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For Entrepreneurs, Recognition is the Reward: Lessons From the Open Source Community and the NBA

Posted by: Jeff Bussgang on July 08

Anyone following the open source phenomenon can’t help but be amazed at what appears to be volunteerism on a massive scale for corporate gain. Almost every company in the world has some strands of open source code floating around their company. Whether it is the Linux operating system, Apache web server, the IP protocol or database programs such as MySQL, open source software has permeated corporations around the globe. According to one estimate from start-up Ohloh, there are 11,000 open source software projects going on right now in the world and 70,000 devleopers contributing to those projects for free.

Further, the impact and reach of open source extends far beyond businesses alone. Mainstream consumers are participants in the open source phenomenon. Wikipedia is the most obvious example, which attracts 683 million visitors annually to its over 2 million articles (source: Wikipedia, of course) – all written by volunteers throughout the world.

Clearly there is an explanation that goes to the heart of human behavior and motivation as to why so many people are inspired to contribute so much for free. Any reader of philosophers from David Hume to Adam Smith to Ayn Rand would point out that there must be some underlying selfish motivation involved. Open source participants aren’t getting paid, yet they must be motivated in some part out of self-interest. So what exactly is going on?

MySQL CEO Marten Mickos seems to have the answer. In a recent WSJ interview, he observes, “Those who contribute to us are as selfish as anybody else…[They are motivated by] their desire to build a reputation for themselves…it gives them a feeling of usefulness in the world.”

And I think therein lies the key insight. Isn’t that what everyone wants? To feel useful and recognized. I would suggest that explanation is also at the heart of why entrepreneurship is such a powerful phenomenon. The reward for the entrepreneur is not just about the money – although, sure, they are motivated by the money -- but what really drives great entrepreneurs is the ego, pride and feeling of recognition and respect. When an entrepreneur sells their company or goes public, it’s that feeling of being a winner and having everyone notice that is most powerful. Ask any entrepreneur if they’d rather own 1% of a $1 billion company that changed the world and makes the front cover of Business Week or 100% of a $10 million company that no one ever hears about and you’ll learn a lot about that entrepreneur. The NBA Finals “There Can Be Only One” advertisements with split screen images of Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett and other multi-jillionare stars said it all: “We all want respect and there is only one way to earn the kind of respect we all want. The kind of respect they can’t take away from you. Win.”

I believe this insight translates into corporate entrepreneurship as well. Although the equity rewards are not available to the entrepreneur within the large corporation, certainly the emotional rewards are – if the company leadership is smart about recognizing and publicizing innovation and celebrating it, not just compliance to the local rule set.

What do you think?

Reader Comments

Jay Conne

July 14, 2008 10:33 PM

Another perspective on the selfish motive at work here...

By joining a masterful virtual team, one can learn at little cost while creating something of value for oneself.

One friend developed a solicited sample application for a new technology he wanted to master. He found it invaluable for the learning and for the relationships he developed.


July 11, 2008 06:46 AM

i agree with the author,

doing something different, helping others and the pride that brings is more important for an entrepreneur than money. he knows also that money is required to be sucessful and to get into something bigger.

Robin Rowe

July 9, 2008 09:41 PM

Fun article and interesting premise, but not necessarily true. The major (popular) open source programs have all had funding from government, universities or private companies. Where individual effort hasn't been funded, a significant personal motivation for the lone developer is he needed the enhancement to the program to use it himself. In my experience as an open source project leader, open source programmers do not typically operate on a need for recognition or approval. They want software that works and roll up their sleeves.

Robin Rowe
CinePaint project leader

Roger Zimmerman

July 9, 2008 04:28 PM

The motivations you name are not really "selfish", at least not in the sense meant (and carefully defined) by Rand. They all have the flavor of "seeklng approval from others". For example, one would presumably get the "feeling" of being useful from noticing that others find your work to be of use.

For Rand (and her philosophy, Objectivism), selfishness involves completely self-sufficient motivations which grow out of one's rationally held values. For example, if you value productiveness, because you know that it is needed to survive and thrive as a human being (the rational animal), then you will have a selfish motivation to produce. And the more effectively you do produce, the more justified pride you will experience. Such an objectively earned pride is one of Rand's greatest moral virtues. Perhaps you can see how all of this can result in a truly "virtuous" cycle of selfishness, productivity and pride.

For example, one of my primary motivations for developing software is simply the pleasure I get from watching my design come to fruition in a compiled program that actually does the thing I wanted it to do. I don't need anyone else to tell me that is a good thing; I can see it first hand with my own eyes (and mind). A day when I make something tricky work is a very good day for me.

I would assume others feel similarly, whatever their capabilities. They know when they've done a good job, and they like the feeling they get as a result. I suspect that this must apply in any field, be it professor, janitor, even journalist!

Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.



Staying Entrepreneurial contributors

Renowned executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, serial entrepreneur Jeff Bussgang, a partner at Flybridge Capital in Boston, and Dr. Steven Berglas, executive coach, management consultant, and expert on "the stress of success," share their tips for staying entrepreneurial in trying times.

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