As a developer these days, if you want to build anything that changes the world, you’d better believe it needs to have a community component.
Think Wikipedia, WordPress, Linux: all world-changing technology that empowers technical and non-technical people alike to build the future – together.
Telescope is working to join those ranks, whether its founder Sacha Greif meant for it to or not.
Telescope is an entirely open-source community platform that allows anyone to build their own reddits or Product Hunts at the drop of a hat — as long as they have some technical know-how. Founder Sacha Greif has learned a lot about building community since starting the project about two years ago, a self-professed accident he never would have consciously pursued had he known how much work it involved.
“Something like this could only happen by mistake or by accident. It’s a lot of work. It’s cool to try it, but it’s not easy,” Sacha explained to me in a Skype call from Osaka, Japan (he’s from Paris originally and now lives in Japan with his wife).
“There are hurdles everywhere. But I am learning so much and meeting new people. It’s like I’m building a screwdriver and then I wait and see how people use it. It’s more interesting than building a birdhouse, but it’s not as easy. I have to build the best possible screwdriver.” This is how Sacha describes building an open-source (read: community-driven) software project.
There is a ton we can learn from Sacha and from open-source projects like Telescope and WordPress. At its core, open-source development is all about leveraging other people’s passion (and free time) to build something together, something that community builders know a lot about. It involves a lot of supporting, a lot of asking for help, and a whole heap of humility.
Today, Sacha shares why open-source projects are far more powerful than anything closed off, the importance of community in business (his first business didn’t take off without it), how to organize an open-source project (something any startup can learn from), and how he sees the future of Telescope as a community platform.
Sacha’s First Community Project
Sacha has a background in computer science and design. He started building side projects as a fun way to test out ideas many years ago and launched his first startup in 2011.
“The first real thing I launched was Folyo. It was a community for startups to find great designers. I had the expectation that I’d build the site and the community would grow organically. We all know that doesn’t happen.”
“I invited a few friends in and that got things moving, but I realize now that there was no sense of community. People would come in with all this passion but I did no ‘stoking of the flame.’ I had no experience, and I had no time. I was the developer, I was running marketing, I was getting press. That was three or four years ago, and I learned a lot.”
One of the key takeaways, in fact, was that he had to tap into the power of local communities to get things going. “Even in the age of globalization,” he said in a blog post about the project (http://sachagreif.com/what-i-learned-bootstrapping-folyo-in-2011/), “It’s important not to skip steps. Start by dominating a niche (which could be local, an online community, a specific market, etc.) and expand from there.”
The company is still around, but Sacha has diverted his attention away from it to build something he sees as being far more powerful.
Strangely enough, Sacha’s vision wasn’t this big to begin with. “I built Telescope just so I could build a side project.”
Sacha has a 10-hour rule on side projects (put it together in 10 hours and put it out in the world), and so he started small. That side project was Sidebar, a daily curated list of design links. His larger vision was to build a Hacker News for design, but then Designer News launched.
Sacha is rather honest about why he initially built the project open-source: It was for selfish reasons.
“So why did I decide to make Telescope open source in the first place?” Sacha asks in a blog post on Medium dated October 2014. “It’d be easy to answer with typical clichés about “giving back to the community” or “believing in free software”.
“But the truth is a lot more pragmatic and selfish: I thought it would be a good way to get other people to help me accomplish my own goals, for free.”
That has turned out to be quite the ironic turn of events, as he has realized that open-source is not about the code at all; it’s about the people.
“If I hadn’t open-sourced it, I wouldn’t be working on something with such big potential. I can now make a much bigger impact.”
“For a long time, I was the only one using Telescope. I was the only one building it.” That has since changed significantly.
How Did the Community Grow?
“About a year ago, I was at a crossroads: should I give up on Telescope or should I give it one more shot? Last summer, I threw myself into it. I rolled out a bunch of new features and made it easier to customize and extend.”
“Now we have a community of developers. Over 1,000 people have deployed a community and have it used it in the last 30 days.”
He laughed and said that was, of course, small in the grand scheme of the Internet world. But the fact of the matter is that his software has a ripple effect: every person that deploys it uses it to touch countless people and connect them to each other in their communities.
Building the Community
Sacha has an interesting predicament than many open-source community builders now face: The people who have the skills to build on Telescope are not the ones who have the need necessarily.
Sacha needs talented developers to join the community to make Telescope a technical success. But the end user – the community builder – is typically not technical.
There’s an intersection, but it’s a very small one.
“I’ve had a hard time finding people at the intersection. Good developers want to build their own solution.”
But what really gets people going is empowering them to work on projects that serve them. Getting that intersection is easy if you go about it the right way.
“I’ve tried to get press and done that a bunch of times. It does nothing. What is making a difference is enabling others to work on their side projects and helping them. I’ve found 4-5 really strong people like that.” That’s all you need to get started.
How To Motivate Open-Source Community Developers
At least two of the key members of the developer community on Telescope are freelance developers who do this work for two key reasons:
And these developers are from all over the world: the US, Mongolia, Australia. Sacha himself is a Parisian living in Osaka, Japan.
“They do this work because it elevates their profile as consultants and to refresh their brains. They can’t work on Telescope projects full time like a WordPress developer might, but they can sometimes get away from the more pedestrian work by working on something new like this.”
“It’s too early for them to live off the platform but the dream is that one day, they’ll be able to.”
How to Organize an Open-Source Community
When you build any kind of community, organization is often what separates failure from success.
“I am trying to delegate tasks and check in with everyone, but they’re volunteers. They don’t work for me. They’re doing this in their free time. I share our roadmap in Trello and we have a Slack chat, but my delegating is more like providing guidelines rather than giving tasks and rules.”
“I watch where people gravitate to. Sometimes they’ll post a feature request in Trello and I’ll miss it for a while or they’ll share a bug in Telescope and I have to tell them to go to Github.”
While the 4-5 key developers share the bulk of their work in Trello and GitHub, the Slack chat hosts over 150 community members, most of whom are users who don’t have as strong of technical skills. Sacha is still able to help them there and, in return, they report bugs, give suggestions, and fix small issues.
“It’s like WordPress. Many people don’t know how to code, but they learn it in order to use WordPress sites. If you nurture that environment, people will learn to work on your platform because they benefit from it.”
His Vision for The Future
“I want to create something lightweight and flexible.”
Sacha showed me two totally different use cases for the platform: CrunchHunt and a CodeBuddies.
“You can use it as a news aggregator, link sharing community, for event scheduling. My vision is for anyone to be able to take it as a skeleton and personalize it.”
“If you look at meaningful projects, they let other people build on them. That’s where big ideas come from.”
“I’ve had to change how I think about Telescope. I look at Telescope as a tool rather than a product. I need to make sure it’s extensible and that people can add channels and customize. It’s so much more work. It’s not a well-defined self-contained thing.”
But that’s the beauty of it. Because the platform is so open-ended and because he has given developers the power to customize it to fit their needs, the platform can be used in infinite ways to build community.
“There is a lot more leverage because it’s a basis for other people’s projects.” It’s not just Sacha working alone anymore — it’s Sacha and thousands of developers all over the world working together to build community tools for the future.