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Chris Cardell

Interview with Ilija Studen (activeCollab)

activeCollab provides platform for planning, progress tracking and communication.

I interviewed Ilija Studen, activeCollab founder to find out more. This is the hundred and thirty first in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Ilija!

Give us the elevator pitch for activeCollab.

activeCollab is a project collaboration platform that works great for small companies, as well as teams within larger organisations. Apart from a rich, balanced feature set, what makes activeCollab different is its open nature. You can host it by yourself, even within your own network, study the code (it’s open) and extend and modify the system.

What’s your background?

Programming mostly. I wrote my first program when I was 12, in Basic on a Commodore Plus/4. Then PCs came and I got into games. One of my favourites was the original Deus Ex, which resulted in our company name several years later (the final level is in Area 51).

When I was 17, I got interested in programming again and started building applications in Borland Delphi. That was my hobby and my first exposure to “serious” programming. I was so into software that I started a small website where I reviewed Windows shareware applications. That was my first experience with web publishing and it eventually led me to PHP and programming for the web.

After secondary school, I got into university and studied mechatronics for 2+ years. Somewhere around that time I started freelancing and eventually dropped out of university. It felt like a “bad investment” because I didn’t want to spend another 3 years learning about something that didn’t interest me and I didn’t see it as my future calling.

What made you decide to start working on activeCollab?

During my early twenties, I was freelancing and that eventually led me to project management. I needed a simple system to keep track of things that I was working on, so I wrote my own implementation of Basecamp functionality as a fun side project in 2005. Things like that happen when you have a lot of free time and find something interesting to work on.

Rewrite of that system eventually became activeCollab in 2006. Starting a company and selling a product was not an option because I was too scared (had no business or product management experience, had limited amount of money, all of that sounded like too much responsibility etc), but I couldn’t just let it rot on my disk. Eventually I released the system under the terms of open source license in hope that it will be useful to someone and that it will be a great learning experience for me.

That turned out to be a big mistake. activeCollab was well received by online media and it got really popular within weeks of launching. All of that was exciting, but it led to one of the most miserable periods of my life. Quickly I learned that I am the worst employee that you can ever have (I had a day job at the time), poor open source project maintainer and horrible team player. Everything was wrong and my life at that point was like Windows – it desperately needed a restart.

My roommate and I started A51 in spring 2007 with a simple goal: rebuild activeCollab from the ground up (new framework, new interface, new functionality), offer it to people and charge for licenses. Instead of having a mediocre open source project that made ME miserable, WE went to build a software company that we wanted to work for.

October 5th we celebrated five full years since the first commercial version of activeCollab was released. It’s been a fun ride so far (with ups and downs, of course), but we still have a lot to offer.

activeCollab is used by over 10,000 businesses and organizations. Any big clients on your list?

Yes, check our homepage.

Is Serbia a good place to be based? Does it have a large startup community?

I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. Compared to some environments, there is way less money floating around, there’s no big entrepreneurial community, financing is hard to get etc, but who cares? These things make starting up a company easier, but not having access to them does not make things impossible, just different. In a sense, starting up in a place like Serbia forces you to get the basics right:

1. attract and impress customers, not investors;
2. money’s not free, so make sure that you build a sustainable business;
3. local market is small so start thinking regionally or globally from day one;
4. taken advantage of the fact that you have a different background (and perspective) than other companies.

What we need the most, we have: talented people eager to do some great work. The Internet opens a whole new world of opportunity that the previous generation never had: to learn, to create and to offer what they’ve done to the rest of the world, easier than ever before.

What technologies have you used to build activeCollab?

activeCollab is built on top of a standard PHP stack. You can use any OS and any server that can run PHP, hook it up with MySQL database and you are good to go.

PHP has been a punching bag lately (some purists are almost insulted by the fact it’s around and so popular), but that’s irrelevant in our case. The important thing is that customers find the platform convenient and easy to set up and use.

How much has your initial vision changed since first launch?

My personal goal hasn’t changed much – it was always about good software. With time I learned that some things work better than others, and adjusted accordingly, but it’s still about building software and enjoying the process.

Strange thing is that open source felt like a second full time job and I ended up completely burned out within a couple of months. On the other hand, something that pretty much everyone would consider to be a job (working in an office, sometimes staying in late or even working on weekend, having meetings now and then etc) doesn’t feel like one.

Basically, the goal is the same, but work is less stressful and we are way more productive this way.

Do you have any new features in the pipeline?

Of course, we are always working on product improvements. One of the few “policies” that we have is that we do not discuss upcoming features until they are built and available for testing (in form of beta release).

Back in 2006 and early 2007, when activeCollab was open source project, I spent a lot of time discussing various features and approaches with other community members. Simple fact is that good software is not built by talking, but by prototyping, experimenting, coding; iteration after iteration.

Also, when you sell software, any early discussion is a promise in a way. We want our customers to make purchase decisions based on features that are currently available, not based on promises. Additionally, we will ship only features that we are satisfied with, and you can’t always know if something will work until you build it and see it in action. If you promise something, and later on see that it doesn’t work well, it’s really hard to drop it from the product.

As a company, we realised this early on and agreed not to public discuss any upcoming features that are not yet part of the product. After 5 years, we still feel that that’s one of the things that we got right.

I hear you offer your employees a home cooked lunch in the office every day! Is activeCollab a close-knit team?

Yes, we have a cook who prepares a meal for us every day. It’s common for companies to have cantinas and prepare food for their employees (many companies that I admire do), but our employee #5 was a cook. Most companies grow a lot bigger before they decide to do that.

For the first four years, lunch was the only type of meeting that we had. Now we have one “formal” meeting every two or three weeks, but everyday discussions happen in the hallway, over a cup of coffee or during lunch.

But you are right, there’s something deeply human about sharing a meal with a group people. We are social beings and food brings us together. I’ve been traveling a bit and you can see that everywhere.

What do you wish you’d have known 5 years ago that you know now?

I wish I learned to say “No” to work earlier. During open source days, it was always “Yes” and it led to complete burnout within a couple of months.

Not all work is good work, and not every feature is welcome or urgent. What I learned is that you can incrementally grow and improve, while having a fulfilling life and enjoying stress-free productivity.

Where do you see activeCollab in 5 years time?

In 5 years activeCollab will turn 10. What I like to imagine is activeCollab as the oldest kid in a family of successful products: mature, well rounded, stable and balanced.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

Something that we wanted to do for a long time, but still haven’t managed to is to build and ship a second product. I think that we finally have a solution for that problem built into activeCollab 3, but we still need to actually ship the second product to prove me right.

Apart from that, a problem that we constantly face is the fragmented nature of the platform we target. There’s a lot of ways you can configure a stack that PHP runs on, and supporting all of the variations can be quite challenging sometimes. Still, the ability to host activeCollab on your own server is one of the things that make us different from our competitors, so these challenges simply come with the territory.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

The simple development process that we have, and where it can lead us in years to come.

Back in May we reached an important milestone: activeCollab 3. Now that it’s out, after 2+ years of development, we can FINALLY bring enhancements and new features in much shorter iterations.

Frequent, incremental releases make all the difference. The team is happier because their work gets in front of the customers in a matter of days. Customers are happy because fixes and new functionality is not something that they need to wait months for.

… and I am happy because features and enhancements that we ship like that really add up. Since the new year, when the first beta of activeCollab 3 was released, we shipped 30 releases that cover thousands of tweaks, fixes and enhancements. Thousands!

Can you convince the reader to start using activeCollab in under 60 words?

activeCollab is a balanced project collaboration solution that features strong invoicing and time tracking components. The source code is provided and you can host the system on your own server. There’s no vendor lock-in, monthly fees or per-seat charges – pay once and use the product as long as you want.

Finished reading? Check out activeCollab!

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012 at 9:37 pm GMT. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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