Designing an open source company, and the future of Indent Labs

A year ago I set out to be the change I wanted to see in the world and formed my first company, Indent Labs. After three (relatively successful) product launches — Dactyl in January, Retort in March, and Notebook.ai just last week — I felt it necessary to sit down and explain my vision for Indent Labs, as a company, moving forward.

But before talking about how the company is structured, let me provide you with a brief refresher on our stated goal from the lab website:

Indent Labs is a collection of ambitious natural language processing projects aimed squarely at moonshots in the field of writing, particularly at the intersection of artificial intelligence and creativity.
Projects in our pipeline include dynamic prose and poetry generation, in-story analysis and analytics, real-time writing guidance and feedback, alternative storytelling mediums, new ways to interact with and bring characters to life, and so much more.

A pretty ambitious goal, I’ll agree.

In order to accomplish what I believe to be a long-term, net-positive effect for authors and creatives, I’ve structured Indent Labs as a company very specifically. Here, I’d like to explain what those choices were and why I made them.

Design decision: Indent Labs produces open source code.

We want to build something for everyone and inspire even greater tools. Our linguistic fingerprinting service, Dactyl, was the first open source API we announced to empower smarter writing software. Shortly after, we announced Retort to not only provide rich natural language generation to software, but to also begin building an extensive model of the English language that continuously self-improves.

Both Dactyl and Retort are open source and available as free-to-use APIs with no usage limits. If someone expects to be hitting the API extensively, they are more than welcome to host their own instance of either and provide exclusive, uninterrupted access to their own apps.

By open sourcing our libraries, code, and products, we’ve already received widespread input from all over the world. No one person knows everything, and we’re excited that security experts have audited our security, design experts have chimed in with UI/UX design, and outside experts in our tech stack have contributed faster, more reliable code. These are benefits we would not otherwise have if Indent Labs produced closed-source software.

In fact, many of our Notebook.ai users are finding themselves on GitHub to offer their opinions and feedback on upcoming features, the road map, and how they’re using Notebook to plan rich worlds. We strive to create the best products for creatives and this kind of transparent feedback is invaluable.

Design decision: Indent Labs has no employees.

We’re driven forward by volunteers working on the technologies we’re interested in. For some, this is Ruby — for others, it may be Python, Javascript, chatbots over SMS, NLP, devops, scaling, or any of the other myriad of challenges we face every day.

Several junior (and senior) developers have found themselves in our Slack asking, “How can I help?” Invariably, we find something productive that’s tailored to their skills and interests and set them loose creating something great. Of course, we’re here to help, answer questions, and guide them, but ultimately they own their code and work at it until they’re proud of it. It’s this internal drive that pushes forward the greatest developers and results in amazing products like Notebook.ai.

Occasionally, we do employ temporary freelancers for high-priority features, but only when our volunteers are busy. We do our best to keep a creative environment that lets everyone grow at their own speed, in their own interests.

And of course, we’re 100% remote. We work distributed workdays, whenever we want, on whatever we want (that’s on a road map, of course!). We collaborate with the best tools, using GitHub, Slack, and whatever else fits our needs for each project.

Building amazing software means amazing results

Design decision: Indent Labs has no deadlines.

Here’s the part of the article where we either stop sounding like a company in your head, or start sounding like the best place to work on earth.

Here’s the short version: developers produce their best code when they’re happy and want to work on that code.

Unfortunately, this model doesn’t always fit for companies bound by financial commitments (boards, users, management, and so on). Fortunately, Indent Labs has been carefully crafted to avoid the “sink or swim” mindset that has become synonymous with startups. If we have no users, we’re paying next to nothing. If we have a hundred million users, they’ll pay for themselves (and without ads!).

To jump back to the crazy notion that we shun deadlines, though, I want to clarify this doesn’t mean features never release. In fact, we release features more often than many companies larger than us.

How? It’s a fact that developers produce better code when they’re happy to work on something, but they also tend to work faster, smarter, and longer (which isn’t a bad thing when you’re enjoying yourself!). To accomplish this, we keep many simultaneous road maps up to date that anyone can work on. We’re extremely agile and regularly readjust road maps based on user feedback, and anyone can pick up any feature and start working. When that feature is done, it goes out — simple as that.

Design decision: Indent Labs is financially self-sustainable.

It’s amazing how little a company can cost when you don’t have full-time employees, a physical office, insurance, and many of the other costs that typically go towards business development instead of product development.

Indent Labs’ first paid product, Notebook.ai, just launched last week with a “free for life” promotion for all accounts that sign up in October. After that, each new account will cost monthly fee of $9. Sales will funnel directly back into Indent Labs development, financing operating costs (servers, domains, advertising, etc) and further development. No ads, no selling user data, just a good product paid for by users that want to use it.

In fact, we were so excited to release Notebook.ai that we did so before actually implementing a system that let us even take payments! Therefore, we promised free-for-life accounts to any creatives that signed up during our launch month and kept rolling forward. Not having huge operating costs yet made this possible, and we’re grateful to have the opportunity to share our great software with thousands of bright minds across the world.

Authors around the world are loving Notebook.ai :)

To complement our fast-and-loose development model, we also strive to produce products that are built to scale both upwards and downwards. We all know servers can be expensive, and being able to scale up when load is high and back down during low usage means a great experience for users for less money out of our coffers. Of course, many people are so happy with our products that they’ve offered to donate to help the cause, and we’re more than happy to receive help from anyone, in any form.

Want to get involved?

In about a week we’ve become home to over 4,000 creatives looking to build rich worlds in Notebook.ai and would love to build out our team, too. If you’re a developer, designer, or feel you can contribute in some way, get in touch with us on GitHub!

Contributing to open source is a great way to learn with others interested in your preferred technology, on products you actually care about and use. Not to mention it looks great on a resume, produces great products you can show off, and you can be at the forefront of integrating AI and creativity to benefit the authors and creatives of the world. Whatever your skills or reasons, we’d love to have you.

I’ll look forward to building the future of smarter writing software with you.

Andrew Brown
Author & CEO