Oct 29 2009
Oct 29

So you're a small startup company, ready to go live with your product, which you intend to distribute under an Open Source License. Congratulations, you made a wise decision! Your developers have been hacking away frantically, getting the code in good shape for the initial launch. Now it's time to look into what else needs to be built and setup, so you're ready to welcome the first members of your new community and to ensure they are coming back!

Keep the following saying in mind, which especially holds true in the Open Source world: "You never get a second chance to make a first impression!". While the most important thing is of course to have a compelling and useful product, this blog post is an attempt to highlight some other aspects about community building and providing the adequate infrastructure. This insight is based on my own experiences and my observations from talking with many people involved in OSS startups and projects.

First of all, realize that your community is diverse. They have different expectations, skills and needs. Pamper your early adopters. They are the multipliers that help you to spread the word, if they are convinced and excited about what you provide. Put some faith and trust in them and listen to their input. In the beginning, you might want to focus on your developer community and the tech-savvy early adopters, but this of course depends on the type of product you provide and on what your target audience looks like. In any case, make sure that you provide the necessary infrastructure to cater the respective needs of these different user bases.

Also remember that you can not overcommunicate with your community. Blog heavily, write documentation/FAQs/HOWTOs, build up Wiki content and structure, create screencasts. Don't rely on the community to create any of this in the early stages. But be prepared to embrace and support any activities, if they arise. Solicit input, provide opportunities and guidelines for participation!

While it's tempting to do: don't establish too many communication channels in the beginning. Keep it simple and reduce the different venues of communication to an absolute minimum at this point. A new forum with many different topics but no comments looks like an art gallery with a lot of rooms, but they are either empty or there's just a single picture hanging at the wall. Nobody wants to visit that, he'd feel lost in the void. At the early stage of a project, I think it's essential to keep the discussions in as few places as possible. This helps you to identify your key community contributors (the "regulars" aka the "alpha geeks") and to build up personal relationships with them (and among themselves).

Consider establishing a forum with only a few topics, start with one or two mailing lists. Also make sure that these are actively being followed (e.g. by yourself or your developers) and that questions are being answered! I personally prefer mailing lists over forums, but I'm probably not representative. Ideally, it would be nice if there would be a unified communication hub that supports both posting via the web site like a forum, or via email or NNTP (similar to Google Groups). This keeps the discussions on one central place (which eases searching for specific keywords/topics) and still allows users to choose their preferred means of communication. Unfortunately, I haven't really found any suitable platform for this approach yet — suggestions are welcome! And once your community grows and people start complaining about too many or off-topic discussions, you can think about further separation of the discussion topics.

Allow your users to submit and comment on issues and feature requests by providing a public bug/feature tracking system. Use this system for your release tracking and planning as well, to give your users a better insight into what they can expect from upcoming versions. Also, make it very clear to your users where bug reports and feature requests should be sent to! Should one use the Forums or the bug tracker for that? A mailing list or forum makes it easier for users to participate in these discussions, but makes it more difficult to keep track of them and to ensure they are being followed up on. For the sake of simplicity, I would actually suggest to remove any separate forums about these topics. Instead, educate your community early about which is the right tool and venue to use for such requests. This saves time and resources on your side and helps to build up an initial core of community members that can then educate others about "the ropes". Otherwise you end up with the burden of keeping track of every feature request or bug report that was posted somewhere, ensuring it has been added to the bug tracker...

If your community infrastructure consists of separate building blocks to provide the required functionality (e.g. forums, bug tracking, wiki), consider setting up a single-sign on (SSO) technology and establish a unified look and feel between these applications. Your users should not be required to log in with more than one username and password, and every application should share the same login and profile data. However, only require a login, if absolutely necessary! Many users feel alienated by having to enter their personal data, even if they only want to lurk around or browse through existing discussions or documentation. As an additional benefit, it helps you to quickly identify your "community stars" in the various sections of your site: Who reports the most bugs? Who is the most helpful person on our Forums? This information could also be published on your community site, giving users the opportunity to build up reputation and karma. Community infrastructure sites like Drupal or Joomla provide an excellent foundation to get you started, while offering enough room for improvement and additional functionality at a later point.

Lower the entrance barrier and make it as easy as possible for people to get started with your application. Don't just throw a source archive at them, hoping that someone else will take care of doing the binary builds. Put some effort into building and providing binary, ready-to-install packages for the most popular platforms that your target audience is likely to use. The three most important platforms to cover are Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. While users of the latter usually have the required tools and experience in building stuff from source, Windows and Mac users are usually "spoiled" and don't want to be bothered with having to install a full-fledged development environment before they could eventually evaluate your application.

When it comes to Linux distributions, you should look into building distribution-specific packages. This heavily depends on the requirements for external libraries that your application is using, which might differ on the various flavours of Linux. Depending on the purpose of your application, you may either focus on the more desktop/developer-centric distributions like Mandriva, openSUSE, Ubuntu, or on the distributions commonly used in server environments, e.g. Debian, CentOS, Fedora, RHEL, SLES (Yes, I am aware that most distributions are multi-purpose and serve both tasks equally well, and it's of course possible to use each of them to get the job done — it's a matter of taste and preference). If possible, make use of existing build infrastructure like Fedora's Koji build system, Launchpad's Personal Package Archives (PPA) or the openSUSE Build Service (which even allows you to build RPMs and DEBs for non-SUSE distributions) to automate the building and provisioning of distribution-specific packages for a wide range of Linux flavours. If your application is slightly complicated to install or set up, consider providing a live demo server that people can access via the Internet to give it a try. Alternatively, create ready-to-run images for virtual machines like Parallels, VirtualBox or VMWare. Everything that makes it easier to access, install and test your software should be explored.

In closing, make community involvement a part of your company culture and make sure that you preserve enough time to take care of it. Community engagement has so many different aspects, you don't necessarily have to be a developer or a very technical person to get involved. I'm aware that doing community work can be seen as a distraction and definitely takes away time from other tasks. But community involvement should become a habit and a well-accepted part of everyone's job — this is much easier to establish while you're still small and growing.

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