Using free software and services to scale a business

It’s no secret that a plethora of free tools and services exist to help you do anything from publish a blog to publish video to manage your email and calendar to doing all kinds of traditional administrative tasks like word processing and spreadsheet management.  But what I learned this past weekend is that it’s possible to actually build a business around leveraging all this “free stuff.”

Ben Huh of I Can Has Cheezburger spoke about Lessons Learned in Scaling the Lolcat Biz at WordCamp Denver.  If, like me, you haven’t seen the website, then you may take a look and think it’s a bit ridiculous.  But the reality is that this site consumes 12% of the traffic that WordPress hosts and has served up 1.37B page views in the last year and a half. Ben seems to have a knack for finding the bizarre ideas that become viral and manifest themselves in online communities.

Unless I am misunderstanding how that works, Ben gets all that hosting for free and is probably paying for a few WordPress add-on services.  No data center, no pricey servers, no staff to fix things when they go down.  And leveraging WordPress is just the beginning.  Ben has leveraged YouTube, Skype, Gmail, and GoogleApps, I’m sure the list goes on.  If you are willing to let go of your natural inclination to control, a world of possibilities are at your fingertips.

And if this idea is simply too big for you, consider using the “free stuff” to try out a concept before you invest your own money in it.  Of course, why not? It’s so deceptively simple.

Ben put forward a few key concepts we’d do well to cement in our heads:

Complexity has an inverse relationship to the ability to scale your business.  Ben was fairly adamant that scaling is a function of business.  You (as the owner, director, etc) are the obstacle.  What are you trying to control that is keeping your business smaller than you want? What business rules are no longer adding value?

MPH Methodology (Mr. Potato Head). If you are going to leverage a bunch of free services across the Internet (or any services for that matter), you’d better be prepared for one technology to go down without the entire site going down. As Ben said “It might be ugly, but no one dies.”  Like playing with Mr. Potato Head, you need to be able to swap software components in and out.

“Use Free Stuff.” Can you plug in a better, cheaper, faster solution? Always be looking to drive the cost of managing the basics down.  Companies are competing to give you free things and as a result the available solutions consistently outpace themselves.  Be aware and on the hunt for a better way for doing things.

So what does this mean for us?  I mean, besides checking out some weird looking cats with catch phrases? Well, I sense that “free stuff” or it’s rich step-brother “Software-as-a-Service” is going to change how we think about technology and scope, plan, and elicit requirements for technology projects.  If we hang on too tightly to our traditional business analyst roles and responsibilities, we might risk getting cut out of the loop and watch while others become instrumental in creating successful technology projects.  Or, we might watch as less business-oriented individuals hunt for free tools and forget to ask what problem they are trying to solve with those technologies.  I’m working on a new series of posts to deal precisely with this issue, so check back in the coming weeks.

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