Open source more than hot air for gift etailer

Will free software make the world a better place?

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

RedBalloon Days CEO, or "chief experience officer", Naomi Simson said 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," Simson said.

That "big vision" is now available as an e-commerce Web site where people can purchase 1800 different experiences - from skydiving to dinners on mountains - across Australia and New Zealand.

"We package up the experience [and] 70 percent of business is from corporations," Simson said. "In the first year when we launched I used to go to our Web site every day and it was two months and three days before we made our first sale."

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

Before the company adopted open source en masse, it had purchased a $50,000 proprietary application, which Simson said 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," she said. "We spent $50,000 and didn't get $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 customization, as it is totally customer-centric," Simson said. "Open source has worked powerfully for us because it is a community, it's so user centric."

Simson 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 community," she said. "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 is amazing."

Simson said 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.

"In the spirit of the community of open source we have made available the technology we have produced on our labs site," she said. "We created a real-time spelling application."

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