Taco Potze, Founder and CEO of Open Social tells us about digital spaces that empower members to share.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Taco Potze: Everything is currently still under lockdown here in the Netherlands. But we are doing well despite the circumstances.
Our second child was born last year during the lockdown as well. So that was something to celebrate. Luckily working from home has allowed me to spend more quality time with my family.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Open Social.
Taco Potze: The Open Social journey began as far back as 2008 when I co-founded GoalGorilla, a full-service web agency specializing in Drupal development. One of our big clients was Greenpeace International. They asked us to build an online community and volunteer management platform for them. This project became the Greenpeace Greenwire platform.
The Greenwire platform was hugely successful from the start. It launched first in the Netherlands, where it increased the organization’s volunteering efforts by 600%, and then it rolled out internationally. When Greenpeace Greenwire won the prestigious Dutch Interactive Awards in 2015, we saw the viability of online community software as a distinct SaaS product that we could offer. In 2017, we decided to officially launch Open Social, offering organizations and associations a unique online community software solution.
The United Nations became the first client of the new Open Social software solution, and we have been rapidly growing since. We’ve taken on clients like the European Commission and Salvation Army, developed new and exciting features, secured investment, and won multiple awards for our platforms.
How does Open Social innovate?
Taco Potze: We have a very close relationship with our clients, and a lot of our online community software innovations are direct responses to discussions we have with them. For example, the Swiss think tank foraus needed a tool that would allow them to integrate their crowd-sourcing methodology into an online community. We worked with them to build the Crowd Innovation extension for Open Social. This extension is now available to any Open Social client and has become a powerful community engagement tool for several organizations. It is this approach that sets Open Social’s features apart from those of competitors who all seem to offer much of the same.
Another big advantage we have in terms of innovation is that we work open source. This means that we can innovate quicker using existing open-source tools, benefit from the skills and knowledge of thousands of professionals that are part of this community, and receive important feedback and input from open source users.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Taco Potze: Of course, we have had some of the same ups and downs that other companies have had over the past year. A big one was getting used to working from home and not seeing colleagues daily or socializing together. We all miss that.
We were, however, fortunate in that Open Social as a company was able to really thrive during the pandemic. A lot of our clients saw their existing online community and membership management platforms become increasingly central to their operations during this period of uncertainty. In addition to the clients, an increasing number of other organizations were suddenly scrambling to find solutions to new work-from-home policies, social distancing measures, and cancellations of in-person events.
Because of this, we were also able to secure 1.25 million Euros in new investment and really start to scale up in 2020 and 2021.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Taco Potze: I think a big decision we have had to make was to transition to a hybrid office/remote work environment. Instead of thinking of remote work as something that will go away eventually, we decided to embrace it. This has allowed us to find new and extremely skilled team members as far away as Spain and Slovenia.
The big challenge of this, of course, is the logistics of the hiring and onboarding process. And on top of that, it is also very difficult to eventually meet these new team members face-to-face.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Taco Potze: Of course, we all use standard tools like Slack and Zoom and Google Drive. But a great help has been using our own Open Social platform to keep the social part of work alive. This is something that tools like Slack don’t satisfy.
We have our own online community called ShareSquare, where we share pictures of our pets, recipes we love, interesting online events we plan to attend, and so on. Our CTO Bram ten Hove also regularly shares updates on the chilly plants he took home from the office when lockdown started.
What’s more, having this online community space also allows different teams in our company to create groups online where they can talk and share ideas or knowledge that might not fit into the daily workflow of Slack notifications and emails. It’s great to see them create these discussion spaces, despite not being able to interact face-to-face. This is something we see becoming increasingly important: now that we have all managed to migrate our work lives online, how are we going to add that social dimension that is really important for productivity, well-being, and job satisfaction?
Lastly, we also have an Open Social platform called Community Talks that we created for our clients. This is a community where clients can get community management tips & tricks, attend webinars we organize, and interact with our Customer Success Managers.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Taco Potze: We have a lot of big competitors operating in the same online community software space. But then we also have several indirect competitors. Organizations often go to platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn when they start thinking of creating an online community. We know from clients that this doesn’t really work, however. You cannot create trust within your community when you use a platform that is known for collective and monetizing members’ private data.
One thing that sets us apart from direct and indirect competitors, as I’ve said before, is our focus on open source. Our competitors are mostly proprietary platforms with closed systems. And we are seeing an increased need for more open and transparent software solutions. Organizations, and the public in general, are becoming increasingly wary of Big Tech, data privacy violations, unregulated tracking, and so forth. The benefit of open source is that the core principles are transparency, openness, data ownership, and trust.
Our vision is to help build a pro-privacy, anti-monopoly and open web that inspires trusted connections and collaboration. Open Social clients truly own their platforms and their own data.
So, for example, at Open Social, we do offer Google Analytics integration. But then we also offer Matomo Analytics integration as an open-source alternative for clients. We offer Zoom integration with our platform. But then we also give clients the option to opt for BigBlueButton, which is the leading open-source alternative to Zoom.
We’ve seen that, especially with NGOs, municipalities, or organizations like the United Nations or European Commission, this focus on trust, privacy, and data ownership is a real value add.
Your final thoughts?
Taco Potze: I think that online communities during COVID have become crucial for staying connected. We’ve seen this directly with our clients, our open source users, as well as within our own company.
So I want to invite any organization curious about using online community software as a way to thrive in this changing world to come and talk to us. We are always eager to share our knowledge, as well as learn about the challenges different kinds of organizations are facing in creating online connections and collaborations.
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