Need your input: how to have a fair business-model and how 'co-design' accessibility?

I’ve been with Edgeryders for over 3 years now, though I have (due to very silly circumstances, like getting pregnant) never been able to attend any of the events outside of Georgia (where I’ve been living for the past 4 years).

But since March this year I started working with a new (social) start-up: topishare. It’s the first time in my live I’ve swapped non-profit to for-profit, and it’s a pretty big deal. And I woudn’t have done if I didn’t believe in topishare’s misson, and that of the founder Rotem, Hila, and Yair (daughter, mother, and father by the way).

And although topishare is officially for-profit, half of it will be shared with its users and the other half will be invested in not-for-profit projects around the world (this is, of course, once topishare starts making profit).

And it’s been an inetersting journey.

Now, before I explain what topishare is, I’d like to let you know that I want your advice. Setting something up, no matter what it is, demands a lot of you, and you can’t do it alone.

So, the reason I am posting this, is because I know in both Edgeryders and topishare have the same goal, the same aim: to make this world a little bit a better place (although both with a slightly different strategy :).).

And one of the things I learned during the first and second edgeyrders project in Georgia, is that by collaborating, helping each other, we can achieve together so much more than alone.

So, I thought, who better than the Edgeryder community to tell me what we’re doing right and wrong at topishare.

Now, a little bit of background story: topishare was born in the jungles of Costa Rica, by Rotem (she’s officially my boss :).). She was 22 at the time, and had ‘fled’ the western world to take her mind off the crazy world we live in. But while in Costa Rica, she realized that the local community there, which was super active and did amazing things, couldnt reach out to the world outside of Saint Theresa (where she was), or could collaborate easily within the community itself. So she wanted to help them, with a small online project. Two years later, the beta version of topishare was launched (March 3rd), and it turned more into a new sort of social network, than the initial community idea.

So, what is it we do? In short: it’s an online platform where everyone can create Kingdoms, which are - basically - mini-social networks where you are in control of everything, from privacy - no datamining - to the kind of features you want (we’re working on the open API to make this really happen), and have topic-based conversations, like on Star Wars, or veganism, or online privacy.

We want to make a platform accesible to all - we’re working on different accesibility tools for people with disabilities or other issues that may prevent them from using social networks. Our first is voice-posting, which was developed by our founder Rotem, as she is dyslectic and hates to read and write as a result. But there’s much much more in the pipeline.

But it’s hard to understand really what it is people would need. I follow (and love) the OpenCare project. But I don’t really know yet how we could collaborate on this. Or perhaps you have another idea how we can understand what it is people with whatever dissability would want/need?

Now, in order to share our profits with the users, we do need to make profits (those crazy capitalists!). So, we have a business model.

And that’s where I’d like to hear your thoughts on as well.

Our main idea is to have user-controlled advertising (you decide where which ad goes and get 50% of the money the company pays to advertise on topishare) and you can make money with quality posts. Does this make sense?

We’re still in beta, and really appreciate any comments you may have (I prefer them to be constructive ;).). Or any other ideas you have you think we should incorporate, do let me know down-here in the comments. Thanks!


No experts around here…

Thanks for sharing this, @Inge . I really don’t know much about business models. My impression is that advertising-based business models are only viable for very very large numbers of users, especially now that there are powerful incumbents. You can buy Facebook advertising with as litte as 20 EUR.

By implication, these services tend to be bleeding out money for several years before they can break even. They have to make a nice service to be attractive, because they never can start making money unless they have attracted user first. How to survive this period of structural unprofitability? Venture capital. But then VCs own the ship, and they get to have last word on where it goes. All of the “change the world stuff” will have to be deprioritized.

So, though I can easily imagine a well-meaning social network running some kind of ethical advertising model, I have a hard time figuring out one that survives in the red long enough to get there, without becoming completely unrecognizable in the process (with the usual ousting of the mythical founder, filling the board with Silicon Valley lawyers etc.). Is your business plan public? How many users do you figure you need to be viable?

As for Edgeryders, we have decided that being scalable is a bad idea, because scalable business models are going to be automated in the not-so-long run. It will be robots all the way down. Instead, we sell consultancy: this is the ultimate bespoke service, hard and not really profitable to farm out to AI. In principle, we would love to stand on the technical infrastructure of someone else, like Topishare; in practice, this would be an unacceptable risk. My first open government project, Kublai, ran on Ning, the closest forerunner of Topishare I can think of; but Ning changed several times terms of service on us. This brought home how badly you become pwned by the providers of your tech infrastructure.

  • In 2010, in a surprise move, they stopped supporting the open source, downloadable versions of their platform. They also killed all migration tools, effectively locking us in the SaaS. They also did not answer to clients' frantic emails. Surprise, surprise: this was connected with their 2008-2009 VC funding round ( It led to the ousting of the CEO and founder Gina Bianchini, as tycoon Marc Andreesen moved new management in. 
  • We reacted the way we could: subscribing to the paid version. But at that point, we were completely owned by them. Advertisers wanted "playful" features ("give a gift to your friends!"), which were completely at odds with our serious government agency attitude. "The Ning", that had been our main home base, became a burden. My successors ended up building a bespoke platform based on Wordpress. Not as cool, but finally under control. By then, the project was dead in the water. Not entirely Ning's fault, but sure they did not help. Not that it was personal; for them, we were just another community. They claimed one million such communities was running on Ning's infrastructure. Why would they care about us?

If only I knew but

I can’t claim to have created any successful business model yet … but anyway, my one cent: came across  Steemit recently. They launched I think 3-4 weeks ago, and literally pay users for content, in amounts determined by other users via voting. No idea where the money comes from (or should come from in the future), maybe you can find it out. Interesting for “how to do things different” in any case!

On accessible social networks

I like that idea of social networks beyond the digital divide, hope topishare keeps it up. Very much needed in rural Nepal for example – Edgeryders as a pure www based platform failed to get a hold there last year. Simple reasons: no / intermittent / slow mobile data connections, data connections are expensive, literacy limitations, difficulties typing in non-Lating characters on smartphones etc…

For inspiration, I share with you the best approach for a rural social network that I have found so far:  Gramvaani. Actually it’s a toolkit of multiple solutions, and I especially like their (open source!) community radio audience platform  GRINS, basically a voice forum.

And in that kind of context, advertising is a totally different game than in today’s “web 2.0”. Speaking of Nepal for example, there is not even a useful index of businesses in the capital Kathmandu (the crappy one I knew just vanished over the last months somehow; and the one by Microsoft did send me into a scary riverside street when looking for a certain tool shop, instead of admitting it has no idea where that business is). Back in old times of paper phonebooks, businesses would pay 20-40 USD equiv. per year to be listedin the “Yellow Pages”. A digital equivalent embedded into a rural social network could be both useful and (on scale) profitable. Maybe? Just, I’d stay away from anything pay-per-click. It’s so dead. I haven’t even seen a single ad in years on my computer, are they still around? AdBlock Plus is such a blessing :stuck_out_tongue:

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