Why would a company open source anything?

August 3, 2022

Recently someone at work asked an interesting question, "what's the benefit for a company to open source projects and just give away work for free?". That sparked an interesting conversation and got me thinking, why indeed?

Marketing

Marketing is fucking hard.

However, a high quality and valuable open source project is a cheat code for attracting tons of attention in the developer community.

Developers enjoy trying out exciting new tools and you bet that we notice who's behind them. You don't need any growth hacks, webinars, blog posts or a content strategy, when you have a popular open source project working around the clock to get eyes to your product.

Next.js is the most popular JavaScript framework and Vercel created a platform that's de-facto the best place to deploy those apps to. Vercel is amazing on its own, but I bet Next.js is one of the reasons its popularity skyrocketed.

It's like a reflex at this point.

– Where do I deploy my SPA? – Vercel.

Brand

If your product is targeted at developers, great open source projects is an essential way to create a brand that developers love and respect.

If you put serious effort into maintaining a project people use, your company will be perceived as part of the community. Yes, every business' goal is to sell something and earn money, but we respect companies who give back and have the same values as we do.

Given two similar products, I'll always prefer the one with a strong presence in the open source community. I'll gladly become their customer and I'll take every opportunity to give them a shout out.

A great alternative to open sourcing things is sponsorships via GitHub Sponsors, OpenCollective or other platforms. WorkOS is a great example of this. They donate thousands of dollars every month to many creators (including me, full disclosure). In return, these projects put banners linking back to WorkOS, bringing them tens of thousands of visitors every month.

These are the ads I'm happy to see more.

Hiring

Just as I'm going to favor a company with a strong brand in open source, I'll also prioritize them when I'm looking for a job.

There are lots of smart people out there and most of them will not work for a company that's afraid to open source anything, because it was created on company time, therefore it's part of an intellectual property.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying to open source your entire tech stack (although companies like Sentry and Plausible Analytics do). Have you built something useful? Will giving it away hurt your business? No? Open source it.

Developers want to work for companies whose software they love. Ping pong tables and catered launches are no longer enough to attract top talent anymore.

Skills

There's a lot of effort that goes into making a high quality open source project. Copy pasting code into a public repository is not enough.

You need to refactor and clean up code, add extensive tests, write clear documentation, maintain a detailed changelog and a custom logo would be amazing too.

Doing all of that is great for your team, they'll become much better developers and they'll bring the same standards to your internal codebase. It's a win win situation.

Case closed, open sourcing stuff will pay endless divideds.

Are you still not convinced? Ask your developers what do they think about it and whether they'd be interested in open source. Their answers may surprise you.