Tidelift's Governance Model (tweet by Nathaniel J. Smith)


Dear Tidelift,

Nathaniel J. Smith tweeted the following a few days ago:

There’s something very odd about Tidelift’s governance model. AFAICT it’s… a VC-owned union? Like, the pitch is that OSS devs can’t effectively bargain with companies as individuals, so tidelift aggregates them together to bargain collectively. Cool, the companies <-> tidelift part makes sense. But then don’t we still have the exact same problem bargaining with tidelift? If two years from now the VCes fire the founders and announce that from now on they’re only passing through 5% of revenues, then we OSS devs are just screwed, right? Actually for all I know the revenue share is already 5%; I haven’t seen any financials. Shouldn’t a company like this be organized as some kind of co-op, or reserve a majority of the board seats for election by OSS devs, or… something? Given they have folks like @luis_in_brief on board, it seems like they must have at least thought about this issue, but… it’s weird that there’s no discussion or acknowledgement of it anywhere I’ve seen.

Looking forward to reading your reply, and thanks for the work you’re doing.


hey @jab! Donald and I responded to Nathaniel on Twitter a bit when he posted those; my response starts here.

The two points I raised on Twitter are basically:

  • Unlike most “gig economy” workers, maintainers aren’t replaceable. If Uber wants to mistreat their drivers, it’s easy for them to find new people with the same skillset. If Tidelift needs to support Vue, it’s hard to replace that with any random developer off the street — so we have a lot of incentive to be very good to the Vue team!
  • Unlike most “gig economy” workers, maintainers have a lot of very highly compensated options. If an Uber driver is unhappy with how they’re being treated by Uber, they don’t necessarily have a ton of options. (Though a strong employment market is giving them leverage.) Lifters who are unhappy can walk away very easily to many other highly-paid jobs.

Because of these two facts, we’re in a very different position than a lot of VC-backed “gig economy” companies. We have a lot of incentive to treat Lifters very well. And our VCs know that — we have discussed this issue with them from literally day one; they came in with eyes open about the balance of power here.

These are informal pressures, of course, not formal rules (even if they are very strong pressures on our mind every day!) However, since Nathaniel was getting more at formal rules than informal pressures, let me talk briefly about those as well.

We’ve given formal governance regimes some thought. Among other things, we’ve looked at the B Corp route, we’re following what Uber and others are doing about giving stock to their contractors, and we’ve looked at what Etsy, Wikimedia, and others have done with a variety of advisory boards. But at this point setting up any complex formal governance regimes feels like premature optimization because we don’t fully know what the relationship on either side of the market (lifter or enterprise) will look like long term. So the most efficient and effective route for “governance”, in the near term, must still be talking to all of you regularly, and seeing whether or not you engage or leave.

Hope that addresses the concern but happy to follow up if there are more thoughts.

Revised lifter agreement - drafts

Should add that I’m very open to suggestions about governance from this group - pretty unlikely to do anything particularly formal at this time, but can file away suggestions for the future; and very open to figuring out some flexible, informal mechanisms for consultation/discussion.

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