I’ve run 3 successful crowdfunding campaign without having anything to sell, here’s what I’ve learned.

With my cooperative company Rainbox, we’ve recently finished a crowdfunding campaign which was a big success (185% of the initial goal). This article is an assessment written a couple of weeks after the end of the campaign. I’ll start with some background information, if you already know that we’re developing free and open source software which is crowdfunded, you can jump to the conclusion already. If you’re interested in numbers and statistics you can jump to the numbers.

Introduction: what were the campaigns about

For more than ten years, I’ve been developing Duik, a free and open source tool set for use in After Effects, dedicated to character rigging and animation. A few years ago I realised I could not continue this hard work without earning any money at all. At that time, I had a donation form on the website for Duik, but donations do not work well at all and I needed something else.

So I decided to run the first crowdfunding campaign for Duik, to earn a small salary and be able to develop a big update, the 15th. It was in 2014 and I got 7.000€. The initial goal being 5.000€ it was a relatively big success, especially for someone doing all of this alone (except for a few dear friends and family helping of course, but nothing was organized as it can be with a company).

Thanks to the success of this update of Duik, I’ve been able to quit the job I had to found a new cooperative company, Rainbox. One of the goals of this company, which is primarily focused on film production, was also to handle the funding, the development and the distribution of Duik and some other free and open source tools for animation and motion pictures production.

As the first campaign was successful and it seemed to us that crowdfunding was working for the tools we had to develop, we ran two other campaigns, the first in 2016 to fund the development of the 16th version of Duik and more recently in June 2020 to develop another update of Duik, but also to develop a lot of other software.

We’re not selling anything

What’s particular about the way we release our software is that we don’t have anything to sell, as it’s always been free and open source.

But developing and maintaining a software, open source or not, is a lot of work. These are the two sides of this work:

  • The continuous maintenance work which consists in fixing bugs, improving the interface and user experience based on user feedback, maintaining the website to distribute the tools, providing support and answering questions, but also testing new directions and features… To fund this work, I’ve started a project on Patreon a few years ago. As it’s made of small but regular donations, it provides a small but steady revenue perfect for this work.
  • The development work, which is done only during specific times. Instead of continuously implementing new features or starting the development of new tools, we regroup this work to be able to crowdfund it during the campaigns I’m talking about here.

If we could get a higher and steady income from Patreon or donations, we would probably organize the work differently, and we could be able to continuously develop and improve new tools and features like big companies do.

We’re actually very proud to not sell our products. We should not even say our products as we don’t really own them; the free software license protecting the users guarantees that their tools belong to the community, to everyone needing them, and everyone can use them as they want, everyone can share them, everyone can modify them. This is really important for us, and for all developers of free software.

This specific question will be the subject of another article so I won’t develop in details here this choice of releasing the software under a free license, but there are a few aspects which can be listed here for you to understand our choice.

  • Not everyone has the same means, which makes it very difficult to choose the right price for a digital good. Let’s say we’re selling Duik for US$50. That seems fine, compared to other similar software, and in the USA it’s just 1% of the average monthly wage1)at purchasing power parity, according to the UNECE list from 2011 but in Tadjikistan it’s 20% of the average wage!
  • As users, we don’t want to be dependent of other companies which own our tools. Recently, I’ve been unable to work for several hours just because the servers Adobe uses to check the licenses crashed. This is just an example but it is perfect to explain why we need to be independent from other companies.
  • When you buy a bike, you’re allowed to change the wheels if you’d prefer different ones, and to change anything else. When you buy a software, you’re not allowed to make any modification. And everyone is fine with that? And I’m not talking about companies who force you to rent your tools instead of buying them…

What we’re trying to prove is that we can do things differently. With crowdfunding (regular on Patreon or through campaigns) and donations, we are able to develop the tools, earn our salaries and pay for the servers, the computers, etc. I won’t lie to you: it has been difficult at the beginning, and it’s still way more difficult than just selling our stuff.

This is why I’m writing this, I want to share my experience with you, so you can think about it with us, make your suggestions, maybe follow our example for your projects, be involved with the community and not just buy (or sell) things.

The campaigns

Let’s have a look at the three crowdfunding campaigns and see what we can learn from them.

It seems obvious that the success of these campaigns is tied to the success of Duik itself; the more people are using Duik, the more people there are backing the project.

It’s interesting that there is a correlation between the number of downloads of Duik and the amount raised during the campaigns. In 2015 there were 400 downloads per day of Duik and I raised 7,000€, in 2017 there were 600 downloads per day for 12,000€ raised and in 2020 with 1.000 downloads per day we raised 26,000€.

As the success of Duik grew, the team and the company supporting it did grow too. In 2015 I was alone, in 2017 we were two, and in 2020 we were four. That’s another interesting correlation.

We could also correlate the number of features in Duik with the amount raised during the campaigns.

It’s hard to know what is the cause and what is the consequence in these numbers, but I think it proves one thing: the success of the campaign depends on the pre-existing success of the tool. If Duik had not already been well known before the campaigns, it would have been harder to run them in the first place. And with the success of Duik, we were a growing team, which made running the campaigns easier and the growing number of people using Duik finally allowed us to raise more money.

That makes me think a crowdfunding campaign is not an ideal way to start something new. I would not have been able to successfully run any campaign if Duik did not already exist.

If you have a look at the successful projects on the crowdfunding platforms, almost all of them are actually selling goods. The problem with free software is that we don’t have anything to sell, people are not paying to get what they need. They know they will get it eventually, no matter if they contributed to the campaign.

Is it worth it?

That said, we’ve always managed to reach our goal, and of course we’re very happy for that. But the future is never assured. Who knows if we’ll be able to run another campaign in a couple of years to continue developing new tools? Is it even worth it to spend a couple of months every two years to raise this relatively little money? If we were counting this two-month salary for one person in France, it would represent about 25% of what we raised. Add the 10% platform and banking fees, and you’ll understand why we’re wondering if we could find another way to fund these free tools.

Before running the first campaign, I would have thought that at least half of the users of Duik would back the new versions. As I knew that donations represented only 2 or 3% of the total number of daily users2)We know from the statistics of the server providing the update information that Duik is opened each day on a number of different computers between 30,000 and 40,000. We get about 450 donations per year, I thought the remaining 97% of the users would be inclined to contribute during the campaign.

Of course, we did explain that these funds were much needed; the users do know that as the tools are free and open source, we need their contributions, and you can’t download Duik without being prompted to donate.

Numbers

From our server statistics we know there are at least 30,000 daily users of Duik. It is downloaded 1,000 times per day.

  • There were 583 backers during the latest campaign. A bit less than 2%.
  • There are, each year, 360 backers on Patreon. 1.2%.
  • There are, each year, 450 donations on the website. 1.5%.

All in all, less than 5% of the users contributed to the development of the tool they are using for free. And considering some backers are part of two or three of the groups, it may even be 4.5%.

Country (visits)% downloads of DuikContributions
France (1664, 29.4%)9%220 (49.4%)
United States (1540, 27.2%)37.8%95 (21.3%)
Brazil (437, 7.7%)3.3%18 (4%)
United Kingdom (402, 7.1%)10.7%38 (8.5%)
Canada (288, 5.1%)2.5%22 (4.9%)
Spain (288, 5.1%)8.2%11 (2.5%)
Germany (282, 5%)5.5%27 (6.1%)
Russian Federation (268, 4.7%)8.6%10 (2.3%)
Korea, Republic of (264,4.7% )12.2%1 (0.2%)
India (254, 4.5%)4.7%3 (0.7%)
Comparison between the number of users of Duik from a country and the number of contributions to the campaign for the countries with more than 200 visits on the campaign website.

Even if we’ve run the campaign in English, it’s pretty clear that it’s easier to bring people from your own country to contribute. I believe that’s a consequence of the way social networks work, and word of mouth of course. It is a lot more difficult than it seems to reach people across the seas.

SourceAmountContributions% Raised
rainboxlab.org (Duik’s website)9,277€21735.8%
Direct link (e-mail…)9,016€15434.8%
Facebook2,719€8710.5%
Twitter1,372€255.3%
Youtube670€272.6%
Sources

The contributions from youtube come from the fact that we had 6 live talks on youtube during the campaign, to talk about what we were doing.

Don’t expect any help from the platform if you’re not making the latest fashionable gadget or a project which may raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The future of our fight for a better world

We won’t complain as we’ve finally managed to fund the free software we’re developing, combining donations, continuous crowdfunding on Patreon and irregular crowdfunding campaigns.

These three ways of funding are the best we’ve found respecting our values and commitments.

  • We don’t want to put any price on the software
  • We want all of the users to contribute to their tools
  • We want the contributions to be fair, depending on the revenues of the users
  • We need the funding to be steady, and assured for the future
  • Generally speaking we want to be out of mercantilism and capitalism

But we’re not completely satisfied with how this is going, and we’ve not achieved all of these points.

  • Only 5% of the users contribute to their own tools
  • It is not fair that 5% of the users pay for the other 95%
  • We’re not assured that we’ll get the funds we need in the future
  • A big part of the funds are wasted running these crowdfunding campaigns
  • Companies do not contribute, except for just a handful of very special companies.

In a few words, our biggest issue is that we’re not able to make the users help us, and reaching 5% of them is already a huge work. Maybe we could reach another 5 or 10% but that would mean so much work that we would spend everything and all our time on communication…

These crowdfunding campaigns helped us identify the cause of these issues.

  • Social networks, and the internet as it is nowadays, do not help us reach people far away. We still live in a bubble limited to our country, and even our local area.
  • Social networks are not the best way to reach people, and brought less than 20% of the funds while our mailing campaigns and our own website brought more than 50%.
  • There are some countries with a lot of users that we can’t reach, like China.
  • Generally speaking, users are not willing to contribute to the tools they use.
  • Users are used to pay for their tools and buy them, but they don’t really understand that giving money is necessary for the development even if it’s not mandatory.

In short, we have to be independent of social networks – which makes sense with our values and fight for free and open source software – and we have to take into account we still live in a mercantile society and people are used to that.

The way we see it, in our perfect society, everything we do would be funded by social contributions, which have both the power of funding non-mercantile activities like free and open source software, and being fair, as people contribute according to their means (and get what they need no matter what).

As we’re not there yet, we thought that we could in some way simulate this perfect society and hack the current system, through crowdfunding. Our mistake was that we thought we could convince people to participate in this experiment, but we underestimated the difficulty of reaching the users, and the fact that people is not ready to hear what we have to say, as we’re too used to mercantilism and capitalism. We’re all just consumers.

This is the reason why we may be changing our way of funding our work. Maybe what we’re doing today will work better in the future, but for now, being too radical and completely refusing to even use the word “price” when it comes to funding our tools is counterproductive.

I’m not changing my ultimate goal, but I’ve come to understand that the road may be longer than expected; I’ll continue to fight for socialism and be proud of it, but we need to be pragmatic if we want to be able to serenely continue our work.

Nothing is going to change in the upcoming months as what we’re going to do first is spend the money we’ve just raised with the latest campaign. Then, I see a few ways to fix the issues I’ve listed about our current crowdfunding methods:

  • Create a non-profit organization, which would be independent of any company, even a cooperative like Rainbox. This way, it may be easier to get public subsidies. It’s not a goal in itself, as politicians are not reliable, but they may help temporarily, if we don’t depend on them.
  • Such an organization would symbolically give Duik and the other free and open source tools we develop back to the community, as this organization would be open to everyone and everyone would be part of the decisions made by the organization. This could be another incentive for contributions.
  • We may also be going to change the apparent “price” of Duik. For a long tine I’ve been against the very idea of price, and consequently even of the “name your own price” method, where the users choose the price of their tools, even if it’s zero. But if we’re pragmatic, this may be something we should do, maybe using another word than “price”.
  • Maybe we could make the companies pay for the tools, even if they’re still under a free license. We could charge for the download of the software by companies. They’d get the same tools, as we’re not going to manage licenses and use DRM tools, but they officially would have to pay for them.

These measures may be needed to assure the future of Duik and the other free software we’re developing. It’s a small turn, a detour we may have to make before completely removing any idea of price, but it’s a way to be more fair and have more users contributing, while keeping the ability to adjust the amount depending on your means. It would provide a steadier income for the development with less wasted resources than when we have to run crowdfunding campaigns.

What do you think about that? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


I could not do and share what I do for free without your support. Help me on Patreon! Thanks.

Notes   [ + ]

1. at purchasing power parity, according to the UNECE list from 2011
2. We know from the statistics of the server providing the update information that Duik is opened each day on a number of different computers between 30,000 and 40,000. We get about 450 donations per year

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