Bootstrapping Elgg

July 19, 2012 | 4 comments

Preparing for the ePortfolio 2006 conference pt 2In my twenties, as part of a two-person team, I co-founded and bootstrapped a social networking platform that would end up being used by organizations like Oxfam, the World Bank, the Australian government, the United Nations and NASA.

We did this with a budget of $0; I don’t remember ever buying advertising, and for the first few years the web presence piggybacked on my personal web server that was paid for (just) by other projects. We bootstrapped a business to support it, starting from scratch and eventually acquiring enough investment to hire a small number of other people to work on it with us. We were flown around the world to speak and support, and there are hundreds of companies today that make part of their income by selling Elgg services. I’m a proud benevolent dictator.

It only occurred to me years later that we took a very lean startup approach. The first thing we launched was a white paper for elearning professionals, that tied my social web experience with Dave’s elearning background. A classic minimum viable product. (The genesis of Elgg was as a platform for eportfolios – what we might now refer to as “profiles”, albeit designed to showcase skills and learning.) The response was so great – over 60,000 downloads for an academic paper! – that we released another, more specific paper. Same response. And so, fueled by a comment by an educator that “it’s one thing to write about it, it’s another thing to build it”, we made it happen.

Two early prototypes were built: one by Dave, in ColdFusion, and one by me in PHP. We went with the latter; PHP at the time was the world’s most popular web scripting language, and it was important to us that people could use commodity shared hosting to upload their communities.

All weblog postsAt the core was a hosted version at (long since gone), which we released six months before the source code. This turned out to be important: a central, hosted community made it much easier to test features, just as the open source community would make it easier to test APIs later on. Each time we tested a feature based on unfounded assumptions, we faltered. Each time we responded intelligently to our users’ actions and intentions, we saw growth. The key was that most features took a day to write. While some took a few days, or even a week, in the early days we released as early as we could. This was as much to do with limited resources as user feedback.

Example: there were no defined collaboration groups in Elgg, because we hadn’t included them in our original papers. It was only when users continually asked for them, and we spoke to sample users to figure out what they needed, that they were added.

Elgg 1.0 screenshotThe downside to this approach was that the code architecture developed in a very organic way. Which is to say that, three years later, it was a mess. So when we did acquire some investment capital, we took the validated assumptions and learnings from our initial growth period and rewrote the system in a more planned way. There’s a lot of advice out there that tells you to not to do this, and it’s fair to say that we took too long. But the result is a framework that continues to this day.

I miss working on Elgg sometimes. It was a vibrant open source community, and a very visible project. Bootstrapping the company was a rollercoaster, full of incredible peaks and troughs – emotional low points and high points mixed together in a way that was both stressful and exhilarating.

However, the current Elgg team – led by Brett Profitt – have arguably taken the project to a new level. It’s awesome to tune in now and then to see what they’re doing. It’s very much theirs now, and I’m very content knowing that it’s in such safe hands.

Community ownership and social networks as markets

March 24, 2012 | 2 comments

Johannes Ernst just put me to shame by writing this blog post while sitting next to me at Elgg Camp San Francisco:

[...] But there’s a stronger undertone from speaker after speaker talking about their projects. It’s about how the community wants and needs to own and control their social network (instead of just merely having a little section inside a worldwide social network). And how the community wouldn’t be as strong if they couldn’t. About the community needing to evolve the communication tools in parallel to how the community evolves. About how it is almost impossible to “work together” with others on a general-purpose site like Facebook, and how even high school students automatically switch to their school social network when attempting to get something done.

You can read the whole post here.

I spoke a little about ensuring the longevity of communities, which is something I’ve begun to think about in a general context: if you’ve established a community site and attracted a solid social network of people, how do you ensure that the community remains vibrant in six months, or three years, or a decade from now? How do you make sure, to put it bluntly, that maintaining a community remains worth your time?

In the same way that a community site augments the social experience for a network of people, I’m interested in explicit market features that augment the online social experience. For example, open source communities like the Elgg community itself: what if the Elgg ecosystem could crowdfund features and plugins?

This also speaks to community ownership. Why monetize a community using AdSense – content piped in from third parties outside the community, which may or may not be relevant but certainly are less passionate about the community’s topic – when you could empower the community to do this for itself? Why not allow online communities to be truly self-sustainable?

It’s been an interesting day, and I’m looking forward to talking to people afterwards. I’ve set up a collaborative latakoo How I Fly site here, for participants to collaboratively share video footage of the event.

ElggCamp San Francisco

March 7, 2012 | 1 comment

Evolution of the Elgg logoA long time (almost three years) ago now, I worked on an open source project called Elgg, which I also co-founded. It was vastly more popular than we had anticipated – from a small start in education, the community pulled it in all kinds of amazing directions – but after almost six years working on it, I decided to move onto other things. It’s currently being run by Brett Profitt, who I have a lot of respect for. Elgg is still widely used as a social platform for niche communities, social intranets, learning platforms and all kinds of things, not least because the community continues to inject it with new life (and new features).

When Brett let me know about ElggCamp San Francisco, I was delighted. It looks great: the attendee list is already impressive, and tickets are cheap – possibly the best-value event about online communities you’ll attend in the vicinity of Silicon Valley, both in terms of price and the professional experience that’ll be under one roof. I’m looking forward to both the talks and the networking afterwards, and if Brett and co are half as professional as they have been with managing Elgg itself, it will be a great day. Buy tickets here.

Meanwhile, latakoo, my current company, is making video management dramatically easier. We’ll be at SXSW Interactive. Find us on Stand 308 at the trade show next week, or book some office hours to talk to me one-on-one.

Elgg logo credits: the top two were by me, the learning landscape logo was by Sonia Virdi, and the bottom was by Pete Harris. You can tell when we brought real designers in.

Elgg 1.8 has left the building

September 6, 2011 | 1 comment

Congratulations to Brett, Cash, Evan and the Elgg community on the release of Elgg 1.8.0. I know that a lot of hard work has gone into this release, and it’s the first major departure from the architecture that was set out in Elgg 1.0 almost exactly three years ago.

One of the real benefits of releasing the product under an open source license – something I consistently fought for throughout my involvement in the project – is that it can keep going beyond its original team or sponsoring company. I’m really impressed with what Brett has done to turbo-boost the community. He’s a super-smart guy, the community is thriving, and I’m looking forward to building sites on the revised platform.

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