Non-technical advice for startups and open source projects

A former coworker recently asked me about what had worked well (and not) at MongoDB. I realized that I actually know a bunch of things about running an open source project/startup, some of which may not be common knowledge, so I figured I’d share some here.

Things changed dramatically as the company grew and the product matured, but this post is about the project’s infancy (when the company was less than, say, 20 people). At that point, our #1 job was pleasing users. This meant everything from getting back to mailing list questions within a few minutes to shifting long-term priorities based on what users wanted. We’d regularly have a user complain about an issue and a couple of hours later we’d tell them “Please try again from head, we’ve fixed the issue.”

Unfortunately, fast turnaround meant bugs. We weren’t using code review at this point (give us a break, it was 2008), so we could get things out as fast as we could code them, but they might not… exactly… work. Or might interact badly with other parts of the system. I’m not sure what the solution to this would be: I think fast iteration was part of what made us successful. People got stuff done.

(via Poorly Drawn Lines.)

Users loved how fast we fixed things, but the support load was insane (at times) and basically could not be handled by non-engineers (i.e., we could not hire a support staff). The only reason this worked was that the founders were twice as active as anyone else on the list, setting the example. We actually had a contest running for a while that if anyone had more messages than Eliot in a month, they would get an iPad. No one ever won that iPad.

If a bug couldn’t be fixed immediately, it was still incredibly important to get back to people fast. Users didn’t actually care if you couldn’t solve their problem, they wanted a response. (I mean, they obviously preferred it if we had a solution, but we got 100% goodwill if we responded with a solution, 95% goodwill if we responded with “crap, I’ve filed a bug” within 15 minutes, 50% goodwill within a day, and 0% after that.) I’m still not as good at this as I’d like to be, but I recommend being as responsive as possible, even if you can’t actually help.

Because our users were developers (and at this point, early adopters), they generally detested “business speak.” Occasionally we had a new non-technical person join who wan’t familiar with developer culture, which resulted in some really negative initial perceptions on Reddit (that was the most memorable one, but we also had some business-speak issues on Twitter and other channels).

In fact, when we first hired a non-technical person, I was really skeptical. I didn’t understand why an engineering company making a product for other engineers would need a non-engineer. Now I’d credit her with 50% of MongoDB’s success and a good deal of the developers’ happiness. Meghan would reach out to and contact users and contributors, get to know meetup and conference organizers, and was generally a “router” for all incoming requests that we didn’t know what to do with (“Can we get someone to come talk at our conference in Timbuktu?” “Could I have an internship?” “Can you send me 20 MongoDB mugs to give to my coworkers?”). In general, there was a surprising amount of non-technical stuff that was important for success. We had a piece of software that people definitely wanted and needed, but I don’t think it would have been nearly as successful without the non-technical parts.

6 thoughts on “Non-technical advice for startups and open source projects

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: