MVP Update, Funding, and Why I Started Athens
9 min read

MVP Update, Funding, and Why I Started Athens


To revise our MVP launch date, discuss our funding model, and tell my personal story for starting Athens.

MVP Update

The Athens v1 MVP is not launching August 1st. We've completed much of the core product, but usability is not quite yet at the level where someone should use Athens over alternatives that are further along. Of course, each alternative has various tradeoffs, features, and philosophies — see Steve Yang's list of networked notetaking apps.

Deadlines are effective until they are not. Our original deadline largely succeeded at its job of helping us rally around a shared vision, prioritize effectively, and reach for more. However, working towards this deadline has also pushed me to my limits. I can't sustainably work 80-100 hours every week as I have been for the last 3.5 months.

Not only that, we could not and would not be here without the help and support of everyone. There are so many great people collaborating to make this product a reality, this is truly "collective intelligence" at work! Long-term, the best thing for Athens is to do the best thing for its contributors — everyone, myself included, contributing what they can, at a level that works for them.

Rather than just push the launch to another aggressive date, we will progressively improve and roll out our v1 beta to our first Athenians and Believers, described in Funding.

Furthermore, I'd like to explore other product development methodologies beyond aggressive "Elon-style" deadlines. If you've been keeping up, you know we like Basecamp: check out Product Development at Athens and Product Management at Athens. Basecamp works in 2 and 6-week cycles. Roam does this too. Well, we've essentially just done a 4-month cycle of sprinting, and a cool-down cycle is probably warranted. I'm not sure the exact same cycle format will work perfectly for Athens because we're not Basecamp or Roam. That said, alternating between new features and bugs/refactors makes sense to me. We can have this discussion in #🚀-product over the next few weeks. Remember, there isn't exactly a playbook for how software should be developed, let alone open-source software with contributors distributed all across the world.


A number of people have entered our Discord saying they want a "free Roam". This is my first time commenting on the topic of funding and pricing, and I'd like to set the record straight here: Athens isn't free Roam. Someone is paying for the development of Athens, with either money or time. Contributors are paying. I'm paying. And my parents are paying by supporting me and letting me live in their home (more on this in my story below).

A number of people have entered our Discord saying Roam's prices are extortionary. Sorry, if that were true, you should sue them for extortion. If that were true, Roam wouldn't have hit $1M ARR within 2 months of charging.

If that were true, that means Roam extorted me. That's false. I paid $500 like thousands of other people because I'm a true believer: I believe in Conor, I believe in Roam, and I believe in the #roamcult. I literally could not pay another $500 without taking loans. So trust me, it's not extortion.

The problem is consumers are conditioned to free or $5 software. In actuality, open-source maintainers are taking huge losses or the software is VC-backed under the premise that the startup will attain millions or billions of users. That's not my goal for Athens, certainly not anytime soon.

My goal for Athens right now is for a very small number of people to love us unconditionally. My goal for Athens is to co-create Athens with people who also have skin-in-the-game, either through money or sweat. If that's 5 people, that's fine by me. If that means I have to take on loans and more risk, that's fine by me!

I want to succeed by serving the people who have contributed the most. I need to know who wants Athens as badly as we do.

I want to make Stuart, Michael, Jeroen, and Jacob proud, who've contributed invaluable expertise backed by decades of domain expertise each.

I want to make Haoji, Timo, and Flancia proud, who took the initiative to donate $100/month (12x Roam Believer plan) without asking anything in return. These are the people I serve, because they have given the most to Athens, in terms of their material, cognitive, and emotional resources, and I'm going to make them proud if it's the last thing I do.

We are creating and will create vast amounts of value, and we should capture value proportionally. Being open-source shouldn't change that. In fact, arguably we should be capturing MORE value, not in spite of, but BECAUSE we're open-source.

So, I'm going to take a page out of Roam's book (once again) and price our sponsorships at $16/month (Athenian) and $501 / 5 years (Believer), because that's how much I pay for Roam, and I believe Athens will create at least as much value as Roam if the only difference were that we were open-source.

But Athens isn't free Roam. To be honest, the core feature set of Roam is our MVP project board. Moreover, we've already shipped some features that are better than the Roam analogs, in my humble opinion: the right sidebar and cmd-k Athena. Finally, we're working on features right now that Roam won't even necessarily have: Workspaces, Timeline, and native custom keybindings. If features were the only differentiator, I could sleep easily with these sponsorship tiers.

But, we also have an incredible community.

The start of every great product and community serves specific needs for a narrow set of people. The end of many products and communities is never having done this or starting to do this but forgetting their roots.

I think the people who have contributed the most, and who have the most context, are pretty proud of how much we've done in 4 months. These are the people I‘m primarily listening to for now.

Contributors, in terms of sweat or money, will get access to the beta (when it's ready) and all future releases first. This is roughly based on Sponsorware by Caleb Forzio. To clarify, the goal has always been and will continue to be to have a free self-hosted Athens. However, usability isn't seamless enough for that to be a good idea, i.e. there are still too many bugs we need to squash. I can't say I know exactly at what point we will publicly release our first desktop app, in terms of quality control or the number of Sponsors we need to be sustainable. What I can say is that we are not there yet on either dimension!

I'll wrap up this section with a quote from Toby Shorin's recent, way-too-perfectly named article, Come for the Network, Pay for the Tool:

Start erasing the line between operators, customers, and community members, and squint; you begin to make out the shape of a group of people who can build for themselves and determine their own path of development.

The hard sell: if you want really, really damn good software that makes you smarter and more effective at creating and processing knowledge, if you want to be one of our beta testers, if you want cutting-edge releases when Athens ends up being the product you use most every day, if you believe open-source is more valuable than closed-source, and if you think we have one of the dopest communities on the internet, then consider contributing work or becoming an Athenian or Believer through our OpenCollective.

If for some reason, we get too much money (I don't think we will) or Athens falls apart (I don't think we will; open-source is anti-fragile), then I'll happily refund everyone who wants their money back. All expenses and donations are visible through OpenCollective, and you can cancel whenever you want. That said, the more money you give Athens, the more people can work on this full-time. It's your money, it's your choice.

AthensResearch - Open Collective

Why I Started Athens

storytime... gather round...

One year ago I was wrapping up my internship at Microsoft. It was the end of my second gap year from Rice University, and it was evident that I wasn't going back.

I had savings and wanted to start a startup! I've had a few side projects before, but no huge hits. Lacking good ideas, I decided to treat my life like a startup. In Tim Ferriss Silicon Valley techie fashion, I optimized and operationalized life.

I went deep on Notion and Tiago Forte content. I created two Notion plugins with the unofficial python Notion API. One caught Tiago's eye, and we even scheduled a meeting, but it got pushed back.

I adapted Tiago's PARA framework to my Notion. I was so proud of the system that I even gave a workshop on it to my friends.

The Notion system had 3 main tables, all joined by a single global Tags table. From Tiago and Conor's Twitter beefs, I knew Roam basically baked in global Tags. And this was the most important part of my system — Tags connected everything!

I also increasingly disagreed with Tiago. Many of his claims were kinda faulty from a computing perspective. But Tiago's greatest mistake, in my opinion, was probably saying that productivity systems should be tool-agnostic. Yes, there are common principles, but as a software craftsman, I knew tools were just as important. I had spent years in Vim and Emacs at this point. I had tried building second brains in Notion, Evernote, and org-mode. There is a best tool for each job (at the same time, I admit that the wand does choose the wizard).

My first attempt at provoking a Twitter beef. Tiago rightfully ignored me

I eventually found my startup idea, I went back to my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio to begin working on it. I also saw that Roam was hiring, and just for fun, I applied. Conor told me he was looking for more experienced Clojurians. That was fair, I didn't even know what Clojure was at the time. He did like my idea though.

Eventually, I kept sending Conor good content on Twitter, and Conor slid into my DMs saying I should interview. I interviewed, and it didn't work out. But I knew there were at least a few good reasons why someone would want an open-source alternative to Roam. At the very least, I knew I wanted one.

I had dabbled in Clojure for 2 weeks at that point, and was itching to make something. Our 2nd interview was on March 30th. I started Athens later that day. And on April 8th, I demoed Athens v0 to Twitter.

It was a success! Conor himself supported (and continues to support) Athens. So I setup an #athens channel in the Roam Slack, people started contributing, and here we are now!

In 4 months, we went from not existing to a clear path to feature parity with Roam, using the same technology stack (Clojurescript and Datascript). We've gotten over 1000 Twitter followers, GitHub Stars, and Discord members. And incredibly, we have over 40 people learning or mentoring Clojure!

I believe if we can get to a cloud-based subscription service (which is what we all really want: real-time collaboration, APIs, integrations, unlimited file storage, unlimited history, mobile apps, etc.), there is no doubt we can succeed and thrive. Roam, after all, is rightfully boasting about being one of the few companies to hit $1M ARR within 2 months of starting to charge. But in the meantime, Athens has raised... $600 on OpenCollective (not that I've solicited before this).

To be honest, I would do this for free if I could. This has been the best 4 months of my life. I've met some of the most talented, open-hearted people in the world doing this. And no amount of money, and I mean NO AMOUNT OF MONEY could buy what we have here.

But I'm also a 23-year-old kid with a couple hundred bucks in my bank account.

One year ago I was wrapping up my internship at Microsoft. I had a return offer that would've seriously supported myself and my parents. Instead, I moved back to their home because they save every penny they make, and because they support my dreams.

When I tell them about Athens, they don't get it. They aren't technologists. They're first-generation immigrants, a booksmart chemist and a streetsmart small business owner. But they see that I'm excited, that I'm happy, that's all they really care about.

The soft sell: These past 4 months have been a blur. These past 4 months have been a dream come true for me. I've gotta feeling that the next 4 are gonna be even better. And they will be if you want them to be. Don't just be a user. Don't just give us money. Instead, be an Athenian, build Athens, and use Athens. Trust me, it's way more fun. ❤️ 🏛 ❤️

AthensResearch - Open Collective