Nokome Bentley is a New Zealand-based fisheries scientist and founder of Trophia, a research and advisory service for marine resource management. He serves as the project lead for Stencila, an open source platform for creating, collaborating on, and sharing data-driven content.
Funding is a means to an end, not an end in itself
So, you got funding for your super-cool, groundbreaking, open source software for open scholarship — congratulations! It's important to celebrate your hard work and persistence at this time.
But remember that this first round of funding is only the beginning. You need to keep your focus on your long-term mission — to build a great open source tool to enable open source scholarship.
Your funders are your partners, not your customers
When you have been very focused on getting your project funded, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing your grant proposals as your product and your funders as your customers.
While that focus may help you get off the ground, it's not useful for either you or your funders in the long term. Remember, your funders do not want to keep funding you indefinitely. Their goal is to get you flying on your own. Thinking of your funders as your customers only distracts you from serving your real customers — your users!
However, your relationship with your funders does not sustain itself without some attention and curation. They want you and your project to succeed, so it is in your best interest to nurture that relationship by keeping them informed of your progress.
Stewarding your funders can take several forms:
- Progress reports — Most funders require some combination of interim and final reports to keep them up-to-date on how you're spending their money and any challenges hindering progress, among other things. Every funder handles these reports in a different way: Some will ask for periodical letters, some require more formal reports in a given format, and some want regular check-in calls.
- Newsletters — If you have a communications plan in place for informing users and contributors on your progress, include your funders in this communication workflow. Some may not read it, but those who do will become aware of opportunities to help and support your project in new ways.
- Quick email updates — Got a new team member coming onboard? Gave an interview to a high-profile media source? Use the opportunity to dash off a quick note to your program officer and let them know. They may want to highlight the press release or interview on their own social media, which only raises the profile of your project.
Software is your product, your users are your customers
Now that you've got funding, it’s time to focus in on your actual product (your open source software) and your actual customers (your users).
If you are developing free open source software, it can be difficult to think of your users as your customers. But framing your relationship in that way will help you focus on delivering a more useful tool and developing sustainable operational model for your project.
Nothing is real until it's being used by a real user. This doesn't mean you make a prototype in the morning and blog about it in the evening. It means you find one person you believe your product will help and try to get them to use it.
—Adam Wiggins, My Heruko Values
The startup mantra of “release early, release often” can be scary to follow. We often hesitate to put our pet project into the world for fear of it not being ready for prime time.
These concerns are valid; announcing something too early can earn you labels like “vaporware” or “half-baked.” But remember there is also the risk of spending lots of time developing something that no one finds useful.
Testing your assumptions about how others will receive your project doesn’t mean you need to trumpet your work to the world — you should just start with an intimate audience of friends and colleagues in your target audience.
It's never too early to work on gaining traction
... the key to success isn’t the originality of your offering, the brilliance of your team, or how much money you raise. It’s how consistently you can grow and acquire new customers (or, for a free service, users). That’s called traction, and it makes everything else easier — fund-raising, hiring, press, partnerships, acquisitions. Talk is cheap, but traction is hard evidence that you’re on the right path.
—Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares, Traction
Founders of open source projects often say that, in hindsight, they should have focused earlier on user uptake and creating a sustainability model.
Once you have funding, it is tempting to jump into implementing your project and easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’ll “just” get another round of funding. But that funding won’t come if you don’t have demonstrated uptake.
Frequently refer back to your original request for funding. Are you hitting the targets and tracking the metrics you identified in your grant proposal?
People will pay for useful things — if you let them!
Founders often believe that they should have started thinking about revenue earlier. Meanwhile, organizations often say that they would be prepared to pay if there were a mechanism to do so.
Early on in project development you should consider providing an easy way to let people donate or pay for an associated service.
Even if these donations or subscriptions are small, their importance to your project can add up to a lot more than their face value. The fact that people are willing to pay — even small amounts — for what you are creating is good, hard data indicating that they value it.
And if your audience values your project, funders are likely to as well.