We wanted to question how content is created for the web
In the beginning, everything on the web was coded by hand. Then in the early 2000s a new type of tool called the Content Management System (CMS) came along. These apps, typified by Wordpress, allowed developers to easily turn websites into systems where non-technical colleagues could write and publish web pages without touching any code themselves. Then, nothing changed.
While the rest of the web was busy transforming the world, and websites evolved from simple documents to highly complex applications, CMSs remained. Wordpress still powers 30% of all websites, and while it has grown the bones remain the same. A tool for a picture of the web that is becoming increasingly marginal, resulting in frustration for users and pulled hair for developers.
Simpla was a highly ambitious multi-year project that attempted to change this. We wanted to bring content management in line with the modern web, transforming the productivity of developers and making content creation as intuitive as writing a word document.
New technology made it possible
To tackle this I partnered with a colleague that shared my frustrations (Facebook engineer Bede Overend) and started sketching ideas in late 2014. Early versions of what would become Simpla were deeply flawed. Almost as soon as we started it seemed we had run up against a wall. But an emerging set of web standards, aggressively pushed by Google and it’s Chrome browser, gave Simpla the spark it needed.
By leveraging the future of the web to its fullest extent, Simpla has created something previously impossible
Web Components are the emerging technology that made Simpla possible. They allow developers to extend the HTML language with new, custom elements. This allowed us to make content management modular for developers, and replace unwieldy admin areas with seamless inline editing for content creators.
While Web Components are now becoming widely adopted, at the time they were a wild experiment. Nobody was using them in production, much less trying to rethink web content with them. We took a bet.
Gauging interest with Kickstarter
Once we had an early prototype of Simpla using Web Components, we created a Kickstarter campaign. At the time Simpla had no business model, and running a Kickstarter allowed us to validate the commercial viability of the project, as well as establish an audience of early adopters to give feedback while we iterated on prototypes.
Accelerating with muru-D
With positive feedback on very early prototypes from Simpla’s Kickstarter supporters, we applied to muru-D – one of Australasia’s largest startup accelerators – to fund the project and grow the idea. After a myriad of pitch meetings we were accepted into the 2016 cohort of 10 early-stage companies.
In muru-D both Simpla and our understanding of its users grew rapidly. We followed an agile product development process, holding regular interviews with developers and content creators and iterating our vision for Simpla based on their feedback.
Finding a business model
When Simpla entered muru-D it was still a promising technology with early enthusiasm, but no business model. We wanted to ensure that the core technology remained open-source, so we developed a commercial API platform allowing developers to drop Simpla into their projects and have it ‘just work’, while Simpla itself remained free to be contributed to and built on top of. This was a win-win for both our users and our investors, and the platform grew rapidly.
From prototype to product
Rapid experimentation during muru-D allowed Simpla to grow rapidly, and our prototypes began to fall apart. The test platform we launched was growing at a peak of 62% week-on-week usage, and each new feature was becoming harder to add than the last.
We decided to rebuild Simpla and its platform from scratch. Simpla v2 launched on ProductHunt just before the end of muru-D, and quickly rose to #2 product of the day (and the most upvoted Australian product ever).
Simpla is not just another web application. What King and Overend are attempting to do is build a new foundation for the internet
The rise and fall of a platform
While Simpla’s core technology reached its goals, we unfortunately couldn’t make the project commercially viable. In late 2017 we decided to shut down the platform, return what capital remained to our investors, and pivot Simpla into a fully nonprofit, community-run project.
Simpla was always a highly complex challenge, both in terms of engineering and use-case problems. To meet it we took a lot of risks — from being one of the first large-scale projects using Web Components, to a wholly new content paradigm for developers, to a fresh take on the editing experience, to our hybrid open-source/paid platform business model.
By following a process of rapid experimentation we were able to validate these risks quickly, and correct missteps before they became a problem. If we had simply built our original vision for Simpla and released it into the world, it almost certainly would have failed outright
Simpla met its core goal for content creators by letting them work seamlessly inline, rather than navigating complex data entry interfaces. And since Simpla's content is contained inside its components, developers still get a structured content model and robust coding environment.
We created Simpla as an open ecosystem of components. Rather than working inside a restrictive CMS framework, developers can include just the elements they need in any app or website. This results in large productivity gains, and makes whole new kinds of projects possible.
Before it shut down, the simpla.io platform provided a dashboard for developers to create and manage projects, users, and raw data. By providing a seamless API for Simpla’s core library, it allowed them to drop Simpla into a project and have it ‘just work’, without any server or backend necessary.
Simpla has made building static websites incredibly simple. It’s the future of the CMS
The landscape today
Times, at last, have started to change in the world of content management. While traditional CMSs like Wordpress still occupy the dominant mindshare, there is surging interest in two promising new tools: Static Site Generators and Content APIs. Static site generators allow developers to rapidly develop performant, stable, and lightweight websites, and Content APIs provide a powerful backend that they can use to insert dynamic content into any project. Unfortunately the experience of content creators still leaves much to be desired, but as we learnt first hand, it’s a wickedly difficult problem to solve.
I’m personally thrilled that there are now more options than ever for creating and managing content on the web, and for whatever small role Simpla played in that progress.