Published on 18 March 2019
Open source has reached a tipping point. As a software methodology, licensing your code permissively means that you most likely won’t get paid for your work. This means that you’re limited in what you can do with your code; at some point, as a maintainer, you’ll need to go find money somewhere else. Some coders have excess free time; others are paid to work on open source at work. But the majority of open source developers are passionate hobbyists, coding in their personal time.
This leads to major issues down the line. Awesome projects grow stale through lack of maintenance; great ideas never make it to the runway; and coders burn out, and leave the field entirely. Worse, sometimes the code that is abandoned leads to major security issues — heartbleed and other bugs are only the tip of the iceberg. As our open source coding world gets older, the situation is only going to get worse.
On the flipside, people are working on the problem. There are now tech incubators for open source; meetups where people can find mentors and collaborators; and large subsidies for massive projects from industry behemoths (Google’s Angular, Facebook’s React, and so on). But getting money down the stack to lower-level, less-sexy projects is hard.
Open Collective is a platform that enables collaborative communities to raise money and pay people easily. It works particularly well for open source. A project can set up a collective, and start getting funds from interested fans or users. This money can pay maintainers, or reimburse expenses like hosting, design, travel, and so on.
This solves the financial infrastructure problem for sustaining open source, but how do you make your project marketable and find funders? How do you attract more developers to work on your code with you? How do you help move them up the contributor funnel?
Maintainer Mountaineer, my company, has been working on these issues for a while. I help open source projects write better documentation, manage their communities, and plan to scale. Recently, I’ve been wondering about improving funding in open source, as well.
Today, I’m launching a collaboration with Open Collective. First, we’ll improve the developer experience and documentation: update READMEs, clarify API docs, improve codes of conduct, and so on. Then, we’ll identify possible financial sponsors and ask them to help. Ideally, we’ll be able to turn stale projects with overloaded maintainers into awesome projects with thriving communities making progress on their roadmaps.
We’re going to start with a few hand-picked projects from Open Collective and GitHub. Eventually, we’ll hope to bring in more money through Open Collective for each project than it costs for Maintainer to work on the project. Because this is new territory, Open Collective is subsidizing the work for now. That means all of this work is free for the project maintainers. We suspect that this work will eventually pay for itself.
This is experimental, and we’re going into this with more questions than answers. It’ll take a good amount of elbow grease. You can follow along at my personal blog on burntfen.com/blog and on Twitter at @richlitt. If you’re a newsletter person, you can sign up at on Maintainer’s TinyLetter.
Got ideas? Tweet at me! Want to be part of the trial? Send an email. Got funds you don’t know what to do with (yes, this actually happens)? Drop a line.