Advice for starting a free software project

Advice for starting a free software project

How do you get a new free software project off the ground? It’s all about community.

I answer reader questions about free software issues here, and an interesting question came up recently from a reader thinking of releasing code as free software. How do you get a project off the ground? How do you build interest and nurture a community?

First, you have to decide if your project is well suited to a free software model. To be successful, you need a base of users who may also become contributors. The ideal user base is one with an interest and ability to improve the software. In other words, you need some developers among your user base, and the code needs to be interesting to them.

The way you handle the community is critical. The project should be structured such that contributors can feel like a part of a community, not just free labor. The best way is to create an official non-commercial entity to oversee the project, even if you are also building a business around the code with customizations, support, and/or extras. Think about how to handle code submissions and copyright ownership at the beginning to avoid potential problems later. Clear rules about roles, contributions, and copyright will set a professional tone and let people know up front what to expect.

Remember that communities can have a mind and life of their own, so expect to meet some challenges with compromise. No one wants to be involved in a dictatorship (or at least, probably not your dictatorship). Good contributors will have ideas for the project roadmap, and good diplomacy on your part will keep everyone happy and moving forward in the interest of better software.

Finally, building a successful open source community is all about relationships. Contact users and potential users about your software, tell them you are thinking of releasing the code as free software, and ask what they think. Then work on establishing relationships with users who may become contributors. Many open source contributors start by submitting bug reports, patches then gradually more. Start establishing relationships early.


Author information

Maria Winslow's picture


As an Open Source Practice Leader with Virtuas, Winslow assists clients in understanding the technical and budgetary impact free software will have on their computing environments. Her recent book, “The Practical Manager’s Guide to Open Source”, guides IT directors and system administrators through the process of finding practical uses for free software that will integrate seamlessly into existing infrastructures, as well as understanding the costs and savings. She is a frequent speaker and author on the topic of free software. She can be reached via the Practical Open Source website.