The creator of an open payments system that allows users to give small weekly cash gifts to help other users pay their bills is now extending the concept to a wider initiative for companies interested in operating in a transparent and open way.

Pittsburgh-based entrepreneur Chad Whitacre is the founder of Gittip, the platform intended to allow users to operate independently while being funded by many stakeholders. The amount a user receives is public and that user knows the total amount they are receiving, but not who is donating to them and the maximum gift is limited to $100 per week. Users can choose to either publicly display how much they’re giving, or not. The platform has been used mostly by developers so far.

Now Whitacre and partner Balanced Payments are interested to see what other firms might be interested in embracing operational transparency and openness as a central value by joining the Open Company Initiative. Member companies so far include Gittip and Balanced Payments, plus Saxifrage School, Sentry, and The Open Company. Whitacre is also looking for journalists to create content for the Open Company website and be funded by Gittip.

“Can we find a way to keep journalism independent and be funded by these companies,” he asked in a Google Hangout on Air.

The idea for starting the Open Company Initiative was hit on after Gittip started working with Balanced Payments. After Gittip tried two other payment providers unsuccessfully, it signed on with Balanced Payments when the firm was willing to help code Gittip to integrate with its service. The companies stuck it off as an ideological match from the beginning, and both described their companies as open. The firms hosted an open business open house in San Francisco in March 2013 and is gearing up to have another one this March to include Saxifrage, Sentry, and Open Company.

“We’re trying to start a conversation around what it means to be open,” Whitacre says. “There isn’t a blueprint, there isn’t one right answer.”

Both Gittip and Balanced Payments use Github, an open source developer community to code their products. But in other ways of defining openness, they diverge. Gittip for example defines openness around three characteristics: share as much as possible, charge as little as possible, and don’t compensate employees. Balanced Payments doesn’t follow all those characteristics necessarily, but instead practices highly public customer support with an open IRC channel, public discussion of new product features or enhancements on Github, and changes affecting customer experience are always proposed externally.

But Whitacre does think there are two central ideas that members can agree on. That openness is about sharing control with the public, and transparency is about sharing information. Then there’s the journalism experiment in which member companies contribute to be covered objectively.

“We’re looking at ways to use it to fund journalism,” he says. “Being critiqued is the only way to improve and companies that get openness, get that.”

Whitacre is no stranger to practices in open journalism. Shortly after he started conducting many of his chats via the publicly available Hangouts on Air, a TechCrunch writer at first interested in an interview about Gittip turned down the idea of doing the interview in the open. I took Whitacre up on the interview after reading his blog post about the exchange with TechCrunch, and other journalists did as well later that day.

Whitacre has continued doing Hangouts on Air, at least a half-dozen since he first started.

“I think there’s demand for it. I think people find it interesting,” he said.

Companies that join the Open Company Initiative will have the benefit of having their stories told by the Gittip-paid journalists, Whitacre says. It will also serve as a resource to learn about open practices, and derive benefits from other open companies. Of course, joining the initiative doesn’t mean doing literally everything in the open.

“There’s always a limit to it and each company is responsible for setting its own limits,” he says. “We’re not saying you have to share everything, but we’re saying when you don’t share it, you’re explaining your reasons.”

The goal by March is to see in the ballpark of 10 member companies putting in $200 per week to start the initiative, he adds.

 

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