Can Startups Learn Anything From Linux?

Linux is the world’s largest collaborative software development project. People from all over the world have influenced the Linux kernel code, and it runs on everything from mainframe computers to wristwatches. Linux, and free software development in general, provides some tremendous insights into what makes a successful project. Can today’s startups learn anything from the history of Linux?

The history of Linux proves that collaborative development speeds true innovation. If Linus Torvalds were left to work on Linux alone, there’s no way it would be the success it is today. A great many of the things that Linux does today are a direct result of people scratching their own itches, and then contributing their work back upstream to Linus. Many people focusing on their own little (and not-so-little) problems have made Linux the powerhouse that it is today.

It might not make sense for every startup to develop their project in public, but they can certainly avoid reinventing many wheels by using existing free software projects wherever possible. Many smart people are working all day every day to improve the building blocks of
innovation, and startups should be a part of that communal effort.

Certainly startups should focus on their own “secret sauce”, but they can also participate in the larger free software ecosystem. For example, there’s no long-term competitive advantage to a startup if they make improvements to Apache, or MongoDB, or other “plumbing” aspects of the Linux stack. Any such improvements can — and, in my opinion, should! — be shared upstream to benefit everyone.

In a similar vein, though, if there’s some home-grown technology that helps your startup but isn’t fundamental to its success, why not release it in order to leverage the global body of free software developers? Facebook releases free software. LinkedIn releases free software. Google releases free software. All of these releases are obviously used internally, but they’re not fundamental to the success of the company. I think there’s a lot to learn from the big players in this respect.

As Ubuntu‘s Technical Architect Allison Randal said, “Free Software is a fundamentally superior model for developing software.” Jim Zemlin, the Linux Foundation‘s Executive Director, says, “Free your technology and see it spread and do things you never even imagined were possible.”

Another lesson that startups can learn from Linux: when you disrupt the status quo you attract enemies. When Linux was gaining traction through the 90s, it was the target of intense attack from established industry players. Many of those early detractors are now contributing to the Linux kernel, as well as many other free software projects.

Zemlin points to Facebook as a shining example of what “the Linux community has been practicing for years: first – don’t do it for the money, second maintain the hacker way. And, the money follows.” He goes on to observe that there “is no coincidence that one of the greatest entrepreneurial success stories of the last decade is deeply rooted in one of the greatest technology innovations of the last two decades: Linux and open development.”