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Business incubator helping FOSS start-ups

A well-known figure in Australian free and open source software circles has created an organisation to help individuals start businesses without the overheads that prevent people from doing so.

Arjen Lentz, (right), the first employee of the former MySQL in Australia, is based in Brisbane; Upstarta Labs, a new initiative of his Upstarta organisation, helps to "create little tribes or families of like-minded entrepreneurs".

Upstarta Labs provides the space and people can rent desks there; the costs are low and Lentz also provides mentoring.

"There are quite a few incubators and co-working spaces sprouting all over the place," Lentz told iTWire. "Depending on their model, some disappear rapidly (possibly lack of solid budget), some are very expensive ($500-600/desk/month) and, just like with a share-house, the question is whether you will jive at all with the others there."

He said what made Upstarta Labs different from other incubators was that it did not invest or take a financial stake in the companies. "We provide opportunity in the collective setting, the equivalent of giving a person a fishing rod (in this case increasing their skills and experience over time), rather than fish."

The cost of a space at Upstarta Labs is $300/month/desk with six-month rolling subscriptions. "That way we have a good solid financial baseline," Lentz said. "We can start a location safely when there are about 15 desks 'subscribed' - the capacity of a place (depending on floor space) will be a bit higher (20-25 maximum to retain the 'little tribe' atmosphere) and the system remains sustainable even with a few less desks active at any one time."

He said admission was through a submission/panel comprised of experienced Upstarta people and peers who were at the same location. "Some casual spaces will also be available, but that's not directly relevant to the budget."

Lentz left MySQL and started his own database consultancy service called OpenQuery in 2007. Upstarta was begun two years later.

"Operating without external funding sources makes companies (and also non-profits) resilient to recessions and other setbacks as the way they organise their finances and general business tends to be fundamentally different," he said.

"Upstarta's current large public activity is with meetings in Brisbane, which are run by Peter Lock, Robert Ellen and myself. The group has about 150 members and a typical meeting will see 10 to 30 people depending on the topic, speaker and so forth. This in addition to the smaller mentoring work, talks at BarCamps (informal conferences), regular conferences and workshops."

Lentz said that on the Gold Coast, Steve Dalton, another member of the open source community, was active - "specifically with a co-working group, which is intended to evolve into an Upstarta Labs place".

"Upstarta was founded by (fellow geek) Elspeth Thorne and myself - Elspeth moved to London, though, and so is not actively involved these days."

Lentz said a majority of the small start-ups - 60 to 70 per cent - which joined Upstarta were either using, or building, open source technologies.

"Of the rest, most businesses (but also non-profits) have an online presence these days and are using open source technologies there (blog/CMS/shopping using tools like WordPress, Joomla!, Drupal). It makes sense. They can either be easily deployed by the entrepreneur themselves, or there are lots of small businesses in the area that provide services for design, deployment, maintenance and hosting.

"Naturally, through Upstarta people get to know others who happen to be in a space complementary to them and that's useful, but gaining clients is not an objective internal to Upstarta. Keeping that clear means that members can discuss matters without ever having a 'he's trying to sell me something' feeling."

There is no restriction on what a member can do - though, as Lentz says, the nature of the space will dictate what can be done there.

"Services and software are always easy, and products that are not manufactured on-the-spot and don't require on-site stock storage. But even if you have needs like that, there are many different ways of organising that efficiently.

"Similarly, a yoga instructor with their own studio will not require an Upstarta Labs desk. But they can still drop in and participate in workshops and other activities."


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.