During the last few months I've been thinking about a solution for a difficult challenge: how can I invest a substantial amount of time into Neos and Flow, work on significant web projects and still make a living? As a regular freelancer combining these two goals can become difficult.
Since I started working in the TYPO3 Project in August 2001, I have become quite acquainted with reserving enough time and cross-fund my Open Source activities with client work. Times were different in 2001 of course – as a student it was much easier to spend a month translating documentation or recording podcasts than twelve years later, with a family and a different living standard. But even then, when Kasper, Julle and I discussed possibilities to fund the further development of TYPO3, we came to the conclusion that building something big, especially as an ongoing effort, was nothing we or one web agency could do alone.
For a moment we considered starting the TYPO3 Company, but Daniel Hinderink convinced us to create an association instead. The hundreds of contributors and the TYPO3 Association members made it possible to work on something as big as TYPO3 Flow and TYPO3 Neos have become today. For a couple of years I have been well paid by the Association. It certainly didn't make me rich, but I was able to start a family and pay a mortgage for our house. I am very grateful for the opportunity I had and I think I returned the favour by creating some good code.
When Flow became production ready in 2011, Karsten and I started to plan for a transition: we wanted to get involved into customer projects again (during the full-funded time by the TYPO3 Association we practically declined all customer work). That made sense for two reasons:
First of all, we needed the immediate experience with real-world projects using our software. Even though research does make a lot of sense, there's no way to create a good piece of software without practical feedback.
And secondly, as convenient as it sounds, relying on funding through donations and by association members does not give you the necessary peace of mind. There's always the smack of owing somebody something and a tinge of envy resulting in bashes of all sorts (although, until now, I haven't come across anybody who would have given up his business in order to create a new CMS).
I am very grateful for the opportunity. And I certainly had to learn my lessons regarding politics.
In 2011, the TYPO3 Association's Steering Committee started to revise the bylin order to make processes more transparent and democratic. We decided that budget receivers should not decide on their own budgets, and as a consequence almost all of us voluntarily gave up our official positions and made room for the next generation. The newly elected Expert Advisory Board now was responsible for deciding on budget applications for the various projects.
In hindsight, I think that the whole process went terribly wrong – and as it happens so often, hindsight is easier than foresight. I think that everyone involved acted with his sincerest best intentions, but the resulting budget and its related process for 2013 went mostly wrong. It wasn't really the amount of money which troubled the Neos and Flow team (50% cut though, compared to the preceding year), the reason why we eventually waived the budget was the – in our opinion – unrealistic requirement to estimate what we would be working on (and how long it takes) throughout the whole year. Creating a Content Management System is complex – even more so if done by a staff of volunteers – and trying to estimate the effort is impossible (here's an interesting read on Complexity Thinking).
Waiving the budget didn't come easy for Karsten and me personally: in essence it left us about two full months without income (of course it also caused an impact for other team members). We certainly did plan for a transition but the (semi self-caused) complete lack of funding made building our own business a bit more hectic.
You could think that Karsten and me didn't have any problems acquiring customer jobs. The problem was: nobody knew that you could actually book us. Everybody seemed to think that we were completely busy anyway and thus were surprised to hear that we were available for projects.
The Neos team and a couple of fine companies rescued us. We got a few Flow related jobs right away, in the evenings we worked on our websites and arranged some advertising (you can book me now, 10% off if you tell your cousin). Despite the financial setback, I worked more than 120 hours in the first quarter on Neos alone. It dawned on me that this wouldn't work out in the long run.
Now I hear some saying: "see, being a real freelancer is not a piece of cake, welcome to reality". There's a difference though between being able to make a living as a freelancer and being able to spend 40-50% of your time aside on an Open Source project. I have been a freelancer for 13 years now and I have, ever since, enjoyed most aspects of it. I actually love bookkeeping.
Karsten and I brainstormed about options to a) spend significant time on Neos / Flow, b) gain real-world experience from big customer projects and c) make a living which fits our current needs.
We have been approached by bigger companies for possible Neos projects. One of them was pretty much convinced of Neos, but eventually chose a bigger web agency for the implementation. Naturally. Would you rely on one or two guys sitting in their home office?
We've always been collaborating with bigger shops. But we love Agile and most of the companies we know require you to work on site. Not really an option in the long run for guys with a family.
We have considered (and tried out) alternative ways of (crowd-)funding. This approach doesn't work for small improvements though (and tasks like code reviews, writing documentation …) and generates a lot of work. As grateful as I am, my own crowd-funding experiment caused me writing 12 invoices with an amount of 50,- € in average.
We could try to organise something, bring agencies together, found … an association. But we've been there already.
Finally, we could start a new web agency which eventually would be able to cross-fund our Open Source activities. Or join an existing one.
My New Job
Partially by coincidence an opportunity arose from a meeting with Josef Willkommer, managing director of TechDivision. Josef met with us for two days to figure out how we can grow Neos and accelerate its development. We briefly touched the topic that it would be nice to have a company backing us, but dropped it just as quickly as it came up.
I spent a whole weekend thinking about it: what if we opened a TechDivision office in Lübeck, focussing on Neos and Flow? I called Josef the next Monday and told him that Karsten and I would be happy to open a subsidiary in Lübeck. And that's what we are going to do.
What it Means
Still reading? I wanted to give you the full story, not just the announcement. Because the whole story is what I have in my mind, at least from today's perspective.
I honestly feel that this decision is the best we can do for the Neos and Flow project, because it will enable us to effectively spend more time on Neos and Flow. And aside from our Open Source time we'll be mostly working on Flow and Neos customer projects – which will benefit the product.
As for the buy-out or secrecy theories, you need to know that Neos has since long become more than a project by Karsten and me. Any single long term team member could take over leadership of the project in his or her own way. Also, you need to imagine that I'm a person who doesn't like to keep secrets (perhaps you have noted that ;-). I love to share. So I'll keep offering workshops, in-house trainings and consultancy to help others being successful with Neos and Flow (next opportunity: Neos workshop in Munich). I won't be able to work exclusively on development of Neos and Flow like in the previous years – which wouldn't have been different if I still was a freelancer – but I'll continuously improve the products with features demanded by real-world projects.
Karsten wrote a much more concise blog post about this – if you already forgot what I wrote at the top of this page, maybe better read his summary. As for the official part, there's also a press release by TechDivision.
And as for me, personally, I haven't been as happy and relieved this year, as I am today.