FS 260: Ari Lamstein on Making Money From Open Source 

This week on The Freelancers’ Show the panelists are Philip Morgan, Curtis McHale, Jonathan Stark, and Reuven Lerner. Special guest Ari Lamstein is here to discuss how to make money from Open Source.

[00:02:05] Introduction to Ari

Ari is a trainer and consultant who specializes in teaching the R programming language. He wrote Chloroplethr, which is an R package that makes it easy to make Chloropleth maps in R.

[00:03:45] Chloroplethr

A presidential map is a chloropleth map that expresses value for states using just one color. Other things that can be measured using a chloropleth map would be population, disease rates, and unemployment rates. The package that Ari wrote makes it easy to write maps in the R language, which is why Chloroplethr is spelled as one word.

[00:05:26] How did you get into Open Source R?

Ari worked as a software engineer in San Francisco. In 2013 he discovered the R programming language while trying to figure out how to do analysis of data at the real estate company where he was working. All the company data had a spatial component to it. Charts were not enough to analyze this data because they were trying to understand geographic patterns. In 2013 R didn’t have the ability to do exactly what he wanted so he wrote his own package. In 2014 he released it to the R community.

[00:08:04] Where you doing this on your free time?

His company was very generous. During Innovation week, which happens once a quarter, he was able to choose a project to work on. He chose this and was able to do it both during Innovation weeks at work and free time.

[00:10:30] Monetizing Chloroplethr

On February 17, 2015 everything changed. 2013 he was Learning R, in 2014 he had the skills and it seemed like an open field. Scheduled to give a talk about Chloroplethr and he got an email at work saying he was laid off due to his company being acquired by another. He knew he had to figure out how to make money from Chloroplethr. In December he monetized Chloroplethr by self-publishing a course and made $3,500 during the launch. After that he got a training and consulting lead.

[00:14:05] Did you try other approaches to monetization along the way? Was the course the first stop?

Nothing worked as well as the course did.

[00:15:19] What other things did you try?

He closed blog posts asking for people to hire him in 2015. Now he tells customers he does not provide free support for Chloroplethr but tells them about a $49 bundle a month he sells.

[00:17:14] Not Offering Free Support

There are a lot of free opportunities in the R community; free programs are not hard to find. There is a split of what people in the R community think about not offering free support. Other experienced developers in the Open Source community want to learn how to monetize their own projects. There are also a lot of hobbyists. They are spoiled by having access to a lot of free stuff, so they have been vocal about not liking that they have to pay for support. It's been surprising for him.

It is good for market research. Unanswered stack overflow questions can show the opportunity that developers have in the Chloroplethr world. There is a high demand but no supply for expertise. It also points out the disparity between people taking action that involves paying money verses their need for that solution.

[00:39:30] If someone is starting from scratch and they had a project they wanted to monetize?

The best advice Ari got was from Nathan Barry’s book Authority. In the book is a marketing strategy called audience building. Ari recommends that developers create audiences based around their project. There are three tactics he recommends for how to monetize R packages. He created an acronym for these tactics: the Best Darn System (BDS) for monetizing an R package.

  • B = Build an email list of people who are interested in your package.
  • D = Deliver free training to your email list.
  • S = Sell a training product to your list.

Ari explains the need for an email list is because of the need to be able to initiate contact with people. Even though Twitter is active for R developers, engagement rates for email are better than Twitter. People have a hard time believing it because they think email is spam. He tries to get people comfortable using email as a marketing channel.

The most popular thing he has done online is to create a free email course called “Learn to map census data in R.” The course teaches people how to use Chloroplethr how to map census data in R. He had 600 people sign up for the course in a few days.

[00:45:05] Do you regret not having made Chloroplethr commercial?

No. He feels it is one of the most interesting things he has done in his career and loves that the R community has so much free stuff. The only change he would make would be to know what he knows now about sales and marketing when he first started.

[00:47:20] Did you ever have your employer claim ownership of anything having to do with Chloroplethr?

Ari had to speak to his lawyer when he wanted to release Chloroplethr. The package system made it a special case. He had to file it under an Open Source license. The company’s lawyer wanted it to be under a BSD 3 license, which it was eventually released under. Ari’s employer owns the copywrite but the license is a BSD 3. That is unrelated to the product that was actually sold.