Footprint was my first real web app with Webstrong, but for a multitude of reasons I never launched it. I have no regrets with that decision, it was definitely the right thing to do at the time. But lately I’ve been looking back on what I’ve achieved so far and I’ve decided that despite Footprint never reaching it’s potential as a business, it can still provide some value as an open source project.
The Original Idea
Started in 2007, I came up with the idea whilst on a flight to China, having just finished 37 Signals’ Getting Real. Feeling totally inspired and with absolutely no market research whatsoever I went about wireframing up a web app, that I would use myself, to help me work more effectively with the web design clients I had at the time in Webstrong.
During the flight, I filled a large notebook with ideas, features, names, technologies, wireframes, and even the infrastructure of the software. The ideas were pouring out of me. I wrote hundreds of pages. Filling the notebook on that flight was and still is the most productive work I’ve ever done.
Two weeks later, on the return flight to Dublin, after having fleshed out the plans for the app over the holiday, I began coding. As luck would have it, we were upgraded to business class, which gave me plenty of room to work on my laptop and personal access to power. I began coding. Whilst others slept on the flight I was writing code. I coded non stop for 14 hours, another session of extreme productivity, and by the time we touched down in Dublin Airport I had the outline of a working prototype.
Over the next week, I put together an application for the Hothouse incubation programme after having heard about it from a friend. As luck would have it, they were just closing their next round of the programme and I managed to get an interview straight away. And so, with no business plan, a working prototype, a hastily filled out form, and a 2 hour interview I managed to land a place on Hothouse.
Over the next month, I continued to work on the app, adding new features, multi-tenancy, and even built out the start of the promo site. During the same time, I prepared my CORD grant application, a business grant from Enterprise Ireland, aimed at technology startups with international potential. It gave you half your salary from the previous year, tax free, up to a maximum of €38,000. Entrprise Ireland took no equity in the business and the money didn’t have to be paid back or even matched. It was, and still is, the cheapest way to fund your startup in Ireland.
Whatever I said in the CORD interview, I must have impressed the judges, because a few weeks later, I was approved for the grant. And sure enough, the next month I began to receive the first of 12 monthly payments into my personal bank account. Plenty of cash to support me whilst I worked on and launched Footprint.
Polishing and Polishing
I was on a roll. I was 25, and running an Enterprise Ireland funded technology startup. Over the next few months, nothing could stop me. I added features, installed a blog, a forum, integrated Amazon’s new S3 storage, OpenID, RSS, and even made a start on an RESTful API. I did some real market research, wrote a proper business plan, went to networking events, told people about what I was doing, got feedback – some good, some bad. I did all of this, all without launching the actual app.
This was my mistake. In hindsight, I now know that my ego was too fragile to launch an app that I wasn’t completely happy with. I had a minimum viable product, but I kept on polishing it. I postponed launching it, constantly giving myself reasons not to launch. Despite what everyone was telling me, I felt I knew best, and that launching now was a mistake. However, nothing was further from the truth.
Failure to Launch
The truth was, launching it immediately was the only way it could have worked at all. These days, once you have an MVP (minimum viable product) it’s time to launch. Period.
And as time went on, I got distracted. People started asking me to help them on their own projects, I got busier, and worked less often on Footprint. And all the time in the back of my mind was this doubt, that it simply wasn’t good enough.
In reality, I should have let the public decide whether it was good enough.
Over time, development on Footprint slowed, and eventually stopped. Consulting took over, and the seduction of a large paycheck won out. I guess I just wasn’t ready for what could have been.
Finding My Passion
That was in 2008. Almost 4 years ago. What I learned through that process has helped shape my career ever since and gave me my mission for the rest of my life. Despite the failure, I had found my passion – I wanted to run a web app business. Bleeding edge technology, community, leverage, global reach, passive recurring income. It had everything. It was looking likely now that it wasn’t going to be Footprint. But the lessons I learned from that journey gave me skills and experience that ironically I may not have gotten had it succeeded.
Having learned so much, and gotten so much out of it, I wanted to share it with you – especially if you’re thinking of getting into the business of web apps. It’s the greatest industry in the world. And whilst the rest of the world is in a deep recession, web apps are booming.
Going Open Source
Now it’s 2012, and rather then have Footprint continue to gather cobwebs on an old server, I’ve decided to give others the chance to learn what I’ve learned. And so, as of today I’m opening up Footprint completely and releasing it open source.
The Footprint web app has been fully launched now at footprintapp.com, despite it not being completely polished.
I’ve released the source code on GitHub under the Open Software License v3.0. Included is a full installation guide and database generation scripts. If you want to host a copy of it yourself, you can. If you want to improve the currently hosted version, just make your changes and send a pull request. If you want to strip it down and take out the pieces you need for your own project, that’s fine too.
To help understand how Footprint works, here’s an overview of it’s system architecture. I wrote about it in more detail previously.
Footprint was built in PHP 4.2 on an Apache web server, and uses PEAR and the Smarty Template Engine extensively. You will need a MySQL database and an Amazon AWS account to get everything up and running. Follow the instructions in the installation guide for step by step instructions.
Nothing would make me happier, then for someone to take a copy of this code and do something interesting with it. In fact, if all they did was write some improvements and use it themselves, then that would be just perfect. Footprint is now open source – that’s the whole idea! It’s over to you now to decide what you’d like to do with it.