Fanny Li interviewed Zack Johnson from OpenROV to find out more about the background of the company and why they chose to support open source.
OpenROV is an open-source underwater robot. But it’s so much more. It’s also a community of people who are working together to create more accessible, affordable, and awesome tools for underwater exploration.
The backbone of the project is the global community of DIY ocean explorers who are working, tinkering and improving the OpenROV design. The community ranges from professional ocean engineers to hobbyists, software developers to students. It’s a welcoming community and everyone’s feedback and input is valued.
Zack accepted my invitation for an interview to tell me more stories about OpenROV. Currently, he is the project manager at OpenROV, and he used to work at a FabLab as an instructor for several years. The co-founders, Eric Stackpole and David Lang met each other in 2011 at MakerFaire. At that time, Eric was a mechanical engineer working for NASA While David was a freelancer seeking a job with Make Magazine. Eric and David came up with the idea for an expedition to find gold lost in an underwater cave. Noticing there weren’t any affordable underwater ROVs on the market, they realized that they were tapping into a burgeoning trend that enabled citizen explorers and scientists.
The first OpenROV Kickstarter project was a big success – making almost $100,000 more than their $20,000 goal. Their Kickstarter campaign also drew attention from the seed ventureship and they were funded by True Venture and SK Venture. OpenROV still keeps a pretty small team with 13 employees, 3 interns, and 3 contractors.
Open Source Motivation
When being asked about the motivation of open sourcing, Zack told me that in the beginning of the project, there was no one on the team who was an expert in underwater robotics. Open source was the only way OpenROV could approach the global expertise and hobbyists. In order to get in touch their community, they started their online platform by simply providing an online forum and a Wiki page with project documentation. In the meantime, they open sourced their design on GitHub and other open source platforms. The current web page is in its second version, which took them about a year to establish, and the website is still under development. The OpenROV team really aims to build a platform where anyone can find his or her own way to participate in the project.
Open Source Benefits & Problems
By open sourcing the project, OpenROV creates an environment where people can participate in the project in a deeper way. In the early stage of the project, community contributed a lot to the design of the product. They bought components from the OpenROV website and gave feedback about the technologies and designs. Meanwhile, by buying pieces they financially supported the project development. Zack also pointed out that it is a great working experience to be engaged with the community, especially when people start sharing, things are becoming very interesting. The community self-generates a lot of news on social platforms, such as Facebook and twitter. They showcase their work and communicate with each other, which automatically increased OpenROV’s PR resources. The community also contributed to the OpenROV brand a lot. An example is that when they have about 1000 community members, they have about 2000 sales, meaning not all the sales coming from the community. People must hear them from outside of the community. With the big and specific community group, OpenROV hopes to partner with organisations like National Geographic for projects like creating an underwater map using OpenROV.
Normally, the technology-copying problem is always a big issue to open source companies, however, it seems not a big issue to OpenROV team. They are quite clear that there are companies now using their technologies to develop their product without any acknowledgement. “…but we are quite confident about our technology and our community. We have big enough community to make sure our design is iterating pretty fast and our next generation ROV is under development,” said Zack. They would like to open source their next generation ROV, though there will be some issues with component manufacturers who may not want to open source the communication modules.
Open Source & Sales
When asked whether open source brings in sales, Zack said “In the early stage yes, since at that time most buyers were also makers and developers. They like open-sourced stuff since they can modify and develop the product by themselves. Now as the product is pretty mature, the buyers are more public. Now, only 1 out of 10 or 20 buyers are makers or developers. The majority buyers don’t really care whether the product is open sourced or not.” Instead, they care about the product price and quality. However, developers are still playing important roles, since they are bringing add-ons and breakthroughs to the product. The openROV team can commercialise the add-ons and breakthroughs and make other people in the community being able to use it. As a conclusion, now the OpenROV community is so big that sales are relevantly independent of open source strategy.
Zack emphasised that open source is just a strategy how you are going to deal with your community. Open source products will have to become consumer products, so open source entrepreneurs should pay attention to their product quality, the price and time to deliver.
Business Model & Future Plans
The business model for OpenROV is selling hardware and kits. The sales started 4 years ago and so far it reaches about a million dollars per year. 3000 OpenROV have been sold. “Without open source and community, it would have been quite hard to reach this number,” said Zack. When talking about technological competence, Zack said that apart from fast iteration, they are sure that it is far more expensive and time-consuming if a buyer collects components outside from on their website but is free to do so if they choose.
For the future plan, the team would like to do more things to encourage their communities to share more on their social media platform. They will also devote much time to developing their Open Explorer platform to allow more people to become a citizen scientist and help them getting a job, collecting data, or starting an expedition. They are trying to continue this platform and try different versions to see how the community reacts to it. The next step for the product is too massive production solutions.
Don’t forget you can build your own OpenROV using the design files on Wevolver.