Starting an Open Project as an Individual

Open Source Alliance for Open Scholarship

Many of the great movements, companies and projects start with a single person. Maturing an idea into a project on your own can be difficult, but the open community wants to help.

This post applies to you if you have an idea or an intention to start a project or are already working on a project all by yourself. You may be receiving support from your work or an affiliated institution. But you do not work with other people on the project – you alone are responsible for the project.

Working as an individual can be challenging, but below we provide some guidance on how to grow your project and transition to a team environment as your work develops.

Why to work in the open

Working in the open is great for a variety of reasons, but it's especially useful for individuals. That's because anyone with an idea to initiate a program and connect to a broader community of interested and engaged contributors who can assist in developing the project.

As an individual, you are able to easily and freely access many resources and help with research, community building, education, and tool building, which will make your work more impactful. Inviting a diversity of perspectives and voices to participate can improve your products. Getting that feedback would be much more difficult if you were responsible for building all of those perspectives into your own team in a traditional entrepreneurship environment.

A how-to guide for getting started

Below is a basic how-to for getting started as an individual with an open project. It is not a comprehensive explanation, nor is it the only way to get started. We are offering it as an example framework for how to get started.

This guide is heavily influenced by the work of the Mozilla Open Leaders program, which is an essential piece of any introduction to working in the open. Here are some steps you should consider taking to get the most out of working in the open.

1. Define your question. The first step in creating an open project is to establish the question or problem that you seek to explore, answer, or solve. You are the inspiration and will dictate your own agenda.

2. Formulate your project. Start developing the question or problem into a project by considering the general form your project will take. Think about the scope of the project and how participants will engage with it.

3. Refine your project vision. The project vision communicates the aspirational goal of the project. It signals to the world what the project wants to accomplish.

4. Develop a project strategy. Use a tool like Open Canvas to generate all the critical components of the program. We recommend Open Canvas because it is a deceptively simple exercise. It's only one page! But it's a challenge because it forces you to get specific about your project's unique value and consider how you will measure success early in the process.

5. Create a README file. A README is a plain text document that tells users and contributors about the project or product. This document contains essential information and instructions for using or contributing to the project or product. You can get ideas about how to structure this from examples of READMEs online.

6. Set up a roadmap. This project plan will help you establish what steps you need to take, keep you on track, and provide a guide for contributors to your project.

7. Sell your project. Promoting your project is extremely important. Refer back to the communication channels you devised in your Open Canvas project strategy exercise.

8. Get people involved. Establish meaningful and equitable ways people can get involved at all levels. Think about what they will receive in return for their efforts in contributing to the project.

9. Write a code of conduct. Creating meaningful and equitable avenues for people to become involved at all levels requires rules of conduct and group norms. Being able to create a welcoming, inclusive, safe space is extremely important to an open project.

10. Keep working. Finally, keep going! It may take some time for your project to take off, gain contributors, or complete – and that's okay. The important thing is to plan well, be patient with yourself, and keep developing your project.

Finding mentorship

There are great training programs like the Mozilla Open Leaders program that can help you get started, and provide education and mentorship. Also, you may want to consider joining an open project to see how they work and judge if it's a model you are interested in pursuing. Finally, consider reaching out to organizers of projects you find interesting to learn about their process.