Marc Benioff is doing the right thing. Every founder should take note.

2 min read

Marc Benioff, the CEO at Salesforce, is cancelling all programs in Indiana:

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff says he doesn’t want his employees subjected to discrimination as part of their work for the San Francisco-based company, and he is cancelling all required travel to the state of Indiana following the signing of a religious freedom law that some say allows business to exclude gay customers.

As CNN reports, the bill is extremely regressive:

On his website, Miller highlighted examples of the law's effect: Christian bakers, florists and photographers won't have to participate in "homosexual marriage," he wrote, while Christian businesses won't be punished for "refusing to allow a man to use the women's restroom."

It's a law for bigots and shouldn't be protected by any claims of freedom of religion (just as racism isn't).

There's always pressure as a company founder to not reveal your political values, but I believe this case is clear, and taking a stand against it is the right thing to do. The technology industry is often too apolitical in cases where it could make a difference. I'm glad that Benioff is taking a stand and bringing Salesforce with him; I hope the industry follows suit. More than that, I hope more founders feel that it is safe for them to publicly declare their values, and follow them up with action.

 

Facebook wants to own our news and communications. Here's why it has to fail.

2 min read

TV News

Earlier this week, it emerged that Facebook was in talks to host the content from publications like the New York Times, Buzzfeed and National Geographic. Today, it "opened up" their Messenger app into a platform that can be incorporated into a host of other apps and services, as well as a raft of other new features around identity and communications.

As a society, we tend to raise a skeptical eyebrow at nations with state-controlled media. But a world where one major entity controls the distribution of news, not just nationally but internationally, is arguably more harmful. I don't believe that Facebook as a company has nefarious intent here, but the precedent is worrying. News and information are important to democracy; informed voters are better voters. The implications of a single algorithm controlling how a population gets its news goes far beyond a web company trying to increase its market share.

Even if you don't buy that argument, Facebook's history with censorship should give any news outlet pause for thought. And that's the real danger: if someone other than you is hosting your content, can you trust them to treat it responsibly?

Brands looking to incorporate Facebook Messenger should have similar worries. It's a seamless-looking platform, but what if Facebook changes the rules, or changes its features, somewhere down the line? What if they choose to monetize the conversations you have with your customers?

Brands and news outlets need more audience. In that light, it makes sense to put your money behind the largest social networking platform on the planet, at least on the face of it. But the web remains the largest content network that is, with no single gatekeeper controlling how you use it. For identity, nothing beats a well-made website. For chat, services like XMPP carry zero business risk, and are easier to integrate than you'd think.

For startups, the opportunity is to provide open solutions that let media companies have all the sharing and integration benefits of the Facebook News Feed, Facebook Profiles and Facebook Messenger, without any of the concerns, and without any of the business uncertainty.

The web stopped being a game some time ago. It's not about whether this web toy or that web toy will win; it's about how we learn about the world, how we talk to each other, and how we represent ourselves to each other.

 

Some thoughts on building a high-growth startup with an open source product

10 min read

Known is my second open source startup. I've spent over a decade working with free and open source software, and have been producing it in a startup context for most of that time. I've had a lot of time to think about the realities of doing this.

I believe that free and open source software is important for both social and technical reasons. In this post, I'd like to explore the implications for running an end-user open source software project from a startup business perspective.

What is free and open source software?

First, let's back up a second and talk about "free software". This was defined by Richard Stallman as giving you the following four freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Note that "free" refers to "freedom", and doesn't necessarily mean "free of cost". However, this is not immediately obvious to newcomers. "Open source", in contrast, is purely a development methodology rather than a social movement. Because of that, and because the wording is unambiguous, I prefer to use this term. There's a lot of disagreement on this, and my preference shouldn't be construed as me prescribing this for other people.

Why is free and open source software desirable?

Free and open source infrastructure software - things like Linux, the Apache Web Server, OpenSSL and so on - have allowed for highly functional server stacks that aren't limited to a single vendor. Here's a slightly unfair way of looking at it: while Windows Server and similar products are Lunchables, where the whole stack is made by the same group of people, Linux is a picnic, with lots of individual ingredients provided by different organizations that add up to a richer whole. Each ingredient does one thing really well; the jam is really good jam, the cheese is awesome cheese. And because everyone gets the list of ingredients for each item in the picnic, you know that the jam and the cheese don't contain any nasty surprises. With the Lunchables, not so much.

Maybe my analogy needs work. But while free and open source software is particularly suitable for infrastructure software, it has broad implications for end-user software, too.

By end-user software, I mean products that non-technical people will use directly. WordPress is probably the best example: 23% of the web is made up of WordPress sites. Elgg, the social networking platform I founded, is another. Ghost is another, more recent example. And finally, Piwik, the self-hosted web analytics library, is one more.

What if I told you that only one of those projects was a traditional tech startup? And it's probably not the one you're thinking of.

The structure of open source startups

A common misconception is that Automattic, the company founded by WordPress cofounder Matt Mullenweg, is also the company behind WordPress. It's not. WordPress is a non-profit foundation, while Automattic provides the hosted WordPress.com service, as well as anti-spam tools, analytics and other centralized functionality.

Ghost, which was founded by an ex-Automattic employee, is also a not-for-profit organization. John O'Nolan explained his rationale for this in a blog post, where he clearly backs the social movement side of free and open source software:

The point of Open Source is to promote furthering technology for the entire world by not locking down software with patents and charging millions for them. The point of Open Source is that shared technology is better than closed technology because it has so many more people working on it. The point of Open Source is that the software you create benefits not just yourself, but many others - and in return you receive the same.

[...] I wanted to make it completely clear that Ghost is about making great software. I own 0% of the company. Hannah owns 0% of the company. According to our legal documents of incorporation, neither of us can pay ourselves enormous tax-free dividends. Just normal, taxable salaries.

Elgg, the open source social networking platform I cofounded, is also now a non-profit foundation.

Piwik, meanwhile, is a startup, albeit one that was founded significantly later than the project. They're a distributed company, with headquarters in New Zealand and Poland.

Why end-user projects are different to infrastructure projects

Over 80% of Linux kernel patches are written by corporations that use Linux, either as part of the infrastructure that serves their products (e.g. at companies like IBM), or as part of Linux-based end-user projects like embedded devices and Android phones.

By definition, end-user projects are the product, rather than a building block that becomes part of the product. There are far fewer levels of stakeholders downstream from the project to contribute to it, both monetarily and in terms of code patches.

This, however, is not to say that there are far fewer stakeholders overall. For example, there are plenty of people who use WordPress - it powers 23% of the web, remember? There are hosting service providers, web shops, and consumer users who depend on the software. This may represent a less technically-savvy base of people, but it may also be greater in terms of raw numbers.

Creating a self-sustaining project clearly demands a different strategy - particularly if the open source project is going to serve as the core of a startup.

What startups need

Startups need to be more than self-sustaining: their engine is scalable revenue.

In other words, revenue for a startup needs to have several properties:

  • It needs to be recurring
  • It needs to be able to grow non-linearly with the team (in other words, revenue isn't tightly bound to team size)
  • It needs to be subject to experimentation (the startup needs to have freedom to run experiments around pricing, features, angle, and virtually every aspect of their business)

Where is the intersection between this and the four freedoms we discussed at the beginning? That's where an open source startup needs to operate.

Services

One of the first things you learn as a startup founder is that professional services should be avoided, because they're not recurring, and they're not scalable. By professional services in this context I mean customizations, consultancy contracts and so on. They're clearly tightly bound to the size of your team. It can be interesting to offer these services in the beginning in order to learn more about your market, but you need to be careful, because it will stunt your ability to grow quickly.

This isn't to say that it will completely stunt your ability to grow. After all, professional services are the classic open source business model: offer consultancy and support. It's essentially what Red Hat has made its billions on (at the time of writing its market capitalization is $12.77B). But it flies in the face of the startup model where you build something that will rapidly expand.

So let's look at Automattic, which was valued at $1.16B after a round of funding last year. How have they grown?

While Automattic isn't directly responsible for the WordPress open source project, it is directly responsible for the WordPress.com hosted version. The bulk of its revenue comes from premium subscriptions. It does also provide a professional services "VIP" offering for high-value customers. To augment its income, it created an advertising network, and the company was actually founded to provide anti-spam services.

It's a smart mix: a lot of people don't have the expertise or resources to maintain code on their own servers (by way of example, around 10% of Known sites are self-hosted, while the other 90% are on our service). But even if they do, they can certainly use the Akismet anti-spam service, and because Automattic employs many members of the core WordPress team, high-value customers like the New York Times can use their expertise to get the best possible performance out of the platform. Perhaps most importantly, running a service allows platform developers to more quickly learn from its users.

By providing services to self-hosters, Automattic avoids a common pitfall with open source startups, where the most engaged users - the people who really, really care about running the project, and the principles behind it - are the ones who bypass the company entirely. The freedom of the WordPress open source project is not compromised, and all of the services are additive to the overall WordPress ecosystem. Anything that helps WordPress helps the company, and vice versa.

While Ghost is a non-profit, it provides similar services to WordPress.com. Similarly, Piwik Pro is a hosting service for Piwik. And, of course, WithKnown.com is a hosted platform for our open source Known software. (You should try it!)

Free as in free

While the principles of freedom that underly free and open source software are strong and important, it's also fair to say that many people choose it because it's cheaper. Freedom from lock-in also implies a freedom from recurring license costs. WordPress is arguably so popular today because its competitor, Moveable Type, decided to impose a licensing charge a decade ago, prompting a mass exodus.

It's hard to charge for end-user software, whether it's open source or not. Non-free platforms tend to get away with this by running advertising - and in fact, even WordPress.com runs ads on free sites for non-logged-in site visitors. A lot of open source campaigners are also pro-privacy, and don't believe in the invasive tracking that modern targeted advertising typically uses. Yet, at the same time, they often won't pay to use a platform, which obviously leaves the startup in an interesting bind.

Of course, if a platform is free and open source, you have a choice of where to run it. WordPress.com isn't the only place where you can get a hosted WordPress blog, so if you don't like their advertising policies, you don't have to use them. It could be argued that choice gives Automattic an ethical get-out clause: if you don't want advertising, go ahead and host your blog elsewhere or pay a subscription fee. When we ran a customer survey a few weeks ago, a fair proportion wanted us to run ads on the platform. So far, we have chosen not to do this.

Free software is a social movement, which is sometimes seen as being in line with anti-capitalist movements. If you have chosen to run a startup, you are probably a capitalist: you've chosen the route of revenue growth and creating business value. I believe that this is compatible with having strong social values (which I believe I do), but many people disagree. Ultimately, as a founder, you have to accept that you won't be able please everybody, and you have to be able to pay the people who work for you. Luckily, with open source software, everyone who runs the platform has a choice about who to run it with.

There is power in a movement

I do think that making your software open source gives your users more control and power, while allowing you to build a high value, scaleable business. It also more easily allows you to create an ecosystem around your software, allowing other people and companies to make money out of it too (potentially leading to even stronger growth). The trick is being aware of what open source entails, and what the implications are for your business, but you can absolutely build a high-growth, ethical business. We're on our way.

 

Venture capital isn't evil.

3 min read

I enjoyed this episode of This Week in Startups with USV's Fred Wilson. It's a fairly candid conversation from this year's Launch Festival, and Fred comes across as having both integrity and a very practical approach to investing in startups.

The story that jumps out at me is that of Tumblr's acquisition by Yahoo!. There are two important details: the first is that Tumblr's initial investment round was less than a million dollars. The second is Fred's disclosure that the acquisition happened at a time when Tumblr had spent a lot of money on growth, and would have to either raise a huge round to make up the shortfall, significantly diluting the existing shareholders in the process, or raise unrealistic amounts of revenue. So selling to Yahoo! for $1.1 billion made sense for them.

There has been a great deal of backlash against venture capital in data ownership circles over the last year. Certainly, VC money gravitates towards a certain kind of company strategy, where designing for extremely rapid growth is a hallmark, and a profitable exit - either to IPO or acquisition - is desired. Rapid, sustainable growth is very difficult to achieve without a budget. It also overwhelmingly leads to strategies like revenue through advertising, where user growth isn't hampered by having to pay to use a service. Advertising is often criticized for requiring people to give up some personal privacy so that advertisements can be more targeted, and therefore more valuable to the service.

I think it's worth considering that services like Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook have also connected us and become a part of the cultural landscape in ways that wouldn't have been possible if people had needed to pay for them. Assuming that everyone should pay for a service is not realistic if you want to build a global community. Again, a resource-strapped startup is also more likely to see slower growth than one with millions of dollars in the bank: their box of tricks is necessarily more limited.

If you're opposed to this kind of financing, it's worth asking: would you pay for Tumblr, or Twitter, or Facebook? If not, why not? How many services do you actually pay for?

Venture capital isn't the only way. Notably, O'Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures created Indie.vc in order to explore a more revenue-centric funding model (and I hope more will follow). But I do think VC is a legitimate funding tactic for a particular kind of highly-available, free-to-use mass-market tool, and it seems to me that whether it has a detrimental effect on a startup's service has more to do with the individuals at the startup, and the personalities of the VC investors they choose, than the model as a whole.

 

Why the secure web isn't ready for primetime (but we need to use it anyway)

6 min read

Keys.

In today's climate, it's important that we secure communications with our servers. For example, if you're on open wifi (at a coffee shop, for example, or at a conference), it's trivial to steal the unsecured logins of the people around you. Using secured connections also helps protect against people monitoring your communications further up the chain, at an infrastructure level. In the era of the Snowden revelations, protecting your privacy is an obviously good idea - but there is also an immediate practical value in preventing people from stealing your passwords and credit card details, too. Security is so important that Google recently said that they would rank secure sites higher in their index.

But it's so hard to implement that today, most peoples' websites are nowhere near secure - and it's the technology's fault.

First, let's talk about secure websites work.

Here's a summary version.

When you visit a secure website, your browser and the site's web server discuss which secure encryption protocols and algorithms they both support. The server also sends your browser a security certificate, which contains the website address, as well as details about a central certificate signing authority that can verify that the certificate is authentic. The certificate is cryptographically signed by the digital signing authority. Every browser comes with the cryptographic keys of all the major certificate signing authorities, which it uses to verify the certificate's authenticity. Only once the secure protocols have been chosen and the certificate is verified as being both authentic and for this website does the page load.

Even the summary is kind of technical, so if your eyes glazed over, just take away these two things:

  1. Secure websites are only accessible if they have been certified by one of a handful of central organizations, and the certificates contain the address of the website they pertain to.
  2. There are lots of different algorithms that can be used to secure the traffic between your web browser and the website, and some of them are more secure than others.

So how do I secure my website?

Let's back up a little bit. Here's how a lot of people create their websites:

  1. Sign up with WordPress.com or Squarespace (or Known Pro, of course!)
  2. Pay for a custom domain name

If they've chosen to self-host, here's how most individuals create their websites:

  1. Sign up for a shared host like Dreamhost or Fasthosts
  2. Click on their server control panel to install WordPress or Known

I mean, it could be easier, but it's short of being an ordeal, right?

Meanwhile, here's what you have to do if you want to install a secure certificate to make sure your self-hosted website uses encrypted connections:

  1. Log into your server using an SSH terminal
  2. On the command line, create a certificate signing request by following the command-line instructions for your particular web server
  3. Specify a cryptographic key of appropriate length (don't know what that is? too bad)
  4. Enter your address details on the command line
  5. Open the certificate signing request file
  6. Copy and paste the contents
  7. Go to a certificate authority website
  8. Click to buy a certificate for your domain
  9. Paste your certificate signing request
  10. Download the certificate and what are called the certificate chain files, which describe to the browser how to validate the certificate
  11. Install them on your server, probably using command line tools
  12. Make sure your server is set to use strong encryption algorithms in its configuration files
  13. Check your website's security score to see how well you did

To be fair, some hosts, like DreamHost, take care of many of these steps for you. But it's still not easy.

And as far as using SSL on custom domains on managed services like WordPress.com and SquareSpace? Here's the truth: you can't.

Why SSL is hard for custom domains on managed services

Remember when I said that the certificates were issued for a domain? Multi-domain certificates can also be bought, but in all cases, the domains have to be specified at the point when you buy the certificate. If you already know you have 50 domains that you want to secure, then that's great - but if you're providing a service where you know you want to secure domains you will host in the future, you're stuck. You would need to request and buy a new certificate for every new domain, or do it in batches.

Because each certificate needs to be separately requested and installed, this is a hard process to automate. To make matters worse, most virtualized server environments - for example, Amazon Elastic Beanstalk - only support one SSL certificate per instance. That means you've literally got to set up a new clone of an application environment every time you want to support a new SSL domain.

That's unsustainable, and because most services like WordPress.com and SquareSpace use these kinds of virtualized environments so they can add and remove servers to cope with changing demand, they have trouble supporting secure websites for their custom domain users.

We need security, so it needs to be easier to deploy

Security is vital. A clue that it isn't easy enough are those website security scores: a letter grade for your website that describes how secure it is. I've seen engineers ooh and aah at sites that managed an A+ grade.

If we want everyone to use this kind of security, it needs to be totally brainless. Trusted encryption needs to be there by default in every web server and adding new domains programmatically needs to be simple.

The certificates are also difficult because they are trusted by central authorities - which themselves need to be trusted. Not only is the secure web cumbersome to maintain, it's actually potentially insecure. We have certificates to prevent against man in the middle attacks, but maybe there's an alternative? Could the blockchain help, for example?

There's no dispute that you should secure your site, and you should strive to use secure sites. But it's difficult. You'll note that at the time of writing, I haven't secured my own site yet (although the Known service does use secure connections). I don't think the existing technology is cutting it, and to protect all of our security, we need to find something new.

 

Homogeneity is for wimps. Let's all be ourselves.

5 min read

"The thing about alternative people," a coworker once said to me, many jobs ago, "is that they act like the mainstream isn't good enough for them. It's like they're saying they're better than us." He was talking about a receptionist at our office, who was kind of off-kilter, but not at all unprofessional. He didn't like her.

I think about this conversation a lot.

I like "alternative people". With all due respect to everyone else, they're my favorites. For me, the people who are off at an angle to the rest of the world are the most interesting. People who think differently and see things differently are more likely to arrive at solutions and ideas that everyone else can't. They're opinionated. They make more interesting art. They're better engineers. They find new ways to live. They don't give a shit about fashion or traditional success, or whether challenging the status quo is offensive. They are, by definition, more creative, because they're not following the herd.

I look up to them. For one thing, I do kind of think that mainstream culture isn't good enough. It shouldn't be good enough for any of us. Traditional ideas around things like gender roles and sexuality have a potent power to oppress; correspondingly, choosing not to adhere to them, or to give them respect solely for being incumbent, is a kind of empowerment.

As Winnie Lim wrote in a wonderful piece recently:

It takes courage to be ourselves, it takes a lot of hard work and self-awareness. But we are continually building a world that other people live in, that means at every step of the road, we need to continually ask ourselves, what kind of world do we want our kids to live in? Do we want a world where they have to disown their beautiful personalities just to fit in our idea of what it takes to succeed? That it is celebrated that we spend our formative years disowning who we are?

The thing that bugged me most of all about my colleague's comment is that we are all "alternative people". at least to some extent, with individual desires, histories, interests, skills and contexts, which bind together to help us become who we are. Our lives are unique tapestries woven from those threads. For everything we have in common as humans, there is so much variation between us, too, and I don't think there should ever be pressure to present as "normal". None of us are normal; we all reveal our true selves to different degrees. That's awesome.

People are amazing. The only reason to try and homogenize them is so you can dehumanize them: make neat little demographic groups that allow you to sell to them, or count them, or process them, or some combination of all three. It's an abstracted model of the world for marketing purposes, and it shouldn't be how we interact with each other in real life.

Facebook is, in many ways, like my old coworker. By insisting on legal names, they are saying that we all should present ourselves using one set of rules, regarless of our desires and contexts. What's good enough for upper middle class white kids from Palo Alto, the thinking goes, should be good enough for everyone else. The same goes for the kinds of content you can post, or how you want your profile to look.

But look: if you want the page that represents you to the world to spin around and have pink sparkles with a Carly Rae Jepson song that autoplays on load, why shouldn't you have that? It's your profile. Here's a hint: your social profile design is optimized for advertising and site engagement, not your own self-representation. Here's a follow-on question: why can't you post breastfeeding photos on Facebook? Could it be that advertisers object?

The world is much richer than the things that sell ads, but this isn't just a post about why an independent web is a good idea (although it is).

I'm lucky to have friends who very much are themselves, and who believe in diversity and not just tolerance, but proactive kindness. I'm lucky that I was raised by people who shun traditional norms and have spent their lives thinking about better, fairer ways to live. Collectively, they're my role models and my inspirations. And more than anything, I hate the idea that it might be acceptable to judge someone who - like so many of the people that I love - has chosen to present themselves as different to you.

Being different is, in my world, something to be celebrated. Cherished, even. It's what makes us human. Correspondingly, to force someone to deny their identity is to deny them a piece of their humanity. As entrepreneurs, as citizens, engineers, designers, businesspeople, whatever we are - let's maybe try not to do that.

 

Why I'm excited about Known Pro (and what's next for us)

2 min read

We launched Known Pro today. It's the best way to reach your audience, wherever they are on the web, from a single platform. It's also the culmination of a lot of work over the last few months.

We made an important decision, back in November: we were going to test whether a premium version of our service was viable. Traditionally, one of the ways this is done is through crowdfunding, but we decided we would put another twist on it. We would run a pre-sale, and we'd only collect money once the product was ready to roll out.

Earlier this year, we rolled Known Pro out to our pre-sale customers. They've helped us learn, given us great feedback, and enabled the product to be fully released. This morning, we pushed the button.

You can publish to an unlimited number of social profiles and pages from a single platform. You can use your own JavaScript and CSS to customize your site. You can publish from any device. And most importantly of all, you can export your data, self-host the entire platform on your own server, and be - in the Internet sense - the master of your own domain. In particular, I'm not aware of another web service that will give you a full database export of your content in a way that you can use directly on your own server.

So what's next?

There are more people signing up to the free Known service, and creating their own self-hosted sites, than ever before. For an open source project that emerged from the indieweb community not long ago, it's exciting to be in a place with recurring revenue, excitement, and an awesome community of its own. We're strong participants in the indieweb community, but we're also exploring other places where people need to own their own data: in particular, groups who need a truly private place to share resources. More on that soon.

We'll be working on a new design for the Known platform. We'll also be looking at other ways that individuals need to interact with content that they publish elsewhere on the web. And mostly, we'll be working on our mission to make Known the best place to communicate from your own space on the Internet.

Check out Known Pro. Let us know what you think. And stick with us: we're really just getting started.

 

Some unpopular opinions about the Bay Area tech industry

2 min read

Large tech companies like Google and Facebook should be aware of the effect they're having on their cities and neighboring communities and invest in social infrastructure to protect against poverty and create healthier cities.

A single-payer healthcare system would not only be more efficient, but would support startups and other small entrepreneurs.

Equalizing maternity and paternity leave, and making both substantial, would also help equalize working environments.

That there is an enormous homeless problem in San Francisco isn't a good reason to not live there. It is a great reason to try and solve the causes of the problem, so we can all have better lives in our communities.

If you're going to promote standardized, computerized testing in public schools, maybe also think about promoting increased resources to support teachers, who are stretched to breaking point, and modernize facilities.

Smart freeways are a good idea, but smarter, integrated public transport is a better one.

Startups are great, but not everything should be a startup. Some things should be services that government provides, and we should pressure them to do so. Privatizing public services is not a positive thing.

Libraries will never stop being important, and they deserve our tax dollars.

The State of California should work with private industry to make museum entry free, every day (although it would be better if this was fully publicly funded).

We should understand that we are all connected, and enriching our communities enriches us, too.

 

I have the best job in the world.

3 min read

I'm incredibly proud of what we've accomplished at Known so far.

We're one of the few social web apps where you can use our cloud service or host it yourself - or move at any time, in either direction.

We have an active and growing open source community.

More and more university educators are using Known as part of their teaching, and we're seeing more people pick it up for use inside companies, too. It turns out there are lot of organizations that need to own their own data, but want to have the kind of user experience you find on the consumer web.

I use it for my personal website, as a private site for my extended family to share news and photos, and as an official company space.

I post content on my own site, and syndicate to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Flickr, SoundCloud and Slack. Via brid.gy, all my interactions across all my social profiles are stored on my own site. But more and more, even without those things, it's become an important space for me in its own right. I can search for everything I've ever written on the web; I can talk to my family in a private space that belongs to us; I can promote my company across the web with a push of a button.

I use it dozens of times a day, and lots of other people do, too. That's really neat. I'm grateful for our amazing community, and for the people who have taken interest in what we're building. Many of them have become our friends.

We're going to make some product announcements this week, which we'll do on the Known Stream. Mostly, I wanted to express gratitude for what I get to do every day. But we're still a small company, and there is so much more we plan to do.

Whether you're an individual, a class, an organization or a company, we want Known to be the best way to communicate from your own space on the Internet.

We believe everyone should own their own space on the Internet. The web should be all of ours. We should all own our content and conversations online, and the software that makes it happen should be beautiful and easy to use.

It's a mission I personally believe in, and I'm grateful to work on it. Thanks for being a part of it so far - now wait and see where we'll take it next.

 

Homebrew Website Club: March 11, 2015

Discuss progress; meet up; make new friends.

Location: The Creamery, 685 4th St, San Francisco

Time:

Ends:

Are you building your own website? Indie reader? Personal publishing web app? Or some other digital magic-cloud proxy? If so, come on by and join a gathering of people with like-minded interests. Bring your friends that want to start a personal web site. Exchange information, swap ideas, talk shop, help work on a project ...

See the Homebrew Website Club Newsletter Volume 1 Issue 1 for a description of the first meeting.

Originally posted on indiewebcamp.com.

Here's the Facebook event, if you prefer.

 

6 honest reflections on being an early-stage startup founder

12 min read

I previously co-founded Elgg and served as CTO at latakoo, but Known is the first time I've been a CEO. Candid reflections have always been important to me to learn from; maybe someone will find these useful, too. If not, then, well, my first point applies:

Writing is an important way to organize your thoughts.

In many ways, as a founder, your job is to be the company storyteller, the company cheerleader, and the person who will fix the sink if the plumbing breaks. There are so many strands that I've found writing - and in particular, blogging - to be a great way to order them into a coherent narrative. A lot of times, when I post here on my own site, I'm thinking things out in public. You're all a part of my thought process. Congratulations?

This is one reason why I'm adamant that you should hire people who can write well. I don't mean their spelling or punctuation, particularly; I'm talking about their ability to convey information. That also speaks to the kind of order they will bring to other tasks. It's a core skill.

Related to this:

The elevator pitch is more important than I thought it would be.

We were part of the third class at Matter, an awesome values-based accelerator in downtown San Francisco. Throughout, we were encouraged to condense our story into a seven-minute pitch. The pitch itself wasn't the thing; the process forced us to create a coherent story for our company, mostly for ourselves, which would itself inform our company's decisions. Who would buy this? What was the concrete problem we were trying to solve?

It's harder than you think to condense this into seven minutes. We live and breathe our startups - how can we cut and edit that down to a seven minute story? Help! we all thought to ourselves, while nibbling slack-jawed at our accelerator's complementary snacks. We need more time!

If only we'd known.

Seven minutes is an acre of time. It's a boundless ocean stretching out to the horizon, rippling gently beneath a benevolent sun. You can fit lifetimes in seven minutes. And in front of a captive demo day audience, to boot!

No no, my optimistic, accelerator-cheese-string-eating past self. You have got it very wrong. Try fifteen seconds.

"What is Known?", someone will ask. Ignore the existential double meaning of the question, because you have about fifteen seconds to convince the person in front of you that your idea is compelling and different. If you succeed, they might ask you a follow-up question: something easy like "are you making money?" or "doesn't WordPress do that?". Be ready.

In fact, the existential double meaning does matter, because your answer, despite being tweet-sized, will depend on all the research and insights you've gathered, and everything you know. It's likely to radically change over time as your understanding of your business improves. Your fifteen second description is the tip of the iceberg, but it's a tip that encapsulates everything below the waterline.

Arguing with investors is a clear indicator that you have work to do. On yourself.

This is something I've avoided, but I've seen other founders do this more times than I can count.

Here's what happens. A startup founder takes a meeting or walks on-stage at a pitch event. They've brought a presentation that they've slaved over, had sleepless nights over, maybe even wept over in the darkness of their shared office space at 3am, and they are proud of it. It is, as far as they can tell through their sleepless haze, the perfect encapsulation of what they've worked on so tirelessly. It is beautiful. Were it journalism, it would surely win the Pulitzer.

And the investors tear it apart.

At least, to the entrepreneur, it feels like that. In reality, they're asking important due diligence questions: trying to pick holes in the story, and figuring out, within the constraints of the space and time they have, whether this startup is a smart place to put their money. They most often want to help the entrepreneur, by asking them to strengthen their argument. But it flies directly in the face of the founder's conviction, not to mention all of their single-minded hard work, and it hurts. So they misread the situation and become defensive. They might even get visibly angry. And that's where it all falls down.

An early-stage investor is like a cofounder (or at least, they should be). They probably have a lot more experience with young companies than the founder does, and can offer pertinent advice based on things they've learned from other companies. Who would want to work with someone who gets angry when presented with that experience?

It's okay to correct people, of course, but the right way to do it is with your facts, and all the great research you've done. Your faith means nada: all startup founders have faith that they'll succeed. You've got to show investors that you have the skills, the knowledge and - ideally - an unfair advantage.

Take care of yourself.

Here's what I have experienced personally: the crushing feeling of having your work swept out from under you by that investor experience. There's a tight line to walk. Investors really do have a lot of experience, and really do want to help you. Most of the people I've met are driven by helping entrepreneurs, so the advice they give comes from a good place. But at the same time, you have to stay true to yourself, too: sometimes you do need to take a leap of faith to create something new. Whether anyone comes with you is all on you.

That's hard. Running a startup comes with intense highs and lows, sometimes within the same 30 minute period. Often that 30 minute period will be late at night, or on a Sunday, or at 6am. By its nature, it's incredibly unhealthy, both mentally and physically.

When you're terrified about money, and worried about your own lack of sleep, and there's a strange new pain somewhere in your body and you're not sure when it started happening but it's probably stress-related but maybe it's something that will kill you, and people have started looking at you strangely on the street, it can be very hard to make stable, considered decisions. But that's what you have to do. You have to be calm, and you can't let criticism go to your heart.

Take time away from your startup. Go to the gym. Eat well (not string cheese). Consider drinking tea instead of coffee (you don't need higher cortisol levels). Enjoy the countryside. Go for walks. Be with your friends. Do what makes you happy. Above all: remember that it's a business, not your entire life, and any criticism or praise you receive is not a commentary on you as a person.

Those things will make you a better person, a better entrepreneur, and a better decision-maker.

And for god's sake, stop eating the string cheese.

Don't tilt at windmills.

Fail hella fast. Don't spend years on something that isn't going to succeed for you. You only get one life. If something isn't working after you've spent a reasonable amount of time and effort on it, move onto something that does. Don't get so emotionally invested that you can't let go. (This applies not just to startups as a whole, but to features, target customers, user flows, logos ... you name it. Repeat after me: this is business.)

A mantra that's commonly (rightly) repeated for startup founders is, "you are not Steve Jobs". In other words, you need to do user research and testing. You need to build prototypes to get feedback on, so you can make better decisions.

But, okay, time out. Here's a quick question which should be easy to answer with no thought at all: what is success?

Does success mean building a unicorn or a dragon? (That's startup-speak for a company worth at least $1bn, and a company that returns $1bn to a particular investor, respectively. Yes, I know it's ridiculous. Have you been here?)

Does success mean building the dreaded lifestyle business? (That's startup-speak for a company that allows its founders to live comfortably but will never be described in terms of mythical beasts.)

Does success mean making a positive impact on the world? (That's startup-speak for "won't get funded". I kid - these kinds of startups can also make a lot of money, and Matter, as well as Better Ventures, Double Bottom Line and a few other social impact investment firms are orientated to this. I'm glad they exist.)

It's actually really important that you know the answer to this. All of these approaches lead to different approaches and decisions, different ways of describing your company, and, frankly, different companies. If you have a cofounder (and you should), you should probably be on the same page on this. If one of you wants to build a unicorn filled with ninjas that morphs into a dragon, and one of you wants to build a lifestyle business with a focus on social impact, you will reach a point where it's not going to be pretty. Founder breakups are like marriage breakups. You don't want it to happen.

Above all else: know where the money is coming from.

A lot of people have been seduced by Twitter's strategy. Here's the in-a-nutshell version of what they did: they built a prototype in a couple of weeks, with the simplest possible features, and let it loose. Over time, the community created its own norms - things like replies, hashtags and retweets - and the company thought about those and figured out how to make them into features. For a few years they didn't even think about money. They concentrated on growing the company, and to do that they paved the deer paths. Lovely!

What's mentioned less often is that to make this happen, Ev Williams personally bought back the shares that had been invested in his company. That money had previously come from selling Blogger to Google. Unless you also have millions and millions of dollars, it is not a strategy that you can repeat. And even then, Twitter partially became successful through a series of smart decisions - putting screens up at SXSW, for example, which took money - and a series of accidents.

To "you are not Steve Jobs", I would like to add: "you are not Ev Williams".

The startup landscape has changed since the mid-2000s. It is expected that you will have built something with traction off your own back. Unless you're a unicorn developer (which in this case doesn't mean you're worth $1bn, but means you can build quickly, can design well and are good at gathering user feedback; stay with me) you will need to bring in other people. That means you're going to need to commit your own money, or be oozing with leadership charisma, or both.

Here's an aside, if you aren't a developer: you can't find a technical cofounder. Technical people get asked to join startups on a very regular basis, and it's become a bit of a running joke. Join a company that will eat your life and pay you very little money in exchange for a tiny amount of equity that amounts to a lottery ticket? "What a great deal!" said no-one, ever. If you want someone technical to join your team as a cofounder, you have to prove that you're worth joining. Most of all, you have to prove that you're not going to lean on them to make your whole product for you - and that means showing that you have skills to bring to the table. Show your research. Build wireframes. Maybe even learn to code a little. And demonstrate, however you can, that your technical cofounder will be an equal rather than - as I heard someone once describe their technical colleagues - "our back-room technicians".

Once you have your working prototype - which, to reiterate, you've built with your own skills and/or money - you're going to need to know where your runway is coming from. Are you going to try and make revenue immediately? Are you going to raise investment because you're creating a consumer startup? Either way, you don't have space to bimble along like Twitter did, finding itself along the way.

Are you going to grow with help from investment? Then make sure people will invest. Are you going to bootstrap through revenue? Then make sure people will actually pay.

There is never enough time. There is never enough money. Somehow, as a founder, you have to make both.

Bonus seventh: don't trust pithy thought pieces on entrepreneurship.

Experience is important to learn from, but seriously. You're your own person. You have your own experience, your own goals, your own creativity and your own special sauce that you're going to bring to the table. There are few communities that are as much about peer pressure, community norms and cargo cultish received wisdom than tech entrepreneurship. Through all of this, you need to maintain your own strong personalty - and the strong personality of your venture.

Let me be clear: this is the best job I've ever had, and I wouldn't change it for anything.

Go out into the world and succeed, whatever that means for you, however it makes sense for you. Make a dent in the universe.

And don't eat the string cheese.

 

W3C announces 1 in 20 sentences on the web will be advertising

2 min read

This week, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told the New York Times how he plans to continue to monetize his service:

Twitter’s core business of selling ads that are inserted into the flow of tweets that every user sees has plenty of room to grow, he said. The social network’s ideal model is for ads to make up about one in 20 tweets that the average user sees - the same level that Facebook strives for. "We're well below that now," he said.

The web, which has long been in competition with Facebook and Twitter, is racing to catch up. Analysts haven't been kind; last month, an editorial in Forbes sniped that "the web doesn't seem to be trying to raise its market cap at all". This has led Carl Icahn and others to question whether a new board is in order. In response, Tim Berners-Lee, CEO of the web, told reporters this week:

Starting this quarter, we're monetizing the web. Around 5% of the written sentences that users, or "surfers", see will be tasteful contextual advertising, which will add value and increase engagement. We've always been about linked data, and now we're linking it to a number of easy, convenient ways to pay to reach your audience.

The web will also introduce a new Pro version, launching this September, which will include several new tags, unlimited access to HTTP, and a "professionals mode".

 

For artists, if the Internet is not the answer, what is?

4 min read

Andrew Keen's new book The Internet is not the Answer takes a contrarian view to the digital revolution:

Instead, it has handed extraordinary power and wealth to a tiny handful of people, while simultaneously, for the rest of us, compounding and often aggravating existing inequalities – cultural, social and economic – whenever and wherever it has found them. Individually, it may work wonders for us. Collectively, it’s doing us no good at all. “It was supposed to be win-win,” Keen declares. “The network’s users were supposed to be its beneficiaries. But in a lot of ways, we are its victims.”

Andrew has forged a career from standing to the side of the Internet gold rush and saying, "wait a minute". This isn't a criticism; we need that voice, I think, to counterbalance the cheerleading role that the tech press typically fills. In particular, as the Guardian points out:

The US government’s decision, in 1991, to throw the nascent network open to private enterprise amounted, as one leading (and now eye-wateringly wealthy) Californian venture capitalist has put it, to “the largest creation of legal wealth in the history of the planet”.

Wealth in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. But what Keen seems to be suggesting is that this has actually in part been obtained by devaluing other peoples' jobs - it's not wealth creation, in the same sense that software is something created from nothing, but rather wealth redistribution. The jobs that were rendered obsolete have not been recreated; there is no employment equilibrium. In particular, the article and the book cite figures that show a significant downturn in jobs for creatives.

There's a tricky conversation to be had here. Some of those jobs were bolstered by models that should not continue to exist, while few of us would argue that we don't value art or creative work. New models must therefore be found to support artists. (Companies like my friends at the Creative Action Network are doing great work here.)

It's been pointed out to me more than once that the 20th century models for selling creative work were very temporary. After I posted recently that relying on donations wasn't a sustainable practice, my friend J. Nathan Matias also pointed out that nonprofit arts and cultural organizations have a higher survival rate than businesses in America (PDF link). Elsewhere, arts are often funded (I think rightly) from public money. I'm not sure how much of this funding goes into creative work online, but anecdotally, I'd love to see more.

Artists themselves need more freedom to experiment online. The first years of the web were highly experimental, and many of the first startups could be thought of as art projects. However, over the last few years we've seen this slip away, to be replaced with projects that are either obvious land grabs (Uber, Spotify, food delivery apps and laundry startups, for example) or have settled into homogenizing advertising display funnels (Facebook). It's worth saying that some of the best startups, like Slack, have avoided this pattern, and retained a sense of whimsical experimentation. Meanwhile, projects like CASH Music and the aforementioned C.A.N. are transparently fighting for the artists. I'd hope that creative workers feel that they can take our project, Known, and use it as the basis of their own creative sites. But it's now the exception rather than the rule.

Yet, I know I've discovered all kinds of new artists across mediums. Meanwhile, reductive lists like the Billboard Charts have massively declined in importance for many listeners (which I think is a very good thing). The Internet is not the same thing as its prevailing business models, and I simply don't buy the implied argument that the Internet has been a net negative. But I do think it's worth having a conversation about who is hurting - and if nothing else, using it to figure out who has a problem just waiting for a startup, or a non-profit, to solve.

 

To do better work, and lead better lives, we should all disconnect more.

3 min read

I enjoyed this episode of the New Tech City podcast about the case for boredom:

It's a part of their Bored and Brilliant project, which attempts to encourage us to spend more time stewing in our own mental juices. The argument is that we spend too much of our time using our brain to attend to structured tasks, including checking social media and responding to notifications, and not enough time daydreaming.

It rings true for me, but I'd go further.

We live in a very goal-orientated society. Everything seems to be about setting goals and realizing them. There are so many resources, and so many products, that are about helping you be more productive. There's also so much of a macho culture around this that having dead time - just chilling out, not checking your email, going for a walk with nothing in your pocket - is almost frowned upon.

That's already no fun. But it's also counter-productive. There are countless studies which show that "boredom" lead to creativity, while countless more show that taking time off makes you a better worker. But more fundamentally, these attitudes all hang on the idea that your goals are correct to begin with. If you are following your goals with laser focus, you're not only limiting your opportunities for creativity, but you're actually losing opportunities to learn and grow. If you're obsessively measuring your productivity in terms of quantifiable metrics, as many of us do, you're losing the ability to qualitatively test if you're doing the right thing at all. Creativity is an essential part of being human.

One common meme from the obsessive-productivity camp is the idea that we should "live deliberately", or "live intentionally": turn your life into a series of conscious, carefully-considered, mindful decisions. I mean, sure; the world could certainly use more consideration. Nonetheless, I think you also need to leave room for "meandering aimlessly": allowing for serendipity and the kind of semi-conscious, uninterrupted thought that leads to more creative ideas and actions over time. Jeff Bezos noted that the people who are correct more of the time are the ones who have the freedom to change their minds. Steve Jobs famously said that taking LSD was one of the most important things he ever did (and other industry figures have, privately, advocated taking shrooms); maybe it would also have helped to spend more time chilling out.

That doesn't mean there needs to be a framework for it, copyrighted and sold, that we should all strictly adhere to because it makes us better people. If all this talk about the benefits of daydreaming leads to a Daydreaming Productivity Technique, I will barf. It's not the point. The point is that we need to allow ourselves to be human, to disconnect, and set our minds free once in a while. We'll all be better off for it.

 

Social networks are bad at news. Can we make something better?

7 min read

TV NewsAndrew Sullivan, the veteran political blogger, is quitting. As Ezra Klein at Vox noted:

The blogosphere lives. But Sullivan's decision to hang up his keyboard is nevertheless a marker. Sullivan was the closest we had to someone trying to run a blog with real scale. He was trying to make his blog — and its sizable audience — into a business. But blogging, for better or worse, is proving resistant to scale. And I think there are two reasons why.

Meanwhile, Emily Bell, the Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, dedicated her Hugh Cudlipp lecture on journalism to the power that social networks hold over modern news:

Social networks and search engines are the masters of this universe. As we see the disappearance of print as a significant medium, and the likely decline of broadcast television, the paths our stories and journalism must travel down to reach readers and viewers are being shaped by technologies beyond our control.

These are two sides of the same problem. On one hand, Sullivan is finding it unsustainable to maintain his blog. Meanwhile, on the other, Emily Bell points out that newspapers are not in control of their delivery mechanisms or social reach, and essentially are at the mercy of the policies of the social networking companies.

In Gigaom, Mathew Ingram agrees with Bell's assessment:

Social networks like Facebook need the content that comes from media outlets because that’s what drives the engagement they need to sell advertising. But journalism and journalistic organizations should get something in return, and that is a commitment to at least consider the principles that should apply to such content, since they now control how and when (or even if) people see it.

The question is, will they?

I would argue not. As I pointed out at Hacks and Hackers last month, the interests of the social networking companies are at odds with the interests of news and journalism. Content is routinely removed for being controversial, whereas the nature of a lot of news is inherently controversial. Journalism is a brave profession with a strict separation between editorial and revenue control structures, whereas social networks deliberately engineer specific responses in order to sell ads and maintain engagement. Those aren't good traits for a news medium.

In fact, optimizing for engagement leads to increasingly emotionally manipulative content. Wired reports that Facebook is testing engagement across different kinds of content:

“We really try to not express any editorial judgment,” Adam Mosseri, News Feed product director, tells Levy. “We might think that Ferguson is more important than the Ice Bucket Challenge but we don’t think we should be forcing people to eat their vegetables even though we may or may not think vegetables are healthy.”

[...] Unfortunately, so far, it looks like users are less willing to engage with “meaningful” stories or news, preferring anything that triggers a strong emotional response. But Facebook is hopeful that when it begins asking users about sets of stories instead of individual items people will start to reward informative content.

Facebook, of course, makes its money through advertising, so its primary driver is engagement: encouraging people to see and interact with sponsored content. Twitter is heading in a similar direction, with features like While You Were Away that highlight content they think you should see.

NOT one of THOSEWhich brings us back to blogging. A weblog is just a series of articles on your own site. The problems that bloggers have with finding an audience are very similar to the problems that news organizations have with finding an audience on their own sites. In both cases, referrals from social networks are key: Facebook alone is responsible for almost 25% of all referred traffic. (And the average smartphone user checks Facebook 14 times a day.) It wouldn't be possible, or wise, for most publishers to turn their back on these audiences, despite the opacity of the news feed. They're damned if they do and damned if they don't.

Medium clearly sees an opportunity here to be a go-to news feed for serious readers. Their acquisition of the 2015 State of the Union address was a statement of intent. As the Washington Post noted:

Compare that with the response of Kate Lee, Medium senior editor, when asked why the White House would seek out Medium: “You’re publishing to a place that has millions of readers.” Lee says the site, the creation of Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, gets about 20 million unique visitors per month. “People are already here, and they’re much more likely to discover your piece.” Clean and user-friendly though WhiteHouse.gov and other sites may be, they “exist in their own silos and it can be hard to get people to come to you.” Lee declined to say just how much traffic the State of the Union remarks generated but seemed quite happy with the results.

It's an interesting turn of phrase to describe WhiteHouse.gov, and other organizations' own sites, as silos. Medium is also a silo: you must publish directly on the site, and there are no incoming APIs. It is another social network, albeit one that's done a very good job at attracting high quality writers and readers, and it is not necessarily less of a threat to news organizations. Because the content is hosted on Medium, it is also not a viable alternative to a newspaper, say. There's no way for writers to make money from their content.

The simple answer is that we don't yet have what we need, as readers or publishers - and although the ability to easily find audiences and new content is not readily built into the medium, the web has many of the building blocks. I keep coming back to Anil Dash's seminal essay The Web We Lost, where he describes what we get when we lose the open nature of the web as a platform:

We get excuses about why we can't search for old tweets or our own relevant Facebook content, though we got more comprehensive results from a Technorati search that was cobbled together on the feeble software platforms of its era. We get bullshit turf battles like Tumblr not being able to find your Twitter friends or Facebook not letting Instagram photos show up on Twitter because of giant companies pursuing their agendas instead of collaborating in a way that would serve users. And we get a generation of entrepreneurs encouraged to make more narrow-minded, web-hostile products like these because it continues to make a small number of wealthy people even more wealthy, instead of letting lots of people build innovative new opportunities for themselves on top of the web itself.

In his follow-up, Rebuilding the Web We Lost, he makes the opportunity clear:

As is obvious from the responses I've gotten, many, many people care about a social web that honors certain human and creative values. As I've spent years thinking about the right way to write for this blog, and to build ThinkUp, and to sit on the board at Stack Exchange, and to advise clients at Activate, and to work on all the other stuff I do, I just keep running into the fact that there's a huge opportunity to make a great new generation of human-friendly apps with positive social values.

That's certainly what we aim to be building with Known. We want to help people communicate and find audiences from their own websites (as I'm doing right now from mine). It's also a goal of the indie web and related communities.

An informed voting population is vital to democracy; anything that subverts our ability to receive news and information is, in effect, subverting democracy. However, there's also a hugely valuable market for content that's just waiting to be set free. Facebook isn't going away any time soon - but it may be joined by new, more open applications. As Anil Dash describes them: a new generation of human-friendly apps with positive social values.

Which seems to me to be exactly what Emily Bell was talking about.