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Does your whiz-bang widget solve a customer problem?
Co-Founder of WordPress, Founder of Automattic, Investor with Audrey
Everything has been done before.
Technological innovation is a means to an end.
Not all good ideas come from inside your company’s walls.
Lesson: Building a Unicorn with Matt Mullenweg
Step #7 Innovation: Does your whiz-bang widget solve a customer problem?
I’m always hesitant to say anything real is a technical innovation because I feel like everything’s been done before. There’s the basis of what WordPress does that goes back to the '70s, like early computers. But I do try to think a lot about the things that we choose to do. What is our logical conclusion? If you introduce a variable or a way a process or a way of doing things to this environment and you say this continues for the next ten years, what happens at the end?
So this might be my background in macro-economics or my passion for it. That’s how we try to approach every decision. So, I think that lends itself to more business model innovation. Technological innovation is a means to an ends. It’s not great to have a whiz bang widget just for having a whiz bang widget. Hopefully, it’s solving someone’s problems or making something easier that used to be really hard or really addressing a need in the world so it can exist as a product and a business.
I am very, very excited about the coming years of working on WordPress. I used to say that it takes ten years to make great software. And unfortunately, now we’re ten years into and I feel like I have another ten years to go. There are so many things think could be better about our products and also thinking about our company as a product. There are so many things, I only see the flaws.
I only see the things that could be more streamlined or more transparent or more easy to use or friendlier about everything that we do, including the meta problem of the company itself. And working towards that, step by step is incredibly motivating especially those times when you do see someone along all the way.
We were considering how and where to do ads on WordPress.com. Again, I try to take things to their logical conclusion. If we started putting ads on all the pages, say, the ads were a cornerstone of our business, there'd be a temptation to put more ads on all the pages. I felt like that would drive users away, because it was their space and not ours. Anytime we put something on it we were intruding, so we should try to intrude as little as possible.
Two, if we're lucky, we would become a media business, and that means our primary customers would be advertisers, not users. The users of a product that we would then sell to the advertisers, and that was not something I was interested in taking to its logical conclusion.
Third, I just don't really like online ads. I've seen some good ones. I've seen advertising in magazines that I really like, and I've certainly experienced things in commercial ads that I didn't mind, but most of what's online is quite uninspired. It's these standard units sort of stuck into, and they just try to become more obnoxious until they get your attention. I think it's proven that 98 or 99% of people never click on them. But the most important thing there is don't be the dog chasing the car that catches it and doesn't know what to do. Think about if I catch this car, what happens next?
Any place you can publish online is, in theory, a competition to WordPress. Towards our mission, we want the places that people publish online to be open source. We want them to be open, inclusive, and really give ownership and rights to the people who are using it.
Whenever a new player comes on the field, anywhere from the 140 characters of Twitter, to the tumblelog Tumblr format, to maybe like the Squarespaces or the Wixes of the world that really are for making websites, we of course look at them. Not all of the good ideas come from inside your company's walls. And just like we inspire other software, we're inspired by what goes on in the ecosystem of people dealing with the same problems we do.
But you can't use that to drive your business because, by definition, you're always going to be one step behind them. If you're just copying what they do, if they took three months to ship something, you're now three months later to ship it and maybe by that point, they've either moved on to version 2, or decided it doesn't work, and you're chasing a red herring. So you really have to go back to the first principles like the decisions using the best possible data and the best possible inputs.
Often that's not just what a competitor does because you're just seeing the output of what might have been a year-long discussion or inputs. We try to build features for our customers. What are they asking for? What are we as users of software really wanting? And that's what drives our development more than what any particular competitor is doing.