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Mon, 18 Oct 2010

How OpenHatch got started, and life as of October 2010

I move around a lot, and I'm not great at keeping people up to date with what I'm doing. So here is a change log, most recent last.

To really quickly summarize what I'm doing right now, I'm:

If you care, here's the long form, broken down by time. I could have separated this out in to separate posts, but I'm not going to.

February through March 2009

Nelson called to say he wanted to start a startup. With me.

I was reluctant. Within a month of me being in the Bay Area, I met macho, self-assured, self-aggrandizing people who seemed to be ambassadors from Startup Land; I quietly found them terrifying and revolting. By February 2009, I had lived in San Francisco for a year and a half, and startup culture grated on me. I didn't relish the chance to spend more with those people.

But Nelson was very enthusiastic, so I figured if he did most of the work of applying, it was harmless. He found prospective funder after prospective funder; we applied to Y Combinator and a few similar programs.

Our plan was to create a marketplace for connecting open source developers with end-users of their software. Those end users would commit money to fund developers to work on particular features or bug fixes. We weren't naive; we did our research into the litany of attempts and failures before us. I roped in Raffi to help with web design (an endeavor at which I am useless) and programming, mostly on the basis of the fact that had once styled a Mailman list-info page to look nice. I honed the idea a little bit, and Raffi and Nelson wrote the applications.

Since we were never going to get funding, I also fine-tuned my work life at Creative Commons. I wanted more time to pursue toy projects without cutting into social time, so I asked them to decrease my hours and let me take Wednesdays off. Basically, I bought my own "20% time". I took that time to play with some of my own ideas, like building a website where people could search for files from the free software world by their MD5/SHA1 hash. (I called this It's not up right now.)

Surprise: April 2009

Um. Shotput Ventures, a Y Combinator-type startup incubator based in Atlanta, wanted to fund us. I had nearly forgotten about that whole startup thing, since I didn't really think that anyone would fund us.

The crazy Georgians wanted us to move to Atlanta for the summer.

So I dialed Raffi on my phone, and for privacy I stepped into a conference room at Creative Commons. Then we both burst out laughing for about five minutes.

Here was an opportunity to do a startup, and all I had to do was reply to an email. If I said "Yes," I'd be torn away from my friends in San Francisco, be forced to face all these terrifying startup Type A people, and intensively build something during a summer.

It was too disruptive to my life for me to say "No."

Atlanta, May 2009

Lawrence Lessig gave me a mixture of happiness and trepidation when he wished me good luck and announced to all the zillions of his readers that I was leaving CC. I took a few weeks to catch up with (and get advice from) friends up and down the northeast coasts.

And then the three of us drove to Atlanta, where for the summer we only worked, slept, and cooked. Once a week, all the funded companies would meet up for pizza along with our funders. We'd discuss our businesses, practice pitching, and a guest speaker would share some hard-earned wisdom.

I should reflect on our business plan. One core deficiency I noticed in the failed bounties websites is that they had no community traction. If we were attaching a money-for-code service to Slashdot or an existing space with lots of open source users and developers, and someone did a really good job of ensuring the community's interactions were positive, it could work. (Aaron Swarz summarized this as, "There are a lot of businesses that would work if Google launched them.") That, along with the fact that I'm really interested in the communities and group dynamics in open source, meant that we built a website that I felt would be a useful community too. I declared that making money with the website depended on having a large, involved audience. So we set about building the community website I'd be most excited about building: one for helping people get into open source, and helping projects get in touch with new contributors.

As the summer came to a close, Nelson left to pursue other opportunities. Karen was working with us as an intern. Raffi and I were no longer bound to Atlanta, and we wanted to move.

Philadelphia, September 2009 - August 2010

Thanks to extraordinarily risk-tolerant family and friends, we secured another small round of funding. Raffi and I moved to West Philadelphia. That part of the world checked all the boxes: it was close to family and friends, had good public transit, was friendly to bicycles, and was inexpensive.

When we arrived in Philadelphia, the OpenHatch website was a working prototype. We kept working on it; we fixed the show-stopper bugs in code and usability, and we removed the "invite-only" restriction. Karen kept interning with us through the end of October.

As for life, being in West Philadelphia felt healing. So many friends within a few blocks' radius, and so many of them were great people. San Francisco triggered my insecurity among the self-confident programmers and businesspeople. In Philadelphia, I could hide at home with Raffi and just build something I liked.

Around March, we were running low on cash to pay our meager rent and food bills. Raffi and I started using half the hours in the day to do contracting work. We found a full-time job and split it into two half-time ones. As contracting goes, the gig was pretty neat: we helped build and update a free software educational resources search engine for Creative Commons.

In terms of personal growth, Raffi was discovering that he wanted to pursue his dream of teaching philosophy. As Raffi planned out his departure, I reflected on what I wanted for OpenHatch without him. Helping open source be more attractive to new contributors was the most fulfilling thing I had ever worked on, so I would definitely keep the project going. But since he was leaving, I no longer needed to "provide for" anybody else. I could just search the options for the one best suited to me.

Raffi helped me make OpenHatch successful by helping with code and design and by being someone else to talk about OpenHatch with. I had a few friends in the Boston area who care about free software. If I couldn't keep working with Raffi, I wanted to at least be near other people who care some about OpenHatch, due to their general excitement about free software.

Somerville, September 2010

So now I live in Somerville, in a seven person house with consistently awesome people. We have house dinners four nights a week, and we keep the kitchen pretty clean. Katie and Will are vocal proponents of doing what you want in life, rather than spending most of your time under someone else's management in a full-time job. Their current project is Parts and Crafts.

My life here comes at a cost: leaving my Philadelphia friends hundreds of miles away, including one ages-old friend and one really special girl. (There's probably a financial opportunity cost, too, but that bothers me less.) Most days I'm too "distracted" by the great people here to reflect and miss the fantastic life I left behind.

That's because life here really is great. I'm right near so many people who share my passion of ending the subjugation of software users by programmers. When I have feedback for the Free Software Foundation, I can discuss it in person with those people at the weekly free software meet-up at Grendel's. I have a fortnightly Debian work night scheduled with a fellow Debian developer. And I'm getting to know so many other sharp, reflective people who care about so many other different things.

Where next?

Geographically, I don't yet see a reason I'd leave the Boston area. It's not as centrally located within the northeast corridor as Philadelphia was, but the community and household are the best I've had so far.

Profesionally, I'm happy enough with the 20/20 split. I'd rather be working on open source community outreach all the time, not just half of it, and I'd rather have more time to review the patches coming in to OpenHatch! One thing I can look into is having OpenHatch events like the recent one at U Penn receive more sponsorship. Another would be to look for absurdly high-paying contracting in proprietary software, make oodles of cash, and use that to pay my expenses as I work on OpenHatch full-time for a year or longer.

Either way, this self-directed life since San Francisco has been really good. I will always be indebted to Nelson for ripping me out of my local maximum.

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