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Re: [school-discuss] Consulting opportunities in OSS / free ?

Lee -

Having just had another installment of this perpetual discussion with on the exact same topic with my wife, I had to smile reading your post here. We call it the 'Can you really make any money selling water by the river?' discussion.

On Oct 11, 2006, at 7:39 PM, lee wrote:

Hi all,

I've been having a perennial discussion with the betterhalf, and that is: How to turn OSS & free systems into a working, thriving business.

Business plan one: Small school boiler plate drop-ins.

My first inclination was to direct-market to small schools, offering to drop-in working boilerplate systems, replete with all the goodies... a mix of dual-boot Win/Lin boxen w/ a Karoshi core (online classroom, content filter). Maybe w/ LTSP as an option. Well, my wife hates this idea. She thinks there'll be so much T&E prone to high overhead (or nickle&diming) that'll be hard to work with smaller schools w/ small budget constraints.

After having spent a bit more than a year doing this, I would say your wife is a very smart woman. The shrinking technology budgets do offer an opening but that is also a two edged sword. There is a geographically centered successful business model buried in Business Plan One but it will take time and after the initial savings in licensing fees, it will look a lot like any proprietary educational technology support consultancy. At least that is my take on it after doing it for a year.

Business plan two: Large schools / small school districts.

Same as above, but my question is how to market to larger schools with either entrenched IT mgm't and/or other political barriers to entry. That, and running a business to work with larger institutions without having my lunch eaten for a different set of reasons. Suffice it to say, I'm not seriously entertaining this plan, since the other-half hates it even more.

My brief encounter with this market is that you lose the foot-in-the-door-because-no-initial-cost advantage since these districts have money to spend. Now you are going up against real sales departments with real sales budgets.

Business plan three: Write a "How-To" Book

Write the step-by-step School Networking for Dummies book. Maybe 2 or 3 books, detailing installation/deployment, operations & maybe (not) curricula. Use the book to market the actual boiler-plate CD's & DVD training videos. Have a related website that helps drive the book. The wife likes this idea. She thinks web advertising/click-thru's could gen alot of income (I suspect however that goldrush sucks tin).

I think the book is important - no matter who writes it. Teachers will feel more comfortable when they have a book to hold. I found this out after I started publishing the OSV Free Software catalogue (http://www.fossed.org/node/4). It made a huge difference to teachers to have something on paper to thumb through.

Steve Hargadon (Steve - are you on this list?) is currently writing a FOSS and Education book for ISTE and I think I am on the hook for writing one of the chapters. He may still be looking for authors so you should contact him.

Business plan four: Consulting & training.

Walk into schools & write recommendations. Not just glossy paper stock with groovy graphics or "Powerpoint" dog & pony shows, sell manuals & DVD training along with the consulting & onsite training. The CD of free stuff are free, but the boiler-plate disks aren't. Maybe partner w/ a body-shop service (subcontract all of it... ;-), training the installers & the end-users, per site... but... Power users in education: Do they exist? FWIW, I haven't met (m)any.

I think these are great ideas. During the run up to the NELS conferences last summer I started talking with Matt Olmquist about starting a FOSS and Education consultants group to create and share resource like this. We talked about it at one of the conferences but nothing has really happened since. There is this list which is still fairly thin: http://k12opensource.wikispaces.com/Consultants

I'm curious what everyone thinks and what your experiences have been.... To me, schools represent a neglected market that could offer a modest or decent income stream while doing good things, offering a competitive edge b/c of the cost savings, ameliorating the license worries, etc.

And with budgets being cut, schools really need FOSS and the kind of help we all could provide.

But I worry that the market might be weak, not because of lack of need, but because of institutional or budgetary obstacles. WRT to Business Plan #1, can a good chap get his foot in the door, or is free/OSS the kind of change that is limited to internal mgm't reform efforts, consultants need not apply?

Ah - the ??? dollar question. I do still feel that the untapped market is big enough that any success by one of us helps all the rest because at this point (and for a long time) - our problem is legitimacy and 'who else has done this before'. Thanks for sharing these thoughts - it is nice to see that others are mulling the same issues.

Bryant Patten
White Nitro, LLC
Vermont , USA