The act of creation is absolutely fun, and nourishing for the soul. When it’s working, the thrill of seeing people using your product is fun. Growth, honestly, is fun.
But a startup isn’t like a restaurant. You don’t have the benefit of footfall or the limiting factor of geography as a sustainable competitive advantage. In many ways, startups are winner-takes-all. You don’t get to have a million different competing products that occupy the same conceptual space. And that’s hard - particularly when you consider that the Internet is global.
Our version of local is “niche”. We picked educational technology because we felt it was being underserved, and many of the things we care about are valuable to that community.
Despite this, Known, the publishing platform, is not profitable. I now think making it open source was a mistake, because we spend too much of our time figuring out how to make it install in X situation, rather than concentrating on its core value. It would have worked better as a core service that we later open sourced bits of, rather than an open source platform that we created a service around. Honestly, higher education’s 18 month sales cycle doesn’t help, but there’s also a value issue with open source: many people think Known is valuable precisely because they can get it for free. That’s very difficult to build a business around! And negotiating these kinds of issues is not fun in the least. There are a lot of people in education who are morally opposed to money being made (which is an easy position to take when you’re on an institutional salary).
The open source community is stronger than it’s ever been, and I have high expectations for the future of the platform. I also think these problems will work themselves out, particularly with scale. But that’s one reason why growth is important: it’s much easier to make money when millions and millions of people are using what you’ve built. As the startup cliché goes, if you can sell to 1% of them, you’re laughing.