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My Experience Selling Free Software

From: Davis Remmel
Subject: My Experience Selling Free Software
Date: Sat, 12 Sep 2020 16:59:49 +0000

Hello libreplanet-discuss,

In my experience very few free software developers sell their work. I want to 
share my experience with selling free software, and why I think it's important 
for developers to realize why it's beneficial, and explain the psychological 
processes that compound to support the software _more_ than gratis-ware.

As background, I've now exclusively developed free software for about 4 years, 
and have just began selling it myself. Previously, I developed an industrial 
IoT platform built entirely with free software (real-time display of industrial 
processes, sidestepping proprietary vendors like Rockwell). This was not a 
consumer market, priced very high, and done contractually so the users were not 
casual consumers.

This week, I released a piece of consumer-level free software, and in one week 
has generated over $500 in sales (45 paying users) from a single post on 
Reddit. As long as sales continue at the current pace (they have tapered off, 
but still making above the poverty limit) I am able to pursue writing all the 
free software I want, independently.

For some background on why people buy my tool, it's because this tablet's 
manufacturer has crappy software, and there is only one other software vendor 
that also has crappy software. Usually, documents are transferred to this 
tablet via the manufacturer's cloud, but my tool transfers documents locally. 
Also, the manufacturer's software allows exporting of a user's documents, but 
they look like bad photocopies (they wanted to keep their pencil shading code 
proprietary)--my software has its own renderer, and produces images that 
actually look like what the tablet's screen shows. Coincidentally, my software 
exports these documents locally (secure), faster (rendered on-PC), with higher 
quality, and lower file sizes. Ergo, my software is plain better, and so it 
fills many consumer needs--this is a huge factor in why it sells (not just 
because its free). With a $12 purchase, I give customers 1 year of email 
support and updates. And, I have written a high-quality user manual that I 
showcase to let users know exactly what the software does before buying. My 
sales pitch is blunt, straight-forward, with no bullshit.

The _bonus_ for customers is that my software is not restrictive. The other 
available clients are incredibly restrictive: one client uses the 
manufacturer's cloud (Google), and the other has typical proprietary ToS and 
charges 3x the price. The GPL lets the users share mine freely and spread it 
around. I don't care if they share copies because I have an advertisement for 
the 1-yr-support+updates in the About pane, and who wouldn't want updates and 
support for $1/month, especially when it fills a need in their daily workflow?

So, with this background of my software and strategy, let me explain some 
psychological effects that happen with the customers. In gratis-ware, such as 
the common type of free software project, users will just stop using the 
software if it doesn't work for them. They didn't invest any money into it, and 
so they don't invest any of their own time to ensure they get their money's 
worth ($0). So, if the software doesn't work precisely right for them, they'll 
just stop using it. Or, if another software does something similar but also 
something else, they'll switch without a second thought.

Two-fold, without charging money, if there is a bug in the gratis-ware the user 
will typically not submit a bug report, or if they try to it is locked behind 
some restrictive interface (a software forge with user accounts). The developer 
is left with no money, and no bug reports. My first release contained some 
blocker bugs (some users couldn't start the program) but they paid for it and 
wanted to get their money's worth. I offered support, and virtually all 
problems were fixed the next day with release #2, and my inbox has been pretty 
quiet since (except for payment notifications ;) ).

To make it easy, I give my customers priority email. This doesn't require any 
account registrations, nothing blocking them from talking to me. I've developed 
a relationship with some of my more-enthusiastic customers, and some have 
offered to be testers; many have given me feature requests. In-exchange for 
testing, I give them perpetual gratis updates and support. This one-on-one 
communication comforts them, knowing that there's someone there to help 
immediately, and that _someone_ is the author himself. This personal 
relationship solidifies trust.

So, if you want to be able to fund development, you have to charge. And, if you 
want to get bug reports, you have to charge---and give customers an easy way to 
do that (direct email to the author is convenient). With these bug reports, I 
make my software better, which lets it sell better, which continues the cycle 
of self-perpetuating development.

Although I choose not to do this (to give a no-cost bonus), I think it's 
entirely possible to charge _more_ for free software. If one company sells 
'seats' of their software for some $$, why wouldn't a customer want to pay a 
little more for an unlimited number of seats in-perpetuity (freedom)? As long 
as the software is good, fills a real need, and comes with support then people 
will buy it.


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