An Open Source Education

This is a repost of an article we published today on the toggle blog. Its our experiences of running this project over the last few years:

On 1st May 2008 we launched Pixie, our open source content management system. Or as we like to say: "small, simple, website maker". Two years on its time to share our experience of running a free to own open source project.

Free Beer Image released under the Creative Commons by superflexnet on Flickr.

Pixie was always going to be an open source project. Free to own, free to modify. When I first started putting the project together (around five years ago now) I had already committed to the idea. The Internet relies on free and open source software and Pixie had to be part of that. I believed in it, and for the most part I still do.

Without a doubt the project has been a success; on a personal level and for getting toggle off the ground. Pixie was the launch platform for our first year in business, it has been deployed by us on many websites and continues to work flawlessly. On top of that Pixie has been downloaded well over 25,000 times, translated into 18 languages and awarded second place in the Packt open source CMS awards (2009). Pixie has raised our profile and stood its ground against larger projects with more funding, more support and bigger communities.

Its not all good news though and after a few months of reflection at the start of the year we decided it was time to consider stopping the project. My passion for developing the software started to fade towards the end of last year which coincided with a very difficult time for us. Our finances, jobs and business were on a knife edge.

So at the start of April we listed Pixie for sale and so far we have been unsuccessful in finding a buyer. Pixie has not sold because it does not generate (easily measurable) revenue and potential buyers are faced with the challenge of monetising a project that requires time, development and support for the community. These are the same reasons it's difficult for a young business like ours to invest time on it and when you look at the numbers it makes for a very interesting story:

Help & Support

There are 2824 messages in the forum - if we assume half of those are answers and half are questions that works out to be 1.9 questions per day for the lifespan of the project. Each reply has to be carefully considered and that adds up to a great deal of time. This does not include the personal emails that arrive in my inbox too. The real challenge is that for the project to grow it needs to be supported and realistically that support (at least at the start) needs to be free. This particular problem is one we hope to address with our latest labs project.

Code contributions

The number of downloads is fast approaching 30,000 - out of those people there are only three that I would class as core contributors. That is 0.01% of people giving back to the project and that is not good enough. There are lots of possibilities for why this is: perhaps I could have given the community better tools? maybe lots of people felt it was good enough already? I can only speculate as to why this might have happened but I wish the number was higher.

Financial contributions

In two years we have had three donations to the project (totalling £70). This leads me to the conclusion that people do not appreciate the amount of time and effort it takes to run and develop such a project. We need to learn to value the things we do not pay for and/or lower our expectations. We have had some fairly insulting emails for taking our time when replying to support questions or because Pixie did not work as expected. Thankfully that has been a minority of people.

Advertising & Referrals

To try and generate a small and steady income we looked at both advertising and partnerships. None have worked out very well. Our first attempt was to use Google Adsense across the site. After a few months our balance had made it to $30 and when we hit that milestone Google shut our account. The money was gone and there is no appeal procedure to get it back. To this date I am unsure what happened. So we replaced those advert units with ones powered by buysellads.com. To date these adverts have generated us $20 and we are unable to claim this money as it does not hit a threshold amount. That money might never make it to our account.

We also formed a hosting partnership with a company called Arvixe. They pay $70 for each hosting referral we send to them and it started out well. Within a few weeks we had five registrations but we had to wait three months before being paid. As time went on those initial payments disappeared - apparently they cancelled their accounts before we could be paid the referral. Nearly 12 months on and we have only ever had $140 from Arvixe. Referrals no longer show up despite people in the forums claiming they clicked through from the Pixie site.

Last week I removed all advertising from the Pixie site. It is a real shame when open source projects have to turn to advertising to support themselves. I recently switched my laptop to Ubuntu and have been searching around for open source software. Take a look at gimpshop.com - the site is littered with adverts and you can tell by the language and layout that the developer is struggling. As a result the last release was released a very long time ago. I find it strange that we are happy to spend thousands of pounds on Adobe Creative Suite yet so reluctant to drop the developer of an alternative some beer money.

Content creators across the web face this same problem every single day and thankfully a new service has appeared that tries to address the issue. It's called Flattr and I recommend grabbing an account. We have already created a Flattr button for Pixie (to test the service) and at the end of the month we will be getting a small income from it, likely to be fractions of Euro. But its a great start and beats having tacky adverts littered across the site. You can even Flattr this post… after all, it took weeks to write (I started writing back in March!).

What next?

Collectively we need to get better at collaborating on open source projects. We all have a part to play and we must learn to appreciate the hard work that goes into the projects we take for granted every single day.

Despite what it may read like we remain confident in open source. Open platforms will eventually win (see Google vs Apple) and the future we all want relies on this being the case. We have plans for some smaller projects that we are going to open source in future… actually most of our labs projects will either be open source or support open source projects.

With regards to Pixie I feel we have taken the project as far as we can. We are now trying to decide what the next steps should be. The great thing about open source is that a project can live on regardless of what happens. If you have any ideas we would love to hear them.

By Pixie Admin Last updated: 15 August 2010, 22:55

Comments

Gravatar Image #1 jared erickson 2615 days ago.

I have been following you guys for some time now. I\'ve been waiting to use pixie for a project and get into developing with it. I\'m hoping to be able to contribute whats I get my mind wrapped around it.. I\"m sick of seeing sites built on Wordpress and would love to get pixie a voice of it\'s own! Keep it up!

Gravatar Image #2 Scott Evans 2613 days ago.

Hi Jared. Thanks very much :) We are looking at our options and hopefully the project will continue in some form. It would be nice to create a good WordPress alternative but its hard to play in the same league. WordPress has funding and a huge pool of developers.

Gravatar Image #3 Martyn 2613 days ago.

Hey Scott Remember I posted how happy I was with Pixie. I used it for my son's website - he's a student so £££s are tight and Pixie worked like a charm for us. This post chimes with me. We use FOSS at my company and we've developed an app that would really benefit other companies like us - I want to open source it and make it community based to give something back and am thinking about business models as the software has probably cost us at least £50k to develop. As to why people don't contribute - sometimes its because, like me, they hack stuff for their own use but don't feel its good enough code to put out into 'the wild' - my hacks are so rough and ready I doubt they'd be useful anyway. I'd love to see Pixie thrive... and prosper (hey we've all got to eat!) Martyn

Gravatar Image #4 Scott Evans 2608 days ago.

Thanks Martyn. Its a tough time for Open Source. There are of course the larger projects which have had revenue models from the start. I always envisaged a businesses model for Pixie but have never really had the time to deliver it. I would think long and hard about this before releasing your software. Very glad Pixie worked out so well with your son's website. Thats what I like to hear :)

Gravatar Image #5 dExIT 2608 days ago.

Well, as far as i know PiXiE is THE BEST OpenSource solution for simple yet powerfull, websites, blogs and so on. The thing is most people are very aggitated by gGroups, thats 1 rock in your garden. More Ad's about PiXiE not advertising on PIXIE. I think PiXiE has a great engine, and as i said and many people have said, it would be REAL SHAME if you dear Scott evans would to drop it. Don't let the minor things get to you, ya it's hard for all of us, i for one live in so backwarded and medieval-thinking country that doesnt have a IT department who monitors governments sites and servers, they just pay others companys to do it, so i guess you understand what im getting at. As for developing, i for one am back, and more PHP'ed than b4. Ohh right, forgot to tell, presented PiXiE at my College many people started to ask questions and so on. So im doing my best :) Cheers Scott, and please wait for the wave... it will eventually come ;)

Gravatar Image #6 Tony de Faria 2607 days ago.

Hi Scott, I need to ask a few things in regards to the selling. Please get in contact with me if possible. Take care.

Gravatar Image #7 RQ 2594 days ago.

Hi Scott! I read this post of yours a few days ago, so I only remember its fragments. However, I've got a few comments for it which I'll try to express below. Please don't take them personally. Instead, I hope you'll find at least them useful... To start, I think your expectations were way too high if you thought Pixie would become popular enough to generate significant revenue in only two years. Perhaps this popularity did happen to WordPress, but I think it's only because it came out in the right time: it was the dawn of weblog era, and there weren't many (any?) free software weblog solutions for the masses. I remember myself how happy I was when I discovered there was actually something else than just commercial Movable Type that was as good... :) I think what Pixie CMS lacks right now is a bigger community. Without one, it's probably destined to be just another unknown CMS, even if a very cute one. Starting a community is a tough task, I'd like to know myself how to do that... But if you want Pixie CMS to bloom, I think you really need to think about how to gather a significant community of people around it. For the starters, you may want to make it more visible on this page. Just think about it: this website is mostly a one-way medium. It looks as if Toggle had everything documented more or less, and doesn't care much about the feedback. Not counting this weblog (since blogs aren't meant for support requests), the only two-way medium is the Google group, which - let's face it - doesn't really look like a proper forum. Plus, it's not part of this website, and I think it's not visible enough either. Similarly, you have lots of downloads, but there doesn't seem to be a single mention about how one can get their work into the download gallery. Again, it just doesn't look like Pixie would want any concrete feedback. I think you should really want to add Submit your work links to the download section. Then, except for the blog, this website just looks too static. And since it's the website of a CMS, it automatically provokes an assumption that Pixie itself is a boring thing, without even comment forms below articles. Short menu (just four items!) also contributes to this impression of Pixie being poor in features. Also, (not Pixie's fault) I find the color scheme used for this particular website quite disturbing. The combination of colors itself is very nice, but this dark background is just... depressing. I hope what I said isn't vague. All in all, I think there are some things to learn from others. Take a look at Joomla's website for example...

Gravatar Image #8 RQ 2594 days ago.

As a side note, OMG, why did Pixie strip newlines from my comment???

Gravatar Image #9 pakalika 2588 days ago.

Well. I just found Pikie and looks like a great CMS! Just wondering if there is any project of a mobile version or plugin for it! Would be nice to have a mobile version! I´ll try pixie on the couple of days and will return with some feedback! I´ll also try to add some new features and I´ll share with everyone. Congrats! Later, pakalika

Gravatar Image #10 Olli 2561 days ago.

A shame, I just discovered this nice peace of software and decided to give it a try, though it makes no sense for me to start using a CMS which won't be developed any further. It'd be glad if you find someone who will honor your effort and continue the great work you did over the last years. Anyway, from what I can tell Pixie seems to be a suitable small alternative for Wordpress. I'll observe the development before trying my second candidate, Dotclear. Kind regards, Olli

Gravatar Image #11 Ian Gordon 2560 days ago.

I forget where I heard it but 90% of start-ups fail in the first year of their operation. The point being, its an uphill struggle to get good. Any project worth its salt takes an active community and involvement and a dedicated development TEAM, I say TEAM because 1 person can't do it all. I think this was a good start and jump into the Open Source community, I look forward to more projects from you Scott.

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