Business Models for Independent OSS Devs: Data Collection Effort RFC

Hi :wave:

We had a session at Sustain Summit 2020 on Business Models for Independent OSS Devs and decided to form a group to further investigate. These were the conclusions of the session:

  1. OSS work (the high value activity) isn’t what makes money for most independent OSS devs, which is unlike other fields, where the high value activity is directly paid.
  2. Developers need support from companies/institutions. Need to make it easy to pay for OSS work and auxilliary activities.
  3. Donations and sponsorhips support only very few full time OSS devs. Biggest challenge here is promoting the project.

There is a lot of experimentation going on to solve the above issues, which is great, but as an OSS dev, it’s difficult to figure out how well the different solutions work, and what is a good fit for which type of project. To fix this, I’d like to start a systematic data collection effort on available business models for independent OSS devs (including donations). The result should be a living document that helps devs pick a model by

  • describing each model objectively and
  • listing providers for each model with
    • the number of projects using the provider,
    • the amount of revenue the provider generates for OSS devs,
    • the date the provider launched and
    • examples and analysis of the successful projects using the provider.

The challenge is keeping all of this objective, as some participants (myself included[^1]) are biased by working on a project in this space. I think this can be overcome by keeping the document in a Github repo where each edit is public and saved for posterity, and where editors’ affiliations are listed. An additional challenge is getting reliable revenue numbers from providers.

Related projects:

Please use this thread to discuss the data collection project and let me know if you’d like to be involved!


[^1]: I have a now sidelined project to provide paywall-as-a-service for open source documentation sites called Dokknet. My personal motiviation in starting this group is to find a way to make a living from independent open source work, not to launch a startup, which is why I made Dokknet open source and forkable.

5 Likes

Thanks @agostbiro for moving this forward. Here are some items that come immediately to mind:

  • (default) subsidize open source work with unrelated income
  • Small Sponsorships (GitHub Sponsor, Patreon, OpenCollective)
  • Big Sponsorships (A big sponsor like a company)
  • Getting hired to work on your project (ask companies to hire you to work on your open source projects)
  • Dual-license open source project
  • Offer support or consultancy services
  • License the trademark (e.g., Moodle)
  • Monetize complementary items, like merchandize or documentation
  • Build a business with additional people (may be outside the scope of this list)
2 Likes

I’ve been collecting explainers, resources, and a showcase of indie businesses at indieopensource.com. It’s mostly been me trying to work up to a critical mass of material to kickstart so far. I’d love nothing more than to see other folks come in start, writing, and codeveloping resources they can use for customer- and peer-facing comms.

To give a sense, here’s a list of the explainers for customers:

These just cry out for infographics or even explainer videos, not to mention fresh eyes and hands on the prose.

GitHub org is here:

4 Likes

That’s great stuff, Kyle! It seems that you’ve covered a lot of ground already. Would you been open to extending Indie Open Source to cover sponsorhsips/donations and include data collection/presentation about how well different business models are working? If that’s the case, we could just fold this effort into contributing to Indie Open Source.

I think it’s important to have concrete data like revenue numbers, because it’s difficult to iterate on business models, so knowing that a similar project with N users makes $X in revenues would be immensely helpful when choosing a model. Of course, it’s not easy to comply these numbers, so doing that would be my main contribution.

Open to? Sure. Motivated? Not personally.

The theme for Indie Open Source was business models, and I don’t think most folks put donations in that category. Especially when they’re truly donations, and not really payments for perks called “donations” for marketing reasons.

That being said, my main goal with Indie Open Source right now is making it less a personal project, and more of a shared resource. If others feel motivated to write up guides or other pages that I haven’t, or add new directions, I want to facilitate, not hold them back.

Again, I want to be as open as possible to others, what they’re seeing, what they care about, and what they have energy to contribute.

I don’t think number-figure priors have ever come up in any of the conversations I’ve had with clients about business models. And I’d expect it to be very difficult to get these kinds of figures out of operating businesses, for myriad reasons.

To give a sense, one of the earliest, strongest notes of feedback I got on License Zero was not taking over public-facing comms from developers, especially with numbers that tend to “gamify” the process. Many of the folks I talked to were uncomfortable even with Product Hunt-style upvotes or promo.

If you’re interested in compiling and publishing figures, indieopensource.com could be a great place to do that. PR away!

I suspect we have a bit of a disconnect here about the intended audience. It seems to me that your audience for Indie Open Source is OSS business without venture backing. Is that correct? In contrast, the goal of this project would be to create supporting materials for OSS devs who don’t want to start a business, but are looking for ways to go full time working on open source. Donations/sponsorships are currently probably the biggest source of revenue for individual devs, that’s why I want to include these.

I don’t think number-figure priors have ever come up in any of the conversations I’ve had with clients about business models. And I’d expect it to be very difficult to get these kinds of figures out of operating businesses, for myriad reasons.

While I understand that businesses could be vary of sharing revenue numbers, a lot data is already available for projects without a business on Open Collective + individual devs can be asked to contribute voluntarily.

To give a sense, one of the earliest, strongest notes of feedback I got on License Zero was not taking over public-facing comms from developers, especially with numbers that tend to “gamify” the process. Many of the folks I talked to were uncomfortable even with Product Hunt-style upvotes or promo.

Do you mean that developers were averse to License Zero publishing revenue numbers for their projects? Or that devs didn’t want support in marketing from License Zero?


Btw, on a second thought maybe “Revenue Models for Independent OSS Devs” would be a better name for this project.

I think that generally tracks how I’m thinking about it. But I’m way more concerned about avoiding definitional, “who is and isn’t” debates than pushing my own view.

Interesting.

There’s a big risk of getting lost in the semantics here, but if the gist is really avoiding “business” as we know it, and therefore business models, you’re really only left with charity, patronage, salary, or fees—sources of income, rather than revenue.

The paved, well-traveled paths there are getting a job and finding clients. But if those are out, too, on account of “independent”, we’re basically left with just donations or patronage. Mendicant friars and partronized artists.

I haven’t dug up numbers in a while. But last I tried, I was surprised just how many of the “donations” success stories were actually very much in business, selling in exchange. Taking just Patreon as an example, many of the devs receiving the largest sums offered substantial perks, from swag to advertising to de facto consulting and access to early security alerts.

Both. The same degree of control over what they publish and what they say to users and competitors that they’d if they ran a dual-licensing business without L0’s help.

I think it’s important to clear up the semantics, because that defines the projects’ scopes. Here is how I think about the different segments of people/orgs whose main activity is open source software development based on organization type:

  1. Large, established orgs (from public companies like Redhat to non-profits like Mozilla)
  2. Startups
  3. Small indie companies
  4. Individual devs, maybe informal organization like an Open Collective

So when I wrote “OSS devs who don’t want to start a business”, what I meant was “OSS devs who don’t want to start a company”.

The paved, well-traveled paths there are getting a job and finding clients. But if those are out, too, on account of “independent”, we’re basically left with just donations or patronage. Mendicant friars and partronized artists.

There is a change underway now to shift these dynamics to directly reward the value creating activity (building OSS) for individual devs. As you noted, donations are probably the primary source of “direct reward” income[^1] today, and it’s ambiguous when a donations is a gratuitous payment and when it’s in exchange for perks. But beyond donations, there are many models being experimented with, from ads, through support or prioritization, to different licensing models. The common theme in these models targeted at individual devs is that there is a facilitating company that takes care of business functions. There are new projects popping up in the space every month and it’s difficult to keep track of what’s out there and how well they work. So the goal of this project is to catalog these models and provide hard data.

Thanks for helping me clear up the terminology, I will change the group name to “Income Sources for Independent OSS Devs”. In conclusion, I think it’s best to keep Indie Open Source and this effort separate, because as we discovered, they are aimed at different audiences and mixing the two leads to confusion.


[^1]: I’ll try to stick with income from now instead of revenue, as revenue implies a company.

There are new projects popping up in the space every month and it’s difficult to keep track of what’s out there and how well they work. So the goal of this project is to catalog these models and provide hard data.

Is the idea is to provide a list of third parties’ services that might help individual developers to monetize what they do without opening up a shop, correct? I believe @asynchio has done an interesting job in this respect, check it out: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1w9hi4pOlKfUmjnq5FtETqIOef-h8e7XdodNA-5rgN8Y/edit#gid=0

1 Like

Thanks, Roberto, that’s a great resource!

Is the idea is to provide a list of third parties’ services that might help individual developers to monetize what they do without opening up a shop, correct?

Yeah the idea is to organize this info by models, list providers and show data on how well they work (like most successful project makes $X, median $Y etc). I’m working on a draft now, will share here as soon as it’s publishable.

1 Like

I actually think @bibryam is the person that created this document. For me, the most important column in this file is “Status/Activity”. That and transparent numbers about actual funding are what I would like people to focus on.

Having metrics of success would be great. In the absence of that, I am also interested in which projects have failed. Over the last 5, I have many funding efforts atrophy and fade away. Ju

Hey @agostbiro - have you made headway on that document? I hope so! It would be great to look over it.