One of the nicest things about being involved with mySociety is seeing people in other countries starting similar organisations and building similar websites. After a Skype conversation with another eager hopeful last night, I thought I’d blog a bit about the things I think are most important to know if you’re just starting up. Here goes.
1. Absolutely the most totally essential thing is to be an organisation of amazing, politically minded coders, not an organization employing or contracting good coders*. Their skills are your lifeblood, their ideas your bread and butter, and finding the best civic hackers in your country and building your organization around them is the only path to success. And that means they should be making most of the day to day decisions, not you, you ignorant, arts-degree-clutching clot.
2.Ask the public what they think you should build. Not only will that give you access to more ideas than you have yourselves, it’ll engage people with you. Also, it’ll help you focus on the vital business of building sites that users want, not that YOU want.
3. Keep your cost base low, and put all the money you have into looking after your core staff and being nice to volunteers. Work on building a community of volunteers, even if most of them are really just friends rather than people putting in lots of time. Avoid renting offices, avoid non-essential non-coder staff, get people to donate serving infrastructure and bandwidth. Because building and running democratic websites is a fundamentally new area of human endeavor (not like blogging which at least has an analogy in journalism) there are basically no pre-existing funding streams for the type of work you’re about to do. You will have to create the buzz around yourselves that will lead to people wanting to fund you, and it will probably take years, if you get there at all (mySociety hasn’t quite done this yet, even at 5).
4. Ensure that the core of what you build can struggle on by even if your whole organization collapses. That means being open source, putting energy into sites that are as automated as possible, and making people excited about being volunteers.
5. If you aren’t pissing off at least some people all the time, you’ve probably been captured by the establishment.
6. Take whatever your first website plan is and remove 90% of the features you want. Then build it and launch it and your users will tell you which features they actually wanted instead. Build them and bask in the warm glow of appreciation.
*yes, yes I know I can’t code for toffee, and I’ve got an arts degree, but I’m still a geek, honest. (Proudest moment, working out that a batch of PCI network cards were unreliable because they’d come from the factory flashed with the EPROMs for the wrong hardware, and fixed it.)