I got the service, I got the platform, now what?

Well, bad news! Now you have to work a little bit … 😊 After all, the challenge is to stay within 200 EURO/year. Ok, you may say that your own work is also a cost and you are right about this … but remember, you are a bold entrepreneur having a great idea and willing to start your business, this cannot happen without a little bit of sacrifice from your side. What I can promise is that you would not need to work more than one week on having your digital environment up and running. So, following the ideas mentioned under Question 1, you managed to solve points 1, half of 2 (still the website needs to be populated with good content but it is functional already), 5 and half of 7 (qualified SSL is there already) from the baseline.

Let’s discuss about point 3 from the baseline. This is about CRM, and HR, mandatory tools for running your business. Of course ERP and Payroll are also crucial but my advice is to focus on CRM and HR. For ERP and Payroll is always better to use external services. My recommendations will be:

  • for CRM: SuiteCRM is really doing the job. It is free, easy to install and ready to be used immediately, without any customisation. You can have it up and running in 30 minutes. It comes with a good documentation about how to customise it and with a visual customisation environment (no dev skills required). It comes with a decent well documented API for integrations. It comes with a powerful custom entities generators (besides the traditional CRM entities: leads, opportunities, contracts, invoices etc.) so you can adapt it to your business without having any coding skills. Of course that you can say that all modern CRMs are doing all of these as well. Yes, you are right … but this one is 100% free and available for deployment and installation on your environment.
  • for HR: Sentrifugo is a more than decent solution (also 100% free). You have all what you need, recruiting and hiring, performance management, assets and expenses, projects and timesheets, exit management. Also available for download and installation on your environment.
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So, point 3 is solved. What about point 4 (online store and/or online business platforms)? Well, even easier than 3. There are multiple solutions already mature and verified. Being consistent with the comments under Question 1, I can suggest Woo Commerce but there are also some others, easier to install and configure (for example WP Download Manager if you focus on digital products only). Of course, these are coming with free and paid versions but the free ones are perfectly doing the job at least until your business grows enough and allows you to put more money into the yearly IT spending.

At this point you may say that I have come to contradict myself. I mean, I am a huge fan of cloud and SaaS but still I recommend to download and install business apps on your environment (which, btw, it is cloud!). So, what’s the rationale behind this? Well, the rationale is the budget challenge (less than 200 EURO/year). You may also say that instead of downloading and installing CRM and HR, you can easily create free accounts on the cloud services offered by really relevant producers of such systems. Yes, you are right, you can, it is free for most of the platforms and up to a certain business level. Sure you can do it, will not affect the budget you already spent. But for sure will affect the budget for remaining things that you must do in order to have a digital business (point 6 and the remaining half of point 7). While using CRM, HR (and also other apps) as SaaS may be free (again, to some extend), integration and access to your data using external electronic services may be not always technically possible and you may need to pay for it. Let’s imagine that you would like to automate your receivables process, you can get the info from your bank and you would like to match this info with your records (invoices, accounts) from the CRM. If the CRM is external, you may not be able to do it or you may need to pay for doing it. Or, even better, let’s imagine that you would like to connect your online web platform with your CRM and the CRM with HR …

So … points 1,2,3,4,5 and half of 7 from the baseline are done by now. Yeah, how about 6 (integration) and the remaining half of 7 (trustful authentication of all requests for data coming from users or from external electronic services)? Before going into points 6 and 7 let’s see how much we spent so far … well, my practical experience says that, with all of the above, we managed to spend around 120 EURO and (probably) no more than one week from our time. Pretty cool, I guess! We can go to the restaurant and use the remaining 80 EURO to celebrate this achievement! Of course, we could do this … but I rather prefer to see if I can spend it more efficient and go to a nice and longer vacation paid from the profits generated by my digital business. From these 200 EURO I would only want to spare something for a long and cold drought beer, from Scotland I prefer but I am afraid that I will soon have to pay custom taxes for it!

QUESTION 3: What about integration and trustful authentication of all requests for data coming from users or from external electronic services

Well, I have to admit, this is a bit more complicated and may require from you to be more dev than user. But it is not impossible and may be fun to do it!

When it comes to integration, you can always play with SQL since all your databases are in the same place. To some extend, I can agree with this method although most of the professional programmers will hate me for this. But it will work if you know how to play with it.

Another method is to look for dedicated plugins but it is hard to believe that you will find something to put together all that you have and for sure this will kick you out of the 200 EUR/year target.

A third method will be to develop your own integration plugin, remember you are running on WP and PHP and all your data is in the same place, protected under the umbrella of your hosting provider. So, it is quite possible given to the fact that all of your business apps are coming with documented APIs. But this will clearly require a certain level of coding skills and some investment (at least from your time).

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Last but not least, you can use external services. Up to a certain number of data records some of these services are free. Recently I have tested a service named File Pounder, works pretty fine. The main advantage is that this method does not require coding skills but still require some technical skills related to data processing techniques. My recommendation is to go with external services like File Pounder and to upgrade it as your business grow and generate enough revenue. This will keep you within the target yearly budget and will require the minimum technical skills for putting it in place. If you need to get data from external sources and to integrate it into your systems these external services are even more useful.

Now, what if you would like to share your data with external services? What does this mean? For example you would like to integrate with other online business platforms and make your services and products available on other markets. You may either push the data to the external service or you may let the external service to pull the data from you (most probably the second option will be the right choice). If for the integration you can escape without coding skills, for this one you cannot do it without coding. Building the API for letting others to pull data from you is not a big deal. The standard (REST) is available and very mature. Also free tools to document your API is also available (my pick is POSTMAN but others are also available from Mule or Swagger). Now you can see that I started to use some weird words … don’t worry, there are also really common words helpful for this topic … like the good old friend Google … you can try Google Endpoints.

Once you established the tool and what do you want to share with others, the only limit is your imagination … and security 😊. But remember, this will require some real dev skills. However, even if you will not do it on your own, at least I gave you some hints and you may know what to ask. It will be your biggest mistake to ignore security. I remember my first online business platform, it was back in 2000, IIS and ISAPI dll files developed under C++ , yeah, I know, grandpa! Not too many worries about cyber attacks, not too much concerned on security issues, just focus on the business … good old days! But is not like that anymore so security must be one of the primary concerns when exposing APIs to the wild jungle. Each external request must be authenticated and authorised. Scary, isn’t it? The good news is that even for this you can find free open source and ready to use solutions (mostly based on OAuth). But also requires some skills and some time to be spent on it.

Ok, so recap! So far we found solutions for all points of the baseline and we spent around 120 EURO for one year plus some time to develop and configure the extras. Depending on your skills, this time should not be longer than two weeks, so still very reasonable.

QUESTION 4: Anything else?

Well, we still have 80 EURO to spend. I would suggest to spend it on some WP plugins which will make your life easier. My pick will be a good web forms plugin (such as Form Maker) and a good data tables plugin (such as WP Datatables) but other options can be also considered. Now your spending goes close to 200 EURO (not entirely correct because the two mentioned plugins are paid one-time but let’s say that the 1st year spending is going close to 200 EURO) and I believe that it is still some room for that beer but hurry up, you never know when you will need to pay custom taxes on it.

FINAL WORD

The main question which is also the title of the article is ”What can you do with less than 200 EURO/year and with a little bit of IT knowledge?”. As you can see, a lot, basically you can put in place the whole digital environment needed to run your business.

There are also two secondary questions:

What should be the approach? traditional software products model or free open source model? Well, again, there is no right answer to this, I guess that the best one is that it depends on your technical skills. What I described in this article is a solution on open source that really works.

IS OPEN SOURCE SO FREE? The answer is yes, provided that you have a little bit of experience or you can get good advice. In fact, the best answer is that open source is as free as you can afford.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_transformation ↩︎

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