Community Building 101

One of the most common topics I speak on and work with on almost a daily basis is the topic of community building. How does an organization create, maintain, or grow a community? The topic is an interesting one and often a difficult one. Each community environment is different and unique and requires a thoughtful and focused plan to help nurture and grow from nothing into a powerful, strong, and successful community. The job of community building lies not with one person but with a group of people. Here are a few tips to get you started.

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4 Survival Tactics for Your Open Source Project

It finally happened. You developed a killer app. You spent months agonizing over every decision in getting the application to market and you’ve worked incredibly hard to create a cutting-edge technological marvel which blows away everything else on the web. You focused on all the right metrics, the user experience is beautiful and the community is thriving. (Yep, it’s open source). You feel on top of the world, and it’s exciting.

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Introducing Something New To Open Source

Open source software is the future of our world. The power of the community has been clearly demonstrated and the opportunity to provide equality to businesses of all sizes has been shown. I’d like to share my latest endeavors with you and encourage you to join me.

Some Background

Too often businesses are forced in to situations which limits their opportunity and their ability to succeed. Small businesses account for over 65% of all new jobs and more than 22.7 million small businesses existed (several years previous). Strikingly though of this dominant portion of the economy 80% average less than $50,000 in receipts. Small business is a struggle. More small businesses close than open each month and yet the struggle continues.

Small Business Confession

I’m part of a small business. I know firsthand the struggles faced and the challenges which exist in the day to day. One of the greatest concerns and frustrations I meet is the lack of strong software tools available for small businesses. This weighs on me heavily and I am deeply passionate about changing this perceived standard.

“All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual.”
– Albert Einstein

What I Fight For

I’ve spent my entire professional life seeking ways to combat these issues and help other small businesses just like myself to succeed and find the resources they need to achieve their goals. Too many vertical markets exist where the only providers are large, closed corporations intent on maximizing their profits and focused solely on serving other businesses of their same size. The Fortune 500 helping the Fortune 500. No one is looking out for the little guy. The underdog. The up-and-comer.

Other Open Source Projects

Through the years I’ve been privileged to be a part of several open source projects and to create several open source tools aimed at providing an equal playing field for small businesses to compete at the same level as these large businesses. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned the importance of good support, the value in a community, and the opportunity for growth through conflicts.

Initiatives I’ve been fortunate to be involved in have released amazing Content Management software, Customer Relationship Management software, Project Management software, Live Chat Management software and others. Each of these software tools has been with the same goal. The empowering of small businesses. We’ve sought to reduce the ridiculous over-priced expense which previously had prohibited small businesses.  But there’s still more to do. There are still more challenges to conquer and more ways to empower small businesses. Rest assured I will continue to be an active supporter and vocal contributor to each these open source projects.

Continuing To Grow

I am incredibly excited to share with you the next open source project I’ll be involved in. Myself along with several other close friends have identified a vertical market completely out-of-reach for many small businesses due to the exorbitant monthly costs. Monthly fees exceeding the entire gross revenue of approximately 75% of all U.S. small businesses.  And yet a powerful piece of software which incredibly helps those businesses which can afford the service. This tool is revolutionary not just in the powerful, cutting-edge framework upon which its built but also in the disruption it brings to a previously closed market.

I look forward to sharing much more with you through my blog as we go about preparing tools.  I’ll share the pain-points, the highs and the lows of beginning a new open source project and we’ll grow together as we begin to form a community. As we go if you have questions, ideas, or just general comments I welcome them. You can contact me directly through my email. The excitement is growing and the buzz is definitely starting to increase. I hope as things progress and I share different behind-the-scenes peeks you’ll start to feel the same enthusiasm that’s driving me!

Beginning a Community

Yes, I know I’m leaving things a bit in the dark at the moment but I promise more will come. I’ll share screenshots, ask for feedback, and just in general do everything I can to get you involved. I’m only one of the people involved in this very exciting effort. If you own, run, or work in a small business I hope you will become more and more involved as we go through this process. It’s never too early to become a part of this new open source community.

I believe in small businesses, equality, and community. I believe in open source.
Do you?


The Role of Trust in Open Source

I still remember the first time my parents deemed me old enough to stay at home by myself. I felt an incredible feeling of power and responsibility. I also felt strangely free. I could do just about anything I wanted and I had the entire house to myself. Of course my parents had only run to the store and would be back in only a few minutes but for those few minutes I was master of my domain. My parents left me alone because they trusted me. They trusted me to not get in trouble and to not burn the house down! So what does trust look like in open source and how does that trust effect volunteers and contributors?

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Lessons in Learning Open Source

I’m leading another talk on developing code using an open source framework. Only it’s going quite slow this time. In fact, I’m pausing after every sentence. And yet the room is far from silent and the excitement is quite high. What causes this excitement instead of frustration?

I guess I should clarify. This particular teaching opportunity is taking place in the great city of Sao Paulo, Brazil. And the reason I’m pausing after every sentence is to allow my translator the chance to repeat everything in their native Portuguese. It’s an intense experience. If you’ve never had the opportunity of sharing a highly technical topic with someone who understands only one out of every dozen words you speak then you are missing out on an experience. Now imagine there are a dozen other people sitting in the room also listening to you and trying to follow along. As I said, it’s an intense experience. But it is an unmatched feeling. Incredible might be a better word. And it makes me think about another power which open source possesses. Here’s a few lessons I draw from the unique opportunity of learning open source.

Learning is community centered

Sure, there are books and tutorials and videos, and a multitude of other resources available. In fact, there are schools and courses and an infinite number of ways to learn. However in open source you’ll often find the best learning is done within the community. People learning from people in a group setting.

The concept of group learning is unique in some sense to open source. We’re here because we want to be here. We’re not being paid to spend our weekend sitting in some classroom learning. We do this because we want to learn. And almost as much as we want to learn, we want to help others. That’s the other side of the coin. No matter how much I learn I always always find someone knows more. And someone else knows less. This means just as important as learning more is the idea of sharing knowledge with others based on what I know. Helping others. We’re a community of like-minded people focused on a particular set of values and shared interests. Our learning is centered on this.

Learning is personal

Even though we’ve discussed how learning is community centered learning is also very personal. People grow internally based on their experiences and they learn based on the instruction they are given. This learning causes them to change, and hopefully to improve.

When we are in an open source community we are often stretched outside our comfort zone. We don’t start that way, but over time we grow and the desire to learn more, or to be better forces us to timidly reach beyond our comfort zone and reach out to others. We’re driven by the deep down longing to learn more. As a result of this longing and learning we change who we are (to an extent). We improve ourselves. The very act of learning in an open source sharing community makes us a more well-rounded, and better person.

Learning is empowering

There’s something intrinsically powerful about knowledge. It’s a pretty commonly understood idea. “Knowledge is power.” But extrapolating on that notion leads back to the root that the very act of learning is empowering. By learning we are gaining knowledge and we are gaining power.

Open source is teeming with knowledge. When every line of code which makes up an application is made publicly available to be analyzed and poured over by anyone interested the result is empowering. Open source encourages learning and as such encourages the increase of knowledge and power. When you look at code and see what can be done and learn how to do things better you are empowered to do more. Now you can share that knowledge with others. Now you can become the teacher. Open source alone gives you the perfect environment – the opportunity to learn woven inseparably with the opportunity to teach.

Learning is exciting

I left one of my favorite lessons for last. Learning is most definitely exciting. I’m not referring to the type of learning you were doing in university with first year studies of ancient history (unless you enjoy that kind of thing). Instead I refer to the type of learning you find in an open source community. There’s a rush of excitement you can feel when you walk into a room on a weekend to meet with others in a community for the sake of learning. It’s very exciting.

As I wrap up my session in Brazil, the excitement is clearly evident. People talking over people, hands being raised, fingers flying on keyboards. Yes, this is what open source learning is all about. Watching someone understand the concept you’re teaching. The smile that spreads across their face when they successfully complete a task. The eyes glint with the newfound knowledge and the empowering, exciting, personal growth they’ve experienced. If you’ve never had the opportunity to experience this before. You should. Find a community and become a part. Get involved and see what learning in an open source environment is all about. I guarantee you – you’ll be changed forever.

The Fight to be Flexible


I’m sitting at the airport. This quite a common place to find me. As an open source advocate I travel a lot. Most of the time my flights are on time and my connections are easy. This is not one of those times.

Flight Delay

I found out my initial flight leg from RDU to IAD (Washington Dulles) was delayed and then 20 minutes later delayed again; and again. Eventually it was delayed 3 more times. And as expected with that many delays, I missed the connection from IAD to GRU (Sao Paulo, Brazil). Majorly frustrating. As I make the arrangements to rebook the flight for the following day it strikes me how applicable this situation is to life, and also to open source.

We all have plans for our lives. We have an agenda, things we want to see accomplished and goals we want to achieve. In an open source community we set our sights on accomplishing lofty things. Many of them having some form of “change the world” buried in them. We put down a mission and a vision statement we want to accomplish and then we start to organize ourselves to accomplish those goals.

Open Source Opportunities

Open source projects have several obstacles to overcome in this scenario though. Chiefly, we rely on the time, interests and energies of volunteers to accomplish these lofty goals and ultimately accomplish our mission and fulfill our vision. If our volunteers fail to have the time or interest then the project also fails. This is where the power of flexibility becomes so critically important.

It is foolish to believe a mission statement or a vision cannot change. It’s also foolish to believe every deadline will be met perfectly. When an open source community relies on volunteers and contributors one of the greatest battles is the battle to remain flexible, to be willing to make changes to deadlines, to goals, and even to a project’s mission.

Why must a community be flexible?

As I’ve already mentioned when a community relies on the goodwill and generous donations of time and talent from contributors there must be an inherent amount of understanding and ability to change as a result. Secondly, and possibly even more importantly, The world changes. Software changes, companies and organizations change. An open source community grows over time and as it grows it evolves. It establishes a culture and becomes more refined (dare I say focused) as it grows. At least this should be the case because the community listens to its members. Not only does it listen to its members to help it establish culture but it also listens to the world. A strong community pays attention to the changes happening around it and is flexible in adopting change (when it’s for the good of the community).

Are communities quick to be flexible?

No, and that’s why I say it’s a fight to be flexible. Sometimes individuals in the community are change-averse. They prefer the status quo over the ‘unknowns’ involved in changing. A well-rounded community is made up of a variety of individuals. These differences should be celebrated and embraced. These differences should also be kept in mind. Just as there are those ‘strong and steady’ types there are also the ‘non-comformist’ type, this is the person who loves change, any change, and even wants change just because it’s change. There’s dangers in both these types as well as the many other types (trust me, there are many many personalities which make up a good open source community). The point is to be flexible. Be talking and communicating with each other within your community. When communication happens (and listening happens) then the true power of open source communities can be found. Because I believe this is where open source stands head and shoulders over others.

Open Source Wins

Open source projects should stop looking at flexibility as something that must be fought but rather one of it’s greatest strengths. The ability to change direction based on the community is a powerful one. Most large corporations are unable to implement the types of flexibility and take advantage of a changing culture in the same way an open source community can. The passion found in volunteers cannot be bought, cannot be forced in a closed source corporation. It’s inherent in the genetic makeup of open source. Take advantage of the benefit of being open source. Take advantage of the flexibility and use it to be an incredible community.

Remember, we’re all in this together.

The Quiet Community


That awkward silence which fills a room when there is a lull in the conversation, or that moment when you realize you’re the only one talking, or the time when you respond to a chat message and there’s no reply. These are all common occurrences in life. But when is a quiet community a bad thing?

Too Much Talk

There is of course a time when talking is not enough. I’ve see firsthand those moments when everyone is talking and no one is listening. Sometimes a community is so busy debating with themselves over minor details that they forget to actually do something. Too much talk can be a bad thing.

Too much talk means a community is not focusing their time on doing things and making progress. This will kill a project, any project. In open source communities and especially open source communities, where the community is in charge of decision making, the discussions and debates over every minor decision can quickly lead to stagnation.

I think we can all agree too much talk can at times be a bad thing. So what about a quiet community? Is a quiet community equally bad for a project? Yes. A quiet community can be potentially a bad thing. Here’s 3 potential problems in a quiet community.

Silence is deadly

If a community is too quiet it will die. Outsiders judge a project’s viability and life by its communication channels, the chatter which takes place. Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone to a Github repository and viewed the last commit timestamp, followed closely by a glance at the open issues. You’re trying to judge the health of the project by its communications. Or if you check twitter to see the last messages posted with a specific hashtag or @ tweet.

Silence in a community is not golden when it comes to a community which makes group decisions and relies on the involvement of volunteers (open source) to accomplish things.

No man is an island

Secondly, if a community is quiet then volunteers will begin to feel as though they are “alone” in the project. This is incredibly discouraging. Everyone knows the feeling of writing something and waiting for the response. In real life you look for the facial expressions, the reactions of those you’re talking to. You use these verbal and non-verbal cues as encouragement for continuing or as a warning sign that you should sit down and shut up. Now take that same feeling and apply it to an online community. You post a message on a forum, on a social media channel, in an online chat, or on a mailing list. In this environment there is no opportunity to read non-verbal (or even verbal) cues. You rely on the responses.

If a community is silent then you have nothing to motivate you to continue and you will sit down and shut up. You’ll leave the community and find a new community where the participation is higher. As humans we need this interaction.

Apathy is quiet

This last point is a hard one to pin down. I’m not claiming that apathy is always silent, nor am I claiming the reverse, that a quiet community is apathetic. But often when there is apathy the result is a lack of input. If you find yourself not really caring or believing in something you can walk away, you can leave. But that involves effort. Sometimes you don’t feel like making that effort. You’re ok with doing nothing because you’re not interested, you don’t care. You’re apathetic.

If a community doesn’t care then it will not make decisions. It will not do anything. Which means something else will happen. It will stagnate. It will die.

Three potential concerns in an overly quiet community. As with everything in life, a balance is necessary. Open source communities should keep an eye on communications. If they see any of these three concerns becoming too prevalent then it’s time to do some soul-searching. Seek out the reason for the quietness. Has the community lost its drive? Its focus? Its vision? It’s possible a change is in order. Its possible action needs to be taken to help stimulate conversation. Perhaps its merely a lull, a welcome moment of calm in an otherwise noisy and thriving ecosystem. Excellent, make the most of it. Enjoy the stillness. But stay alert and be ready to make changes if needed.

Drawing lines

There exists an age-old dilemma and constant battle which takes place in just about every online discussion: Where to draw the line, call for a cease fire, and end a thread. 


I’m convinced there is no easy answer. In fact, I’m also convinced the answer varies from one discussion to the next – and from one community to the next. In the world of open source communities (the circle I most frequently travel in) this is an often difficult decision to make. Obviously we want to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to have their voice and their opinion heard. But clearly we don’t want to encourage bitterness, personal attacks, or hurtful comments either. The job of mediating the discussion should not be the job of a single person but rather should come naturally to those involved in the discussion. Wait a minute – did you read that?

I believe the responsibility for mediation in a discussion falls on the shoulders of the people actively involved in the debate.

Even when discussing very passionately the belief and viewpoint you have – you need to always be in control of your own words. Be careful to not fall into any of the common logical fallacies

Perhaps even more important then not sidetracking a discussion with one of these fallacious arguments is the ability to moderate your own comments to the issue at hand and not turn on a person or emotional plea. I admit this one is hard. Especially when believing strongly about something, but perspective is key. Always keep the relationship in mind. And always keep in mind how the debate appears to other people not involved. 

When discussing a topic in an open and transparent environment, there are sure to be others watching. Not only are they interested in the outcome of the debate but also interested to see how the community handles itself in conflict. 

The hardest line to draw is the line in front of yourself. And then be bold enough to step back from it.

Speaking of drawing lines, I’d like to close with a short humorous video regarding an engineer’s approach to drawing multiple colored perpendicular red lines.