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This is how I set about making a fortune with my own startup

Would you leave your well-paid job to chase your dream?

Doing my own 'ting I'm not a brilliant businessman nor a star academic nor a rocking developer, but I'm reasonable at a couple of those things and currently have a well-paid contract in the City (i.e. banking) where I have spent most of the last 20 years in a variety of BigCos.

So why would I give it all up to save the planet and have fun, and what do you need to know if you fancy doing the same (planet-saving optional)?

And would you do it, like I'm trying to, by giving everything away for free, or at least not-for-profit?

Regular readers may remember that I had my Damascene conversion to energy conservation in late 2007, with the personal aim of cutting my carbon footprint and “treading lighter”, and it turns out to be a fascinating topic and pays for itself. For example I've saved at least £1,000 on my electricity bills more or less every year since I started paying attention, as I noted in 2010.

As I got more involved I found that I'd become an expert in a small way in various aspects: getting linked to, cited in PhD theses, invited to speak at workshops, and meeting interesting and senior people such as the UK's Energy Minister and his chief scientist and chief engineer. Not to mention the bloke who engineered the Tesla battery, and even doing small jobs for them and supplying them with data.

In the course of this I realised that some relatively simple technology could halve people's space-heating costs in the UK (our housing stock is thermally crap and most of the current shambles will still be in use in 2050!), saving an awful lot of money and carbon. That is, 10 per cent of the UK's entire carbon footprint, or eight per cent of the EU's.

I was invited to give the first presentation for a "smart heating" workshop at the Department of Energy and Climate Change by the chief scientist, at which I pointed out that it seemed blindingly obvious that introducing “zoned” heating (heating only the bits that actually need it) and occupancy sensing, as is common in larger commercial buildings would be simple and likely save loads without reducing comfort. Everyone nodded sagely in agreement, but there was nothing on the market at the time that had the right combination of features.

With all the available systems being closed and proprietary, mixing-and-matching was not possible. I pleaded with the meeting (in October) to do something before that winter and I think someone may have muttered "but this is government". The representative of a very well known international heating company promised me some kit to try out ... but nothing happened.

I was now annoyed, and with a winter slipping away, I decided to scratch this itch myself, and so OpenTRV was born as a completely open-source attempt to make such tech cheaply available and interoperable, in the same way you expect Wi-Fi or credit cards to "just work".

This "fix it myself because nobody else is doing it right" urge I think is a decent signal that you might have something worth pursuing, and has been the foundation of many successful products and open-source projects.

I've always been a freelancer and have never had anything vaguely like a conventional career. A previous start-up at least allowed me to pay off my small mortgage. So doing something with OpenTRV didn't require me to quit as senior partner of a major firm, leaving my yacht-repair bills and multi-million investments in doubt. Having done this sort of thing before, I'm not starry-eyed about instant riches and success either!

Some of you will hesitate to give up the security of a job and "bet the ranch", and one of the biggest issues is knowing if and when to jump, but there are bazillions of books and websites out there to help you with that.

The key items to be clear about in your mind are, I think:

  • Do you have something novel and useful? (Don't be just another nailbar.)
  • Understand that building a better mousetrap is not enough, you also have to be able to execute a business plan (sales, marketing, etc)
  • We techies can be bamboozled by the features; it's benefits that count
  • Remember that founders are not necessarily long-term managers. That's not a problem, but be prepared to exit gracefully at some point
  • Decide what you want more; do you want X to happen or do you want fame and glory for making X happen? The former is easier and rather different to the latter.
  • Are you actually interested in and engrossed in your idea? It'll feel less like hard work if you are!

OpenTRV is not rocket-science, but our "giving it away as hard as we can" approach to making it widely adopted appears to be.

OpenTRV has had significant funding from Climate-KIC as well as from my pocket, won a prize from British Gas' Connecting Homes competition, and has had oodles of free time from very generous contributors as a FOSSH (Free and Open Source Software and Hardware) project, without which OpenTRV would not have got anywhere.

The chap who turned up and met me at Connecting Homes and said that he'd like to help is now my co-director at OpenTRV Limited and is project managing us into some sort of coherent shape, amongst other things, for which I am very grateful!

OpenTRV is very much going to stay open to support the FOSSH community, which is why we're now selling kits at cost, and doing talks and workshops (FOSDEM, WutheringBytes, EC1404, OggCamp) etc, etc. I hope that in passing we prove that something like the RedHat "sell the sizzle not the sausage" model can work in this area too, generating enough money to keep the project going.

There is now enough momentum behind the project, and another winter coming up that I'd like to help make better for a few people, that I will not be renewing my current City contract, so OpenTRV has made it from gleam-in-eye to "job" in a little under two years. I'll keep El Reg posted with milestones – and millstones – along the way! ®

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