Gitcoin is used by nearly 50,000 developers and delivered more than $6.5mm 💰 to open source developers around the world in 2020 ❤️. The topic of sustainability of Open Source and means of securing funds for independent open source developers has been of increasing concern and discussion in the open source community. As a response, Microsoft launched GitHub Sponsorhips, which provides an alternative, but has seen disappointing results for open source developers by and large so far. However, another new initiative aims to support active and good open source citizens: GitHub Stars ⭐. While this does not pay the rent, it helps get people that provide great software and know-how for free, the attention they deserve 🤗. Unfortunately, the process on what happens with nominations and who chooses the stars ultimately is a bit unclear. I definitely submitted three of my GitHub rockstars, but never heard back and none of them has been chosen so far 🤷♀️ (all have fairly successful repos, a ton of stars and are considerate open-minded people judging from their online communications). Possibly also leading to more GitHub Sponsorships being made. 🤞
In 2018, Vivien had the chance to chat with Kevin Owocki, about his latest project GitCoin, and the intersection of open source and blockchain. A lot of what Kevin said is timeless and has been an even more relevant question for the open source community in 2020.
Founder and CEO of ObjectBox
Vivien: Hi Kevin, thanks for talking with me today. Why don’t you start by telling me about yourself and your current open source project, GitCoin?
Kevin: I’ve been a startup entrepreneur over the past ten years, and all of the businesses that I’ve built on or built have been based off of open source software. One of the things that I’ve learned is that value accrual goes to the application layer, to the data that you’re collecting about marketing, and the services that are built on top of the software. Gitcoin is my current project, and its mission is to grow open source. Our thesis is that Blockchain is a game changer for open source funding. There’s so much money in Blockchain right now because of the 2017 Bull market… billions of dollars chasing too few developers. And that creates an opportunity for developers to monetize their work in open source software. Gitcoin is our core product and it’s basically a double sided market: people who want to augment their team can hire talent on a per-issue basis. So, it’s less commitment than hiring someone for a contract. On the other side, developers get to work on issues in open source, learn new skills, meet new people, and get paid using cryptocurrency. We incentivize developers to work on their open source software. The second product that we just launched is called CodeFund, kind of like a sub brand that we’re working on. Basically, it is ads on documentation sites that are aimed at open source developers. So the idea is that if you have a following for your open source repo, you can create passive income by putting ethical advertisements. These advertisements don’t track your users on your documentation site or on your Github and they sustain your open source with passive income. This is a long way of saying that we think Blockchain is a game changer for open source funding and are trying to build the rails for capital deployment to open source projects.
Kevin: Each project kind of has its own license, and we have a repo setup guide where we ask people to add contributor guidelines, licenses, stuff like that. If you look at the Gitcoin terms of service, it basically says that if you develop for this repo, then you are assigning rights according to their license. But the worldwide nature of all of this stuff is very interesting because enforcing IP agreements, from Germany over to the US, there’s not really a court of law that handles that, so we’re kind of waiting for the legal system to catch up in that respect.
Kevin: I think it depends on the nature of your business and whether or not open source can accelerate it. For me, I’ve built a lot of B2C companies, and leveraging open source data stores and open source web servers worked for me, but if I was a risk averse financial institution, then I think it’d be different, right?
We think Blockchain is a game changer for open source funding and are trying to build the rails for capital deployment to open source projects.
Kevin: I think that open source tools with an active community are the ones that are going to have the need for developers, because they have support, and support isn’t monopolized by one company. I think that because of the scale of development today, if you have a problem with an open source repo, you can likely search it and find someone else who’s had that problem in the past. I actually just watched Revolution OS, which is an interesting documentary about the free software movement. Then later the open source movement, and it made a really interesting case. Just focusing on creating great software, and not worrying about the RM and licensing of that software, you can get it in the most hands possible. This includes people who are focused on creating working software over comprehensive documentation or licensing, and therefore that tends to create the best software over time. I think those are all reasons that I’ve been doing it, but it’s very much a cultural thing in startups these days. I think if I’d been born a generation earlier, maybe we’d be singing the praises of Microsoft Visual Studio or something like that, but it’s a generational thing, you know?
Kevin: Well, in my prior businesses, we would build off open source but our software itself was proprietary. We sold it with various degrees of success (laughing). I think for Gitcoin we’re still figuring out the business model, so I’m in awe a little bit, about that, but it’s basically a question about where the value accrues in the network. Our core thesis is that by focusing on being open source, we can make our product as good as possible because we have the most contributors. We think that the value accrues in the brand, and the relationships with the customers. So, while anyone can fork Gitcoin and copy it if they wanted to, then they wouldn’t have our network of developers, they wouldn’t have our mission and our ethos, and they wouldn’t have the relationships with the people who are going to deploy the capital. So, I think it’s very much a work in progress, but that’s a strategy at least, Gitcoin is less than a year old so that’s the strategy in year 0.
Kevin: We’ve got about 7,000. We’ve benefited from being well funded by consensus, but I wouldn’t say we’re super big yet, the open collectives of the world have hundreds of thousands of users and so I think, that to me is big. I think we’re still a small startup.
Kevin: If you picture a Venn diagram of open source software and Blockchain, we’re in the center of that Venn diagram, and it means that a lot of the people we fund are kind of like Blockchain hipster types, to be honest. I think eventually we would like to go into the broader open source community, and traditionally that’s been monetized with big corporate types, and so I think there’ll be a cultural shift and maybe a little bit of a brand shift as we do that. But that’s very much a year 2 or year 3 thing, there’s plenty of money in Blockchain, so we’re in no hurry to exit that niche at this point.
Kevin: One of the things that we found about open source software developers and their motivation is that it’s about more than good compensation. It’s about doing work that aligns with your values, and has an impact on the world. So, if you’re a repo maintainer that wants to incentivise people to work on your repo, having a mission that aligns with your core contributors, and giving them an ability to impact your project are two axes that you can modify in addition to the compensation axis. When you’re seed stage, you want to be working with people that are intrinsically motivated to work on your project. Balancing those intrinsic and extrinsic motivations is really important. If I were talking to a repo maintainer who wants help on their project, I would help articulate their mission, and identify where people can have an impact. Only then would I start thinking about putting Gitcoin balances on their repo.
Kevin: I’ll hedge my answer a little bit and say that I am at the intersection of Blockchain and open source, and I think that Blockchain changes the dynamics of funding for open source. This is sort of outside of my area of expertise, but I do have ten years of experience in working on software prior to doing Blockchain stuff, and so for that reason I empathize with the contributors of these project. They built something that by all accounts brought lots of value for the world. There is this paradox with software, that strategic value doesn’t always mean economic value for the authors, but my hope is that we can solve that problem moving forward. For right now, I would say these contributors could try to put some CodeFund adds up, because if you can earn a couple hundred to a thousand dollars per month by putting ethical advertising in front of your audience, then I think that at least helps ease some of the pain associated with those support requests and feature requests. Right now I think that we’re sort of in the early stages of the Blockchain revolution, and so I can’t say that we have anything immediately up our sleeve, but I hope that things change and turn around for projects like this.