Learning Platform Risk the Hard Way - Lessons from Workflow Buddy's Demise

UPDATED ON SEP 13, 2023 : 1397 words, 7 minute read β€” BOOTSTRAPPING

TL;DR: Slack is shutting down the functionality that powers the open-source app I built for Workflow Builder , their Nocode automation tool. I (hopefully) learned some lessons about what makes a good problem, the joy of enthusiastic customers, time-sensitive opportunities, and platform risk.

In 2018, Slack acquired a neat app , then released it in 2019 as a Nocode automation platform ( Workflow Builder ) Β - Β right in Slack! I was super excited when I started playing with Workflow Builder. As a developer, I was eager for updates enabling power users to get creative with new Workflows, and to use Steps from Apps to plug into other tools. Sadly, Workflow Builder started off strong…. and then seemed to drift along, hardly adding any new capabilities.

Tinkering with Workflow Builder got my brain spinning with ideas. It felt like there were plenty of quick wins to improve the capabilities & user experience. Thanks to the hero who added Steps from Apps (it connects regular Slack Apps to Workflows) it seemed possible for an outsider to contribute.

Building the MVP πŸ”—︎

The first version was super basic, just enough to make sure my ideas worked in the real world the same as in my head. It had dirty hacks, like using a JSON file as a database for simplicity. When I saw the app finally chugging along running Steps, my eyes lit up, and I was off to the races. It needed a name - 30 impatient seconds later, Workflow Buddy was born.

I released it as open-source from the start, with no reasoning behind it other than “I wanted to”. I’ve benefited tremendously from the open-source world, and I’ve always wanted to share a little something back. In the past, I’ve struggled with perfectionism in projects and getting too into the weeds. With Buddy, I tried to combat this by releasing before I felt comfortable. There were so many places I wanted to optimize & perfect: the developer experience, the code base, the testing, the documentation. But no one can benefit from your project if you never release it! So out into the world it went, in all it’s imperfection.

Workflow Buddy MVP options menu with the first few available actions: Send a Webhook, Random Integer, Random UUID, Wait step, and more.

Lesson 1: Good problems don’t require perfectly optimized solutions πŸ”—︎

Workflow Buddy was frustrating to self-host, even though I tried to keep things relatively simple. Users who wanted to test it out needed to:

  • Figure out how to create a Slack app, especially if they’ve never done it before
  • Clone a git repo and make changes
  • Put all the secrets in the right places
  • Be allowed to deploy to Fly.io at work, or know enough to figure out an alternative deployment strategy for the Docker container
  • and more…

I’m leaving out a lot here, but you get the gist. It was at least an hour-long endeavor to set up Buddy before you could even try it. If Twitter took an hour before you could Tweet, it would be dead in the water. Luckily for me, after posting Workflow Buddy on Reddit, I had a trickle of people brave enough to try.

It turns out people will push through a lot of hurdles if they really want to solve something. You don’t need the perfect onboarding, docs, features, or whatever micro-optimization you’re considering. Good problems don’t require a perfectly optimized solution if you nail the core functionality. I’d almost go so far as to say your ideas SHOULD have a crappy landing page, ugly UX, missing features (as long as the core idea is rock solid). Why? If the product is ugly or difficult to use and solves a problem, it will get used. If it’s difficult and only marginally useful, it will get dropped. If a product is pretty and has great UX but is marginally useful, people might occasionally use it and give you false signals that it’s worth pursuing.

Lesson 2: enthusiastic users are intoxicating πŸ”—︎

When Workflow Buddy didn’t immediately get 50 billion installs, I was disappointed. I had built a lofty vision in my head, which despite being wildly unrealistic, still hurt when it didn’t happen. I started to lose a bit of steam on the project, when all of a sudden - my first GitHub Issue appears! This turned out to be the beginning of many interactions with J (name changed for privacy) from https://www.iculture.nl/ - who taught me that enthusiastic users are intoxicating.

As a developer of an open-source tool, much of the time it felt like chucking work into a silent void. Even if you run a SaaS and can see usage in your metrics, it’s pretty silent up in the cockpit - unless you break something critical. J had gone through the trouble of setting up Workflow Buddy to solve one of their frustrating problems, and had tons of feedback and ideas. Enthusiastic users are both a strong signal that you’re onto something, and also incredibly motivating. Even though Workflow Buddy only had a few users, I was super excited to keep improving it because of J’s enthusiasm and appreciation for my efforts.

Lesson 3: Build what you need, not what you can πŸ”—︎

With my excitement around the tool, my mind was racing with ideas for new Step Actions I could add. Looking back though, the overwhelming majority of Workflow Buddy usage is around the HTTP Request step. I didn’t need to add tons of other Actions because no one was using them, or even asking for them. Adding features comes at a cost of increased complexity and decreased flexibility to make changes in your app. Users only use a small fraction of the capabilities of your app, so build what you need, not what you can.

Lesson 4: opportunities are time-sensitive πŸ”—︎

I sat on the idea for Buddy for many months without attempting it. At the time, I kept my calendar full with productive procrastination & consuming startup articles, in the hopes they would magically make things happen. I didn’t leave myself any slack (not the company! ) in life to experiment in new directions. In Sept 2022 I finally gave myself the space to build and launch an MVP. Spoiler, you’re reading this in 2023 (or later) because Slack chose to deprecate the functionality. For the short time it was around, Workflow Buddy had good signs of life - a small number of enthusiastic customers, a good problem, and growing traffic. I even had Slack’s Product Manager for Workflow Builder (at the time) reach out to chat about Buddy!

I obviously can’t predict alternate timelines, but if I had released it a couple years earlier when Workflow Builder was getting more investment from Slack… I can’t help but feel like it could have had a more interesting outcome. Opportunities are time-sensitive, and won’t wait if you’re “busy”.

Lesson 5: Platform Risk sucks when it’s your turn πŸ”—︎

Warning signs had been on the horizon for a while. Slack had been putting out info about a new automation platform, including changes to Workflow Builder. I continued contributing to Workflow Buddy in spite of the ominous dark clouds. I didn’t want to repeat my past mistakes of dissuading myself from projects before I even start.

In August, Slack released their official statement announcing Steps from Apps (which powers Workflow Buddy) would be shut down on Sept 12, 2024. I had seen mentions of it in other places, but reading it officially felt like a kick in the teeth. Platform risk sucks when the reaper calls your name.

If you want to build on top of a platform, make sure you’ve considered what would happen if it all changed tomorrow, and where it would leave you. It’s fine to take risks, as long as you take steps to minimize the potential damage, e.g. don’t take out a humongous loan you can only pay back if everything stays perfect.

The ride comes to an end πŸ”—︎

Building on a platform like Slack has been a wonderful experience, and I knew the risks going in. I don’t regret giving it a shot, I only regret not building it sooner to see what it could have become.

Workflow Buddy gave me a chance to build my first full-fledged open source product, to practice writing good documentation & tutorials to ease onboarding new customers, learned some valuable lessons, and I even got a chance to meet the Product Manager for Workflow Builder at the time. A fun ride, 10/10 would recommend.

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