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Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko talks funding and how to build the anti-Twitter

Eugen Rochko came up with the idea for and built Mastodon some six years ago during another one of Twitter’s dips. A developer who had already been interested in and was working with open source software, he got the idea for Mastodon from a federated version of a forum he’d built in high school.

That project was called Zeon Federated, and it’s no longer active. While developing that, he also built and sold a platform to manage escrow for artists around commissions.

Mastodon’s success has somewhat taken its creator by surprise. Rochko didn’t jump into this project as a power user of social media, nor is he prone to sharing much about himself. When we spoke, he dialed into our video chat from an undisclosed location. He’s never even used Instagram. If growth hackers look at building audience or revenue as an end in itself, Rochko seems to be the opposite when it comes to development.

This week we spoke with Rochko about the early days of Mastodon, its recent surge in users and how advertising may or may not factor in its future.

TechCrunch: You’ve probably seen significant growth in the last six weeks or so. Has the rate of growth maintained pace, increased or tailed off since the first days of the handover to Elon Musk? How many users and servers do you have now?

Eugen Rochko: If you look at it on the graph, we had a huge spike around the news of Elon Musk buying Twitter. And there was another spike when Musk fired most of the employees at Twitter. It’s trailed off now, but the rate is way higher than it was before October. We now have 2.5 million monthly active users across Mastodon, across 8,600 servers.

We don’t chart the growth rate, but right now, app downloads on iOS and Android are about 4,000 each per day. The highest spike we saw was when Musk fired employees — we had 149,000 downloads on Android and 235,000 on iOS. Over the last 90 days, the iOS app has had 1.8 million downloads. Android provides different figures, but in October, the installed audience for the Android app was 53,000 devices. Now, it is 907,000 devices.

I can’t give you much on whether mobile is more popular than desktop: I don’t track it. We haven’t built dashboards for that.

“Moderation work is not automation-friendly. The simple cases are so simple that even if it’s a person doing it, it just takes a couple of seconds to do it. And when it’s complicated, then no automation can help. It requires a human to read into the context of the situation and to make the call.” Eugen Rochko

TC: You say “we,” but how many people do you have at Mastodon?

Rochko: I’m the only full-time employee, and the rest — five people — are contractors at the moment. I’m looking to expand the full-time team and have been working on some job listings. It’s kind of a slow process; I wish I could do it a lot faster. But it’s a new frontier for a company that has been a one-person venture for six years. It has been fine so far, but now we need more people.

TC: Is Patreon the only vehicle you’ve been using to fund it so far?

Rochko: Patreon is the main one. We built a custom sponsorship platform as well for when a business wants to sponsor us to save on Patreon fees. We also got a public grant this year from the European Commission to finance some of the work on features. But mainly, it’s Patreon.

TC: So the bulk of it is coming from around 8,500 backers on there…

Rochko: Yeah, that brings in $31,000 per month. That number has risen dramatically over the past month — it was only $7,000 last month. That’s the only reason we can even think about getting new employees.

This is the kind of scary part of running a non-profit based on donations. I’m responsible for myself if the donations dry up, but if you hire other people and the donations stop, suddenly you’re responsible for other people’s livelihoods. That’s been the stopper for getting other people as employees before now.

I think now there is some buffer, so we want to get a few more people involved.

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