Season 2 of Athens — A Collective Vision
10 min read

Season 2 of Athens — A Collective Vision

We are pivoting from PKM and creating a new category, CKM. Our vision is to create a Collective Brain, a social network for learning, collaboration, and innovation.
Season 2 of Athens — A Collective Vision

Intro

Athens Research is a private, open-source tool for high-tech R&D teams solving moonshot problems. Dynamically create, connect, and compound your research and documentation using a collaborative knowledge graph.

TL;DR: We built an epic team in 3 months. Now, we are pivoting from PKM and creating a new category, CKM. Our end vision is to create a Collective Brain, a social network for learning, collaboration, and innovation. We believe the first killer use case will be with high-tech moonshot research teams. Please share or contact us at hi@athensresearch.org if you know or are one!

Everyone is on a journey, an adventure, a quest. Rarely do we know what we are searching for when we start. The journey usually starts as a whisper, then emerges and reveals itself over time.

At Athens Research, we thought this was true for our startup journey. As giga-nerds, we decided to explore our story through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

Stories like Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey, and Star Wars all follow the arc of the Hero’s Journey.

Season 1 of the story of Athens Research wrapped up 3 months back, leaving you with a few cliffhangers. Let’s recap before we dive into a preview of our most exciting season yet.

Season 1 Recap

In the beginning came the Call to Adventure. It was simple: make Open-Source Roam.

Roam had already unlocked the mystical “Force” of bidirectional links and personal knowledge graphs. These technologies brought with them fundamentally new ways to organize human knowledge.

But some technologies are so powerful that they deserve to be open-sourced.

Join the Light Side, Luke. Just do open-source.

Open-source simply made sense for knowledge-sharing technologies and communities centered on learning and collaboration. Our community emerged, we built the product, and the result was transformational.

Meeting The Mentor

After months of diligent effort, we were accepted into Y Combinator (YC). There we met fellow heroes on their startup journeys, all leading to never-before-seen products and places.

At YC, we found our mentor. Michael Seibel, the head of Y Combinator, was assigned to be one of our direct partners. No lie, he really does have big Yoda/Shifu/Mr. Miyagi energy.

Sound familiar?

Michael Seibel smacked our hands when we were wrong and told us clearly when we were right. With the lessons we learned from Michael and Y Combinator, we learned the fundamentals of startup-fu, and were ready to pitch thousands of investors at Demo Day.

Season 1 came to an exciting end with us raising a $1.9M seed round ✨🚀🏛️.

But with big capital comes big expectations.

  • How do we meet Silicon Valley’s expectations for growth without discarding our open-source roots?
  • How do we create a product that is truly new and unique in the highly competitive space of knowledge management?
  • How do we achieve continuous exploration and heroic quests: how do we become both leaders and pioneers?

Crossing The Threshold

Asking these three questions, we knew we had to forge our own path and venture into the unknown. We had to grow beyond what we knew and create our own vision and identity.

And so, Season 1 has drawn to an exciting end. We are now in the unknown terrain of the “Special World.”

Season 2: Startup Wilderness

Welcome to Season 2 of Athens: Startup Wilderness. There will be dragons ahead of us. But beyond them is eternal glory.

Sound interesting? Good. We need you to join this quest.

Here’s where Athens Research is headed, and how you can meet us there:

  • The Road of Trials
  • >> Building the Team
  • >> Braving the Startup Wilderness
  • The Vision – Creating a Collective Brain
  • Your Call to Adventure

The Road of Trials

Building the Team

Avengers… ASSEMBLE!

The first challenge after raising our seed round has been building a heroic team.

Hiring is hard. Coordinating groups of people, building a shared language of goals over time, is even harder. We’ve spent most of the past three months working to get this right. And now, we have an epic team. Without further ado, the crew.

Avengers better watch out.

Stuart played a pivotal role in Season 1 by completing 99% of our front-end and design. This elusive, perfectionist designer is the mastermind behind our beautiful UI and UX. Read to the end to see some early designs for our new collaboration platform. (GitHub)

Alex joins as our first engineer. Alex has over 10 years of Clojure(Script) experience and has contributed to both Clojure and ClojureScript core. His greatest superpower, apart from finding the perfect gif for any situation, is sales and marketing: a true Swiss Army Knife. (Twitter, GitHub, LinkedIn)

Matei joins as Chief of Staff, leading operations and customer development. This scrappy serial founder brings impeccable clarity to navigating the zero-to-one phase of early-stage startups. Matei unites the team like a diplomat, and has one wish before he dies: to bring structured data and ontologies to Athens. (Twitter, LinkedIn)

Filipe joins as our second engineer. Filipe led backend development at Roam. Prior to Roam, he worked on Google's Angular Core team, one of the largest open-source projects on GitHub. (Twitter, GitHub, LinkedIn)

Finally, for better or worse, I’m still here (Jeff). I’ve recently transitioned fully off of engineering to focus on product, strategy, and customer development. I have so much conviction in what we are building, and I am the most excited and focused I have ever been on what we can create together. (Twitter, GitHub, LinkedIn)

Braving the Startup Wilderness

Alice in Wonderland crosses into the unknown.

While we have already built a heroic team, our second challenge remains open. That challenge is to make it through Startup Wilderness: a time when a startup seeks to discover their reason for existence, and the reason why the market wants them to exist.

How does one make it through Startup Wilderness? By building something 10 people love and something that would make people very disappointed if they couldn’t use us today. Few startups get past this wilderness. Some startups raise hundreds of millions of dollars without getting there.

Through extensive user interviews, we learned that users wouldn’t be very disappointed if they could no longer use Athens. That was because there were and are alternatives to Athens in the Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) space.

To make it through the Startup Wilderness, we knew we had to pivot. Rather than directly compete in the PKM space, we have decided to create and lead a new category, Collective Knowledge Management (CKM). CKM is a way for groups of people to create, connect, and compound knowledge, from research and documentation to ideas and conversations.

One reason we have been prioritizing CKM over more immediate PKM features is that collaboration seems to be the best bet to get us through Startup Wilderness and deliver a product of essential value to the world. There simply aren’t knowledge graphs for teams yet, and so we are building the first. This is an opportunity to create something new and uniquely valuable. Our efforts will push knowledge management, both personal and collective, forward.

The Vision – Building a Collective Brain

The deeper reason that Athens is building Real-Time Collaboration (RTC), the first milestone for CKM, is that RTC helps further our vision of a future where networked, social knowledge empowers people to solve the most challenging problems. This vision is leading us through the unknown, and it will help Athens serve many heroes along their journeys.

We believe that the most learning comes from collaboration. We believe that the hardest problems can only be solved by multiple minds. And, we believe the greatest meaning comes from our connections with one another. Apollo 13, Bell Labs, and Xerox PARC were small, focused teams who created change on a global scale. Collaboration isn’t just for tiny, elite teams, however. Large decentralized groups of “hobbyists” can accomplish great things too. That is, in some ways, the story of open-source, from Wikipedia to Linux to our little project, Athens Research.

Real-Time Collaboration, Athens’ top priority, is the first step towards multiplayer interaction. This capability also advances single-player Athens. RTC paves the way for a first-class API and mobile app, as well as the ability to collaborate with your friends, family, and coworkers. Furthermore, we are designing RTC as a generic protocol that can support arbitrary backends and frontends. Your knowledge graph won’t be locked into one application; instead, it will be able to interact with the world.

But RTC is only the tip of the iceberg for collective knowledge management. Collaborative knowledge graphs mean much more than a few people editing a page at the same time.

What about comments and suggestions like in Google Docs, but addressable and referenceable? What about forking, branching, and merging like in GitHub, but with your documents and conversations? What about cross-graph references?!? There is so much design and engineering we can do to make collaborative knowledge graphs possible and powerful.

Should cross-graph references update in real-time or require confirmation? History, identity, and permissioning are fundamental challenges when it comes to building shared graphs.

CKM is about getting out of your own head and connecting with the ideas and experiences of others. It is not a “Second Brain,” but a “Collective Brain.”

A Collective Brain could help us work together to solve humanity’s moonshot problems: extending longevity, eradicating cancer, and stopping climate change.

For Science!

In Reinventing Discovery by Michael Nielsen, Nielsen describes his vision of The Era of Networked Science (emphasis added):

I believe that the process of science—how discoveries are made—will change more in the next twenty years than it has in the past 300 years.
When the history of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is written, we’ll see this as the time in history when the world’s information was transformed from an inert, passive state, and put into a unified system that brings that information alive.
We are reinventing discovery, and the result will be a new era of networked science that speeds up discovery, not in one small corner of science, but across all of science. That reinvention will deepen our understanding of how the universe works and help us address our most critical human problems.

It’s true that Athens’ Collective Brain could resemble Nielsen’s Networked Science, helping teams of engineers, scientists, and researchers solve the world’s most technical, complex, and uncertain problems.

But that doesn’t have to be where our story ends. Just as the First Internet evolved in academic circles to become the World Wide Web we know today, so technical users can lead the way to a much longer journey. The goal for Athens is to serve everyone.

Athens has potential to become an environment similar to a social network for learning, collaboration, and innovation. In a sense, the Internet as it was originally intended to be. But rather than be an information network, Athens could be a knowledge network. A Second Internet. A Collective Brain.

Your Call to Adventure

We've been very fortunate to have such an awesome community during Season 1 of Athens. Your support, contributions, and input are essential to what Athens is and will become.

During Season 2, things might get dicier. As I mentioned, we have begun to venture into the unknown. If we want to survive, we must focus on the fundamentals: building product, talking to users, and "doing things that don't scale." If we don’t, we will perish like most startups.

We are also interested in creating partnerships. We are still a small team, so we need to be very selective about which organizations we partner with.

We would love to collaborate with:

  • Researchers who might have PhDs doing R&D for “moonshot” projects
  • Researchers in AI, biotech, hard-tech, financial services, crypto, think tanks, and academia
  • Researchers working in teams of 2-10.

We believe these people have the most pressing needs and would benefit the absolute most from real-time collaboration. We want these first partners to work closely with us to help us develop the product, and potentially even join as advisors for Athens.

Are you on such a team, or do you know anyone who is? Email us at hi@athensresearch.org. Connect us directly.

Here is your call to adventure. Join us on this journey to build Collective Knowledge Management, a way for groups of people to create, connect, and compound knowledge. Join us in building a Collective Brain, a social network for learning, collaboration, and innovation. Let's achieve this vision together.

FAQ

  • When can I use self-hosted RTC? Ideally we will have our first beta release by October 1, 2021. Everything is alpha before then. You can see the progress on our GitHub project boards.
  • Is single-player dead? No. The single-player and multi-player code will be the same codebase for the time being. This post just informs the reader how we are approaching roadmap prioritization. Most improvements to one will have direct improvements to the other.
  • Is this a social network that will lead to lock-in and sell our data? No, we are not literally building a social network right now. We want to figure out CKM at a smaller scale first, teams of 2-10. Going from groups of 10 to 100 or from 100 to 1000 from the current model of Athens would need different engineering and UX. The social networks of today are at the scale millions of people.
  • How much will it cost? Free for non-commercial usage. If you to want to use RTC commercially, email us at hi@athensresearch.org. We plan to release a paid license for commercial users.
  • How do I run and set it up? We will write documentation for all of this.

Acknowledgments

This post was an act of collective intelligence and sense-making. It couldn’t have been done without input from Matei Canavra, Alex Iwaniuk, Filipe Silva, Stuart Hanberg, Aryan Sawhney, Limezy, Siddharth Yadav, Josh Hall, Andros Wong, Matt Kochakian, John Palmer, Packy McCormick, Alex Salkever, Austin Rief, and Amy Klein. Thank you all.