The story of a product built entirely in public

Helpful grew from one person’s idea to ten people’s side project to a product owned by 100+ individuals. Here’s the story:

Next week, the Assembly community will launch version 2 of Helpful, an awesome support tool that hundreds of organizations are using.

I’ve had the opportunity to closely watch the product grow from an idea to a great product, and I thought it would be fun to walk through that story.

When Helpful started, it was the first and only product on Assembly. So, building a product in public and sharing ownership was a brand new concept for everyone involved in Helpful, including our team.

As of today, about 5 million people have used the 100+ products being built on the platform, each building upon the path Helpful paved. Here’s a brief summary of that path:

It all started with a whiteboard.

@chrislloyd started Helpful because he wanted a fast, simple support tool.

Shortly after starting, he went to speak with Kevin Hale, a partner at YC and founder of Wufoo, who had talked previously about wanting a similar tool — because the current solutions were clunky, expensive, and slow. He just wanted a simple support tool that worked like Gmail with a few powerful features on top of it.

Above are the notes that he and @chrislloyd mapped out. People were already showing up to discuss the direction of the product.

Here are the very first wireframes of how the product should work:

Spoiler alert: check out how much the product today still resembles these early ideas:

That day, @whatupdave made the first commit, and SupportFoo was born:

As we can see in the wireframes and designs, the name went through several iterations:

The first lines of code

These were the very early days of Assembly, but still people were excited about the idea of building products collaboratively, and new faces were showing up to participate:

Early designs started rolling in:

Along with tons of feedback and collaboration:

MVP scoping

The MVP feature-set started to come together:

  • A clean, simple inbox for support requests
  • Easy text editing, sending, and archiving
  • Archive search
  • Canned responses
  • Multi-user support + ability to ‘assign’ a request to a user

The idea was to make a product that could get out of the way and let a support person just respond to questions as if it were over email. Some ideas were suggested, but later dismissed because they didn’t make too much sense for an MVP:

Growing an idea into a business collaboratively was a new process, and everyone was learning along the way. Different people were involved at different times and to different degrees. Some people emerged as leaders while others were just there to help out.

Throughout the process, everyone was working together to figure out what it meant to build and own a product together:

But over time, the confusion over how to participate was replaced by a fluid process for onboarding new team-members and leveraging existing ones.

Over time, people didn’t love the name Supportly — so the naming discussion was re-opened. Pretty quickly after @whale made these suggestions, it was decided:

Around that time @holly showed up and crafted the early branding/landing page:

Tying things together

Developing a product collaboratively was working quite well, with more than a dozen people participating so far. As the vision narrowed, more product was being built:

Over time, it became clear that a few added features were needed for the MVP — particularly an in-page widget for creating support requests. So @vanstee built it:


Once the early prototypes were ready, Assembly stepped in as the first customer. (We’re still a happy customer today)

As beta customers rolled in, it wasn’t all roses:

But in some cases, those customers jumped in and built the solutions they needed.

The landing page went through lots of iteration:

A big focus from the start has always been on inbox zero:


Then, in August 2014, Helpful launched with much fanfare on Product Hunt, Hacker News, and the rest of the internet.

As of that launch day, 84 different people had earned an ownership stake in Helpful. Also, the team learned around then that an awesome developer on the product, @lachlanjc, was just 13 years old:

It might not have been the biggest launch ever, but it was amazing. A group of strangers had formed on the internet to make something, and people wanted the thing they made.

Back to work

After launch, they continued to focus on two things: talking to users and making their product better. (note: I wrote recently about how Helpful can make it easier to talk to users)

At one point, @coleylogan, an alum of the airbnb support team jumped in and offered a ton of awesome feedback on the product:

(this is just the start of her note, read the rest here if you’re interested)

Without building in this public way, many of these informative discussions would never have been sparked. By capturing every bit of feedback they could, the team was able to guide the direction the product should take.

They worked through pricing strategy and design:

When the team decided to open source Helpful under AGPL, they had an interesting conversation about what that meant and how Helpful could still be a business while being open source.

We’ve always been under the assumption that being useful to a larger group of people was more important than making a few extra dollars early on. — @vanstee

And then a few weeks ago, the team made the decision to focus on growth, rather than early monetization. The thought is that if Helpful is completely free, and always free, it will be able to grow much faster than before.

As a distributed team with no overhead, Helpful has the luxury of being able charge nothing — and if they can get mass distribution it won’t be hard to find channels of monetization.

(for more on this thinking, read @fredwilson’s ‘Dentist Office Story’)

So, that brings us to today. Helpful just kicked off a week-long sprint as they gear up to relaunch version 2 next week. The product is looking really slick, it’s fast and easy to use, and it’s totally free.

Since that initial whiteboard, more than 100 people have earned ownership in Helpful by making it better — sometimes with something as small as some user feedback, and other times with months of commitment.

It’s been amazing to watch, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

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