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I work on free and open-source software full time, and I make a comfortable living doing it. And I don’t half-ass it: 100% of my code is free and open-source. There’s no proprietary add-ons, no periodic code dumps, just 100% bona-fide free and open source software. Others have often sought my advice — how can they, too, make a living doing open source?
Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. There are many varieties of software, each with different needs, and many kinds of people, each with different needs. The exact approach which works for you and your project will vary quite a bit depending on the nature of your project.
I would generally categorize my advice into two bins:
You want to make money from your own projects
You want to make money participating in open source
The first one is more difficult. We’ll start with the latter.
One way to make money in FOSS is to get someone to pay you to write free software. There’s lots of advantages to this: minimal personal risk, at-market salaries, benefits, and so on, but at the cost of not necessarily getting to choose what you work on all the time.
I have a little trick that I often suggest to people who vaguely want to work “in FOSS”, but who aren’t trying to find the monetization potential in their own projects. Use git to clone the source repositories for some (large) projects you’re interested in, the kind of stuff you want to work on, and then run this command:
git log -n100000 --format="%ae" | cut -d@ -f2 | sort | uniq -c | sort -nr | less
This will output a list of the email domains who have committed to the repository in the last 100,000 commits. This is a good set of leads for companies who might be interested in paying you to work on projects like this 😉
Another good way is to explicitly seek out large companies known to work a lot in FOSS, and see if they’re hiring in those departments. There are some companies that specialize in FOSS, such as RedHat, Collabora, and dozens more; and there are large companies with FOSS-specific teams, such as Intel, AMD, IBM, and so on.
If you want to pay for the project infrastructure, and maybe beer money for the weekend, then donations are an easy way to do that. I’ll give it to you straight, though: you’re unlikely to make a living from donations. Programmers who do are a small minority. If you want to make a living from FOSS, it’s going to be more difficult.
Start by unlearning what you think you know about startups. The toxic startup culture around venture capital and endless hyper-growth is more stressful, less likely to succeed, and socially irresponsible. Building a sustainable business responsibly takes time, careful planning, and hard work. The fast route — venture capital funded — is going to impose constraints on your business that will ultimately make it difficult to remain true to your open-source mission.
And yes, you are building a business. You need to start thinking of your project as a business and of yourself as a business owner. This undertaking is going to require developing business skills in planning, budgeting, scheduling, resource allocation, marketing & sales, compliance, and more. At times, you will be forced to embrace your inner suit. Channel your engineering problem-solving skills into the business problems.
So, you’ve got the right mindset. What are some business models that work?
SourceHut, my company, has two revenue streams. We have a hosted SaaS product. It’s open source, and users can choose to deploy and maintain it themselves, or they can just buy a hosted account from us. The services are somewhat complex, so the managed offering saves them a lot of time. We have skilled sysops/sysadmins, support channels, and so on, for paying users. Importantly, we don’t have a free tier (but we do choose to provide free service to those who need it, at our discretion).
Our secondary revenue stream is free software consulting. Our developers work part-time writing free and open-source software on contracts. We’re asked to help implement features upstream for various projects, or to develop new open-source applications or libraries, to share our expertise in operations, and so on, and charge for these services. This is different from providing paid support or development on our own projects — we accept contracts to work on any open source project.
The other approach to consulting is also possible: paid support and development on your own projects. If there are businesses that rely on your project, then you may be able to offer them support or develop new features or bugfixes that they need, on a paid basis. Projects with a large corporate userbase also sometimes do find success in donations — albeit rebranded as sponsorships. The largest projects often set up foundations to manage them in this manner.
These are, in my experience, some of the most successful approaches to monetizing FOSS. You may have success with a combination of these, or with other business models as well. Remember to turn that engineering mind of yours towards the task of monetization, and experiment with and invent new ways of making money that best suit the kind of software you want to work on.
Feel free to reach out if you have some questions or need a sounding board for your ideas. Good luck!
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“A few ways to make money in FOSS” was published on November 20, 2020.
The content for this site is CC-BY-SA. The code for this site is MIT.
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