The project that I am working on is called Geoserver [SourceForge link]. The basic premise of the project is to provide a platform for sharing and aggregating geographic data that takes advantage of many small specialized data repositories, rather than a few large general centralized servers. The goal of the project is to adopt some of the software and platform features that made the web successful and apply them to geographic data.
While I could write an article on the platform itself, the pending question is if it is possible for me to continue the development in earnest while providing a living for myself?
The idea that I've been bouncing around in my head is this: By the end of the school year (April / May), I feel that I can have a 1.0 version of the platform available with the details comprising my thesis. The ideal situation would be one where I would be able to relocate for about a year or two to rural New Mexico and focus my attention on this project full time in order to advance development and develop applications using the platform that would encourage others to use it. The reason that I would prefer rural New Mexico at this point is four-fold:
- Cost of living in rural New Mexico is significantly cheaper, and in the event that something like a grant or loan funds the development of the software, costs like rent and food are minimized so that more funding can be used for other things like software tools, network connections, and testing hardware.
- I am already familiar with the area and would not have to deal with problems such as adapting to the area or adjusting to the local community.
- The relative isolation of the area provides a great place to concentrate completely on the project, while minimizing distractions that would take away from the work.
- I already know many people within organizations in the area (public and private) that could use the platform that I am developing in order to enhance some of the basic research and data collection / storage that is being conducted in the area. This serves them by providing new tools to enhance their research, and it serves me by providing a testbed for applications using my platform.
I have a very strong vision for the project, and that is to provide the basic components of the platform (servers, API's, documentation, sample clients) for free (the core software components are BSD-licensed), with the expectation that should a critical mass of of users adopting the platform becomes a reality, I would be able to realize the commercial potential of the platform by starting a company that provides value-added features and custom client software that utilizes the platform to meet customer needs. An analogy using the web: you can get free servers and clients and scripts, but there is still a large market for custom servers and custom web-based applications.
Since I feel that I wish to keep the core components open, I'm almost convinced that the traditional route of pursuing venture capital would be the wrong approach. First of all, with VC's, I feel that there would be too much short-term focus on making the platform commercial too early on. Secondly, I would like to implement these ideas as I feel is necessary, and not at the whim of some VC-appointed executive who is worried about an IPO. Also, the actual amount of money that I would need is far less than venture capitalists deal with. I can envision paying the bills and funding the project with a sum of money from $40,000 to $60,000 a year.
My next option is to approach a financial institution and request a loan. The problem with this approach is that it is very unlikely that they will not give me the time of day. First of all, I'm fresh out of school. I have no collateral, and no credit history that would prompt a bank to award me a $40K - $60K loan. I feel that this is a longshot at best.
My last option is to try and apply for some sort of grant. This may be my best option, as the work that I am doing definitely has a lot of potential for use by commercial organizations and government organizations like the Dept. of Interior and state departments of public lands and transportation. The only drawback to this approach is that the competition for grant money is very intense, and I probably lack the grant-writing skills to draft a grant that would compete with some of the more seasoned grant-writers in the commercial and academic realms.
Finally, I could bite the bullet and attend graduate school to further develop this project. The large reservation that I have with respect to graduate school is that at this point in my life, I do not feel that graduate school is the right thing for me personally at the moment, though it may be a possibility later on. A consequence of the graduate school approach is that I would be unable to develop this platform in an ideal environment. Finally, the typical time commitment that goes with graduate school is longer than what I am comfortable with. I think that a solid platform could be developed with a year of focused effort - I don't want to spend four to five years of less-focused effort while pursuing a PhD.
So, the questions that I present to the Kuro5hin audience are these: First, is what I'm describing financially feasible, and is it even possible for me at this point in my life to secure the funding for this project for a year? Second, if it is feasible, what means are the best ways to accomplish this? Where should my focus be? Third, is there anyone out there who has done something similar and has some insights to share regarding these types of things?
Or is this just impossible, and I should resign myself to working on this project part time?