That’s because the team at Assembly is building a platform to make founding a company a collaborative effort. They’re gifting engineers, marketers, designers, writers, and product managers a place to create products together.
Why would anyone ever want to let go of control and literally open-source their company? It’s because Assembly’s founders, Matthew Deiters, Chris Lloyd, and Dave Newman, know firsthand that a whole company is more than a sum of its parts. They have seen what happens when you empower strong communities of talented people, and the outcome is good for business.
Assembly allows anyone to contribute to any product they are passionate about, either full-time or in their free time. Founder and CEO Matt Deiters describes it as “open-source for companies.” For any startup, the early stages are always “all hands on deck,” and Assembly allows people with complementary skills to contribute where they are strongest — and own a piece of the business they build.
It’s the definition of a community-led meritocracy for builders. It allows people to stop building in a vacuum and instead build with others who bring new talents to the table for a common cause. In short, the dream of the Valley is alive and well at Assembly.
In July, the team launched the first totally crowd-built product on the site, Helpful. Matt shares with us the process of building a company with 89 collective owners, how Assembly is working to productize community-building of products (so meta), and key learnings from his 12 years as an engineer and 6 years building community in the developer and tech world.
Lessons Learned from Launching Assembly’s First Official Product
In late July, Assembly released Helpful into the world. It’s a simple idea: great customer support software (that competes with giants like Zendesk) with a pricing model that makes sense for startups and small businesses. Earlier this year, the team simply asked the Assembly community what they wanted to build first.
“Helpful was the idea we picked because when we launched, people on Assembly wanted to built it the most. We looked at beta signups and other information to determine the best product to focus on first,” Matt explains.
Altogether, the product is a result of the work of a community of 89 people. And on Assembly as a whole, there are far more than that. “While Assembly is a large community, each product is a subset of that community, like a subreddit.” And each product is therefore a community in and of itself, with its own leaders and specialists.
Each one of these builders will get a piece of the profit pie once Helpful starts making money. And they’ll continue to get a piece of that profit forever.
In other words, the community members literally own the products that they build and have an emotional as well as financial stake in their success. This is a huge leap in terms of ownership of ideas and work, one that seems to be taking hold in tech work culture right now. Currently, Assembly takes 10% of the revenue from all products on the platform, but they’re “open to discussing how we can give more back to our community.”
“We have learned a lot launching Helpful. We need to have a clear vision from the outset. At the start, Helpful was a lot of different things to different people. It now has a focus. I think great products can summarize why they’ll be great in 3 points or less of what makes them unique. We try to get those points early on each product now.”
There are now two products on Assembly that actually make money for their teams each and every month: Coderwall and Really Good Emails.
The team’s deference to the community and desire to give back comes as a result of their respect for what people can do when they work together. They have a solid understanding of what community means and what it really takes to build it.
“Community is like a fire.” Matt says, his eyes lighting up. “You start with the kindling and you rub sticks together until you finally see a spark. Then you get some small flames. You nurture those flames again and again. Hopefully one day it ignites into a blazing fire.”
To Matt, community is a challenge, but it’s one worth taking because we all can do better things when we work together. “Our biggest competition isn’t other startups. It’s working alone. Anyone can build alone.” But building alone is not always so simple. Any solo entrepreneur can describe to you the difficulty of managing your own psychology. It’s far easier to offload some of the burden of building onto supportive people whose skills complement your own.
“This is also about complementing skills. Developers might not be great at design or copy or vice-versa. Here, everyone can complement each other.” So what value can a company or product bring to communities of people working together?
“As a company, we’re really only here to do two things. One, help the community grow. We give them the tools to do this themselves within the product and let it go from there. Two, build trust. It’s our job to build trust that this is a good place to build.”
How Assembly Adds Value to Their Community
- Gives the community tools they need
- Builds trust among members
“I also often refer to Assembly as a way to establish trust among strangers working together. We collect the revenue so you don’t have to worry about someone you’re building with on the other side of the world taking off with the product once it is finished.” That in and of itself is a value that has never before been established and allows for people to work globally on a scale never before imagined.
For Matt and the rest of the Assembly team, community is about so much more than a marketing lever or a distribution/outreach tactic. It is all of their jobs to make sure the community flourishes and continues to find success together.
Coderwall, the Rails Community, and the Birth of Assembly
Assembly itself grew out of Matt’s learnings from his previous project, Coderwall (which is still very much alive, but now lives and breathes on Assembly). Coderwall (YC Winter 2012) is a hub and community for developers around the world, which itself grew out of Matt’s desire to fix the broken world of technical recruiting.
The story of how Coderwall first gained traction is also a story of tapping into the power of community. Matt inherently understood the power of thousands of like-minded people coming together, so he timed his product launch around RailsConf, where thousands of developers follow the #RailsConf hashtag. It all started with a tweet.
That tweet activated a community of rails developers who became the first 5,000 users in less than 5 days. From there, “momentum begot momentum. The first 5,000 users were what we needed to get the next 100,000.”
He toyed around with the idea of Coderwall for a while and kept honing and perfecting it. Today, the platform brings in over $30K monthly revenue and hosts over 500,000 engineer users per month. As of June, it went open-source and was officially placed on Assembly, where others could continue working on the product and make money from their contributions.
The Most Important Lesson Learned So Far
The most important lesson the Assembly team has learned so far is that it’s really their job to step back and let people do what they’d without their help anyway.
“Let people make their own choices. Don’t be prescriptive. Choose whatever language and hosting options you want. What we have to do is just connect people and let go. Give people unrestricted freedom and let them go build.”
“The products themselves build communities naturally through the building process,” Matt explains. So that part of the process is all taken care of. Community usually happens naturally if you are working toward shared goals. But it’s still a persistent challenge to onboard new community members and keep everyone communicating consistently as they work independently. So there is more structured community-building work going on.
They began with real-time communication with their users in a Basecamp chatroom, which Matt describes as “janky.” They have since moved on to their own homegrown chat solution. “This real-time community has helped immensely. Everyone is civil and motivated, so there is no need for moderation.”
“We also host weekly Fireside Chats now for each product.” These are weekly Google Hangouts in which all the team members get together online from all over the world and update each other on progress and problems.
“Video is a really powerful tool for connecting people.” Video also reveals the real-world identities of these talented builders. During one of their Fireside Chats, they even learned that one of their members was actually a middle schooler named Lachlan, pictured below. Now he designs, codes, and helps others with their product ideas. Not bad for a kid who started to code in sixth grade.
“No one knew he was in middle school and just thought of him as a developer in the community until one day everyone got together on a Google Hangout.” Matt knew it would make for a great story and rushed to spotlight him. Now Lachlan is one of the most active engineers on the site.
Give Power to the People Who Build
Outside of these basic structures though, the team tries to stay out of projects and instead empower the right leaders to take control over the product teams. They then provide direction and push the project forward.
“We’ve learned that, for a product to be successful, you need a visionary or set of visionaries. Assembly started as a ‘drop your ideas here’ thing and it has moved away from that because we need to define leadership.”
As a result, they’re starting to experiment with Pitch Weeks, where people will pitch an idea and begin to get people building on their products right away. “Quirky has done a great job of this, and we want to emulate that.”
They’ve also realized how much better it is when a team member manages their own team rather than offering oversight. “When people on the team ask other people how they can help, that’s powerful. If the product team reaches out about something, people will respond. If we reach out on their behalf, that’s just not the case.”
What is the Future of Building Community-Led Companies?
Now, the team is figuring out how to productize the empowerment of their community members. It’s no small task, involves a lot of trial and error, and requires hand-holding for the time being. But the only way to make it through the growing pains is to push through them. To help with this Sisyphean task, they’ve made a fantastic community hire, Austin Smith.
Austin’s job title is “Platform Evangelist.” His day-to-day work can involve anything from throwing events in Chicago, South Carolina, Atlanta, or San Francisco to answering user questions in the chatrooms. Prior to Assembly, he was the developer evangelist at Singly.
Today, he has scaled his efforts by, again, simply relinquishing control to the users in each city.
“People in each city want to organize get-togethers. So we give them that power. Assembly will coordinate, sponsor beer and pizza and let them do the rest. They just want to meet up with other people who build products,” explains Matt.
They also hope to do more outreach to current communities who would like to build products together, such as schools and entrepreneurial clubs. For now, their work is incredibly grassroots. As they move toward maturity, their outreach and partnerships will become more structured.
There are a few key takeaways from the lessons that Assembly has taught us:
- Let your users take control. It may seem scary, but you’ll never know unless you try. And if you don’t try, there’s no hope you’ll ever scale your operations.
- Get to know people both online and offline. Google Hangouts and happy hours organized by key members of your community go a long way toward getting to know your users better.
- People want to own what they build. It’s fair to take part of it for building tools on their behalf, but the future of work and company-building may well be in ownership based on meritocracy and distributed control.
- You have to choose your community leaders wisely. You need visionaries to run with ideas. All they need is a little structure (but not too much), and they’ll do great things.
- Trust is incredibly important in online communities where social and actual capital is at stake. Take the burden off your members and assume the risk, otherwise people will likely not make the leap to connect with one another.
How will they know that they’ve really made it?
“When someone can live on the revenue they make from building on Assembly products, we’ll be there.”
“In the end, we are here to help other people build their dreams together. The Internet is good at connecting all these people. You must always be asking yourself then: ‘What can you do better together?’”
Want to get involved with building Assembly products? Try getting started with Buckets, a product for managing content, or Family Table, a product that brings families together.