I was laid off a couple of months ago, and have been thinking about what I want to do next. Actually, I've mostly been writing code for my pet projects, but earning a living again is occasionally on my mind.

I would, very much, like to earn a living while deveoping interesting free software that I would like to use myself.

There's a bunch of options available:

  • I could go work for one of the large companies that use free software, and hope to find a position where I can help develop the tools they use. This would perhaps be the easiest option.
  • I could perhaps find a job at a smaller company that specilizes in the development of some parts of the free software stack, or develops a Linux distribution.
  • I could join or found a startup that develops free software and thinks it has a business model around it.
  • I could learn web programming, and develop interesting online services that people would be willing to pay for.
  • I could do consulting gigs, either via my own company (back in Finland), or by getting employed by one of the free software oriented consulting houses that exist. Again, I might need to learn some new skills, since most customers are looking for work in parts of the development stack I'm not experienced in, such as the kernel, or want web or mobile app development, neither of which I know.
  • I could try to crowd-fund development of software I think the world needs, and hope to get paid enough to make a living. This would be a special case of doing consulting: I would be selling very small amounts of work to a fairly large number of customers.

In this blog entry, I want to think about that last option.

Here's I imagine it would work: I would post a list of things I would like to do, estimates of how much work they'd be, and a hourly price. People would tell me how many hours of work they'd like to pay for. I would then do the work, send everyone their bill, and they'd pay it.

In the ideal world, this would be an awesome way to fund development. I could, for example, write some automated tools for system testing of Debian, to help with release management, or I could finish Obnam. And that's just two things I'm already working on: there's no end of things I would like to develop, if I didn't need to worry about my next meal.

However, this is not without problems. To start with, it might look like I'm trying to blackmail the world: "pay me, or this software won't be written". That's not a problem in the general case, but it'd easily look like that if the work would be to, say, maintain Debian packages. As a Debian developer, I should keep my packages in good shape whether someone is paying me or not. I would need to be careful to keep things ethical here.

Another problem would be the issue of being realistic: would there be enough people willing to pay me, and how long would that last? That partly depends on the pricing. Although my needs are fairly modest, I do live in a country that is fairly expensive to live in. If I started doing this, it'd be easy for someone in a country it is cheaper to live in to compete on price (and they might well be better than I am, too). Then again, since there's no end of things to do, perhaps we could both make a living.

Would you pay someone to develop free software by the hour? How much? How often? What should the software do?

Yes, I would pay for that and I did so in the past.

As to for if in that specific case, for what and how much... No general answer for that, I guess.

And yes, you would have to avoid the slippery slope of appearing to be trying to milk others. The second money enters a situation, a lot of things change. Even when no one wanted them to.


Comment by Richard Wed Jun 8 21:10:14 2011
I'd say the last option while interesting in theory will most likely not work in practise - people that pay money want to feel in control of the outcome, it is more comfortable for both sides if the relationship where the money is exchanged is a close one - you know what the clients want, they know that you know, you can verify that they are satisfied with what they get for the money, they feel satisfied and cared for and want to spend again. So - your basic freelancing.
Comment by Aigars Wed Jun 8 22:29:37 2011

... and in general I believe they've been found to be the least effective of your stated options in terms of generating revenue (especially of the steady income sort) when it comes to free software. This may be partially due to a lack of a really good technological solution for donating to this sort of work, but it also seems in part to be due to a reticence to pledge money to a project which hasn't started yet: fine in a business, but less so for the archetypal Internet micro-donor. Worse still is that there can be no guarantee that, while one is waiting for sufficient money to be pledged, someone else is not independently writing free software which does the same thing. This suggests that in order to mitigate for these problems one has to write at least some of the code before expecting to be compensated for it, which brings up the "ransom" problem should said code be ready before the bill has been paid.

I would love for a commission-based system using Internet crowdsourcing to be a viable income model, but presently there's little evidence to suggest it.

Comment by Chris Wed Jun 8 23:26:50 2011

Thanks for sharing. I hope you'll continue, especially if you successfully make a financial success of a non-conventional occupation.

I've spent years attempting to "live off freedom" since 1998 and tried several approaches. Alas, the only one that I've been able to make pay more than pocket-money is old-fashioned consulting (and a brief spell of regular employment with Sun before it got borged).

Getting the public to pay for a Good Thing is difficult: the number who will pay is, in my experience, a tiny fraction of what you'd hope. That business model is challenging even to such a big and popular company as Netscape briefly was. Getting a small number of high-value clients has worked better. On the other hand, we know there are some success stories out there too.

Good luck!

Comment by niq Thu Jun 9 01:20:25 2011
I too would like to be able to live off of freedom, exactly as you've described. Regarding crowd-funding, have you considered coming up with some good ideas to begin with and seeing if they succeed on Kickstarter?
Comment by josephspiros.com Thu Jun 9 07:17:34 2011

Hi Lars,

I'm also looking for ways to fund my free software work and I have some hope with the crowdfunding approach. But you need to be able to reach people who are interested by the work you're going to do. That's one of the reasons why I have been developing the audience of my blog (http://raphaelhertzog.com).

In any case, yes, I would be ready to pay a bit for project that I find important either for me or for Debian's future. I don't know how much I would be ready to put. Probably something around 30 EUR in the hope that it covers around one hour of work.

If you go for the crowfunding approach, I really suggest you consider using one of the online platforms like http://ulule.com or http://kickstarter.com as has already been suggested. It will help you market your project and force you to think of rewards that will motivate the donors. And last but not least, you'll have some guaranty that you don't work for nothing, either the project is entirely funded or it's not.

Comment by hertzog Thu Jun 9 20:05:25 2011

I'm pessimistic about that, let me try to give rough numbers why I'm sceptic:

I'd expect the average amount of money you'll get from one person to be something like € 10.

If you want a reasonable income after taxes and insurances etc. you'll then need at least 500 people donating to you. Each month.

Comment by AdrianBunk Fri Jun 10 17:06:21 2011

I remember sending money to somebody who had put a nice object oriented source code in the wild. The guy was very puzzled. I had left an email address so he came back to me saying that his stuff was for free, and I didn't have to pay. I replied saying that looking at his source code made me understand things, and saved me days, and that even my contribution was very little compared to his contribution to my work. And I am sure many people don't mind paying. Just make it easy and simple. That is my main problem with most payment systems. Apple figured out - you can buy prepaid itunes card anywhere or almost, whereas buying a software on the android market is a PITA. Cheers

Comment by thunus Sat Jun 11 07:23:14 2011

I know I’d press my employer to spring money for working on several RFP/ITP bugs. Most of it is pretty ugly though, like Java™ stuff that is delivered in a form where even the “source” contains .jar files with dependencies.

Other than that… I don’t know if you could make enough to live from it, reliably, each monyh – but then, (after a failure) I don’t see how freelancers can survive, either (they do need quite a large amount of cash reserves initially, I guess). You should definitively publish that a lot.

Try to get ideas from people what they think they need, not just what you think they need. Both may not match what people need, but you can get a better idea this way ;)

Comment by mirabilos Sun Jun 12 21:30:12 2011