Athens Joins Y Combinator
3 min read

Athens Joins Y Combinator

Athens Joins Y Combinator

Athens is "open-source Roam Research". Athens is the most private, secure, and extensible tool for networked thought.


Why Y Combinator

Athens is joining YC's Winter 2021 batch, which runs from January-March of 2021.

The program has barely started, but we've already been connected to open-source companies such as GitLab and Mattermost. Seeing these hugely successful open-source companies, which were started just a few years before Athens, is a truly humbling experience. It shows just how much we have ahead of us.

There are over a dozen other open-source startups in the W21 cohort as well. We've already had meetups discussing the unique challenges OSS startups face: what licenses are fair to users, contributors, and enterprises (e.g. AGPLv3 or MariaDB BSL), how to do analytics ethically (e.g. with anonymization and open-source providers), and how to nurture productive communities.

Ultimately, I believe startups are good for the world. I also believe open-source is good for the world. That's because both are positive-sum. It follows that the combination, open-source startups, are doubley good for the world, doubley positive-sum. You could call it sum++ 🤓. Working at or contributing to an open-source startup might be one of the most impactful things you could do in this world.

Why Open-Source, Why Athens

I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the broader vision: why open-source, why Athens.

Athens is special as an open-source product. Unlike much of OSS, Athens isn’t necessarily technical or for developers. Ideally, Athens is an end-user product, designed for anyone and everyone to use, like Microsoft Excel, Google Docs, or Apple computers.

Athens is also unique in that notetaking apps are one of the few kinds of products where open-source actually makes more sense than closed-source. Most of the time, a product isn't inherently better just because it's open source. To be honest, it might be worse.

But notetaking apps have access to your most personal data. Literally your second brain. You want as much trust and transparency here as possible. Just this week, Notion went down while I was drafting this post. Imagine losing access to your cloud-first second brain.

Secondly, notetaking apps thrive on customization, extensions, integrations — innovation in general. I continue to be amazed by what people build on top of general-purpose tools like Roam or Notion. Sometimes these extensions and themes are better implementations than the core product! Open-source would provide an even better platform for these developers to build off of, if not merging these great ideas into Athens’s source code itself.

Open-source is safer and more secure for users. Open-source is more meritocratic and extensible for hackers, contributors, and developers.

Finally, long-term, the vision of Athens is to work on sensemaking at scale, not just for individuals, but for collectives. Not just for teams, but for the internet at large. For the open Web.

This is what makes Athens different from other notetaking apps. Athens has an ambition to go from single-player to multiplayer. As the past year shows us, collective intelligence and coordination is something we still need to improve at, something that has real, life-or-death consequences.

The reason why Athens is important is that we are solving meta-problems. We are learning how to learn. We are building tools to build better tools. We are collaborating to enable bolder acts of collaboration. This helps us solve complex problems. And this helps others solve complex problems everywhere else, whether that be in healthcare, energy, governance, and so on.

This is the difference between a product and a project. This is the difference between a company and a community.


Getting into YC is a huge milestone for Athens. Zooming out, however, we see that we’ve only just begun. Athens as a startup is still "default dead". However, what makes open-source interesting is that, at a critical mass, it is immortal.

Coincidentally, you can say the same thing about HCI primitives like hyperlinks. That is, we can probably agree that hyperlinks are immortal. They are a core feature of our applications, our browsers, and the Web. They are the basis of almighty search engine algorithms.

If open-source is immortal and hyperlinks are immortal, the question now is: will bi-directional hyperlinks also become immortal?

What does a world with ubiquitous bi-directional links and data look like, within and between applications and operating systems? What happens when we have open knowledge graphs that can help us solve the world’s hardest problems?

I can’t wait to see. None of us can.

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