It was 2006. A young brit named Jono Bacon had been running the LugRadio podcast, a show about Free Software and Linux with three of his friends.
The show had attracted a more than decent following and had an active community forum going on. But the irony of the show about Free Software is that it was recorded with a proprietary application on Mac, the bane of Linux lovers. And their community kept reminding them pretty much every day that this made them “freedom haters”.
Jono didn’t want to spend his entire life doing audio engineering on the pretty arcane Linux tools, but the debate grew louder among his community (Open source communities can get pretty religious about certain topics).
One evening at Stuart Langridge’s place, one of LugRadio’s co-hosts, they started talking about interaction design over tea: how to make products and interfaces easier. Which led to the topic of Linux audio recording.
They came to the conclusion that every interface decision on the current Linux audio solutions were disastrous. So the solution would be to start from scratch.
So they took out paper and pen, loaded on tea (Brits, right?), and discussed and debated about it until 4 a.m. By the end they had three pieces of paper with what would become the outline of a new approach to audio recording.
The problem? Despite these efforts, they didn’t have the time or the skills to build it.
Sounds familiar? Have you ever thought of something that would create an amazing change, but you just couldn’t pull it off on your own?
Here’s where it gets interesting, and where we could all draw a few lessons in leadership.
Instead of letting it die in a drawer, he drafted a few mock-ups of the solution and wrote a blog entry explaining how they worked.
He then shared it with the community on the LugRadio forum, expecting silence and for the world to move on.
Lo-and-behold, a few weeks later someone had turned Jono’s mockups into a simple first cut of the interface.
The contribution’s author was a guy passionate for coding and Linux called Jason Field.
Jono emailed him right away to tell Jason that he had inspired him to consider the project further and see if the designs were possible to build. He said yes.
So to get the ball rolling, he set up a code repository, a website, a mailing list, and a bug tracker, and scheduled regular meetings. Along with other forum community members, he organized hack days, bug squashing parties, and online discussions to plan and reach some major architectural decisions. Little by little, new people were joining the team, even people ready to lead the project.
Everyone worked hard. They spent long evenings writing code, debugging, fixing bugs, and writing documentation. Piece by piece they built not only an application but also a community around this audio editing tool. They developed a sense of unity and started to become a team.
Eventually, after months of work, they made a first release.
From a few ideas, expressed with Jono’s amateur-grade design skills, they built something that people could touch and use. Later Jono stepped back from the editor, but the project kept thriving for a number of years.
What can we learn from this experience?
That if you have an itch you want to scratch, but don’t have the skills, the time or the tools to do so, you can still share your idea with others and find out if they’d be keen to scratch this itch with you.
But you need to lead and show a strategy of how the world could be made better. Once people agree with the problem, the solution and the strategy you’re sharing, you can get on to planning and organizing teams to build that solution.
As you can see, you can get to develop something without much funds or technical skills.
But even if this all sounds very good, you might be pointing out that this was easy for him because he already had a community that had gathered around his podcast.
The good news is that you still can do this even if you have no community.
If you don’t already have a fair amount of followers of your podcast, blog, forum, youtube channel or whatever other medium, you can still be part of other communities who share your same interests.
The internet is now filled with places where passionate people gather around certain topics. From music, to software, to sports, to saving the environment… And getting these people to listen to you takes as much energy or less than starting your own channel and learning the skills needed to create a solution on your own.
List the communities interested in your topics, like forums, facebook or linkedin groups, or even old-style physical gatherings. Read and listen to the conversations that are happening there and understand what people are liking the most and what challenges they’re sharing.
Once you get a flavor of what makes a particular community tick and where you can help, participate, connect with the community and share your own challenges and ideas in a generous and non-promotional way.
And when this generous posture gets you to become a respected and valued member of the community, you can do like Jono Bacon did, and offer the vision and/or mockups of what a solution you imagine would look like.
If it takes off, you’ve found a project that is strong enough to federate the community.
If it doesn’t, it’s no big deal. Go back to listening to the community members desires and obstacles, and see what’s sticking out and overlapping with your own ideas.
Think again of the project you’ve been meaning to start to create a better change in the world, but this time don’t think of all the skills and time you don’t have.
Instead of dismissing the idea because you don’t have what it takes to make it on your own, you can actually look forward to building it because you know where to start: by building trust with a group of like-minded people willing to help you create it.
To do this you can do two things.
1/ You can either create content that’s so useful that a community of like-minded people ask to get more of it and subscribe to your project,
2/ Or you can embed yourself in already existing communities and be so helpful that they would miss you if you disappeared.
Imagine having the trust and respect of a community of people looking forward to your ideas.
Imagine intimately understanding their dreams and challenges.
And imagine you have built the permission to start sharing your own drafts and ideas.
If people rally around you, you’re off to start making the positive change you were seeking to make.
If not, you still have an asset that is invaluable: being a valued member of a community people look up to.
A few questions before parting ways:
If you couldn’t fail, what amazing things would you create? And which communities would be grateful to have this creation you’re imagining and build it with you?
Now you’ve got everything you need. Go find the others. You could start making the difference you’ve been wanting to make.