Taco Potze - Open Social, the open-source online community platform
Taco Potze is the founder and CEO of Open Social, an open-source SaaS platform for building and managing online communities.
In this episode, released just over a week after the launch of Open Social's new website, we talk about the platform's recent developments and their plans for the future. We discuss the choice of open source technologies for the platform, the redesign and the seed investment they received back in the summer which is enabling the new developments. Finally, we focus on the upcoming version of their platform, which will feature a decoupled architecture and makes use of powerful Facebook-backed technologies such as React.
Links & mentions:
“If you work with Open Social, the project itself is benefiting society. So as a government, you know you're not just spending money on making some American company rich and not paying any taxes and having some great shareholders. You actually know you're contributing back to society, by supporting Open Social.”
Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop.
Tim Butara: Hello everyone! Thank you for tuning in. Our guest today is Taco Potze, founder and CEO of Open Social, an open-source SaaS platform for online community engagement and management. In this episode, Taco is going to tell us more about the company and its recent developments, from the major seed investment they received back in the summer of 2020 to their relaunch which happened just about a week ago.
Welcome Taco! It's really great to have you with us today. Can you start off by telling us a little about the origins of Open Social? Like, what was the main idea behind it, or a kind of initial vision for the company?
Taco Potze: Yeah! Thanks for having me on, Tim. I really like the podcast. So, we were an agency. That means we were doing different projects for different clients, and we would sell services. So based on hourly rates, doing marketing, development, support etc. and we were doing this for a wide range of clients.
So, they would come to us with a challenge. Can you build us a website, or e-commerce platform or portal, anything we would do, and then start designing and building it. But we saw the world change. In that, the clients were expecting much faster platform delivery, so there were no months to deliver, they also didn't want to spend a lot of money up front. They wanted to have something quick, cheap, and pay preferably a fee over time, than upfront a lot of money and a lot of project risk, and also they were expecting much more quality. So, people were seeing in their personal lives, great tools like Facebook and WhatsApp. You know they always work, they were never down, there were no bugs, and people expect that same quality from building something custom, and we were having a hard time delivering that, and managing those expectations.
So, we said, “You know what we should do.” We should build a product that works out of the box really well and that we can deploy super easily, and make sure that people can have it up and running in minutes instead of hours. And, and, we started doing this for the platforms that we think are one of the toughest to build, and that is very highly interactive and engaging platforms, that can be for example, social communities, it can be intranets as well. But they need a lot of, a lot of engagement on these platforms. So that was how open social as an idea was, was born and we did a crowdfunding campaign early 2016, we finished it. We raised 200,000 Euro, and we took 2016 to build an Open Social; the first version of it. And since 2017 we've been working with a variety of clients such as The United Nations to improve the platform, and to build it into the product and project that it is today.
Tim Butara: That sounds really interesting. Thanks for this extended, extended origin story. And the next thing that I want to ask you is, you know I know that a lot of organizations such as, such as the U.N. or UNESCO, like to rely on open-source technologies, so what was your reasoning behind choosing open source for Open Social? Like, and in particular why Drupal as kind of the open-source technology of choice?
Taco Potze: Yeah, so, for us, being an open-source company is a no-brainer. Because you can never expect the same amount of innovation, the same quality, the same variety of modules that are available, if you would start building this with 10-15 people team.
So, for us having like big ambitions, trying to build this into a global product, open source was always a no-brainer. And we use a variety of technologies of which Drupal is one. Our experience was with Drupal, and Drupal is very well suited in order to deliver highly personalized experiences to end users. But it also offers a great administrative interface. So good editors, good configuration management; to set up the platform, to maintain the platform, to give moderators what they need. So, it provides us with the front-end facing websites that people that do not log in yet to the platform for our clients can really see the variety of information and content. But then, it also in the same environment provides the opportunity where people can log into the system and get the whole personalized experience, engagement and notifications.
So, Drupal’s a really well-suited core technology for that, and we use a variety of other technologies on top of that. Now moving towards decoupled, we are going to work with React to GraphQL and Reason, for example as additional open-source projects.
Tim Butara: Okay, awesome. You'll tell me a little bit more about that when we get to the specific question. But…
Taco Potze: I will.
Tim Butara: Yeah. I mentioned in the intro that you recently received a substantial investment from, from Peak Capital and Nimbus Ventures. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and what the investment means for the future of Open Social?
Taco Potze: Yeah, so. You know when you're changing your business model, and many listeners who have an agency will feel this pain. So it is when you have clients that come to you, “Hey we have a problem can you build this for us, develop it for us? We'll just pay your hours.” You can charge a little bit up front. Then you pay probably on a monthly basis.
So you don't need a lot of money up front. And that's why a lot of agencies are starting this way and growing. But if you're not charging your clients, say, 50,000 euro for a platform, but you say, no, we're going to charge you 1,000 euros a month, then you need to invest yourself in building the technology, building the platform, and then the client will slowly start paying you, and only in the third or fourth years you might make a profit on this client.
So, you need to invest a lot of time and effort and money in developing the product, but also in marketing and sales. So, this is very different than the more traditional business models of agencies. So, you need a lot of money up front. We were fortunate to have really good agency years. We saved a lot of money that we invested in Open Social, and we did the crowd funding campaign. But in the end if you want to grow, and you want to attract more clients, it's going to cost you money to get the clients at first, before they start making your money. So, you need money to grow. This was always our plan, and we have been starting our talks with VCs - so, Venture Capitalists - in 2019, seeing how this world is, who these people are, how they look at startups, what kind of metrics do they want to see, and really start understanding the process and also start looking at, okay, what is a good VC that matches our needs and how can they help us grow. So, when you talk to VCs, not just about the money. It's also about, do they have the experience to bring the company to the next level, how can they help you with what's sometimes called ‘smart money’. So that's also the coaching, and advice, and the network etc. that they bring along as VCs. And we were very fortunate to meet these VCs and build our relationship over time, and that resulted indeed in a 1.25 million euro investment in July last year, which we're now investing. Yeah.
Tim Butara: Awesome, I was really, really glad when I, when I came upon the news about the investment because I've been following open social for, for, a little bit now. I’m interested in the project. I think, I think its mission is very like, valuable one and one that should, that we should cherish more. And kind of, kind of, support more. So, when I saw that you know, that you, you, got such you, you, said 1.2 million. That's quite a substantial sum of money. And it probably has, and will allow you to, to, really develop on the idea. And like, I know that that one of your, one of your, uh USPs is to be kind of the open-source alternative to big online community platforms and, and, you know, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that this investment will play a major factor in helping you, you know, break through and actually be that platform that you want to be.
Taco Potze: Yeah, exactly! So nothing to add there. And of course, it was an exciting year last year with the pandemic, so for us, this actually helped us in a sense. Because uh, the investors that we talked to, they saw that none of the clients that we had were leaving, and that we’re actually signing new clients faster, sometimes getting them up and running in a few days.
So, for example bio.org. We built them a Corona, a Coronavirus hub to max supply and demands from the pharmaceutical industry. This was a huge success and we got it up in two days, up and running. So, we could really match the need for, you know, PPE (personal protective equipment) especially in the US that was in dire needs for masks etc. gloves.
We will all remember this period, and we were really, you know, able to help them quite fast getting the platform up and running. So, this helped also the VCs to decide if they wanted to invest. So yeah, it was a crazy roller coaster year. I think for many of us personally, business, social, for us as well, but we were very happy that we are really in a strong position now, where we were able to invest in the infrastructure, in the product team, expanding our marketing and sales team. We have a new head of sales, and so we're really ready for 2021 and very excited about what the year will bring in terms of growth.
Tim Butara: Nice, I love the optimism and… yeah. So probably the redesign was also made possible because of this investment and all the recent developments with Open Social. So, what were the main business reasons behind this redesign and the kind of the goals that you're aiming to achieve with it?
Taco Potze: Yeah, so, the redesign is the outer layer of some of the fundamentals and, and, business proposition values that we changed. So, what you see is when your early-stage startup, you become very opportunistic. Every project brings the money. So, you'll just say “yes” to every project, and as a technology startup what you usually see is that they start growing quite broad. So, we were doing social internet, we were doing volunteer networks, we were doing student networks, we were doing portals, pretty much anything. And the problem there is that, from the client perspective, they don't really understand anymore like what you're doing because you're doing everything. But okay, what are you doing really well? So, it's harder to do your marketing and sales. You also see that some competitors, they're focusing more on one of those niches, and they sometimes beat you, because they have this nice feature that you cannot build because your roadmap also stretches very thin, because you are doing a little bit for everyone.
So we went through the process of talking to all our clients, understanding their needs, their pain points, talking to potential clients, looking at the market, the market opportunity again, and out of that process came our, I would say renewed focus on building communities for associations, building communities for volunteer networks, so where mobilization is more important, and then building communities also for more external facing communities such as health communities for example.
So, we're focusing more on external communities than internal communities and the intranets currently, and that also defines our roadmap for this year. So, with that renewed focus, we also wanted to do an update of the brands, and of course when you start doing something like that, you know, you want to do it well. So, we also spent some time there, and decided that January 2021 would be a good time to relaunch this and build upon that as a basis for the years to come. So, I hope everybody likes it and of course it's a MVP and we're improving and iterating further on it. We have some big ideas still.
Tim Butara: That's nice to hear. Congrats on that, congrats on the launch and I really love that you're kind of, you focused, if I understand it correctly you're focusing now more on, kind of building communities that have actual positive social impact. You know, you mentioned a lot of health-related stuff, and associations and nonprofits. I assume that also includes charities and stuff like that. So, you know it's, it's really nice to kind of, to see this, this thing evolve with the digitalization of everything. Basically, due to, due to the Covid pandemic and the lockdowns.
Taco Potze: Yeah!
Tim Butara: And yeah, tt's really nice to see that, this is how you're responding to it.
Taco Potze: Yeah! And, don't forget that the process of, of going digital for a lot of these organizations was already taking place. But it was always quite depending on offline, whether that's big events like, conferences etc., to share knowledge. We have the same challenge in the Drupal community, right? We love the Drupal conferences, to meet people, but also to share knowledge. But we also understand that sharing knowledge is not something you do every six months, it's something that you should do continuously. So, how do we make sure that people share more knowledge online? How do we reward them for sharing knowledge? How do we acknowledge them? How do we make sure they feel trusted about sharing their knowledge? We've also seen the poisonous environment of Facebook and Twitter in the last years, so, how do we, how do we combat that? How do we create, you know, safe digital spaces where people feel at ease and feel empowered to share knowledge? So, really focusing on that problem, and solving that problem, has been a good, yeah good success for Open Social.
And yeah, we're just seeing more and more organizations realizing the needs for this year and onwards, looking for solutions for their members, for the users of their online tools, and uh yeah, we're just lifting and growing on that, that trend basically.
Tim Butara: Awesome, excellently said. And, yeah, you mentioned earlier, that you're going decoupled with, with the newest version of Open Social, and that you chose React and GraphQL, right? So, can you tell us a little bit more about that - why a decoupled architecture and why React and GraphQL specifically?
Taco Potze: Yeah, so, there's a big trend towards decoupled or headless. You know there’s multiple reasons for doing this; starting with the end user, the experience will be faster, it will be more smooth. Starting with for example the people that are implementing our open core product, they will have more flexibility to make changes in the front end, because we're not sending the HTML anymore, so you can, you know, basically change the application, decide which information. So, the application will be smoother, faster and more flexible. Which is what everybody wants; while on the same end making sure that it remains maintainable for us as well, because Open Social is used in different use cases. Different organizations have different needs. If we customize each installation it will be hard for us to maintain it.
So also, from us, from a maintenance and cost perspective, this is the way to go. The question was, okay which technologies are we going to use? Drupal itself has for example chosen JSON API. Being a highly social and engaging platform, it made sense for us to also look at the open-source technologies from Facebook, so React, GraphQL are all Facebook-developed technologies. So, we did a lot of research, and in the end, we decided on these technologies. Also seeing the communities there being very active, growing, and just having a great match with the needs of Open Social. And we also decided for Reason ML or Reason as a language to add. So those are all three Facebook projects, and basically, you know, also seeing the fun in taking on Facebook at their own game, using uh their open source, open-source projects.
Of course, Facebook also benefited quite a lot from, from, the PHP community uh in the days etc. So, for us, it's a big step ahead. The first item that we built now was chat. So we built a live chat that will be an extension to Open Social. So, for those who don't know the Open Social model yet we have an open core that is available through Drupal.org anybody can use an install. We also sell the platform as a SaaS, so if you don't want to do the hosting and maintenance and get support, we also do that, and then you can add extensions so that it can be crowd ideation, it can be single sign-on, gamification, we have now Zoom, and BigBlueButton integration, and the live chat is also an extension on a basic product, that will be a few hundred Euros a month, and then you just enable the module and it works out of the box. So that's being done decoupled and it looks really great. So, you can do one-on-one chats, you can do group chats around events, or in your group, and basically how you do this for example on Facebook.
And then the next step in decoupled, we decided to redesign all the overview pages. So that is pages that show you the list of events, or attendees. And we currently have quite a lot in the back end, in the front ends search results. So doing the-- showing the content and making sure we do the operations on them, filtering, sorting, searching, build actions. That's going to be the next step for our decoupled project, and also developing of course all the API endpoints around that. So, a lot of work ahead this year, but that's going to be really nice to do a progressive decoupling in Open sScial, and you'll just see that coming in the next releases of open social.
Tim Butara: Yeah, that all sounds really cool Taco, and I’m really excited to see, like, how it develops further. And, and, I love, like, when you were talking about using technologies developed by Facebook, the first thought that came to me was, like, oh, so basically, you're using stuff developed by Facebook to be a competitor to Facebook. That's such a satisfying irony, man, I love it so, so great, it's like, it's almost like a kind of David and Goliath kind of epic story, you know.
Taco Potze: Yeah, exactly. And we're very true and strong to our values, and I think everybody's seen the results of you know. Especially last week, uh when we're recording this, what happened in the U.S. Everybody's very concerned about the impact of big tech on our lives, and that it does have real consequences. So, going back to more safe, and more trusted communities that are better moderated, that don't have this poisonous atmosphere, but really see communities where people can work together, that share common goals, you know, it just creates a very positive vibe and I think especially in time to come where we see the world so polarized and people are, you know, stacked against each other, and the algorithm of these social media companies are making this worse. I think we have a really big task ahead of us in fixing society both from an economic perspective, also from this polarized political perspective, and a lot of the associations, from government, from non-profits, they have a really big role to play, and hopefully Open Social with that. So yeah, we're very excited and passionate and ambitious about the years to come. I think it's important that we heal our society and we hope to be a part of that.
Tim Butara: Oh, really well said. So, it's basically the perfect timing for an initiative such as Open Social, where it's headed more towards the kind of, back towards the old openness of the web and online communities, and you know a place where free speech is protected and stuff like that.
So that actually led almost perfectly into my next question. So that is, why should people go with an Open Social? Why should they decide for open social rather than another similar technology?
Taco Potze: Yeah, so, you know if you're a small organization, you have the technology to set this up yourself, you can take the open-source version. And more than a thousand organizations are doing that. Some of them we know, some of them we don't know, and some of them they reach out to us to share, contribute back to the product. Sometimes they’re asking for one of our extensions. So of course, that's a big plus, that we give the core away for free. Then we have our version that is paid, for a small monthly fee. The nice thing about that is our extensions, so we have already dozens of extensions, as I mentioned in the live chats. We now have the ability to add a Zoom or BigBlueButton virtual event to your Open Social event. So, you can make it easily into a webinar, or a live session, or even conference, and we're keeping on extending this. So, crowd innovations. We have e-learning, quizzing, badges, gamification, using web hooks, we have a blockchain integration.
I think the flexibility, the extensions, the pace of innovation, it's just really fast, much faster than we see any of our competitors do. So, I think as an organization, you want to make sure that these projects are implemented at low risk, learning from that experience as an organization, trying out new business models, new monetization models, so, you know, how do you charge your members for your membership for example. And with open social you're just really flexible in doing that while making sure that we are 100% GDPR proof. You own all your data.
It's very clear and easy for the users to understand what happens to their information. So, it's a safe way, and also you know that, if you work with Open Social, the project itself is benefiting society. So as a government, you know you're not just spending money on making some American company rich and not paying any taxes and having some great shareholders. You actually know you're contributing back to society, by supporting Open Social. And that's also a reason why, for example, the European Commission has chosen Open Social as the platform for open source-- for the institutions of the European Union, to build their communities on Open Social. So, they just joined last month, the Open Social project, made the first investments in the ecosystem, so that's going to be a big gain as well for the open-source community, and seeing the first results delivered next month. We are ready for that.
Tim Butara: Hey, that’s a really awesome achievement, congrats on that. It's probably like, it is an immense help to have an organization such as, such as the European Commission on board. Like it's probably, a really, like, a foot in the door so to speak. You know, with what you can do, with how you can develop, with how you can grow and scale. So yeah, really awesome.
Taco Potze: Yeah, exactly. And I have to mention the United Nations, and especially UNDP has also been a great supporter of Open Social in the past years. They were the first platform that we launched for Open Social, and they've been really supporting their project as well. So big shout out to the team as well.
Tim Butara: Awesome. Okay, so as a kind of final question before we finish - where do you see Open Social in, let's say 10 years’ time?
Taco Potze: That's a very, very long time, because like 10 years ago Open Social was not even here.
Tim Butara: Yeah, and also, also everything that happened last year, probably it's really hard to make predictions. So okay, let's say in five years’ time maybe, maybe that's easier.
Taco Potze: Yeah, so, what you mentioned earlier, that, you know, you see every closed source proprietary software now has this big open-source competitor. So, for the social software market we really want to be that global competitor competing against Salesforce, Microsoft, you know, the big tech firms. So, that's a clear goal. That doesn't mean we're going to do that overnight. We have a clear step-by-step plan that we're going to roll out starting now with the relaunch of the website, focusing on the sectors that we discussed before, focusing on Europe and U.S, but of course we are ambitious. So, looking at the original funding round. Of course, it's a lot of money, but if you really want to compete on this global level, we'll have to do another fundraising round, and making sure that we can invest further in products, and also the rollout towards other countries in the world.
So, in five years’ time, we hopefully are on that global level and a strong competitor, giving these big tech organizations a run for their money, and having a lot of fun in the meantime. Hopefully with a bit more face to face time than in the last year, because it's been tough for all of us. I think everybody's looking forward to leaving this period behind us, having more fun with some more face time, and hopefully some more nice conferences where we can drink a beer together, but in the meantime, we work hard from anywhere in the world. We have people working from India, to the U.S, Spain and Europe, Ukraine for us, and growing a team to get to our goal. So, it's just a really nice ride.
Tim Butara: Nice. Some awesome points right there in the closing, Taco, thank you. Just before we wrap up the call, if our listeners want to reach out to you or to learn more about you, what's the best place for them to reach you?
Taco Potze: Yeah, so, follow me on Twitter, I try to keep it positive in 2021, that's my goal, so less complaining, more positivity on Twitter, Taco Potze, that's a good place to get in touch. And our website getpensocial.com it's of course also a good starting point to learn more about Open Social. Ask a demo if you're interested, and we are still active in the Drupal Slack, if you're a contributor. Yeah, looking forward to what the year is going to bring us, and hopefully to see people in person again.
Tim Butara: Awesome, I wish you the best of luck with everything. I actually, I wish all of us, both of us and our listeners, I wish everybody a great 2021. I hope this year brings a lot of positivity to all of us, and yeah of course, best of luck with all the developments of Open Social to you, Taco. You know, thanks so much for speaking with me today, and for giving us this exclusive look into the recent and upcoming developments of the platform. And to our listeners that's all for this episode; have a great day, everyone, and stay safe.
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