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What is AFFiNE — An Interview with AFFiNE’s CEO Jiachen (2/2)

Jackie Peng

AFFiNE founder: Open Source, Data Sovereignty, Creating an Integrated KnowledgeOS

What do excellent companies look like, and what traits do successful talents possess? On their journey, what are the pitfalls to be aware of, and what are the most significant changes?

Chuang·Wen poses questions to outstanding entrepreneurs, investors, and industry experts, hoping to share their ideas with you.

This issue features He Jiachen, founder and CEO of AFFiNE.

Stemming from a school innovation competition experience, Jiachen dropped out of the Max Planck Institute to start his entrepreneurial journey. AFFiNE is positioned as an integrated KnowledgeOS, front end including outstanding open-source project authors in graphics, rich text, front-end frameworks, TC39 (the JavaScript standardization committee) members, official Node.js members, and collaborative editing developers from companies such as Lark, Web Infra, Kuaishou Qingque, Microsoft, Baidu, and

Data shows that in 2022, the global market size for office collaboration tools was approximately $46 billion, one of the largest general software markets. Among them, the growth rate of collaboration tools was 17%, making it one of the fastest-growing software tracks in the post-pandemic era. In recent years, several multi-billion-dollar companies have emerged in this field, with new technologies and product forms continuously appearing. Among them, leading players Miro (a visualization collaboration platform) and Notion (a note-taking tool) have gained numerous fans for their smooth experience and powerful features but have not been open-source. Is there a more private, transparent, customizable, and cross-platform (Windows/OS/Linux) next-generation knowledge base?

AFFiNE began its attempt. AFFiNE supports using kanban boards, tables, and rich-text paragraphs as building blocks to form pages or whiteboards, allowing users to perform comprehensive tasks such as document editing, data processing, and brainstorming on a single whiteboard. He Jiachen, the post-95 founder, and his team aim to create a platform where “people can organize the knowledge they want, rather than text in notes and graphics on whiteboards. We believe the content carrier should be arbitrary, allowing people to freely organize the required model. Team collaboration and personal note-taking are essentially processes of knowledge accumulation and exchange with others. We want to create an operating system, the Knowledge OS.”

From Day One, open-source has been a universally recognized value for AFFiNE. It not only means open-source code but also “everything building in public.” When asked about the differences between AFFiNE and Miro or Notion, the answer is simple: people should own their data. “Today, building an application with JavaScript does not have a dedicated framework or the best solution. AFFiNE wants to solve this problem with BlockSuite on the front-end, allowing people to build cross-platform collaborative applications without worry. From an engineering experience perspective, there is no difference between building client, web, local, or cloud-native applications. There is no benchmark application on the market today that can iterate out such infra, so we have to do it ourselves. Using AFFiNE’s infrastructure to create a SaaS product is the most elegant and efficient way, and that is our strategy,” He Jiachen says.

Q=China Growth Capital

A=AFFiNE Founder He Jiachen

He Jiachen, founder and CEO of AFFiNE, graduated from the University of Glasgow and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and has worked as a researcher in the Nobel Prize team IGR and LIGO, and participated in the development of academic collaboration platforms in one of the top astrophysics research institutes.

Q6. What are the main user demographics and use cases for AFFiNE? What are the key product features that AFFiNE is currently focusing on?

He Jiachen: Notion has already established a successful path-it is a useful personal tool that can overflow to become the best team tool. We have now made it open source, and we currently have the largest user base in the end-to-end space, with others being a zero behind us.

In 2023, we will prioritize serving teams of 10-20 people. The scenarios we want to satisfy are: when one person collaborates, they don't need to use Bear or Evernote; when two people collaborate, they don't need to use WeChat to transfer files. We have determined that the PMF (Product Market Fit) is based on the most basic experience, and then we will do account permission management and complex processes.

One of the features we want to implement this year is collaboration between a user's different devices, and we want to run our decentralized collaboration infrastructure. Based on this foundation, we will pursue better collaboration between organizations. The entire AFFiNE process can be completed within two years because there are already many best practices and our user feedback is constantly being compared with these practices. For example, ChatGPT cost 1 billion US dollars to train, but if there is an open-source version of GPT today, we don't need to find manual annotations, and instead, we can let two GPTs have a conversation, which can train more quickly.

Q7. Why did AFFiNE choose to be open-source and global from the beginning?

He Jiachen: We didn't choose to be open-source from the beginning, but we recognized the inherent value of open-source, and it's only a matter of time before it surpasses closed-source. Technical barriers are essentially barriers of people, money, and time. Closed-source competition for software is ultimately inward-looking. There is only one monopoly mode for software, which is to achieve open source. Only by opening up all source code will people rely on you, and others cannot replicate you as well as you can submit APIs.

We are looking for business opportunities through open-source, which is one of our starting points. From day one, we operated in English, which is a good thing. We found that many users whose native language is not English, or even native speakers who use English as a second language, have no problem interacting in English. Of course, now we need to do more overseas localization operations.

Our headquarters is located in Singapore, and we planned to do overseas markets from the beginning. First of all, overseas markets are fair. As long as you do something good, others won't wear coloured glasses, and everyone will review the product seriously. Recently, I have heard a lot of feedback that many Chinese startups are doing amazing things. You only need to focus on the product, and it will be easier to be recognized overseas. Secondly, we must do local things in a local way, and the best way to sell products to Americans is through Americans. In fact, our company is already quite thorough in distribution, and our office can be almost fully rented out.

Q8. In just half a year since its official launch, AFFiNE has made continuous progress: nearly 40,000 new independent users are added each month, and it has been listed 28 times on GitHubTrending. What do you think are the things that AFFiNE has done right?

He Jiachen: AFFiNE has made progress at every stage, and the rewards obtained at each stage are different. At the beginning, when we had the concept of AFFiNE, we posted many blogs and tweets, and people said "I want it." This gave us confidence and the initial engineering team. After the POC conceptual product was developed, we received a lot of recognition, affirmation, and praise, even though there were many bugs, but it helped us find the capital behind making this happen and a better engineering team who believed in this. Now, we want to turn the POC into a usable product, hoping that on the first day of work, a person who does not understand open source or research products will have Notion, ClickUp, and AFFiNE in front of them, and after trying them out, they will choose AFFiNE.

Q9. What is the community culture of AFFiNE like? Can you share some memorable users?

He Jiachen: There are many impressive users in the AFFiNE community. For example, when our LiveDemo was just released, a user from Taiwan spent over two hours giving us detailed feedback and bug reports. There was also a developer from Bangladesh who wrote a 32-page PPT to give us feedback. We have also encountered some users from South America who provided very specific requirements and told us that they could help us test if we implemented them.Of course, customers who bring in money mainly come from Western Europe and North America. Recently, we received an email from a user saying that he leads a team of 1,000 people and is willing to sponsor us. If AFFiNE's product is good, he will immediately promote it within his company. Many users also want to sponsor us directly and often ask if we have enough money to pay salaries.Currently, AFFiNE has 34 ambassadors in 14 countries, and we hope to organize some offline events this year to communicate with everyone.


Q10. As a young entrepreneur born in the 1995s, how do you attract excellent partners?

He Jiachen: We don't have a dedicated HR or product manager. For us, open source means "everything building in public". We talk to users every day and only write code when we hear what they want. Open source, talent, and technology are at the core of our roadmap. Actually, when our Star count started to increase, AFFiNE was not highly developed, but users could identify with our vision, and excellent engineers were willing to take a brave step to join us and do this thing with us. These technical experts are in large companies with stable incomes. They write very good code, but they may not be typical management talents in non-mainstream businesses or in China. AFFiNE wants to pursue something that matches their innermost desires, so they join us.Today, AFFiNE has a very high density of talent, not because of my persuasive ability, but because I can find people who really resonate with us faster. It took more than a year to recruit Zhang Chi and Wang Yifeng. I pitched them from Day One and in more than a year, they saw what I said becoming a reality step by step. After they joined us, they went to find other talented people, such as Bread and TooLang, and there were references.

(Editor's note: Zhang Chi, CTO and co-founder, is also a serial entrepreneur who has been in charge of SaaS businesses at companies such as Kuaishou, Funxian Sales and EasyFlyer, and has rich experience in commercializing and managing SaaS businesses. Before joining AFFiNE, Zhang Chi was the technical leader who led the development of Kuaishou's collaborative document platform, and his team's Lightweight Document and Table products have served millions of users.

Wang Yifeng (Sprite), co-founder and chief architect, is a well-known open-source engineer who has been deeply involved in the development of well-known open-source projects such as Slate and Yjs, and has translated and published the book "20 Years of JavaScript" co-written by Brendan Eich, the father of JavaScript, and Allen Wirfs-Brock, the chief author of the ES6 specification. Before joining AFFiNE, Wang Yifeng led the development of the self-developed collaborative document and collaborative graphic editing tools at Gao Ding Design, and participated in the development and launch of collaborative knowledge base systems as a founding member of Meituan.

Wei Yipei, co-founder and head of operations, is pursuing a PhD in Entrepreneurial Ecosystems at the University of Edinburgh under the guidance of Ben Spigel. He was responsible for the commercialization and incubation of research achievements and entrepreneurial projects at PNDC and the British Council of Students; and worked at VC Comet Labs. During his time in the UK, he was responsible for the overall execution of the Ministry of Education's All-UK Innovation Competition and All-UK Recruitment Fair. He has also participated in market operations at L'Oreal and Budweiser.)

Q11. What is AFFiNE's vision and mission?

He Jiachen: Our vision is to enable people to achieve data sovereignty, so that anyone can not only own but also control their own data, while staying connected. This requires people to have complete control over the tools that shape their data while they have it, which is very important.Our biggest pursuit in technology and products now and in the visible future is JAMStack - Javascript + markup language, becoming the unified GUI creation application and the gateway to access the cloud and AI. It is the only solution to "write once, run anywhere."

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