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With Assembly, anyone can contribute to open-source software and actually get paid

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A new startup wants to evolve open-source methods, adding a wide range of skills and profit sharing

The open-source movement has produced some of the most widely utilized software in the world, a huge economic value driven by a widely dispersed community who believe contributing good work is often its own reward. Outside of the world of computer science, however, these strategies are still relatively niche. A San Francisco startup called Assembly is trying to change all that, by evolving the open-source model to easily incorporate disciplines outside coding and to include a shared profit motive as well. Today the company is announcing a $2.9 million round of funding it will use to help expand its platform.

When David Kaneda, a user experience designer at Google, set about creating his side project, Buckets, he struggled to bring in a lot of the talent he needed. "Before finding Assembly, I was disappointed that there was no way to provide a financial reward within the Open Source ecosystem." Using the service, he was able to set rewards for different tasks and distribute them onto the web where anyone who felt they were right for the job could pick it up. "Assembly not only provides additional incentive for contributions, but also allows for more types of contributions—whether marketing, design, planning or research."

With Assembly, a part-time entrepreneur like Kaneda can open source any number of tasks he might need for his business: designing a new logo, creating an email marketing campaign, and researching the best cloud-hosting solution, for example. Since the business doesn't have outside funding or stock options, Assembly lets him set the reward as a percentage of future earnings and handles the work of dividing and distributing that revenue stream.

"I think Assembly is the next step for the open source movement."

In that way, Assembly is similar to companies like New York's Quirky, which crowdsources innovation by allowing a large group of people from across different disciplines to contribute to the creation of a single new product. Like Quirky, the strength of Assembly will come from its community, which currently includes designers, engineers, marketers, and even lawyers. These folks might contribute to a half dozen different projects, all remotely, based on what draws their interest.

"I think Assembly is the next step for the open source movement. Instead of contributing to just software and getting better and free software in return, people can now contribute to an entire company," wrote Wesley Lancel, a developer from Belgium, who has contributed to a number of projects on Assembly. "It's not just contributing code, but also setting the direction and strategy of an actual company and helping out to make that company a success. And in return you don't just get better software or people using your code, but a real share in a company."

Leveraging blockchain technology from the Bitcoin world

Assembly is leveraging technology from the world of Bitcoin to help create a shared ownership structure for each product. "App Coins (the ownership in a product on the blockchain) is not equity in the traditional company sense," explained Assembly founder Matthew Deiters. "They can't be transferred or sold. Instead they are used to determine an individual’s monthly earnings as well as verifiable ownership control used in voting decisions."

Each project has a core team the brings the original idea to the Assembly platform. That team decides what tasks need to be done and how many App Coins they are worth. Anyone can contribute towards that work without permission, the model borrowed from open source, and just like many big open source projects, the core team approves or declines the final work. Assembly serves as the platform for all this and also a financial and legal steward.

"Technically these aren't companies. They aren't independent entities but instead a collective of people that built a software product on Assembly," Deiters wrote via email. "We also just handle what's necessary so they can operate as a distributed business (e.g. taxes, finances, etc). I like to think of them as a partnership since each contributor has a seat at the table, can help where they are best, and have access to all the operating information."

Bringing the open-source ethos to a broader set of opportunities

Assembly was founded in 2013 and says that so far it has launched five software projects that have been used by more than four million people. There are currently more than 50 projects in development on the platform. Of course, just two of the four products launched so far are profitable, so the incentive for people to contribute still has a ways to go before it reaches something like critical mass.

"Open-source software has unleashed a flurry of decentralized, emergent, bottom-up innovation. That's been great for software engineers, but until now, there has been no good way for developers to collaborate with designers, product managers, marketers, or sales people," says Brad Burnham, a tech investor with Union Square Ventures who participated in Assembly's funding round. "By supporting that richer collaboration, Assembly brings the ethos of open-source software to a much broader set of opportunities."