What it takes to successfully run an open source software company— a case study of Blender

TL;DR: If Blender didn’t have investor money early on and big corporations who donate now didn’t have their own interests at heart, it wouldn’t be as far along as it is today.

The first time I used Blender was in May 2022. At my job, we think it’s important to be digitally inclusive. This means providing our primary users (kids), typically disenfranchised from technology tools, with the skills they need to thrive in the digital world. We were preparing a 3D storytelling workshop for a group of refugee kids in Berlin, and it would be our first time giving this particular workshop. So another colleague suggested that the entire company take this workshop. We all made doughnuts, and at the end of the workshop, we imported our doughnuts into our virtual world. That was fun.

a cartoonish drawing of a person walking through the city under the rain. They are holding an umbrella and street lights, shop lights and a yellow car can be seen
created on Dream.ai with a “Blender” prompt

I spent the last few weeks conducting a case study of Blender. The case study aimed to inform some decisions around building our virtual world and give creators the tools to edit their worlds on Godot, an open-source game engine. We wanted to understand the history of Blender, how its open-source system works, the factions of the business model which create revenue, and the industry disruptions it caused.

A quick rundown on the history of Blender:

  • Blender debuted in 1999 at the SIGGRAPH convention for computer graphics and software.
  • Its parent company, Not a Number, struggled financially because its initial sales were poor.
  • It eventually pivoted to open-source software under the Blender Foundation and with a GNU General Public License. Now, creators can use it for any purpose and own the rights to the intellectual property they create.

The coolest thing about Blender is that it serves the entire creation pipeline from still images, to animations, to VFX, to the ability to edit videos. This unified pipeline is free and comes in a small download package (224MB for Mac). This is a small memory and drive requirement compared to other 3D creation suites. Blender remains attractive to users because it is free, easy to use and produces industry-standard work. Alternatives to Blender are: SketchUp (by Google)($500 for one pro-license), AutoDesk 3DS Max, AutoDesk Maya (great for animation)($4,000), Sculptris (free), Cinema 4D ($1000 -1,800 per account).

As an organisation, Blender exists as a Foundation (a non-profit) and an Institute (a working company). Legally speaking, the shares of the Institute, as well as all intellectual property and funds, are transferrable to the foundation. All corporate activities and liabilities are outsourced to the Institute, while the primary income model for the Foundation plus Institute is donations, using the Development Fund. The Blender Foundation’s income is via donations and the Development Fund. The Institute’s revenues come from Blender Cloud (9.99 euros a month subscription), the Blender Store and sponsorship. This enables the team to organise activities for SIGGRAPH or the Blender Conference, support development, documentation and training projects, maintain and host blender.org services, and pay for bookkeeping and administration expenses. Blender Studio plans to explore more open source pipeline and content development. It also intends to challenge the market as an independent production company providing free/open content, funded by Blender Cloud subscriptions.

Creating and distributing Open Movies has been an essential step in validating Blender as a competitive 3D software. As a trained filmmaker, I was excited to see the dozen short films Blender has produced and released over the years. Some of my favourites include Sintel and Sprite Fright. By watching the films, one can see the sophistication of Blender evolving. I find it a clever strategy — to release products that show what your products can do. The films always came with a technical goal. In recent years, releasing material during the film’s production has become essential to engaging with the Blender community. For example, for the film Sprite Fright (2021), the Blender Studio team wanted to take a more story-focused approach to movie-making and improve its 3D production pipeline. The film worked with Matthew Luhn (Pixar story artist veteran) as director, working along with a team of 20+ artists and developers. Blender regularly released short-form training videos during production to document techniques or creative processes. For example, lead animator Rik Schutte showed how he uses Grease Pencil for animating smear frames for cartoony animation, and shading artist Simon Thommes shared several procedural surfacing workflows. Of course, running a successful film production is no easy feat, and Ton Roosedaale (founder of Blender) already had the benefit of having founded an animation studio, Neo Geo, in 1989.

I was curious about the finances, so I looked at Blender’s 2020 annual report (released in 2021), which showed a total income of 1,131,780 euros. This is a 34% increase from 2019. The Development fund is responsible for 82% of Blender’s revenue and has seen a significant increase in income, with new parties like Facebook and Amazon joining. The fund is also supported by large corporations including intel, AWS, Epic, AMD, NVIDIA, Unity, Meta, Decentraland, Ubisoft, Google, Microsoft, BlenderMarket (an indie market for Blender creators), Adobe, Steam, Activision, Oracle, Sketchfab, and many more groups. This is incredible support for an open source software. The fund is necessary because it pays the salaries of their developers (40% of expenditure in 2020). Income from Blender Studio was not included in the annual report since most of the company’s key spending is taken care of from the development fund or other donations; I estimated that the studio’s income is insignificant.

Blender could not survive without the development fund and its big corporate sponsors. In 2019, Epic Games announced it would support Blender with 1.2 million euros in its mega grant. This funding is delivered incrementally over three years and contributes to Blender’s Professionalizing Blender Development Initiative. Professional partnerships have also played a massive role in Blender’s development. Apart from donating to the Blender Development fund, industry partners have worked with Blender to improve various parts of the tool. For example, Blender developers have worked closely with AMD, Intel and NVIDIA engineers to ensure that artists have an optimal experience using CPUs and GPUs for editing and rendering. Ubisoft developers worked with Blender on their new Mixer add-on. Mixer is an open-source Blender add-on developed at Ubisoft Animation Studio for real-time collaboration in a 3D environment. It allows multiple Blender users to work on the same scene simultaneously. Facebook works with a developer on Alembic Animation Procedural and geometry processing performance of Cycles, which is fundamental in accelerating Cycles becoming a renderer for real-time application. These partnerships are critical in pushing the software’s limits and ensuring it can plug into any development pipeline.

The Blender community are an indispensable part of Blender and proved this early on in the organisation’s history. During this case study, I learned that there is no open source without community. In October 2001, when Blender was still a purely commercial product, although they were struggling to raise additional investor funding, they already had a loyal following. Although the company had raised 4.5 million euros in venture capital, it shut down in 2002. When Ton Rosendaal decided to register the software under the GNU License, he needed to buy out the investors. He turned to the community to raise the 100,000 euros he required to buy back the rights through the “Free Blender” campaign. Over the years, the Blender community has contributed through code commits, language support and translations, tutorials, bug tracking, and donations. Without them, Blender could not have broken into the mainstream the way it has today.

Blender Foundation believes that “Everyone should be free to create 3D CG content, with free technical and creative production means and free access to markets.” My theory is that Blender’s corporate supporters are most concerned with this access to markets. The global film, tv, and video game industry runs in multi-billions, and while large-scale films and video game (AAA) titles are not going away, there is a huge market for mid-small-scale productions. Where an indie studio or a freelance creator might be unable to fork out thousands of dollars for 3D software, they could still deliver industry-standard work through Blender. The creator economy continues growing and morphing daily, and so does its value. Epic Games, for one, has continued acknowledging the importance of the creator economy through a series of investments and acquisitions. On March 2, 2022, Epic Games announced that it bought Bandcamp to develop an e-commerce-powered marketplace for creators. In July 2022, Meta announced Music Revenue Sharing, a new monetisation option for its Facebook platform designed to lure creators back to its ad ecosystem. In Adobe’s “Future of Creativity” study (August 2022), they estimated that:

  • More than 165 million creators joined the global creator economy in the last two years, with significant growth in the U.S. (+34 million new creators), Spain (+10 million), South Korea (+11 million) and Brazil (+73 million).
  • One in four people are contributing to online spaces, reshaping the future of work, social causes and mental health.
  • 17% of creators are business owners, while 39% aspire to become business owners one day.

Millennials represent 42% of the Creator Economy. By comparison, Gen Z represents 14%. What they both have in common is a lower purchasing power than generators before them. This is where open-source tools come in handy. Poor millennials or Gen A or Z’ers who are part of the creator economy can not afford tools that are paid for but will use those at their disposal to try to generate an income. Giant corporations will want to capitalise on this by ensuring that creators can keep contributing their work to their pipelines. Somehow, Blender finds itself in the midst of all this. This powerful combination allows Blender to operate in and benefit from the global capitalist system while remaining open source.