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What I Learned with BootSwatchr

Doing your job for free is a strange thing. When you start, you know it's a gamble, and a long-shot at best. You always hope that it will pay off, maybe with some form of reward. You know at the end, when everything is said and done, the best you can reasonably hope for is that someone will tell you "well done" and maybe buy you a pint.

I started Bootswatchr.com out of neccessity. I felt like the customizer that Bootstrap gave us just wasn't enough, and I dreamt of the "so much more" it could be. I expected it to only take me the weekend, and it did. I knew there was no money in it, and so far, there still isn't. What I didn't expect was the intangible reward that BootSwatchr did provide.

Against all probability, the most rewarding thing I have ever done started as a weekend project and grew into so much more.

An Unexpected Audience

The first person to contact me about Bootswatchr was an Iranian developer named Kiarash. His request was simple: make Bootswatchr the means for adding right-to-left language support to Bootstrap. The funny thing about being an English-speaking web developer is that you never think that much about RTL support. The guys over at Twitter OSS didn't, I didn't at first, and I can say with a great degree of confidence, most of my friends never think about how their application reads in Arabic. That shouldn't be a surprise really. The "everyone should learn English" world-view is classicly Euro-centric.

Kiarash and I worked together and quickly added RTL support to BootSwatchr. And then, something unexpected happened. Over the next few weeks, BootSwatchr's traffic increased five times. Bearing in mind this is a tool for developers and designers, the traffic wasn't much to begin with, but I never expected to be within the top 1 million sites on Alexa. Seemingly overnight, traffic started pouring in from Asia and the Middle-East. Right-to-left support was something that was sorely needed in what was quickly becoming the world's most popular front-end framework.

Kiarash was completely correct. There was an entire area of the world that was being under-served when it came to front-end frameworks. Together, we had discovered and served a market that was new to me, but had obviously been there the entire time. The lesson, the importance of this moment, will never leave my mind: be prepared to serve the world.

The Spirit of Open Source

Most people consider the words "open source" to mean "free-as-in-beer". Most of the time that is true, but the true nature of Open Source is that it is is about being "free-as-in-liberty". Open Source exists to help us, as software engineers, to push forward, to maybe focus less on one or two details and instead focus on big problems and the solutions to them. Not spending thirty minutes on building a responsive grid systems gives you back thirty minutes to focus on how to help get clean water to people who don't have it. Eight man-hours saved by using Bootstrap could be the difference between people being able to find each other in the middle of a hurricane, and someone not being able to find a nearby shelter with vacancies.

The spirit of Open Source is "For the Good of All of Us". It is with that in mind that I have always maintained that Bootswatchr should be provided free of charge. I don't pretend that BootSwatchr is saving the world, but I do know that it is saving some people time. Every month, developers and designers from all over the world use BootSwatchr to speed up their development, and hopefully, a few of those people are saving the world. Now, I am not going to try and take any credit for what they do, or claim that they couldn't save the world without BootSwatchr. What I will say is that I would like to think that maybe this tool I have built has helped someone save the world, and the small chance that has of happening makes all of my efforts worth every second. Not everyone can save the world, but everyone has something they can contribute to their community.

Social Media as a Tool

I never really "got" Twitter before. For that matter, I never got most social networks. They all seemed like platforms for people to either garner the attention of their friends, or talk about things that don't necessarily matter, like the merits of not frying Buffalo wings. I had never really thought about legitimate business uses for social media, other than possibly spamming the crap out of people trying to convince them that their friends like something I happen to be selling.

What I had never considered was the default use case: social media is great for getting feedback and keeping in touch. Twitter in fact is a very convenient way of letting your users know you've added features, and for them to tell you about the brand new "unintended feature" you just added, or ask you when you will support their favorite feature. Start-up gurus and community builders keep saying that the one thing you must do is listen to the people who use your software, listen to your community. What I have learned is that there is definitely nothing more important than engaging your audience.

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