The tools can make all the difference, whether you’re running a business or delivering a class. That’s why Tyk is delighted to have awarded a grant to On The Same Page to help support the development of its minimal collaborative whiteboard.
The prize was awarded through the 2020 Tyk Side Project Fund. We set up this fund to award change makers. Tyk itself began as a side project, which then expanded into a globe-spanning business. This has left us with a keen desire to support others to develop their own side projects. One way that we’re doing that is by awarding grants through the Tyk Side Project Fund.
On The Same Page is one of the side projects that most impressed the Tyk team as part of our grants awared process. As such, we sat down with its creator, software engineer Sergii Zaitsev, to walk through the potential benefits of his innovative product.
Tyk: Please can you tell us a little about your background and what inspired your side project?
Sergii: I’m a software developer. I come from Ukraine originally but have lived in various places around the world, moving from China to Croatia before settling in Munich, here in Germany. I’ve worked remotely most of my life, so have first-hand experience of the problems related to remote brainstorming.
A couple of years ago, I had the idea to create some kind of online whiteboard where people could sketch their diagrams and thoughts, without needing to set up an account. I wanted to build something simple enough that anyone could use it.
The idea percolated in my head for a while before a friend who is a designer reminded me of it and we started thinking through how it might work and what the user experience would be like.
That’s how On The Same Page was born. It only took a couple of weeks to create the first prototype. My friend created the design of the On The Same Page website and I worked on the product, then we began cautiously promoting it.
Part of our idea was to support local schools by providing On The Same Page to them as a free resource. We got plenty of interest from primary schools in particular. They liked the lack of registration and tracking that the product offered and the fact that it was suited to low tech environments.
Demand has ramped up as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with children being educated at home. On The Same Page provides the means for the teach to draw and write and the children to watch remotely. I’ve designed the service to work on tablets as well as PCs, so the user isn’t obliged to draw with a mouse, they can use their fingers if they prefer, which is great for children.
So that’s where we are right now. At the moment, everything is still hosted on my cheapest possible server, so we’re under enormous pressure with the traffic as it’s not really well suited to scaling. It’s a monolith at the moment, so migrating and scaling is going to be interesting!
We’ve found that co-workers are interested in On The Same Page too, particularly with the recent rise in working from home. So there’s increasing demand from that angle too.
Tyk: What are the next steps for On The Same Page?
In terms of the current direction, I need to solve the scalability problem dynamically. I’m also focusing on shape recognition for the front end at the moment, as a lot of users are drawing diagrams. I need to collect data on what they are drawing freehand in order to build and train models that should simplify and support the drawing process to provide neater looking shapes.
From a marketing perspective, I don’t have any big plans, other than knowing that we need to promote it to designers and developers particularly. We can do that electronically and through local meetups. However, when it comes to marketing to schools here in Germany, we would need to send printed materials and/or visit schools in person. I want to understand the demand from schools to see if some kind of commercial version would suit them better – as well as being a better business model!
Tyk: What prompted you to choose schools as one of the testing grounds for On The Same Page?
Sergii: It was really just a fortunate coincidence. My designer friend has children and they started drawing with On The Same Page, so the idea of making it available to children started from there. I wanted to make it available to non-profits initially, so that they had a tool to meet their needs.
The idea of approaching schools really grew out of that. I thought it would be an interesting way to learn from my users. I didn’t expect schools to become my primary users, the situation just evolved that way out of a fortunate coincidence!
Tyk: What are the key values that drive you and motivate you to work on the project?
Sergii: I believe that if a company needs a tool and can afford to pay for it, they should pay for it. Meanwhile, if another company – one that provides a useful service or makes the world a little bit better – needs the same tool, then they should be able to access it for free.
In my professional life, I’ve seen how people from different continents collaborate and it can be really hard. Tech is changing that – consider the rise of video calls, for example. I’ve designed On The Same Page as a progressive web app that uses as little traffic as possible and that also works offline. So you can use it on a train, for example, where the signal cuts in and out, and it will simply restore the data and resynchronise to deliver a smooth user experience.
Also, as a collaborative tool, multiple people can use On The Same Page at once and their changes will be in sync – there’s a pretty smart algorithm behind that! Helping remote workers to collaborate was one of the key aims behind the project, both for companies that can afford it and those that can’t.
Data security was another priority, whether companies are using a self-hosted version or a version on a custom domain, perhaps with LDAP authorisation or some other security measures in front of it. On The Same Page is pretty flexible, so you can add all those parts on top if required.
So far, 80% of the use cases are people who’ve met, drawn something and finished using the tool at that point. In those instances, in the free version, those whiteboards are removed after 30 days of inactivity. Those who want their sketches to persist – usually commercial companies – will be able to access a chargeable model.
Tyk: How will the Tyk Side Project Fund support On The Same Page to grow?
Sergii: Aside from the grant itself, Tyk has given me the motivation to continue working on the project!
The funding will support me to scale up On The Same Page, moving it off my personal server to a dedicated infrastructure just for that project. Secondly, I’ll be able to use a Google Cloud engine for machine learning, which will speed up the modelling process. As I have a day job and do all of this development at the weekends, saving time is key!
Given that my friend and I are both from Eastern Europe, it would also be good to explore opportunities for the project back there. There’s already been some interest from schools there, so I need to follow that up, but that involves using Cyrillic script instead of the Latin alphabet – and at the moment On The Same Page doesn’t have great support for Cyrillic fonts. So there’s some work to do there. We already have a plan, but again there’s a cost attached, which means the Tyk funding can move that forward too.
Tyk: What are the challenges that you face when working fulltime and having a side project?
Sergii: Time has been a challenge, for sure, as I’ve had to fit the project around my work. One of the other major challenges was developing the algorithm that synchronises the input from multiple contributors to the same whiteboard in real time.
Cross-platform support can be a challenge too, as it means testing everything on all the browsers and on mobile. Some of this can be quite a pain. If you want to draw a horizontal line in MacOS, for example, and the machine assumes you’re swiping back to the previous screen… It can be time consuming to deal with issues like that.
I think the most challenging part will be sales, though. It’s something we both have very little experience of but it’s an essential part of the project!
Tyk: How do you manage your time and which tools do you use?
Sergii: This isn’t my first side project. I’ve learned to keep my entire life organised in Trello! For this project we have a board with ideas, priorities, all of the project details… so it’s easy to pause work on the project and then pick it back up again. This is essential when you work fulltime as well as having side projects. Trello means you can catch up within minutes, even if you’ve been distracted for the past month. It really helps with multi-tasking.
Tyk: What is a good success metric for your side project – is it growth, user retention or…?
Sergii: That’s an interesting question. The project started without any commercial intent. I think that customer retention should be the priority, as customers who use On The Same Page daily will be those who are likely to pay for it! It’s not about the number of users, but about how often your users need to use a whiteboard tool. Growth and retention therefore need to be measured together.
The problem here is that On The Same Page has no analytics or cookies. This means it’s GDPR compliant, but also that it’s hard to track retention! All the analytics for the main clients are on their server side, so I can see in the backend how many requests there have been but not if it’s the same users. Sessions are ephemeral so we can really only guess at the volume of returning sessions at this stage based on customers’ feedback. So that’s a key challenge – we need to understand users’ activity patterns but without collecting anything or creating horrible pop-ups! Attending schools and talking to teachers is one potential method of doing this.
Tyk: How do you avoid burning out when working fulltime and also managing a side project?
I think a change is as good as a rest, so if you change the direction of your work, it can equate to relaxation. That’s why I focus a lot on multi-tasking. At the moment I’m building a machine learning framework, a project for desktop apps and the On The Same Page web project. All three are completely different, so if I’m tired of one, I can switch to another. Having that break helps me to restore my interest in the project I’m tired of.
Having somebody to work with also makes a big difference. If you’re feeling burned out, there’s someone else there who’s as deeply emotionally invested in the project as you are. That’s important in helping you to resurrect quickly. Someone who believes in your success is always inspiring.
Tyk: What tips would you give to someone who is working on their own side project?
I think it’s really important to find a co-founder, a committee, a community or something like that. You’ll need others to help maintain your interest and focus, particularly when life gets in the way, as it tends to do! If you can, find that support early on.
Doing so can be scary at first, though. My first successful open source side project was 11 years ago and opening it up to other contributors definitely worried me. What if they approached it differently or introduced something I didn’t agree with?
Now, I know that there’s nothing to be scared about. Most of those who volunteer to get involved are very smart, as well as open and friendly. They are interested in the project and so usually respect your opinion!
In the last couple of years, I’ve stepped away from two or three of my big projects as the primary maintainer. It makes me happy to see that they’re still in use and still working! Relying on the support of co-founders and other primary contributers can make a huge difference
Tyk: Thank you Sergii – and best of luck with On The Same Page!