September 8, 2011

Disillusioned

I've been meaning to write a post about companies and users, and what I believe their relationship should be. Tino and I have had some very good conversations about it, and he's helped me to get a better grasp on my views on the matter. I don't have a full handle on it yet, but I'm getting there. I'd really like to have done that post before I did this one, but it's going to have to wait. Today pretty much broke my spirit.

Before I go any further, I'm just expressing myself here. There are no decisions contained herein, I'm not announcing anything. These are just words to explain my feelings to you.

I've always believed in free open source software. I think it's how the world should work. I've always believed that if I give my best to people, they'll give me a just reward of their own volition. So when Kevin covered 2cloud (then android2cloud) for Lifehacker and we got thousands of users overnight, a lot of people called me crazy for not trying to make a quick buck off it by charging people a dollar per download. People still tell me I'm crazy. How can you have an app with over 50,000 downloads and still be $500 in the red? That makes no sense. And yet, that's where 2cloud stands.

When 2cloud became popular, I formed an LLC with my friend, Tino. Tino invested startup costs for the venture. The point wasn't really to start a company to make money or become rich; really, I just wanted to cover my ass in case someone decided it would be fun to sue me over the app. Tino and I, obviously, hoped to recoup the money we put into the venture, but that was about as far ahead as we thought. We took a contract with a startup here in Buffalo, and it paid off the startup costs and then some. We were incredibly fortunate on that front. But we're still nowhere near paying ourselves back; our company bank account sits at a depressing (not dangerous, just depressing) level and the main project our value-generating efforts are going into is still in the red.

Every day, I get to look at or talk to Tino and know I'm failing him. I get to try to defend free open source software, even as it fails spectacularly in front of me. I talk about value and reward, trust and relationships, mutual benefit. I talk about how our users are on our side and we're all fighting for the same thing. Because we are, right? You want to use useful software that makes your life easier. I want to create things that makes life easier. It seems like a good fit, no?

We're still in the red. We set up a quota system, something that I took considerable emotional pain in doing. I knew it meant some users would be locked out of using the service for a limited amount of time. That hurt me and went against everything I believed in, but the alternative was to shut the server down. To simply let the project go. That would've hurt more, so I took the lesser of two evils. Users complained about it, and that hurt even worse. I work hard on this project and it costs money to run. The fact that someone would assume I was just trying to make a quick buck, after I struggled for a year to keep the application free and unfettered for everyone, wounded me deeply. Switching the server over cut costs by a lot, as some users still haven't switched over, and people are still donating sometimes. I think we're actually in the green, for the last month or so. But it's a negligible amount of green; I make about that much in two hours of work at my minimum-wage job. At this rate, the project will be two years old before it stops being a money-sink. That's assuming donations keep coming and the server costs stay low (which they won't). We turned the quota on yesterday, switched it off the unreasonably high level it was at previously. The app went over quota around 9pm EST; I tested, and everything worked smoothly with the payments system. Nobody paid. We talked about it, Tino and I, and thought maybe it was because it switched on for just 6 hours. I lowered the quota a bit more, and today it kicked in around 4pm, EST. In the 4 hours since then, our income has remained steady at the $0 mark. Maybe nobody's using the app? 200 users were active today. Since the quota kicked in, over 100 links have been sent. People are using the app, they're just not paying for it.

People are still looking for more work to be done, for free. People are still emailing me bug reports. I'm still issuing updates. I'm still the only one who has contributed code to the project. People just don't seem to think that's worth anything. And if it's not worth anything, why am I working so hard at it? That doesn't make much sense.

This is not a bitch-and-moan-fest about how a project is in the red. That's the nature of investment, that's the nature of trust: sometimes it blows up in your face. Sometimes it doesn't pan out. I made decisions on how to spend my money, and nobody forced me to do anything. The same is true of Tino. And really, we're blessed with a large number of people who did donate and who did support the project. And that's wonderful. I'm not posting this so people will feel guilty and go donate money or buy their way around the quota. That's not the system I want; I shouldn't have to guilt people. People who donate mean a lot to me because they did it of their own free will, and their money means so much more when that's the case. So if you're reading this post and feeling bad and thinking you should contribute, I'd much rather you answer a simple question: why did it take this post to get you to feel that way?

Really, my lamentation is about the world I live in. Because I'm starting to lose faith that if I do the right thing and create value and make something people want, they'll do the right thing and help support it voluntarily. I'm starting to change my default stance; it's a very good possibility that all the software I release in the future will be open source, but if you want to get it from me or use my server, you have to pay. It's a very good possibility that I'll stop trusting my users to do the right thing and turn software from a partnership into a transaction. And that breaks my heart.

As I said at the beginning, this is all personal reflection and expression. 2cloud isn't changing. I'm not going to start charging for it. I made that promise, and I'm standing by it. If push comes to shove, though, it'll be a lot harder for me to justify working on it more or paying to keep the server online. This is the community's project, not just mine. The community is speaking, and it doesn't offer a lot of hope for the future. There may be a time where I drop the project. There may be a time where the public server exists only within the free quotas App Engine provides. Only time will tell. But I can't look at the future with the optimism and assurance that everything will work out fine anymore.

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