Babel’s rise to financial sustainability

Making a living making open source

Alanna Irving
May 21 · 7 min read

What is Babel?

Babel is a code translator, specifically a JavaScript compiler. Babel’s main purpose is to be an abstraction over browser environments, similar to what jQuery did back in the day, but for syntax. It enables developers to use the latest JavaScript syntax features, while still being compatible with the widest range of browsers, even old ones.

How did you get involved?

I got involved with Babel through working on linters (first via JSCS then ESLint), and realizing they all used ASTs (Abstract Syntax Trees). I first worked on an intermediate tool called babel-eslint and then on Babel itself. I got a shoutout during the huge Babel v6 release in 2015, which led me to continue working and prove myself.

“Like many maintainers, I just showed up and stuck with it.”

Why did Babel start fundraising?

Core maintainer Logan Smyth had quit his job, and projects like Webpack were getting enough funding to support people to work full time. So I thought we should start fundraising too.

How has your financial base developed?

When we first started the Babel Collective, we weren’t even bringing in $1k/month. Slowly we built up to $4k/month, which is when I left my job to focus on Babel. Recently our budget looks a lot bigger thanks to a $100,000 grant from Handshake, which we split out as $10k/month. Once that’s over, the total will be around $20k/month.

“More companies should step up. Many open source projects are used by thousands of companies who don’t even know which ones they rely on or who is behind them.”

The reason we were able to grow our budget is that some people are very generous. We are thankful for that. Honestly, more companies should step up to match that kind of support. Babel, like many open source projects, is used by thousands of companies, many of which don’t even know what open source projects they rely on, or who the maintainers behind them are.

What has money made possible for the project?

Financial support has meant the world to me. It’s made it possible for me to work on Babel full time for over a year now.

“We need to think long-term. Any of the sponsors could stop donating at any point.”

How are you working for long-term sustainability?

Babel offers what we call a ‘base support’ tier, where sponsors commit to giving $2k/month for at least a year (or $24k annually). In return, they are featured on our website and get 2 hours/month of support from our core maintainers. We were inspired by Webpack and Vue, who have offered similar arrangements.

Babel’s top sponsors (May 2019)

“Base Support sponsors can get feedback on urgent issues much sooner, which is really worthwhile for them.”

When a sponsor becomes a base supporter, I create a channel where they can ask for specific help. That can be through Slack, a video call, or in-person if they are located near one of our core maintainers (I’m in NYC). I do most of the coordination and support myself.

How did you get the current base support sponsors—Airbnb, Trivago, and Adobe—to come on board?

I talked to each of these companies directly: I have contacts or know people there personally. Someone at the company has to be willing to do the work, and not forget or get too busy. Depending on bureaucracy, it can take months or years.

“The more companies give major support to open source, the more normal it becomes.”

I think that the more companies give major support to open source, the more normal it becomes. It is noticed in the community as a whole. Once a company steps up to support one project, they might be more willing to do it for others. So every win helps everyone.

“When I think, ‘This isn’t your job…aren’t you supposed to just code?’, I remind myself that if I don’t do this, no one else will.”

What is your advice to projects seeking to 20x their sponsorship, like Babel has?

No magic can make money suddenly appear, or convince sponsors to support you. You can look at success stories, but that’s colored by survivorship bias. Other projects have copied our tiers and formatting and are not getting the same level of funding.

“The main thing is: make it easier for companies to fund you. People have no idea who you are, even if they use your code.”

Even though I hate self-promotion, I am continually learning that all my actions are ‘marketing’ and presenting myself to the world. You have to put yourself out there: social media, cold emails, meetups and conferences. My advice is to take it slow, don’t quit your day job until you have the support you need, maintain your mental health, and keep your friends, in the project and in the wider community.

Final thoughts about sustainability for open source?

“You can make all the money in the world and still burn out — learn to say no when you need to.”

I’m trying to do this in a healthy way, not allowing money to consume my every thought and slowly turn me into someone who doesn’t even think about code anymore, let alone community.

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