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Community Software: FLARUM

My latest insight is that you grow faster, and it’s more fun (and challenging) when you have a community!

Because of that insight, I am consciously looking at how other people are building their communities, and, being the software nerd that I am, my attention goes to online communities. 

A new player around the block is making some noise when it comes to community software. And that is Flarum.

Here is the promise:

“Forums made simple. Modern, fast, and free!”

I have spent a couple of days taking this forum for a spin and testing out this promise. The short version is that I am impressed. 

Let’s break this down in a post that will be somewhat technical. 

Forums Made Simple

Forums made simple” – I believe they fulfill this promise. The team behind Flarum chose to focus on what makes a forum a forum: the ability for users to create discussions and respond to each other. And that works beautifully well. However, to have great software, you can’t stop there. Otherwise, anyone who can follow a Larcast could roll out their forum in Laravel. The team made the forum simple and provided a scaffold and a framework so you can then make it as complicated as you need! 

Modern

Modern” – This promise is also kept. There are two sides to this “modern” feature. 

First is the end-user: do they perceive it as modern? And I would give them a “yes” just by looking at the mobile experience. I don’t want to say that it is beautiful because that is too subjective. Instead, I would say the user experience is great: it works, and it works as you would expect it to work. Of course, any old software can hire a designer and create a “modern theme/look” for their forum, but that is only one part of it.

The other part of “modern” is the internal workings of the forum. And you would need to be a developer to appreciate the beauty of Flarum truly. The internals might be something that the end-users or community managers might not care about. Still, it will be important for the person in charge of maintaining the software on the server. 

To highlight a couple of things:

  • Using `composer` to manage the upgrades and the extensions – brilliant! I have not seen this done before in a forum context, but it is such a clean way to reuse code. It is different from what WordPress is doing, where every plugin has to install its dependencies, and you end up with loads of duplicate code and potential conflict that is sometimes very hard to spot and fix. While using composer makes me happy, I am also concerned with the possible problems that may show up in the future and that we cannot possibly see right now. 
  • Making this a Single Page Application. The front end is now a JavaScript client that consumes the API that the forum exposes. This pattern opens up a ton of flexibility on how this platform can be used – including completely replacing the front end if you are brave enough. The only issue that I see is potentially some SEO problems that plague all SPAs. 

Fast

 “Fast” – another kept promise. The lighting fast page loads were the very first thing I noticed about this software. It feels so snappy! Aven the search function feels fast. The high-performance is another result of the internals, and so it’s not something that older software can pull off just by “modernizing their look and feel.”

Free

“Free” – this is technically free… with a big “BUT.” 

To install Flarum, you need to run commands in your shell. And if you have no idea what that is, that is where the “Free” problem starts!

The power and performance of Flarum come at a cost. At the time of writing, you need to be pretty nerdy to install it and feel comfortable about it. Sure, you can copy/paste the commands in the tutorial, but if you don’t understand what you are doing, any tiny problem can be a game stopper for you. So even though the forum is free to install and use, you might have to pay for an installation service (that the Flarum team might provide in the future), and you also need to buy hosting where you can use the shell and the PHP composer software. 

All of this makes me think that Flarum might be best for companies that can hire such a developer and purchase a server with the required specs. 

And speaking of companies, this leads me into another potential trap of “Free,” and that is: you don’t want to build a community using software that will not be there for you in the long run. And if nobody is paying to help the software grow and have the bugs fixed, how long will Flarum be around? For a company, this is a risk that needs to be evaluated, and it can make a managed/established solution look much better in the long run, especially because it is not free.

I see the team behind Flarum making steps towards launching a managed solution, which will provide a stream of income and invaluable feedback on making the software better. And they may also establish a service of paid support that can provide additional incentive to keep this project going. 

Until there are some clear signs that Flarum is here to say, I believe it would be risky to build your community around it if you want to play a long-term game. But if you need to launch a project quickly that requires a community around it, you should give Flarum a try! 

The Competition

Flarum reminds me a lot about Vanilla Forums, and I believe that if they play their cards right, they could become their main competitor. 

You can get all of Flarum for free (if you have tech chops to install and manage it), while Vanilla OSS is very limited compared to the cloud option.

Buying Time

There is always a chance for you to make back the money you lost, but lost time is lost forever.

I often talk about our time as a non-renewable resource, and while you cannot buy more time, you can always save time. 

You do this by buying the time that other people have spent learning to do what you want to do today. 

And it compounds: the sooner your start, the faster you will go. The later you start, the harder it is to catch up. 

There are two parts to our life: the part when you have more time than money and the part when you have more money than time. 

I am talking to those in part two because while you are in part one, you trick yourself into thinking there will always be more time.

Invest in Yourself

Use some of the money you have to buy the information that will put you in the fast lane. Hire a consultant, do a strategy call. 

Our egos will trick us into thinking that we know what we are doing and we don’t need someone else drafting a plan for us or reviewing the one we have created. So we end up making mistakes that we could have easily avoided. 

I believe in learning from mistakes, but it’s best to learn from new mistakes instead of rehashing the same territory. 

Ask yourself: has anyone else done this before? What can I learn from them? How can I take that and go farther? 

Use tools like Udemy or Skillshare. Get to know who is word-class in your field and follow their content. Hire them if you can afford it. 

Most people are willing to spend thousands of dollars building a website, but they would not spend $300 to hire a consultant first. What do you do if you realize it is the wrong audience, the wrong tech, or that you are too late at the end of building your website? At that point, you realize how cheap and effective it would have been to get on that strategy call.

What I do today I could have done ten years ago. Instead, I chose to poke around in the dark instead of asking for directions. Yes, I learned what I learned deeply and profoundly, but is it worth ten years of my life? My older self says “no.” I can only imagine where I would be today if I had a ten-year headstart. 

And it is not only about you. The longer it takes you to get your act together, the longer we miss your contribution. 

Buy a map, get a compass, hire a guide, and then go where no one has gone before. 

Keep track of your contacts in a business context

The Problem: you are using email to respond to customers and website visitors, making it difficult to keep track of a longer conversation. 

The Solution: Use a CRM tool (a customer relationship management tool)

I have been looking for a long time for a good CRM solution that can offer a unified view of what I have been talking with a lead or a customer and where I can add personal notes.

What I used to do, was to search the conversations scattered over my email and try to piece together the context of the conversation so I can continue.

I now use HubSpot’s Free CRM and manage the conversations using that tool. With one click, I can load a customer view that immediately shows me what I need to know to pick up the conversation from where it left off. 

If you are not using a CRM yet, I highly encourage you to give it a try.

Common mistakes with online events and how to fix them

Many of our interactions have moved online. We have to schedule our meetings online and have online events. 

And I see a lot of things that we can do better! 

1. Online is not the same as offline but with a computer

Offline appointments require a higher commitment. You have to go to the meeting place, and you have to face the people at the event. How you dress, how you take care of your hygiene, and how well you have prepared to be here-now will be very obvious. 

The online environment allows people to hide. They may even forget about the event while they do something else at the computer. Unlike a real-life event, there is no pre-event time when people get together in the same place to get ready, decide where they will sit, striking up conversations. 

As an event organized and participant, you should be mindful of these differences. 

2. Send a clear announcement

I often see event invitations where the date and time are buried somewhere at the end of the email. And the timezone is not very clear either. 

If you want to increase the attendance numbers, ensure that the vital information is communicated first and in a crystal clear way!

Use a date format that is easy to understand for all the participants, even if they are from different countries. “05/04” could be the 4th of May or the 5th of April, depending on where you are from. Use long-format instead and say Tuesday, 5th of April, 2021

For the event time, use the AM/PM format and always add your time zone. 

Do not use relative dates. Don’t say: “See you tomorrow at 2!” – depending on when the user is reading that email, both “tomorrow” and “2” can mean wildly different things.

If your audience is across multiple time zones, don’t do the math by hand. Use a service like timeanddate.com event announcer to create a link that will show the event’s time in the user’s local time! No more math, no more confusion.

Be mindful of daylight savings. Not everyone makes the switch simultaneously, and you risk having your participants miss the meeting. Add a special warning to your email if you’re close to a time where daylight savings may be an issue. Also, use the service above to convert the time correctly for your users. 

3. Followup with reminders

Since online events do not require travel, it is very easy for people to miss them. 

Everyone would know how to manage their calendar and get reminders as needed in an ideal world, but we don’t live in that world. 

To make sure people don’t miss the event, send two reminders: twenty-four hours before the event and 1 hour before the event. The very last reminder should have clear instructions on where to click to access the event. 

4. Use a headset

As an event organizer, use a headset and instruct your participants to have one as well. It will make for a much more clear sound and better experience for everyone involved.

5. Mind your energy and your space

While it’s easy to jump into an online event, it will show if you take some time to prepare for it. Dress appropriately. Stretch for a bit to feel open and relaxed. Do your best to be rested. Have enough clean air in the room. 

Also, prepare your space. Since you don’t have to travel, it may be easy to forget this step. But it helps you to get into an “event energy” if you clean up your desk, have pen and paper ready, and use good lighting (do not have your back to a light source).

6. Record the event

Record the event and send the recording to your participants. It allows your participants to review the information. And it’s a nice thing to do for those who could not make it live.

If you follow these tips, the event’s energy will be more vibrant, and everyone will feel it. The fact that you are making special preparations will make it special. 

Make your next event awesome!

Schedule Meetings and Appointments More effectively.

If you are looking to spend less time booking sessions with your clients or choosing the best time to meet, then you might want to use these tools: Calendly and Doodle.

Use Doodle to select the best time.

With Doodle, you can create a poll with times when you are available, and you can share that with the other participants, so you quickly agree on what is the best time. 

The advantages of using a tool like this are avoiding emailing each other back and forth to figure out your availability and automatic time zone detection, so everyone knows the correct time every time!

Use Calendly for session scheduling. 

With Calendly, things are a bit different. You configure what kinds of sessions you are offering (30 minutes, 1 hour, etc.), the available time slots, and then send that to your customers, who will pick the right time for them. 

Using Calendly also takes care of dealing with timezones correctly, and if you connect it with your calendar, it will automatically avoid double booking. 

Both these tools have a free plan, and they are a great place to start when you need to schedule meetings or sessions with your clients.

 

New Paradigm Tools – Slack

What is Slack for?

You may be old enough to remember mIRC. If so, Slack is like that but for business.

If you have no clue what mIRC is, then Slack is a way to text chat with your team over the Internet, grouping the discussion into multiple channels. 

 

What is Slack NOT for?

Slack is not a project management tool. Instead is a remote communication tool. While you could use it to manage simple, short projects, you will miss the ability to create tasks, track progress, and reach your goals for more complex ones. 

 

Why use Slack? 

I have been working remotely for over ten years now. And I would communicate with my clients over email. This approach was generally OK if only two people were involved: the client and me. As soon as someone else wanted to join the conversation, it would get complicated very fast! Here is why:

  •  How could they read the context of the previous discussions – that are now buried in an old email that they don’t have access to?
  •  How could they filter the information if it is not organized into topics? 
  •  There is no guarantee of an email being delivered. When an email gets lost, a lot of awkward “didn’t you get the memo?!” situations ensue.

 

The Power of Slack

Slack does more than getting the information out of your email and into a team-accessible-space. 

It has a robust notification and ignore system. Taking the time to learn about and properly configure the notifications can make or break your Slack using experience. Suppose you choose to get notified about everything. In that case, your phone will constantly buzz at you, driving you crazy, which inevitably leads to shutting down notifications altogether, which means you’re shutting down slack and choose not to communicate. Not good!

The key is to fine-tune what you get notified about and create distraction-free time for you to do productive work. 

It’s tempting to think that everybody on the team is just a text chat away, but unless your purpose is to chat, you won’t be terribly productive. 

Some jobs may require you to monitor and respond to Slack constantly. Some brainstorming or research phase of a project may require that you keep your eye on Slack. But for the rest of the time, turn everything off except private messages from your boss and any emergency or announcement channels. When you’re done for the day, make sure you set slack on “Do Not Disturb” (you can automate this if you have fixed work-hours).

Slack Workspaces are another powerful concept, although super confusing when you first start. 

To clarify this for you, think of it this way: You don’t have a Slack account. What you have instead is an account inside a Slack Workspace. Why is this important and confusing? Because each workspace has its own password, even if you use the same email to access all of them. 

It’s like working for three companies, each has an access key card with the same picture of you but a different code on it, so you cannot use the same key everywhere. Similarly, each Slack Workspace has its own password and email. Why is this important? Because it enables you to use the same tool for multiple teams and projects and still keep everything separate within the same program. Pretty neat! 

Finally, because the conversations are grouped into channels, it is easier to focus only on what you care about and mute (or leave) the other channels. This feature is essential in long projects with large teams. 

 

The downsides of Slack

When I stumbled into Slack one year ago, I thought it was the answer to all of my professional and personal problems! I would use the SlackBot to remind me of important things; I would use channels to organize personal notes; I would use emojis to simulate a project management environment. Oh, the nerdiness!  

It was fun for a month until it because evident that Slack is is to be used for effective communication, and that’s it :).

 

Some misuse of Slack by not understanding its purpose:

  •  project management – use Trello or Asana, or BaseCamp for this
  •  collaborative documents – use Google Drive, Or DropPox Paper (Yes, I know about Slack posts, but they are a far cry from a truly collaborative document platform)
  •  file-sharing – again, use DropBox, Google Drive, or OneDrive – yes, you can share files on Slack, but I think they added this feature just so to make it easier to fill up your free quota :). Sharing images, small spec files, and generally whatever is small enough to be an “email attachment” could be OK. But for anything larger, use a proper file sharing tool.

 

Misuse of Slack by not understanding team communication.

There is a reason Slack adds by default a “random” channel. It is the channel that allows that team member who always has something “fun” to say or share to be safely ignored while they can “express freely.” If you delete that channel or don’t clarify what it is for, expect your “announcement” or “emergency” channels to get spammed. 

Be mindful when sending a text and notifying everyone: will this boost the team’s productivity or just create a barrage of distractions. Nobody wants to wake up to 99+ slack notifications that have nothing to do with them doing their work that day. 

 

Misuse of Slack by not knowing the tool

This problem is probably the biggest and most annoying drawback, and it also prevents a team from adopting Slack. You need to learn the tool and follow the agreed protocols. 

It’s like driving on the streets: we need to trust that you know how to handle your car, and you understand that a red light means stop! Learning the tools and the rules is what makes for a smooth drive (or Slack experience).

Read an article or two about how to use Slack like a pro. It will take you 30 minutes, and you’ll ace it. It will make you feel super confident and become the Slack guru. But most of all, you will be able to create value for your team with clear and smooth communication.

 

Slack Video

I am adding this here because, so far, I have a poor experience with Slack video. The lag is so significant that it was impossible to have any meaningful conversations with my collaborators. I am sure this will improve in the future.

Slack Alternatives

A completely free alternative to Slack that works in the same way, is Discord. The name is unfortunate since discord is not what you want on your communication lines.

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 )

Is this the best way to accomplish our goals?

Have you ever tried to coach a team towards an end goal but failed? Either because you can’t get your point of view across or because the discussion gets sidetracked continuously into things that are not that important? 

I have tried to send documentation to be studied that points at the right solution. That did not work. 

I have tried to use my experience and authority to give them the best solution and move on to the implementation phase. That did not work either. 

I have tried allowing them to learn on their own and to figure it out eventually. That also did not work because of time constraints. 

And guess what the common denominator is to all the failed attempts? Me! 🙂

My thinking says: if they only had the right information, they would see things like I do. Unfortunately, that is not true. As I am discovering, each one of us sees the world through a different lens. Our views may be similar, but they will never be the same

Today I was studying Seth’s book “Stop Stealing Dreams.” And I was fascinated with how many ideas he can share, without giving any advice on what to do! And not only that, but almost every paragraph had me stop and ponder what was said. I could feel the cogs in my brain getting a good workout!

I had to digest the entire book to figure it out finally. And the answer is now simple and obvious. Seth asks a lot of questions, inviting the reader to think for herself!

And the most potent question was:

Is this the best way to accomplish (…insert goal here…)?

This question serves double duty:

1. It makes sure that we know and agree on what the goal is. If we don’t, we need to go way back in our discussion and check and decide on our goals again. 

2. Once we agree on the goal, asking “is this the best way” opens everybody’s mind to contribute in a focused way towards the goal. 

The key difference for me is that I no longer dish out my solutions but instead invite everyone to contribute. The best way that the group finds may be way better than what I had initially thought the correct answer was. We all learn, and we move forward together.

I will definitely give implement this one in my communication.

Meetings – as a display of power

Why yet another writing about meetings? Because it is an old habit that needs to change. And because it is so old, we need to challenge it strongly and repeatedly to defeat the inertia.

Most people go to meetings because they feel they have to, not because they want to or need to. 

When there is no engagement, the meeting becomes a waste of time and a show of status (“who’s who”).

If you are the meeting organizer, you may care a lot about your project or your idea or about getting feedback. But not everyone in the meeting cares about the same things that you do. And if all you can see around you are bored people who would rather be someplace else, what can you do differently? (assuming that you care)

You could change the meeting duration from one hour to 10 minutes! No more room for fluff, for checking the phone, or for being late. And above all, you show respect to the other participants forced to spend their time with you.

You could also simply cancel the meeting. Do you need to send an update? There is email; there is slack; there is the phone. Do you need feedback? You can use online surveys or schedule one-on-one interviews in cases where you need to go deeper. 

Above all, seek and measure engagement. If people around you are not engaged, everything moves in slow motion, and you are also missing on a ton of creativity that has no room to be expressed. 

If you are meeting participantwhat would happen if you didn’t go? Would the project miss a critical piece of insight, or would “people upstairs get upset”? If it’s just people getting upset for you being honest about not having anything of value to contribute, then maybe you need to bring this up. Challenge the reason you have been invited to the meeting and make sure you need to be there. If you know your input is valued and sought after, you will be more likely to be engaged. But if you feel like a replaceable cog in the system, then you won’t be missed. 

Another thing you can do is start a discussion about meetings around the office. Are they effective? And how do you measure that effectiveness? If there is little engagement, what can you change to have more of it? What would happen if you canceled the meeting? What is the difference between synchronous communication (phone and meetings) and asynchronous (Slack, email, voice messages)

With new technology, we can do better. Show respect and seek engagement, not a display of power.

How do you think meetings should change in the new environment? Who are meetings for, and what are they for?

One path is to do the bare minimum

Your boss does not appreciate you, or is there a glass ceiling in your company or your department? Or are your clients always trying to pay less?

The solution? One is to do the bare minimum required not to get fired. Or, if you work for clients, do the bare minimum to meet spec. That’s an effective use of your time, right? 

Except, it isn’t. 

It is a race to the bottom. And eventually, you will win. 

You cannot control what your boss thinks of you. Or how the company is structured. Or how your clients see your work. 

That leaves you with the only thing you can control: your attitude. 

Doing the bare minimum, just getting by, it is a victim attitude. It is a way for you to get “revenge” on the outside circumstances that don’t reward you. 

So what is the alternative? 

The alternative is to choose to grow. To choose to be focused, to do outstanding work, work that you are proud of, and you would happily brag about at your next job interview or in the sales call with your prospects. 

Will your current boss suddenly appreciate you? 

I would say that is the wrong question. Yes, we do crave appreciation and being seen for what we are, but it starts with yourself. Appreciate yourself first. And one way to do that is to create yourself every day in the person you want to be, regardless of how those around you see you. As you get better at this, you will think differently, you will see new opportunities, you will have the energy to act on them, and your circumstances will change. 

Stay focused

All the productivity gurus and spiritual gurus talk about the power of being focused. And for a good reason. Scrolling through your social media feed scatters your mind. Juggling too many projects increase the task-switching costs. Chasing too many topics does not allow you to go deep on any of them. 

Create the discipline of staying focused. Even if you don’t like your current job, stay focused. It builds a skill that will be priceless in all areas of your life. 

Staying focused also means choosing not to indulge in fear and doubt and worry. Choose courageous thoughts; choose creative thoughts. 

A side note about becoming a martyr 

That is not what I am suggesting in this article. I am not talking about self-sacrifice; instead, I am suggesting getting out of self-pity and allowing outside circumstances to determine your inner feelings and how you show up in the world. 

Ask powerful questions like:

  • what is needed from me at this moment?
  • how can I help in this situation?
  • whom can I connect? 
  • how can I better at this?
  • what is truly important now? 
  • how can I be generous today?
  • is what I am doing, and thinking serve my short and long-term goals?