In a bold experiment, nonprofit Mission software developer Yorba Foundation is bidding for sustainable support through crowdfunding for its open-source email program, Geary.
Founded in 2009 by Google alumnus Adam Dingle, the Capp Street nonprofit aims to raise $100,000 in the next nine days via a campaign on the funding platform Indiegogo. If the plan works, Yorba’s strategy could blaze a trail for other open-source companies to support the creation of free software.
“We want to be able to say, ‘Yeah this worked for us, and you should give it a try,’” said Jim Nelson, Yorba’s executive director. “This might be a way for other companies to raise money and keep going.” For now, Yorba gets its financial backing from Dingle.
Free software with open code that others can change to meet their needs – also called open-source software – faces a major challenge in reaching financial sustainability. How can developers get paid if the software they create is free, available to be copied and distributed in high volume at no charge? Some developers are wondering whether they must rely on donations from their users or a benefactor to keep them going.
The open-source world hasn’t yet seen many projects flourish through crowdfunding, Nelson said, and most of the campaigns he’s seen have been geared toward building a completely new product, such as video, photo or audio editing software. Other campaigns he’s seen have been to translate existing open source programs to the Windows or Macintosh operating systems.
Yorba is breaking new ground by using crowdfunding to take an existing application and develop a newer, better version of it, Nelson said.
“We’re wondering if we can do this,” he added.
Finding fresh funding models for open-source software – specifically, a “Kickstarter for software” – is a high priority for Dingle. One reason software-based funding sites haven’t taken off is that donors tend to gravitate to artistic projects that are “cooler” and create more buzz among donors than software, which often excites only those in the tech industry. Another reason, Dingle said, is that software-based sites don’t usually employ time limits or all-or-nothing funding, and that lack of a deadline can reduce excitement and cause projects to grow stagnant.
Yorba is imposing a time limit to reach its all-or-nothing $100,000 target. As a matter of policy, Indiegogo declines to comment on pending crowdfunding campaigns, a spokesperson said.
The money Yorba raises will go toward developing Geary, an email program that features fast-as-you-can-type searching and the ability to connect to multiple email accounts at once. Developing those features requires the work of three full-time engineers.
“In order to develop it, we need to keep working,” Nelson said.
The funds would be split between the three engineers, who work for less than market wages to pursue their passion. “We’re not paying our engineers top salaries,” said Nelson. “It’s much less than Twitter or Google.”
While other software crowdfunding campaigns have asked for less money, some of those companies eventually make a profit when they begin charging for their software. Geary, on the other hand, won’t be tied to a subscription service.
The Yorba team didn’t charge a fee for its best-known software program, Shotwell, a photo manager that is now the default program on many Linux-based computer operating systems. Nelson estimates that there are 30 million Linux users, and of those, 1 to 2 million use Yorba software.
“Realize that we’re not a risk,” Nelson said in a phone interview. “We have a track record.” So far the Yorba campaign has raised a little over $25,000, a quarter of its target, and has nine more days to go.
If Yorba doesn’t reach its funding goal, one possibility is to invite a corporation to buy the nonprofit, but that strategy could mean giving up the team’s independence. A corporation would have its own agenda, Nelson acknowledged, and might require the Yorba team to leave its email software behind to work on another program.
“Corporations will take us away from our core mission, which is to give users great software, and to be supported by the users,” Nelson said. Relying on crowdfunders eliminates the need for a deep-pocketed firm or benefactor.
Indiegogo lists fewer than 15 campaigns described as open source computer software under the technology category. A quick look shows that fewer than five succeeded – not including campaigns for open source books or those designed to help someone learn code to create open source programs.
“Why not spin the wheel? Why not give it a go?” Nelson said. “It’s been a great learning experience just to see how this works.”