Frontend Masters: "We teach open source, we use open source, and we support open source."

Frontend Masters regularly appears on our leaderboard for their contributions to the open source ecosystem. They’ve sponsored nearly 40 projects and show no signs of slowing down. I spoke to founder Marc Grabanski to find out why.

Frontend Masters: "We teach open source, we use open source, and we support open source."

Frontend Masters regularly appears on our leaderboard for their contributions to the open source ecosystem. They’ve sponsored nearly 40 projects and show no signs of slowing down. I spoke to founder Marc Grabanski to find out why.

What’s your backstory?

I've been an entrepreneur for 20 years. It's been a lot of trial and error trying to find something that has a positive social impact plus also makes money. You can go straight nonprofit, but I figured I could also do a lot of good through business. We're here to make a great product and get a lot of customers and make money, and from there do things like sponsor open source.

My career really started with early blogging and writing software like little JavaScript and HTML components, and sharing snippets of code that people could reuse. I ended up getting a lot of traction with my open source. My most well-known project became the jQuery UI date picker, which I started as a pure JavaScript component back in 2005.

I felt really compelled to teach what I was learning, which led me to speak at conferences. Through giving over 60 conference talks, I found out it was not about real peer education, but more just sharing a snapshot of something exciting. You make some flashy demos and share only a bit of information. I got really highly rated on my talks, but inside I was dying because I got into it for pure education and I wasn’t really teaching on a deeper level.

What’s most fulfilling in my career is the exchange of information, discovery, distillation, and enabling other people to build. That was my aha moment around 2011, and I shifted gears. I tried running conferences myself, but deep education through conferences is like a round peg in a square hole. I eventually realized conferences weren't the right medium.  

Screencasting is cool because it’s scalable, but there’s no live Q&A or way to tell if people are engaged. I ran workshops, and that went really well because you can see people and interact. That human element is what I felt was missing with screencasts. I wanted the best of both worlds, and that’s what we’ve done with Frontend Masters.

Today, we have a really nice studio in downtown Minneapolis where we invite in amazing teachers and passionate developers, whose questions get embedded into the material. We stream live out to the world and also take questions from hundreds of remote participants. We edit the best parts and distill the teacher-student relationship, the human element, into the finalized courses.

Why is supporting open source important to you?

In many ways, open source is the reason I’m where I am today, because that’s how I got connected to a lot of people and started speaking at conferences.

For Frontend Masters, open source is foundational to everything we do. We teach open source, we use open source, and we support open source. It’s literally the blood running through our veins.

For instance, we teach Webpack with a course from core maintainer Sean Larkin. We publish that course, people learn, and we make money. Then we then support Webpack financially through Open Collective. And of course Webpack is also in our tech stack. It's a really cool symbiotic relationship.

When I saw Open Collective, it was like, wow, this makes a lot of sense. Using something like Patreon to fund an individual never made sense to do as a company. But it makes sense to fund a project that supports our business.

We give money for a couple reasons. First, we don't have a big enough development team to contribute lots of open source code. Maybe someday, but at this point we’re primarily users. Meanwhile we’re getting huge value from not needing to write all our own custom software.

The second reason is the importance of financial sustainability, which I understand through personal experience.

I created an open source component that literally every website or piece of software at the time used, and often still do. Go to the WordPress control panel and there's my date picker. But in 15 years, the only money I ever got for that was $400 from a guy who needed me to add a specific feature. I think I got a handful of change thrown at me through PayPal, like $50 bucks. There was no economic sustainability whatsoever.

There was a long time where I was doing open source almost more time than my full time job, and getting paid nothing. I just burnt out. I stopped writing and contributing to open source. I never built up my GitHub profile when that came around. I just gave up, because what's the point when all you get is constant issues? You give and give and give, and people just take and take and take.

My open source success went from a major blessing to a great curse. It was one of the darkest times in my life. Something that started out with such hope and light ended up just being about getting thousands of emails. People told me their whole life stories and how it’s all been leading up to this one feature they really need me to add.

At some point you need sustainability, to either hire people to help or to enable you to do open source full time. If there had been something like Open Collective back then maybe I could have kept going, but I had to find other avenues.

I'm glad sentiment is shifting. I would like to see Open Collective and other open source sustainability initiatives continue to grow.

Not everyone is selfish, with a goal of maximum profit, but unfortunately most VC-backed and public companies succumb to the markets and their investors wanting more money. So we have to align with the fact that companies can make more money if they give more money to open source projects they use. I could imagine an explosion in sustainability if open source creators started to make even more than they need to survive, enough to grow teams and give to other projects, too.

Have your contributions paid off?

Many specific outcomes are yet to be determined. I just know in my soul that it is paying off. We haven’t analyzed exactly how many customers come through Open Collective. Our focus is on long-term sustainability. You put something into motion, then something else happens and then something else, and eventually it comes back to you.

Just a few of the projects Frontend Masters supports

We've donated about $87,000, which is a significant amount of our profit. But I think we will make much more in return. I don't know how, but I believe it. Of course we have to balance that with the needs of the company and team. We can't give all of the profit away. But I know my team also has pride in working at an organization that supports open source.

Our Fall promotion this year is all about building the development community. We're launching an online, on-demand complete bootcamp, for free. We're really, really proud of the videos, which took a massive amount of labor to produce. And we just launched a program with the GitHub student developer pack to give students access to our core product, which is proving extremely popular. That’s another way we’re contributing to open source and the surrounding developer community. The other pillar of our promotions strategy is Open Collective.

These promotions are not directly related to product sales. They’re about going public about our contributions to the community. The crux of the campaign is all the stuff we’re giving away. It is a major risk for us. I don't necessarily want people to view us as a kind of social outreach organization. We deliver a good product to the customer at a fair price, and therefore we get more customers. But I want to showcase the fact that we are donating a significant amount.

Why should CEOs care about giving back?

To a CEO of a small company that’s barely sustainable, I’d say first become sustainable. You can give back when you're in a better position. If you are already succeeding, then it's important to recognize the systems causing you to grow.

Unfortunately, many big companies take and take without giving back in proportion to the value they receive, and these problems aren’t just fixing themselves under capitalism. If you put purely economics first and aren’t conscious of the things that have enabled your success, then you end up just hurtling towards darkness.

I feel a sense of responsibility toward the systems that have created even the comparatively small success of Frontend Masters: the team, the employees, the teachers, the customers, and the plumbing that connects them all, which is open source.

It would concern me if a single company took over the whole space of open source sustainability. It's really important that an independent organization with clear thinking towards sustainability of the commons, like Open Collective, continues to exist and thrive.

I don't want to live in a world where only one or two companies have a monopoly on where we get our goods, software and knowledge. If we don’t fund smaller initiatives and decentralized software, that seems to be where we’re headed.