Category Archives: Essays

Thirty-Three

I’m taking it easy this week, nothing too crazy — just sharing good meals and wine with friends. Which is probably a good example of my goals for the year: putting family and loved ones first, slowing down (to go further), and deliciousness. (Single Thread Farms blew me away.)

2016 was a year of incredible contrasts: it was the saddest and most challenged I’ve ever been with the passing of my father, and while that overshadowed everything there were also bright moments of coming closer to family, deepening friendships, and growing professionally with incredible progress from both WordPress and Automattic. That momentum on the professional side is carrying through and right now I’m the most optimistic I can recall, and thrilled to wake up and get to work every day with the people I do.

I talked about trying to spend longer stretches of time in fewer places, and that definitely happened. I flew 162k fewer miles than the year before, and visited 35 fewer cities. My blogging decreased a lot too — from 252 posts in 2015 to 76 posts in 2016, but the posts I did write were at least 50% longer. I made it to 9 more of the Top 50 restaurants and stand currently at 50% of the list. I finished 22 books, including a lot more fiction including my first few graphic novels like Ex Machina, Y: The Last Man, and Watchmen. I watched 35 movies, 9 of which were from the Marvel universe on a single flight from Cape Town to Dubai.

Last year I said, “it’s exciting to make the most of the opportunity that the volatility, love, loss, glory, failure, inspirations, and setbacks that 2016 will bring.” I didn’t know how right I would be, and wish I hadn’t been.

This year doesn’t start with new plans, but rather three intentions continued from a few months ago. I revealed one yesterday, and promised I would expand today on the others, so here they are:

  1. Symmetry — Balance in all things, including my body which is stronger on my right side and much tighter on my left side. We also need symmetry in WordPress between the .org and .com products which differ too much.
  2. Stillness — In echoes of Pico Iyer, so much of my life in my 20s was about movement, and “going places to be moved.” In my 30s I’m looking inward. As Saint Augustine said in Book X, chapter 8 of Confessions: “Men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the vast compass of the ocean, the courses of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.”
  3. Yellow Arrows — The idea that there are clear indications of where to go next at every fork in the road, and if not you should paint them. I wrote more on this  yesterday.

Previously: 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, and 32.

Rebirth and Yellow Arrows

My friend Kamal Ravikant has a new book out, Rebirth, which I highly recommend. I had the good fortune to read it a few months ago and the story of the Camino de Santiago touched and inspired me.

Because of the impact of the book, I ended up adopting a few New Year’s intentions long before January 1st — things to ruminate on and keep in mind as the year wound down. The outlook of the world seemed uncertain, and I’m learning to navigate the world without my father.

yellow-arrow-3

Yellow Arrows

The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage path in Spain that people have walked since the 9th century AD. The 500 mile path winds through mountains, fields, and sometimes cities, and many pilgrims take a month or more on it. In some ways it is similar to the Kumano Kodo walk I did with Dan and Craig last year.

There are places where the path isn’t exactly clear, either because the trail isn’t strong, there’s been growth, or you might be in a crowded urban area like a city. Over the years pilgrims and people who live on the trail have marked it with yellow arrows pointing the way. If someone gets lost or confused, it’s an opportunity for an additional sign to bring them back on track.

When you know the path, is it clear where someone else walking it should go next? It’s an interesting concept that applies across life. In your relationships, does your friend, loved one, or partner know what to expect, and where you’re headed together? Even in WordPress I feel like there are too many places where we bring someone to a fork in the road and there is no clear indication which way they should take.

Give some thought to the yellow arrows in your life, and I’ll write more about the other two things I’ve been thinking about tomorrow. Also don’t forget to pick up a copy of Kamal’s book. I loved it and I think it will be one I’m recommending to many friends.

51b0JrMcFvL

(Image from Camino Travel Center.)

In Memoriam: Chuck Mullenweg

MCM_5265 (1).JPG

My father, Chuck Mullenweg, passed one week ago today. After over a month in ICU he had just been transferred to long-term acute care in a different hospital and we were looking forward to a tough but steady road to being back home when he took an unexpected and sudden turn. I’ve started and stopped writing this dozens of times since then and words continue to fail me.

Here’s the rememberance that ran in the paper a few days ago:

IMG_6024.JPGIt is impossible to overstate the influence my father has had on every part of my life: Why did I play saxophone? Dad did. Computers and programming? Dad did. Travel? He was frequently stationed overseas and even when we didn’t visit he would always bring back a cool gift for myself and my sister. He drove me to the HAL-PC office (local non-profit) every weekend where I’d learn so much fixing people’s broken computers and being exposed to open source for the first time. His O’Reilly “camel book” on Perl was the first scripting I learned, and he pointed me toward Mastering Regular Expressions which became the basis of my first contribution to b2, texturize.

We were in a father / son bowling league. I remember admiring his work ethic so much: he’d get up before dawn every morning and put on a suit, grab his briefcase, and go to work. He often went in on weekends and I loved to go with him because they had “fast” internet at the office and I could read Dilbert and about Babylon 5. He was a voracious reader and learner, and loved tinkering whether it was cars or networking. In the other room I can hear a bitcoin mining rig he set up a few years ago. He was independent minded and unafraid to question the status quo.

IMG_4385.JPG

There’s a photo somewhere of my dad mowing the lawn and me following behind him with a toy lawnmower, which is a perfect metaphor for how I’ve always followed in his footsteps.

MCM_5113.jpg

I’m at a loss.

Parents are there literally the day you’re born, and it’s hard to imagine a life without them. Most people reading this will outlive their parents, and deal with their mortality and often difficult and painful final days as those who brought us into this world exit it. I’ve been reading and reading all the writing I can find on this topic, but nothing really prepares you for it, and nothing makes it better to go through. It’s terrible.

MCM_7807.jpg

He wasn’t someone to tell you what the right way to live was, in fact he was incredibly open minded. He didn’t tell you, he showed you how he lived his life from a place of integrity and trust, how he was in his relationship with my mom, how he was in business. He wasn’t flashy and seldom talked about his accomplishments or all the people he had helped out along the way. Many of the stories of appreciation coming in I’m hearing for the first time. In getting his books and taxes together this past week I was humbled by how simply he lived this season of his life, not into material things but cherishing relationships and his quiet life in the suburbs with my mother.

IMG_20151225_160835 (1).jpg

My biggest blessing has been my family. Every one is the most supportive you can imagine. So inspiring… much of what I’ve done in the world was in the context of making my parents proud, and their relationship to each other and the amazing man my dad was has set a bar I hope to approach in my lifetime. The last few years he got much better about showing his pride in my sister and I, and even more importantly saying “I love you,” the three words that are among the best gift we can give each other. Don’t forget to use them, even if it feels cheesy or embarrassing, and for those of you with parents still around please give them some extra time and a hug for me. This was unexpected, we really believed he was on an upward trajectory. You never know when the words you share with someone might be the last.

MCM_5139.JPG

I made a page you can see his official obituary, information about his memorial service in Katy, and leave any memories you have of him at ma.tt/chuck.

 

Chicken and Eggs

mometablues.jpegI’ve been reading Questlove’s Mo’ Meta Blues, and it’s an incredible education. The book is helping me appreciate an era of music that inspired the era that inspires me — the music that drove the Roots, J Dilla, Fugees, D’Angelo, Common, Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar, and so many more to create what they have.

Chronologically, I’m in a chapter covering mid-90s hip-hop, which is full of conflict. There’s a tension alluded to in the book of the musicians that made it and those that didn’t: does increased radio play make songs popular? There’s some science that suggests yes. Or is there something intrinsic to the record that puts it in that virtous loop of requests and airplay, the equivalent of usage and virality in a web product?

There’s a great ancedote in the book that I think is useful when thinking about products. All of the links are my addition, not in the original text.

There was one moment during the recording of Voodoo that really brought this home. We were recording DJ Premier’s scratches for “Devil’s Pie,” and Q-Tip had just let the room to go work on something else, so there were four of us left there: Premier, Dilla, D’Angelo, and myself. During the break, Premier asked if anyone had any new shit to play for the group, and D’Angelo went for a cassette and played a bit of a new song, and the whole room just erupted in hooting. Then Dilla put on some new Slum Village shit and it was the same thing: an explosion of excitement. Then Premier, who had started the whole thing, played an M.O.P. song and some new Gang Starr material that he was working on for The Ownerz.

I was last at bat. All I had on me was a work tape for what would eventually become “Double Trouble” on Things Fall Apart. It didn’t have finished vocals yet, didn’t have Mos Def’s verse. It was just a skeleton. I played it, and I will never forget the feeling that came over the room, including me. It wasn’t that they didn’t hoot and holler like they had for the other songs. They did. But they didn’t mean it. I know the move people resort to when they’re not quite into a song: they keep a straight stare on their face and bob their head a bit, not saying anything, not making eye contact. That’s the sign of death. That’s what they all did to me, and I felt humiliated. I was like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction: I will not be ignored! I went back into the studio that same night and gave that song a radical, extended facelift. I refused to sleep until I had that thing up and running.

I love the idea of Questlove realizing the song was missing something, and going back to the booth to keep working on it until it resonated with his target audience. A song that doesn’t stand up on its own wouldn’t be any better when bundled as part of an album. (Or Samsung would have the most popular apps on Android.) Fans hear the care and quality of each track, and they become super-fans. The bands that break out weren’t bludgeoned into fan’s ears by radio play, they were pulled by these passionate few into a wider audience.

I love the mixtape culture that so many of today’s successful artists have come up through, and it is amplified online. Drake had three ever-improving mixtapes before his first album. It harkens to a line from PG’s startup canon (in 2009!): Better to make a few users love you than a lot ambivalent.

There’s this tension in everything we produce. Where’s the line to tread between 1.0 is the loneliest and a minimum viable product? Or is it about a minimum lovable product? Are we building a car with no air conditioning or a car with no wheels?

minimal-viable-product-henrik-kniberg.png

“Pivot” has become passé, but it’s much worse to assume that distribution will solve something core to your product that isn’t working.

Thirty-Two

My thirty-second birthday has arrived after a whirlwind year, probably my most challenging and rewarding. It went faster than any year I can remember, absolutely flew by. Luckily it was capped at the holidays with a precious few weeks of downtime in Houston. Now I’m back to work in Cape Town and just finished a lovely day of great food, wine, and conversation with colleagues who are here for a meetup starting tomorrow.

Since I started tracking, 2015 was the first year that I traveled fewer miles than the year before, clocking in at 398k, down 27k. (398,553 miles, 111 cities, 20 countries.) In 2016 I’m going to try and get that even lower. It was also one of my best years for blogging on this site, with the most posts (252) I’ve made since 2008, and the most words (24,605) since 2005. (If anyone is curious, I wrote about 60k words over the same time period in Automattic’s internal P2s.) In a weird omission, though, it’s the first year since this site started in 2002 that I didn’t post a single gallery of photos. I’ve developed a mental block around processing and posting the fancier pictures, even as I carry hundreds of gigabytes of them around the planet several times over. Hopefully this is something I can get past in 2016.

I ran 163 miles in 2015, more than I did the year before, and I think that trend will continue. Last year I talked about habits and small actions, and a daily todo list with some small items to nourish the mind, soul, and body has become central to my routine. I dyed my hair (grey) just for fun and also to show the rest of Automattic they could too, how you look doesn’t matter one iota. My restaurant quest has continued, and I’ve now been to 38% of the current top 50 list.

More so than before, I really don’t know what’s around the corner. While there is a lot in motion, there is even more still being defined and started. There’s freedom in the groove, to reference Joshua Redman’s great album, and I’m getting a lot more comfortable with ambiguity and the faster pace of life in general. More than ever, I consider myself incredibly lucky, so it’s exciting to make the most of the opportunity that the volatility, love, loss, glory, failure, inspirations, and setbacks that 2016 will bring.

Previously: 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, and 31.

What I Miss and Don’t Miss About San Francisco

A few months ago I was chatting with John Borthwick, who had just returned from a trip to San Francisco. I asked him how the city was doing as if he were a traveler who had visited someplace exotic — “How is it over there?” (As an investor he probably sees the crazier side of the city, since part of his job is looking at hundreds of companies, the vast majority of which will fail, and trying to pick a few winners.)

Despite getting near-daily meeting requests, I don’t currently have any plans to visit San Francisco. I was there in June for a few days for Foo Camp and for drinks with the artist Tom Marioni. I returned for WordCamp San Francisco in October, and again a few weeks ago for Scoble’s 50th birthday party and a board meeting. But the couple-times-a-year rhythm seems to be enough for me. I’m enjoying the distance a bit, in fact.

There has been plenty written about the bubble culture in SF right now, including on the antitech movement that never really took offIt’s a topic I already blogged about in 2013. But I was curious to unpack my own thoughts about being away from it all.

What I don’t miss:

  • Too many meetings — every possible company is there, and everyone wants to meet.
  • High prices for everything, from groceries to cocktails. Not even going to talk about the real estate market and rentals.
  • It takes forever to get across the city, even though it’s only 7 miles.
  • The public transit, while workable, pales in comparison to other places like NYC.
  • The weather isn’t bad, until you drive to Palo Alto or Marin and notice how much nicer it is there. (Or take a one-hour flight to Los Angeles or San Diego.)
  • This is anecdotal, but I feel like cell phone service is terrible, especially for making calls. Calls are unintelligible and drop frequently. I think this is why everyone texts.

I don’t have any problem with the social scene; SF might be tech-heavy, but it’s fairly easy to get out of the tech bubble. Many forget that San Francisco is home to a ton of people working for non-profits, in fashion, finance, bio-tech, art, and music.

What I miss, deeply: the people. Some of my favorite people, professionally and personally, are in the Bay Area, and that’s the thing that will draw me back someday. I’m lucky that I can catch up with folks when they travel, like Jane or Tony in New York or Om in Italy. Of course the Automattic headquarters is there, along with some great colleagues, but I can also catch up with them at meetups.

I miss how much technology permeates the culture there, from billboards to services like Uber or Postmates (or Munchery or Spoonrocket) that today seem like conveniences, but will be the basis of something very meaningful down the line. You can feel like you’re living in the future there. Internet speeds seem to be getting better, too —  local ISPs like Webpass and Monkeybrains are leading the way, but even my Comcast account there delivers 120mbps.

I miss being able to run along the water, and the close proximity to lots of beautiful nature areas (granted I didn’t take much advantage of those when I was still around). The quality of light is really nice — when you can see it. Restaurants, though tending toward pricey, offer great ingredients and quality.

Finally, you can’t deny it’s a city of hustlers. This tweet has since been deleted, but you get the idea:

Advice and Fallacies

One of the toughest things in business is when you get well-meaning advice from advisors, investors, or friends of the company who are valuable but might hold some ideas or ways of approaching problems that just aren’t applicable to your particular company or situation. They might be right most of the time, and it might have worked for them in the past to build a huge success, but it doesn’t mean it’s right for you, right now.

This is especially a struggle for Automattic because so much of what we do is deliberately different from companies that have come before us. The below is a sensitive-info-scrubbed version of a comment I made on an internal P2 in response to someone who had met with a close friend of the company who had said we should “hire more business people, and more people like so-and-so, who have a background in and passion for data analysis and structure. He also shared his ideas about what the additional business hires could be responsible for, such as P&L responsibilities for specific products.” The person he had talked to was asking why we weren’t following that advice.

The first part was easy, because so-and-so was actually leading hiring for a position around data and the early results were going well. The rest I ended up writing more about, which follows. It was only meant for internal consumption, so read it as such, but I got enough requests to share the comment publicly that I wanted to clean it up and release it for y’all.

On the “more biz people + P&L” side, it’s an area we disagree.

We’ve had more “business people” in the past, and found it just didn’t move the needle in the same way that investing on the support, engineering, and design side did. They also tended to generate more meetings and work for other people than was commensurate for their contributions.

We’ve also experimented with giving leads P&L responsibility for products and groups, but ultimately it was awkward because we don’t really want leads or teams focused on the loss or costs of what they’re doing — we just want to grow our core metrics and revenue in a healthy and accelerating way, and let Ops and myself worry about overall profit or loss for the company, costs of people and services, capital requirements, etc. We’re still at a stage where our primary goals are investing in growth and product excellence, I wouldn’t want a P&L concern to be a distraction from that, and that also takes us into the territory of different teams having “headcounts” of people they can hire for the year, or budgets set ahead of time and that they’ll lose if they don’t use, zero-sum accounting between teams and more balkanization you often see in larger organizations. When anyone thinks about P&L at Automattic, I want it to be holistically and with a long-term view, not for a single team or product.

It gets backs to the fallacy we talked about and agreed to avoid at the [WordPress.com leads] meetup, which is the business equivalent of Great Man Theory: the idea that a deficiency in the business or product will be solved by hiring someone senior to be in charge of that thing. Example: Automattic is bad at marketing, we should hire a CMO. (99% of the time when this is suggested it means an external person, because if anyone internal was good the problem wouldn’t exist.) It’s an easy thing for anyone to fall into, you can see it in [a recent internal thread].

This must work sometimes, because it seems to be a near-universal affliction of VCs on startup boards. It also is a little bit of a bikeshed, because while it can be difficult to understand or feel like you can have an influence on something fundamental to the product, like say the signup flow, most VCs have large professional networks and can have long and vigorous discussions talking about potential people who are executives in a given area and their first or second degree connections to them. Of course, like many of us, VCs are consumers of tech media which tends to ascribe all the success of an organization to a single person (like Sheryl Sandberg for Facebook not falling apart, or Adam Bain for revenue at Twitter). However often the problem has root causes more fundamental than a single person could shift.

I subscribe to a more environment-driven approach, that if you break down a problem into its component parts you can address them individually, often with relatively simple next steps, and build things from the ground up, rather than the top down. If you can’t do that, then it’s best to be candid that the area is not a priority and make sure that’s in line with what you’re focusing on instead. In this process leaders will emerge or if the effort matures to a point where one joins as a new hire he or she will have the resources, groundwork, and environment to succeed.

So in summary: always go back to first principles of decisions. Hires are seldom panaceas. Someone being successful in a role at another company doesn’t mean they actually did the work, or were the cause of the success. If there’s an area you’re weak, try to figure out the root causes of why you’re weak, and where possible try to improve the environment that creates the problem before pinning the turnaround on a “Jesus hire.” When you improve the environment it makes it much more likely a new external hire will do well. The majority of success or failure is a result of the environment, at least as much as the individuals involved.

Five for the Future

On Sunday at WordCamp Europe I got a question about how companies contribute back to WordPress, how they’re doing, and what companies should do more of.

First on the state of things: there are more companies genuinely and altruistically contributing to growing WordPress than ever before. In our ecosystem web hosts definitely make the most revenue and profits, and it’s been great to see them stepping up their game, but also the consultancies and agencies around WordPress have been pretty amazing about their people contributions, as demonstrated most recently by the fact the 4.0 and 4.1 release leads both hail from WP agencies (10up and Code for the People, respectively).

I think a good rule of thumb that will scale with the community as it continues to grow is that organizations that want to grow the WordPress pie (and not just their piece of it) should dedicate 5% of their people to working on something to do with core — be it development, documentation, security, support forums, theme reviews, training, testing, translation or whatever it might be that helps move WordPress mission forward.

Five percent doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up quickly. As of today Automattic is 277 people, which means we should have about 14 people contributing full-time. That’s a lot of people to not have on things that are more direct or obvious drivers of the business, and we’re not quite there today, but I’m working on it and hope Automattic can set a good example for this in the community. I think it’s just as hard for a 20-person organization to peel 1 person off.

It’s a big commitment, but I can’t think of a better long-term investment in the health of WordPress overall. I think it will look incredibly modest in hindsight. This ratio is probably the bare minimum for a sustainable ecosystem, avoiding the tragedy of the commons. I think the 5% rule is one that all open source projects and companies should follow, at least if they want to be vibrant a decade from now.

Further reading: There’s been a number of nice blog follow-ups. Post Status has a nice post on Contribution Culture. Ben Metcalf responded but I disagree with pretty much everything even though I’m glad he wrote it. Tony Perez wrote The Vision of Five and What it Means. Dries Buytaert, the founder of Drupal, pointed out his essay Scaling Open Source Communities which I think is really good.

Why the Web Still Matters for Writing

I wanted to share unique perspective for why the web matters in an app world with a guest post from Stratechery writer Ben Thompson:

This week Twitter was abuzz with the most recent report from Flurry that showed people spending most of their time on mobile using apps, not the browser:

Time Spent in APps

Many were quick to once again declare “The Web is Dead,” but I’m not sure that conclusion makes sense, at least for writing.

First off, Flurry’s numbers don’t account for webviews within mobile apps. On my site, Stratechery, 37% of my iOS traffic comes from webviews (Android doesn’t break out the difference), which on Flurry’s chart would fall mostly in the Twitter slice. More mass market sites likely take up some percentage of Facebook time, as well.

That said, it’s striking how little written content appears on Flurry’s chart; the only category that is primarily about written content is news, and even that includes video. And yet, pageviews on WordPress.com and Jetpack are up 27% year-over-year, new sites ranging from small blogs like Stratechery to huge sites like FiveThirtyEight continue to launch and grow, and multiple startups (and competitors!) continue to find writing something worth investing in.

So is the web dead or not?

I don’t think so, for a few reasons:

  • The total amount of time spent on a computing device (especially mobile), has and continues to grow significantly. This means that many of the activities on our phones, app or not, are additive to what we previously used a computer for. This makes sense: what makes mobile such a big deal is that instead of a computer being a destination device, it’s now a companion that goes with us everywhere. This is how you square the fact that apps seem to dominate usage even as writing on the web continues to grow. When the entire pie is huge and getting bigger, the total size of any particular slice grows as well, even if it becomes relatively thinner.
  • Although apps take up a huge percentage of total time, a significant percentage of app time is dominated by just two categories: games (32%) and social networks and messaging (28%). In fact, the more interesting juxtaposition raised by Flurry’s numbers is not apps versus web, but games and social versus everything else.YouTube and other entertainment apps form a solid percentage of what is left (8%), but the remainder is a mishmash of utilities, productivity, the aforementioned news, and, of course the web, which could be anything and everything.
  • The single most exciting development when it comes to writing on the web is the democratization of publishing. It it now trivial to start a blog, whether on WordPress.com or another provider, and that has led to an explosion of content. As I wrote on Stratechery in FiveThirtyEight and the End of Average:

    Most of what I read is the best there is to read on any given subject. The trash is few and far between, and the average equally rare. This, of course, is made possible by the Internet. No longer are my reading choices constrained by time and especially place.

    Why should I pick up the Wisconsin State Journal – or the Taipei Times – when I can read Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, Bill Simmons, and the myriad other links served up by Twitter? I, and everyone else interested in news, politics, or sports, can read the best with less effort – and cost – than it ever took to read the merely average just a few short years ago.

    While there is still a lot of work to be done on discovery (I mostly use Twitter, but admit the learning curve is steep), I already find the idea of being constrained to any one channel for reading to be laughably old-fashioned. And yet, that’s exactly what an app is: a single channel for one publisher’s content. Contrast this to the web, where any given piece is available instantly by simply clicking a link.

There is no question that apps are here to stay, and are a superior interaction model for some uses. But the web is like water: it fills in all the gaps between things like gaming and social with exactly what any one particular user wants. And while we all might have a use for Facebook – simply because everyone is there – we all have different things that interest us when it comes to reading.

That’s why very few of us devote all of our reading time to a single general interest newspaper these days, and that’s why we at WordPress.com have no intention of pushing anyone to any one particular platform or app. Instead our focus is on enabling and empowering individuals to create new content that is at home in the mobile browser, the WordPress.com app, Facebook or Twitter webviews, or any other channel that makes sense for the reader. Let the water flow to exactly where it’s needed! That’s the power of the web, and now that a computer is with us in so many more places, we need that flexibility more than ever.

You can read more of Ben Thompson’s writing on his excellent WordPress-powered blog Stratechery, one of my favorite sources for the “why” behind the news.

See also: John Gruber on Rethinking What We Mean by ‘Mobile Web.’

WhatsApp Takeaway

whatsappFor better or worse, a great deal of investment in technology is driven by pattern matching. In that world any company (including Automattic) that generally eschews hype, is largely subscription driven, and has a small number of employees relative to its audience should be thrilled at the 19 billion dollar acquisition of WhatsApp. The deal is incredible.

This has kicked off another round of pattern matching and halo effects, which are currently incredibly favorable but will evolve over the coming years based on how things go post-integration, just like the public perceptions of Geocities, Youtube, Doubleclick, Bebo, and Skype wildly shifted based largely on the press coverage over their latest traded value.

I’m thrilled with the outcome for WhatsApp and the manner in which they built their company, their product, and I hope they bring more of that thinking to Facebook, but I don’t think they should become a playbook any more than Instagram should inspire a no-revenue playbook. The pattern we should take away from this story is that there is no pattern. (In Perl, “there’s more than one way to do it” or Tim Toady.) As an entrepreneur making decisions for your company, always go back to your first principles of what’s important to you and why you started in the first place. As a journalist, try not to fit everyone into arcs you’ve seen before or ascribe value to previous coverage (or lack of coverage). As an investor try to evaluate every situation on its unique merits. Should founders be CEOs or not? Well, it depends on the founders, the company, and what it means to be CEO, not what an over-normalized sample of a few hundred companies did before in completely different contexts.

There are also products that succeed with design that seems childish or terrible on the surface (Myspace, eBay, Snapchat). A lot of what it comes down to is have you made something people want, and are they finding out about it from their friends. That’s often the realm people think of as marketing. The best marketers in the world don’t fit our preconceptions of what that word means because they’re in hoodies instead of suits and create environments and ecosystems rather than the traditional trappings of marketing.

Update: From @dsa, here’s a great follow-up read on Techcrunch: What Games Are: Flappy Bird, Patterns, And Context.

The Four Freedoms

Eleven months before the U.S. declared war on Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said “As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone.” He articulated four fundamental freedoms that everyone in the world ought to enjoy:

  1. Freedom of speech.
  2. Freedom of worship.
  3. Freedom from want.
  4. Freedom from fear.

Fast forward 72 years: technology has advanced at dizzying rates and permeated every aspect of our lives, from how we are born to how we die and everything in between. In this co-evolution of society and technology, what it means to be truly “free” is no longer about just the country we live in, or even its laws, but is shaped by the products we live on.

As Marc Andreessen says, software is eating the world. It’s a creative gale of destruction that irreversibly changes every industry it touches, and if you don’t control the software, the software controls you. It mediates how and with whom you communicate, what news you see, and what other software you’re able to run. It influences the very way your brain works, as you process the creative gale of distraction that interrupts us all hundreds of times each day. With every ping, software burrows deeper into our lives.

In the early nineties, a prescient hacker named Richard Stallman — working at MIT, where today’s future had already happened — recognized this shift. He proposed a set of four freedoms that were fundamental for software in an enlightened, tech-dependent society.

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions, giving the community a chance to benefit from your changes.

(Aside: I originally thought Stallman started counting with zero instead of one because he’s a geek. He is, but that wasn’t the reason. Freedoms one, two, and three came first, but later he wanted to add something to supercede all of them. So: freedom zero. The geekness is a happy accident.)

This is our Bill of Rights. Stallman called it Free Software. The “free” doesn’t have to do with price, as you’re still free to charge for your software, but with freedom to create. Or as we geeks often say: not free as in beer, free as in speech.

People are scared of free software, and I understand why. You’re taking the most valuable thing you have, your intellectual property, and granting the freedom you enjoy as a creator to anyone who downloads your work. It’s terrifying, actually. It’s releasing your ideas, and letting anyone build on them — in a way that might be better than your own work. It’s releasing your traditional understanding of ownership, and your fear of being out-developed.

The most experienced entrepreneurs can cling to the concept that your idea is something precious that must be protected from the world, and meted out in a controlled way. Lots of us hang on to the assumption that scarcity creates a proprietary advantage. It’s how many non-tech markets work.

Open source abdicates your flexibility as a developer to better serve the people who actually use your products. You can see that as a constraint… or you can see it as a door to iteration, innovation, and constant progress.

I’ve spent a third of my life building software based on Stallman’s four freedoms, and I’ve been astonished by the results. WordPress wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for those freedoms, and it couldn’t have evolved the way it has.

WordPress was based on a program called B2/cafelog that predated it by two years. I was using B2 because it had freedoms 0 and 1: I could use it for whatever I wanted, including my zero-budget personal blog, and the source code was open. It was elegant and easy to understand, and anyone could tweak it.

B2 was ultimately abandoned by its creator. If I’d been using it under a proprietary license, that would have been the end — for me, and all its other users. But because we had freedoms 2 and 3, Mike Little and I were able to use the software as a foundation, giving us a two-year headstart over building something from scratch, and realize our own vision of what blogging could be.

We were just consumers of the software, volunteers in the forums, and occasional contributors to the codebase, but because (of the GPL) we had the freedom to build on B2, we were able to continue development as if it had been our own creation.

Ten years later, those freedoms are still embedded in every copy of WordPress downloaded, including the 9.2 million downloaded in the past month or so since our 3.8 release.

I believe that software, and in fact entire companies, should be run in a way that assumes that the sum of the talent of people outside your walls is greater than the sum of the few you have inside. None of us are as smart as all of us. Given the right environment — one that leverages the marginal cost of distributing software and ideas — independent actors can work toward something that benefits them, while also increasing the capability of the entire community.

This is where open source gets really interesting: it’s not just about the legal wonkery around software licensing, but what effect open sourced software has on people using it. In the proprietary world, those people are typically called “users,” a strange term that connotes dependence and addiction. In the open source world, they’re more rightly called a community.

The core features of WordPress aren’t rocket surgery. A handful of smart people in a room for a year could create a reasonable approximation of the software, and undoubtably improve some things — I see other startups do this three or four times a year.

What they miss is that WordPress isn’t a checklist of features. It’s over 29,000 plugins created by the community, from the in-demand things like SEO to niche features like using your 404 page to help adopt homeless dogs in Sweden. Every WordPress site looks different, because of the thousands of themes available. Instead of one event to outdo, there are more than 70 volunteer-organized WordCamps on six continents (and there’ll be more in 2014).

WordPress marketing has nothing to do with its website or logo, it’s the tens of thousands of people who make a living building WordPress sites and receive so much value from it that they proselytize to anyone that will listen, spreading the flame one site at a time. It works — as of December 2013, 21% of websites are powered by WordPress. One-fifth of the web is built with a tool that anyone can use, change, or improve, whenever and however they want (even more when you count other open source projects, like Drupal).

This approach to building isn’t an abdication of developers’ and designers’ responsibility to build beautiful, functional software. Design and forethought are more important than ever when every change sends millions of independent actors down a new path. Changes to WordPress have consequences today, tomorrow, five years, and ten years down the road, but the passion and talent of the community helps ensure that it always moves forward in a positive way.

The four freedoms don’t limit us as creators — they open possibilities for us as creators and consumers. When you apply them to software, you get Linux, Webkit/Chrome, and WordPress. When you apply them to medicine, you get the Open Genomics Engine, which is accelerating cancer research and bringing us closer to personalized treatment. When you apply them to companies, you get radically geographically distributed, results-based organizations like Automattic. When you apply them to events you get TEDx, Barcamp, and WordCamp. When you apply them to knowledge, you get Wikipedia.

William Gibson is attributed with saying “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The world is changing faster than any one person or organization can keep up with it. Closed off, proprietary development creates closed off, proprietary products that won’t keep pace in the long run. Open source provides another path — one that’s open to everyone, and can take advantage of the skills and talents of anyone in the world to build software that helps everyone.

As Bill Joy said, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” Good ideas aren’t the sole province of groups of people behind high walls, and software shouldn’t be either.

This was adapted from a talk I gave at the Life is Beautiful festival in Downtown Las Vegas. Thanks to Michelle, Ben, Davide, and Paul for help with this.

Matt 3.0

As in WordPress, the X.0 release is just the one that came after (X-1).9 before it, so while it seems more significant, it’s just another iteration in the steady march of progress, a job never done. I’ve now managed to stay alive for three decades, thirty rotations around the sun, and I woke up this morning a little hungover (there’s a lot of tequila in Mexico) but with a huge grin on my face.

In many ways life accumulates complexity as you get older, but the things that are most important are simple and universal: friends and loved ones, health, and working on something you enjoy and has an impact. I’m happier and finding balance more often than at any period I can remember since I was a young child.

This was another year in motion, traveling 345,211 miles to 78 cities in 13 countries. I’m still really enjoying being on the road, and it’s very intrinsic to how Automattic works, so I expect that to continue or even pick up pace.

Every generation feels this way, but it also genuinely seems like we’re at shift in how society works, with technology accelerating change, and navigating and more importantly creating that change is one of the most interesting challenges I can imagine working on.

Finally I’m humbled and amazed by the support for the charity: water campaign, which already is going to bring close to 2,000 people clean water.

Tomorrow I’ll wake up a little sunburnt, but hopefully with that same grin and ready to take on the years of my life that start with 3 and hopefully end with a bigger impact than my 20s had. It was a decade when I failed a lot, tried even more, and most importantly learned how to say yes and how to say no, something that gets easier as you learn about yourself.

My twenties: 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, and 29.

The Intrinsic Value of Blogging

Blogging is harder than it used to be. We’ve gotten better at counting and worse at paying attention to what really counts. Every time I press Publish the post is publicized to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Path, and Google+, each with their own mechanisms for enumerating how much people like it.

pathNone of those services except Path have a clickable way to dislike something, so if something isn’t great it’s usually met with silence. But sometimes something that is great is met with silence too if it doesn’t drop at the right time, have the right headline, or have the right tone to invite interaction. There is no predictable connection to the effort and thought you put into something and the response it receives, and every experienced blogger has a story of something they spend a few minutes on and toss out casually going viral, a one-hit wonder that makes your stats in future months and years puny in comparison.

Stats systems, like Jetpack’s, have gotten very good at telling me which post got how many visitors and where they came from, but it’s all anonymous and the numbers don’t really mean anything to me anymore. This is very discouraging, and at its most insidious causes people to deconstruct the elements of what makes something sharable and attempt to artificially construct these information carbohydrates over and over. (Visit that site and try not to click through any headlines — it’s tough.)

The antidote I’ve found for this is to write for only two people. First, write for yourself, both your present self whose thinking will be clarified by distilling an idea through writing and editing, and your future self who will be able to look back on these words and be reminded of the context in which they were written.

Second, write for a single person who you have in mind as the perfect person to read what you write, almost like a letter, even if they never will, or a person who you’re sure will read it because of a connection you have to them (hi Mom!). Even on my moblog I have a frequent commenter who I’ll often keep in mind when posting a photo, curious to see her reaction.

This post might be ephemerally tweeted by dozens of avatars I might or might not recognize, accumulate a number in a database that represents the “hits” it had, and if I’m lucky might even get some comments, but when I get caught up in that the randomness of what becomes popular or generates commentary and what doesn’t it invariably leads me to write less. So blog just for two people.

Brands Everywhere

louis-vuitton-monogram-canvas-dog-bag-40-brown-women-softsided-luggage While brushing my teeth this morning, which is usually when my mind wanders, I noticed that just on the counter everything I was looking at had a brand or logo of some sort on it. It’s usually invisible to me but once I noticed it became garish as Times Square.

I counted 11 brands on the counter at that exact moment: Dr. Hauschka, Orabrush, Common Good (soap), Kohler (sink), Bongio (faucet), Philips (toothbrush), Rembrandt, Royal Velvet (toothpaste), Sonos, Neorest (toilet), and Tom’s of Maine (mouthwash). My iPhone was on the counter but the Apple was covered in a WordPress iPhone case, I guess a 12th brand, but the only one I chose to be there.

None of these labels are easy to remove either — the Common Good, a liquid soap dispenser, looked like it was going to be easy but as it started to peel off lots of sticky residue was left behind. I’ll try soaking it later. For most of the others, including the sink and faucet, the brand was embedded in a way that would be impossible to remove without switching the contents to a different container (toothpaste, mouthwash, or moisturizer) or sanding something off (toothbrush, Sonos…).

Earlier this year I attended Burning Man for the first time, and one of the things you notice after a day there is the complete absence of brands — it’s considered gauche to have visible branding there, some people even cover up small logos (Patagonia, the Polo horse) on their clothes. As much as the rest of the experience was bizarre, living a few days in the absence of brands and advertising makes it as alien as anything else.

I don’t think you can call it a trend, but it is interesting that brands like Muji or high-end fashion like Bottega Veneta distinguish themselves as much by the absence of branding as their product quality, the visual antithesis of Louis Vuitton luggage. It’s like the first level of affluence is about broadcast, and then the ultimate level is about (apparent) minimalism.

But for regular, everyday goods, how can we get all of the advertising off them? I don’t need my sink telling me who made it. If there’s a brand around me, I want it to be one I choose. I think this is one reason people appreciate the ability to 100% customize WordPress, and counter-intuitively why most choose to leave the “Powered by” somewhere on the site, because they have the choice.

Take a look around you, how many visible brands or logos can you count?

Update: Om writes on An Unbranded Life.

Fifth Estate

Here’s the post I wrote on a dinner I attended while at Davos for their forum blog: Online we can act as a fifth estate.

The common thread that kept coming up at a dinner, and discussions centred around the idea of “online power”, was equality of access. Before the widespread rise of the Internet and easy publishing tools, influence was largely in the hands of those who could reach the widest audience, the people with printing presses or access to a wide audience on television or radio, all one-way mediums that concentrated power in the hands of the few.

Now an audience of more than 1 billion people is only a click away from every voice online, and remarkable stories and content can gain flash audiences as people share via social networks, blogs and e-mail. This radically equalizes the power relationship between, say, a blogger, and a multibillion dollar corporation.

I heard stories of companies such as Dell shifting the direction of their products in response to online outcry started by a single blog post, authors who have millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook and able to speak to their audiences directly for the first time, a Twitter hashtag (#f***washington) becoming a rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of frustrated citizens, and how a blackout of Wikipedia to protest proposed SOPA/PIPA legislation overloaded phone systems in Congress. I shared how a community of volunteers around the world collaborated on Open Source software (WordPress) that eventually overtook all its proprietary competitors.

All of these stories shared a David and Goliath character – a seemingly unmovable force swayed by a single voice that quickly multiplies online, but they also gave me pause. We spoke about this multiplying of online voices being used for things we’d all generally agree were “good”, but that was probably largely a function of the people sharing the stories and our similar world views. You could easily imagine a viral story spreading online with malicious intent, and just as many if not more examples of untrue rumours spreading at the speed of Twitter. One table shared a fictional account of a world where online voting was ubiquitous in a country, but it had the unintended side-effect of making voter coercion easier because you could see how someone voted.

There is no moderator or ombudsman online, and while the transparency of the web usually means that information is self-correcting, we still have to keep in mind the responsibility each of us carries when the power of the press is at our fingertips and in our pockets.

I am an optimist, and I believe that people are inherently good and that if you give everyone a voice and freedom of expression, the truth and the good will outweigh the bad. So, on the whole, I think the power that online distribution confers is a positive thing for society. Online we can act as a fifth estate.

I had a really wonderful time at the Forum, it was a really unique experience.

Culture of Distraction

From the Hacker News discussion of my Silicon-Valley-is-destroying-the-world remark I came across a Joe Kraus talk on We’re Creating a Culture of Distraction. (I’m a huge fan of Joe and excited to see he’s on WordPress now.)

It’s also important to read Paul Graham’s Acceleration of Addictiveness where he compares addictive technology to alcohol and cigarettes, society developed “antibodies” to the danger of cigarettes, but it took about a hundred years, and technology is changing much faster than that now.

The most prescient here is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, originally published in 1985. It’s long, but I’m going to quote the foreword in its entirety because it’s worth reading a few times over:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Oh, and we just launched new comment push notifications for iPhone and iPad. It’s one of those days. 😉

On the Evolution of Investing

Today Y Combinator announced they are adding two new partners, Garry Tan and Aaron Iba. This announcement is unique because it does not list their academic credentials, their previous investments, the boards of companies or non-profits they have sat on, how many years of experience they have, or any of the usual badges of honor investors parade in their biographies and Crunchbase profiles.

Instead we get accolades of “rare individuals who can both design and program” and “best hackers among the YC alumni.” Take note of this moment.

I was part of a dinner conversation the other night that included institutional and angel investors, entrepreneurs, and someone who was part of the YC program. The group circled with alarming intent on grilling the YC entrepreneur: “How much time did you actually get with PG?” “It’s a cult of personality.” “The average quality of the companies has really dropped as they’ve broadened.” “I can’t wait for this bubble to pop.” I believe it was mostly in jest — few topics were spared that night — but there was some truth in the defensive undertone.

The hackers and engineers of Y Combinator are doing what hackers and engineers do to any industry, they’re efficiently and ruthlessly disrupting the traditional model of venture capital and are going to destroy far more more wealth for their contemporaries than they create for themselves, as broadband did to entertainment, Craigslist did to newspapers, and Amazon did to traditional retailers. This is what outsiders, by definition, do.

The dark humor in this is that the same people who delight and celebrate investing in disrupting other industries are blind or in denial about it happening to their own.

The question then becomes if you’re an investor with a traditional LP model (and expectations), or a more financial background than an operational one, or an operational background more in management than in design or coding, what should you do to stay relevant through this shift?

What’s Next for Apple

I have no inside information or insight, but historically Apple’s product improvements have strongly broadcasted where they’re going in the future. Here are six things I think are inevitable for Apple to do over the next decade, from most to least obvious: maps, iCloud, payments, TVs, search, and cars.

1. Maps

When the iPhone was first released Steve Jobs called Maps on iPhone the best version of Google Maps on the planet, with emphasis on what Apple’s designers had brought to Google’s raw technology (can’t find that link). Four years later, you can’t imagine such a core piece of the mobile experience reliant on their largest competitor. Hopefully this will also give Apple a chance to fill usability gaps in the maps experience today, like that you can’t click from the “where” field in a calendar appointment straight to maps. (Drives me crazy.) Note that the only “Google” branding in maps today is in the bottom left, they know they’re getting replaced and have done an admirable job on the Safari version of maps on iPhone and iPad.

Google Maps + Navigation on Android is my favorite mobile app of the past 3 years (haven’t used Siri yet) — it’s what Garmin should have built $8 billion in revenue and R&D ago. (Remember the Garmin Nüvifone?) Apple was smart to partner in the beginning, but they can, and should, raise the bar.

2. iCloud

The abstraction of documents, photos, videos, their equivalents in “bought” media (iBooks, music, movies, and TV shows from the iTunes store), the deemphasis of the filesystem with every iteration of OS X, and the rough ideas of things like MobileMe’s dock syncing, points to the combination of services that will ultimately disrupt the “magic folder” providers like Dropbox. I love Dropbox, but it’ll be impossible for them to do the deep OS integration needed to match the direction Apple is heading — never thinking about what is where, ever again, just having everything you’ve ever created or used available in the same place on all your devices.

They know this is best for consumers. My friend Rene told me how when his hard drive crashed last year he contacted Apple support and they gave him a link to re-download the past 4 years of music he’d purchased on iTunes. That’s obviously the right thing to do, even if labels have had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward it. By this time tomorrow it’ll just be part of the experience when he signs into iTunes on a new computer. Update: Apple released iTunes 10.5 a day early with this feature.

3. Payments

Your phone becomes your credit card. Apple doesn’t replace Visa or Mastercard, but they do replace all of those scammy rewards and branded cards that prey on unsophisticated consumers. Google will probably do this first, but it’ll be like Microsoft Surface, brilliant but two sandwiches short of a picnic.

4. TVs

I recently got one of the new Thunderbolt displays and man, a super-sized version of this would be killer in my living room. (The speakers are surprisingly good.) TVs are just so bad, not so much in the hardware which can be beautiful like Samsung’s C9000 but in the mediocre software, un-features like Auto Motion (which makes beautiful films look like they were shot by a Jersey Shore cameraman with a beer in his other hand), and interfaces that just don’t do anything you would expect. Hello — you can detect when a cable is plugged in, don’t make me switch between 15 sources when only one is connected. My TV takes 5-10 seconds longer to turn on than my iPad. “Smart TVs” look like “smart phones” did in 2005 — completely lacking in imagination or joy.

But to really imagine the strategic importance of this you need to think beyond a super-sized Thunderbolt display and imagine what replaces iMac, one of Apple’s most beautiful creations. People’s need for a desktop is seriously declining for the first time since pundits started predicted the decline of the PC a decade ago. The post-PC ecosystem is in place now — touch, battery life, mobile-first applications, ubiquity of internet access, flash memory. (In Steve Jobs introduction of the first iPod, two things stand out to me: that terrible font, and the fact one of the main features is 20 minutes of skip protection.) Mobile works and is getting better, and you won’t have what we call a desktop 10 years from now.

Now imagine Apple has a shining 55″ monolith smack dab in the middle of your house. How big of a wifi antenna could they put in there? Could they crush all that lame Cisco teleconference stuff with TV FaceTime? Is there room for a few disk drives that don’t need to worry about skipping plus a SSD to make it fast? If you look at the direction Apple has been heading with Time Capsule locally caching software updates it’s not hard for something similar to work in the other direction, a digital hub that’s your media server for the house, a large-format display, a time capsule, and an Airplay target all in one. Imagine just one power cable coming out of it, and everything else wireless, just like the iMac, and a few killer apps we can’t even imagine yet.

Finally, home theatre needs disruption — this is a land of $200 Monster HDMI cables and similar gouging that functions like a state lottery, an intelligence tax. When I walk through Best Buy, which I try to do once every few months, it feels like it’s technology at its worst, the magic of progress used as smoke and mirrors to confuse and dupe consumers rather than make their lives better. The Apple TV is just another form factor for the unified experience Apple wants to create every time you touch an electronic device.

5. Search

There are hints of this in maps, but just like Craigslist is being killed not by a Craigslist-like clone but rather by a thousand highly focused replacements, so too Google will face its existential crisis not from another webpage with a centered white box, but from the interface and context of search changing completely. Many of Google’s searches aren’t that valuable, and a huge percentage of the ones that are aren’t going to happen at the desktop anymore .The context of your location (which your phone already knows) the “results page” of a fantastic map application and the input of a next-generation search interface, like Siri, completely changes the rules of engagement. Google’s not investing in mobile because they wanted a better phone.

6. Cars

This is the most far-out, but I think most certain. Voice-controlled search through Siri and Apple Maps provide the hands-free framework for a rich interactive experience while driving. Walk down the car stereo aisle in Best Buy and see what $800 gets you, or a $300 GPS from Garmin, vs an iPad or iPhone. The screens feel like a TI-92 calculator. The typography makes my eyes bleed. I find it morally reprehensible how bad these products are because it’s one of the areas of technology where a bad interface is most directly tied to injuries and deaths. Car folks are making their iPhone/iPod integrations better and better, which may be a glass of ice water in hell, but they’ll never make the jump to providing a beautiful marriage of media, search, and navigation that a great in-car experience needs. Right now you can spend 110k on a Tesla Roadster, a car of the future, and for an additional $4,500 (9 iPads!) get this Alpine head unit. (Watch that video and try not to laugh at how bad the interface is.) Retail it only sets you back 1.4 iPads. That’s just sad.

“People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” — Alan Kay, 1982. People who make hardware should get their software act together before Apple does for them.

Discussion on Hacker News.

Why Your Company Should Have a Creed

Does your company have a creed? Twice a year, True Ventures (one of Automattic’s investors) organizes an event called Founders’ Camp, a one-day conference for the founders and CEOs of companies in their portfolio. The latest was held in the Automattic Lounge at Pier 38 in San Francisco (it could be the last).

There was an interesting conversation led by Ethan Diamond, Alex Bard, Howard Lindzon, and Narendra Rocherolle on the importance of culture in an organization and how it gets formed. Despite its importance, “culture” is one of those fuzzy things that’s difficult for many founders, especially men, to discuss earnestly.  Even though I have extremely strong opinions about company culture, I find it feels “corny” to talk about it directly. Nevertheless, as part of the discussion, I shared the following practical example from Automattic about something we did to codify and share our values.

It started innocently enough — someone copied me when they emailed their paperwork to accept a job offer. For the first time in a while I looked at the offer letter and realized that it read like a bad generic legal template: no branding; terrible typography; the most important information (start date, salary, stock options) buried under a sea of text; and, worst of all, it was being sent out in .docx format (especially embarrassing for a company whose foundation is Open Source). The offer didn’t reflect who we were, how we worked, and certainly not how we thought about design and user experience.

Nick and MT of the Janitorial team at Automattic designed new documents and worked out a clever way to have a web form on our intranet generate the pages as HTML. It has some extra goodies like vector signatures. Anybody sending a contract or offer can create a PDF out of that web page, and email the document out to the recipient. Everything is logged and tracked. (As a bonus our legal templates for employees and contractors are now tracked in SVN along with the rest of our code.)

Finally, as a hack to introduce new folks to our culture, we put a beta “Automattic Creed”, basically a statement of things important to us, written in the first person. We put it after the legal gobbledygook and before the signature area; if you chose to accept the offer, you’d sign your name next to the values before starting work. This seemed like a powerful statement and might affect people’s perceptions in the same way that putting signatures at the top of forms increases honesty.

That was around the beginning of May last year, and everyone who has joined since then (about half the company) has gotten the creed in their offer letter. The feedback from the beta was excellent and later that same month we added the creed to the home page of our Automattic Field Guide (our internal reference site), where it still lives today with a link to a recent discussion about what the creed means in practice.

Adding the creed before the signature block ended up being an easy change that had a big impact on the company.

A fair number of founders at the event have asked what the creed is. If you’re curious here it is (as of September 19th, 2011):

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

I’m sure that it will evolve in the future, just as Automattic and WordPress will. If you’re building a startup or any sort of organization, take a few moments to reflect on the qualities that the people you most enjoy working with embody and the user experience of new people joining your organization, from the offer letter to their first day.

Of course if you’d like to see the above in an offer letter, consider applying for Automattic.

If you write a creed for your company or non-profit after reading this, please leave it in the comments!

1.0 Is the Loneliest Number

Many entrepreneurs idolize Steve Jobs. He’s such a perfectionist, they say. Nothing leaves the doors of 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino without a polish and finish that makes geeks everywhere drool. No compromise!

I like Apple for the opposite reason: they’re not afraid of getting a rudimentary 1.0 out into the world.

“No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.” — cmdrtaco, Slashdot.org, 2001, reviewing the first iPod

I remember my first 1G iPhone. Like a meal you have to wait for, or a line outside a club, the fact that I stood in line for hours made the first time I swiped to unlock the phone that much sweeter. It felt like I was on Star Trek and this was my magical tricorder… a tricorder that constantly dropped calls on AT&T’s network, had a headphone adapter that didn’t fit any of the hundreds of dollars of headphones I owned, ran no applications, had no copy and paste, and was as slow as molasses.

Now, the crazy thing about that release is when the original iPhone went public, flaws and all, you know that in a secret room somewhere on Apple’s campus they had a working prototype of the 3GS with a faster processor, better battery life, normal headphone jack… a perfect everything. Steve Jobs was probably already carrying around one in his pocket. How painful it must have been to have everyone criticizing them for all the flaws they had already fixed but couldn’t release yet because they were waiting for component prices to come down or for some bugs to be worked out of the app store.

“$400 for an Mp3 Player! I’d call it the Cube 2.0 as it wont sell, and be killed off in a short time… and it’s not really functional. Uuhh Steve, can I have a PDA now?” — elitemacor, macrumors.com, 2001, responding to the original iPod announcement

Or, I wonder, are they really quite zen about the whole thing? There is a dark time in WordPress development history, a lost year. Version 2.0 was released on December 31st, 2005, and version 2.1 came out on January 22nd, 2007. Now just from the dates, you might imagine that perhaps we had some sort of rift in the open source community, that all the volunteers left or that perhaps WordPress just slowed down. In fact it was just the opposite, 2006 was a breakthrough year for WP in many ways: WP was downloaded 1.5 million times that year, and we were starting to get some high-profile blogs switching over. The growing prominence had attracted scores of new developers to the project and we were committing new functionality and fixes faster than we ever had before.

What killed us was “one more thing.” We could have easily done three major releases that year if we had drawn a line in the sand, said “finished,” and shipped the darn thing. The problem is that the longer it’s been since your last release the more pressure and anticipation there is, so you’re more likely to try to slip in just one more thing or a fix that will make a feature really shine. For some projects, this literally goes on forever.

“hey – heres an idea Apple – rather than enter the world of gimmicks and toys, why dont you spend a little more time sorting out your pathetically expensive and crap server line up? or are you really aiming to become a glorified consumer gimmicks firm?” — Pants, macrumors.com, 2001

I imagine prior to the launch of the iPod, or the iPhone, there were teams saying the same thing: the copy + paste guys are *so close* to being ready and we know Walt Mossberg is going to ding us for this so let’s just not ship to the manufacturers in China for just a few more weeks… The Apple teams were probably embarrassed. But if you’re not embarrassed when you ship your first version you waited too long.

A beautiful thing about Apple is how quickly they obsolete their own products. I imagine this also makes the discipline of getting things out there easier. Like I mentioned before, the longer it’s been since the last release the more pressure there is, but if you know that if your bit of code doesn’t make this version but there’s the +0.1 coming out in 6 weeks, then it’s not that bad. It’s like flights from San Francisco to LA, if you miss one you know there’s another one an hour later so it’s not a big deal. Amazon has done a fantastic job of this with the Kindle as well, with a new model every year.

Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world. It’s even worse because development doesn’t happen in a vacuum — if you have a halfway decent idea, you can be sure that there are two or three teams somewhere in the world that independently came up with it and are working on the same thing, or something you haven’t even imagined that disrupts the market you’re working in. (Think of all the podcasting companies — including Ev Williams’ Odeo — before iTunes built podcasting functionality in.)

By shipping early and often you have the unique competitive advantage of hearing from real people what they think of your work, which in best case helps you anticipate market direction, and in worst case gives you a few people rooting for you that you can email when your team pivots to a new idea. Nothing can recreate the crucible of real usage.

You think your business is different, that you’re only going to have one shot at press and everything needs to be perfect for when Techcrunch brings the world to your door. But if you only have one shot at getting an audience, you’re doing it wrong.

After the debacle of the 2.0 -> 2.1 lost year of 2006 the WordPress community adopted a fairly aggressive schedule of putting a major release out 3 times a year, and we stuck to it fairly well although in 2009-2010 we’ve slacked a bit, falling into the “one more thing” mentality again. But more fundamentally it’s still shrink-wrap software, which means that updates burden its users in some way so we have to spread them out.

That’s why I love working on web services and pretty much everything Automattic focuses on is a service. On WordPress.com we deploy code to production twenty or thirty times a day and anyone in the company can do it. We measure the deploy time to hundreds of servers and if it gets too slow (more than 30-60 seconds) we figure out a new way to optimize it. In that short rapid iteration environment the most important thing isn’t necessarily how perfect code is when you send it out, but how quickly you can revert if you need to so the cost of a mistake is really low, under a minute of brokenness. Someone can go from idea to working code to production and more importantly real users in just a few minutes and I can’t imagine any better form of testing.

“Real artists ship.” — Steve Jobs, 1983

A version 1.0 of this essay appeared in the book Do More Faster. I should also note that Automattic is always hiring.