Open source more than hot air for gift e-tailer

Will free software make the world a better place?

Gift retailer RedBalloon Days prides itself on delivering experiences for people. And, since is formation in 2001, the company’s rapid rise can be attributed to building its applications on top of open source software, says its founder.

RedBalloon Days’ CEO — or “chief experience officer” — Naomi Simpson says that after a long career in corporate marketing she was used to having everything “just work”, but when she started her own business there were questions around “who do you call for help”.

“I had this big vision, but not the resources to support it,” she says.

That “big vision” is now available as an e-commerce website, where people can purchase 18,000 different experiences — from skydiving to dinners on mountains — across New Zealand and Australia.

“We package-up the experience [and] 70% of business is from corporations,” says Simpson. “In the first year after we launched I used to go to our website every day and it was two months and three days before we made our first sale.”

Since that first sale, RedBalloon Days has experienced astronomical growth and now sells some 80,000 experiences a year.

Before the company adopted open source en masse, it bought an A$50,000 (NZ$56,000) proprietary application, which Simpson says was too inflexible.

“We were warehousing our data on something that was closed and if I wanted to change something it was going to cost me a fortune.

“We spent A$50,000 and didn’t get A$50,000 in return. I can’t afford that investment and get it wrong.”

After a bad experience with the proprietary application, the company began to use a variety of open source software, including Firefox plug-ins, SugarCRM, Jive Wildfire instant messaging, Apache, Subversion (for version control), Eclipse, and Trac, for project management.

“Where open source fits is in the areas of customisation, as it is totally customer-centric,” Simpson says.

“Open source has worked powerfully for us because it is a community; it’s so user-centric.”

Simpson also praised the “collaboration and aggregation” aspects of open source and how businesses get to “try before you buy”.

“The opportunity open source brings is to be able to participate with the community,” she says.

“It’s very much performance-driven and is very much making the planet a better place. Before we think about developing something ourselves we get the opportunity of trying, testing and seeing if it’s been developed elsewhere. The economies of scale we get are amazing.”

Simpson says RedBalloon Days is still recruiting and looking for more IT people, and the company is a good open-source citizen and encourages creative ideas in a fun environment.

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