The Benefits and Tradeoffs of Decentralization

WordPress is an operating system for empowering creativity on the Open Web. With 40%+ of the web running on WordPress, WordPress is also an indicator of the health of the Open Web. The better WordPress empowers creators and the extenders and hosting providers who serve them, the better the health of the internet as a whole.

Benefits of Decentralization

WordPress’ nature as an open source operating system, lead by volunteers, and the decentralized ecosystems that have built up around it are a key source of its strength.

WordPress provides the built-in freedoms to allow anyone to do whatever they’d like with it. Of the 28,000,000+ live sites on WordPress, they’re spread out over a diverse range of hosting providers, with the freedom to do what they’d like and to move from one to another.

Decentralization offers three key benefits:

  • Shared Ownership – To use WordPress is to own it. That shared sense of ownership is why people are willing to volunteer and work together towards WordPress’ success. It means that the entire ecosystem is incentivized to care for it and support its growth.
  • Options – If a plugin doesn’t meet your needs, you can choose another. If your hosting provider isn’t working for you, you can move to another. The WordPress ecosystem offers a diverse pool of extenders and service providers to meet the needs of creators.
  • Resilience – WordPress is hard to kill. The decentralized nature of the ecosystem offers a resilience that inspires growth-contributing confidence to those who do business in it and provides assurance to creators building on WordPress.

Tradeoffs of Decentralization

The benefits of WordPress’ decentralized nature have tradeoffs. For each of the main benefits, there is a counterpoint.

For WordPress, the tradeoffs of decentralization include:

  • Decision Making – The tradeoff of shared ownership shows up in decision making. It’s hard (as it should be) to make big decisions, especially as the diversity and interests of your pool of owners continues to increase. An initiative like Gutenberg, championed by WordPress’ co-founder, is objectively positive for the project, and yet has collected thousands of 1 star reviews. A decentralized ecosystem makes decision making difficult.
  • Difficult Choices – The tradeoff of options is difficult choices. It can be overwhelming to find the right plugins in the nearly 60,000 options in the directory today. And for businesses building on WordPress, many of the most popular commercial plugins have to be purchased and installed separately. Understanding your options and making good choices with what you have available is difficult at best.
  • Stagnancy – While WordPress as an ecosystem is resilient and hard to kill, the tradeoff is the risk of stagnancy – a bunch of decentralized pools of water, with minimal inflow and outflow. Innovation can spring up anywhere, anytime, seeing the benefits of that innovation across the ecosystem as a whole, though, is difficult and stagnancy is more likely the result.

Now let’s apply those to the three primary stakeholders of the WordPress ecosystem: creators, extenders, and hosting providers.

Decentralization for Creators

WordPress has been (and may it always be) focused first on creators, the folks bringing their ideas to life on the Open Web. WordPress enabled blogging back when it was difficult and changed the face of the publishing industry. Today, WordPress empowers creativity of all types.

WordPress’ decentralized nature provides benefits and tradeoffs for creators, including:

BenefitsTradeoffs
Ownership – You can create whatever you want with WordPress. It’s yours. There are no limits.Responsibility – You’re responsible for figuring out how to create what you want. It is yours after all.
Options – You have numerous plugins, themes, blocks, hosting companies, and service providers available to help you create what you want. The official plugin repository, for example, has nearly 60,000 plugins available.Decisions – Navigating through the options can be overwhelming and, if you’re buying, you have to find the options first. Ecosystem plugins are big business, yet many of the most popular commercial plugins aren’t available in the directory.
Resilience – Your creations on WordPress are resilient, living when and where you want them to.Stagnancy – Your installation of WordPress can grow stagnant and insecure, if you’re not keeping it up-to-date.

The benefits for creators are strong and we see their impact in the growth of WordPress. The tradeoffs, though, have made renting from centralized, proprietary platforms increasingly attractive.

Decentralization for Extenders

Many of WordPress’ early creators became extenders. They built plugins and themes for WordPress to make it what they wanted and often shared what they made with others. Today, much of the WordPress economy is driven by extenders, creating plugins, blocks, and themes, and building sub-ecosystems within WordPress.

WordPress’ decentralized nature provides benefits and tradeoffs for extenders, including:

BenefitsTradeoffs
Low Barrier of Entry – It’s fantastically easy to get started in WordPress. Decentralized resources and support are readily available and you can see your code in action quickly on any number of environments.Low Standards – There are many ways to extend WordPress and it’s easy to make something that’s insecure and performs poorly at scale. For personal applications, this isn’t a problem, when you’re extending for others, though, it matters.
Autonomy – As an extender, you can make what you want in WordPress. You can do just about anything and don’t have to play by any particular set of rules.Compatibility – Just as you have autonomy, so do other extenders, and the result is often incompatibility from one plugin or theme to the next that frustrates the creator – and the extenders that try to support them.
Business Model Flexibility – A decentralized ecosystem means you can create the business model you want. Don’t like the rules of the plugin repository? Host it yourself.Limited Distribution – If you’re building a business on WordPress, your options for distribution are limited and can be mutually exclusive. You’re responsible, effectively, for your own distribution.

With so many creators building on WordPress, the business potential for extenders is vast. Tapping that potential can be overwhelming in a decentralized ecosystem, though, and often requires a successful extender to be good at a lot of different things, above and beyond their design and development skills.

Decentralization for Hosting Providers

While you can run WordPress yourself, the vast majority of creators rightly choose to work with someone else to take care of hosting for them, while enjoying the flexibility that they can change hosts if they need to. The tens of thousands of active hosting providers we have today are WordPress’ decentralized nature realized in practice.

For hosting providers, the benefits and tradeoffs of decentralization include:

BenefitsTradeoffs
Choice – Creators know they have ownership and, thus, are free to choose the hosting provider they’ll work with. A new hosting provider can offer a better choice and win business.Differentiation – Given the freedom of choice, keeping an informed customer requires a hosting provider to show unique value. Hint: saying you’re the fastest isn’t good enough.
Engagement – Creators who recognize their ownership tend to be more engaged. They interact, give feedback, and refer.Support – Creators who are engaged tend to need more support. They’ll install more plugins and themes, they’ll try things and break things – and turn to their hosting provider for help.
Investment – As WordPress grows, the number of creators who chose to invest in WordPress grows with it. Creators are increasingly willing to spend.Margins – Hosting providers have limited capacity to align with and realize value in areas where creators are investing. Accordingly, margins tend to shrink and require increasing scale to maintain.

Hosting providers play a significant role in making WordPress accessible to creators and they’ve built their businesses on the benefits of WordPress’ decentralized nature. The tradeoffs, though, pose real threats to the sustainability of the hosting provider’s business model, especially in the face of increasing threats from centralized, proprietary platforms.

The Future of WordPress

The benefits of decentralization have contributed significantly to WordPress’ growth as an operating system. Creators have a sense of ownership, recognize their options, and contribute to the resilience of the ecosystem as a whole. Creators also feel the tradeoffs, though, as extenders and hosting providers overwhelm them with options, leading to difficult decisions, and the growing threat of stagnancy as creators stop creating in WordPress.

What if there was a way to keep the benefits of WordPress’ decentralized nature and mitigate the tradeoffs? What if we could offer creators better choices and help them make better decisions? What if we could offer extenders a way to build better software for WordPress and enjoy more sustainable business models? What if we could offer hosting providers a path to better margins through reduced support costs and increased lifetime value?

I believe there is a way and the key is in thinking about WordPress as an Operating System. It’s time to create a better “App Store” for WordPress.

Go With The Flow

I started reading books on time management as a late teenager. One of my first blog posts was about time management! (That, frankly, was embarrassing to re-read – and that means I’ve grown!)

I remember how inspired I felt. I started implementing time management systems and felt like I was figuring it all out.

One book told me to start my day by “eating frogs”.

Another told me to put the big rocks in the jar first, then pebbles, then sand, then water.

Another told me to setup inboxes and work my way to inbox zero.

I tried it all. I was on top of the world. No more procrastinating. I was getting things done, filling my glass jars, and eating those frogs.

The Problem

My time management win streaks wouldn’t last more than a few months. I’d hit a wall, something would fall apart, and before long the system would collapse.

My conclusion at the time, and for years after, was that I just needed to try harder. I needed to exercise more grit, more determination.

There’s something to all that, for sure. It didn’t work for me, though.

As a new husband, I was a few years into my experiments with time management and had just started practicing the pomodoro technique.

My wife called me during a time block to tell me that she was pregnant. I told her that I’d call her back as soon as the time block was done.

I forgot to call her back.

That was terrible. She still agrees.

Time Management Today

I don’t practice inbox zero anymore. My jars are unopened on the shelf and the frogs and I are at peace.

I get a lot done, though. What’s different now?

I think differently about time and about life. My personal time management philosophy today is simply:

Go with the flow.

Two Key Lessons

The application of my philosophy is summed up in two key lessons.

  1. Play to my strengths – What the books didn’t take into account is that we’re all different. That stuff works, it just didn’t work for me.

    I like flexibility. I like variety. I don’t like getting pinned down. Time blocking, rigid scheduling, all of that can work great for a lot of folks – it just didn’t work great for me.

    I had to get to know myself better and figure out how to play to my strengths.
  2. Design an Operating System – We use operating systems to interact with our computers, our phones, our cars, and, whether conscious or not, we use operating systems to run our lives.

    Over the past few years, I’ve invested time figuring out the habits and tools that I need to get things done.

    My operating system includes “tiny habits,” a scattered system of electronic and paper notes, and a few pieces of software to keep light track of “projects” that span longer periods of time.

    The key for me was doing the work of designing. I learned to get to know my strengths and figure out what works best for me.

Recommendations

I have two recommendations to share based on my experience.

  1. Use tools to get to know yourself better – The StrengthsFinder tool is a great resource. My personal favorite is the Kolbe A, which contributed to several significant breakthroughs for me in both my overall thinking and approach to time management. Make use of the tools available.
  2. Design tiny habits to build momentum – Ridiculously small but consistent amounts of progress in the right direction over time is where magic happens. Rather than trying to “fit it all in”, design habits around what’s important to you and build on those. (If you’re curious for some practical examples, check out my (free) book on Tiny Habits)

Managing Time

The great news about time is that we all have the same amount to work with. I’ve noticed that we humans, in general, tend to beat ourselves up about how we use time. It seems to be a fairly universal struggle.

Get to know yourself better.

If you’re in to inbox zero, filling glass jars, or eating frogs – awesome. If not, keep experimenting and design an operating system that works for you.

1001 Days of Pushups

I did my sets of pushups today, just like any other day and nothing felt particularly special about it.

It’s a big day, though.

I’ve now done multiple sets of pushups every day for 1001 days in a row. No days missed. Rain or shine, on a frozen lake, atop a mountain, on a boat, on a plane, wherever I needed to to get the pushups done.

It’s About Momentum

Practically speaking, what I’m doing today, 1001 days later, isn’t a whole lot different than when I started.

On the pushups front, I started out being able to do 1-2 at a time, four sets a day.

Today, I average about 50 pushups a day and if I want to push myself, I can do about 30 in a row without stopping.

A definite improvement, but there’s more to the story.

I chose pushups because it’s a ridiculously tiny habit. My friends laughed. What difference could a few pushups make? I should join a gym or do some real exercise.

They weren’t wrong in the short-term. A few pushups a day wasn’t going to make a big difference to my health.

Because the habit was ridiculously tiny, though, I kept it up.

Then, something magical happened. I had a habit in place and I wanted to experiment with more.

Pushups became building block habits. And they built momentum.

More Tiny Habits

Today, I track 25 different tiny habits that have helped me build momentum across a wide range of focus areas. They include:

All of these are tiny on their own. Easy to get done and really don’t seem like a big deal.

When I add them up, though, I’ve been able to use tiny habits to create significant amounts of momentum over time.

This experiment with tiny habits has been life-changing for me.

And I’m just getting started.

Distributed Work

I resisted the idea of working outside of an office for a long time. Sure, I didn’t mind working from home now and then, but an office was where real work happened.

Around 9 years ago, my wife and I moved across country and suddenly working from home was the only choice there was.

The lack of choice, combined with the thought leadership of folks like Jason Fried and DHH helped me come to terms and then eventually embrace working outside of an office.

Now? It’s hard for me to imagine a situation where I’d give up distributed work.

Today I work at Automattic where more than 1,200 of us work wherever we want to, all around the world.

So how do we make it work? It’s one thing to send everyone home (COVID-19 forced many organizations to give distributed work a try), but how do you do it well?

Key Principles

In my experience, there are three key principles to making distributed work work.

  1. Trust – This is where it all starts. Trusting your team. Not to be perfect, because we’re dealing with humans. To be responsible, though, to do what they say they’re going to do, and to own up when they make mistakes.
  2. Autonomy – Give your team the resources they need and empower them to make the decisions necessary to get the job done. It won’t be perfect. In an environment built on trust, though, where feedback can be given and received, autonomy helps bring out the best in your team.
  3. Communication – At Automattic, we think of communication as oxygen. It’s the life force of your organization. It’s hard work and communicating well means striving for effective proactive and reactive communication, at all levels of your organization.

None of it works without that first ingredient – trust.

How do you build trust?

As a leader, your responsibility is to create an environment where trust can grow. Start with a clear mission and purpose for the work you’re doing. Provide your team with clear expectations that you then trust them to meet. Embrace mistakes and teach your team to give and receive feedback.

Work Practices

There are a few areas of practice that I’ve found essential to distributed work, particularly in teams:

  1. Asynchronous Communication – For most lines of distributed work, including ours at Automattic, communicating without the need for immediate response is a key practice. Documenting thought processes and decisions, debating strategies, offering guidance, teaching, sharing experiences – it can all happen asynchronously, and usually in written form.
  2. Synchronous Communication – It’s important to have tools for live conversations in written form (e.g. chat), voice, and video (or even virtual reality). While these shouldn’t be the primary method of communication, they’re important for collaboration.
  3. Personal Connections – When we’re not fighting a pandemic, regular travel and spending time together in-person is a critical part of building relationships. Personal connections provide context and shared understanding that greatly enrich collaboration.

Favorite Resources

There are a lot of tools and resources available to help facilitate distributed work. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Remote: Office Not Required – This book helped kick off my journey to distributed work. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. Short, to-the-point, and it has great illustrations.
  • P2 – P2 is an asynchronous communication tool, built on WordPress. We use it for everything at Automattic and we’ve made it available to the public. I highly recommend it.
  • Distributed.Blog – A podcast produced by Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic and the co-founder of WordPress. Great interviews and resources.

Distributed work is the future and the future is here.

Coping with COVID-19

It started with curiosity. Near the end of 2019, I first began hearing reports of “Corona Virus” wrecking havoc in the Wuhan province of China. It warranted a second look or two, and that was it.

Curiosity turned into surprise when I realized that WordCamp Asia, an event I was looking forward to and planning to attend in February, was at risk of canceling. Then, on February 12, WordCamp Asia was cancelled.

Surprise became disbelief as cases of COVID-19 started popping up in my home state of Washington, here in the United States. I started paying more attention to the news. I rationalized the growing level of global concern as overblown.

On Wednesday last week, I was in downtown Coeur d’Alene, Idaho (I live near the Washington / Idaho border) hosting the first of what I planned to be many events focused on serving the local WooCommerce community. Disbelief became alarm as I watched the folks at WordPress.org give their guidance to postpone all WordPress events and meetups until further notice.

I went to Costco that day and disbelief became high stress as I witnessed the local impact first-hand. Costco was busier than I’d ever seen it, toilet paper was gone, and I could see the stress and uncertainty on the faces of fellow shoppers. Fear started to kick in. Was I missing out? Was I not worried enough?

That high stress built further over the weekend as I watched more news and witnessed more of the local impact. Our local schools announced their closings or switches to distance learning. Lines at local stores grew worse and worse.

On Monday, high stress became my own version of shock. I stayed in bed far longer than usual, reading the news. I picked up our kid’s materials from school, got a few things done, and then crashed. I lay in bed and cried.

Clarity

A round or two of tears later, a few things started to become clear. I recognized that this whole thing is beyond me. I’ve done what I can so far and that’s all I can do. I can’t control it.

What I can control is my reaction. I can choose to acknowledge myself, accept myself for the broken human that I am, and choose how I respond.

My Path Forward

I don’t know when this is getting better. Folks are saying it could be months, or longer. As far as I can help it, I want as few of those kinds of Mondays as possible.

To move forward, I’m focusing my energy on five areas:

  1. Faith – I choose to acknowledge and put my confidence in a loving Power beyond myself. That gives me comfort – I’m not in this alone.
  2. Community – I choose to focus on more time with my family and the communities that I’m a part of. Even if we can’t connect in person, we can stay connected.
  3. Personal Health – I choose to invest in my health, exercising a bit more, drinking more water, and keeping up with my tiny habits.
  4. Helping Others – I choose to find ways to be of help to those around me.
  5. Positive Focus – I choose to focus on the wins, taking note each day of what has gone well.

That’s working for me for now.