Passion Fundamentals – the Drive Inside

by Bradley Miller on June 7, 2010

Peeling back the layers of WordPress's success

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what drives me and what I’d like to do with my next start-up.  AKA the “right” space and opportunity for me – and I think that I’ve been thinking about it somewhat from the wrong perspective and too hard. I’ll explain. The last time I was in Seattle I had a chance run in and conversation with Matt Mullenweg of WordPress and Automattic founding fame.  We talked about a number of things, but what’s stuck with me is how he talked about what continues to drive him to push  both WordPress and Automattic.  It wasn’t more money, or a dominant market share – rather, it was clear that for him it’s a larger, more fundamental life passion that underpins his work. And I took that perspective to heart.  To boot, it’s much more basic than I would have thought.

Automattic seems like it it’s a wildly successful business.  Millions of users host their blog on WordPress.com, millions of downloads of WordPress itself (Medicine Think is a WordPress blog – and I’m grateful!)  and WordPress continues to grow.  Some sites state that 23 million blogs and sites are based on WordPress.  I would have expected Matt to say that reaching another million users or seeing 80% of the Fortune 500 utilize the WP platform were his main goals.  Or a specific sales target number.  It wasn’t. And although WordPress’s success to date seemed to fulfill him, it was pretty clear that success wasn’t at the core of what drives him.

What Matt said, and I’m going to butcher his exact words, is that his underlying drive and passion is powered by a “desire to create platforms that empower free and open human expression on the internet and in the world.”  He said it much more eloquently than I just did, but you get his main gist.  His mission wasn’t to gain 20 million more users, or to crush Blogger (a competitor), or some other business goal – his passion is driven by an innate desire to enable humans to freely express themselves.  Basic. Simple.

The interesting thing about this goal is that it’s hard to measure, but easy to keep in mind and continually work toward.  I’d argue that all too often we’re driven by specific business goals or material objects.  Or even a desire to be rich.  Just about any highly successful entrepreneur I’ve met in Silicon Valley has Matt’s type of passion and drive – and in some basic way that translates into a drive that then brings success.  That success may not be financial, but what I can say is that most very financially successful entrepreneurs I’ve met have this kind of basic drive.  For example Bill Gates famously recruited Steve Ballmer with the vision of “A PC in every home.”

Passion and Desire - somehow that evokes Rocky in my head.

WordPress fits in to Matt’s passion – it’s part of a larger effort and movement.  WordPress is a free platform used by millions.  And, although Automattic is a for-profit businesses, it enables millions of people to blog and express themselves at a very reasonable cost.

It was quite obvious that Matt didn’t mean that he wanted to be the player that 100% dominated the market.  Rather, his goal was clearly to be a leader in the effort and to contribute in the best way he knows how.

This passion is a beautiful sentiment and approach.  But it’s also powerful and fundamental – something that can motivate you.  It’s concise, yet allows you to build toward it every day. Matt can wake up and clearly and concisely state what he’s working toward.  It’s a known quantity. Such a sentiment can also be felt by others within the company (or those in a movement around you) and can inspire them to work harder and smarter toward they company’s success.  In fact, I believe this basic passion is critical to the fundamentals of highly successful businesses.

One of the other, biggest lessons I learned in life was from my high school volleyball coach – Bob Miller.  In pre-season practices we would spend literally 2 or 3 weeks (which is an eternity for high school age boys), on the fundamentals before we were allowed to hit.  Passing, setting, blocking, footwork, endurance.  The theory was to set the fundamentals and the rest will follow.  And, by and large, it worked for his teams through 3 decades and many regional and state titles.  Flashy hitting only gets a team so far – the message was clear and we saw the proof – fundamentals win championships.

Much the same way, the fundamentals of business lie in this passion philosophy.  Developing and maturing your own personal business and life passion and continually honing and reflecting on it gives you the foundation not only to succeed, but to lead and win.  It gives you the tools to inspire others and create real, lasting change and success.  What’s more inspiring? To crush the blogging competition – or to create an open platform that enables and encourages freedom of expression?  And, I don’t think the latter necessarily replaces the former.  I think that the desire to aim to that larger goal can actually lead a company to defeat the competition, which in turn creates more economic value and overall human creativity and creation.

Coach Wooden - the champion of character and fundamentals

Such a fundamental mission also creates a foundation for your character.  As the going gets tough, your fundamental passion can help motivate and drive past the hard times.  I haven’t sorted through it completely, but my general guess is that the type of life passion you develop is directly reflective of your character – another key component of success.  One of my favorite quotes is from the late John Wooden, “Hard times do not create character – they reveal it.” (thanks @kevinthau for reminding me of this quote).  Understanding your fundamentals, and what drives you, enables you to stay true to that character, inspire others and continue through tough times.  Many thanks to @photomatt for helping me to refocus on my essential passion.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

@diannadapt June 8, 2010 at 4:01 am

Thanks for the good post with really nice, relevant anecdotes. Seems like we have both been needing the same nudge. I love that quote from John Wooden.

David Kadavy June 8, 2010 at 10:47 am

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Adrian Hanft, who created the Django Python framework, and http://everyblock.com, and who is working on other interesting projects. He said that his “thing” is “organizing the complex.” Once you recognize what your “thing” is, it makes it easier to decide what to do next.

Bradley Miller June 14, 2010 at 12:04 pm

I thought that my comment had already posted! Kadavy – what’s you “thing?” I’m curious!

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