Meaningful Overnight Relationship

One thing I’ve noticed about talking to certain types of press, particularly mainstream, is that they have a pattern in mind before they write about something, and the better you conform to the pattern the more coverage you get.

I think what they really want is an unusually young founder, possibly with a partner, who stumbled on an idea in an epiphany moment, implemented it in days, and then enjoyed overnight success, preferably capped with some sort of financial hook such as a huge VC funding or selling out to a large company for millions of dollars.

It’s not uncommon to get leading questions trying to hit a point in the above patterns… Yes, WordPress really is four years old. I was 19. No, I didn’t create it alone, if I did you would have never heard of it. Actually, it entered a rather crowded field, not even close to being first. No, not planning to sell it, there isn’t really anything to sell, it’s more of a movement. No, I didn’t make 60 million dollars in 18 months.

What’s worst is I think these stories sell a false promise and hope to people outside of the industry — it attracts the wrong type of entrepreneurs — and inside of the industry it distracts us from what really matters.

Someday I think there will be a realization that the real story is more exciting than the cookie-cutter founder myth the media tries frame everything in. It’s not just one or two guys hacking on something alone, it’s dozens of people from across the world coming together because of a  shared passion. It’s not about selling out to a single company, it’s dozens of companies independently adopting and backing an open source platform for no reason other than its quality. I’m not a millionaire, and may never be, but there are now hundreds of people making their living using WordPress, and I expect that number to grow to tens of thousands. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning, not the prospect of becoming a feature on an internet behemoth’s checklist.

Finally it’s not Web 2.0, or another bandwagon me-too content management system with AJAX, it’s a mature project that has been around and grown up over four years of hard work, and it has many, many more years of hard work ahead of it. I smile these days when I see WordPress referred to as an “overnight success,” if only they knew how long an overnight success takes.

Update, see also:

121 thoughts on “Meaningful Overnight Relationship

  1. I think it is possible to be an “overnight success” even if the path leading up to the success moment was years of hard work in the making. Bands immediately come to mind who played the same instruments with the same group of guys for years, trying to perfect their own view of music, and then success hits.

    Maroon 5 was previously known as Kara’s Flowers, a band some friends formed in high school (young founders) and played their first gig in 1995. Perhaps the genre of music just wasn’t right, or they needed a new instrument somewhere, and Maroon 5 is somewhat of an overnight success in 2002 with the release of Songs About Jane.

    I’m sure Oprah could mention her favorite back scratcher and it would turn into an overnight success.

    Good post with insight into your unique life and view on things. Thanks.

  2. Hi Matt. For what it’s worth, I want to let you know that I appreciate all the efforts that you and your team put into WordPress! It’s an understatement on my part to say that I owe you a lot.

  3. The words you have posted are exactly the words that need to be heard more often! Thanks for sharing Matt! And kudos to all the people who have contributed to making WordPress what it is today!

  4. Very well said! I’m often thinking how lucky I am to have found a platform which so many people are passionate about supporting, and developing.

  5. Good post – Related story. I had a conversation once with a journalist: that 70 minute interview turned into a 5 word mention in an article, about another topic. His response was essentially this: “I’m paid to write several stories at the same time – if a story doesn’t fit into a pattern, no matter how amazing it is, I probably don’t have the time to write it.”

    It wasn’t his fault exactly – it was how journalists are typically rewarded for their work.

    He would have loved to tell more interesting and truer stories, but unless he could pitch the new pattern to editors, it was hard to justify the time on a tale that might not resonate with people. The old patterns, magic hero tales, are yarns that people always like to hear and always will – they’re easy to write and easy to sell, making it awfully tempting to play on those patterns – same goes for TV, movies, novels, you name it.

    The upside is that WP and tools like it eliminate middlemen in writing – so writerly types have fewer excuses if their stories play on myths, rather that realities.

  6. That’s so true about everyone having a preconceived agenda they want to fill. Things are much easier for them if you fill an existing archetype. It’s easier to tell a story that is close to a story we already know.

    Have you read Founders at Work yet?

  7. Well said, Matt! Sometimes I wish the reporters would just show up at the press conferences with no game plan, and ask random questions without leading you somewhere. It’d probably make for an interesting story.

  8. Great Post. What’s funny is that while you might not be making mega-millions, it’s safe to say that you are earning a good living doing something you love, setting your own hours and traveling the world, all thanks to this project. While not as breathtaking as the succes of something like YouTube, it is certainly a good story, and a happy one. Hmmm… Where is the definitive WordPress history?

    Don’t be too hard on the press though. There’s only so much creativity to go around. As in any endeavor, most practitioners are mediocre, and the few that are good often see their work unappreciated.

  9. Interesting point. I am guessing much of the media labels things as “overnight success” in order to continue the rhythm that many people simply jump to stardom because of luck or something really monumental.

    It’s good that you are referring to stories that people throw around because they simply want to spread stereotypes related to successful ventures. I am guessing people like reading news articles that talk about the idea of becoming a success overnight instead of working hard for it for a long time, and since people like such articles, news papers write articles with such approach and mentality.

    By the way, if you did not make 60 million in 18 months, how many months did you make 60 million in? ;)

  10. I imagine this is true in many cases of the ‘overnight success.’ Anyway, it seems like many news-people really don’t know what they’re talking about, generally speaking.

  11. It’s true that the inside stories are always the most interesting, and are the ones that those of us on the inside who do know the real deal will recount when we’re old and gray and sitting in rocking chairs drinking crystal by the case.

    But, there’s multifold danger to this kind of story archetype — one that you allude to — and another that I wrote about of similar impact — where all the founders are not only young but also typically white men.

    I’ve certainly seen some improved coverage of minority-lead efforts, but certainly not equal to the percent of actual minority-lead initiatives in the wild. And this both belies the reality of what’s going on today but also discourages folks who really should be trying to break out but see no role models with whom they can directly relate.

    And, well, I guess that’s kind of been something that WordPress has been about changing from the beginning right?

    I certainly appreciate your perspective on this — and knowing you from when you first moved here, have quite a sense that WordPress is not in the least an overnight success!

  12. The media isn’t truth-driven; it’s story-driven. It’s a business trying to draw readers and not a benevolent force out to inform the public.

  13. You posted this right before you came over to CNET for our interview. Hope you didn’t feel I was trying to railroad you. For my part, I thought we had an interesting talk and I don’t think we focused on mythologizing you or WordPress.

    But don’t sell yourself short. Starting a major platform company in your early 20s, based on a product your wrote when you were 19, *is* a big deal. What you’re doing, and how you are doing it, is an inspiration to a lot of people. Deal with it.

  14. Heh, excellent post. I’ve been in this industry for a long time. I have seen projects rise and fall. I have also seen some really great ideas half-baked because of the promise of overnight success.

    Obviously making a living doing what you love isn’t a bad thing; but I certainly see how things can get skewed.

    I personally am thankful for a solid tool that allows me to share my rants to the whole world (well OK, maybe not the real world, just in my world. :p) While I can’t fully relate to the dedication it’s taken to get WordPress where it is today — I can say I understand the long nights and the mindset that it takes to make something solid. *sigh* Cheers.

  15. It’s a conspiracy. If they can sell the idea that any and everyone can be an overnight success, then people will continue to buy into those get rich quick schemes that are sold in those stupid infomercials, which by the way, brings in millions of dollars in ad revenue for those very same media companies trying to perpetrate this myth.

    Great post. I’m glad you didn’t feed into that.

  16. Definitely some great inside, Matt.

    I smile too, as I know how many long overnight-ers it has taken to get this far.

    I would never reference WordPress as an “overnight” success, but rather a success through blood, sweat, tears, laughter, and struggle.

    It’s been a long journey and it’s still just beginning.

  17. Matt,
    I wish that journalists could be more creative about the narratives that accompany tech stories, but in traditional publications it’s really the editor that is defining the narrative and they are looking for the lowest common denominator because they think their audience is, well, dumb. Having said that, even tech insiders can’t always grasp the open source movement and the absence of an economic motivator.

    The founder myth is analogous to success in the music industry, you have your entire lifetime for your first album, but just a year for your second.

  18. The hype for notions like “incredibly young founder makes a fortune!” and other similar memes can’t be avoided; these are fixed patterns in the media, and there’s not much one can do about them. Quality work infrequently has a big payoff; generally survives and prospers in a reasonable way; and always provides satisfaction to those who do it. It’s a good default. Congratulations for choosing it! I’m a huge fan of WordPress, which I’ve now used to build both a traditional blog and a website for a book. It’s a top-notch tool. Thanks.

  19. No, I didn’t make 60 million dollars in 18 months.

    Shame, because your efforts are worth that.
    We all appreciate it, man.

  20. Great post, Matt.

    Scott B. you wrote:
    “[the journalist] would have loved to tell more interesting and truer stories, but unless he could pitch the new pattern to editors, it was hard to justify the time on a tale that might not resonate with people.”

    Of course, those of us using WordPress are free to write the stories we want to write. Some of us may even make a living doing it.

  21. Matt, this is a very insightful post I’ve read about start up in quite sometime now. For what it’s worth, I love what you’ve started and hoped the WP community to grow in the following years to come. Cheers!

    PS: an avid user of wordpress since its buggy (and powerless against spam) beta release (0.something), ah the beautiful day :-)

  22. Heh, as someone who belongs to one of those very outlets who have run that kinda story on you recently, I’ll happily confirm that you’re entirely correct.

    In fact, if you had a really strongly negative angle that’d be great too – maybe you could be myspaces worst adversary, or googles biggest nightmare :D

    Or there’s always the porn / crime angle, now I’m sure someone’s used WP to break some law, somewhere… surely!

  23. Yeah… agreed.

    The problem is that the media can’t sell papers/pageviews if the story is boring. So they hype it up a bunch….

    What they really can’t say is “building a company is hard and a lot of work” because that’s not going to put $$ in their pocket.

  24. Matt draws a distinction between the myths or patterns that govern even dictate journalistic narratives and “reality.” But from what I can see, he’s simply proposing a new set of patterns — stereotypes — to describe and structure his experience, and seems to suggest that the new stereotypes ought to be accepted as authoritative.

    Some of the posts favor the conspiracy idea: journalists as the running dogs of rapacious Media Barons. So, together, they invent and then market the myths that sustain the capitalist enterprise, the Devourer of the Good.

    I’ve been wondering how much of what’s going on in terms of cultural and media narratives is a generational phenomenon that’s being accelerated and amplified by new Web-based technologies. Although the Web is new, the underlying dynamics are not.

    Berkun comes closer to understanding the cultural nature of what goes on with media. But then in his closing seems to think that Word Press writers are exempt from these hero tales and stereotypes, and that, instead, can and do write “truer” stories based on “reality.”

    Jeff Nolan, in my experience as a reporter, is simply wrong when he says reporters and editors consider their audience to be dumb. I’ve talked with a lot of technical professionals over the years: with every one of them, I’ve left thinking he or she is a lot smarter than I am because all I have to do is write about this stuff.

    That’s what journalists or reporters do: they “write about.” Except at its most formulaic, and God knows there is plenty of formulaic out there, “writing about” is a rather complex social-psychological process. Certainly more complex than most of the posters here acknowledge.

  25. Brilliant post and many thanks to you for everything you have done.

    You are right that the real story is more exciting than the typical conception that the media puts across. The real story is also far more inspiring! It gives reason for optimism and shows that people can cooperate and accomplish marvelous things without need for a monetary motivation.

    Having spent over ten years writing my first book, yes, indeed, I appreciate your thoughts on time.

    Many thanks and best of luck to you,
    kf

  26. I was a b2 user back in the day, and viewed you young upstarts with suspicion when WordPress started out. Compared to the other offerings of the day, b2 was an elegant, spare blogging system with real style to it. The first builds of WordPress were, frankly, ugly. Over the last 4 years you and your team have gone above and beyond b2 many times over in function, features and style, while fostering a huge community of users. I use it for two blogs myself, and have installed and recommended it to many more people.

    Congratulations, and thank you for all the hard work. WordPress is really something special.

  27. Well said. Starting a company typically isn’t an easy thing. Moreover, it discourages not only a lot of would-be founders, but a lot of founders from starting/running businesses because they start comparing themselves to the handful of people who sold out for $billions in a short time frame (which, as we all know, is about as likely for most of us as it is to win the lottery.) It’s damaging to those of us who just want to build viable businesses and not worry about $billions. Thank you for posting this…I hope this will give hope to other business owners or would-be business owners.

  28. Matt – very nicely said. There are a few things you should be aware of – as an ex-journalist and ex-mainstream editor (and still non-mainstream editor) as well as a long term blogger, you should know that VERY few journalists are writing the story they want to write – and even if they do write the story they want to write the lousy stinking editor(s) will usually change it. Sometimes it is so bad that the journalist has to go back and apologize on a personal level to the subject out of plain humanity because of what the editors did to the story. (Not thinking of any large glossy magazines that do this all the time…)

    Yes, there are ‘yellow’ journalists out for the sensationalism – but even they are only doing that because that is what sells. Far more often an editor assigns a story they want to see – and then insists on sticking with it despite the complexity of the truth that is uncovered.

    Having said all that – it is the long ‘slow’ (in relative terms) movements that make real change – and wordpress is at the forefront of an movement that is (ironically) changing publishing forever. I wonder how many journalists who interview you about blogging and wordpress for the first time get inspired to go off and start their own?

  29. The media tries to make things seem sensational, when that’s not the reality, at least that’s my point of view. Who knows if all of those annoying celebrity stories are true. I want to say that Owen’s right. The media is an industry. And those idyllic stories sell better than real ones.

    I find WordPress to be a totally real exciting development that’s successful by the real way: people teaming up together and working together through troubles to finally get to success whenever it comes.

  30. Sheesh, you write like a grizzled veteran :) Many moons ago I donated a trivial sum to the project and you actually emailed me back with a thanks. I wouldn’t worry too much about money, I have a hunch you’ll have plenty some day.

  31. Thank you for WP. It’s one of the best (if not the) opensource “install-and-go” products for the web today. I see WP as something to aspire up to, there isn’t much I could improve even if I wanted. You sound proud of WP and so you should. Congratulations.

  32. You Are the Man!!! WordPress is the finest software out there right now, and you inspire millions with your attitude and philosophy towards Open Source and the software business in general. The success of WordPress is as much of a success for you (and me) as it is for the whole world, bringing people together for a cause or many.

    Congratulations to you, the team and the whole community!

    Sam

  33. Well said Matt and thanks for WordPress. I’ve been with it for less than a year and I’m already in love. It’s great to see someone I can relate to.

  34. Excellent. It’s frustrating to see that alot of people are in it for the wrong reasons. Im really happy with what WordPress is, aswell as Digg.

    2 companies that do get on my nerves are Gawker Media (Kotaku, Gizmodo, Etc.) and Weblogs Inc. (Engadget, Joystiq). Although what they do is great(disregarding some poor research on their part), they ultimetly abuse the users and take home great pounds of cash.

  35. Matt,

    Excellent post; spot on, especially the comment about “attracts the wrong type of entrepreneurs”.

    Kudos to you and your “team” for building such a large and loyal community, too -that is certainly a measure of success!

    Cheers,
    Rich N.

  36. Maybe we should collect all the stories journalists really want to write and put that on the web, in one place, a magazine for the free.

    I think that’s where blogs step in. So, Matt, relax, you have already fixed half the problem – now to get journalists to actually use WordPress…

  37. Never expect a journalist to tell your story.

    With the best will in the world they will always have an “angle” based on what they think their audience wants to read, what they want to write,or what their Editors think want people to read.

    I think the only person who can really tell your story the way YOU want it to be told is you… so perhaps we can look forward to your auto(biography) sometime?

    As someone has said – starting a business at 19 IS a very big deal. Running a successful business for over three years is an even bigger achievement. Doing what you love to do, and making money doing so, for many is the stuff people dream of doing, even while they slug in out on the cubicle farm with their Pointy Headed bosses.

    There are probably many who, on reading your story will be inspired to think, “if you can do it, maybe I can too…”

    And there are many who will simply be inspired.

    That’s a good thing.

    Thanks for the post.

  38. Thanks for everything Matt. There’s a great community that really cares about WordPress and its users.
    I’ve been using WordPress for about a year now and am very impressed with everyone’s work.

  39. I noticed Matt said he’s not a millionaire… but didn’t say anything about not being a billionaire. Congrats on the billions!

    Just kidding. ;-) Great work, great post, keep it up — and I agree with those that said you should have millions.

  40. Bravo, Matt. Well said! Debunking myths and fostering passions is a great way to approach the future of online publishing. WordPress is definitely more than a Web 2.0 “wunderkind” -it is, as you say so precisely, a movement, and a really fun one at that.

  41. So incredibly well said. I remember our first conversation when you were in Houston. It’s a pleasure to work with someone who is driven by genuine passion and not the get rich quick mentally that creeps into the valley when things are bubbling along. You’re leading an amazing movement, I’m honored to be a participant.

  42. Keep going Matt

    It was the first English blog post I’ve read in past 3 years that really made me feel like I can fully feel the writer’s passion.

    I really admire your work, We are in a same age, I live in Iran and your works in past 3 years affected me so much and I really tried to teach others in Persian blogsphere what I learnt from you and all other WordPress guys.

    WordPress is different just because YOU (all wp developers) are different.

    I can really understand what you say. I think it’s better to leave them alone with their stories :)

  43. How did someone so young (relatively) get so wise. You are older than your years Matt and your honesty and openness has always done you proud.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the journalists, few of them really ‘get it’ when it comes to the subtler tones of web loyalty and ‘movements’. It’s an alien concept to them.

    Keep on keeping on.

  44. I’m now one of those folks who makes a living off of WordPress, it puts food on the table for me, my wife and four kids and it’s gonna pay for their colleges too.

    I stumbled onto WordPress near the end of 2004 and it’s consumed me ever since. As far as major software packages go, 3 years puts WordPress in its infancy. I’m glad I came into this when I did.

    I don’t exagerate when I say that blogging and WordPress are fundamentally changing the world and traditional media is confused and playing catch up. Suddenly one voice can have the reach that 1000 had just four years ago and no-one knows what the effects of that will be!

    It’s gonna be a fun ride and like I said, I’m glad I hopped on near the start of it.

    Thank you!

  45. I’m now using wordpress on 4 blogs and I continue to be impressed. I just want to say, “thank you” for being enough of a visionary to create the ‘movement’ called wordpress.

    I’m delighted with every new release. I too am glad that I stumbled upon wordpress when I did. Thanks again and kudos for keeping the movement ‘pure’ and not selling out. Vive WordPress

  46. wait, you’re NOT a millionaire?? ;)

    and hey, what’s that about getting out of bed in the morning? as far as i know, you GO to bed in the morning, you don’t get out of it! but, maybe you’ve changed over the years.

    i thought this was an interesting post.

  47. I know exactly how you feel. I’m the same age as when you started, and I’ve been working for over 15 months on my first big software project, 100% myself. It IS hard, hard work.

    But I think in the end, all that counts is being able to say to yourself “That’s me – I did that against the odds and won”.

  48. Great post Matt. I was 18 when I first started my Biz as well (many years ago). Many of the things I do are still done entirely myself.. and it is very hard-hard work.

    I checked out your photos. How long have you been in photography?

  49. So many things that become huge successes seem to happen over night because one day a person hears about it and then the next day they see it everywhere. They just didn’t know it was there two days ago.
    Much is the same with music artists.
    Congrats on your acheivements over the 4 years. I am now an avid user of Word Press on my sites and look forward to many more years with Word Press.

  50. I can’t agree more with you. The media like sensationalism, and they especially LOVE the overnight success story. This might be because it is attractive to most people – quick money etc. is the consumer way.

    I think you’re right – that kind of thing attracts the wrong kind of entrepreneur to this whole thing.

    The bottom line is that the media do have a certain formula they want followed, and even the advent of new media (like blogging) has shown that they are not necessarily right. In other words, things are changing, and the media (as it is right now) is going to have to change with it. With the changes (I hope) will come a new found appreciation from the public for the REAL stories, not these flash in the pan success type of stories.

  51. Matt,
    I down loaded WordPress at the suggestion of a friend. I really did not know anything other than I wanted to do a blog. I am some impressed by your position, I had no idea of the spirit of community that exists, thanks for awakening from my myopic slumber.

  52. I was reminded of this quote on reading your post: “It took Jerry Seinfeld 10 years of hard work to achieve overnight success”!
    I have WordPress installed on my blog and would like to thank you for the great work you and your team have accomplished. Great going guys!

  53. The WordPress community and its founders, leaders and developers are among the finest in the web industry. In my opinion Matt, you have one of the best things going in the business world period. Thanks for everything. Glad to be a part of it!

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