Unless you’ve gone off the grid, you know all about Linus Torvalds, and how he single-handedly transformed the software industry by developing the base code of a new operating system — Linux — for his computer.
But what you probably don’t know about this reluctant revolutionary is that he can help you become a better businessperson. So what exactly can you learn from a guy who happily chooses geekiness over greediness? Well if you ask Linus, like we did, he’ll simply say, “not much.” But the truth of the matter is that his story offers plenty of entrepreneurial lessons. Here are just a few:
Be a Benevolent Dictator
Torvalds is often called a benevolent dictator. Sure he’s a nice guy, but he’s also responsible for holding together a loose coalition of companies and developers known for their bickering and infighting. Though they’re portrayed as granola-munching hippies, the “peace, love, and Linux” crowd can get awfully nasty sometimes. Like when they want to make a change to the Linux kernel. That’s when Torvalds steps in and asserts his authority. Torvalds isn’t afraid to put his good-guy demeanor on pause and rule with an iron fist. Even when many people are aggressively pushing their changes to Linux, Torvalds remains the one with the final say.
Create a Sense of Community
Torvalds provided the software industry with something more than what the established players could offer: the chance to be part of the largest collaborative project in the history of the world. But Torvalds’s vision has gone well beyond software development. “From Wikipedia to YouTube, the idea of a global community of contributors has fueled the essence of the Internet today,” says Bart Schachter, a venture capitalist at Blueprint Ventures. The lesson here for business leaders is to create a community around your product or service in a way that gives users and customers a real sense of intimacy and involvement.
Slay the Giants
In the early nineties, when Torvalds started working on Linux, Microsoft was considered by most to be an unstoppable force. “What impressed me most about Torvalds was how he challenged Microsoft, not by being a David to their Goliath but by assembling a whole slew of Davids with a common purpose,” says Markus Nordvik, cofounder of 4Info, a mobile search firm. “It taught me that I should never be afraid of anyone, not even Google, who we now compete against.”
The bedrock of the open source movement is trust and teamwork. After all, Torvalds basically created the equivalent of a team sport for maladjusted programmers who work in their bathrobes all day. He earned their trust by eschewing celebrity and focusing on the work at hand. “Linus has the trust of the entire open source community and has slaved to maintain that,” says David Diamond, coauthor of Torvalds’s autobiography, Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary (Collins, 2001). “This teaches businesspeople that employees need to trust you if you want them to follow you.” Torvalds couldn’t agree more. “The fact that people trust you gives you a lot of power,” he recently told the San Jose Mercury News. “Having another person’s trust is more powerful than all other management techniques put together.”
Leverage Open Source to Grow Your Business
Torvalds and the open source movement deserve credit for making it much cheaper and faster to start a new business. With free or almost free tools, such as Ubuntu Linux, emerging companies can rapidly build applications at very low cost, speeding the cycle of innovation. “There has been a dramatic gain in our productivity from using open source tools,” says Greg Linden, founder of a Web 2.0 startup called Findory. The open source movement also helps entrepreneurs like Linden scout new talent because it’s easier to evaluate the initiative, creativity, and coding skills of people who’ve worked on these projects.
Tom Stein has contributed to leading business and general interest publications including Wired Magazine, Business 2.0, Venture Capital Journal, and Tennis Magazine.