How to Make Money From Open Source

Are you an open source programmer who wants to make some money on the side? Maybe you are a designer or photographer who likes free software and the open source movement, and would like to do something to help support all of that. There are many ways you can make money using your skills and some of them don’t require you to start your own business!

If you are a programmer, designer or computer scientist and you have created any kind of software product (open source or closed source), you can earn money from it, even if it is only a simple script written in Perl. It doesn’t matter how big or small your product is — you will be surprised how powerful today’s Internet market is and how much money can be made with your simple products.

Donations

Donations power many open source projects

While not typically used by large for-profit companies, some individual developers make pretty good money by taking donations for their open source work. Patreon, GitHub, and Buy Me A Coffee are all popular platforms that allow individuals and businesses to help support open source projects that they use or want to see maintained.

The downside to this model is that it’s really hard to build predictable, sustainable income from it. Some people will heavily use and benefit from updates while never paying the creators, and this frustrates those who do support the project. If you’ve ever asked your boss if you can start paying for some of the free, open source software you use at work, you know how tough this can be to sell.

WordPress as OpenSaaS

WordPress effectively functions as a free SaaS product: it’s an open platform, and it offers subscription plans with extra features like unlimited storage, automatic backups, customizable themes, and custom domain names. We say “effectively,” however, because WordPress technically comes in the form of a software product you can install on your own web server and maintain independently. The SaaS version of WordPress can be found at wordpress.com. If you choose this service, then WordPress hosts your application for you. However, since there’s no vendor lock-in, a customer can easily switch to a self-hosted WordPress version any time.

Offering paid support is one of the most straightforward revenue streams for all kinds of open source projects. As a project maintainer, you have a lot of knowledge about the codebase. This puts you in the position to offer consultancy or support services to companies that want to use your code. 

On the other hand, offering paid support doesn’t provide a scalable business model for open source projects. Because most projects are maintained by a few developers, there’s limited time for them to offer support to companies. Bear in mind the time required to improve the functionality and maintain the codebase. 

In conclusion, it’s an effective way to earn some money as an open source maintainer and keep the project going.

Bug bounty programs

Bug hunting, or as it’s usually known, bug bounty programs, is a way of earning money either by reporting errors on other systems or by solving them and submitting your pull requests with the code that fixes them. These programs are usually part of the entire vulnerability audit of the software being tested and accompany other internal processes the developers are implementing.

There are very big companies who submit their products for this type of treatment, and when we say “big,” we’re not kidding. With a basic search, we can find some interesting options, but in order to keep with the theme of “making money from open source,” here are some examples of high-paying organizations with bug bounty programs on their open-source products:

  • Mozilla: They have two main programs, one for their actual software and one for their websites. Offering to pay up to $10,000 on the first one and up to $5,000 on the latter.
  • Apache: This web server is probably known to most (if not all) back-end developers. Through its program it pays bounties of up to $3,000 to those able to solve the most critical bugs.
  • Google Android: Also interested in making the most stable and secure mobile OS out there, Google offers up to $150,000 dollars for the most critical problems found and solved (yes, you read that number right).

There are many different lists of bug bounty programs, but you can find a good, up-to-date one on this website. Overall, this option is quite lucrative if you are able to put in the hours. That being said, you also need to specialize your knowledge and focus on security bugs if you want to reap the big rewards.

Last but certainly not least, aside from bug bounties, you can also get paid by fulfilling OSS (open-source software) bounties over at BOSS, a relatively new initiative that has lots of potential. Here, project owners can submit development tasks that they pay for on completion. This is certainly not as lucrative as the above programs but also requires less of a focus on security and can be tackled with a more generic software development profile.

Hosted Version of the Product

Some open source projects allow you to run their software on your own servers for free, but they’ll charge you for a hosted version. For example, you can deploy n8n.io to an AWS or DigitalOcean machine and keep it running on your own, or you can sign up for their hosted version and avoid the hassle of maintaining servers.

While this tactic won’t work for every open source project, it’s a very popular option. It offers a clear delineation between the paid and free versions of the product, and can be bundled with other features like support and training. The downside is that your margins are never going to be very high. If you charge too much, users will be able to justify the cost of maintaining their own servers.

Software as a Service (OpenSaaS)

One way to monetize your open source project is by using the SaaS business model. This option makes sense if you have a fully-fledged application capable of generating demand. The SaaS model is a popular way to license software because it’s flexible and offers rapid deployment and decreased costs. What makes SaaS attractive is that the software is stored in the cloud; users only need a web browser to access an application. SaaS is a popular business model for vendors that build tools for HR, collaboration, content management, and project management.

SaaS solutions with a free codebase reduce development costs and eliminate the need to build redundant functionality. Additionally, the vibrant OSS community will gladly promote quality open source products. With an OpenSaaS model, software is purchased via subscriptions, which can offer varying levels of service. For example, you might offer technical support, software customization, and trainings as package options. WordPress and Sharetribe are two bright examples of OpenSaaS products. Let’s see how they function.

Conclusion

A practical guide to the many ways you can fund your open source development and sustain your business. This book is written by someone who has both found success with this approach, and also struggled to find customers who were willing to pay for support.

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