This January, we recorded our first Community Question Time with our co-founders Ben and Rijk to ask them what’s on your mind as we move from just a well-loved open source project to a sustainable business that can fund its development. We aim to be as open and transparent as possible, so keep the questions coming as we’ll be doing this every few months. You can submit questions on GitHub or anonymously using this form. .
One of the common themes in the questions you posed was around how we balance continued care and growth for our community with the realities of a business. “The community is the foundation that everything else is built on. It started as an open source project, still is, and will remain to be.” says Rijk. “The community input and the tight feedback loop makes the project what it is. The goal is to help as many people as we can.”
I’ve been at Directus for a couple of months now, and it’s really true. Many of our engineers started as community contributors, and that instinct to think deeply about how decisions impact the wider usage is really apparent.
But there are some challenges in the balancing act we have. Having a happy and engaged community grows our project and our user base, but we need to make that sustainable through revenue. We want people to be able to rely on Directus for not just a year or two, but 5-10 or more years in the future. There are loads of costs involved in building software at this scale.
Business Feature Requests Ride the Same Wave
How we decided what to work on was historically based on intuition, but inevitably there’s more of a process now, especially with a lot of feature requests coming in.
Our decisions on what to spend time on are largely based on community interest through GitHub Discussions and upvoted ideas. We’re lucky that most of the sponsored features we’ve had to-date are what the wider community are already asking for, so we can prioritize, build, and make features available to everyone while generating revenue. It goes to show that the needs of the community are inherently the needs of everyone else.
Because Directus is so extensible, we can also build custom extensions for business when the ask is hyper-specific, to make sure we’re not pushing bloat into the core open source project.
What’s Going on with Discord?
As some members of our Discord server have noticed, many of our community discussion channels went away for a while and were replaced with a single help forum channel. While we try our best, we sometimes don’t get around to questions very quickly, or sometimes at all.
In the early days, we had a smaller open source community. There were fewer questions and it was easy to answer them all before starting a day of work. Now, it would be several people’s full-time jobs to do this, and the exponential community growth isn’t matched by a growth in the hours our team can spend helping folks 1:1.
We did notice, however, that we were getting lots of questions that are similar and that shows us the gap in our educational materials. Our focus has had to shift from helping 1:1 to trying to help out the community as a whole, prioritizing, and then tackling at the source. Ideally, we can help people without them needing to come to us.
We also have a paid support offering, and as demand increases, so does the revenue, which can be spent on more people to do support, but even then they have a job to support users with agreements in place first, and the demand from inbound questions outweighs the overall time they have.
I’m sure this isn’t what everyone wants to hear, but it’s one worth being transparent about as we have millions of downloads and a need to be sustainable (both financially and in our work:life balance). We’re 30 people who try our best and deeply care about people who support and celebrate the project we work on.
In positive news, there’s some changes coming to the Discord server in the coming weeks to kickstart some of the community discussions and help people know what to expect from us.
The Vision for VCs
Last year, we announced our Series A funding, and with funding comes new stakeholders who need to make a return on their investment.
This is exciting for us, but I’ll be the first to admit that I start to worry when seeing this news around a project I like and rely on. I asked Ben, our CEO, how we make money and what vision he sold to VCs when fundraising.
We plan to make money in three ways.
Firstly, and what you’re likely most familiar with, the hosted cloud platform - we have an open source ‘cake’ with some ‘icing’ only available when hosting on Directus Cloud. On top of taking away the headache of hosting, scaling infrastructure, and keeping software updated, we will have some special extensions only available in Cloud.
Extending the cake analogy, it’s important to keep an eye on the ratio of forever free and open source features and features only available in Cloud. Ben describes this as “what makes a tasty cake”. A nice sponge is the core and it is a perfectly tasty and functional cake in its own right. It’s important to get the ratio of icing correct for a cake to work. A large sponge with an icing layer is great. A tiny cupcake with so much icing it’s unrecognizable is not.
The second way we make money is through professional services - support, consultation, and sponsored development. All things that our bigger customers and more complex use cases need to be successful.
Finally, coming up soon, is an extensions marketplace. Think of it like an app store with easy-to-install extensions in your Directus instance. Some free, some paid, and with the ability for community members to also generate revenue from.
So what is the vision sold to VCs? Not much more than that. We have over 20 million Docker downloads and a “rising tide lifts all ships” as Ben says. If you’re a self-hosted user today and you’re happy - rock on. We remain commited to our open source project because it needs only a small percentage to trust us with their hosting, professional services, or want our cloud-only icing to make this all work.
Watch the Video
This is just a quick summary of what I thought would be most interesting for you to read. But in the video we cover even more, like:
- What have been some of our mistakes to date?
- What does 2023 have in store?
- What is our CEO worried about?
We’re also going to be releasing a monthly video starting next month with Rijk to give you an update on what we’re cooking up, talk about software development practices at Directus, and go through your more technical questions.