It’s free, but do you mind paying?

Here’s something I’d like to see more of: UberWriter is free (open source, GPL3), yet by default if you go to install it you’ll have to pay $5.  The old “free as in freedom of speech” rather than “free as in free beer”.

From the creator’s point of view, “Free as in speech” means several things:

  • The project is open to collaboration – if you have something to add, please do!
  • If you see a different future for this project than I do, you don’t have to ask my permission.  You can build on what I’ve started and do something new and different.  I may or may not want what to merge your changes back in.
  • If you’re not someone that’s likely to pay me money (you have a different native language, you live in an area I can’t sell to, you’re don’t have enough money…) then that’s okay, feel free to take what I’ve done anyway and see if you can build on it.
  • If you’re really poor (developing world, unfunded startup, student) then you can still use the software and pay it back (or pay it forward) later.  I’m just glad people are using (and enjoying) something I’ve made.
  • If you’re worried about security, you can know exactly what your software is doing by getting a developer to audit the code.  I promise I’m not working for your corrupt government.
  • If I ever close shop and discontinue the product, you can keep using it, without having to worry about where to get new copies.  Feel free to make new copies, or to hire a developer to maintain it, even to release your own version.  I promise not to get angry.

But from the creator’s point of view, “free as in beer” has several negative implications:

  • I don’t have a strong plan to make money off this, so it will remain a side-project or a hobby.  I might love it, but I’ll never give it the time, money and support it needs to be amazing.
  • I have to pay my bills.  So the work I do that pays bills will always be more important than the work I do for this project.

Commercial projects that succeed (especially software projects) often have a founder who is hugely passionate about it, and absolutely stoked that they get to work on their passion as their full time job.  For many open source developers, this isn’t a reality.

So what if you want to balance those two things:

  1. Create, invent, make art.  And give it away to the world in the most generous, considerate way possible.
  2. Make money so that I can continue to develop this, perfecting it and supporting it and giving it every opportunity to succeed.

Well, that’s what UberWriter is doing.  It has all the same freedoms as “free as in speech”.  And if you really don’t want to pay for it, you can find ways to get it for free, and that’s allowed too, it’s not illegal and it won’t make the creator cry.  But, if you want to get it the easiest way, and you want to support the developer, it’s $5.

I hope he does well, makes some money, maybe even is able to make it his main job – so that he is empowered to make some good software become really great software.  And I hope to see more people balance this act of being generous with earning a living… myself included.

Win when your customers win

In announcing several new tablets yesterday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos dropped some wonderful quotes. One was, “Above all else, align with customers. Win when they win. Win only when they win.”

Bezos went on to say, “We want to make money when people use our devices, not when they buy our devices. If someone buys one of our devices and puts it in a desk drawer and never uses it, we don’t deserve to make any money.”

Amen. I think the lesson is exactly the same for open educational resources. If we’re really trying to help learners “win,” an OER provider hasn’t finished their job when they’ve published content. They’re succeeding when someone benefits from what they’ve done – and only then. We need to think harder about how to make this happen, and how to do it sustainably.

David on the Open Content Blog

I love this sentiment.

How can you set up your business so that the better it is for your customers the better it is for you.

Examples of people doing this:

  • Amazon, mentioned above – sells their hardware at low profits, expecting to generate further money as the user benefits from getting more content. The more content they get, the more they use it.
  • Dropbox lowers the price for you the more friends you send invites. You get more customers, they get cheaper prices and more convenience sharing with friends.
  • Some restaraunts have a “pay what you think the meal was worth” policy, some software follows the same model. The better you perform, the higher your pay. Another variant is an “unlimited trial” on software, that gives you as long as you need to see if the software is “worth it” to you.

Examples of people who do it wrong:

  • Phone companies use “cap plans” which give average users a cheap price, but the biggest users – who could be your biggest fans – get charged exorbitantly more, punished for using your product the most.
  • Gym memberships – here you pay a large fee no matter how often you use it. This may be viewed as motivation – go lots to get your moneys worth – but the reality is that it can make for a business model which separates the interests of the gym from the interests of the patron. The gym may avoid encouraging patrons to come regularly, because it means they can have more people enrolled and still not reach capacity. To take it differently however, there is no extra cost (no punishment) for using the gym as much as you desire.

Further possible examples:

  • A service such as Vimeo or Flickr, but if you achieve a certain level of popularity, they give you your account for free – for bringing so many new people to the site.
  • On signup, your client sets a target (to lose 10kg, to post a blog everyday, to finish a course). You only get paid as they achieve milestones on their way to this target. You are now motivated to help them achieve.

Of course, one problem with that last strategy is that it provides a financial disincentive to not finish – the further you get the more you have to pay.  In a way, this is then becoming similar again to the phone companies – you are charging people more for successfully engaging with you.

A different strategy again might be that of Fog Creek Software – your money back for any reason.  You pay full price up front, so you’ve already overcome the difficulty of paying money for something.  However, as a business you remain committed to making the whole experience worthwhile, or you risk them asking for their money back – and you’ve committed to give it to them, no questions asked.

It looks like a tricky balance, but one well worth pursuing.

Long Term Thinking

Here’s another thought provoking quote from Peter Thiel’s Lectures (or Blake Master’s notes on Peter’s lectures):

But there’s an alternative math metaphor we might use: calculus. The calculus metaphor asks whether and how we can figure out exactly what’s going to happen. Take NASA and the Apollo missions, for instance. You have to figure out where the moon is going to be, exactly. You have to plan whether a rocket has enough fuel to reach it. And so on. The point is that no one would want to ride in a statistically, probabilistically-informed spaceship.

Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup – Class 1 Notes Essay

It’s been a long time since I did Calculus in high school, but I remember the task of taking multiple points and applying a gradient or a curve to them: you looked for a pattern, developed an equation and you used that to guess at where future points might show up.

While at the moment I have two projects I’m working on (Enthral.us, and OurSchoolDiary), long term, there’s so much room for expansion. Seth Godin in his book Purple cow talks about how after a product has been developed and reach critical success, it’s crucial for the inventors to move on, and leave maintaining and “milking” the product for a team that’s better at maintainance. An inventor will just keep trying to break stuff – better to get them developing the next big hit.

Trends and Opportunities

So if I try to think long term, till after these projects, what trends do I see? And what opportunities do these open?

  • Decreasing price of technology (trend) -> Availability in developing world (opportunity)
  • Digital connectedness is increasing (trend) -> not being in the same physical space (or even the same point in time) as your teacher will seem less weird (opportunity)
  • Availability of stored content approaches infinite (trend) -> Every niche in content, and every variety in learning styles (or media types) can be catered to. (opportunity)
  • Computer profiling approaches scarily accurate (trend) -> Career / Interest prediction, based on passion, not assessment grades. (opportunity)
  • Ability to track behaviour, A/B testing procedures get really powerful (trend) -> Get statistics on the actual best practices for teaching – which way of teaching content is the most accurate? Improve the pedagogical effectiveness of your materials through data analysis. (opportunity)
  • IT specialist tools become more user friendly, accepted by other industries (trend) -> The incredible power of Git, and Github in particular, to co-ordinate teams of creators could be utilised in the creation (and modification) of educational media.

Planning to be “ahead of the game”

Given these trends, and the likely opportunities that will develop, can I position my products to be embracing these trends just as they hit critical mass?

Just a few thoughts:

  • Be working on a “normal person friendly” interface to GIT – possibly changing mental models / system models to match.
  • Don’t tie to a single platform – with the rise of the developing world, there is a high chance that the current big players (Apple, Samsung, Microsoft etc) will not carry over. New markets = new giants. So plan software and media that can adapt.
  • Get as much experience with A/B testing as possible, so that I can transfer those skills to educational media later.
  • Find teachers who are willing to experiment with out-of-class teaching, and work with them to pioneer online lessons.
  • etc…

Admittedly, these trends/predictions are not very long term. Most will probably be well underway within 5 years, some will be underway even sooner. Still, it’s a useful exercise, and thinking 5 years ahead of the competition is still better than chasing the competition. A good exercise to revisit.