When Open Source Community Software is Bought by Private Equity

When private equity buys online community platforms, who wins? What about if those platforms were built on open source software? Does the company continue to be a good citizen of the open source community that helped build the product?

History has shown us that it is often the community managers and pros who lose. They might not just lose a good platform though, they might lose their job.

Lincoln Russell has an interesting perspective on this topic. He joined Vanilla Forums, an open source community software platform, as a senior developer in 2011, having already used it for a couple of years. He left the company in 2020, then the director of engineering. Lincoln has continued to use the software. Vanilla Forums was subsequently purchased by Higher Logic, a company lacking a meaningful history of open source contributions.

As a matter of disclosure, both Higher Logic and Vanilla Forums are past sponsors of the show.

Lincoln and I also discuss:

  • How Vanilla Forums’ open source ethos shifted over time
  • The importance of data migration standards for community software
  • Is community software best built by small businesses?

Big Quotes

Your community software provider must answer this (16:38): “The first question you should ask a [community software] vendor is: How easy is it to leave you? It’s not a fun question to ask, but the answer is crucial to me. It’s a deal-breaker question.” -Patrick O’Keefe

Some community platforms try to lock their customer data into the platform (18:07): “When [a client is] onboarding [to new community software during the] initial year or two, they don’t care about their data export. It’s at the end. That’s a long-term reputational issue about how people talk about their experiences. We saw that with [community software] competitors. We had some trouble with a couple of competitors in trying to get the data from them and spent way more hours than particular customers were worth – just on principle, honestly – getting the data out for them because we were so personally offended. At least I was.” -Lincoln Russell

When you aren’t selling community software to the people who will actually use it (20:37): “In the [community software] sales process, you identify stakeholders – people that are decision makers. A lot of the time they weren’t a community manager. A lot of the time it was a director of technology, it was a CEO, or other positions, and that warps your roadmap.

“When those are the people that [the] sales team [is] sitting in front of, day in and day out, and you’re pitching an improved moderation queue, they want this button that does this thing. You’re like, ‘But that’s stupid.’ But it doesn’t matter, if those are the people you’re selling to, [with] their own idea of community that doesn’t actually align with community management because they have internal business goals, and all they want to do are check those boxes.” -Lincoln Russell

Why community professionals should drive community platform choice (22:10): “Although I’d like to believe, ego-wise, that I could make a community out of whatever piece of garbage application you throw in front of me, I know the software can either help me or hurt me, and it’s tough when you’re making dinner with someone else’s ingredients.” -Patrick O’Keefe

Great ideas need great communicators (23:44): “The biggest issue with charting a course is you need a really clear vision, and you also need someone who can articulate that vision a lot, and over and over again, to the right people in the right circumstances. You need an external marketer. All of us in engineering at Vanilla [were] all introverts. None of us were going to conferences and giving talks about our vision for community software. It just wasn’t in us to do that. I think we were poorer off in that we had some really good ideas, and could have shifted the conversation a bit, but we didn’t put our energy there because that was a lot of energy.” -Lincoln Russell

Protecting your culture makes you unique from the big social media platforms (33:43): “I think this idea of being more private and being very selective about what you present to the world, and having an internal culture that is protected from the internet – not promoted to the internet – is the future of these independent community spaces because that’s the space those [bigger] platforms cannot touch.” -Lincoln Russell

Community drives great software projects (37:04): “To build great software, like the great software projects that are going to outlive me, you need a community of people committed to working on them for long periods of time. [You need] to replace those people when they leave, but you have to have a system to keep that going, not just like, [we] got great five minds in a room and they did a thing, and then they cash out at the end. That’s not sustainable.” -Lincoln Russell

About Lincoln Russell

Lincoln Russell is the vice president of engineering for uConnect, which builds virtual career centers for colleges and universities to help students get better jobs. Earlier in his career, he spent 8 and a half years at Vanilla Forums, starting as a senior developer in 2011 and leaving in 2020 as the director of engineering.

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