Why crowdfunding open source projects isn't as easy as you think

Developers dream of a big money bang that will solve all their problems. The reality is more complicated.

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A big basket of cash

It's A Wonderful Life is a heartwarming holiday classic about the ways a community comes together to help one of its most beloved members in a time of need. It's also about money, in a very practical way: the crucial help arrives in the form of a big basket of cash, which everyone in Bedford Falls has thrown money into in order to save George Bailey and the Savings and Loan.

This is an image that appeals to many open source proponents, for whom community is one of the key aspects of the open source world. If we can all come together to contribute code to a project, why can't we contribute cash as well?

You're about to find out.

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street peformer
Putting out your (metaphorical) hat

Most of the world is more likely to associate crowdsourcing with the books, movies, and other creative projects prominent on Kickstarter than with computer hardware or software. But it turns out that open source and crowdfunding have a long and intertwined history. Way back in 1998, security expert and open source proponent Bruce Schneier proposed the Street Performer Protocol, a recognizable version of the modern crowdfunding model for artists, with one big difference: if a campaign meets its goal, the resulting work of art must be released into the public domain or under an open source-style "copyleft" license, to reflect the community nature of its funding. This aspect didn't make it into the modern crowdsourcing era.

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The Jolla Tablet

There's more than a whiff of Bedford Falls around the story of the Jolla team. When the Mister Potters of Nokia chose to jettison the Linux-based MeeGo smartphone OS in favor of Windows Phone, many Nokia employees jumped ship to build Sailfish OS out of MeeGo's open source corps. Their journey came to a seemingly triumphant conclusion at the end of 2014, as thousands came together to crowdfund a Sailfish OS-based tablet, blowing past the company's goal on IndieGogo. Nokia, meanwhile, had been absorbed by Microsoft, only to see much of its staff laid off. For open source proponents, it was a feel-good ending.

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Success not guaranteed

And yet crowdsourcing is not just a magic wand, and some crowdsourcing projects flop even when they're at the highest level of visibility. Open source companies don't get much higher-profile than Canonical, for instance, but the makers of Ubuntu couldn't raise even half of their (admittedly insanely ambitious) $32 million goal to jumpstart a smartphone in 2013. The company has pushed on into the mobile space since, but in the form of an OS that can be flashed onto other people's phones -- a much less ambitious aim. And smaller projects with smaller goals often flop too, even when they're as beloved as the Geary email client.

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Success is not always success

Even those open source projects that concluded their crowdfunding campaign in a burst of triumph have found that that doesn't guarantee success. Consider Diaspora, the Kickstarted, open source, privacy-focused alternative to Facebook that, despite outpacing its crowdfunding goal by a factor of 20, failed to take off; its creators kicked the code back to the community, where it has languished. App.net, which aimed to provide an alternative to Twitter, also began with crowdfunding success, but couldn't find enough paying customers to sustainably pay full-time employees.

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No silver bullet, no magic wand

Why the difficulties? Felix Breuer, a computer scientist with an interest in crowdfunding, thinks that crowdfunding relies on both practical backers (who are just "pre-buying" a product) and altruistic backers (who want to see a project succeed separate for their desire to own the end result). But many open source projects ultimately offer a form of their end result for free-as-in-free-beer, which cuts down on potential donations. It's also true that many high-profile campaigns become high-profile and succeed thanks to professional marketing -- and marketing is often exactly the kind of "soft skill" that programmers dismiss as not necessary, at their peril.

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Smaller can be better

But there's another alternative to the big-bang, all-or-nothing approach most commonly associated with crowdfunding campaigns. A number of platforms have emerged that allow you to offer bounties, not on whole projects, but on specific feature additions and improvements within existing projects. Community sites like Bountysource and BountyOSS solicit much smaller donations to achieve much more focused goals. BountyOSS specifically targets businesses that use open source software, in a model that was dreamed of from the very beginning of the open source movement.

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For the cost of a cup of coffee a day...

Another crowdfunding model for long-standing projects looking for sustainability lies in sponsorships: instead of asking for a one-time flurry of cash, instead seek a long-term revenue source. While these don't have the same level of excitement to them, they can definitely supplement the income of a project, especially if its main product is given away. For instance, Joomla, the open source CMS project, provides a suite of sponsorship opportunities that can pay for the day-to-day work on the project.

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People's money is where their mouths are

Finally, let's get really mind-blowing: what if the best use of crowdfunding for open source projects isn't to raise money per se, but to find out what people might be interested in? Envato CEO Collis Ta'eed talks about "customer intent": a crowdfunding campaign can test the waters to see how interested people might be in product that would, if produced, be marketed and sold in a more traditional way. The importance is not so much that you make money in that first campaign, but that you can see the potential for a more sustainable business -- and if there's no potential there, you haven't ventured much and can move in a different direction.

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Getting what you need

This idea seems to be gaining traction. Remember the sad story of App.net from a couple slides back? The App.net social network may not have knocked out Twitter, but the company has pivoted to something new: Backer, a site that allows you to, in the company's own words, "gaug[e] the market size for a hypothetical new product." App.net used the platform themselves, to see if people would fund a feature that would allow them to accept Bitcoin -- with the result that you can now pay for features via Backer with Bitcoin. It's not the be-all and end-all of open source and crowdfunding working together, but App.net's pivot should intrigue anyone interested in this topic.