Openland (YC W18) MVP Review: Chasing the siren song of product and engineering craftsmanship
OpenLand (YC W18) was founded in 2017 and launched their private beta in mid 2019. That’s when I first tried it out, but I waited for them to launch publicly this year to write my MVP review. And here we are.
Their product is basically Slack except with no organizations, just channels and users. It’s impressively modern-looking and feature-rich for an MVP.
So, what’s the value prop and why is it better than Slack?
From the about page:
Openland is a new messenger for high-quality communities. Its communities are small, moderated, and are based on shared values. In premium communities, members are asked to pay a small monthly subscription to ensure active participation and to compensate organizers’ work. Community experience is centered around conversations with experts, building community knowledge, sharing experiences among members, and starting new meaningful relationships. Openland has beautiful, ultra-fast apps for all desktop and mobile platforms.
Apparently, if you’re the organizer of a “small” community (I’m guessing this means roughly 10–500 members), Openland wants to convince you that it’s the best chat platform to use.
Ok, “organizer of a small community” is a reasonable target market. Not super specific, but not super vague either. What’s an example of such an organizer and such a community? The “featured communities” section on the home page provides four examples:
Let’s check them out. Here’s the biggest one, Fundraising Help:
There’s not much activity happening in this community. I checked out the other three featured communities, and they have less activity than this one.
If Openland is the best place for communities, why can’t I find a single active community?
Update Jan 17, 2021: Their home page no longer shows a “Featured communities” section. Their About page now makes this claim (without evidence): “Openland is a home for some of the most active and supportive chat communities on the Internet.”
It’s striking to contrast the underwhelming state of their communities with their overwhelming success at cloning Slack: complete with reactions, stickers, link previews, formatting, editing, drafts, mentions, replies, forwards, threaded comments, conference calls, native apps for all platforms, dark mode and color themes.
It’s all too common to see startups spending their runway chasing the siren song of product and engineering craftsmanship, only to crash against the jagged rocks of market irrelevance. Openland looks to me like a classic case of ignoring your huge market risk and just focusing on the non-risky areas of product and engineering. It’s a nice flow state while it lasts.
What’s the bull case for the idea? Is it plausible that they’ll find some communities to use it?
I’m just not clear on what specific use case makes this differentiated from Slack, Discord, Facebook groups, Whatsapp groups, etc. They mention letting you charge your group members a subscription fee, but the alternative of setting up a Substack or Patreon or Locals.com or other membership service that bills your community members for you isn’t hard.
In order to understand Openland’s value prop, we need to see one community that is thriving on Openland, and understand why that community couldn’t thrive equally well on an existing platform. One value prop story.
Without a specific value prop story, is there at least an abstract argument why Openland’s platform fills a gap in the market? Maybe there’s some kind of virality or network effect where being a platform for N communities would put them in a stronger position to be a platform for N+1 communities. But I don’t really see it. It seems like their structural difference of having organization-less channels doesn’t much affect whether people are interested in another Slack-like product.
Bloated MVP Test Score: 8/10