Persona Non Grata – 10 Years as a WordPress Entrepreneur
This week marks 10 years since I started Edublogs and became one of the earliest WordPress entrepreneurs. Ten years, five offices, six products and about a bazillion WP dramas later… This is my story.
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve got issues. Issues with authority, popularity, inclusivity, regular-ways-of-doing-business, independence and, erm, polite society.
Along with unfairness, corruption, bullying and the stinking mess that a project like WordPress can become.
Which is what this post is about: 10 years of WordPress and me. From the launch of Edublogs through to a bunch of crazy projects to where we are today at WPMU DEV, and all the insane, screwy, mad, bad and rad things that have happened along the way.
Consider it part history, part mea cupla and part great big complain.
Because? Why not. I’ve got to get this off my chest at some point, I guess, and now is as good a time as any.
Let’s start with the fundamentals. For example, I don’t think this is how you’d usually court favor with your leading trade publication:
But then again, I had form:
And hey, if that doesn’t do the job why not stick it to the man himself:
Oh, and then there’s just a few of the published articles, too:
- It’s official, We’ve been blacklisted by Matt / WordPress
- Something is Rotten in the State of WordPress
- That beard post
- wppravda.com (yeh, that’s a bit childish, but hey)
Along with no shortage of other material, from WordCamp blowouts to forum fallouts.
Join me on a trip down memory lane, where I overreact and get all full-on with people while they try to systematically crush me in return. It’s going to be a hoot, promise!
… It Begins
July 31st, 2005 wasn’t my first experience with WordPress. I’d already moved my first blog over to the platform from Dave Winer’s Radio Userland a year or so before. But it was the first time I had done anything truly meaningful: pairing the revamped WordPress MU platform with the domain edublogs.org that I’d bought on a whim a year or so before.
It was exhilarating making something that people were actually using.
I’d go to bed at night and wake up with a dozen new sites having been created. After a couple of years of desperately hoping for comments and pingbacks from other blogs, this was like attention / feedback crack.
It still is.
And like all good addicts I wanted more.
So along came uniblogs.org, learnerblogs.org and eslblogs.org (I figured people wanted their own spaces. Turns out they kinda didn’t…).
And BlogSavvy (your decidedly un-savvy blog consultant, which never made a penny beyond the $4k I eventually sold it for) and a whole new world as probably one of the first online community editors around at The Age newspaper.
Which was, of course, a great place to upset the mainstream and generally make myself unpopular – something I was becoming increasingly good at because, well, I was always after the next hit.
Question: positive or negative? Which is better? Not as simple as it first sounds.
Bathing in acclaim and respect, dealing with sycophants and sitting on laurels, or righteous anger and rage, “me against the world,” to be the odd one out, the fiercely independent underdog.
Or the ideal, the respect of your peers for being a maverick, for standing up against the norm, for righting a wrong or speaking a truth even if the vast majority are just full of hate for you.
Honestly, to this day, I have no idea. I guess both would be nice, but at least I’d started the process of trying things with about a 25% hit rate and upsetting folk in the progress.
All Roads Lead to ‘Matt
Which was when I got an offer to join Automattic :)
I kid you not, dear reader, I had a bona fide discussion with Toni and Matt about becoming, I dunno, employee #12 or something and trading in Edublogs for taking a teeny stake in the empire while it was still being established. They offered me something like 0.2% or “a few hundred k” for the site. I countered with 1% or “a million dollars” [raises pinky] and they realised I was obviously a mercenary swine and didn’t make a counter offer.
On reflection, I was massively flattered but wanted to do my own thing and so largely made myself unhirable. I think I did us both a favour.
That was far, far from the end of our interactions, although I’d largely say it was the start of the process where I’d go from potential hire to becoming absolutely untouchable.
Although, ironically, it wasn’t actually me that really got the skids on – that was my co-founder.
Making the Jump – Incsub, WPMU DEV and the GPL
My journey from working in a backyard shed to CEO was covered when Rae interviewed me last year about the start of the company, so I won’t go into it here (this being strictly a mea culpa / salacious gossip / catharsis / semi-decent-story post).
But TL;DR: I started Incsub as a MU consultancy after getting a gig completely by accident. It enabled me to jump from theage.com.au and, with my co-founder Andrew who had started wpmudev.org as place to share WordPress MultiUser plugins, we turned that into the site that today, along with Edublogs, is at the core of our business of 60-odd people.
And things were going so well I even had my very own wordpress.org blog and the post is still there (although it’s now attributed to Ryan – I wrote it, as you can probably tell by excessive comma and parenthesis usage). I organized and ran the first ever WordCamp in the Southern Hemisphere and everything was going great buns until… You guessed it, some shitty conversation about the GPL.
For the uninitiated amongst you, Matt is probably the most outspoken and intense of GPL advocates, single handedly forcing WP behemoth Envato, for example, to adopt the license, although a measly ~3% have done so. But I digress…
Basically, as soon as we really went for it in terms of selling premium plugins, we got called on our lack of license, followed by a disagreement between me and Andrew over whether we should / could do GPL (I was for, backed by a variety of reasons, some cynical) and I lost. The subsequent emails saw me acting a lot like Del Boy, promoting some more plugins in a somewhat incendiary fashion and just being a bit of a twat about it in general.
Four months later in June 2009, I won the argument and we released all of our stuff under the only license we’ve ever used, and continued to use till this day, GPL.
But the damage was done. Lots. Here’s a highlight reel.
By the end of June, Matt was concerned about why we wanted to buy wp-plugins.org… (that’s when I was less than polite in the email up top)
By October 2009, there was us “copying” the wp.org website
To this day, I struggle to tell the difference ;)
Then, two months later, there was the blacklist
Yep, by November 2009 we were quite literally scrubbed from the project. This I didn’t take so well.
WPMU, We’ll Teach You
And as a coup de grace, in January 2010 – which was surely hoped to put us out of business – he renamed ‘WordPress MU’ (the basis of WPMU, as in ‘WPMU DEV’) to WordPress Mulitsite.
Bang goes your brandname, huh.
Now I do have some confessions to make here throughout the whole sorry debacle. I did try to get this blog onto the WordPress Planet in exchange for GPL-ness (boooo). I didn’t particularly mind us looking quite similar to the wordpress.org website and it was teensyweeny deliberate (hisss), the blacklisting made me both spitting mad and played into all my various outsider-unloved-unpopular-screw-you traits so I was less than cooperative (shaaaame) and also, as soon as I found out about the WordPressMS thing, was so, so stressed and enraged (i.e. that’s my business you’re destroying!) that I went out and bought some WordPress domain names, like wordpressms.org (which I offered to give back, along with a $1000 donation to the foundation by way of saying sorry… They just expired though).
Oh, and some other stuff about not contributing in ways he thought we should, our wrap sheet eternal.
Immature? Yep. Proud of? Nope. Understandable? Perhaps.
But in my defence and perhaps to explain it better, things were not good in my world at that time.
Leaving aside any of the personal stuff (we all have that, right?), the GFC had completely routed the “Incsub” consultancy business… Nobody was gonna pay a bunch of clowns like us six figure sums to do massive MU installs anymore, and besides, the real agencies had gotten into the business so we were screwed there anyway.
And then there was Edublogs, which was doing what it always had done (not make any money), and now was managing it on a much more significant and scary scale.
And the not inconsiderable matter that working with my co-founder was getting increasingly difficult for me (and hey, possibly for him – running yourself into the ground with the leading figure of your industry isn’t exactly what you want your biz dev guy doing).
And Matt was about to “discontinue” MU.
Not. Good. At. All.
I was pretty scared. We needed alternative revenue streams, fast!
So I thought, why not try out some other revenue streams? After all, I’ve got the (25%) Midas touch, right? Um, maybe not.
WP.MU (<3 the domain, :( the business)
It was a right PiTA to install Multsite, bbPress and BuddyPress, so we bundled them all together with our premium plugins, wrote an installer and charged people something daft like $295 to run it.
Net result: ~3 sales a month and a nightmare to maintain.
Devs literally begged me to get off the project. Fail #1.
BLOGS.MU – Network Networks!
Welcome to the “Inception” of WordPress where you could start your own Multisite network, just like WordPress.com.
In my mind, this was a crucial development as it was just like Edublogs Campus (hosted Multisite installs) and so somebody would do it and it’d kill Campus, so I might as well nail it.
Needless to say, nobody actually wanted to do this and it only resulted in massive failure, the most interesting outcome of which was a network of bacon blogs ;)
You know what’d be amazing? A network of networks of networks! Fail #2.
WP Plugins – Allllmost a good idea
The original CodeCanyon, but without the massive community and necessary quota of Ta’eeds ;)
Also didn’t help that we were setting up a company to compete with ourselves (hmmm, note to self).
Possibly the best thing that came out of this (besides paying theme authors well over 250k while it lived) was that lots of people congratulated Matt on the idea, heh.
BuddyDress – Ouch
Themes for BuddyPress! What could possibly go wrong?
Howabout barely anyone using BuddyPress, and regular WP themes working with it?
Oh yeh, that’d do it.
Never start a business with a pun. Honestly, don’t do that.
And that’s Fail #4.
But fortunately, throughout all this, WPMU DEV was there being it’s trusty ol’ self, keeping us afloat.
And, perhaps equally benevolently, at one point it dawned on me that this kind of insane-scatter-gun approach to building a business wasn’t perhaps what we should be doing (or, at the very least, we should consider them a little more beforehand).
But at least it distracted me from what was becoming a serious problem in WP land, at least until it all went nuts again.
The WP Candy Crush Saga
And then came WP Candy. For those of you who never had the pleasure, it was a kind of gossip / trash / valleywag publication that eventually (somewhat hilariously) managed to stitch up most of its loyal supporters by promising a glossy quarterly publication, taking lots of cash for it, and then proceeding to produce only two of them, allegedly (I have it only on third party information).
Anyway, into the meat!
Without rehashing the arguments (I don’t want to get back into them, for a start) everybody’s favourite dutch oven decided to “out” us for having stolen some code (it wasn’t stolen, a rogue developer, already fired, had nicked it as the developer himself acknowledged at length) for which we apologized and immediately killed the plugin, which was competing with his SEO one.
I wonder how much more Matt will like me…
… if I really go after these guys.
And he proceeded to go on about it for ages (he’s still picking on us at all opportunities, which are unfortunately many, even though we came to a “gentlemens” agreement to remove the corresponding posts) and provoke a great many nasty comments, which I probably didn’t help by getting involved with and also being nasty. Haters, eh.
And then some real dufus from just round the corner here in Melbourne decided he’d try to go one better (him and a mate even had a go at doing it again down the track, to some success) which needless to say, they also published and it was, as they say, on for young and old.
Which, to be frank, was absolutely horrid.
And not just for me either, we were sponsoring WordCamps and staff were getting grief at them. The company as a whole felt like a very sad and difficult place to be and the sheer injustice of it all was just gut wrenching.
Granted, I’d walked right into this. You piss off the guy who goes to more WordCamps than any other and has more power than anyone else and it’s to be expected really. And then my comment etiquette is somewhat lacking (I’ve heard “James should stop trolling people” more than I’d like to from our own staff. Ouch).
But also, by this point it was evident that Matt had been doing the rounds essentially trashing us at every possible opportunity (or at least it felt like that. I was getting lots of reports from attendees along the lines of “he really doesn’t like you” etc.) and what was to become our long hard slog up the WordPress coalface had well and truly begun…
Talk to the Hand
… Which has been a mixture of outright hostility and simple, good old fashioned ignoring the hell out of us.
Sometimes the only thing worse than being talked about is… Yeh, you know the rest. And Woo managed to pull that off stupendously with their 2011 Wooville:
Yeh, we were more about plugins than themes, so I’m probably being picky here… But neither was WP Candy and this blog was (and still is) by far the biggest WP blog on the web if we’re gonna get all Alexa on ya.
Anyway, it’s worth including this one just ‘cos of the cheeky Matt helicopter parenting. Maybe we’re in the naughty corner?
Then there’s the official news site for WordPress, WP Tavern, also owned by Matt, whom we cite regularly and frequently (check out how much of your referral traffic comes from The WhiP, guys), and that’s despite Jeff being, um, intransigent. How do I know that? Well, he straight out said it (it’s in a comment somewhere, should have bookmarked it).
Regardless, there’s not a single link to us in a single post in the entire past year on WP Tavern. I think that’s evidence enough.
In fact the only way we’ve received any sort of a mention anywhere was with massive doses of condescension in last year’s State of the Word for contributing 5% of our staffing to the wordpress.org Support Forums. It was surprising, apparently.
Then there was us being actually banned from sponsoring WordCamps.
Yes, you heard me correctly, banned from sponsoring events.
I’d take the below with a pinch of salt (i.e. they are doubtless full of lies), but the gist is there:
And that’s at the same time that we released by far the most ambitious WordPress theme concept out there: Upfront.
The silence has been deafening.
And, to a large degree, until this point I’ve held it together, not bothered to make a big deal out of it and just got on with my work.
But if the various dramas around Thesis.com show anything, it’s that staying quiet and being a good little boy doesn’t cut it… As it would appear, allegedly, that the man in question is completely happy to use $100,000 of his investors money just to get back at someone he’s had a conflict with years ago.
“Do You Think This’ll be OK With Matt?”
OK, enough about Matt, let’s have a look at perhaps the most insidious issue we’ve had to face: the fact that so, so, so many of the people in WordPress have refused to do any work with us.
To quote Douglas Murray, out of context but very much on point, from 2011:
Self-censorship is the most invidious and successful type of censorship – not just because it is self-reinforcing but because once it is people invent reasons to cover for themselves.
And I suppose that’s the problem for us. It’s not so much that there’s an active campaign out there (everybody needs a bogeyman, although thanks to the aforementioned Chris Pearson maybe we’re only second on the list) but the cogs are most definitely in motion.
Just from my personal experience:
- 2012 – Company looking towards partnership, even acquisition, backs out because of “relationship with Matt”
- 2013 – Major exec at major WP firm calls us “dangerous” over coffee with me and says, “You’ve got to be careful”
- 2014 – Another major exec at same firm backs him up on that, saying “you understand, though”
- 2015 – Not 3 yards from where I write this, a huuuge VIP customer concludes that they wouldn’t want to work with us as “it might upset Matt”
And those are just the ones I get to hear about :( How many other deals, opportunities, links or chances have we missed out on? How often and how much do we have to go it on our own? How long does this go on for?
I know the WP community can be an absolute pile of stinking crap, apart from when you’re being nice to each other of course, but guys, try being on the end of it, undeservedly, for six long, long years.
What Have We Done to Deserve It?
So I’ve scoured my emails, posts, comments and even my conscience, to come up with a pretty conclusive list of the things we’ve (I’ve) done wrong:
- Back in the day we hosted, for our paid members, a single, modified GPL plugin. It was clearly stated as such and we made a donation to say thanks
- We also hosted, for our paid members (and then for free), a bunch of GPL themes, which were heavily modified for Multisite use, and which our members demanded we keep and update accordingly ‘cos they found them so useful
- We didn’t contribute, as Matt would have liked, to some specific stuff he thought we should have contributed to
- We took four months before selecting our first license, which was GPL, and I was a bit of a pain over adopting it
I’d like to point out that all of the above are actually “OK.”
- A rogue developer copied some work (and owned up to it). We then took all appropriate steps to rectify the situation
- I wrote some stuff that was overly troll-ish and snarky
None of which is that bad, is it?
Or maybe it is.
Which Leaves Us…
If only I knew where.
Some days I honestly think “Screw it, I’ll just get a GM in and go and do something completely different.” Other days I think “I’ll show ’em, we’ll show ’em, that stuff just comes round,” and mostly I probably wonder whether, if I was running some successful company where everybody loved us, if I could actually deal with that.
And then other days, completely out of the blue, you see a comment on an utterly unrelated post, in July 2015, that makes you want to spend a couple of days putting the record straight.
This was like a gigantic karmic gift saying “yes, you really should write that post.” Thanks Donnacha, word up!
But in terms of my decision, my life, my choices… Man, it’s hard to tell.
Maybe I’m right where I am out of choice as much as circumstance. Maybe I’m happiest re-living ostracised kid or maverick outsider. Maybe I’m happiest unhappy.
But regardless of all that, I do know that 10 years is a significant amount of time do anything, especially as an entrepreneur, and it’s at least worth a post of note about it. Writing helps.
I mean, if we’re going to struggle through another 10 years in an ongoing death grip until one of us falls under a car, gives up or does something else, we might as well do it knowing exactly where we stand.
And at least now, I can point people to something that explains exactly the reason why I stand there.