Startup Pricing Models: Free Forever, Freemium and Freedom To Pay

About This Blog

This site is for  entrepreneurs.  A full RSS feed to the articles is available.  Please subscribe so we know you're out there.  If you need more convincing, learn more about the site.



And, you can find me on Google+

Connect on Twitter

Get Articles By Email

Your email:


Blog Navigator

Navigate By : 
[Article Index]

Questions about startups?

If you have questions about startups, you can find me and a bunch of other startup fanatics on the free Q&A website:

Subscribe to Updates


30,000+ subscribers can't all be wrong.  Subscribe to the RSS feed.

Follow me on LinkedIn


Current Articles | RSS Feed RSS Feed

Startup Pricing Models: Free Forever, Freemium and Freedom To Pay


Of the articles I’ve written on this site, the one on giving your software away for free continues to be one of the most popular (currently ranked as #2 on the site).  In response to that article, I’ve received a number of comments.  Some highly insightful, some a little misguided and some a result from what is likely misunderstanding.

I’d like to take one more crack at this whole “free vs. not free” aspect of software pricing for startups.

Free vs. Not So Free For Software Startups
  1. Free Forever:  This would probably better labeled as “subsidized”.  Basically, instead of charging anything directly to the customer for your software, you’re generally charging someone else.  The best and most obvious example is advertising.  The second, and significantly more subtle example is when you are actually charging your future acquirer for your software.  In this latter model, you amass users, let them use your software (and likely your bandwidth, storage, etc.) in the hopes that somebody will acquire you and pay for those users some day.  I’ve already beaten to death, in prior articles that advertising revenues are sketchy at best except for the biggest players – and even then, the predictability of this revenue stream is suspect.  And, if you’re expecting your future acquirer to ultimately pay, then that’s risky too.  Have already written a lot about this, not going to repeat it here.

  1. Free To Use, Pay For Service:  This is a common practice with some of they hybrid open source companies out there.  Basically, the product is given away for free and the customers are charged for training, customization or other value-added services.  I don’t have anything against this model.  But, profit margins are usually lower because it’s essentially a service business instead of a product business.

  1. Freemium:  I think Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures originally coined this term,  and it’s useful (much more than “Web 2.0”).  With this model, you basically give away a free (as in beer) version of your product with the hopes of upgrading some number of these free users to your “premium” version for which you charge something.  The idea here is that the cost you incur for supporting the free users is a marketing cost, much like other marketing costs.  And, much like other marketing costs, this is ultimately borne by your paying customers.  So, in a way, your paying customers in the freemium model are subsidizing your free customers.  But, customers pay for your advertising and other distribution costs anyway (it’s embedded in their price), so there’s nothing really new here.  Note once again, this is a marketing path, and that your real (as in paying) customers fall into the following category.

  1. Freedom To Pay:  This is the classic “customers pay for value” model.  I’m turning this around a wee bit and suggesting that with this model, customers have the freedom to pay.  Why, you may ask, am I positioning paying money as a benefit to customers?  Don’t customers want free?  The answer is, not always.  By giving customers an opportunity to pay, you are also giving them the freedom to expect some value from you.  Though customer expectations can (and do) exist for “free forever” products, it’s rarely the same as that for a paid product.    If you doubt this, try extracting a meaningful “service level agreement” (or for that matter, any agreement) out of a company giving you software for free.  In the cases I’ve seen, the companies are expecting something from you (like waiving their liability) and not the other way around.

Google API Example:  One (somewhat unrelated) example is the Google API.  There are likely better examples, but I’m being burned by this one as we speak, so it’s on my mind.  Google provides an API that developers can use to access Google services (such as search) through a programmatic interface.  This is cool.  Access to the API is free.  That’s cool too.  What is decidedly not cool is that there is an upper limit to the number of queries I can do in a day with my Google account (it happens to be 1,000 right now) and I have no way to increase this limit.  To be clear:  Google will not accept my money in order to increase the number from 1,000 queries to 10,000 (or 100,000) queries.  Basically, I don’t have the freedom to pay.  In this case, I’m clearly not a customer at all, I’m a beneficiary.  In some cases, this is fine.  In many cases, it’s not.  I’ll bet there are a number of customers that would like to have the freedom to pay in exchange for the ability to expect value.  On a related note, the Google API is still in “beta” so not only do I not have the freedom to pay, I don’t have the freedom to even know if I’ll ever have the freedom to pay as Google won’t talk about pricing (if there will be any) at all.

A few additional notes:
  1. If you’re playing the “freemium” game, you need to look at this for what it is:  a marketing expense.  If it takes 100 free users to get 1 paying customer, you may have a problem (because the 100 free users are costing you something, and that’s contributing to the acquisition cost of the customer you got).  My guess is that conversation rates vary widely, but let’s use 1% because it makes the math easy.  If it costs you about $2/year to support a customer, that means you have $200/expenses for your 100 free customers that it took to get you one paying customer.  Maybe, with your pricing, this makes sense. Maybe it doesn’t.

  1. I have nothing against free trials of software products.  I think this is a great idea (and almost a market requirement these days).  

  1. There’s no such thing as a “zero cost” user – even in software.  Though hardware, bandwidth and storage are cheap (and getting cheaper), the costs are still greater than zero – and since there are atoms involved, and not just bits, they likely will never quite be zero.  [Author’s note:  I use the term “atoms” to loosely refer to physical things like computers and infrastructure.]  So, if you have 100,000 free users, they’re still not free of cost – just possibly free of revenue.

  1. Please spare me examples like MySpace, Facebook and others.  Companies in the “social networking” space are basically in a race for critical mass.  Some will make it to the finish line, most won’t.  If you want to run in this race, more power to you.  May the wind be in your sails…

Summary Of My Point:  Don’t confuse marketing models with business models.  The former helps you get visibility for your product, the latter defines how you will actually make money.  Too many startups try to pass off marketing models as business models.  Also, make sure you think through what your customers likely want (you know, customers, those people that give you cash).

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, May 15, 2006


Why not simply have the users pay for a product?
What's wrong with that?

posted on Monday, May 15, 2006 at 11:40 AM by

Nothing wrong with having customers pay - that's the point. The problem is they have to be willing to pay before they will. What makes them willing to pay is marketing and/or sales.

One way to do that, has traditionally been to give something away for free. With the dot.con boom a few years ago, financiers seemed to think getting a large number of people to accept your free offer was the definition of success. Dharmesh is just warning others not to fall into that trap.

posted on Monday, May 15, 2006 at 12:02 PM by John Seiffer - Business Coach

An other problem with paying for a product, that the cost of duplicating that product might be zero or close to zero, as it is the case with software. In this case it is just silly to expect users to pay for each copy of the product, when they can create those copies themselves for free. Trying to force rules upon users that restrict the usage of the product, and criminalize them if they do otherwise, is not the solution .

This idea has been of course explored in more detail in other places :)

posted on Monday, May 15, 2006 at 2:17 PM by steve_balogh

By your articles you make me think about a business model. Most pessimistic thinking is good for a startup.

Also I think the limit Google have put for their API usage is to make sure users dont use the API for commercial purposes. They are not into that business. A thousand seems to be enough for a single user, not sufficient for a website.

posted on Monday, May 15, 2006 at 11:46 PM by Amit

Hello am Daniella Coney, from Ghana and owns a football club and i want an investor to come and invest in my football club. if you are intrested i will be very glad to hear from you.

posted on Wednesday, January 10, 2007 at 10:53 PM by Daniella Coney

Daniella Coney - I would love to invest in your club. How do you want the money sent? I can send you 2 quarters, or 5 dimes, or .... Thanks for the article. I like the point about "It's OK to charge for your product". I was in a meeting once with a possible business partner when he said "Our customers want us to make money so that we stay in business and keep providing them with the services they need". That hit the head on the nail.

posted on Monday, March 26, 2007 at 2:43 PM by Glenn

thank you

posted on Saturday, December 08, 2007 at 1:20 AM by katkot

I guess one's pricing model is included in one's business plan, though choosing the right one for your startup can be haz-hazardous. We're currently in that situation now so this, and your other articles are a fantastic read, so thank you.

posted on Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 4:57 PM by Bethemiddleman

Hi, I am interested in developing a business in the area of speciality soaps and creams. Can you walk me through the Business Model and Marketing Model. Thanks

posted on Saturday, May 16, 2009 at 7:02 AM by Karen Ramroopsingh

We sell retail POS software. We tried charging $30 per copy, but now give a lite version of the software away for free. We then charge monthly fees, plus transactions charges for users needing credit card / check processing, transactions over 50 per day or 300 per month. 
We also place ads on customer sales slips. 
It works well for us. Converison is around 12%. Our JV partners also experience excellent results. We print over 5 million ads per month. 
We are angel funded, having received over $250K to date. 
We operate <a href = "">, <a href = "">, <a href = "">, <a href = "">, and <a href = ""> 

posted on Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 4:27 PM by Tom Psillas

Comments have been closed for this article.