Deciding the future of Corilla

David Ryan
Aug 27, 2018 · 8 min read

The purpose of this post is to open up a conversation to invite ideas for the future of Corilla. I’ll explain where we are at the time of writing, the mission we’ve been on, and why we need to make a decision for our future.

And I’ll talk about where I see potential opportunities. You can jump right down to that part at the bottom if you have some thoughts already.

As it stands we have begun winding down our current operating model and I hope by opening this decision up it creates more opportunities for collaboration and greater impact in what we’ve achieved so far.

This is a curious post to write. It goes against the culture of Silicon Valley and the accelerator and venture capital model we’ve been a part of. And yet it totally aligns with the open source and open organisation model we’ve originally come (and strayed) from.

It’s a bit of a paradox. In looking to openly discuss our value and impact we are very likely putting ourselves out of jobs. In admitting our challenges and failures we’re opening up to opportunities to reflect and learn and grow. None of which makes this easy to attempt to summarise. First lets look at Corilla the company.

What is Corilla

If you’re not familiar with Corilla here’s a explanation for context. Corilla is a collaborative content tool for software teams. It bundles the content workflow in three steps — writing, managing and publishing.

Most teams use it for it’s original purpose as a documentation tool. After we launched on Product Hunt it grew increasingly popular for cross-team collaboration and internal knowledge management.

You can learn more watching my presentation at All Things Open in 2017. We were invited to take part in the startup pitch event and gave a run-through of our value proposition, our history, and some extra cool features (starting at 2:07 for the demo).

In terms of the industry response to Corilla? Users originally called it “like GitHub for content teams”. That feels pretty close. A content hub built for collaboration and ultimately publishing either to the included knowledge base or to many other platforms (such as the Medium API).

I have also heard that “Corilla is to Confluence what Trello is to JIRA”. I think in this case they were highlighting our focus on UX and the workflow as more important than feature creep. I’m a fan of Confluence but not surprised that a large number of our users were abandoning it for Corilla — a major feature request in our roadmap is integration with the Confluence API.

Where we are at now

At the time of writing we are facing the end of our runway. This is the kind of emotionally avoidant wordplay that startups use to say “money left in the bank”. Usually time to raise a new round.

We’ve been in a period of stasis, ceasing active development and moving to maintenance mode as part of taking stock of where we are at and what we really should be doing. It’s very easy for startups to go from venture round to venture round as an optimisation of survival. Rather than an optimisation of what’s best for community and the humans in it.

We got to know a lot of these humans quite well in our three years so far. Even on the hardest days I always found a sense of wonder to see the user map in Intercom — somehow this tiny team was contributing a solution for collaboration and knowledge management to real humans in 85 countries around the world. For an Aussie kid born in an outback mining town you’ve never heard of, this always amazed me. So who are these teams?

The typical Corilla user has been a small team of technical writers and developers collaborating on product documentation. These range from startups right through to enterprise.

A surprising and growing persona has turned out to be Series A and Series B tech companies hitting scale. Particularly where internal growth has highlighted the failure of existing wikis and legacy publishing workflows. Exactly my personal experience as a technical writer that inspired the creation of Corilla in the first place.

Corilla was created out of frustration with our workflow as technical writers.

This growing segment was our land-and-expand opportunity — as typically developer advocate 🥑 and then marketing teams experienced the workflows around Corilla’s unique collections mode and started to get onboard as well.

This is where we began to pivot and design a new in-line WYSIWYG editor, a git mode for developer collaboration, and a format agnostic publishing engine that could publish to and track content across a range of APIs and services (including right here on Medium).

So about that pivot…

How did we get here?

Towards the end of 2017 I took a sleepless red-eye from San Francisco to New York to meet with one of our investors. We met to talk about the bigger picture of collaboration and publishing. That meeting resulted in an offer of funding and me signing a $1M term sheet.

We also had the exciting news that we were selected as part of the second cohort of Hot DesQ — a program in Australia that offers up to $100,000 in equity free funding for startups to spend six months in the Queensland ecosystem. Plus earlier in the year I’d joined a Reboot Circle to begin to tackle my own personal development.

I flew back to Australia feeling pretty good about 2018.

The feeling was short-lived. Our funding deal fell through in early January. I got the news by an abrupt email. I immediately sent it on to our equity holders and then took a deep breath. I felt like Super Mario tumbling back down to size — and no 1UPs left.

Sitting with the team and an early angel investor I explained that we were now reliant on the Hot DesQ funding as our remaining runway. I was worried about both the team and our users. So I put three scenarios up for a vote:

  • Give the remaining venture funding back and use the Hot DesQ grant to open source our work.
  • Push some of our community engagement projects forward to build some noise for an acquihire.
  • Put our heads down and go for it.

The vote was unanimous. Go for it.

The team rallied amazingly and we rushed a knowledge base product to market, rebuilt the UX workflow in an unbelievable pace, and went hard on customer acquisition. These were the options within reach. Achieving them would just manage to secure the company and keep us battling on in weekly release by weekly release. Pretty standard startup stuff, right? We’d been through worse.

In this phase I started to realise a few things:

  • We could bootstrap our way into keeping our jobs and our current users happy, but in doing so wouldn’t genuinely be tackling the actual larger problems with content and collaboration tools that the world needs solved. As a leader I had effectively stalled us the first of on what McKinsey calls “the three horizons of growth”.
  • We couldn’t just drop Corilla if this didn’t work. Some of our users had not only put huge amounts of time into their implementation, but in vouching for us in their organisation. I’d sat with them in their offices from SoMa to Surry Hills to Shoreditch and beyond. I’d put three years of my life into working remotely and around the world to fully understand and embed in this global community. These are our people. This is where Corilla comes from.
  • The resilience I’d formed as a founder and domain expert hellbent on solving these problems was masking a slow and deep burnout that was building up. The more I worked with Reboot and personal coaching the more I understood these patterns and the danger of The Loyal Soldier in startup life. Friends like Jess and Nikki and Inga got me wondering if I wasn’t just taking the hard road out of habit or some outdated cultural roadmap.
  • If I was doubting the authenticity of startup culture worshipping The Struggle in my own life lens, what of the team? If we have a choice in how we spend some of the best years of our lives, why am I choosing to drag them through this? Just because you can lead a team through hell doesn’t mean you didn’t just get lost along the way. The community is often the best compass.
  • Our team has a collection of rare and hard-won expertise in content engineering and publishing, UX and product design. By taking the slower and harder path to secure our lifestyle in something of a niche product… are we unfairly removing our potential contribution for something bigger?
  • And as that team’s leader is this just my own ego getting the way of contributing to something even more impactful on the planet?

What’s happening right now?

As I said in the opening of this post we are going to move Corilla into a minimal maintenance mode and begin working with our users to find them the best options for them. At time of writing some disruption will occur. I’ve reached out to some founders of similar products (also know as “competition”) to give them a heads-up and connect them to our user community where possible.

We’re also going to look at options to migrate Corilla off of Amazon AWS (which we currently pay for) and onto a cloud provider that we have credits for (being a part of both the Google Cloud for Startups and Microsoft BizSpark programs). We’ll start winding down the other SaaS services such as Intercom, Firebase, etc. All of who have been awesome vendors for us over the years.

What happens next? How can you help?

By writing this post I’m opening up the conversation to the wider community — and to you — to invite your ideas for what we do next.

It’s also embracing something that feels really hard to do. It’s one thing to talk about being an open organisation but another thing to take the steps towards being open as individuals. Especially when we could just raise another round of VC and the fanfare that earns, while knowing this isn’t the best thing for the team or our wider community potential.

I’ve had some private conversations that have touched everything from open sourcing the product, merging, being acquired, being acquihired, etc. In nearly all scenarios I keep finding myself thinking about our overall commitment to our team, to our users, to the content community, and to our investors and supporters. Usually in that order. It’s a confronting topic to suddenly embrace — T. S. Eliot’s “not with a bang but a whimper” is probably my greatest fear after so many years of effort and experience.

This is the start of the conversation. If you have any comments or ideas please leave them below or email me on david at corilla dot com.

I’m also open to any ideas on what you enjoyed about Corilla, what we got wrong, and how we can improve next time around. The journey as a small product team contributing to such a global community has been rewarding in how much we’ve learned. About our industry, ourselves, and our community. I look forward to continuing to learn those lessons in whatever way or shape we find ourselves going.

My name is David Ryan, the creator of Corilla, a collaborative documentation tool for software teams. All about PM and UX and content team collaboration. Formerly Red Hat and the NUMA Paris startup accelerator. How can I help?

Corilla Blog

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