Yesterday, I tweeted about the recent Volkswagen debacle:
Volkswagen losing 1/5 its value is a reminder that your reputation is constantly in question, success is relative, and ethics always wins.
It got me thinking about the WordPress community, who the major players are, and where I might fit into it all on any given day.
I’ll start with Automattic and work my way across from there. Full disclosure, if you didn’t know, I worked at Automattic for a few years, so some of my observations are based on internal influences from a company half the size with a different CEO, and 4 of Matt Mullenweg’s hairstyles ago.
Automattic, is a powerhouse. They have enormous momentum that’s intimidating to compete with even when you’re trying to carve your own niche. Interested in e-commerce? Woo. Hosting? WordPress.com. The cloud? Jetpack. Backups? VaultPress. Together they’ve solved a number of small problems in huge ways, and are uniquely qualified to do so with Matt at the helm and millions in the bank.
If you’ve read The Year Without Pants then you got a decent (if bland) idea of how the sausage is made, but my not being a part of Scott’s retelling is a metaphor for my experience at Automattic. I didn’t really bond with the team like I’d hoped, and it was the second time I had attempted to replace Andy Peatling (the first being leading the BuddyPress project) and by this time I had already felt like my reputation was in a downward trajectory.
Ironically, my experience at 10up was pretty similar. A position opened up and I was asked to follow the enormous footsteps of two beloved engineers. I failed to gel with a company made entirely of friends from the WordPress community, I never found my stride, and I still had wandering thoughts of BuddyPress & bbPress on my mind. 10up is an agency’s agency. They move fast, work hard, and aren’t afraid to kindly cut the anchor and sail on if something is dragging behind. Needless to say, I couldn’t hang.
The folks at WebDevStudios are doing awesome stuff with BuddyPress, but inside the WordPress community I’ve heard people say some surprisingly negative things about them. Code quality being bad, they’re unprofessional, etc… I don’t see it, I haven’t seen it yet, but if it’s true, these criticisms aren’t unique to WDS. I’ve seen worse code and experienced less professionalism from other hugely successful businesses. If those are WDS’s only problems, they are the company to bet on. They’ve doubled in size since last year, and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.
My friends at HumanMade have a reputation for contributing huge amounts of time & effort to pushing WordPress as a platform farther than even the folks at Automattic have been able to pull off. I think this is accurate; they’re a talented bunch of engineers that love WordPress but aren’t consumed by it, which pays off by allowing them to influence it’s direction gently and with outside perspectives.
CrowdFavorite is, well, a favorite of mine. They’re an agency that’s known for going after and catching the whales, and being coy (in a good way) with the stories of how they caught them. From my perspective, they’re the agency that goes their own way and likes to challenge the WordPress status-quo, which is to say I like them a lot.
Pippin Williamson and his team have a reputation for their enormous momentum and huge earning potential if they maintain their current pace. Output, output, and more output. It’s intimidating, and inspirational, and having known Pippin a long time, I’m both happy for him and proud of what he’s accomplishing.
There are a bunch of other businesses, agencies, and independent WordPress developers out there, so it’s difficult to cite examples without injecting my own biases or forgetting some really influential people. Envato, Alley, Voce, Range, Reaktiv, WPEngine, Pagely, XWP, and on and on…
And me? Some days I feel like my ideas are far-fetched & silly, or the entire WordPress core team is against me, or they feel like I’m working against them even though I’m trying to work a few steps ahead without being a distraction. The rest of my days are spent working on my own little corner of the internet trying to mop up what’s left of the mess of my own career, since I’m back where I started 5 years ago with some added experience & perspective, and maybe a chip on either of my shoulders about it all if I’m being totally honest.
It reminds me a bit of an article about Jonathan Blow in The Atlantic in 2012, who earned a funny reputation in the video game industry, and once he had the zeroes in his bank account to prove his voice had value, his voice suddenly did have value. The same voice, but being backed by currency gave it breadth and range.
In many ways, his opinions of his industry are not dissimilar to mine with WordPress (though when given the opportunity I try maybe to be a bit less brash to the people pouring their hearts into their passions with their own foibles and comeuppances.)
There are a lot of similarities between the independent game scene and what’s going on with WordPress right now. There are huge, major players taking on and solving massive problems at a scale that no 1 individual can compete with anymore, but that also means there’s opportunity for someone to identify one specific sharp snaggy corner and file it away so no one hurts themselves on it again. I hope Flox achieves that with it’s offerings; I hope we manage to produce something widely popular so I can afford to relax for a while; I hope to earn a better reputation than I feel like I have with my colleagues and friends through cool & valuable output.
Reputations are usually accurate, and surprisingly fickle. One person or company can devote their entire focus to something and lose it instantly, while another can have questionable ethics and still manage relative success. My point, I guess, is that reputations are earned one way or the other.
It’s scary, and rewarding, but it’s easy to get caught up in the distraction, politics, and bureaucracy of it all, and accidentally live up to people’s perceptions of who they think you are instead of who you know you are and what you’re capable of achieving.
Focus less on reputation, and more on ethical output, and you’ll be just fine.