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Back in the early days of Elgg, we were approached to do a very big gay social network. We didn't do it (not my decision) - still regretful.

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

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 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.


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 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 Similarly, Piwik Pro is a hosting service for Piwik. And, of course, 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 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. 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.

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@VeryWhiteGuy Yep! Both @elgg and @withknown have keyword search.

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@mattl @verywhiteguy @br3nda Hi! I was the technical co-founder of @Elgg, now work on @withknown, and support . Can I help?

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6 honest reflections on being an early-stage startup founder

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.

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@heyjudesue I love this. Elgg was funded because of a side project; in general have found them so productive and brain-freeing.

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The Moray House School of Education

The Moray House School of Education

My first job out of university, and where Elgg (and therefore everything else in my career) began.

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8 tips for writing open source web apps that anyone can use

I’ve spent my career writing open source web applications that are designed to be used by non-technical users. Elgg was a social networking platform that was described at the time as “MySpace in a box”. Known is a web platform that allows you to share and communicate from your own domain as easily as posting to Twitter or Facebook.

Elgg was ultimately used by organizations like Stanford, Harvard, Oxfam, Greenpeace and the World Bank. Known’s open source community is growing fast.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from both projects.

1. It’s not about you

As a developer, it’s easy to approach software development as a way to “scratch your own itch”: building around your own needs and frustrations.

This is an important place to start, because it means you’re “dogfooding” the product: using it yourself, ideally every day. But it can’t be the only way you drive development, or even the most significant driver.

External feedback is one of the most important aspects of any software project. If you’re building software for a particular market, you need to talk to people in that market, show them prototypes, and react accordingly.

In a successful open source project, you’re getting feedback all the time, but it’s important to be aware that the people leaving issues and bug reports are a subset of your users. They’re the technically involved ones, who can manage GitHub (or wherever you host your project) and understand how to fill out a bug report. You can’t limit your feedback to the open source community, either.

When we were building Elgg, we regularly held meetups in pubs, in order to talk informally with the people who were using the product in the real world. With Known, we had the benefit of Matter’s accelerator program, which is heavily focused on design thinking. Over the first five months of our company’s existence, we spent over half the time talking to people, getting feedback on iterations of the product, and understanding their needs.

I’m convinced that good software development is a social process.

2. It’s not about the technology

Both Elgg and Known are based on PHP and MySQL.

Somewhere, a programmer is gasping. In the distance, a dog howls. A baby is crying.

One of the attributes of an open source project is that you can run it on your own infrastructure. That’s particularly true if you want it to be useable by less-technical users.

The web hosting landscape is dominated by shared hosts that allow you to upload files using FTP, install applications using cPanel and Softaculous, and pay $4 a month for the privilege. The people who buy these products in droves aren’t going to care to set up a Digital Ocean droplet or find an image in the AWS Marketplace.

It’s a strategic decision. If you want to use the in-vogue evented server platform, go right ahead. If you want distribution on the hundreds of millions of shared hosting accounts that non-technical people are using all over the web, then you’re going to need to meet those users where they’re at.

There’s also this: I’ve worked with PHP for years, and the language has never been better. In particular, PHP 5.4 has seen it turn a corner and become a modern web platform. So, at the very least, it’s not as bad as you think.

And you’re doing this to build a genuinely useful product, not because you just want to code, right? Right.

3. Design isn’t something you do at the end

Design encompasses the entirety of how your users will interact with your product. Yes, it’s the UI and the visuals, but it’s also the experience associated with everything from the initial installation, through using it day-to-day, to what happens if your users decide to move to another product.

See above: it’s not about you. Get as much feedback as you can. Watch people using your product; just stand behind them and take notes, and ask them questions at the end. Do this as often as you can. It can be heartbreaking, but it gets less heartbreaking over time.

Remember, too, that your product is open source. It’s okay if you’re not a designer. You’re almost certainly already thinking about how to involve engineers in your product development process. How can you attract and involve designers, too?

Confession: I don’t fully know the answer to this. On Elgg, we hired Pete Harris, a wonderful designer who defined the look and feel of the product. He didn’t know it, but he was the most highly-paid person in the company. On Known, my co-founder, Erin Richey, is a brilliant user experience designer. We’re very interested in attracting more designers to the open source community, but how this works is an open question.

4. Benevolent dictatorships are (mostly) A-OK

I’ve been a benevolent dictator in both open source communities. That means that I’ve had the final say about product direction and feature development. A lot of people believe that this isn’t appropriate in an open source community, but for this kind of user-facing product, I think it’s important. (Also, I’m a control freak.)

I believe that someone has to be able to say no on an arbitrary basis. A lot of projects and communities devolve into endless conversations, and sometimes argument, that hamper development. Being able to cut through this quickly is important - as long as you can act decisively!

All good products have an underlying vision that informs development. Someone needs to stick to their guns and be the keeper of that vision - while also engaging the community and being as open as possible to ideas, code and features. You’re a project leader, not a vanguard; keep an open mind.

5. Open is as open does

Your code needs to be super-readable and well-documented. Unlike most projects, lots of people are going to be reading it in order to understand your software. While some developers believe that you should be able to read the code, I think a documentation block above each class and method (at the very least) goes a long way.

Ideally, you need stand-alone documentation that can be read on its own terms. This is the equivalent of writing a book about your software at the same time as writing the software itself. Read The Docs is a great project that makes it easy to host searchable documentation.

Finally, you should keep the code as presentable and neat as possible. I’m not above using an automatic code beautifier to make sure that tabs, spaces, braces etc are all in line and standard throughout the codebase. If the source code is consistently formatted, it’s easier to read.

6. Your project is a community

Lead by example.

I favor lots of small source code commits over longer ones. Not only does that make it easier to roll back the source code incrementally, but it also lowers the barrier to entry for other people. If you’re committing a couple of lines here and a couple of lines there, it’s easier for someone else to follow suit.

It’s never okay to be a dick. There are open source project leaders who have become infamous for berating contributors for writing code they don’t like. That’s not only a great way to get a reputation for being an unpleasant human being, but also limit the kinds of people who contribute to your project. It hurts your software. Don’t do it.

Similarly, RTFM culture should never be tolerated. RTFM is a UNIX-era term for “Read The Fucking Manual”, which is how some communities interact with newcomers asking simple questions. That’s a horrible way for any community to act, and it limits growth.

Open source has a diversity problem. Being personally inclusive, watching for abuse, and protecting the culture of your community help you widen the gene pool of ideas. The greater the variety of people who contribute to your project, the stronger and more useable your project becomes.

7. Don’t over-integrate; don’t over-prepare

It’s easy to add a gazillion hooks into your software and prepare for any eventuality. I’ve seen projects spend months doing this legwork before producing something users can see.

Don’t do it.

Your project is already open by definition. It’s a great idea to add some hooks that allow other developers to build on top of your software. Both Elgg and Known have plugin APIs that have helped the projects grow healthy third-party ecosystems. But those APIs evolved over time, as a result of feedback.

The truth is, you don’t really know what’s going to be useful until the need arises. Real-world feedback is important. It’s a great idea for you to experiment and build your own extensions to the software, but remember that your platform isn’t set in stone: if you need a hook later on, you can create it. If someone in the community needs a hook that doesn’t exist, they can create it, or ask someone to make it for them.

It’s much more important to put your product in front of users and start getting feedback. Don’t spin your wheels on maybes.

8. Make it sustainable

If you’re doing something good for your users, you owe it to them to keep doing it.

Automattic, the company behind WordPress, is worth over a billion dollars. WordPress powers 23% of the web; there’s no way they would have reached this market share, or helped all those users, if they hadn’t been able to pay themselves to keep working on it. A flash-in-the-pan platform that hooks people in and then goes away is arguably harmful.

If you’re building a product for real-world users, you need to think about a funding model as a feature. And - sorry - donations are not a real funding model.

Known provides a fully-hosted service for people that don’t want to worry about the technical aspects of running a site. Our Known Pro product is an easy, turnkey solution for people who want to host their own professional website and reach their audiences across social media. We also have educational subscriptions, enterprise licenses, and organizational support.

From a business perspective, our open source product is a very cost-effective way to get wide distribution. It’s also core to our values: we believe that using open software is a core component of having control over your space online. That alignment between business and ideological considerations is at the heart of what we do.

Don’t shy away from making your open source project into a friendly, open business. You’ll reach more people, create a more useful product, and potentially change the world in the process.

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

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.

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@cogdog My @elgg T-shirts are the oldest ones I have. Show no signs of age. Not quite the nineties but getting very old. @grantpotter

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Thinking about an / @withknown integration. Lots of people are using @elgg as a community platform in .

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A brief reminder that I don't work on Elgg anymore and don't currently provide Elgg support. Thanks.

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Run your own 'MySpace' (an interview with me from November 2006)

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The ROI of building open source software

Eran Hammer discusses justifying the return on investment for open source development at Walmart Labs:

If this all sounds very cold and calculated, it’s because it is. Looking for clear ROI isn’t anti-community but pro-sustainability. It’s easy to get your boss to sponsor a community event or a conference, to print shirt and stickers for your open source project, or throw a release party for a new framework. What’s hard is to get the same level of investment a year, two years, or three years later.

If you're creating something that the community relies upon, it's important to also make it sustainable. Open source is a license and a way of thinking about distribution; it is not the opposite of thinking about software in business terms. If you're creating software in the context of a business, you need to tie it to business goals, including the license.

At Known, like Elgg before it, we know that open source distribution acted as a multiplier for the small teams of developers writing the code in-house. We talk about it as a strategy. The effect is the same - anyone can pick up our core code for free - but it's been done for a reason. Eran's metrics seem about right to me:

For example, every five startups using hapi translated to the value of one full time developer, while every ten large companies translated to one full time senior developer.

For us, a "startup" could be a university, a non-profit or a government department. The nice thing about open source is that while all good software is built in collaboration with its users, here the users can literally write some of the code. The result is a startup less constrained by limited resources, and a user-base that gets to use a more useful application. Everybody wins.

Interested in open source businesses? You should check out Known and add yourself to the beta list.

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Known and education: a love story

I started my career in education, writing e-learning tools for the University of Edinburgh. It was there that I met my Elgg co-founder, Dave Tosh (because they placed us together in an ex-broom closet with a window that didn't shut; a kind of gallows bonding experience). Elgg was designed as a community platform for education, that took the informal learning that was happening on the nascent social web in 2003 and applied it to the formal education space. It did well, and it's still in wide use in institutions today. Through Elgg, I've written and spoken widely about social learning environments.

The educational technology community has developed the dual concepts of the Personal Learning Environment and the eportfolio. The first is a tool that puts students at the center of their learning; the second is a way for them to represent themselves and their learning, to themselves, to their peers at their institution, and to the outside world once they graduate. In an educational setting, I think Known is very clearly both a PLE and an eportfolio:

  • Known profiles allow you to post to a space that represents you, using a variety of media, from any device
  • Known's syndication feature lets you post to your own profile, while syndicating to external sites and applications - like your campus's Learning Management System.

Educators agree. The Reclaim Your Domain project is a particular evolution of eportfolio thinking, where members of a campus's community own the domains that represent them (just like indieweb!), and we've developed a good relationship with this community. And we're discovering that more and more institutions around the world are coming to us, because they see how Known can help them to empower their students.

Universities have discovered that providing a social space that allows for personal reflection allows for deeper learning than a Learning Management System can provide. Known provides a layer for this that can either work with a campus's LMS or as a stand-alone product. It's easier for teachers to administer, and because it uses the latest modern web technologies, it works with the mobile devices that students are using to access the Internet more than 50% of the time.

Known works well as an educational product. Our experience building awesome social tools for education over the last decade allows us to more quickly understand the challenges involved, and to provide something that fits in with the culture of education. We're also aware that there are startups whose aim is to own a part of the education stack, and our grounding in indieweb and open source means that we reject that entirely. We have an open project that we have designed to empower; the intention is to provide more control, not remove it.

I couldn't be more excited to work deeply with educators to help them make electronic learning a more personal experience - and we want to hear from you. Software is a collaborative experience, and we couldn't think of better collaborators than the people who are helping to make the world a more informed and educated place.

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"Elgg - social network software for education" From 2006, referencing work we were doing for MIT.

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Drawing a line from @elgg to @withknown: an adventure in #edtech and #indieweb

1. Elgg: a social networking engine for education.

Elgg communitiesIn November, 2004, we released the first version of Elgg to the world. We originally called it a learning landscape: an educational software platform that took its cues from the emerging social web rather than rigid classroom structures. In many ways, it was as much a reaction to Blackboard and WebCT as it was to Livejournal and MySpace.

I'd been building web communities since 1995, so when I arrived at the University of Edinburgh to work on elearning software, I was appalled at what I'd found. Every single person who used the dominant learning management systems, from the administrators down to the students, hated them. Students only used them because they were forced to; as it turned out, administrators only used them because they were forced to.

And yet, people were learning from each other on the web all the time. Through platforms like Livejournal and Delicious, people with different skills and contexts were colliding and creating a new kind of culture. The web had made it possible for anyone to publish as long as they bought some web space and learned HTML. Suddenly, anyone could publish, as long as they could connect to the Internet at all.

Elgg took the social web, applied it to education, and wrapped the whole thing in an open source license. It took off like wildfire.

Embedded podcastFrom the beginning, it was important to us that users got to control their own space. They could choose their own theme, and hack it, if they wanted to. Most importantly, they could choose exactly who could see each and every post: long before Mark Zuckerberg declared that the age of privacy was dead, our research indicated that students felt more comfortable with web publishing if they could keep tight reigns over who could see their work.

We knew Elgg was bigger than education when non-profits in Columbia got in touch to let us know they were using the platform. Soon afterwards, schools in Bangladesh were featured by the BBC for using it. Over time, as more non-education users emerged - more non-profits like Oxfam and Greenpeace, alongside Swatch, BMW, hedge funds, and the rugby star Will Carling - it evolved into a social networking engine that anyone could pick up and use. We started with a very specific use case - reflective learning in higher education - and widened into something much bigger. To date, Elgg users have included Harvard University, NASA, Hill & Knowlton, the federal governments of several nations, and the World Bank.

I made the choice to move on to new pastures a few years ago. Today, Elgg is managed by a non-profit foundation. The current team is doing an amazing job, and, under their stewardship, the platform has transformed again, into a programming toolkit for people who want to build social applications.

2. Known: the easiest way to own your own space on the Internet.

Meanwhile, individuals are in need of spaces that they truly control more than ever before. In the old days, we thought this was important to help them feel more comfortable with posting their personal reflections to a public space (not everything has to be about maintaining your "personal brand", after all). While that's still true, sites like Facebook are pointing to a more imperative need: a place to publish where you won't be experimented on without your permission, where you won't be spied upon, where you can move your content at any time, and where your content and conversations aren't owned by one of a very small number of corporate silos.

thumb.pngKnown is a platform for a new kind of social web. You can think of each Known site as being a single social profile, either for an individual or a group. Each one can interact with each other in a decentralized way (using indie web technology), or they can interact with all the other sites they use - including Elgg, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and all the rest of them. Educational institutions are already asking us if we can integrate with learning management systems like Canvas - and the answer is, yes.

We have privacy, too. Known site owners can choose who can see their content, and they can choose the look and feel of their sites, including what kinds of content they want to publish.

We know that over 50% of Internet use happens on a mobile device, and any new platform has to take that into account. We've made Known fully responsive, so it works on any mobile device with a web browser, including your iPhone, Android phone, Windows Phone device, iPad, tablet, and so on. Even your BlackBerry works with Known. Because mobile usage leads to new kinds of content, Known supports location check-ins and posting photos while you're moving around. And, of course, individuals and organizations can roll their own content types using custom plugins.

thumb.pngOn any device, ownership of your site and content, combined with an understanding of your community, gives you a new kind of clarity about your online self. You know exactly who can see each item you post. You know who's responding to you on which networks, and you understand which kinds of content your audiences are interested in. Known is both a safe space to reflect, and a singular site that represents you on the web. And more than anything else, it's respectful software that puts you at the center of your online world.

Known is open source. As a company, we're providing software and customization services to make it easier for organizations to administer, as well as support subscriptions for everyone who uses Known. Finally, we're also working on providing managed infrastructure for anyone who wants to run Known, either individually or for their organization, without the hassle of server administration.

I've been privileged to spend over a decade working on open platforms that empower people and organizations to control their own spaces on the Internet. The pendulum is swinging back to a world where users are asking for that control, and I'm looking forward to making Known the definitive way to own your content online.

If you've read this far, you should definitely check us out: at, on Twitter, and on AngelList.

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@elgg Do you have an actual end-user's guide somewhere these days? Someone's asked me for one & I'd love to help them out.

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How Thousands Of Dutch Civil Servants Built A Virtual 'Government Square' For Online Collaboration Spoiler: @elgg.

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And now, some words of encouragement.

And now, some words of encouragement.

Elgg T-shirt is coincidental, honest.

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An inspiring weekend at the #reclaimyourdomain hackathon. #edtech

I'm having a good time at the Reclaim Your Domain meetup in Los Angeles this weekend, organized by Jim Groom of University of Mary Washington's Domain of One's Own initiative.

From the initiative's homepage:

A Domain of One's Own provides domain names and Web space to members of the UMW community, encouraging individuals to explore the creation and development of their digital identities.

Reclaim Hosting, which was created by Jim Groom and Tim Owens, supports Known (as well as Elgg). It was set up to provide educators and institutions with an easy way to offer their students domains and web hosting that they own and control.

We're excited to be in the mix, both in terms of the services at UMW and elsewhere, but also in the wider conversation. Schools and universities are in a perfect position to talk about data ownership, so it's inspiring to see them doing just that. While Jim Groom and the other members of the Reclaim Your Domain community are ahead of the curve, I expect many others to follow. Their work provides an obvious benefit to both students and faculty at the institutions that adopt it, in a way that previous eportfolio initiatives didn't necessarily achieve. (Elgg emerged from work Dave Tosh and I were doing on electronic portfolios in education.)

Empowering individuals at institutions to own their online identities makes us very happy. And we're excited to learn from the students and faculty that make their homes on the web using Known.

While Known is an open source application (released under the Apache 2.0 License), institutions that choose to use the software won't be going it alone. They can get full support from us, if they like, as well as software to make it easier to manage Known sites on an organizational basis, and bespoke solutions for their specific use cases. We're keenly aware that one size doesn't fit all, and one institution's (or one school or course's) needs don't necessarily apply generally. Known is a flexible platform that supports a great deal of individual customization.

It's not just for education, of course: anyone can use a Known site, and we're excited to be working in journalism, technology and other verticals. However, edtech is a great example of a community motivated to empower its members to own their data, and we're delighted to help.

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Cross-platform auth and privacy between @withknown and @elgg:

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Thanks to @mapkyca's work, users on @elgg and @withknown can be friends with each other. Aww.

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@gjbarb We're building an open source social CMS at @withknown; I previously co-founded @elgg. Let us know if we can help in any way.

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