Dr. Discord, or: How we Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Public Chat

6 min read

Executive summary

We are a small startup team building a new database tool called Dolt, which is Git for Data. This is the story of how we chose to use Discord for our open source project. You can join our server now!

The Fermi Paradox of open source software: Where is everybody?

Developing open-source software can be lonely work, even when you're not forced to work remotely by a pandemic. Even when there aren't several simultaneous disaster movie subplots fighting for primacy in your home state of California.

come join us

But you try to ignore all that, because you believe in the work your startup is trying to do. You have a vision, you drive toward it, you work your fingers to the bone trying to make it a reality. You know it's going to change the world well before you run out of VC funding to pay your salaries. And then you ask for feedback from your customers.

a universal symbol of loneliness and desolation

Even when you have metrics showing you that people are in fact downloading your product and using it every day, when you don't hear from them, sometimes it really feels like there's nobody out there. It makes you want to scream: where is everybody? Where are my customers?

all by myself

The fight to make contact

At DoltHub, we have a small but growing clique of very astute and devastatingly handsome customers. We know from metrics that they are browsing data repositories and creating their own. They are reading blog articles like this one. They are using the product in exciting ways daily. They even sometimes file issues on our open-source project. But beyond this occasional bit of feedback, we didn't hear from them much. It didn't seem right. So we set out to make contact.

reaching out across the internet

The first thing we tried was a product called Intercom. It's a little chat widget that sits in the corner of your website, and lets customers contact you to start chatting. This is how they bill themselves:

intercom pitch

It was relatively easy to get up and running and merged unobtrusively into the design of the website. Maybe too unobtrusively: customers either didn't notice the chat option, or they didn't want to use it. Either way, they weren't reaching out.

Time to try something else.

An example of how to be better

A little while ago, our CEO was talking to the CEO of a competitor, TerminusDB, a company with a similar mission of making it easy to share data. The topic of community engagement came up, and the Terminus folks expressed surprise that we don't even have a chat server for customers to contact us. Terminus has a great community page, which has a lot of ways for customers to get in touch with the team and with each other. Most notably, they prominently display a link to a Discord chat server where customers can talk with engineers.

Embarrassingly, only a couple of us at DoltHub had ever used Discord. In our defense, many of us are crippled by advanced age and parenthood, and don't keep up to date on the latest trends in online chat clients for the gamer set.

how indeed, fellow kids

It's a further sign of our lack of with-it-ness that, upon learning how successful Terminus has been at engaging their user base through Discord, our first impulse was to double down on our boomer sensitivities and explore if we should use Slack instead.

Slack: it's where business happens™

In our further defense, we have heard from many potential enterprise customers that their engineers who would be hypothetically talking to ours on a chat client already have Slack open all day long, because that's what their company uses. We always strive to meet customers where they live. So we decided to try it out.

This is the first thing you see when you visit slack.com:

who wouldn't want to be where work happens

Let's take a minute to appreciate how truly square this marketing pitch is. It's almost a work of art. I don't know about you, but nothing gets my juices flowing faster than thinking about #quarterly-planning. What do you mean I only get to do it four times a year?! Just like Lisa Dawson, nothing excites me more than the prospect of seeing updated metrics. I want the latest numbers, and boom, here's Camilo Henrique and he's got them for me, piping hot out of the oven. In a frenzy of business-metrics lust, I clicked "Contact Sales" so hard I sprained my mousing wrist.

But, customers. Where they live. So we set up a free trial of slack and all hopped on it. This is an actual transcript of what happened.

slack is... fine

As Tim mentioned, at the time we had been using Google chat for our internal team chat experience, because it comes bundled for free with G Suite. It was... fine. Nobody hated it, it worked well enough, and it was free, so whatever, right? But the idea of actually paying someone a subscription to use a product of similar caliber rubbed us the wrong way.

Discord is fun for some reason

Underwhelmed with what Slack had to offer to someone not being paid by their employer to use it, we decided to give Discord a shot. Our enterprise customers might not already be running it for their day jobs, but Discord is free to join and use, and supports both browser and desktop clients, so the barrier to entry is low. They also have a reputation of supporting open source software.

I downloaded the client and spun up our server, then sent out the invite to the team. And then almost instantly, for reasons that we don't quite understand, everybody was having a good time.

our first discord chat

For whatever reason, Discord felt playful and fun where Slack felt stodgy and formal. Everybody was enjoying themselves and joking around from the word go. And as far as features, it's got everything we want: it's got video and voice chat that's easy to discover and use, and lots of knobs and dials you can play with to customize how your server and channels work, including robust role and permissions management and admin tools. And it ships with dark theme by default!

By the end of the day, the whole team was so enamored of the product that we had all agreed, more or less by acclamation, to ditch Google chat and head over there. We haven't opened Google chat since.

We built it, and they came

With our Discord server newly set up, we sent out an invitation to join it on our email newsletter, then sat back and waited. And then, something extraordinary happened: our customers showed up in our public channel! And they started talking with us about how they are using our product and what they want us to build next!

so satisfying

The feeling of actually talking to the people you're building software for, in real time, is really indescribably satisfying. I for one find it incredibly motivating: it puts a face on the product that we've worked so hard to birth. It gives us reassurance that what we're building is scratching someone's itch. And it offers the possibility of real-time course correction if we are planning to build something nobody cares about.

But mostly, it just feels good. It makes me wonder how we did without it before.

so good

Come join us!

We're currently in the process of updating DoltHub with links to our Discord server. But there's no reason to wait! Hop on and talk with us. We're here all day. We look forward to seeing you there!

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