Before I helped start Tidelift, I built a private legal practice focused on the needs of open source developers. My clients spanned from individuals to nonprofits to startups to huge, highly profitable software companies. Serving these clients was a lot of fun. But there was also a frustrating, recurring theme: most of my clients wanted their open source work to be sustainable in the long run. They needed a business model that filled the gap between “solo consultant” and “backed by VC or advertising giant.” Unfortunately, I didn’t have one to give them.
This was particularly painful to see when I worked with individual developers or small communities. I’ve been lucky enough to work in open source my entire adult life, but many of my old friends (and even some of my recent clients) no longer do. Unfortunately, they often left because they couldn’t find a match between the value they were creating and the revenue required to build something long-term. So they left open source to work on software with a clear business model.
I’m not the only one who has pointed out this issue. Starting well before we created Tidelift, I regularly saw people I know and respect express their frustration with the current state of things almost daily.
Open source isn't free. This free lunch free-for-all is going to come back and bite us. Somebody has to work on the stuff we all depend on— Heather Miller (@heathercmiller) June 29, 2017
We’ve *got* to find a better way to deal with open source sustainability than lurching from crisis to apparent calm to crisis.— glyph (@glyph) September 28, 2017
The good news: this week I am more optimistic than ever that a solution is within our reach. We now have reached $1 million committed to pay open source maintainers. We think Tidelift is now a viable option for sustaining the work of open source developers—one that lets developers improve their software over the long run, but also preserves their independence.
While building towards this milestone, we’ve talked to many developers, and they have echoed some of the same themes I have heard from friends, Twitter, and clients. Many of them dream of a scenario where they can turn their open source work into the way they make a living.
For these developers, money can be powerful. As Olivier Tassinari of Material-UI put it, “I see [money] primarily as an instrument of change. You can leverage it for making changes.”
Similarly, John Leider of Vuetify told us that passive income would let his project get better. The down side can be quite negative: Evan You of Vue.js echoed my old friends, saying that if it isn’t well-supported, open source engagement “can risk your work life balance to the point that you’re completely burned out and you walk away.”
And that’s where we think Tidelift’s model can help. We work directly with maintainers like these to provide professional assurances around their packages as part of the Tidelift Subscription. Professional development teams then get the support they need, and maintainers like John, Evan, and Olivier get paid for their work—a real win-win.
After hearing so many of these stories, from so many developers, I’ve long wondered what we could do to change the status quo. This week we took a big step towards filling the gap and providing more options for open source developers. If you’re an open source maintainer, you can check and see if your package is eligible for guaranteed minimum payments today. You can also sign up even if you’re not yet guaranteed a payment. You’ll be approved for payments as soon as your package is eligible, and can in the meantime help inform your users about the Tidelift Subscription.
I'm looking forward to hearing a new narrative begin to emerge as we see more success paying the maintainers with Tidelift.