When you think of open-source software, what comes to mind? You may think of developers who code plugins, add to a code base, and build together behind their computer screens. You may think a specific open-source project like WordPress. You may think Linux.

But, heck, maybe nothing comes to mind.

Maybe you don’t know what a plugin is or you’ve never been informed about Linux’s impact (FYI: it’s the basis for the Android operating system, which is in use by over 84% of smartphone users…). And that’s totally okay.

But you have a lot in common with open-source software leaders — and a lot to learn from them.

Open-source projects involve the hard work of dozens, hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of developers building software for one another, not selfishly building something for one team. Many businesses who build community do so to “own” relationships, data, conversations, or intellectual property. Not open-source communities. Open-source communities are radically evolved, open communities armed with the tools to build technology’s future.

So how can you build a radical, evolved community that works together to build a better future? How can you motivate your members not only to join your community but also to contribute to a larger, more engaging project?

Today, we talk with Sacha Greif, the founder of Telescope, an open-source project that has the potential to alter the community landscape. Telescope is a blank canvas upon which any community can be built.

Sacha Greif Headshot
Image via SachaGreif.com

Sacha’s aim is to power the world’s online communities with a fully customizable platform, so that anyone can start a community that meets their needs, just like anyone can start a blog on WordPress if they have 15 minutes and inspiration.

As a community builder and an open-source leader, Sacha knows what open-source communities can teach all community professionals.

You’ll learn about:

  1. What is the open-source mindset? Why do you need one?
  2. The five characteristics of successful open-source communities — and how you can apply them to your community to deepen engagement in a shared project
  3. Initiating a community project with an open-source mindset
  4. Growing a community project with an open-source mindset
  5. Organizing your community to take action

1. Why Does Your Community Need an Open-Source Mindset?

It turns out that open-source software is not about code at all. It is about gathering people around a common cause. It is about community.

Sacha Greif, originally from Paris but now headquartered in Osaka, Japan, came to this realization after ignoring community-building with his first startup.

“The first real thing I launched was Folyo in 2011. 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.”

This may feel familiar to you: you’re juggling a million tasks and community takes a back seat. But what if you found a way to help members build alongside you? That’s what Sacha has done.

Building Folyo made Sacha realize this simple truth: The sense of community you create can make or break the business.

Later on, he decided to build a Hacker News for designers (now called Sidebar). That’s when Telescope was born – by accident. “I built Telescope just so I could build that side project.”


“There are hurdles everywhere,” he now says. “But I am learning so much. I am not just building software. I am building a tool.”

This is the key: you, community professional, are not just building a product or supporting a business. You’re building a tool through which people can build up their own projects, passions, and friendships. When members see their own projects furthered through participating in your community, you have the golden ticket.

Textie, a community for crowdsourcing text message replies

2. The Characteristics of All Successful Open-Source Communities

While most communities can be built moving from relationships to shared connections along a commitment curve, open-source projects are a little different. They involve getting others to help on one very specific project.

Here’s how that might look as a real-world example:

Imagine, for a second, that you’ve just walked into a room full of people and you’re supposed to navigate the room with no context. Now imagine you walk into a room full of people and you’re given paper and pencils and told to draw a piece of a mural that others have already started. Which situation makes you want to take immediate action? Which do you think will allow you to start conversations more freely and less awkwardly? The latter. That is the environment you need to create.

There is a science to Sacha’s work – and yours – as discovered by Northwestern University’s Knight Labs and researchers, Charles M. Schweik and Robert C. English (authors of Internet Success).

There are actually five key characteristics to open-source success, which we can relate back to all community building frameworks:

  • A “clearly defined vision and a mechanism to communicate the vision early in the project’s life.”

Sacha describes his work with Telescope as something much larger than just coding with others: “It’s like I’m building a better hammer 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 hammer.”

Sacha communicates that vision again and again in their Slack channel and on their Telescope meta Google Hangouts.

Vision is the heart of all the work you do as a community professional. Once you set the vision, make sure it aligns with your community’s motivations. What do they want to do/build/create with your product or service? Your community project must be a conduit for that.

  • A set of users whose needs can be met by the community software being built.

There is a huge demand these days for community software. There are now over 100 companies building it, but none that are fully extensible and as open as, say, WordPress. Telescope aims to be the most extensible solution for community builders.

Action Item: Ask yourself, “What can my community build together to meet one another’s needs? Maybe, like Duolingo, you build language content together that helps fluent speakers spread their love of their language or new speakers practice their skills.

  • Well-articulated goals set by the leader.

Sacha communicates his goals in the four shared spaces in which Telescope developers and users convene. He also does Google Hangouts with his developers to get everyone on the same page about the future of the platform.

Action Item: Put your goals front and center and find a consistent but simple way to communicate them regularly, whether that is through a monthly newsletter, group chat, public content on your website, or offline event.

  • Good communication and bug tracking.

Bug tracking is essential in open-source projects. It serves two purposes. First, it gives members an easy way to influence and impact others. Almost anyone can spot a bug, even if they’re not technical. Second, finding and fixing bugs reduces friction during collaboration.

Telescope uses Trello to track all bugs. It’s less important what system is used and more important that you preserve the principle: let people of all levels find ways to contribute and communicate with the rest of the community.

Action Item: Assess what kinds of help you need to build your community project, from top to bottom in terms of difficulty and technical expertise needed. Do you have something at each level and a way for the community to know the others who are doing work at each level?

  • An open system that allows future members to build at different levels of complexity.

Telescope “dog foods” its own product in order to accomplish this goal (meaning they use the product themselves). This allows for members to interface in a Telescope meta community and on Slack.

They also have a roadmap in Trello, though Sacha admits that refining this is an important goal of his moving forward.

Action Item: How can you publicly advertise where community help is most needed without limiting people in what they want to pursue? Consider starting simple with a Google doc of your roadmap or a sign-up sheet and build from there.

No matter what kind of community you build, these principles for community success hold true. In a more general sense, they can be summed up as:

  1. A vision that starts at the core of the company.
  2. A value proposition for the members of the community to participate.
  3. Sharing goals publically and asking for help.
  4. Focusing on organization and building tools, not creating rules.
  5. An open platform or safe space on which to offer different levels of responsibility.

3. Stage One: How to Initiate an Open-Source Community Project

As with any community-building effort, you have to start somewhere even if you have a large userbase to draw from.

The authors of Internet Success argue that there are really two key stages in open-source community development: the beta (initiation) stage and the growth stage.

“For a long time, I was the only one using Telescope. I was the only one building it.” Sacha said.

The beta stage, as with any community, is the most delicate time during development, and it feels like an uphill battle. It typically happens before anything is available publicly, and the project is cobbled together slowly over time.

Telescope poses an interesting predicament for him: The people who have the skills to build on Telescope are not the ones who necessarily have the need.

Sacha needed talented developers to join the community to make Telescope a technical success. But the end user – the community builder – is typically not technical. This meant that Sacha had a very slim group of people to go after in the initiation stage. Perhaps you face a similar challenge, trying to identify where users’ passions intersect with your business needs. Not everyone will be a part of your community project. You have to find the intersection and start there.

There’s an intersection for Telescope, but it’s a very small one, and that is exactly where Sacha began.

1-CtF7ogsu8v_ns90_qT2SQg “I’ve had a hard time finding people at the intersection. Good developers want to build their own solution,” he says. This might be true in your community. If your community members are not the end-users of what they are creating, it’s likely you need to look elsewhere to recruit new members. How can you find the ones who are at that intersection?

“I’ve tried to get press and I have 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.”

4. Stage Two: How to Expand Past the Initiation Phase of an Open-Source Community Project

“About a year ago, I was at a crossroads: should I give up on Telescope or should I give it one more shot?” That’s when Sacha decided to go full force into growing the developer community around Telescope. “Last summer, I threw myself into it. Now we have a community of developers working on it. Over 1,000 people have deployed a community and have it used it in the last 30 days.”

To do this, Sacha did 3 intentional things to build up his baseline of members:

  1. Identifying motivations of members
  2. Appealing to those motivations
  3. Building tools to help them help him

Identifying Motivations

As with any community, aligning business goals with community members’ motivations is critical to success.

The key members within the developer community on Telescope are freelance developers who do this work for two key reasons, which Sacha discovered after getting to know his early developers more deeply:

1. Leisure

2. Practice

Appealing to Those Motivations

“They do this work because it elevates their profile as consultants and to refresh their brains,” Sacha explains. And these developers are from all over the world: the US, Mongolia, Australia, and elsewhere.

“It’s too early for them to live off the platform but the dream is that one day, they’ll be able to.” That’s the dream he sells with his overarching vision for Telescope.

As the leader, Sacha’s goal is to make sure that he serves the community with these two key motivators and creates a system of organization that makes it easier to get things done.

Creating Tools

When Sacha put his head down last summer and started to build a stronger foundation for Telescope’s growth, he first had to make it easier for people to join up.

“I rolled out a bunch of new features and made it easier to customize and extend.” This allowed others to lend a hand.

This is also when he got more organized about which communication channels were most effective for each piece of the project. Organization is a key success factor in open-source success.

5. Organization Is Key

When you build a community of any kind, organization is often what separates a successful community from a failed one. Open-source is no exception. It is not just a free-for-all; you must give people tools to create. When you don’t do this, you leave members out in the cold, unsure how to move forward.

When you’re starting from scratch, it’s better to use tools that already exist rather than building your own. Again, this isn’t about proving your technical prowess; it’s about giving communities the ability to convene in shared spaces.

A welcome into the Telescope Slack community
A welcome into the Telescope Slack community

Telescope does this in four shared spaces:

  1. Slack
  2. Trello
  3. GitHub
  4. Telescope’s meta community

“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. 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.”

“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.”

A Vision for the Future

“I want to create something lightweight and flexible. If you look at meaningful projects, they let other people build on them. That’s where big ideas come from.”

“There is a lot more leverage because it’s a basis for other people’s projects.” That’s the beauty of building community with an open-source mindset: you find the intersection between members’ motivations and the tools your organization can provide, and you work to get your members working together.

Carrie Melissa Jones

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