How Tailwind Makes Millions From Open Source

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What is tailwind?


You know how a lot of websites these days look similar? You can thank Tailwind for that.

Since its release in 2017 it’s become a favorite CSS framework among devs. And it’s currently used by companies like OpenAI, Shopify, Netflix, and basically every indie developer.

But what is it?

Tailwind is a CSS framework. At its core it’s just one big CSS file with pre-built classes. But it’s unique in that the classes are utility classes. Meaning each class does one thing.

In traditional CSS, you define classes that hold a bunch of attributes – like color, size, what happens on hover etc. And you assign a chunk of html to that class.

In utility classes, each class has a single job. For example the text-white class will turn the text color white. And then you string together these utility classes in HTML to get the look and behavior you want.

CSS Vs Tailwind

How it started


Adam Wathan, the guy behind Tailwind, was building other companies from 2015-2017. He built them in public, either through tweeting or live streaming.

One of them was called KiteTail (Tailwind was actually named from). The product died, but his followers would keep asking him to open source the CSS system he used.

(Adam has said if it wasn’t for building in public tailwind wouldn’t exist!)

Eventually he did open source and release it, and the reception was phenomenal. In its first year it got 670k installs, 8k Github stars, and 10k followers.

That’s what we in the biz like to call “really fast growth”.

Business Model

At it’s core Tailwind UI—the commercial arm of Tailwind—is a product business. They sell a digital product. Similar to a course, or a book.

Their strategy is pretty textbook for open source software:

1. Create open source software that gains large adoption

Keep it open source to gain trust and adoption. Make the software as robust as you can, and get the community involved. Active contributors will become advocates for it, spurring on more adoption.

2. Become an authority figure on the software

This should be easy, since you built it.

3. Sell

There are a 4 common ways open source software can monetize these days. Two of the more popular ones are:

Selling templates

This is a classic move for frontend OSS. You offer premium code templates that build on your framework. For example, Bootstrap, Material-UI, and others have been doing this long before Tailwind.

It’s basically a freemium model – the basics are free, and advanced stuff is extra.

In the open source world they call it “Open Core” – the core of the code is free, advanced usage of it is premium.

Selling hosting services

This is how companies like Mongo DB, Vercel, Redis have become profitable. By being experts in the software, you’re well positioned to create hosting solutions tailor-made for that software.

This is a more complex route to take, but can be far more profitable if enterprises start to build and use your hosting service. For example MongoDB’s revenue is a whopping $458M.

The major ways OSS monetizes (not including things like sponsorships, donations etc)

Tailwind uses the “Open-Core” model and charges a one time fee of $300 to access all premium components and templates.

So how profitable has this been for them?

In their first 2 years they earned $2 million. And that was in 2020. They haven’t reported revenue since, but with an increasing user base, it’s a safe bet their revenue has grown too.

Now

The team has grown to 6 members. And they’re focused on improving the software usability and speed.

As Adam puts it, the nice profitability has allowed the team to enjoy their work and maintain a good work-life balance.

So, it’s safe to say things are going pretty well for the Tailwind crew.

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