A week or so ago, I got the following email in my inbox:
Almost exactly one year ago, my GitHub Sponsors account was approved, and I issued a meek call to action:
You can now sponsor my open source work through GitHub Sponsors: https://t.co/h2GXLE9ZP6 #opensource— Jeff Geerling (@geerlingguy) November 7, 2019
Within one day, I had three sponsors, which felt amazing. In the past, I've been on Gratipay, Open Collective, and even still have a well-hidden affiliates/sponsorships link on my website. I also tried out Patreon, but that platform was a lot more focused on 'creators' of the type that end up with followings on Instagram, YouTube, or other similar sites.
And now a year later, I have over over 200 people (and a couple organizations) committed to sponsoring my work between GitHub Sponsors and Patreon! With this level of support, I will finally be able to take the plunge next year and work almost full-time on open source and educational content, as I've been hoping to do for years.
There were a few inflection points that helped me get to this level, but I think the biggest one was the introduction of GitHub Sponsors, which is a much less 'strings-attached' sponsorship program that's focused solely on making open source development sustainable.
Open source funding is hard. And it seems every year or so, someone comes up with a new idea that sounds great in theory, but once it's put into practice, it kind of peters out after a quick surge due to its initial popularity. (I'm not saying 'sponsor pools' would fail, just stating that I don't think any particular funding technique or tools can solve the funding issue on its own).
The big problem, as I see it, is in helping people (and especially organizations) see the value they get through the open source projects they use. And the other problem, especially when it comes to the thousands of small projects that people rely on every day, is that most of the developers (like me) who work on these things feel scummy asking people for money—that's what those dishonest salespeople do! I can't be seen to be like them!
But as I look back, I realize that part of the issue is I never appreciated the value of the work I do.
Open Source Work has inherent value
Though I would consider myself a small fish in an ocean of amazing open source maintainers, I have seen through my jobs how something I've written or posted could save a team hours of time, or be the last piece of a puzzle that completes their application deployment process, and that has inherent (and measurable) value.
So I don't feel shame in asking people to sponsor my work (as long as I don't get all spammy). I am still extremely grateful for each and every sponsor, and try to thank everyone personally, but I don't feel guilt asking for money.
And a few organizations in particular have been extremely generous in the past year, and I figure I can give them a shout-out here: Ansible by Red Hat, Device42, Scout APM, and amazee.io. These organizations made a huge impact, financially, and it seems like they are some of the few organizations who have chosen to not only use (and often contribute back code to) open source software, but find ways to financially sustain the developers of the open source work they use! If only I could convince every org to give back more!
I want to continue building—and maintaining—my open source work, and contributing fixes and patches to the work I rely on, and to make that sustainable, I need an income. And many other OSS devs are in the same boat; very few of us get any kind of support for OSS work from our day-jobs.
Luck favors the prepared
I would say, though, that even if everyone asks and is deserving (many people more so than I!), not everyone receives. I've been extremely lucky at a few points in my career to be in the right place (metaphorically... we're all stuck at home this year) at the right time:
I self-published Ansible for DevOps early, when Ansible was still proving itself against other configuration management systems. This helped make me a 'trusted voice' in the Ansible world—even if I still feel like I'm pretty much middling in terms of my own automation knowledge, compared to others I know!
Red Shirt Jeff is one of this year's happy surprises from YouTube.
Similarly, deciding to spend many hours working on free video series on my YouTube channel instead of on paid training courses this year kick-started a rise in subscribers to the channel which has opened up many other opportunities and helped bolster the number of supporters I've gotten on Patreon.
That decision has also freed up time so I can finally work on some of my ideas in my 'crazy things that might or might not be useful' list—many of which I hope will at a minimum inspire creativity in others, especially as I give away the code and other resources (working or not) with liberal OSS licenses.
Advice for Others
Open source contribution as an individual is hard. Most people don't work for companies that are open source at their core, and I've been privileged to have three jobs in a row at companies that encouraged and helped sustain open source work.
Because of that, I've been able to liberally license things I've worked on, whether they are personal projects or offshoots of a tool that I helped build to help work processes. And because these projects almost always have their roots in practical enterprise use-cases, they are valuable and often helpful to many others.
In closing, I'd say the following:
- For other maintainers: Don't feel guilty asking people to support you. Whether they'll admit it or not, if they're using your project, they are getting value out of it. And in the case of organizations building on top of your projects, usually a lot. Don't get all spammy (there's a reason we distrust salespeople...), but definitely ask people to assist you financially.
- For sponsors: You are amazing. Thank you for being in the tiny percentage of users willing (and able!) to give back to help keep open source projects going. No matter what amount you contribute (most sponsors are $2 or less!), it means a lot to me.
- For companies: If you benefit from open source projects, it's in your best interest to find ways to support those projects. Many have GitHub sponsorships, many use Open Collective... reach out to maintainers and see how you can help. Companies like Scout APM even have special GitHub accounts they use to sponsor projects and individuals, and it helps raise awareness that 'they're one of the good ones'.
You do great work! Thank you
I think Red Shirt Jeff should get his own spin off show... !
Red Shirt Jeff would like that very much, but I can't just let him go all out or I'd have no place to live!