Gina Trapani has followed up her stint as the editor in chief of Lifehacker with building ThinkUp, an open source tool that can capture your activity on social networks. The open source nature of this tool is worth noting: the community behind ThinkUp has built a great app, that is accessible to everyday users (I’ve used it myself). The community is one of the most diverse open source groups out there and Gina has brought in funding from the AAAS and the MacArthur Foundation. I can’t think of a single open source stereotype that ThinkUp hasn’t managed to blow away.
Maybe that’s due to Gina knowing how open source projects can succeed. Not only did she see a lot of open source projects cross her monitor at Lifehacker, but she’s also an experienced coder. Gina notes, “I’ve been open-sourcing my code for over 10 years. All of my personal projects are open source, like the Todo.txt apps, my “Better” Firefox extensions, and Narrow the Gapp.”
ThinkUp clearly could have been built in other ways: there are a variety of social media management tools that have not only succeeded as startups, but have brought in piles of money. But Gina went the open source route: “When I started building ThinkUp in 2009, it was a personal weekend project. My goal wasn’t to start a company, it was to build software I personally needed. I knew public, open collaboration with coders around the world would accelerate development and get the product vision realized a lot faster than if I was hacking on it alone. I didn’t hesitate to make it an open source project.”
Open Source with Diversity
As far as open source projects go, ThinkUp is incredibly diverse. Gina made some special efforts at recruiting that paid off in a big way: “We built the community the same way you would for any product: by advertising ThinkUp’s story, uses, goals and values, asking early adopters to do the same, spending extra time and effort welcoming new members and users, and nurturing peer relationships through things like offline meetups and mentoring programs. From early on, we explicitly advertised ThinkUp as the open source project that especially wants ‘newbies.’ So, we attracted lots of great coders who weren’t already entrenched in OSS culture. That made it easy for us to create a friendly and welcoming ThinkUp culture, which is unfortunately often not the norm in the OSS world.”
It’s easy to build software, as Gina points out, but building community is something that takes effort. Building a community that brings in diverse coders takes even more effort — but the payoff of a piece of software that has grown from such a variety of experiences is worth it.
The ThinkUp Reboot
The open source label hasn’t hurt ThinkUp; in fact, it’s received funding through Expert Labs for the last two years. Expert Labs has just announced that it is changing gears, though: now that ThinkUp is a fully functioning tool, Gina is rebooting Expert Labs into a commercial organization, along with Anil Dash. That doesn’t mean that ThinkUp will stop being open source — rather, it means that there are going to be even more ways to access the ThinkUp tool set. The reboot is a contender for a Knight News Challenge grant. You can read their application to see exactly what changes are planned.
Working on an open source project isn’t the same thing as taking a vow of poverty. Gina’s experiences are proof of that: “I’ve earned my primary income from my open source projects through selling apps directly to customers, through advertising and affiliate programs, and through non-profit grants (Expert Labs was funded by the MacArther Foundation and AAAS). Lots of startups build their software on top of open source libraries, and many open source code to give back to their community. I especially like GitHub founder Tom Preston-Werner’s take on what a startup should open source (spoiler: almost everything).”
The open source route has only opened up more opportunities to ThinkUp: we’ll be watching to see how this next part of the project’s life cycle proceeds.
Image by Flickr user Jared Goralnick