I often bemoan a mantra related to open source development that I heard at a WordCamp when I was first getting started.

Do your best work. Give it away for free.  The Universe will provide.

It sounded like a great idea at the time.  I'd just discovered open source software, and I was absolutely in love with the open, community-driven nature of it.

Companies were held up as stellar examples of multi-million dollar enterprises who'd built a product, given it to consumers for free, and still been able to monetize and stay afloat through other means.  I wanted to achieve that kind of success.

Flexible Ethics

In graduate school, I took a wonderful class on cross-cultural sales practices.  I call it "wonderful" because it helped me build wonderful connections and taught my a lot about myself by showing me how much the business world is filled with things I loathe.

One lesson in particular was how bribery and political corruption was normal in some cultures and to avoid it on ethical principles would set me up for failure in business.  Needless to say, that pretty much turned me off at pursuing a career in international sales.

My professor took me out to lunch to discuss it with me.  He applauded my reservations to shady business practices, but at the same time suggested I needed to relax my grip on black-and-white moral principles so I could work more effectively in the market.

I highly respect this professor, but I disagree in his stance on principles.  If you hold something to be a guiding truth, you need to live by it at all times.  If you can't live by it, then it must not be a truth.

Does the Universe Provide

I've been developing plugins for WordPress since I started in open source.  To date, my free plugins have racked up almost 100,000 downloads.  I've supported the plugins with multiple version updates, bug fixes, and feature additions.

At the time each plugin was released, they represented my "best work."  I gave them away entirely for free.

I'm still staring at a huge IOU from the universe.

Monetizing Free Software

I've tried various ways to retain the "free"ness of the products I give away.  Unfortunately, my efforts have been faced thus far with total failure.

I tried charging for support - I had 1 subscriber who later asked for a refund since he didn't actually need support.

I tried charging for feature additions - this evolved to an unsustainable business model as clients wanted their changes to be proprietary and, the longer I insisted on opening them to the world, they turned to other developers instead and still built upon my free base.

I tried a Kickstarter-like donate-for-your-favorite-feature campaign for two of my plugins  - I received several votes of confidence, but $0 in total.

In late 2011, I took the time to conduct actual research to see if there was a monetization strategy that would actually work.  Of the people I interviewed:

  • 33% would not pay any amount for specific feature development
  • 40% would not pay any amount to support ongoing development
  • 80% would not pay for "priority" or "early release" updates

Most surprising, of the 50% of interviewees who said they would pay to contribute to ongoing development - a not insubstantial ongoing payment of $25/year - a total of 0% have actually contributed over the past 3 years since the interview.

How Principled are We?

If you hold something to be a guiding truth, you need to live by it at all times.  If you can't live by it, then it must not be a truth.

I tried freelancing for a few years before taking a steady "real" job with an employer.  I continued to freelance for a few years beyond that on the side as well.  I learned a lot about making money from open source software, but one thing in particular: if you give it away for free, no one will give you anything in return.

The universe included.

Perhaps I've grown a bit cynical, but when I see larger WordPress shops making money off premium products I have to wonder.  On the whole, these products are open source - so they're free in the sense that I can do whatever I want with them after I have a copy.

Well, until I try to resell the product on my own.  Or until I give it away for free.  Or until someone notices I installed a copy on yet another client site.

Despite the product being "free," the WordPress community jumps on people doing any of the above quickly and furiously.

This is the same community that taught me the above mantra - and which claims to live by it.

I still look at the big players in the open source community - not just WordPress, but the surrounding community as a whole - and I still want my share of that success.  But every day I work with open source I see more clearly: our community is no more principled than any other in the business world.

I shudder at the thought of what that means for our future.