Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Billionaire Donation

Yesterday there was a post on Hacker News about how little money people who make donation-ware WordPress plugins actual end up getting.

Almost nine years ago I released my own donation-ware project called POPFile. It's an GNU GPL licensed email sorting program that uses Naive Bayes to do automatic sorting and spam removal. During 2003 and 2004 it was very popular.

One way of supporting POPFile was to make donations to my PayPal account and over the years people did make donations: 353 in all. The average donation size was $16.39 and I received a total of $5,784.95 (which works out to $74.17 per month). The following chart shows the donations received per month.



If I take SourceForge's numbers as accurate and representative of the total number of POPFile downloads then we have 928,800 downloads which means that 0.038% of downloads resulted in a donation. Or, put differently, a single download was worth $0.006.

One day in 2003 I received a donation from a billionaire. This person, who I'll call simply J. Doe, sent me $25 via PayPal

You've Got Cash!

Dear John Graham-Cumming,

J. Doe just sent you money with PayPal.
J. Doe is a Verified buyer.

Payment Details

Amount: $25.00
Subject: POPfile donation
Note: Thanks for a great product, keep up the good work!

As I did for every single donation I received I replied with thanks:

Thanks for the donation. Glad to hear that POPFile is working out for you; are you just using it for spam filtering or something more?

And J. Doe replied:

Actually, I have 20 buckets for various topics I receive e-mail related to. One of them is spam, obviously. And I run multiple e-mail accounts through the system.

I'm also doing something potentially interesting, but a major hack: some of my accounts use APOP, so I'm using the hacked version I found in the forums. But the non-APOP accounts then don't work with the same instance of POPfile, using the Mac's mail program -- it always uses APOP if the greeter gives an APOP timestamp, even if you tell it not to. So I run a second instance of POPfile, and symlink the corpus to the first instance.

Kind of strange and bizarre, but it works for now.

I know it isn't trivial, but are you planning on adding support for SSL?

And we bounced back and forth emails for a while. And J. Doe ended up telling me that POPFile had 'saved' an email address that had been public years and wanted to continue to use.

But J. Doe only sent me $25. J. Doe probably could have afforded to send $250 or $2,500. But J. Doe sent $25.

This is entirely because I set the price of POPFile at $0. It's free. Donations are purely altruistic. J. Doe got nothing more from me than anyone else who's emailed me about POPFile over the years. And J. Doe even understood that he'd got a large amount of value from POPFile.

If you choose to do donation-ware you need to realize that almost no one donates. You are making a choice to give away your software and need to treat every donation as what it is: an unexpected gift.

If you want to make a living forget about donations and sell your software. Sell support for your software. Make it your living.

If I really wanted to get J. Doe's money I could have made POPFile closed source, I could have gone and sold the product. I could have made the case for how much saving that email address was worth and I could have charged J. Doe a lot more than $25.

But that's a whole different ball game; that's business.

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If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.

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