A Manifesto for Sustainable Web Development

As a startup entrepreneur for the last three years, I’ve had the chance to observe the online scene both locally (Montreal), nationally (Canada) and internationally (US and Europe mostly). I’ve organized and participated in many unconferences and camps (most recently last week at WebCamp Montreal) and I’ve spoken at conferences in Europe, the US and Canada. I’ve met many entrepreneurs all over the world and I’ve coached aspiring ones. I’ve traveled to Silicon Valley countless times and had the opportunity to breathe the air there, trying to identify the various cogs of that ecosystem. I’ve realized that, if the right conditions are present, tremendous value can be created by building Web products.

My perception of the local online industry (Montreal specifically) is that we’re really good at online marketing / communications / advertising and we use this as the main method to generate value. We do build many online products but they end up being used in specific time-sensitive ad campaigns, ephemeral things, and when these ends, these products become orphans. This perception is obviously influenced by my product management background. I’ve been building Web products for more than 10 years and some of the things I’ve created have influenced whole industries and are generating millions of dollars in revenues.

Montreal has all the ingredients to become a hotbed of Web development and startups (I wrote about that a few months ago). After all, we already did it for the videogame industry. There is a lot of money for interactive projects, especially in large organizations, but we’re trying to replicate the old broadcast/advertising model online. There must be a better way to do things.

To re-think the way we work as an industry, I’d like to inspire myself from ecological terms coined in the last few decades: sustainable development and the waste hierarchy (known commonly as the 3Rs, reduce, reuse and recycle). Environmental science learnings can teach us to create more value with less “material”. Based on my personal experience, here is my manifesto for sustainable Web development, to create a better, more innovative, more valuable Web ecosystem.

  1. Think “product”, not “ad campaign”. Use budgets to create things that will last. Think how you can achieve your communication goals by building stuff instead of buying media placement.
  2. Do not re-invent the wheel, Focus on building value on top of existing material. Re-use existing standards. This is how we’re going to accelerate the pace of innovation.
  3. Use open source software. You’d be amazed to see how many technology components are now available in open source. You get access to whole communities when you use those technologies and you speed up innovation.
  4. Leverage existing APIs. You’d be amazed to see how many content and technology components are now available via public APIs. Use them, again, to speed up your development.
  5. Less talk, more build. We love our social time, drinking beers with industry colleagues and imagining a better world. If you want the world to change, go in action mode. Just do it!
  6. Give back. At the end of a project, if you’re not going to reuse the code, open source it. If it’s not going to be used at all, give it back to the community.
  7. Do not focus on “competitors”. The online market is huge and will be so for the next 20 years. Think about disruptive ideas, think about incremental ideas but focus on your business and the opportunities.
  8. Work with other companies. This is the corollary of the last bullet. Can you participate in common projects that will benefit multiple organizations?
  9. Use locally-produced technologies in your projects (when possible). This rewards risk-taking in the local ecosystem.
  10. Share your best practices with others. Blog, speak, be open, You win on execution, not on ideas.
  11. Mentor others. Make sure other people benefit from your experience. Be generous with your time even though that’s probably the most precious resource you have.
  12. Participate in the ecosystem. Attend events, write blog posts, take position on important topics.
  13. Learn from failure and respect those that failed. Silicon Valley folks believe you can learn from failures. Do the same.
  14. Think out of the box. Don’t be afraid of pathways less traveled. Challenge people.
  15. Launch your own company. If you really believe in your ideas and your current professional environment doesn’t allow you to execute them, start your own company.
  16. Listen to builders, innovators and “crazy” people in the industry. They sometimes sound crazy but listen to them. They see things you don’t see.
  17. Create long-lasting value, not short-term results. ‘Nuff said.

Do you agree or disagree with what I wrote down? Have I missed anything? Feel free to leave a comment. This is the beginning of the conversation…


12 thoughts on “A Manifesto for Sustainable Web Development

  1. Just a thought, perhaps you or someone should copy this to the Business Networking website, Head of the Curve.com. Many of our members would find this extremely interesting as they are in similar businesses and Have similar interests. This topic has fronted a number of discussions over the last few months! The Blog, Groups and Events have full HTML text editing and the option of photos and videos. Just go to http://www.headofthecurve.com and see if it might be useful, our members will certainly appreciate the blogs/articles.

  2. Good list Seb. Failure to follow these principles, time and time again, is what has caused many ventures I was following (or taking part in) to fail.

    The only point I am still conflicted about is #4: Leverage existing APIs. As an interesting coincidence, your post was in my reading list just after this one: http://spencerfry.com/platforms-are-for-suckers – where the author expresses great caution about building one’s business on someone else’s APIs or platforms. The other company can change its API’s terms at any time, making you very vulnerable indeed.

    The whole question of whether to use APIs – or indeed, frameworks, is a tough question of balance. Should one use a framework (say, Rails) if I know that somewhere down the road I’m more than likely to have to ditch it because it is not flexible or extensible enough for my needs? Or should I spend (waste) time reinventing the wheel?

  3. Nice list Seb. My point of view is that we need to create a culture and support structure for #15 – that’s where the value is medium term. The more successful start-ups there are in Montréal, the more will be begun.

    @Olivier, good point about apis, however, when budgets are limited or you need to prove a product on the market, you’re better off using apis/frameworks to get going. If you need to rebuild down the road so be it. At least you won’t run out of funds before getting to market.

  4. Interesting post. I especially appreciate no 5 to 7. With the web continuing to expand, can you imagine how much energy we will need to keep those servers running? In 25 years, we will need the equivalent of the present day world-wide consumption. Scary thought. Talking about sustainable development is a good initiative!

  5. Sustainable Web Development can mean many things. I agree with most of the point made here. But it also depends on the layer you are looking at. You are looking at the business layer and makes your points valid for almost any kind of business. These are not specific to the Web.

    For developing a sustainable Web, people have to understand the Web first (Information space driven by HTTP and URI). That is a big challenge. hmm Big nope. Huge 😉

    Sustainable means creating an ecosystem which has an equilibrium, that you do not destroy at each iteration. My 2010 hated word goes to « refonte » in RFPs. It explains a lot why people do not get the Web and why we do not have a sustainable Web.

    I’m still in thinking to try to come up with a good document on how to explain a sustainable Web. Maybe a beer would be better with Olivier, Sylvain and you. 😉

  6. karl, interesting that you’re looking at “sustainable” through its “perennial” meaning.

    I wonder if the issue you’re mentioning is limited to the “level zero” of web usage, that is, organizations who “want to be on the Web”. When they want to trash their site and start anew, maybe the first question should be “why do you want to be on the web in the first place?”

    That said, there are many more ways orgs use the Web, from the building of a living memory to the providing of services and web-driven applications – and I don’t know if the scorched earth policy happens so often there.

  7. Nice post. The ‘built to last’ idea is catching on. We’re looking at ways to connect a series of one-time efforts into a cumulative presence.

    I share your hopes for Montreal. It could certainly be doing more that it is now. Keep blowing that horn.

  8. Seb –

    I love your thinking and very thoughtful approach.

    My biggest failures have come when we did not make money fast enough.

    So perhaps a tweak on your final, all inclusive post would be to Build long term value and near term cash flow.

    Get real customers using your stuff immediately, and listen, ask, tweak, repeat.

  9. @Dick I definitely agree with that point: “Get real customers using your stuff immediately, and listen, ask, tweak, repeat.”

  10. Sébastien,
    I am still laughting with the “Use locally-produced technologies in your projects” item. Are web developers like vegetables?

    Seriously, good article.

  11. 10. Marc – I’ve met a few who would match that description 🙂

    Seb, great manifesto, and a lot of it applies to business in general, not just the Web. Your observation that the MTL webdev scene is mostly still stuck in that ad-campaign model is spot-on; there are far too many Flash shops that produce client-wowing disposable animated whizz-bangery, and far too few places that think of themselves as partners in the success of their client, that think (ack, although I hate this buzzword) strategically. In this sense, we’re anywhere from 5-7 years behind other cities / dev communities.

    The other corollary to the idea of building ‘products not promos’ is the need to educate startup-types, designers and developers on UX best practices. It’s part of the reason the UXMTL group got together.

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