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Everything big started small: next steps on a grand adventure.

6 min read

Imagine a global social network that nobody owns, where your profile can be uniquely your own, and you have full control of your identity.

In May, Erin Jo Richey and I started work on Known as a full-time startup business. Our mission is to empower everyone to communicate from their own websites. We love social networks like Twitter, but we think there’s a lot to be gained by controlling the form as well as the content of the spaces that represent us online.

We quickly found allies in Matter Ventures, who invested $50,000 in us as a participant in their third accelerator class. From their offices, we did as much research as possible, in order to validate our assumptions and find a focused place to start. Everything big started small; our global ambition needed a village-sized launchpad.

We spoke to mothers who had shared beautiful photographs of their children with their extended families - using Posterous, which disappeared into the ether. We spoke to marketers who thought of Facebook as a frustrating black box that kept changing its behavior. And we spoke to students, whose class content was deleted from their campus learning management systems as soon as it was complete.

While each of these groups resonated with us, we chose to begin with students. We had an unfair advantage in higher education: my previous project, Elgg, was one of the first social platforms to be used by universities, and is still heavily relied upon worldwide. Harvard, Stanford, Oxfam, NASA and the World Bank have all been Elgg users. Known builds on those ideas, so it made sense to get feedback from those institutions, too.

Educational technology is undergoing a massive change, informed by the wider change in networked software, and sparked by tools like Elgg. Learning management systems like Blackboard are costly, and cumbersome to use: while 93% of institutions run one, 65% of those say they have terrible usability. The total cost of ownership of one of these platforms is over a million dollars a year for a large institution. But most importantly, they don’t help you learn.

Just as many of us have moved from intranet platforms like Sharepoint to more social platforms like Slack, many educators are moving towards connectivism as a way to think about their teaching. It has been shown that self-reflection makes a meaningful impact on a student’s grades. A growing number of educators have been choosing to use blogging as a major component of their courses, encouraging students to reflect on their learning, and comment on each others’ reflections. They’re called “connected courses”, after one of the most popular.

Known makes this easy. We had already built a beautiful, social profile that you can run on your own website. We sell a hub platform that makes deploying these profiles at an institution easy, and creates class spaces that students can participate in from their own sites. Once you’re logged into your own site, you click once to see content from all your classes, and click again to see content from a specific class. You can post right there in the stream: short notes, blog posts, photos, audio, and more. You can also comment, star or share a piece of content, just as you might on Twitter or Facebook.

Of course, the difference is that this is all on your site, and it’s all under your control. Our platform is open source, or we have a fully-managed SaaS product. You can run it on your own server, or you can leave all of the technical infrastructure management to us.

It’s not a million miles from WordPress’s business model, which is intentional. WordPress powers 23% of the web, and we love their platform, their attitude towards their customers, and the way they look at the world. We also think there’s an opportunity for a personal social platform to grow in a similar way.

I’m proud of what we’ve been able to put together using a small amount of investment. It’s also been exciting to see peoples’ reactions, and to hear what they want to do with it.

Most gratifyingly, we’re already getting a lot of interest from outside education. We’ve heard from individuals who want to use Known for their own publishing, and from organizations who want to use it to run communities. And the cool thing about open source is that our community has built integrations to scratch their own itches, expanding our product to fit their needs: links with WordPress, Buffer, Diigo, LinkedIn and more.

We stole one of our best features from Pulse, the iPad reader app that was bought by LinkedIn last year. They launched with a little heart icon at the top right of their app, through which any user could send the team immediate feedback. We now have a similar feature: if you’re logged into Known, you see the heart on every page. Whether you’re self-hosting or running your Known site on our service, you can send us direct feedback in a click. We do our best to reply to every message quickly, because we learn something from every interaction.

We’ve had a lot of interactions. Each one has allowed us to become a better company, and build a better product. The feature took us less than an hour to build, but it’s one of the most important things we’ve ever done. We’ve gained customers through it; we’ve discovered new opportunities; we’ve learned about bugs. Most importantly, we’ve heard a lot about which features are valuable to people, and, most fundamentally, why people use Known to begin with.

The result of that learning is Known Pro: a managed version of Known for professional groups and individuals.

Just as in education, we believe in growing our company through direct revenue, at a fair price. So this is an experiment for us: we’ve gathered together some of our most-requested features, as well as others that just made sense, and offered them as a pre-sale for 30 days. The total cost is just $10 a month, but the pre-sale is a discount on that: $96 for a year.

We considered a crowdfunding campaign, but selling our product directly just felt right. Unlike a crowdfunding campaign, we won’t charge anybody’s payment card until the product has actually been delivered and is in their hands. That means nobody’s asked to spend money for something they don’t have.

You can pre-order Known Pro right here.

This is the next step on our grand adventure. We believe in a world where everyone owns their content and identity online, and we would love for you to join us on this journey.