Collaboration is where it's at these days, and fledgling web app Loomio is betting on the trend picking up even more steam going forward. It has just successfully raised $5000 via crowdfunding to enable some of its team members to focus on development for the next two months without starving (they're all volunteers).
What exactly is Loomio, you may ask? It's a free open-source web app to better enable groups to reach consensus and make decisions together.
Here's how the process goes: A group member suggests a proposal. Discussion among members ensues, with each person giving a short statement summing up their view, and voting on the idea (yes, no, abstain, block – or other definitions defined by the group). As the discussion progresses, the proposal is modified to try to turn all the Nos into Yeses. People can see at any time just how many people are in agreement, who has abstained, etc.
Loomio's strength is providing a central place for discussions; positioning the proposal at the top of the screen keeps the discussion on topic, the member summary statements let everyone get their views in, and it eliminates the need for interminable meetings.
As Loomio team member Richard Bartlett puts it, some meetings can be "tremendously inspiring", but as most of us can testify, that's the exception rather than the rule.
"There is so much power in a well-run consensus meeting but its so easy to be derailed," he says.
And that's the need Loomio has set out to address. It's designed to cater to all kinds of groups – Bartlett says around 35 groups currently use the tool (including Bucky Box and Enspiral), from an arts collective to community groups and commercial businesses. He says the app has about 150 alpha users at the moment and is six to eight weeks away from going public.
From dozens to millions
"There are probably a dozen different apps more or less in the same space," he says, pointing to Liquid Feedback – used by the Pirate Party in Germany – as an example.
"They want to be running the country on this software platform – basically anyone can jump in and have their say on any issues going through Parliament."
But their competitors tend to start at the top – creating something at the Facebook level, he says.
"I agree with that vision but I don't know how achievable it is to start at the top that way," he says.
"I actually got an email from one of the guys in the Pirate Party saying 'your tool sounds better than our one'!"
Bartlett thinks of Loomio as more akin to Twitter, "which is super super minimal and gives you just the right amount of functionality".
Asked if he sees Loomio replacing tools like Yammer, Bartlett says: "We're big fans of Yammer. We work with Yammer. One option is definitely to have some kind of integration going on."
He expects to see plugins to Loomio in the future (and that could include a Yammer plugin) but for now they're focusing on building a "slick" product on a small scale that can then increase in scope.
"It's a matter of growing sustainably as opposed to just blowing up."
That said, Loomio's vision is an ambitious one: "I'd eventually like to be hosting conversations with millions."
The next step
Loomio's business model is still being tweaked. There will be some kind of paid component but the he says the tool will, for the majority of users, be free.
"We're also very keen to make sure money is no barrier to access," says Bartlett, who especially wants to build a product that suits the needs of non-profits.
"A tool that's good for communication is a valuable tool. I'm confident we can get a sustainable income out of it."
He cites the Wordpress freemium model as one they could emulate.
Tying up loose threads
Loomio's name is loosely derived from the word 'loom', as in weaving.
"In a good conversation you have a lot of threads. The idea of this tool is to tie those threads together in a beautiful tapestry."
Bartlett says Loomio drew some inspiration from the Occupy movement, and how protesters organised city camps and the like without any kind of hierarchical structure.
"My take is this paradigm of having one person in charge telling us what to do ... We've reached the limits of what that model can achieve," he says.
And open-source software is the epitome of that non-hierarchical structure with everyone chipping in, he reckons.
"Technology can enable much more collaborative decision making."