How to sell an open source project ethically

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Open hardware and social entrepreneurs are pretty good at having ideas and creating new stuff. But they have a harder time selling their creations and ultimately moving from part-time to full-time.

When we put our heart into a project we tend to get in love with our idea and we believe everybody else will also immediately fall in love with it. So we imagine people will rush to our front porch and on our website will look like it’s Black Friday.


Trust me, this never happens.

Or at least to 99% of us.

I know it because I’ve made all of these mistakes when I started my first two open projects, Repairloop, a website to create collaborative repair guides, and OSlantis, a crowdfunding site for open source bounties. I thought making something open source would be enough to attract millions of people.

But the truth is that I didn’t know how to set a business goal, where to look for users who could use my solutions.

And I knew even less about how to offer them what I was creating.

Have you been in this position?

It’s quite stressful when you are trying to make a positive impact in the world.

But essentially it boils down to 2 things. The fear of selling and not knowing how to approach a potential client:

The fear of selling

“People will think I’m selling out.”

“What if someone doesn’t think I’m a good person once I start asking for money?”

“Once people get it for free, they’ll keep wanting everything for free and I won’t be able to sell it”.

Well, selling out is only for those who do things they don’t enjoy. But if you are reading this that shouldn’t be your case.

You have probably bought plenty of stuff this month without thinking that those who sold where scammy or unethical salespeople.

We are all in some way or the other the saleswomen or salesmen of someone.

We recommend books, music, restaurants to our friends because we know they’ll enjoy and get value out of them. So they buy what we recommend.

So why do we sell for others, and not for ourselves? If you can save people time, money or increase their success, love or any other number of valuable benefits, you should find people ready to pay you for what you offer.

If you don’t, you’ll end up with no resources to continue working and you’ll be wasting the benefits of your social or open source project.

Selling something that’s Open Source is actually creating more abundance that you could be creating by selling something closed, since others can study, modify or distribute it.

Red Hat, MySQL and many others do it for their software. Arduino, Sparkfun, Adafruit do it for their hardware. Gazelles do it for their consulting.

If you manage to create a paid offering and to sell it you’ll be able to keep working on your creation, you’ll get more resources to sustain yourself and to bring others on board to help you spread the benefits of your idea.

But how do you sell?

Thanks for asking.

Here are some ways you can sell whatever you do in one week:

0/ Understand Who You’re Helping

Before going out to help your customers, you should understand who they are and why they need you. Here are some questions that will help you:

Who is the user of your solution? Where is he or she?

  • Who is your target audience? What is the demographic?
  • Now choose three people from that demographic as your target profiles.
  • Narrow it down to one person.
  • Speak to that person and get a list of problems (with regard to a product/service).
  • Choose one problem then expand on it.
  • Use that very same person to get feedback (so be aware that what you hear and what they are saying may be different).

What Problem Are you solving?

  • List all your customers’ problems.
  • Isolate the three main problems.
  • Isolate the biggest problem.

Once you’ve answered to all this you should be able to explain to your customers what problem you solve and to find who your audience really is.

1. Do more of what worked

If you already have clients, it means you have already validated people want your idea. If you don’t have clients or don’t have validated your idea go back here and go get your your first users and clients.

Whatever you did to find your first customer during your validation phase, if it worked, keep doing it.

Way too often entrepreneurs go try new things instead of doing what’s already been proven to work.

This could be posting on a billboard, calling on friends, sharing updates of your business on Twitter, helping people on a forum or at your coworking space, etc…

Action Step:

  • How did you get your first 3 customers?
  • Go do more of that and remember to KEEP doing what works.

2. Asking for feedback

I once heard that “When you ask for money, people give you advice, and when you ask for advice people give you money.”

It was quite crazy for me. When you ask for money, you expect to get money. But that’s wishful thinking.

If you ask for advice instead, you are no longer pressuring people to buy from you. You are just asking for help.

When you do this, your friends feel you trust them and will be glad to help you.

And if they find your idea is useful they will be glad to share it with others or test it themselves.

Here is an email template you can use to reach out. Remember to adapt it to your offer:


Hope you are great [Personalize it according to your relationship with this person]

Quick question: Last week we were talking and I mentioned some of the stuff I’ve been working on this year. [Also personalize it according to what your recipient knows about your project]

Our conversation made me think, and I wanted to get your advice/opinion on an idea…

I would like to start a [OFFERING DESCRIPTION, i.e crowdfunding platform; hardware prosthetic; permaculture training] to help [AUDIENCE, i.e. entrepreneurs; doctors; farmers…] do the same thing I’ve been doing: [DESCRIBE YOUR BENEFITS AND PROMISE: find funds easily by reaching out to their close relationships; to create permacultural habits to regenerate their soils and improve their yield].

I’m thinking the solution would look something like this:

• We’d work on gathering the community interested in their project
• Then we’d work on building their crowdfunding page to make it appealing for their community to donate or pre-buy their product
• We’d outline an action plan to help them attract people to their page while their campaign is live
• Each day we’d send a quick newsletter with actions and templates they could run to help the success of their campaign]
I’m thinking it would cost around [AMOUNT]€ per month

What do you think on this idea?

Would it be helpful for people in your circles? Anything you would add or takeaway?


Action steps:

  • Make a list of 50 people in your network (FB, Linkedin, phone or email contacts…) who could be interested in your idea
  • Send them the email where you present your offer and ask for their feedback
  • If they don’t respond or aren’t engaged, they’re not interested or don’t have an opinion. It’s life and you can move on without regrets
  • If they respond with detailed feedback it means they are engaged and that you should follow up. Ask them if they can introduce you to someone who would be interested and offer to provide an introduction email so it won’t take time from their end if they say yes.

You can find more details on this tactic in this article from Bryan Harris. It is geared towards starting a coaching business, but it works with any other new offer.

3.Partnerships and Sponsoring

Offer something valuable to another company or community who has the same audience as you do. Share it with them, make their audience successful and yourself as well.

This could be something you offer for free —like free content or free goodies — and helps redirect traffic to your project. Or it could be a paid offering that reinforces your partner’s offerings.

Examples of free stuff you can offer:

  • Free articles tailored to solve your partner community’s challenges (if you have built a tool that help make better photographs, teach other communities how to make better photographs on their blog, and have a link redirect to your website)
  • Giveaway of one of your physical products (ex: Kittyo giving away one of his devices to HausPanther’s readers)
    One hour of free coaching, or a webinar explaining your secrets to your partner’s audience
  • If the company you want to partner with isn’t doing anything after someone signs up to their newsletter, you could offer them to include a link to one of your free goodies. You would be getting new leads and they’d be giving something valuable to their users.

Examples of paid stuff:

  • In a food cooperative, you could partner with the current vegetables producers to offer your fresh pasta and home-made jams. You’d be reinforcing their offering, and it won’t cost them more to let you sell your products.
  • If you are selling an ecological case for Android phones, it can be a good idea to propose phone sellers to offer your case along with the phone.

If you start getting money out of this method, over time you can start paying them for directing leads your way.
Start small first, and once you start getting new successes, work up to bigger partners.

Contact someone who helps the same people as you do, and find out what are the challenges of their community. If you can bring a complementary solution, share it with their audience.

You can try this template or make your own variation if you want to offer a partnership:

Subject: Sponsoring / Partnership (business-name)


Hi (first name),

[PERSONAL NOTE SHARING WHY YOU APPRECIATE THEIR WORK. i.e. I’m a big fan of your project.]
I wanted to talk with you about a partnership [or sponsorship if you have cash already flowing in] with your site and about working together. [OFFER TO PARTNER OR SPONSOR]

When’s a good time to chat via Skype or on the phone?


If you want to make a giveaway of your service or product to get the ball rolling and attracting people to your project you can use this template.

Subject: Free (product) for your readers

Hey (NAME),

We want to give your readers some free/open source [Mention the service or product you can offer]. [Insert 1 benefit why it’s good for the site owner and their audience]

Let me know by [set time restriction] if you’re interested and I’ll set everything for you. No work on your side.


Action Steps:

What is the name of 1 person or company you can work with?

Send them a personalized version of the template above

4. Help for Free

This is a great approach to create a trusting relationship and getting your first referrals.

You could do this in many ways, but the main idea here is to identify the kind of communities you want to help, and see what problems they have.

One technique you can try is the Santa Claus approach. You first set out the service or product you offer. Then you identify someone who could use your offering. Finally you work 10 to 20 hours on a proposal showing them how you could help them solve a problem you know they have.

If you did well, they’ll either love you and thank you for what you did, or they’ll want to pay you.

Either way, you’ll have someone ready to help you with a referral, and you’ll have a proven service that you can reuse and offer to someone else.

You can find the step by step of this strategy here.

Another technique you can use is helping people on online forums, Facebook or Linkedin groups, or on Reddit or Quora posts in your niche. Participate in whatever thread where people are looking for help and offering the solutions you found to the problems they have.

You can put a link to your product or service in your signature where people can look you up and go see what you do.

If you think you can also offer more personalized help, you can contact them using the Santa Claus method above.

Here is the step by step of the forum strategy.

Don’t spam these pages. Be relevant and get involved.

Free (as in beer) is one of the easiest ways to get promotion from others and make great relationships. It sounds obvious but you’d be surprised what you can get just by focusing on helping others.

But remember to be specific about what you offer to help with. Don’t say “Is there anything I can do to help you?”. It should be a no-brainer to accept your help.

Action Steps:

  • Is there someone you can easily reach out to that could use your help?
  • What is 1 thing you can do for free that the above person might need?

5. Referrals

Your customers are your best salespeople. Can you ask or incentivize them to promote you?

Here’s a script you can use to ask for referrals from happy users:


Just wanted to thank you again for working with me on X project. I really enjoyed working with you, and I’m so glad we were able to [mention the desired outcome you created].

Now that we’ve wrapped this project, I wanted to see if you’d be willing to offer me some feedback.
What’s one thing I should do differently to make [working with me/buying my product] a piece of cake for people like you?

I’m always doing my best to improve, so I’d be really grateful if you could take a few minutes to let me know.

Thanks for your support,

PS: I’d love to [help / work with] more people like you – and perhaps your friends want to [get help from / work with] someone like me. Would you mind introducing me to one of your favorite contacts who would benefit from me providing [service / product / free incentive]?

Action Steps:

  • Ask every satisfied customer if they know someone else you can help.
  • Show your gratitude to the person who refers you with a discount on future products, a gift card to something you know they like or a handwritten note. That effort will create stronger bonds and pay for itself many times over.

6. Put your services on a marketplace

Put your product or service on marketplaces your customers already visit. This can be:

  • Open Source hardware: Sparkfun, AdaFruit
  • Physical products: Loconomics, eBay, Etsy, Amazon
  • Gigs: Craigslist, LeBonCoin or any freelancing marketplace
  • Any other equivalent marketplace in your country or your niche.
  • If you wanted to sell open source kits you could submit them to Adafruits or Sparkfun.

If you want to open up a website to help people with computer problems you can post a gig on a gig marketplace offering your service to people who want help with their computers.

Action steps:

  • Which marketplace that already has a very large audience can you use to sell your product/service?
  • Post your offer on the site

7. Events

If you are into the brick and mortar business or you need to gather people physically, you can organize an event or workshop with Meetup, Eventbrite or Facebook Events.

Set up an event or group for your relevant people. This will help you become the hub of your community.

If you are a coworking space you can invite other freelancers at events with topics related to your offer that could help them organize, and meet other like-minded people.

To fund it you can get others to sponsor, or organize a potluck.

You can also organize paying workshops to help them with the problems they face.

Action Steps:

  • What kind of event could you set up?
  • Post it on Eventbrite, Facebook or Meetup and invite people potentially interested in your network


No more selling out. Now it’s time to use your newly acquired selling knowledge to start spreading the impact of your open idea.

The more customers you get, the more you’ll be able to work on your idea.

The more you can work on your idea, the more useful and attractive it becomes to others.

The more useful and attractive your idea becomes to others, the more you can make a positive change in the world.

Now pick ONE way to find more clients. Only one, and set yourself a goal of people you want to reach in the next weeks.

Don’t go after a new tactic unless you’ve maxed out the channel you chose. This is one of the most common mistakes of people starting to make money.

Set time aside at least a third of your or your team’s time to get yourself out and spreading the benefits of your idea.

If none of these techniques apply to you, leave a message in the comments or send me an email in my contact section and we’ll find your way to offer your idea.

Other amazing readings on attracting customers with or without a budget:

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Jaime Arredondo
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