Recently activity regarding Drupal Church Distributions have increased. Open Church has released a demo and its pretty good at fulfilling the basic features offered by the smaller Church “Software as a Service” (SaaS) companies. They have in fact beat us to the initial stage that we were aiming to have done by now but he’s done it better then we could have anyway. Particularly the clean theme seems to fit with most of the user experience features that are in fashion at the moment. For example the nice use of a front page slide show. As things are starting to happen I thought it would be appropriate to write a post detailing who we are and where we stand when it comes to difficult topics such as ‘ownership’ and money as it definitely looks like Open Church is a financial venture rather then purely out of passion like the old Drupal for Churches people were.
Who we are?
The Tribes Online (TTO) consists of 3 individuals. I’m Jamie Abrahams and I’m currently studying for a Business Masters of Enterprise researching into the viability of TTO as a financial venture and the impact of social networking on people over 65 in the church. Rob Mumford is finishing a Computer Science degree also at the University of Manchester whilst Andrew Belcher dropped out of physics at Oxford and is currently a freelance web developer who has worked with many Christian organisations. Our plan is to look for a fourth person to take a role of “creative director”. Whilst we were all still at school we started a small church discussion forum for our youth group, there were many people that helped out with setting it up and it spiraled into quite a large website with 50 new members a week at its peak. We learnt quite a bit about online communities and community management throughout that time. We also learnt about the benefits and pitfalls of using the Internet in a ministerial context. Whilst people on the outskirts of the community found it easy to get involved, fights had to be squashed very quickly on the Internet. We worked with phpbb and started discovering that we needed the forum to influence a front page to get information out to people more easily. We had three specific goals:
1) Our prayer forum was by far the most prominent and successful of the forums, being used almost 24/7 and we wanted to quickly graphically represent what people were praying about
2) Our youth group was spread across two centres of worship that were connected but also had distinct communities. There were also multiple adult congregations and some younger youth groups. We wanted to build a multi – site environment where groups could maintain their own look, feeling and branding whilst sharing some resources. We wanted local forums combined with “Global forums”
3) We found that in the forums conversation dynamically spiraled into something more significant. Events would get planned in the forums and some theological discussions turned into collaborative articles. We wanted some way of taking content in the forum and dynamically displaying in other places such as Sermon Libraries, Resource Libraries, Calenders, etc.
We are now a bit older. Facebook now dominates the world and forums are not as significant as they used to be. We think that Drupal is the way to go instead of a CMS based on phpbb but we still feel that the way that the Internet brought people together was key. It was so awesome being about to see what your real community was actually praying about. It was awesome to see the friendship that started through the “virtual reality”. As we moved it to the adult congregation we found that forums were actually valuable organisational tools, far superior to the e-mails they tended to use and the ideas spread from there.
What is the Tribes Online planning?
First and foremost we care about building the global church. Looking at innovations in the secular and corporate world such as Microsoft Sharepoint, Facebook and Basecamp we think that the church will truly benefit from applying these concepts to a church world. The particular aspect of the Internet we want to focus on is the way it can connect real human beings to other real human beings and the way information can spread through communities organically. There are many churches that are doing things fantastically, especially in America. However, they tend to be churches with lots of money and resources to build tools that then don’t benefit other churches. For example we really like the resource library of http://www.desiringgod.org. We think it would be awesome if even smaller churches could easily start building their own libaries of resources from sermons to articles.
We’re still working on exactly which ideas we want to run with. Our first project is a prayer wall that is artistically designed that takes a random selection of posts from a church’s specific community. We then want to build sermon libraries with the ability for questions to be asked to the preacher. We want to go further and build church administration systems that allow people to have a single sign on to their site and whilst they get notifications they can also upload sermon notes or check their rota.
Because we want to build the whole church it has to based on Open Source software. But we want to go further. We really want to investigate building some kind of wiki and tool that can harvest ideas and publish research. There are lots of churches that have experimented with Facebook and Twitter for example, we want to create a resource so ideas can be submitted, played with and case studies studied. This means that the ideas as well as the code can travel and build the global church. I think this will be more important as the church grows in Africa, South America and China.
How and why are we planning on making money?
There are 3 business models that we hope to combine. We hope to give the software away to technical Christians with the time on the hands to get involved in testing and development. Whilst charging more significant amounts of money for consultancy fees we want to provide a Software as a Service model for small churches. Finally there is a possibility of producing books and resources (available for free online such as desiring God but also in shops). They will have less access to customisation but the innovations harvested from contributions and the consultancy will filter back down to them. We’re heavily relying on Acquia’s business model with Drupal Gardens where I think they do a fantastic Job. We think we need to charge some money for a few reasons:
1) This allows us to spend the time developing the free software
2) Churches tend to take free stuff less seriously. One charity I know who really wanted to work for churches for very little suggested a business model where he’d charge a church or charity appropriately large consultancy fees but then make a personal donation back to the church! The reality is that if we are right about social technologies being key we need churches actually using it, not just the tools existing.
3) Marketing and training churches is important, this takes individuals time and so will need money. This gets churches using it and knowing how they use it. I think we want to fit around a similar model to how “Cell churches” spread or even Alpha courses.
Licensing and Sharing Code – Working with the Competitors
Obviously as we’re working with Drupal everything with be under the GPL. This means all the code is shared. Ideally I’d like some components using the AGPL license so even Software as a Service companies such as us would have to share their code. We are thinking of working with CiviCRM to encourage this. This means we’ve thought about two possible ways of providing a SaaS to churches. Acquia provide fantastic hosting either using Amazon’s Cloud network or Drupal Gardens or we could build our whole system using Aegir. The advantage of Aegir is that it means our entire infrastructure will be open sourced, not just Drupal but even how we will manage to thousands of potential sites together. The scary and awesome thing about this is that it means that future competitors could compete with us using literally every aspect of our software! (Whilst Acquia provides the advantage of being much more stable then anything we’d make alone).
In the UK there is one large Church SaaS provider called Church Insight. They are so large they will most likely always remain a competitor. However, the smaller companies (I know of 3) have features that could be easily duplicated on Drupal. This means that whilst we will compete initially, if The Tribes Online takes off we can collaborate with our competitors rather then swallow them up. Whilst it makes the business venture more risky I strongly believe that giving the Church this choice eventually benefits the church more. It means innovations even across companies will be shared and will allow church website companies to remain small and fast moving.
Why have we not approached our competitors?
Up until now we’ve kept a low profile. We’ve been trying to build a church install profile or work with Drupal for Churches but we have certainly said nothing to our future competitors. The main reason is that we are all very young and idealistic. I have been working on this idea for about 6 years and plan to take it as far as it can go. But any good business people reading this will probably know that Entrepreneurs who focus on ideas and not customers get eaten up. So we want to actually build something before we speak to people so not to waste their time whilst working on a more sustainable business model. We do have an Atrium site left up with ideas building up and we’d be happy to work with anyone but think its likely most people will want to leave us alone until we have something of substance.
If people want to steal our ideas or work with them, that is fine however!
The introduction of Open Church.
Our original intention was to duplicate the features of the smaller Church SaaS companies in the UK. Open Church has done this already and so now we want to divert our attention to building that genuinely unique tools. However I think its likely that we’ll just continue flying under the radar. I also think that the UK and the US market are sufficiently different that we wouldn’t really be competing for customers anyway. However if you want access to our Atrium site and there are some ideas you like that you’d want to work on with us that would be awesome!
Do we want a product?
Basically because we care about the church and not the company I don’t care if some other Drupal people make us irrelevant. So far most people (including Open Church) focus on the site building side of things and we really think its the social side of things that is key to building up the church and so we don’t think we’re irrelevant yet. However, we’re all young so there are plenty of other things we can do if someone else comes along and does a better Job then us without needing us!
Couple of Features we’re looking for:
1) Building simple church website – Open Church achieves
2) Provide a variety of themes that work with the modules used. (Major selling point for UK competitors)
3) More Social Technology. How does feature X connect a human being with another human being? How does it build up the local church?
4) Back – End Administration: Contacts, Rotas, Projector Slides, Sermons, Bulletin generators, Room management, Task management, etc
5) Build a wiki – A resource where ideas can be discussed, researched and explained.