Feedback on draft Apereo strategy


In which I comment on the draft strategic plan Apereo articulated for 2018.

As often: I am speaking here wearing only my individual contributor hat.

Feedback on Apereo strategy: focus on revenue to achieve sustainability

TL;DR: Emphatically focus on recurring revenue to achieve sustainability. Aggressively defer everything not focused upon this.

Context

Vision

(what future state are we trying to bring about?)

TL;DR: Most higher education institutions will collaboratively develop, maintain, and locally implement free and open source software solutions meeting its needs, at all scales, and in all ways, doing this through and facilitated by Apereo.

Unpacking this:

Higher education will collaboratively develop, maintain, and locally implement free and open source software solutions meeting the needs of higher education. These will be directly valuable (delivering effective user experiences to higher education constituents is awesome) and will be indirectly valuable in the pitfalls they avoid, the choices they afford, and the effect they have on the proprietary software offered to higher education through inspiration and through competition.

Higher education will do this at all scales, for example both at the handy little WordPress plug in end of things and the comprehensive lecture capture solution or learning management system or ERP end of things.

Higher education will do this in all ways, and notably, not just through coding. The activities of collaboration and maintenance of effective free and open source software solutions meeting the needs of higher education are so very much more than just coding or even of developing novel software solutions. There’s value in communities of practice, in context for understanding higher-education-specific perspectives on more general open source software solutions, in exerting higher-education-serving influences on open source software projects with wider contexts beyond higher education.

To give an example: apparently WordPress powers more than 30% of the Web, including a great many sites in and around higher education. Higher education doesn’t need its own WordPress-like thing. But higher education may very well have particular needs for plugins for WordPress, for ways of using WordPress, for problems to solve with WordPress, for experiences to share. There’s a there there in the “in higher education” part of “Using WordPress in higher education”. Higher education might particularly need WordPress plugins to fulfill accessibility and usability expectations, and might particularly need clarity about what WordPress implementation choices are and are not consistent with higher education’s especial needs to provide accessibility. There’s worthwhile work to be done and insights to share to facilitate higher education success in leveraging WordPress.

Apereo will be the organization that enables higher education to succeed at this collaborative development, maintenance, and local implementation. Apereo will be the context for this work, particularly facilitating the cross-institutional aspects of this and the natural handoff of participation from institutions to institutions as time and circumstances evolve. Apereo will deliver identifiable value to higher education, value to any given member institution in excess of the membership fees borne by that institution.

To give an example: Sakai is a free and open source by for and about higher education learning management system. Such a thing should very much exist and be a viable option. It does and is. Sakai deserves significant sustaining resources. The preeminent actually open source learning management system for higher education ought to be tremendously supported. Apereo qua Apereo should be adding lots of value to this.

Most higher education institutions will be Apereo members, because most higher education institutions will be (already are) making significant use of free and open source software solutions and that use will be more effective and more confident because of the value Apereo is adding to it. If they’re not using Sakai as a learning management system or OpenCast for lecture capture or an open source ERP, they’re most certainly using WordPress or Drupal somewhere or are generating and transforming CSV files representing institutional data or integrating across SaaS vendor products or educators are using open source text editors to author lesson plans or… There’s tremendous breadth of opportunity for higher education to benefit from open source, so there’s tremendous breadth of opportunity for Apereo to add value to higher education’s benefiting from open source.

Strategy:

(how are we going to get to achieve this vision?)

First and foremost, Apereo must achieve critical mass of recurring revenues (membership fees) to achieve sustainability.

There are all sorts of opportunities to add value to collaborative open source in higher education. But to meaningfully pursue these, to meaningfully impact the world over the longer term, Apereo needs to exist with enough substance to be able to, well, do things. The thing about unsustainable things is that they’re really hard to sustain. Working towards the vision will require sustained effort for many years (forever?) and so achieving sustainability is essential.

So here’s the strategy:

  1. Increase revenue
  2. Use all available resources, including revenue, to further increase revenue.
  3. Increase revenue
  4. Apply staff and other efforts to provide members a positive return on their membership investment. Apereo must deliver recognizable value to the members, value enough that the members are saying “Sure am happy to be paying for that membership, because we’re clearly getting more out of Apereo than we’re paying into it.” This will stabilize and retain revenue.
  5. Increase revenue through the increased memberships as more and more of higher education sees Apereo as a source of value very much worth sustaining.
  6. Increase revenue through (carefully targeted?) increased membership fees as more Apereo members are realizing more value from their Apereo membership.
  7. Use the increased revenue to add more value to higher education. Use the increased value to higher education to secure more revenue. Repeat until the vision is achieved (in practice, forever).

The most important challenge here is that at the early end of this strategy Apereo is adding less value to higher education and so revenue, in the form of memberships, are harder to secure, whereas at the later end of this strategy Apereo is adding more value to higher education and so revenue, in the form of memberships, is easier to secure.

The most existential risk is in the early phases.

So the thing to do is to focus on escaping the early phases.

So here’s what this strategy means:

Focus entirely on things that will increase revenue (membership). Defer everything that won’t affect revenue (membership).

Considering incubating a new open source software project? Is that project going to bring in more membership revenue? Yes? Pull it in. No? Hold off.

Having a presence anywhere? Is that presence going to bring in more members, or is it necessary to retain existing members? No? Don’t go.

Is securing ICLAs going to bring in new or retain members? Great, do it, more members are absolutely essential to sustainability. It’s not going to impact membership? Suspend the whole program.

Is re-licensing a project from a New BSD license to an Apache2 license going to bring in more members, or is it necessary to retain existing members? Yes? Great, undertake that hassle. No? Defer it.

Considering a partnership? Neat. Will it increase recurring membership revenue? Go for it. It won’t? It’s a distraction, defer it.

Apereo cannot afford to do anything that isn’t increasing recurring revenue. Doing anything that isn’t increasing recurring revenue has the opportunity cost of not doing something more likely to increase revenue. Intentionally navigating these tradeoffs is essential to maximizing Apereo’s odds of having a meaningful influence a decade from now.

This is painful. Opportunities that by other measures would be worthwhile must be foregone. But this is how to get to sustainability, and without sustainability, nothing else Apereo does is going to matter much over the long term.

The idea isn’t to never do anything other than pursue recurring revenue. The idea is prioritize pursuing recurring revenue until recurring revenue is sufficient to afford the luxury of applying resources to pursue the organizational mission.

Feedback on Apereo draft

With this vision (higher education succeeding wildly by collaboratively meeting its needs through free and open source software) and strategy (achieve critical mass to enable Apereo adding value and doing so sustainably) in mind, here’s my feedback on Apereo’s draft strategic themes:

1. Membership, Financial Health and Fundraising

In 2018 Apereo will focus on recruiting adopters of Apereo software and other educational and commercial organisations into an expanded foundation membership.

Yes, do that. All of higher education should be Apereo members. Get far enough towards that to achieve sustainability.

Consider reviving the individual membership program.

Consider ways to price discriminate so that institutions that can pay more do.

2. Foundation Services & New Ideas

2018 will see a review of key Apereo services to support the community, together with the elaboration of a process for introducing new services and areas of activity, and reviewing - and potentially retiring old ones.

If adding a service will yield more members or is necessary to retain members, do it.

If it won’t affect membership, defer it or suspend it.

One kind of service that might widen memberships are those that affect breadth. A better implementation of more active discussion lists or chat might enable Apereo to widen scope into e.g. higher education knowledge sharing around WordPress plugins. Become the place for higher education to talk WordPress, to collaborate, to share – and maybe Apereo could reach 500 more people across 100 more institutions. Pull in 10% of those institutions as members and maybe we’re getting somewhere.

Curtail services offered to non-members who aren’t going to become members.

Look for opportunities to expand into spaces and activities that will increase membership with low or no additional infrastructure and services commitments.

Job posting board reserved for members? Maybe members would value being able to post opportunities (presumably, about working with open source for the institution) to a context that reaches IT professionals likely to have experience with higher education and with open source?

Speakers or consultants directory? Maybe members would value more ready leads on expertise about open source in higher education.

Institutional project matching service? Maybe members would value leads on what others have experienced with specific open source technologies or attempting to leverage open source for specific kinds of projects.

These may be terrible ideas. The lens for evaluating them is whether they will retain and increase membership revenue.

3. Software Community Health

Apereo will explore the potential for a light-touch framework for expressing and communicating the health of constituent software communities during the course of 2018, as a contribution to greater transparency and adoption.

This doesn’t sound like it will attract or retain membership revenues. If this isn’t going to bring in more members and it’s not essential to retain existing members, defer it.

Apereo just can’t afford this. The constituent software communities are however healthy they are. They’ll do what they can do, or not, to determine and communicate health. There are some badging, checklisting, health assessing efforts afoot more generally in open source. That’ll have to be good enough.

4. Communications, Outreach and Engagement

Apereo will expand its communications efforts across three principle audience axes - specific to role (CIO, Faculty, Learning Technologist, Student, Researcher), to interest area (specific software, theme or topic), and geographical region or country.

Cut this down to only the communication efforts that will attract and retain members. That probably means focusing on helping CIOs to see value and urgency in Apereo membership, maybe targeting institutions that have already adopted Apereo software significantly (so, most likely to care) and in regions likely to be able to afford an Apereo membership (so, more likely to impact overall revenue more).

It’s not that other kinds of communication aren’t valuable. It’s that Apereo can’t afford it until it can.

Above-campus or cloud-based service provision, and its interaction with open source software, is a theme of specific interest that will be assigned priority in the coming year, particularly in terms of approaches taken in different parts of the world.

If there’s any way to defer this, defer it. It sounds like a distraction from securing memberships.

Communications and outreach is a critical enabler of objectives around membership and financial health. In particular community members will be encouraged and equipped to represent their engagement in Apereo activities, and use of Apereo software, as they engage with other associations they are active within - EDUCAUSE, AXIES, ALT etc.

This sounds promising.

The Foundation will continue to support a range of global, regional and individual software community events over the course of the coming year, seeking economies of scale by combination or linkage where appropriate, and working with partner organisations to increase effectiveness and reduce costs.

Do as little of this as Apereo can get away with and leverage it as much as possible to draw in more members and retain existing members.

5. Partnerships

Apereo will continue to seek partnerships with organisations with missions that overlap its own, or are complimentary.

Pursue new and invest in existing partnerships only insofar as these will pull in more members and retain existing members.

Consider reworking existing partnerships. For example, every French university should be an Apereo member. Apereo cannot afford to forgo this revenue, and ESUP cannot afford not to support Apereo in this way over the longer term in order to make the open source software ESUP relies upon more sustainable.

We will act to promote LAMP as a solution for smaller institutions, and deepen our collaboration with ESUP-Portail, as it continues to grow the adoption of, and contribution to, an increasing range of Apereo software in France.

Only do this if it’s going to increase membership. Investing in LAMP and ESUP should be through the lens of expected recurring revenue returns on that investment.

6. Development Opportunities and Recognition Programs

It is appropriate that we review progress so far to encourage and resource further development, and additional strands of these [recognition] activities. 2018 will also see the exploration of a series of developmental activities for Apereo community participants, beginning to unlock the potential for further sharing of expertise across the broad community.

Apereo can’t afford this. I imagine no institution became or remained a member because of an Apereo fellowship or an ATLAS award. (The Fellowship program in particular seems to have an interesting track record of fellows exiting Apereo contexts soon after their fellowship).

by Andrew Petro as individual contributor

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