Open source projects don’t have launch parties

I’ve continued to read over and ponder the varied responses to Flock’s initial release of the public developer preview. While we’ve had an overwhelming amount of positive responses, we’ve naturally had our share of detractors. There’s much to be had from hindsight and given that we’re two weeks from our initial launch, I tend to agree with and find sobering many of the comments, criticisms and blogs that have been written so far.

In particular, Jeff Croft seems to have picked up on the crux of the so-called Flock backlash:

After reading bart’s comments, I think the problem here is that the Flock folks think they have a vision for the way a new kind of web browser can work, but most of the rest of us aren’t really “getting it.” I don’t know if they’re not properly communicating the vision or we’re just too slow to pick up on it.

He elaborates:

But I think people are comparing the grand vision Flock seems to have and the promise of “a whole new web” with the product that has been released — which just doesn’t seem all that revolutionary. Ultimately, there’s a disconnect. I’m left to this it’s one or more of the following:

  1. The vision isn’t being communicated amongst all the hype.
  2. The current version of the product doesn’t play out the vision, but users expected it to.
  3. The Flock team’s vision just isn’t as “revolutionary” to me as it is to them.

This is really instructive and offers a good dose of reality from outside our little Silicon Valley enclave.

Jeff’s point is right on: we haven’t communicated our long term vision for Flock beyond a few quips about a more “participatory web” or one in which your browser helps you “talk back” to the web. Sounds nice and all, but where’s the substance of this thing? (While I’m on the topic, I might as well note that we’ve published our public beta roadmap).

It occurred to me that there are a number of things contributing to the current discussion:

  1. We’re viewed as a Web 2.0 poster child (and subsequently pegged for representing many of the things broken about it). Following O’Reilly’s Web2.0 Conference it seemed that the phrase became a dirty word — as a catch-phrase, once it caught on with a wider audience it seemed to lose all relevance or meaning whatsoever.. Not like it makes much difference, but we’ve had a ban on the phrase in our office stemming from around the same time.
  2. There’s talk of an impending bubble. It makes sense to rail against those things which smack of history repeating, doesn’t it? A Flock, unfortunately, appears to be part of the same lineage. I don’t think it is, but we won’t know for some time, will we? (Though some are already calling it game over.)
  3. Open source projects don’t have launch parties. I’ll elaborate on this one.

As I’ve said, I think a lot of the criticism we’ve weathered so far has been somewhat warranted due to the disconnection between the general hype, where we see Flock going and with what we’ve delivered so far. But evaluating what we’re doing based on the difference between the expectations people had and what the developer preview represents isn’t a useful metric other than proving that the hype — and not the release — was premature.

Consider it this way: historically, open source projects often don’t do “product launches”, least of all when they’re just getting started. Furthermore, in lavishly launching our company at the Web2.0 conference, we generated confusion about the state of the product versus the incorporation of Flock, Inc. The company was ready for public consumption, the product was not, and we tried to make that clear (I mean, it’s not called a Developer’s Preview by accident).

But regardless, we were coming out to the world and saying that we’re building a revolutionary browser and oh, by the way, you’ll be able to play with it in a few days. Not the final thing, mind you, but an early release to give you an idea of what we’re doing.

The excitement built, the buzz became deafening, we were burning the midnight oil at both ends and sleeping in the office. And we didn’t get a chance to stop and consider, hey wait a sec, is everyone really going to be as excited about our code being released as we are? What expectations have been created for what we’re really releasing?

And in that, we missed a critical opportunity to take a step back to prepare people for the difference between what we were giving them to download and where we are actually going.

See, the way open source development seems to happen is that you get some kid tinkering in his college dorm for some time, building up a community of users that offer ideas and fix bugs. The project evolves and grows organically. It takes a long time and many person-hours, but ultimately costs little in the way of hard dollars. It’s a labor of love that depends on the selfless dedication of people around the world. Both WordPress and Drupal (among many, many others) have followed this model.

Now Flock took a different tact. In budgeting a project, Jason Fried typically offers his clients three options, of which they must choose two: good, fast or cheap. Flock chose good and fast, knowing that an investment in an open source ecosystem would both provide the means to improve our product and over the long term, actually keep our costs manageable. It might seem counter-intuitive, but this has been an intrinsic element of our strategy from the beginning. John Battelle summarizes the reasons why:

Open sourcing your IP and using open source technologies is no longer even trendy. It is becoming the decision you can’t get fired for. This is a techtonic shift that has been underway for several years. Proprietary software vendors that don’t adopt to this new world are road kill, pure and simple.

So when Flock launched, we were all psyched to be a funded startup working on a cool project and most of all, doing it open source. But somehow our enthusiasm for being open source caused us to lose sight of the part about ensuring that our product must also work well from the get-go, even if it’s pre-alpha primarily because people will try it out and make judgments about you no matter how hard you message it’s immaturity.

In hindsight, I don’t at all regret launching the Flock code as early as we did. It needed to get out there to start cultivating the open source community that will drive this project forward.

However, the next time I’m involved with launching an open source company, I’ll be damn sure to hold a few Bar Camps before migrating to the self-congratulatory bar crawl.

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Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

11 thoughts on “Open source projects don’t have launch parties”

  1. Well put, though I think your title “Open source projects don’t have launch parties� and the parts that relate to that concept distracts from your main points. Open source is an essential part of Flock, I would not be here otherwise, but I do not see it as relating to the challenges you outline here.

    As you describe, the issue is about communicating where we are today, and how we are going to make tomorrow. We are the first to admit that we are at the beginning of our journey. Our communication should be less about the longer term visual as it can come across as rhetoric, and more about short term problems and solutions.

    I think your commenting on this is worthwhile, but I am more of a show me person. I can’t wait for our about page to be updated with a couple of sentences on what Flock is, and the organization producing it :p

    > we’ve had a ban on the phrase in our office stemming from around the same time.
    You can ban it from your own vocabularly, but I am still challenged by your sensitivity to it. The jokes do quickly get old and bad, but it is so easy 😉 When talking to family, friends, and people not in the industry, I find the concepts if not the term useful. I tend not to particularly like labels, is there a concise term you find useful?

  2. OK, you have admitted your communication mistakes. Can happen to anyone.
    Apparently there is a vision. But that is still not communicated.
    Is there a vision? Perhaps? Maybe? Eventually?

    Even this post doesn’t do much in that respect.

  3. @Ron: totally true. In this post I wanted to simply point out that the mechanisms of traditional startups don’t quite translate when applied to open source projects.

    To your point, I think it’s going to be an ongoing process, but yes, I fully intend to do more to communicate where we’re going and what’s up next. I’m drafting a few things for the site currently that should help with this.

    As an aside, truth be told, due to a bug in an hourly build of Flock, I ended up publishing this post before I’d read through it one last time. Oh well — guess that’s the breaks when eating your own dogfood!

  4. Pointing out that the mechanisms of traditional startups don’t apply to open source project means, that have to sell (in a commucative way) an entire new concept of which the market hasn’t heard yet. So you are not only trying to “sell” (for the lack of a better word) Flock, you’re also trying to flock an entirely new business-model.

    Which has an inherit discrepancy in it. “Open source is free”. “Startups are venture capital.” I am not saying that it is that way it is, I am just saying that that might be a very common perception.
    I think you have a serious problem there, which also might explain the huge criticism that exists in some places. E.g. Flock sucks and Houston we have a solution….

    And for the vision: a true great vision can be summed up in one single sentence. I am very curious hearing that one.

  5. @Ron: Yeah, that’s a good point. But honestly, I think we just happen to be on the vanguard of what will materialize as something of a shake-out in how VC operates when it comes to open source projects… perhaps moving towards a model that Jason Friend might actually like (he seems to have many pertinent thoughts on this matter).

    I don’t think that there truly is a discrepancy in the folklore that “open source is free (as in beer)” and that “startups are venture capital”. One thing I’ve learned about this process is that venture capitalists (read: good venture capitalists) need not only act as a bank account for startups. Indeed, their true value lies in facilitating the maturation of ideas into businesses, and in that interest, they provide their expertise, their rolodex and their insights in order to bring about the construction of profitable organizations.

    That we’re open source and also trying to sustain ourselves is not something altogether new. How we intend to make a living is somewhat new, but as Bart has pointed out, there are established examples that prove that this is a reasonable approach.

    Put it this way: consumer software development (an awful phrase, I admit) using open source methodologies and licensing means that the areas in which we differentiate ourselves are: speed, service, feature set, vision and execution. In the olden days (ha!) when you could keep your code to yourself, you just had to force people into proprietary data formats, add a few features every coupla years and provide tech support. If you were first to a space or dominated by having the most ubiquitous data format or owned the desktop, you could get lazy while your monopoly built itself.

    The web is opening doors and revealing possibilities that the old guard probably hoped would never gain popular traction. So Flock intends to be an example of one of those fast companies that’s out to make a difference not just in releasing awesome open source software, but in how we go about building it, incorporating a community made up of more than just developer geeks.

    To sum up Flock’s vision, straight from our homepage: We believe that it should be easy for everyone to contribute to and participate on the web. While we’ve talk a lot about building a “social browser”, it seems more like that if you do begin participating an engaging on the web, that the social interactions, like this one on this blog (which was created in Flock), will become more common and accessible.

  6. That 30,000 dollar web2.0 presentation fee doesn’t look as good now?

  7. Anh. Might have been worth it. But we were already on the map before Web2.0… just without a downloadable product!

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