Rising From the Ashes

Rising from the ashes

Yesterday, we officially buried the dream of Openly-as-a-VC-backed-startup. Things have not been looking so great for a while, but yesterday we delivered our final pitch to the Antler incubator that put the nail in the coffin: Openly will not be a venture-capital-backed startup — at least not in the foreseeable future.

The reason is fairly straight forward:

  • We can’t find a specific pain point to solve.
  • Without a pain point, we can’t find early adopters.
  • Without early adopters, no startup.

Here is what happened:

  • Jessy and I believe that the future of the impact world is open. Organizations will be sharing their work openly to allow peers to learn from, build on, and contribute to that work.
  • There are two key challenges: Culture & technology.
    • We need to broaden people’s mindset and behavior about what open means. We need to tackle common misconceptions when it comes to open related to getting credit and receiving funding.
    • We need a platform to facilitate open collaboration between organizations.
    • With Openly, we are trying to tackle both. We regard the technology side as the revenue source for funding our cultural work.
  • The platform needs to facilitate three things:
    • Discovery of organizations
    • Access to knowledge
    • Collaboration on work
  • In September 2017, Jessy and I set out to start a startup that would tackle this.
  • We looked at open source, the biggest open collaboration movement, and GitHub, the world’s leading platform for open source projects. With that, a “GitHub for impact” seemed to us the most promising solution hypothesis (hypothesis #1). It would be:
    • the best of Git & GitHub: commits, diffs, merges, issue tracking, and pull requests
    • optimized for documents, spreadsheets, and presentations
    • integrated with the cloud providers where the work of organizations was to be found
  • We tested and iterated different implementations of a GitHub for documents and bumped into some real validation along the way:
    • “I’ve wanted Git for Google Docs for ages.”
    • “We are working with dozens of contributors on our Google Drive and it’s an absolute mess. Everyone just dumps files wherever they want, no one can find what they’re looking for. We need this (Openly).”
    • “Issue tracking on GitHub is awesome, but GitHub is no good for pull request & navigating directories because the scientists don’t have the GitHub desktop client and they don’t know command lines. We are getting a lot of value out of GitHub with some of its features, but we are missing out on the other really useful parts of GitHub due to its high learning curve.”
    • and more along those lines
  • As we built and launched our “GitHub for Documents”, we struggled to get traction.
    • Users that tried out Openly rarely every came back.
    • Throughout all our time, we only had one truly active user.
  • Then, a month or so ago, we were hit by the realization that we had never identified a specific pain point that we were solving for anyone.
    • Openly had many potential applications. Not finding a specific pain point to begin with meant that we would not serve any potential application well.
  • We wanted to grow Openly fast (to maximize its social impact), so we also had a business model hypothesis (hypothesis #2):
    • Offer Openly for free for open collaboration and charge users for closed, internal, private collaboration within teams and companies.
    • This was inspired by GitHub’s business model.
    • Our hope was that it would allow us to generate revenue and raise VC funding to scale Openly fast.
  • Instead of just trying to facilitate open collaboration between organizations, we were now also tackling the question of how to best facilitate collaboration within teams.
    • Rather than allowing us to scale, our business model probably stretched our limited attention too thin too soon.

This brings us to today. For a while Openly looked very dead — especially to me (Jessy continued to believe in it throughout). I was ready to quit, throw in the towel, and go back to Germany. You can tell because I was writing things like this in my personal diary on a DAILY BASIS:

I can’t wait to be done. I’ve started counting the days: 20. It’s not that I’m not sad. I am. Very sad. This is a dream dying. But it’s a dream whose death has been long overdue. And I’m incredibly excited for the space it’s making for new things to come into my life ^_^

And I did get very close to quitting indeed. But shortly before the day to quit, March 15, finally came, I realized I wanted to continue! Here is what I wrote that final day:

Alright… It’s decision day! I was so sure that I’d quit. And now, here I am. And I feel like I want to continue. WHAT THE ACTUAL ****. I’ve gone insane. Or at least crazy.

[…]

I want to continue working on Openly. I want to continue building an open collaboration movement.

And so here we are. Openly lives on. We’re watching it being reborn from its ashes. Openly won’t be the same. It will be better. Why?

  • We no longer have pressure to execute and grow our startup at the expense of finding a solution that actually solves the problem.
  • We are talking to any and every key member of the open collaboration movement to learn what would actually help them be open and collaborate.
  • We no longer have pressure to have a solid business model. All our energy will focus on figuring out how to best facilitate open collaboration. We will worry about money later.
  • We have no obligation to anyone other than our users. This means all our work will become open. And all our code can remain open source.

Over the coming weeks, you will see some changes to the Openly landing page to reflect these changes. I’m excited for the new Openly and I hope you will join us along for the ride :)