The basic idea behind Bountysource seems easy enough to explain—it’s a crowdfunding site for open source software. But when the site first launched about a decade ago, those were still fairly esoteric concepts for potential users and investors. Even the founders, then fresh out of college, had never heard the term "crowdfounding," says cofounder and COO David Rappo. The project died fast.
"It ran for a few months before we realized this wasn't gonna pay our bills, and we needed to move on and get real jobs," says Rappo. But about a year and a half ago, Rappo and CEO Warren Konkel decided it was time to focus full time on Bountysource once again.
"Nowadays, we can say it's a crowdfunding platform for open source software, and people are like, we get it," Rappo says. "The time is right: people not only understand crowdfunding, but they love it."
The company’s recently hosted successful and well-publicized funding campaigns for Neovim, a modern update to the venerable Vi used by generations of Unix hackers, and for RVM 2, an enhanced tool for Ruby developers managing libraries of third-party code.
Bountysource helped the RVM 2 team plan and distribute the rewards it offered backers and often helps software developers organize and even write copy for their funding campaigns, says Rappo.
But the other advantage of raising money for software projects with Bountysource, as opposed to a general purpose crowdfunding site like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, is that open source projects can publicly offer "bounties" payable to any developer willing to contribute certain features or quash particular bugs.
"When you come to Bountysource and raise money, you can keep the money in the system, start paying it out to different developers for different versions of things," Konkel says.
Even outside of a major funding campaign, anyone can post a bounty offering to pay for improvements to a favorite open source tool, and other users are able to pledge their own funds until the bounty’s high enough that a programmer is willing to take on the task. Then, once the requested feature is implemented to the backers’ satisfaction, the developer gets paid by check, PayPal, or Bitcoin.
Bitcoin’s proven especially popular with programmers overseas in countries where paying by check or PayPal can be difficult, says Rappo.
"It's absolutely the preferred method of payment for a lot of developers these days, especially international developers," he says.
Projects with successful bounties range from the Linux-based operating system Elementary, which has used Bountysource to commission a variety of interface enhancements, to the D programming language, related to C and C++. And backers range from individuals looking to improve favorite software tools to organizations like Mozilla and the cloud provider DigitalOcean.
Letting backers fund iterative improvements to software projects instead of simply raising large sums of money up front aligns better with how open source projects run, says Konkel.
"Kickstarter and Indiegogo are very much around raising one lump sum of money," he says. "With software development, there's really a long life cycle of software."