Why should web apps be free? (Intermediate)

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In this conversation Steve, Jill and Mark talk about charging for a service on the web versus making it free and asking for donations.

Steve: Hello there. This is Steve again with …

Jill: Jill.

Mark: And Mark.

Steve: Today we’re going to get a little controversial and it may even seem self-serving but one of the things that we come across very often is this idea that all the world that let’s say Mike does as a programmer, all the ideas that we have or that reflect what we’ve learned and all the hours and hours that we put into finding a better way to learn languages that all of this should be free, that anything on the Internet should be free. I saw on one post on language learning someone said you know ideas should be free and I thought to myself well, there isn’t a product that doesn’t begin with an idea so you won’t pay for the engineer, you won’t reward the inventor but the person who turns the screws or you know paints it or whatever, that the manual labor you’ll pay for but the idea you won’t pay for. And, there’s a lot of this thing. I don’t know where it comes from but personally and it’s not because we’re looking to get rich quick or whatever. We’re totally motivated by what we’re doing. We enjoy what we’re doing. We believe in what we’re doing and we have employees whom we pay who believe in what they’re doing but they’re doing work and we have to pay them and we think we should pay them. And so, therefore we are forced to charge somewhere along the line. That seems to me normal. But, on the Internet there’s a whole different mindset that everything should be free. Mark, presumably you don’t disagree with me.

Mark: I would never disagree with you and on this issue I absolutely agree. I mean I find it extremely irritating that basically you’re encouraged, it’s better to beg for money than to charge money for a service. Like, you’re better off to have a tip jar and give something away for free so basically equivalent to standing on the corner with a cup full of pencils is better than providing a good service and expecting a fair price for it. You know I, if we’re building something here which is of value to people why shouldn’t those people pay for it? If those, if the complainer comes to my house and cuts my grass he’s going to expect to get paid. He’s not going to do it for free so why should what we do be considered or forced to be free? I don’t understand really the mindset.

Steve: And, you know it’s even more than that. First of all the idea that you don’t pay for intellectual work, you know for ideas, I just don’t know where that would come from. The idea as well that people can decided whether or not they wish to pay. In other words if we take that tip jar analogy to the shoe store then I just go to the shoe store and I can choose whether to pay for the shoes or not to pay for the shoes and choose to leave however much money I want to so yeah, I really like these shoes. Here’s $200. I really like these shoes. Thanks very much. Good bye. Equally good, you know?

Jill: It’s not realistic.

Steve: It’s not realistic because what you’d have to do, I mean you’d hope to be getting $1,000 from someone to compensate for the other people who don’t pay anything so it’s really not fair.

Mark: Not at all.

Steve: Not fair. Everyone who likes that pair of shoes should have to pay the same amount of money for that pair of shoes, at least it seems to me. But Jill, maybe you have a different, what’s the woman’s perspective on this?

Jill: No, I totally agree with you guys of course. Like you both said we provide a service. We have, we put in our time. We have to pay other people to put in their time and they’re not just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts because they want to help the millions of people out there who want to learn English. They do want to and we do as well but you know, we have families, we have to make a living and it’s not something that we can just do for free. So, yeah, I completely agree.

Steve: Now, this can sound sort of self-serving and I’m sure there’s people out there and I’m sure we’re going to get into trouble for even having this discussion, but it really does, it really does great. I think it’s, anyone who is saying this, in most cases, they either have a job themselves therefore they are getting paid for what they do or they’re parents have a job. You know, somebody has a job.

Mark: Or they’re on welfare.

Steve: Or they’re on welfare.

Mark: But somebody’s putting bread on their table.

Steve: So it’s, you know fine that someone has a job and then they spend their evenings helping people do stuff. Great. Volunteer. There’s nothing wrong with that, absolutely nothing wrong with that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with volunteering. If somebody puts up a sign that says this is for free, just enjoy it. Great.

Jill: Like Wikipedia.

Steve: Wikipedia, great but don’t have a tip jar there because in other words you would like to get money but you don’t really want to charge people. If you want to say I wanted this, I am Bill Gates or I am not Bill Gates. I make, you know $5,000 a year but I’m going to spend all my savings to put up a nice site so that people can have a good time, good for you. Love it but don’t have a tip jar if you’re not looking for compensation. I think in particular, like it was on a website where people were talking about audio books. Where can you get free audio books? I don’t want to have to pay for an audio book? I even came across a site where they were offering Portuguese audio books, Portuguese language audio books which I’m interested in and it was called the Democratization of Sound or something. In other word s to make it free is to make it democratic or free or whatever. Why? I know a person who lives in Italy, who runs a site called Il Narratore, he’s totally devoted to putting Italian literature on the web. He lives in a very modest house with his wife and daughter. Why should he work for free? He does an excellent job. He’s an absolute, you know craftsman and I love listening to his audio books and I would rather pay him $12 or $15 or $20 Euros for one of his audio books done professionally and I love it, rather than have some volunteer quite frankly come in and read. Or, they have projects now where 20 different people, each person reads a chapter. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. That’s good, for those who want that, that’s fine but I don’t feel that there should be any implied criticism of someone like Il Narratore who does it for a living and that’s the hypocrisy that I find surrounding this issue.

Mark: Well, I think part of it has to do with this mindset that’s kind of been promoted at people by you k000now, the media and the universities and it seems prevalent in at least Western society that, at least here in Canada that somehow business is bad, for-profit is bad. The only things that are good are environmental organizations and not-for-profits. But people are, not-for-profits don’t work for free so actually that’s a complete hypocrisy. Volunteers are volunteers, not-for-profit employees are no different than anybody else. In fact, many not-for-profit employees make a lot of money so in my opinion not-for-profits in many cases are just a scam.

Steve: Well, I think that’s a big strong but I don’t disagree with you. I have seen so many examples of not-for-profits, because not-for-profits are able to get funding where a for-profit is not so that if a major say, fund, charity fund that might be funded by for-profit corporations who for whatever reason set up this fund and then they will say okay, here’s money for example in literacy in language learning. They would never give it to the Linguist but if we set up the Jill, Mark and Steve not-for-profit literacy organization and then decided we were all going to make $80,000 it wouldn’t matter. As long as we’re a not-for-profit organization we can go in there and as long as we were able to demonstrate that we had something good. In other words if the Linguist were not-for-profit but we all paid ourselves nice salaries we could then probably attract this funding. And, I have seen so many examples where the not-for-profits are totally motivated by how they can access funding so they will skew or spend a lot of their activity in how they can access this or that funding whether or not the activity that they get funding for actually benefits someone is secondary. How do they attract funding to feed their organization is the primary concern which is understandable. That’s their revenue model. That’s the revenue model which is okay too. I just want to say that there’s many different models including the volunteer model but there is nothing wrong with the model that I have a service. If you think it is valuable here’s what I charge. If you don’t like it, you don’t pay. If you do like it you, pay. So, I think we’ve kind of beaten this one up a bit and we’ll probably get lots of criticism but I just, we just wanted to get it off our chest.

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