Open and Shut, part 4: Business Catalyst needs an Open Community

Business Catalyst’s best growth will not be driven by the platform itself, but by a vibrant, innovative, open community. Open is the key word.

Remember the pros and cons of open and closed-source projects? I introduced it in part 1. Here’s the table again:

These pros and cons are natural, and inversely related to the pros and cons of their competing project type (open-source pros are inversely equivalent to closed-source cons). Part 1 of this series explained how rivalries between open and closed-source products can actually drive growth. Seeing how consumers demand the pros of a competing closed-source project can persuade those involved in an open-source project to adapt, and vice versa.

In that first article, I used Android and iOS as examples. Android is adapting by adding curation controls into its app marketplace, and iOS overcame much of its own natural closed-source market growth disadvantage, before it ever became a problem, by encouraging a thriving app community via its free developer tools and financial opportunities. Ultimately, it’s the hybrid approach that wins.

An example that is probably easier to appreciate, is with WordPress. Some of the natural obstacles that WordPress faces, due to being open-source, are:

  • fragmentation (lots of versions and custom builds out in the wild)
  • server inconsistencies
  • no dedicated support (there’s general support, but nobody from the WordPress team is going to be logging into the backend of your site to solve issues for you)

However, some companies have stepped up to solve those problems. One of these is WP Engine. They host and maintain your WordPress instance, handle updates and patches, offer support, and keep the servers running. By offering their closed-source offering on top of WordPress, they created a hybrid solution that borrows the strengths of one side to overcome the weaknesses of the other, thus solving most of the inherent problems of the open-source platform.

What’s the take-away from Android and WP Engine? By adding something closed (controlled) on top of something open, they reigned in their wild stallions, providing themselves with an opportunity for increased quality and consistency. Open-source platforms benefit from closed communities.

Business Catalyst, on the other hand, cannot sustain closed communities. The most prominent examples of these types of communities are TribeVita (now closed) and BC Gurus. Because closed platforms don’t naturally engender viral-like growth, adding a closed community on top of them has a natural tendency towards attrition (loss of membership). As a consequence, marketing efforts and new feature creation are constant and expensive. Open communities are far easier to maintain on closed-source platforms.

I like to think of closed communities as being like filters, whereas open communities are more like magnifying glasses. Like a filter, closed communities work with a very small subset of the customer base. If filtering is what you need (think WordPress, with it's enormous marketshare), then closed is the solution. It will provide consistency and quality to an already large base of customers, helping them achieve much needed focus, direction, and traction. If growth is what you need, however, then open communities are the answer. They ignite innovative fires and raise awareness for the platform, ultimately becoming a door for many new customers.

Business Catalyst needs a strong, open community to kindle such innovation and awareness. But communities are not formed around the concept of a community. They cluster around a common product or offering. Something that supports, excites and encourages the innovation and awareness the community will drive. Ultimately, it takes something that is community owned; something an ecosystem can be generated around; something that speaks to the general community, and not just a small subset.

Certainly admin apps are part of this answer, but I think they are only one small piece, and insufficient by themselves. Alone, they simply don’t represent much opportunity for community innovation. They are private innovations that don’t add to the communities knowledge or skill, and therefore won’t drive much growth. However, apps do point to the grander picture of how Business Catalyst is finally entering into its own. Open Platform (badly named, as it suggests open-source) represents the BC team handing the reigns to the community, finally providing an opportunity for the community to choose its own direction. We no longer have to wait for innovation. We’ve been given power. Now what will we do with it?

Adam Cook

Post Date:
Tuesday, December 08, 2015

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Note: If you are not a Business Catalyst partner who wants to build better websites faster, you should reconsider subscribing. Because that's all I do and write about. Otherwise, this is going to rock!