The Story of Spaz: How To Give Away Everything, Make No Money, & Still Win

ZendCon 2010 – Tuesday Morning, 10am UnCon Session Summary.

Presented by Ed Finkler  – @funkatron (

Ed Finkler has been on Spaz since 2007. Spaz is an open source micro-blogging client. He joined the twitter dev mailing list, became a moderator, back in the days when Twitter had 6 employees. Initially, Spaz was writen in Real Basic. There ended up being a lot of issues with this language (such as theming, and inline linking).

Ed had a strong working knowledge of CSS & HTML really well (JavaScript, not so much). That lead him to Apollo (which later became adobe Air).  There was a lot to learn about JavaScript such as ajax and event handling. So he rebuilt the app. There was some initial interest in the app, especially since it was one of only two desktop apps for twitter. He ended up winning some contests with Spaz, such as a computer and a chair. Plublicity was welcome and abundant in the early days.

From there, things got a bit more complicated. Soon, Ed  started to take some flak for the name, as it was a bit offensive in the U.K. (spaz is a derogatory name for someone with cerebral palsy). Feature requests could be a bid downer as well. Big comparisons started to come up between his app and other twitter apps. People like shinny thing, it gets tem excited. Most end users don’t care if something is open source or not. They care if it’s free or not. When people work with developers, they tend to treat them as nameless, faceless entities, not real people. It’s can be really hard not to get offended by the comments and feedback. People are unaware of your motivations, or they just don’t care.

Eventually, twitter changed their authentication to OAuth, most the other free systems didn’t change their systems. Spaz did and so the user base tripled over a couple of days.

Adding new features like image uploaders became hot spit. Comparisons and feature requests to match other apps started coming in fast and furious. Since this was open source, all development was happening in Ed’s free time. It became impossible to keep up with the demands.

He was then approached by Palm to discuss using the twitter app on their platform. He agreed and signed an NDA. This became very difficult since sharing code is an intrinsic part of who he is. Even though he was told that he could open source the code, they still attempted to stop him the weekend before launch. They really just didn’t get it (today, they have done a much better job of embracing open development on their platform).

After this experience, Ed had to redefine what his definition of success was. He ended writing a declaration of purpose to specifically define what the project was about and the goals it was meant to achieve But he really needed to help. Continued development couldn’t be done by just him. Two platforms, building a community, and the decision not to charge for it where all major factors in the need to bring in more people. Ed wasn’t even testing on a device, emulators only. Getting a device really helped increase motivation. “Eating your own dog food on a consistent basis really helps motivate you”. Using your own apps helps you focus on improvements.

Ed then spent most of 2010 cultivating a community. Originally, Spaz was hosted entirely on Google Code and Google Groups. It was then moved to GitHub which allowed for a better social environment. Go where the community goes.  A lot of developers, especially JavaScript developers, where already on GitHub. This made things the project higher profile and easier to interact with. He also started to use TenderApp and Lighthouse for much better for issue tracking. It made things easier and simpler for people.
Road-maps and milestones also became important tools for the Spaz project. It really helped the community to see what was going on and focus them. Hack-a-thons also really helped bring people together, even when people weren’t working on it. If you want people to work on your project, you need to give it to them in small, bit-size segments, that they can sink their teeth into. If you say “work on what-ever”, people will quickly get overwhelmed and back off, and no one will help.

Take away:

  • “Eating your own dog food on a consistent basis really helps motivate you”
  • Cultivating a community – Go where the community goes. Make it easy for the community to contribute and buy in.
  • Make good things in the right way.
  • Keep it pure: do it because you love doing it.

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