Open Source, Motivations & Business

Open Source

A hefty discussion has been going on about people’s motivations to develop Open Source software, starting with Alex King’s blog post and followed up by many others including Weblog Tools Collection. I disagree wholeheartedly with some of Alex’s statements. Chris Olbekson did a post I agree with more, and he also asked for my opinion on Twitter:

He’ll get my opinion. And you’ll get it too, right here. So, sit back, relax and take some time to read, this is the longest post I’ve written this year.

Why I build and contribute to Open Source Software

To explain why I build and contribute to open source software, I need to take you on a short trip through my own history as a developer. I’ve actually been participating in Open Source projects for years, and it didn’t really start with WordPress. I was, and officially still am, a committer on the WebKit project before that, mostly because I’ve literally built thousands of automated test cases for them.

Why did I do that? Because it was fun! It was fun to help the core developers get more features in faster by making it easier for them to test those new features. WebKit is an entirely different project from WordPress, but I think you’ll agree that it has a huge impact on the web as well. If you don’t know how, read up on it. The short version? It’s the HTML & CSS rendering core of Chrome, Safari and almost all proper mobile browsers.

While doing that work, I started a site called CSS3.info, my first real WordPress based site. Even at that time, when my work wasn’t recognized by many people outside of the WebKit community, my open source connections allowed me to grow this site quickly, and allowed me to make money doing it. Through CSS3.info, I quickly fell in love with WordPress. My dayjob at that time was as an SEO (in part it still is today), and I felt the need to optimize my WordPress blog more. So I started building plugins.

The first plugins I built were for my own use, but I quite quickly decided to release Robots Meta, a very early predecessor to its current form and even to my WordPress SEO plugin. While it didn’t make me any money, it did gain me a reputation in the SEO industry, allowing me to speak on international conferences and get my blog, at that time joostdevalk.nl, better known. In fact, I was ranking top #10 for “SEO Blog” at the time, in large part due to the links I got through people mentioning my plugins.

And so, with my continued involvement in especially the WordPress community, this site grew. It grew larger and larger because of my articles, but mostly because of my plugins. It grew so large that it lead to me making more money with my site(s) than in my job, and eventually going solo, first in part, and, just 2 days ago, entirely. I’m living a dream, seriously, and I wouldn’t have been here without open source development.

Let me repeat that:

I wouldn’t have been where I am now without engaging in open source development.

And why I disagree with Alex so much, is that I’m 100% sure that I wouldn’t even have been reading his blog, let alone have the respect I have for him, if he had not done what he had done. He would not have been able to build a 15 person company, he would have been just another developer.

Is the current model sustainable?

Alex makes quite the dramatic statement:

I actually feel strongly that the current situation is unsustainable. Unless the WordPress community at large starts to better recognize and reward the developers that create the tools that they use and rely on, the developers won’t/can’t continue to provide as they have.

He’s 100% wrong. Of course we’d all like more love and for people to send us $1,000 checks every other day. That’s not gonna happen. The fact that he gets $100/$200 a month for donations says one thing, and thing only, to me: he sucks at conversion. He sucks at getting people to think about sending him money for his efforts. I know because when I whined about this exact issue a while back, some people just told me plainly: they’d never even thought about donating, why didn’t I remind them? So I did, I included this box on the plugins settings page (well another version, I’ve done some testing on it):

Google Analytics donate buttonYou know what that resulted in? I top that $200, every week, with just my Google Analytics plugin. So it’s not that people don’t want to give, it’s that we have to remind them. It doesn’t rely on a sodding donate link on WordPress.org, my god. Ok, enough about donations, they’re nice, but the real money is in consulting, as Alex should know, as he built his company around it and is now whining about the very community that allowed him to build that company. Not. Cool.

Don’t get me wrong Alex, if you read this, I respect who you are and what you’ve done. You’re just wrong in this.

There’s more.

Support emails

Another quote from Alex’s post:

…it seems fairly universal that the reward for a successful plugin is a deluge of support email that includes the worst kind of sense of entitlement, rudeness and ignorance.

Sadly, it’s true, I do get those emails too and I get very angry with them, and probably vent way too much about them on Twitter and else where. Why too much? Because it means I forget to tell everyone about how many very cool emails I get, and how many of those ignorant people, when you explain to them what it is you do, turn out to be warm, thankful people.

You know what helps? To laugh about it. Just the other day I stepped in on a thread in the StudioPress forums, because the awesome @andrea_r asked me for feedback. It was a thread about WordPress and SEO, something I dare say I know a bit about. The guy in the thread called me an SEO Rookie. Seriously, a rookie. Brian Gardner noticed too and had the same reaction I had:

So, seriously: don’t take yourself so seriously. Very often the people emailing for plugin support are frustrated because they can’t get something to work, in my case often because they can’t get their sites to rank or don’t know how to configure something. Writing better documentation helps. Doing explanation video’s helps too. This costs time and sometimes money, but you know what? It pays for itself.

What you should do

If you’re only getting annoying emails, maybe you should consider what it is in your plugin that makes people react that way. Do you make promises you can’t keep? Does your plugin’s name mislead people into thinking it’s something it’s not? Did you not update your plugin to work with newer versions? Alex, in his post, says he’s employed someone to update his plugins, and makes it seem as though that’s a stupid thing to do. It’s not. It’s his responsibility. If he does not want to update them, it’s very simple to do something about it: you post a blog post, asking someone else to take up development. That, Alex, is open source. I’d be happy to pick up some of your plugins, most of which are very cool.

Now, a plea to all plugin developers out there: don’t release every piece of code you write, please! Release well thought out plugins, with a feature set people will want and even need to use. I’ve made that mistake myself, more than once. Also, release plugins you know you’ll want to maintain. If you don’t want to maintain it, throw the code online in a blog post, release it under the GPL and ask people to pick it up and use it. If no one does, no problem, the code or solution wasn’t that spectacular apparently.

I strongly believe the system is sustainable. I strongly believe, in fact, I know from experience, that if you code awesome plugins and you do your marketing well, you can make a very good living as a WordPress developer, even build out a company if you want. If you don’t know how to do that, the marketing part, come talk to me, I’d love to help you.

Header image provided by Shutterstock.

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37 Responses

  1. Syed BalkhiBy Syed Balkhi on 4 December, 2010

    Joost,

    I have always respected your work and will continue to do so. Got a few of your plugins running on my site. I and a lot of other people truly appreciate what you have done for the community. Keep up the good work.

    • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 4 December, 2010

      Thanks Syed, appreciate that!

  2. Chris OlbeksonBy Chris Olbekson on 4 December, 2010

    Yoast,
    I really appreciate your perspective on this and have lots of respect for plugin authors like yourself and Frederick who spend so much time and effort maintaining and answering almost every single support question.

    I also have a lot of respect for Alex and WP Help Center was the inspiration for my own WordPress consulting and support business. I was shocked that he felt the way he does and knew that his success was a direct result of his open source contributions.

    My business has just started to take off and it is directly related to speaking at a WordCamp, volunteering in the support forums and releasing a plugin.

    Thanks for your insight.

    • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 4 December, 2010

      Thanks for instigating me to write this post. Just keep on rocking it Chris, although I doubt you need my encouragement :)

  3. RoyBy Roy on 4 December, 2010

    Hey buddy, well written post. From day one since I met you, you convinced me how cool open source can be, and although we all see some hurdles sometimes we both know that the landscape of open source is really wonderful, without closing our eyes to see, where we can improve. Great posting (and really long as well).

    • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 4 December, 2010

      Hey mate, what’s a challenge without a hurdle or two, right? :) I like this long form thing, should do it more often ;)

  4. John GarrettBy John Garrett on 4 December, 2010

    I didn’t even know about most of the background I’ve read here. This is an eye-opening post, and actually will make me think more about rewarding the developers of the plugins I download and use for free.

    Especially considering the abuse they obviously take from ill-informed and/or frustrated people.

    Thanks for all your hard work, Joost!

    • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 4 December, 2010

      It’s replies like these that make it worth doing John, thanks :)

  5. Fil on the roadBy Fil on the road on 4 December, 2010

    Dear Yoast,

    I am following this whole controversial discussion for quite some time and since I am in the web I am also following your career and the developments you have made. I strongly agree with your point of views and from my former business as management consultant I know that a lot of people stuck at conversion and marketing – even outside the web.

    From my own experience with your support and Alex´s support I can tell there is a major difference. I wrote in different cases to both of you – in a very friendly way and I always receive a quick response from you and very delayed message from Alex. This is not to condemn anybody but there is a “look and feel” difference in that. And your way of handling the “donation”-conversion it caused me to donate to you as well several times.

    Thank you for your great work, the always kind way of talking and answering and the fact that you share your knowledge with all of us.

    • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 4 December, 2010

      Ey Fil,

      to be fair, I sometimes am slow in responding too, as it’s often just too much… But I try to be quick about it, and it’s good to see that you notice!

  6. Andrea_RBy Andrea_R on 4 December, 2010

    :D Exactly what Ron & I have been saying to each other.

    (except for that part where I pulled you in on that thread – got tired of reading that guy… :D )

    • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 4 December, 2010

      Yeah you guys are great examples of how this open source thing just works as well :)

  7. Adam HumphreysBy Adam Humphreys on 4 December, 2010

    I’m thankful for your contributions to Open Source and hope you continue to do so in the future! Happy Holidays!

  8. Luc De BrouwerBy Luc De Brouwer on 4 December, 2010

    Great post!

    I’ve always thought good software is not something people should pay for, it’s something people will pay for. Quality is what keeps a business model sustainable!

  9. Devesh SharmaBy Devesh Sharma on 4 December, 2010

    Hey Joost,

    I really respect you and your word. You’ve done awesome work for WordPress. Many of your plugins are running on my blogs. Thanks.

    Keep up the awesome work and have a great weekend.

    PS. New Design looks Great.

  10. Chris RobinsonBy Chris Robinson on 4 December, 2010

    Funny World we live in!
    In the late 1970′s I started one of the very first Microcomputer Companies in the World. In those days the ideas of Open Source or being paid to write software to make our toys tick was beyond imagination!
    I wrote the first assembler for the Z80 and published the code in PCW – FREE! Everybody was helping everybody else and the whole PC business was born from these beginnings!
    Later, as a founder member of the CP/M User Group I was one of the team that wrote MS-Dos – Windows for the new IBM PC, most of which was done FREE although Bill did pay us a small fee for the core stuff which he had failed to get to work!
    I copied, legally questionably, the Pet’s Visicalc software, one of the biggest selling points of the Pet and made it work on the IBM PC, published it FREE and it was copied and modified by loads of manufacturers!
    Where did it end, where did it change to grab everything you can?
    I know I did well until recently when I find myself in NEW Zealand trapped by the awful pollution here, dying with my family only able to surf the internet, create websites and blogs which is how I found your link!
    Open Source – without it the whole PC industry wouldn’t exist but the people who provide the code are usually not the ones that drive super cars earnt by using it!
    Take Care!

  11. Brandon CoxBy Brandon Cox on 4 December, 2010

    I completely agree with your disagreement, except for disagreeing with what you said about disagreeable people not agreeing. :-/

    Open source has its weaknesses, but sustainability isn’t one of them. And I think it should be pointed out that open source doesn’t equal free (in the financial sense), it simply means open. Charge for stuff if you want, but what you produce is free to be hacked, tweaked, re-distributed or burned at the stake.

  12. NicoBy Nico on 5 December, 2010

    i stumble across your blog a couple of times a month through random links from sites i visit regularly and this article was written really well and made me really think about the post unlike other things on the internet which i just skim over.

    Thanks for giving me something to mull over.

  13. Stephen WeblinBy Stephen Weblin on 5 December, 2010

    Thanks for your thought provoking post. Without the open source stuff made available by people like you many other projects would be next to impossible.

  14. VincentBy Vincent on 5 December, 2010

    Hi Joost,

    What I wanted to add to this discussion. Open Source makes the world a better place! I pay every now and then for the plugins, I support the community and I enjoy wordpress, android, ff/chrome/tb etc. so much :)

    I know making the world a better place ain’t the reason to be an open source addict and investing all your energy, but it might just make you feel a bit better about the energy you do put in :) Imagine all would still be propriatory apps owned by microsoft, apple, oracle etc. Remember IE6 bombarding innovation? Would ‘we the webusers’ be blogging and posting and adding content we are doing at this moment?

    so thanks for contributing to my/our better world :) Open Source rules

    Good luck with your new company / plans
    Vincent

  15. DominicBy Dominic on 6 December, 2010

    Hi Joost,

    You have raised some really good points here. I have also found that releasing plugins and themes can be a really good way to gain some really good extra links and traffic to a web site.

    I also think that the settings page on your SEO plugin is an awesome example of website branding. I encourage everyone to take a look at it.

    cheers
    Dominic.

  16. DanBy Dan on 6 December, 2010

    Yep I think you summed it up you have to know marketing. Too many people try and do online marketing or SEO without any basic knowledge of how to make people do what they want.

    New layout cool.

  17. AlexisBy Alexis on 6 December, 2010

    Hi Joost,
    We love your plugin. Please keep up the great work to help newbies like me.

    Thanks!

  18. Tiago NevesBy Tiago Neves on 6 December, 2010

    Oh man… Trully worth reading!
    I couldn’t agree more on your perspective. Plain raw image of real world :) Congrats.
    Cheers.

  19. Mal MilliganBy Mal Milligan on 6 December, 2010

    Building and maintaining WordPress plugins will never directly pay the bills. It’s a “loss leader” that can increase marketing exposure to generate derivative sales… (as well as contribute to the community). Successful plugins ARE sustainable because when one original developer gets tired and abandons their plugin, another coder invariably picks it up or makes a different version. Thanks Joost – You the Man !! Regards,

  20. RichardBy Richard on 6 December, 2010

    Really nice post Joost. Written from the heart, obviously.

  21. CorriBy Corri on 6 December, 2010

    An SEO rookie LMAO!

  22. David CoveneyBy David Coveney on 7 December, 2010

    Hi Joost – let me say that I agree with both Alex and yourself. Which sounds odd, but it’s based on the fact that you’re both seeing the issue from two different perspectives.

    Should a developer have to be a good marketeer to be rewarded for his contributions? Is it not enough, simply to be a good developer?

    To be really successful in life, however, it helps if you can be good at two things. You’re probably good at developing+marketing to a broad user base. Alex is probably good at developing+marketing to a very specific client base.

    Consequently, his experience with the broader market is worse than yours. If he was more like you, he’d have a better experience, but perhaps his business would be a very different shape? Similar applies to my company – we only really understood marketing to corporates, and that’s where 90% of our income comes from. But we’ve learned lessons and have ideas for the future.

    Alex should listen to what you say, because it could help him improve his experience of giving away free plugins. But does he have the time or the motivation? His business is, after all, pretty successful regardless…

    • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 7 December, 2010

      Hey David, thanks for your input. My biggest point I guess is with what you touch on: he’s doing pretty well. And he’s complaining about the community that has allowed him to do that well.

      • David CoveneyBy David Coveney on 8 December, 2010

        Historically the open source movement comes from developers sharing code with other developers. It used to be disks surreptitiously handed to one another at meetings – we’d build a handy routine at our employer and know that someone else could make use of it. No strings, no contracts. The GPL and similar were about formalising that and making sure that you couldn’t get sued for sharing, because that’s what could happen if a developer misused your code and the boss decided *you* were to blame.

        Then the general public got hold of the concept. They saw, instead “Free Software! YAY!”

        But a lot of that community doesn’t pay back. They don’t contribute, donate or help out. The ones that do are wonderful, but should nice people really be helping out the freeloaders? It’s nice not to judge, but if you’re trying to run a business you do have to take care. I suspect Alex has picked up on the inherent unfairness of optional donations or contributions and it bothers him. I’m not sure he expressed it well, but I can feel his sentiment.

        What we all have to do is to find ways to make freeloaders feel bad. But how do we do that?

  23. BaldaiBy Baldai on 7 December, 2010

    iam disagree, because open source doesnt motivate business, only direct work motivates business

  24. NiharBy Nihar on 13 December, 2010

    Hi Yoast,

    You are 100% right here. I agree with you.

    I started using WP Seo on my other blog. Looks awesome

    Thinking of installing on this blog as well.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Joost says don’t release plugins if you can’t support them. I find that statement to be naive. It is very difficult to predict the future. I would not have accurately predicted that WordPress would graduate from a technical community to a mainstream community and that WordPress would power 10% of the world’s websites today. 4 years ago as an independent developer I would not have predicted that I’d have a team of 15, a baby and more responsibilities and draws on my time than I could have imagined at the time. [...]