Thursday, August 16, 2012

Removing Barriers for Linux Hardware

Since 2007 I've had to send emails saying: "Sorry, we do not ship to your country."

I have squirmed in my seat while typing that reply. Free and Open Source Software doesn't have borders. The hardware shouldn't either.

It's impressive that people seek out GNU/Linux hardware builders, but it's even more impressive when people email asking, "Here is my background ___. Could I set up a ZaReason shop in my area?" Antonio, Marcus, Tommi, Richard, and so many others, when you emailed us expressing that you wanted to set up shop, I looked you up. All of the people, approximately 125, who requested this were "viable prospects", smart people who could follow through.

Please know that typing the "no" reply was literally painful. It's a problem I have not been able to solve.

For the first five years of ZaReason's beginning, I asked people in Silicon Valley for advice on global expansion, seemed the obvious source of support. 

There's always a part of the conversation where I have to clarify my personal intentions: "I'm not in it for the money." 

At that moment, I lose their respect.

Occasionally, there's an unkind comment indicating I'm financially clueless. 

Actually I'm financially savvy. I'm just not ruled by it. I have different priorities.

Today, I had lunch with @kiwiseabreeze an experienced lawyer. I said, "I'm not in it for the money," and instead of giving me that look that says, "You hippy twit," instead her eyes glowed, she "got it"; no more trying to explain the impossible. What a breakthrough! For the first time, I was able to express my main objectives without being dismissed.


She respectfully heard me out, listened to some of my goals and objectives, mulled them over. It's the first time I've been able to get past that initial first step.

Result: I can see more potential options for The Next Step.

It looks like the wish I've had since 2006 might be possible. My wildest hope:

1. We put together "the packet" that allows ZaReason shops to be set up in other countries by people other than myself.

2. We send out word to those who want Linux hardware in their country. "Find two people who have the time and energy to set up a shop and contact us." 

3. At our Berkeley headquarters, Tony Lam, the CTO, has fully transitioned to doing the core of R&D. Iqbal Haider, the CFO, has fully transitioned to taking care of all ZaReason finance, making sure we're profitable, so Earl & I have been free (since April 2012) to set up other shops. Problem is there are only 2 of us and 20+ countries that could use Linux hardware asap.

Description of shops: 
Early days at Berkeley, CA shop, L-R, Earl, Vincent, Mark Terranova ("Hi Mark!"), Aaron Thomas, Kory
  1. 1,400-1,600 sq ft / 130-150 sq m of ground floor retail / office
  2. two salaried employees: Tech Lead and Office Manager
  3. access to both full-time and plenty of part-time employees, flexible employees, preferably walking distance to research university
  4. near a major port (preferable) to reduce shipping costs

Sidenote: When a company takes the "light & local" approach, it's usually called a franchise. A regular franchise costs five to six digits to get going and franchisees anticipate these fees, including licensing fees (shiver-cringe). 

But ZaReason won't be run by people who attend franchise fairs.

ZaReason will be run by people with deep experience in the Tech Sector.

* people who have already had careers programming, developing, managing and are more than qualified to run a ZaReason shop

* recent grads or people with untapped enthusiasm who recognise the value of building high-end hardware for Linux only 

* LUG groups, maybe previously inactive, coming back together to form a group who run the local shop, combining talent and expertise

Since ZaReason in US and NZ don't have "extra" funds, the people setting up ZaReason shops in different countries will cover the startup costs such as getting their country's site set up, getting initial inventory, legal docs to set up business, and similar costs.

For initial funds, maybe they'll self-fund, a Loan from Shareholders like we did, small outlays in incremental steps, $500 initial investment, a bit of bootstrapping and reinvesting profits. 

ZaReason US is doing alright, chugging along. ZaReason NZ, set up in a country of only 4 mil people, the size of just San Francisco, is doing alright also. NZ gets crummy service (or none) from most computer companies because the country is "too small". We figured if we could survive in NZ, we could survive anywhere. And NZ has done nothing but delight. (Thank you!)

We've had a bit of success and aren't proprietary / greedy. We just spent some time wandering while trying to figure out a non-corporate way to build a FOSS hardware company. As of four hours ago, our plan was for my husband and I to set up every shop ourselves (a spine-crushing amount of work). Even our 11 year old could see that our approach was insane: "Mom, that's like trying to write an entire game engine on your own. That's a freakin' waste of your time."

Ah, the wisdom and clarity of an 11 year old boy. Somehow the business advice of a kid making disgusting noises seems more sane than advice from SF business sharks.

I haven't been able to wrap my mind around the appropriate type of business structure while I've been surrounded by regular business people, talk of licensing, market segmentation, profit margins, and all sorts of fees that raise the cost of "the product".  (I refer to my laptop as "my trusted companion", not "the product".)

But NZ business people are different. Of course they want to make money so they can feed their kids and go surfing on weekends, but the thought of big profits is a "meh". I've been surrounded by the Kiwi business culture for five months now and my mind has finally opened up to new possibilities.


Ah-ha moment -- I couldn't conceive of the appropriate structure because the appropriate structure for building and distributing FOSS hardware involves essentially giving ZaReason away to the world at large. No one gives away a successful start-up. 


But FOSS is some sort of organic, wonderful thing that often reminds me that the human race does have some redeeming qualities.

SF Bay Area
In the afternoons I sometimes wander on Mount Victoria where scenes from The Hobbit were filmed. I've been loosening up to ideas: Maybe the people who've offered to set up Za shops will Kickstart it for their country (could run through Za US since Kickstarter is still US based). I don't have the energy to single-handed produce a Kickstarter video, but who am I to stop others from doing so? 

Maybe they'll raise the funds themselves. Maybe they'll bootstrap it like Earl & I have done, starting both ZaReason North America and ZaReason Australasia out of a house to keep overhead as close to $0 as possible. 

Maybe they'll pool together their own investor funds. 

Here's the kicker -- the core work, the R&D has already been done to get these machines out to people. The supply chain is in place. There are still hurdles, like keyboards in your country's layout, but we've been working on global expansion since 2007 and have structured ZaReason to handle this type of growth.

Over the last six years we have fine-tuned the structure for ZaReason. It is profitable. Our shop in NZ is in the black, barely, but it's an amazing start. 

Since 2007 we've received requests, "Can I set up a ZaReason shop in _____ (name of country)." We set up ZaReason's procedures so that it would adapt easily to the EU, South America, Scandinavia, and at my son's request, Iceland, at my daughter's request, France, and so many others. 

"I envision hundreds of ZaReason shops dotting the globe. Light, lean, local. Computers built and supported in-country."

We're pulling together a list of potential shop owners now and will do it on a mix of first-come, first-served + viability. Please email if interested. 

It's time to stop saying no.