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Matrix, Synapse, and Element – Secure, Decentralized communication

Privacy and censorship are essential items in the minds of spiritual people. We like to be empowered and not give away our freedom to this company or the other. 

We have found alternative email providers that promise to take care of our data, but what can we do about the instant chat applications? 

The privacy-oriented alternatives to Messenger and WhatsApp that most people know about are Signal and Telegram. Those apps are now experiencing a surge of new users. 

But there is still an inherent problem with both Signal and Telegram. We need to rely on their promise that they will not sell out to the highest bidder and that conversations are kept private. On top of that, since each one has a central server, they are super easy to ban and block. Their terms of use may prohibit users from talking about certain topics deemed “fake news” or “misinformation.”

[Matrix] – The Open Standard 

One solution is to use an open standard called [Matrix] for our instant communication. 

Being an open standard is very important. It means anyone can implement it, but more importantly, anyone can inspect it to make sure it keeps its promise of decentralization and data privacy. 

The best way to understand how the [Matrix] standard works is to think of how we use emails. We each have our own email providers that may be different, and we each have our email applications that can also be different. And yet, we can all email each other with no problem. Isn’t that beautiful? 

What if we can bring the same ideas to instant chat? The idea that you can use different servers and various apps and still talk to one another. [Matrix] does that. 

Because it is open and designed to be collaborative, anyone can start their own servers that will connect to each other, and anyone with the skills can create a chat application or improve the existing ones. This openness encourages innovation, collaboration, and transparency. 

Since you can start your own chat server, you don’t need to send your communication data to a company like Facebook or even Signal. It can all stay on your server where you decide what happens to it. 

So why isn’t everyone on Matrix yet?

In one word: convenience!

A centralized server, a unique application, and a big company financing the system are incredibly convenient for the user. Why? Because everything is polished and streamlined to cause as little friction as possible because the company needs your attention and your data. So it is convenient, but you pay with your privacy. 

A decentralized architecture is much more challenging to create, maintain, and understand. It is not easy to grasp the idea that you can reach your friends on a different server and in a separate app. It is also more difficult to create an account because of all these micro-decisions that you have to make: what server will I use, what application is best for me, what kind of data am I willing to share on this server, whom can I trust in this eco-system? Oh, it’s is so much easier to “just use WhatsApp!”

And when you bring in encryption, things get even more complicated! 

What are public and private keys? Why should I care? Why do I need a passphrase? How will I remember all this stuff? What do I do if I get locked out? 

To understand this challenge, let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture. 

Here is what Facebook promises: “just give us your fingerprints, and use our app and we will take care of your security for you. You don’t have to worry about a thing. Everything will work at the touch of your finger. Let us be your BIG BROTHER.” 

Here is what [Matrix] promises: “we want to guarantee your privacy, and therefore we don’t want to know anything about you! So all the passwords, the keys, the personal identifiable data, it is yours to care about and store as securely as you know-how!”

Which one would you choose? Do you know how to store the password securely? Are you tech-aware enough to be confident in your decision? 

These are hard questions that you need to grapple with if you value your privacy and your ability to connect with your friends without a middle man.

The Open Standard – A blessing and a curse

Remember the talk about “email” from before? Do you know what made email so great? 

It was TRUST! 

When email was invented, the people that would use it would know each other and trust each other. This inherent trust allowed them to create something so open, so interoperable that it seems naive by today’s standards! 

The assumption was that every email user is a good person, and they will not abuse the system because abuse will make things worse for everyone.

Of course, we all know what happened soon after: spam, identity theft, and hacking. 

It really breaks my heart that an open standard based on trust is a honey pot for bad actors willing to abuse the system. It takes everything that makes the system beautiful and efficient and turns it against itself. Instead of focusing on innovation, you need to focus on security and locking things away.

The blessing of “anyone is welcome to use it” turns into a “someone will likely abuse it” curse.

We now live in an era where trust is at an all-time low. Especially on the Internet! All the open systems that we create today assume the exact opposite from the age of email: nobody can be trusted anymore

As sad as this may be, it is the reality we need to work with right now. And it is why tools focused on privacy are anything but easy, and flowing, and convenient. They can never achieve that goal because you will need to carry around, securely, your private key chains, your passwords, your passphrases. 

There are two takeaways here:

1) don’t even hope that a truly private app will ever be as easy to use as Telegram or Signal. That is not possible. It is you who needs to be responsible for your own data, not big-brother. 

2) in an open system, there will be bad people. What this means is that not all [Matrix] servers are good ones. Not all users on the [Matrix] servers are good ones. And not all chat apps that work over the [Matrix] network will keep your data private and secure. [Matrix] empowers you by not “taking care of you.”

Is your head spinning yet?

I understand. I am a tech person, and it took me days to digest this information and try to present it in a way that most people would understand and use. It is normal if this feels “hard”. Press on! 🙂 

My idea of helping is to shoulder some of the responsibility with you. If you trust me enough, you can use my recommendations below to get into the [Matrix] network easier. 

As an app I recommend Element

For a server, it is best if you can start your own, but if that’s not your thing, you can request an account on mine

I would avoid creating an account on Matrix.org. As they also point out, it would make them a sort of “central point,” which is counter to their philosophy. (If you need a hand setting up your own server, let me know.)

I will end by giving thanks to my friend Tim for making me aware of this information and to all the people behind Matrix and Element that put a ton of effort into imagining and bringing this forward. 

Publishing a Newsletter – an opportunity to be generous

We all get too much email, and much of it we have learned to ignore. 

But there are certain emails that we wait for, and we miss them when they don’t arrive on time. 

Those are generous messages where the author freely shares her insights about a topic that we are deeply interested in. And we would feel a void should they stop writing. 

You know it is a good idea to build and grow your mailing list. It makes sense from a business perspective: you get a direct line to your prospects that you own. (Unlike social media, where you need to pay to reach your followers).

You install the sign-up form, set up the welcome message, and begin to think about the content. 

Most people and companies create “news” and “updates” content with an occasional promotional message. That is OK, but not delightful

Yes, I want to know when my coding software needs an update, but I don’t need a newsletter for it; the program itself will let me know as I use it. 

What I’d love to read is a story that I can relate to. I would be delighted to have learned something new or be challenged to shift my view after reading the content.

That is why sending a newsletter to your list is much more than a marketing opportunity: it’s also a chance for you to be generous, to build trust, to make things better

Would your audience miss you if you were gone? 

Spiritual Software Engineer

Improve your website performance by separating concerns

The problem

I have a slow WordPress site that will resist all optimization attempts.

What is the most common advice you get for speeding up a WordPress site? 

  • remove unused plugins
  • update all the software
  • use the latest version of PHP 7
  • install a caching plugin

This list is all good advice and things to reach for first, but what do you do when your WordPress install still takes 13 seconds to load a page, even after all the optimization is done?

In my case, the problem was that the website was trying to do too many things. And the optimizations above did not help much. 

Here is what I mean:

  • the website had multi-language support
  • contact forms done with Contact Form 7
  • subscribe popups using NinjaPopus
  • animated sliders on the homepage
  • hundreds of blog posts
  • a WooCommerce store 

Because of how WordPress works, all items were loaded, regardless of the page you were looking at. The multi-language setup was not working well with the caching system. And I could not uninstall any of the plugins because all of them were needed somewhere. WordPress does not do selective plugin loading.

It drove me crazy that I would need to wait 13 seconds to open up a blog post that would request hundreds of resources (CSS and JS) that it did not need. It was a page with one image and some text but a truckload of “invisible add-ons.” This page should load in milliseconds!

Some have suggested writing yet another plugin to remove the unnecessary scripts from the pages that don’t use them. I understand how that would improve the loading time, but on principle, I don’t want to have code that adds stuff, so then I can immediately remove it a few microseconds later. That’s just bad practice

I came up with the solution to split the site into two: one for the simple blog and one for the store. I also dropped multi-language support. 

The Pros

  1. The blog is made up of static pages – so you can deploy very effective and aggressive caching.
  2. I could also split the plugins – there was no need for the blog to load all the WooCommerce code.
  3. The store site could focus better on selling and keeping the buying experience smooth. 
  4. The improvement in performance was dramatic, as I could now optimize each part independently, without conflicts
  5. A bonus side effect is that I can now work on the blog and not worry that the store will be affected and vice-versa.

The Cons

  1. There are now two websites to maintain and think about.
  2. They need to look the same in design, so they feel part of a whole.
  3. The search function is now limited – it either returns post or products – depending on where you are using it.
  4. Tracking the user activity is more complicated.
  5. Adding multi-language support means adding a new site for each language – which does not make business sense right now.

There is an obvious trade-off here. There are more pieces to take care of, but you get to optimize each one individually and fine-tune them for their specific purpose. 

In Conclusion 

If the common performance tunning is not doing much for you, maybe the structure you have is too complex, and your website would benefit from being spit up into smaller but more effective pieces. Of course, this effort only makes sense if having fast loading pages is essential to your business. 

Listening well is hard

You would think that listening is the easiest thing in the world. Provided you have two good working ears, all you need to do is sit back, relax and allow the information to come in. 

This is what I used to believe, but I was wrong. 

So how do you listen well? 

  1. You lean in.
  2. You nod.
  3. You summarize back what was said to you.
  4. You mirror the other person’s body language. 
  5. You say things like “I see,” “I understand.”
  6. You make eye contact. 

Unfortunately, all of the above are tools for you to pretend that you listen well and try to trick the other person into thinking you are paying attention. 

Listening is more of an internal affair than what you show externally. 

Listening is so hard because of the noise in our heads. How can we genuinely make space and listen intently to the other person when the voice in our heads drives us crazy?

We may start with good intentions and an open heart, but sooner or later, something will happen that will start the chatter-box:

“Oh my God, this looks like a long story, and I haven’t had lunch yet!”

“Did I forget to turn the heater off? I hope I did not start a fire! need to make a mental note to call home.”

“Should I tell her she has something in her teeth?”

“What do you mean I didn’t tell you about this? I TOTALLY DID!”

“Oh, wait a minute… wait a minute… oh SHUT UP ALREADY so I can say something!”

“Oops… must do eye contact! And remember to nod! And… I have a meeting with the boss later on that worries me sick!”

Not listening properly greatly affects how we do business. We are so focused on talking, on proving that we know our business that we don’t stop and listen really hard. When you don’t listen, you are missing vital information that could help you craft a better custom solution or give you leverage in a negotiation with your clients. 

“Contrary to popular opinion, listening is not a passive activity. It is the most active thing you can do.” – Chris Voss

Listening well is a skill, so it is trainable. Start by noticing the noise in your head and make it a practice to now allow it to take away your attention. If your mind is too busy, show respect for you and your partner and let them know you cannot truly listen to what they have to say right now, rather than pretending that you care. Meditation or other mindfulness practice also helps. 

We are human beings first and business people second. Listening well is a great way to honor this principle. 

 

Shopify – The cost of free

I am a long time user of WordPress and WooCommerce as an eCommerce platform. 

The reasons I got into using those two are likely the same as for everyone: both WooComerce and WordPress are free, so this leaves me with more money for marketing. And a secondary reason: both WooCommerce and WordPress are open-source, which means you can customize them to do pretty much anything you want. 

So what is my conclusion after over five years of using this combo? 

It is not really “free!”

There is the obvious cost of having to pay for hosting. And if you want to do anything useful with WooCommerce, you need to add up extensions and plugins that are not free. The same goes for professional-grade plugins that you will install into the main WordPress site. The total costs with software add to about $50/mo, and to that, you need to add your hosting, which for serious stores it will not be a “starter plan.”

But there is a hidden cost that I don’t see many people talk about. And that is the time and focus you need to put into setting up WordPress and WooCommerce and then maintaining it to make sure it remains secure and up to date. And when (not if) something breaks down, it’s up to you to fix it. 

As a software developer, I am OK with fiddling with tech, fixing bugs, diving deep into the code. But as I transition into being and thinking like an entrepreneur, I notice that instead of working on my business, on my marketing, on coming up with new ways to find and support my target audience, I spend a lot of time tinkering with code. And while it is fun, it does not scale. 

The web is changing at an ever-increasing rate. Sometimes just trying to keep up eats a lot of my time. And the thing with “time” is that it is a non-renewable resource. You cannot ever get a refund on a time you’ve spent doing something. 

So what do you want to do? Spend time learning how to put together the free tools and fix them when they get broken? Or would you instead spend time creating content, products or doing marketing, or simply taking some time off to spend with the family? 

For all these reasons, I am now looking into and recommending the Shopify solution. 

Shopify is right for you if:

  • you are serious about your store, so you will generate sales
  • you don’t have any tech skills, and you don’t want to spend time learning tech
  • you don’t want to worry about security, backups, performance, or maintenance 
  • you value time more than money

If you know of another eStore platform that saves you time, let me know in the comments below. I’d also like to know your experience with WooCommerce as it relates to this article.

Etsy, is it good for you?

The short answer is: it does not hurt! 

And now, here is why:

Selling your handcrafted items or services on Etsy has some significant advantages:

  1. It is effortless to get started – there is no technology barrier. You fill out forms about you and your offerings, and that’s it. This is a big deal. Learning new tech or hiring help can be super expensive and time-consuming. 
  2. There are no upfront costs to you – no need to pay for website development, hosting, or a custom e-store solution. Again, you can just start today!
  3. There are automatic tax calculations and shipping calculations.
  4. You can easily add tracking information to your dispatched orders.
  5. You automatically benefit from the audience that Etsy has built, and that is huge if you are just starting with your marketing.

With all these goodies, why am I not hyper-excited about Etsy?

It is because all the advantages above come with a “flip side.”

It is so easy to get started because there is little to no customization you can do for your store. All the stores look the same. They look like an Etsy store. The images are the only differentiator under your control. 

And this brings me to another point: You don’t really have your own Etsy shop; what you have is “shelf space” in the Etsy market space. The shelf is ready-made; you only get to place your product in it. 

This restriction makes it super hard to build brand awareness. In fact, selling on Etsy builds up their brand, not yours. 

Another significant issue is that you have no control over what is next to you on the shelf. Instead of your other products, Etsy places products from your competitors. To understand why this happens, think of the business model that Etsy uses: they don’t care what vendor makes a sales, as long as one of them does. So it makes sense for them to have vendors compete against each other for similar items. This practice is bad marketing for your brand but excellent for Etsy.

Etsy makes money by focusing on the end customer (which is not the vendor) and its brand. People who come to browse Etsy rarely return to visit a specific shop (read “shelf”). They instead want to check “what else is available in the huge market place.” (As a side note: Shopify is different – they focus on the vendor and allow the vendor to take care of their customers)

Indeed, getting on Etsy will automatically put you in front of the entire Etsy audience. And that is both good and bad. It is useful when you are just starting, you are new to marketing, and you have no audience of your own. Then you benefit tremendously from the exposure. But it is terrible news in the sense that it is not “your audience,” and Etsy will not just simply hand it over to you. They will make sure you don’t compete with their brand, so your “store” will always look like an “Etsy store.” They allow for a newsletter subscription but not to you, but Etsy instead. And since your products are discoverable via search, you need to use the product title to optimize for search results, not for brand awareness. 

Finally, no upfront cost to you, and no monthly subscription means they have to take a cut out of each sale. 

It may look like I am making Etsy be the bad guy, profiting over the vendors who use the platform. That is not the case. Everything they are doing makes perfect sense for their business model and the people they are looking to serve. I am writing this article to make you aware of the full picture as you look at it from both sides of the coin. And if you understand what and why they are doing, you can work with them and not against them. 

So, is Etsy good for you? 

I would say that is an excellent place to start, but if you want to grow, you will eventually need to build your brand and store and have Etsy be just one of the sales channels but not the only sales channel

Full disclosure: I am not selling anything on Etsy – so this analysis is my overview based on what I can understand of their business model and my own experience with having an online shop. Therefore I recommend you read this review from someone who is actively using Etsy, and, as always, I recommend you get the best coaching you can afford to help you maximize your revenue from Etsy. Coaching helps you by accelerating your learning. Instead of the slow path of guesswork and mistakes, you already get the map and the guide. You may choose not to follow it, but you at least know how the roadmap to a successful Etsy shop looks like. A word of caution here: when you look at a successful Etsy store, try to understand if they have a repeatable process or they simply lucked out :).

Did you have any “aha!” moments? Share them below.

Exploring Teachable as a platform for Spiritual Teachers

Are you looking to create an online course or a coaching service? Let’s explore if Teachable is the right platform for you.

The Short Story

Pros

  • You don’t need to worry about technology.
  • You can create landing pages to promote your course. 
  • You can integrate it with other platforms (using Zapier). 
  • It has dedicated features for selling coaching sessions.
  • It is effortless to scale your business.
  • There is a basic blog tool that can help to create awareness around your business.

Cons

  • There is a monthly fee that you need to pay, regardless if you make any sales. (Starts at $39/mo)
  • You can remove the Teachable brand starting only with the Professional plan.
  • It has a 1.8/5 score on Trustpilot reviews because of bad/slow support. (It does much better on Capterra with 4.5/5)

Caution

  •  Their free “Get Started” plan is very limited. It is just a quick test drive.
  • Don’t expect to publish a course on Teachable and then wait for the money to roll in. You still need to bring an audience.
  • Before creating your course, look for other classes like that on the platform. No competition may signify that there is no audience, or the course is not a good fit for Teachable.

The Long Story

Spiritual Teachers can use both courses and coaching services to share their insights with an audience and elevate the Consciousness on our planet. 

Working with a platform like Teachable can help you get started because they do all of the heavy liftings when it comes to technology. You don’t have to worry about hosting, disk space, performance, video embeds, bandwidth limitations… none of that technical jargon will matter to you. 

There is some learning involved because you will need to use their Admin user interface to build your course and the sales page, but it is clear enough, there are video tutorials, and you don’t have to be a developer to understand it. There is also available support, but there are some concerns here with how fast they will respond. 

Take a moment and let this sink in, just how much Teachable takes off your hands. If you are not a tech person, building a website and maintaining it, and connecting with all the various tools you will need, can quickly grow to be your highest cost—both in time and money

Let’s talk money

The price for the basic Teachable plan is $39/mo. That can seem like a lot, but you don’t have any of the upfront costs you would have with building a website from scratch. And if you opt for yearly billing, you get a better price of $29/mo. That adds up to $348/year. But will not pay for hosting, or a template or a developer to help you build a custom site. (As an aside, even paying $99/mo for their professional plan is still a bargain compared to the costs of maintaining your own website).

If you plan to use this platform, you need to be serious about it. You cannot just start an account and forget about it. The monthly fee will continue to fly out of your pocket regardless if you make any sales or not. 

With a course or coaching session priced at $40, you would need to sell at least one copy per month to pay for Teachable. With a conversion rate of %1, this means that you need to bring 100 visitors a month to your course sales page, to get that sale. 

However, you will not buy the tools and spend the time to create a fantastic course to just pay for itself. You will have a monthly revenue goal much higher than $40. 

Let’s assume you are aiming for $1,000/mo. That means 25 sales, at a 1% conversion rate, it works out that you need to bring 2,500 visitors to the course sales page each month. 

This model is simplified because you will also have some refunds. And you will also have referrals that will have a much higher conversion rate. 

But you now have an idea of the size of the audience you need to generate this kind of revenue. 

And this brings me to an important point: whether you choose to develop a website or choose a platform like Teachable, you are responsible for building this audience and sending it to your sales page

The Marketing is on You

If you are starting from scratch, with no audience, I would suggest using Social Media to connect with people you could teach and build that audience. 

And you do that by sharing your expertise for free and being generous with helping other people solve their problems. At the same time, you build up a library of questions and answers, and you are continually asking for feedback from your audience. 

Eventually, you will get to a place where you can say: “Hey, it looks like many of you are looking to make quick progress in this [area]. Would it help if I create a course for it? Would that be valuable for you? And does a price point of $xxx make sense?” and see what kind of a response you get. Alternatively, you could ask if you set up a coaching program may be a better fit.

With this approach, you know immediately if you will have customers or not. And if you do, you will have a bunch of fans cheering you on, motivating you to get it done already! They will also be the ones to send referrals. 

When NOT to use Teachable

If you not yet sure what you want, I would suggest testing your idea with some free options, like building a Wix website or a free WordPress one. The problem here is that these options make it easy for you to set and forget about them since they don’t cost you any money. But this will not work. Testing means interacting with your audience, getting feedback, making changes, not just waiting to see what happens. If your plan is to wait, I can tell you what will happen: NOTHING. So don’t even start; you’re better of using that time elsewhere.

If you are good with web technology or have someone like that on your team, you can get much better flexibility and lower costs if you build a WordPress site. 

If branding, flexibility, optimization, and customization are critical to you, having Teachable as your “main site” will note work.

Finally, if your vision is to build a custom service, then Teachable is not for you. 

Alternatives to Consider

In case you don’t like Teachable, other platforms may work for your style: UdemyThinkificKajabiSkillshare.

Wandering vs Leading

When you start a new project, you can find yourself on any point on the following spectrum: on the far left, there is wondering, and on the far right, there is going straight at a target.

When you are wondering, you don’t know where you want to go. You don’t have a destination. You try this; you try that, your ideas keep shifting, the way you talk about the project keeps shifting, your questions change.

You have this niggling feeling that you want to do something, but you cannot easily articulate what it is. And so you open your senses up for exploration until you discover what you clearly like and you dislike. And a vision starts to emerge. 

On the other end of the spectrum, you know where you are going. You have a map, a plan, and a guide you can call in case of trouble. You are super focused at this stage, your thinking is crystal clear, and your ideas are very stable. You know what is a distraction and what will move you along the path. 

Where are you on this spectrum? 

The way I see it, artists tend to be on the far left side. And they are comfortable in that space of exploration, of the unknown, of continually shifting ideas. It is a place where you are focused on self-discovery, on looking inside to uncover what that niggling feeling is about. 

On the far right side, you find the manager who cares only about the mission, about getting there as effectively as possible. The focus is no longer inwards because the vision is clear. The focus is on the team, on the project, and on being of service. 

In the middle of this spectrum is a place where you have found your vision, so you know where you are going, but you haven’t mapped out the road yet. 

I feel extremely uncomfortable on the left side, the wandering side, where you need to face “not knowing,” making mistakes, and “wasting time.”

I am used to being an A student, which means always having the “right answers” and not making mistakes. 

Being on the extreme right, where you are the manager and just executing the plan, feels more comfortable, but it can also be a place to hide. There is little risk involved. There are little unknowns. And if you fail, you can blame the map or the plan. 

As you move towards the left, things become more and more uncertain and risky. It’s a place fit for adventures—those who are OK with going into dead-ends and having to backtrack and try again. 

No point on this spectrum is better than the others. You can subjectively feel differently about it, as I don’t enjoy the wandering around part, but a project goes through all the phases.

Getting stuck is the problem.

You could wander forever and look busy in your constat search, but how will you sustain that? How will you take care of your family? Or how will you bring positive contributions to your communities?

You can also get stuck in the middle, looking for the “perfect plan” and trying to avoid mistakes. 

The best way to make sure you are making progress is to base your “why” on the good of a larger community. To try to find out how your endeavors will help others, not just you. And then, maybe, you can seamlessly move from crystallizing your vision to efficient execution.

So I ask you again: where are you on the spectrum? And are you making progress, or are you hiding in your favorite place? 🙂 

(credit: ideas inspired by Jonathan Stark – The Business of Authority )

If you win by cheating, everybody loses!

This title is not just another way of saying: “what goes around comes around,” it is also about trust. 

When you cheat to win, you erode trust. And when trust gets eroded, we enter a race to the bottom. Who can cheat more and get away with it? Instead of who can do better? It gets worse and worse.

Sportsmanship is a long term bet. When we choose to follow the rules, to respect the players, to make better things, we enter into a race to the top because we create systems based on trust. 

Clickbait titles work, once. You got our attention, but instead of building trust, you wasted our time to increase your visitor metrics. 

Building a monopoly seems to work as you acquire more and more market share. But the cost is stagnation and a loss of resilience. It is not the same when the customers choose you because they like you or they “choose you” because they no longer have a choice. 

Winning can be a charged word because it implies competition, and it implies a looser. But it can also be an invitation to create win-win situations. And those usually show up when you play the long game when you don’t sacrifice trust for a “quick win at all costs.” 

We all do better in systems where we build trust. We all win :).

(credit: ideas inspired by Seth Godin)

phpfox - spiritual community software

Is “phpFox” a good option for a Spiritual Community?

“phpFox is a powerful social network platform for niche communities.”

The above value statement from their site is an excellent start, but is it good for a spiritual community?!

I will review this software, keeping in mind the criteria from here: Choosing a software platform for a Spiritual Community.

Business

1. Paid Membership – The list of features claims that they can indeed have a paid membership on the website, Even working alongside a free tier. Unfortunately, their DEMO back end does not seem to work. You can set up a paid membership, but it still shows a free tier when you save. This problem is a bit upsetting, and you would need to clear it up with them before buying this software.

2. Basic CMS – I could not find one, but you can create “Pages” like the ones on Facebook that could be used to promote the platform to the public.

3. Privacy Concerns – phpFox is a self-hosted solution, so you get to keep all the data that your community generates.

4. API – Yes. There is a restful API (but only with the PRO and ULTIMATE plans.)

5. Server Requirements – It was difficult to find this, but I did. It requires PHP 5.6 with at least 128MB memory limit. However, they recommend PHP 7.x. And if you want to use the instant messaging app, your server also needs to support Redis Cache and NodeJS. To get an idea of what kind of hosting you would need, check out their hosting services offer.

6. Maintenance Costs – If you have a tech person on your team, it should be easy to follow the documentation to install and maintain the software. If not, in the best-case scenario, you would need to pay a one-time $30 installation fee, and then you should be able to update the platform from the back end when needed easily. Unfortunately, things may go wrong, so you will need to call support to help you out. With their PRO plan, you get a “60-day ticket support.” If that means you need to wait 60 days for your ticket to be updated, that is useless to me. If it means that after 60 days, you no longer receive support, that could work because you can buy other support packages later on. I see on their support policy page that they have a 1-day response policy—very confusing messaging. My personal feeling is that support is not all that good. There are a lot of roadblocks that you need to go through to post a ticket. In my mind, a paying customer needs to be able to ask for support at any time. However, phpFox is a self-hosted software, so it may be targeted towards those who are comfortable doing that. I will end this discussion by pointing out that you need to include your hosting costs and backup storage hosts. If you expect your community to grow, so will the hosting cost. 

7. Can you do backup easily – Backup and restore is included only with PRO and ULTIMATE. On the features page, I can see this comment: “The site will be put into maintenance mode while the backup is in the process.” This downtime can be troublesome if the backup takes too long. It may be “good enough” if you are not a technical person, and some backup is way, way better than no backup. But for a social network to be placed in maintenance mode while a backup is running, it could mean killing the engagement. I know backing up is a resource-intensive process, and data integrity is an issue, so I understand why they use “maintenance mode.” But there are other ways to do the backup, using a mirroring system for your database server and files. With this approach, you could do regular backups without having to take your community offline. You have to decide how important it is to you to now stop the community from running.

8. Google Analytics – You can do this according to their documentation by creating an “Ad Block” where you paste in the code from Google. I understand why they did it like this, to reuse a code that’s already there. Still, from a user experience point of view, I would not have thought to use “Ads” to place the Google tracking code on my site. However, the documentation is clear, so I’ll give them a pass.

User Experience 

9. WebPush Notifications – I was not able to find any documentation that this is supported. They do have Mobile App, where I am sure this works, but I wondered if it would be an option in the browser experience. Since iOS is still not on board with this technology, you are not missing all that much.

10. Easy Sing-Up with Google or Facebook – Yes.

11. Accessibility – They don’t seem to have a concern for this. I could not find any mentions on their website or in the documentation. The software may very well be accessible, but if it is, it’s not explicitly stated. 

12. Bookmark system – I could not find one. Most users can work around it by using a note-taking app or their browser’s bookmark system. Not ideal, but not a big problem either. Also, this can likely be implemented with a custom app.

13. How is the onboarding experience – There were no tutorials, but the layout is clear enough that most people should find their way around. It would be nice to send the users who login for the first time to a specific page with tutorials. 

14. Notification Center – Yes.

15. Rich text editor for posts – Yes. There is a good one. It looks a bit unpolished, but otherwise, it does the job.

16. Does it work on Mobile – Yes, it does. And I am pleasantly surprised with the responsiveness of the site. I have to keep in mind that I am the only one using the demo, so I don’t know how it performs when 50, 100, 500 people use the app at once. 

17. Dedicated Mobile App – Yes, according to docs. I did not test it. I have tried to download it, but it failed a couple of times. I see in the reviews some complaints about performance, and I worry about that too.

Community Building

18. Private Messages – Yes.

19. Profile Pages for users – Yes. 

20. Activity Feeds – Yes.

21. Media Upload – Yes.

22. Calendar – There is an Events screen that works just as well as a Calendar.

23. Moderation Tools – There are some anti-spam tools; you can block a user. And there is a reporting feature that you could use. Yes.

24. The Back End – Here, I was a bit disappointed. The Front End looks very polished, but the back end is lacking in that area. The demo site was kinds of sluggish. It takes a long time for pages to load. I tried to update some apps/plugins, and that did not do anything. Some of these features may be disabled on the demo. What was missing from the back, and I think it is pretty important, was a page to monitor the server and look at your community’s stats. There is a “Site Statistics” page, but that is super basic with only four counters and a daily average. For large communities, you need charts that track items through time, and you also need to be able to dig deeper if needed. At least for the ULTIMATE tier, this should be an option. 

Engagement

26. Reactions to post – Yes. 

27. Emoji support – Yes.

28. Search Capability – Yes. It has a search across the entire network and specifically on the forums. The forum’s search can be finetuned to narrow down the search. The results were pretty fast too, but again, the test site barely has any content, so it is not that relevant as a test.

29. Tagging Users – Partial support. I was able to use it on the activity page, but not on the forum.

30. Hashtags – Yes.

31. Email Notification Settings – Yes.

32. Mass Mailing Capability – I could not find any built-in mass email capability. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Sending emails reliably is a complex problem just by itself. I could find a custom integration with MailChimp, which suggests that it is possible to integrate with other newsletter services or CRMs.

33. Instant Chat option – Yes, but it seems to it requires some specific server capabilities: Redis Cache and NodeJS. This requirement is not surprising. Useful chat tools are challenging to write, so it makes sense that some special tools be required. 

34. Member Blogs on Personal Pages – Yes. 

35. Gamification – Yes, but it seems to be very basic. You can likely extend it with custom code.

Learning and Training

36. Content Libray – It does not have one, but I can see being able to create something using the blogs, pages, groups.

37. Sub-Groups – Yes. This feature can be a big plus if your community gets large enough. It looks advanced enough to make it very useful in creating and managing sub-communities.

Customization and Extensibility

38. Theme Customization – Yes. You can buy themes and, according to the documentation, you can create your own. The code is not encrypted, so in theory, you can change it as you want. Not sure if that will break the update system or not. 

39. Feature Customization and Extensibility – Yes. There is an API you can integrate with. There are a plugin system and store where you can buy plugins. The code is not encrypted and written in PHP, so you could hire someone to help you out if needed.

Conclusion

At first, the pricing seemed too high. But after having reviewed the platform, I see that there a lot is going on. A social media platform is a complex software that needs to feel exceptionally smooth for people to engage with it. 

I don’t think this is the right choice for a free community, because you will never cover the costs. But if you are making money with your membership, phpFox is a strong contender. It will keep your users happy, and it has many tools to keep them engaged and encourage collaboration. 

My main concern with this tool is performance. I did not see any big issues with the test site, but that is not relevant. I want to test a community with hundreds of members and 2-3 years’ worth of content and see how fast it moves. A small community does not justify the costs, so high performance with a large community is a must.

The Support page also has the attitude of: “We don’t want to be bothered with support.” From a developer’s point of view, I get that, but if the end-user does not feel that someone will be there for them in case of trouble, they may not want to buy. 

Another concern that I have is with the English language they use. In many places, it feels off. They are US-based company, so I don’t understand why this happens. 

Also, in the back end demo, many things don’t work, making me nervous. I would have to check with pre-sales before making a purchasing decision. 

The self-hosted part is good because you own all the data, and if you have a tech person on the team, it makes business sense. But this is not for everyone. Taking care of software by yourself is not easy, especially with the ever-changing ecosystem. 

I would personally use phpFox. Because of my developer background, I am confident I will not get in any “disaster situation” where I risk losing all my good work. But before making the purchase, I’d like to see some evidence of high-performance when powering a community with, say, 200-300 members.