The different phases of the tribes online


After a conversation with Rob Mumford, I thought I’d post a kind of action plan of how our company will grow. This is just a rough plan of attack at the different areas of the church world we’ll go for. I’ll organise this into Phases and see if my words stick! In an interview with the creator of Drupal, Dries at Drupal Radar talked about the purpose of Content Management Systems like Drupal is to eradicate the need for web developers. There used to be a time when a web developer needed to hand-code everything in HTML, Drupal means for many websites you don’t need a developer. With Drupal Gardens they aim to remove the need of a designer! We’re following in this theme and so this is our plan to eradicate the need for church website developers! (sort of!)

  • Phase 1 – Aim for individual churches – In order to end them we have to join them. We’ll spend some time acting like a normal (ish) church website developer. In this phase, we will target a few individual churches and build a website for them in a much more intimate manner. We’re looking for churches who want a website that is either free or low cost but where they will spend quite a bit of time working with us. During this phase we will work with experimental ideas to solve problems and test it with members of that church and we’ll build case studies and train them in using the website. Finally we’ll build the website using the software that we will eventually release and support. By the end we’ll have a Drupal distribution for Churches, with documentation of how to use the website technically and practically (church models) and the tools for others to help.
  • Phase 2- Aim for Church Website Developers – To eradicate the need for church website developers we will need church website developers to help us! Once we have a basic Church install profile to work on and release we’ll try and advertise to others to get people using and maybe even developing for it. We’ll try and attract the more geeky members of the Church community to help us. This phase will mainly take place on Drupal.org. Dropcrm.org is an example of how we’d do this. We’ll have a website with a small forum and some pages detailing our aims but actually all of this will point to a project page and group on drupal.org. We’ll work with all of Drupal’s issues queues, File repositories and discussion tools. At this stage there will hopefully be no difference between the tribes online people and just random developers.
  • Phase 3- Aim for the Church Innovators – On our website we’ll build a wiki as I’ve said before. The hope is to build a website to bring innovators from the church to us. These innovators just need to have ideas, they won’t need technical skills but will just have things about the church they want changed and the ideas of how to change it. This phase can only happen when the wiki is built and there are a pool of developers to implement their ideas. One big thing we’ll need from these people is a set of case studies of problems in communication in their church. Eventually this work will be used to collaboratively produce books and resources.
  • Phase 4 – The masses – This is the phase that brings in money! Once we have software that churches are actually using, once problems are actually being solved and once we have the software to host hundreds if not thousands of websites similarly to http://www.drupalgardens.com, we’ll release the company side of things. We’ll start advertising at places such as the Christian Resource Exhibition and attract loads of churches to host on our servers. Here, the aim is to make it so a church can sign up on our site, and be up and running with almost no involvement with us (The church website developers will be ending here) so that each extra church doesn’t cost much extra to host. The aim is to cover our huge fixed costs. We’ll probably need about 300 churches before we can even begin to be sustainable.
  • Phase 5- We aim for rival church hosting companies and the world! – At this stage our tasks can be complete. Our software will be so open anyone could steal it. If our main company makes enough money to fund at least 4 full-time developers, it will be successful.  Our hope is the invisible hand of the market will not let us continue making money for long, eventually others will want some! So if we get good enough, if our software is as awesome as it needs to be. We’ll attract rival church website hosting companies to download and use all our software totally for free! However, it will be in their best interest to keep the software alive if we’re around or maybe keep us (the individual people) alive if they use our talent! So although we’ll compete in the market of church website hosting, we’ll collaborate on the software as we’ll all benefit from making the software great. At this point we can take over the world! (At least the church website world). The church will have a piece of software that allows them to make website whilst giving them the extra dynamic features for free and a huge number of people to support them.

I’ve written stuff like this before and probably I’ll continue. My hope is to build a company structure that people other then myself can understand. (Work away from me rob and andrew phoning each other all the time… even if its fun to hear about Andrew’s olive woes)

What I am to! [update] and church website hosting


Things have totally changed again. I have now applied to do a Masters of Enterprise in Business at the Manchester school of business. The online material is not that great at describing it. It is a research Masters where Masters of Enterprise is the prefix, MEnt (similar to Mphys or Bsc). The degree itself is a generic business degree so the core modules will help me learn things such as marketing, setting up a business and dealing with finance. I then get to pick courses in my “Subject Area” which will be something vaguely IT based that I pick. I have to produce 2 dissertations, one of them focuses on the business side of my idea and the other on the subject side of my idea. I don’t exactly know what this means! However I think it will be something like a report on the marketability of the idea whilst the subject dissertation outlines some area of research into the idea itself.

The hope is then once I have finished this degree I’ll be able to bring back the knowledge into The Tribes Online. We’re working on things to some degree this year but it means when Rob is out of university we can start building things properly! Also I hope to meet lots of interesting people on this course to help me get connected to Entrepreneurs in Manchester. Unfortunately this also means I’m dropping back to work at Heidmar throughout the holidays.

Aegir and our hosting plans

We’ve been playing around with a development server in my house. For the less technically minded readers you may not find this interesting but I think its well cool! I’ve spent about 6 months getting this set up (and failing) due to my lack of understanding how linux works but we’ve finally set up a box with Aegir installed. It is an incredibly cool piece of software that allows us to host loads of drupal sites using one interface. If I want to set up a new church website, instead of going through all the normal drupal settings I just click “create new site” enter a few settings and everything is set up automatically. So here are some things I’m excited about:

  • Our business model will require us to have a huge number of customers (over 300) before we make enough money to sustain us at all, let alone grow. Therefore we need to make sure all our variable costs are as low as possible. We need to make sure that the process of Church is interest => Church site set up and money paid is as small as possible. This will allow us to divert our resources into building the fantastic fixed cost that is the free product.
  • Drupal Gardens is an awesome example of a company doing what we want to do for churches. (However, the creator of Drupal works for this company so its not something we’ll be able to do easily alone! They are giving away free sites during beta so you can get a free one now and try it out. Its very easy).
  • Drush – Aegir works with drush. This allows us to administer drupal sites through a Command Line Interface (CLI). Hopefully it means we won’t need to administer any ftp accounts. All modules and install profiles can be downloaded using drush and using SSH to remotely access the command line.
  • Drupal Projects- If we sign up for a Drupal project on drupal.org we’ll be able to do pretty much all of our development on that website. They offer everything we need, issue queues, groups to discuss ideas, a file repository so people can work on things remotely and submit patches. This means our development process will probably be able to happen entirely online. As a company we’ll discuss most our things on the issue queue and all the code will be submitted to a repository, and then automatically pulled from the repository to our server where our customers will benefit from it.

Why is this cool?

This means we can work with an entirely open development workflow. Yes, we will be a software company aiming to make money but even the bleeding edge stuff we’ll be working on will be downloadable. All our servers that make us money will use that code using tools that are available to everyone, we are literally just pulling an install profile from an online server. Anyone could do this. This means it will be almost as easy for another church to get involved in the development of our software as it is for us to get involved! (also it will be easy to steal everything we do :P).

What is stopping us?

In order for this to work, me andrew and rob need to stop using our mouths. Unfortunately the voice and the brain is a very inefficient collaboration tool. Every conversation I memorise is locked in the minds of the original people who had it and cannot easily be shared. Every time we meet up, skype or talk over the phone we are dis-empowering future collaborators. The thing is, we like talking, its really fun. Recently I found out that Andrew was sad because his olives went mouldy. Things like that are what bring people together and we as a company need also be friends for it to work. But things that make us friends hurt us as a open-source company because they make it harder for others to get involved.

This will just have to be something we work on and try to do well. I do not plan to have this problem solved right away. But in a years time I hope we are part of the way and in 2 years time if we are still deciding software issues over the phone I will have failed.

What I am up to!


So I think as of September 1st my life will officially start. I thought I’d write a post about what I’m up to now and what I’m planning for this year.

So firstly I have a Job working at http://www.heidmar.com. This is a shipping company that is part-owned by Morgan Stanley. I currently have a low-level IT Job in their UK office in London. This includes doing basic stuff such as fixing printers and installing new machines and general office admin but also some more advanced stuff working with Microsoft Sharepoint. Every month I will work for one week (so 5 days) which will be fantastic as most of the stuff I absolutely need to do there is fairly mindless. You need someone with some IT knowledge to, for example, upgrade a computer to Windows 7 but once I’m started I have to pretty much repeat the same stuff over and over. Whilst the stuff that I will end up doing a bit off, (Sharepoint) will be more mentally taxing, this helps me work on what I will be doing for the next 3 weeks a month back in Manchester (So yes I will be commuting!)

The Tribes Online

I will be starting a company that will build a website building package for Churches. Currently most church website are like “Online Brochures”. They tell you largely static simple one-way information such as the service times, the location and who works in a church. They will sometimes be pretty and sometimes look ugly (Which is usually the only measure of a “good” website) in a similar way to brochures. The power of the internet is not in publishing but in communication. E-mail is by far the most successful Internet technology and wikipedia is much more succesful then the old Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wikipedia provides a community that can collaborate to build content, whereas the old Encyclopaedia merely published information. I want to provide churches with the tools to build a website that harnesses the power of the Internet for internal church communication.

Throughout this year I will be learning how dynamic websites are built and laying the foundations of our company for a friend of mine called Robert Mumford to join me next year when he has finished his computer science degree at Manchester.

What will this include?

I will be building up this blurb so this is just my first draft! However we’ll provide many tools to help connect a church internally. Throughout the weeks I will blog about these features in more detail.

  • Website building package:- We won’t build websites for people. We will build a piece of software that allows people to easily set up their own websites without too much technical knowledge. This is similar to wordpress.com and we will be building on top of a package called Drupal. This package is great because it is really easy to build on top of and modify. There are a bunch of well-known websites that use it including bbc, whitehouse.gov and htb.
  • Totally free:- This software is “Free and Open-source Software” (FOSS). This means not only will it cost no money to download and use but users of our software can also see all the code. This means geeky members of churches that know how to program can help get involved by developing the solutions to their church problems themselves and then submit that code back to us so that it becomes part of the package. This means that if our software becomes succesful there is a potential for hundreds of people to be involved in making this great. The rest of the community call this “Free as in Beer and Free as in Speech”. The Google Android phones are based on linux, this is an example of software that is FOSS.
  • Dynamic:- The big issue I have with churches is that the content is one way. We want to build software that allows churches to communicate with each other more effectively. So obvious ideas include allowing people to ask questions and comment on all the sermons that are posted up? Or maybe have online prayer? Or maybe having a youth group where people can all write their own apologetics like with CARM?
  • Communities:- Dynamic websites like Facebook help communities to form. However churches already have a community… it’s the church! This software is aimed at helping connect people already within the church to other people within their own real-life community.
  • Collaborative:- This word is what Microsoft Share point is aiming at. Getting people to work together on things. We want to build tools to help volunteers and staff to work together on projects effectively. This means church members could collaborate and work together creating fantastic youth weekend-aways or we can enable multiple staff members to collaborate easily on one contact database? Or Church-wide calendar that helps all the staff know what is going on?
  • Company:- The software is free. But I think that many churches will not have the time to set up and maintain their own website. They might not have a technically minded congregation member to manage basic things like setting up a webserver, or maybe they do have one but that person just doesn’t want to give up their free time doing what they do throughout the week. For those people (and others) we’ll set up a company where people can host their sites with us or pay for support contracts on maybe a monthly basis. This should fund the development of the product. It is a similar model to that of Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) and Acquia that is behind Drupal.

Here are some examples of features we might implement.

  • Pretty publishing tools – So people with no IT skills can edit the pages the are responsible for in a similar fashion to Microsoft Word.
  • Online Address Books – Can be built into a tool that will manage the congregation generally.
  • Rota organisation – Band Rotas, Choirs or even Teas and Cofees
  • Event management – Including pretty looking Calendars, both random events and things like Sunday Services.
  • Resource Libraries – Sermons, Videos, Articles or Bible Studies
  • An Internal Church focus- It would be easy to advertise ourselves as “The Facebook for Churches” but really we’re not aiming for that. We’re more the Microsoft Sharepoint for churches, which is much less catchy! Facebook is powerful because everyone is on it. We don’t want to do this nor need to. There already exists mychurch.org or ukchristians.net and online versions of specific features of our future software. For example, you can easily go online and find “Prayer Wall” websites and watch people pray. Our software though is about empowering an individual church. We want to take a community of human beings that already exist and help use technology to build those real-life relationships. Our software will help people already praying with each other to connect more easily, regularly and closely. We will not be satisfied if we just build clever technology, these solutions need to grow the church in real-life. We’re here to supplement and encourage, not replace the church!

How will I go about achieving this?

  • Software  – We’ll be working on Drupal
  • A Wiki / Community – It is easy to get excited by technology that looks good but serves no real purpose. So we want to make sure that our software is built by starting with problems that exist within the church already and trying to solve it with technology. If a paper phone book does the job we don’t want to replace it just for the sake of it but solve internal church problems that have not been currently solved. So to do this I want to create a wiki, this will allow people with no technical skills to be involved in designing and developing the solutions in plain-english, so programmers can turn those ideas into a reality. Then we want to use this wiki to provide documentation so people with very little IT skill will be able to use our software effectively.
  • A Company – The software will be called “The Tribes” and the company will be “TheTribesOnline.com” handling the commercial side of things whilst .org will handle the free side of things.

So back to my life

Sorry if this is a bit of a mess. I’m still working on the best method of communicating these ideas! So I’ll go back to talking about me. The reason why I’m particularly excited by this work set up is because I have enough money to live on provided by my Heidmar Job so I can focus quite heavily on the church stuff for some time to come. However, these jobs also compliment each other fantastically. Whereas Heidmar will exclusively use Microsoft products that churches probably can’t afford and I will be using free opensource software. Many of the concepts that I am trying to get into the church are there in Heidmar. Heidmar will require their websites to look good, be intuitive to use and have good documentation. Heidmar need a website that helps facilitate good collaboration. So although a feature of Sharepoint (such integration with Outlook) will not be ported into my Church work, answers to questions such as “What does a user want to see on their homepage?” are useful to both.

I’ve had my first week of working on this stuff. For now I’m mainly learning lots (including how to programm a little!) but its been fun so far.