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

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?

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