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Guiding entrepreneurs as they free-fall to success

Written last month on the flight back from a startup mentoring expedition to Egypt

Managing a young startup is like freefalling without a parachute. The ground gets ever closer — if you don’t do something fast, you’ll hit hard. It’s still too far away to see final destination clearly. You try and spot a safe haven, but that lake could be a forest. You’ve only got a vague sense of your current trajectory. You’re distracted by unfamiliar and uncomfortable sensations.

Entrepreneurship is like free-fall (photo: @larswoudstra via Twenty20)

You try to review your options logically, adrenaline pumping, new strategies rapidly fading in and out of mind, pulling at your focus. You’ve never done this before. You don’t know what will work. The training made sense in the classroom, but the teacher never saw this terrain combined with this weather. You wish they’d prepared you for the dread and rising panic. Now you’ve got precisely one shot at survival. You wonder what might kill you first.

In this situation, some entrepreneurs seek support in the form of mentoring. Advisors like me materialise beside them, providing a second, calmer, perspective on their situation, and the strategies they’re betting their livelihoods on. And so people in my role get a brief, privileged window into the challenges of new businesses in different markets, cultures, and industries. These mentoring opportunities are provided in my case by Enpact, a non-profit organisation funded by the German Government and a variety of philanthropic foundations.

The pier walkway at Blue Point mentoring camp, Ras Sudr, Egypt

Eight entrepreneurs, all Egyptian, have been working and learning in this way with me and other mentors, at a windswept Red Sea resort in the Sinai Desert. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, and it’s been an uphill journey for them to get here.

Access to funding, training, and mentoring, is all competitive — consider the barriers these young people must overcome to be founders! Language, eye-watering interest rates, byzantine incorporation & taxation bureaucracy, shortage of academic business education, unstable power and transport infrastructure, occasionally corrupt competitors. That Egyptian startups can challenge and beat European firms is humbling and inspiring.

Enpact’s formula involves traveling to a remote location, such as Bad Belzig Castle, Coconut Grove beach resort, and the Coconat co-working retreat, and executing intensive week-long programmes of workshops, group discussions, and challenge-oriented mentoring. This is my second series with the organisation, having wound up 8 months inside budding Ghanaian startups last February.

Enpact startup mentoring team picture

And so I have the opportunity to pop into the life of a free-falling entrepreneur, provide context to their problems, supply warnings, reassurances, and always encouragement. Unravelling the challenges presented into something fundamental, actionable, and which I can inform with my own experience, is an honour and a stretch.

Video highlights by Enpact

My exposure to entrepreneurs like Muhammad and Reham in Egypt feeds my understanding of principles which I rely on in my own businesses, and perpetually lengthens the list of exceptions to them, thanks to the varied conditions which they face. We are grateful for each other’s influence.

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Map of the mentoring camp

Mentoring at the Yale Open Climate Hackathon

Today the results of our Yale Openlab Collabathon were presented at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid. And so ends a three week period of collaboration by hundreds of participants at 10 universities around the world. The goal: creating Open Source tools for enforcing the Paris Climate Agreement.

The Ullstein Building, home of the The Drivery, our venue. Photo: K.H.Reichert, CC BY-NC 2.0

Berlin was one of those locations, hosted by the Net Impact club of ESMT business school, my Alma mater. Most of the action took place on the weekend of November 16th, when 25 volunteers and strangers to each other, gathered in Tempelhof’s magnificent Ullsteinhaus.

It was here that we formed four primary teams, chose projects from a pre-researched list, and got to work on making apps, business models, and certificates, for monitoring the world’s carbon emissions, and helping to enforce the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

I was one of two full-time mentors at the event who provided structure and support for the Berlin team. The Yale team, led by Martin Wainstein, provided a set of well-defined projects for teams to choose work on, and managed a Discord chat instance (like Slack) to keep the participants communicating easily. It was up to us to form and motivate teams, enable cooperation, and keep things running efficiently.

Sam Tuke at the Yale Open Lab collabathon in Berlin
Introducing topics for the teams to work on

Fortunately the skills of the people who came to hack were well suited to the tasks, and teams based on preferred topic were quickly assembled, each led by a Project Manager. The ‘Open Climate Widget‘ team, for example, were managed by Marc from Deutsche Bahn.

yale collabathon hackathon oliver bley presenting
Forming teams based on interest and skills, advertised on name badges, with Oliver Bley

Teams worked until close to 10pm both days at the venue, and some continued over the following weeks until the submission deadline this week. In particular the ‘Climate Terminal‘ team, benefiting from exemplary leadership by their Project Manager Nadya, not only worked consistently, but successfully recruited additional teammates from Paris and Singapore to fill skill gaps and lend additional momentum.

You can see their work in progress on the project’s website: climateterminal.com. I think this is an amazing result for an entirely voluntary effort of an international team which had never before worked together. Undoubedly Yale’s public association with the event helped, but also the quality of the task descriptions which they provided, and the interesting Open Source tech involved.

The weekend hackathon attracted some press attention, including Maximilian Lehmann of the Mother Earth’s Heroes environmental podcast dropping by to interview Oliver, Luca and I. ESMT’s net impact team were busy doing interviews and taking photos throughout, and we have them to thank for the pictures illustrating this post.

One of my motivations for helping to organise this event was to experience real-time collaboration on this scale; I wasn’t disappointed. Insights into that however are enough for another post.

For now I’ll say thank you to the fantastic people who participated at our Berlin ‘node’, and worked so hard all weekend! It was quite amazing to see the talent and experience brought so quickly to bear on real problems affecting earth’s climate. In particular the Net Impact volunteers, all highly capable students from ESMT, ensured we had the facilities, food, and fluids we all needed to perform our roles.

Oh, and watch out — future Collabathons are being planned, so come along if you’re in a city hosting a node next time and take part 🙂

Standing for the Board of the Document Foundation

The demand for productivity software seems to be endless, and as new products and paradigms for digital documents arise seemingly every month, one Open Source app holds on to a sizable marketshare of at least 150 million users. I refer, of course, to LibreOffice and derivative solutions (of which there are many), which is Governed and published by a German non-profit organisation named The Document Foundation.

This Foundation has a fascinating history fraught with intrigue, and required the invention of a [DE] new legal structure in Germany to serve it’s purpose. History aside, it’s Board of Directors, who are responsible for oversight of executive activity, is re-elected by the Foundation’s Members (another legal body, made up of active LibreOffice contributors), every two years. The time of the election is nigh!

And so after some consideration and encouragement by Foundation Grandees, I submitted my candidacy for this election with seconds to spare, have had to complete a last minute booking for a Startup Mentoring trip in Cairo.

Here is my statement, in the format required by the Foundation’s Membership committee who oversee such elections (bold and links added).

Personal details
Full name: Samuel John Wilson Tuke
Corporate affiliation: None

74 words statement
The Document Foundation has proven that independent, community-centric organisations can thrive. However LibreOffice faces significant challenges regarding product competitiveness, commercial investment, and ecosystem diversity. If elected, I will use my influence to increase the variety and competitiveness of LibreOffice businesses, encouraging jobs and new products, to better serve our community’s needs. I bring experience and qualifications in business, marketing, and product management, 16 years in Free Software, and have led for and non-profit organisations.

Full statement
As section § 2 of its statutes say, The Document Foundation’s goals are achieved first by providing software. This software faces new competition on every platform, from both Free and non-Free alternatives. Through generous donations from the community, the Foundation is able to sponsor feature development a few times each year. 

But to be competitive, a thriving ecosystem of LibreOffice companies and products need to be cooperatively investing in improving the applications we know and love. I believe that more can be done to harness the benefits of such an ecosystem for LibreOffice users current and future, and if elected I shall work to that end.

Simultaneously I will encourage additional support of communities which are of strategic significance to LibreOffice, in particular relating to quality assurance, localisation, and documentation, all of which contribute work which is critical for reaching new LibreOffice users.

Finally, as an independent candidate in this election, not involved with any LibreOffice company or the upcoming Document Collective (TDC), I am well positioned to represent long term community interests, mediate between parties, and pursue sustainable strategic goals.

Personal background
Four years ago I ceased marketing LibreOffice products full time and took over management of phpList — a Free Software marketing automation company. Since then I have remained a contributor to the LibreOffice marketing team, and occasionally delivered LibreOffice talks at events.
I have experience leading my own firms, as well as having previously supported the board of the Free Software Foundation Europe, and served on the board of the OpenSpace Cooperative in England.

Berlin has been my home since 2010, where I live with my girlfriend (we met at the Open Source Albania conference in Tirana in 2016). I’m also a startup mentor to entrepreneurs in Ghana, Nigera, and Egypt, and graduated last year with an MBA as Entrepreneurial scholar at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin.



Personal stats from 4 years at phpList

As announced today on phpList.org, soon I shall be leaving phpList.

For fun, here are some geeky statistics from my last four years leading the company:

  • Total emails sent from ‘sam at phplist dot com’: 5,070 (instant messages discluded)
  • My total commits across 21 phpList repositories: 1,726
  • My participation in the phpList community forum: 502 days interacted, 932 topics read, 701 posts created
  • Weekly all-hands meetings led: 200 (out of 205 weeks)

Note to self: code/hack less!

Introduction to Open Source presentation updated

We had some new starters join phpList recently, and as is sometimes the case, they did not have a long history with Open Source or a rock solid grasp of its heritage. Therefore I dusted off an old slide deck which I last used in a speech in 2012 in Liverpool, when I was recovering from a car accident (hence the black eye and crutches).

One quick review and spring clean later, the slides were used in an internal company presentation in our Tirana office during my last visit, and have been used since by Mariana Balla, our Community Manager, with new staff who’ve joined since.

In case it’s useful to anyone else, here are the slides embedded below. It’s high level, and emphasises the factual, historical, and legal roots of Open Source and the Free Software movement. I feel this is necessary in our modern climate of ‘open source planning’, ‘open source recipes’, and the general dilution of associated terms.


Open Source Underdogs Podcast Interview

It turns out that there’s a fascinating interview series which has interviewed tens of Open Source business leaders (a rare and rarely colocated breed), called Open Source Underdogs. The host and producer is a new friend of mine, Mike Schwartz — CEO at Gluu. CEOs of Canonical, Automattic, and Cloudera are counted among the interviewees.

Open Source underdogs podcast interview with Sam Tuke

And so it was that when we had the opportunity to record an interview about phpList at OSCAL Conference last month, we did so, and the resulting episode was published today. Listen to my interview here.

Mike has a small team which did a great job of editing our discussion. Two particularly interesting themes that came up were the Ethics of Open Source (an old but still appealing subject), and the potential for data-based business models for Open Source. Maybe I’ll explore these topics in more detail in dedicated talks sometime. Let me know if you’re interested!

Open Source Product Development: from research to release

Later this month I will be speaking at the OSCAL 2019 conference about Open Source product development. Here’s the abstract:

In 1974 Fred Brooks argued that an app requires nine times extra work to take it from merely being functional, to being a usable product. This challenge is as real now as it was then. What is this extra work, and can you do it using pure Open Source?

At phpList we manage both hosted and downloadable products, from conception to release, using Open Source tools. That includes usability, acceptance, and A/B testing, project management, and more. In this talk Sam will provide a high-level overview of powerul Open Source systems for managing modern software products, including a specific workflow which uses them.

Whether you are creating a web app on a budget, or wanting to make an Open Source project the best that it can be, gain insight into how Open Source can support and empower your workflow.

The slides from this presentation are embedded below.


Software Freedom Kosova 2019 Conference

One of the most unusual cities I’ve presented in, Pristina in Kosovo again hosted the Software Freedom Conference (SFK), thanks to the youthful, hardworking volunteers at the Free Libre Open Source Software Kosova (FLOSSK) organisation.

This year I participated in a panel, and spoke about Open Source Product Management workflows. The panel proved interesting, and was entitled ‘Doing Business with Open Source’, attended by local software business leaders spoke on Product Management workflows using Open Source. The Kosovan Minister of Innovation sat in the front row, which made for a more diverse audience. As an outsider I felt the need to correct the other speakers on a few occasions, particularly when one said that Open Source was known to be less secure than proprietary software (a long debunked idea), and also when another said that Open Source was rarely used in Kosovo (patently not the case).

The spirit of the conference was fantastic: lots of energy, many students from different faculties, some academics from local universities, with diverse interests and conversations. The talks were held in a classic cinema, recently refurbished, smack in the center of the city, and the stage was managed by television professionals. Combined with talks being held at night, it made for a very different atmosphere to other tech conferences, and a wonderful cosy and relaxed vibe. It helped that free beer on tap in the foyer was served throughout.

And so I was delighted to have participated again, meet fascinating people (including one ex-Kosovan refugee who had traveled back from the United States to attend), and shared some ideas.

Mentoring in Ghana

An account of two trips to Ghana and one camp in Germany deserves some planning; to avoid delay: without further ado here are a few of the excellent professional pictures taken by the Enpact Startup Mentoring team.