copyblogger

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Copyblogger Brian Clark Leaves DIYThemes/Thesis Theme

A few weeks ago, Brian Clark of Copyblogger.com confided in me that he was leaving DIYThemes, and splitting paths from the embattled Thesis theme and lead developer Chris Pearson. He agreed to do an interview with me exclusively about this news. This is the entire transcript of that interview.

Technosailor.com: Brian, thanks for agreeing to this interview. Obviously, the timing of this announcement and interview are interesting considering the discussions that have been happening in the WordPress community as it pertains to licensing and DIYThemes, the creator of the Thesis theme. You’ve been with DIYThemes since its inception and have championed the theme. You’re leaving the company now. Can you describe the reasoning that has gone into this decision?

Brian: Chris Pearson and I have been discussing an amicable way to split for the last 3 months. The very public disagreements Chris recently had with Matt Mullenweg were ugly and embarrassing, but that’s beside the point.

The reason for the split is more fundamental than that one issue. For the last year Chris and I have had completely different opinions about the direction of the development of Thesis, the running of the company, and our relationship with the WordPress community. And there really hasn’t been any way to resolve those different opinions given that I’m the minority owner of the company and what he decides goes.

Technosailor.com: Well, when you say “our relationship with the WordPress community,” that’s got to mean the GPL issue, right?

Brian: That’s part of it, but also, fundamentally I think Chris really wants to build something new that has nothing to do with WordPress. Trying to force his development ideas into a WordPress framework creates a whole set of issues. I wanted him to go build his thing on a separate development track and simply be okay with Thesis being a great framework that extends the power of WordPress — because that’s what it was supposed to be.

As for the GPL, I took steps from the very beginning to make sure we never issued a license that was in contravention of the GPL. We used a membership concept since 2008 after I came on board. Our terms of service said you follow the rules of your Thesis plan and get the benefits of membership — support, updates, etc. If you don’t follow the rules, you get kicked out. It was never a problem, because most people are honest.

My last official act with DIYThemes was drafting the Thesis split GPL license after Matt Mullenweg publicly committed to suing Chris. I thought that was the right move for Thesis going forward, and Chris eventually saw the light. But we were going our separate ways no matter what.

Technosailor.com: There’s a lot more to the story than that regarding the GPL. I know the story because of our conversations over the years, but other people don’t. Can you elaborate?

Brian: Okay. At the very beginning, I was completely in the dark about the GPL. I’m a content guy — I’m busy writing and producing content, not following WordPress politics. But once Chris asked me to partner with him, I naturally had to educate myself. What I found out about the GPL didn’t make much sense, frankly, but it was the way things were with WordPress. So I made sure we never took an intellectual property position in our membership terms that opposed the GPL.

About a year-and-a-half ago, Matt Mullenweg made a big push for the major WordPress premium theme developers to expressly declare themselves GPL. I think Brian Gardner of StudioPress was the first to go along. About that time, I told Chris I saw no problem with going expressly GPL, since we’re selling way more than just code and again, most people in our particular market are honest.

Chris told me to go talk to Matt and Automattic CEO Toni Schneider about going GPL and being welcomed into the WordPress community with open arms. It’s important to remember that due to the Copyblogger audience and my personal relationships, we never needed the blessing of WordPress for marketing purposes. But Matt was offering prominent exposure on WordPress.org, so why not?

Long and short is, I spent a lot of time discussing things with Matt in the early summer of 2009. We had everything worked out. I went back to Chris and he said he had changed his mind and didn’t want to go GPL after all. I thought that was a mistake, and looking back, we started diverging on just about everything from that point forward.

Technosailor.com: Now, you’ve argued with Matt publicly about whether the GPL is even legally enforceable. How do you explain that?

Brian: Oh, don’t get me wrong – as a former attorney, I think the odds of the GPL being shot down in court in this context are pretty good. A lot of practicing attorneys think so too (if you’re interested in that kind of stuff, you can read this and this).

But the law is not the point. If you’re going to develop on a massive open source platform like WordPress, it makes sense to follow the rules of the community that’s developing it. If you don’t want to, go build on something else, or build your own thing. I see the point behind the philosophy of the GPL, and I’m fine with it. I don’t like people trying to assert that it is “the law” and that non-GPL developers are “breaking the law,” because that’s just not accurate.

The GPL is a license (a contract) that has never been judicially tested in the way WordPress says it applies, and that position probably wouldn’t survive a court case. But I got out of law because I hate litigation, so why would I want to fight about it? Just play according to the home court rules and you can still make money with a great offer.

Technosailor.com: So you’re selling your stake in DIYThemes or are you maintaining your interest and stepping away from daily operations and intervention? Is there an advisory role here or is the relationship done?

Brian: At first, around 3 months ago, we explored selling the whole company. Then I floated the idea of me buying Chris out along with some investors. Chris said he wasn’t interested. We finally settled on Chris buying me out over several months of installment payments. The paperwork was drawn up, Chris had a few minor questions, and he told me it was no problem getting it done by the end of July.

Apparently now Chris has changed his mind about that as well. So things are in limbo, but I no longer have any active role with DIYThemes, operational, advisory, or promotional. Like I said, my last official act was preventing him from getting sued by WordPress.

Technosailor.com: What’s the future then for Copyblogger? You have been running Thesis for as long as Thesis has been around. Do you continue doing that or move to a different framework?

Brian: We stopped using Thesis as a development platform for pending projects months ago. It’s perfectly fine for some people, but it doesn’t play well with WordPress enough for our needs. So I’m sure I’ll move Copyblogger to something else soon. And that was part of the reasoning for my departure — I can’t promote something I can’t use.

Technosailor.com: What about Scribe? Is that part of DIYThemes?

Brian: Scribe is a separate company with a different partner and has nothing to do with DIYThemes. It’s exceeding all my expectations after only 6 months and we’ll be releasing version 3.0 this month. So it’s not all doom and gloom. ;-)

Technosailor.com: Now that Thesis has gone Split GPL, do you feel like the damage that has already been done in the community can be fixed? Is it possible for Thesis to have the prominence and success it has had prior to the public “altercations”?

Brian: I don’t know. I just know I no longer have to wake up each morning worried about what “altercation” has broken out overnight. That’s a good feeling in itself. Life is too short to be involved in things that make you unhappy.

Photo Credit: Wendy Piersall

NPR Interview This Morning

NPR’s Laura Conway from the Bryant Park Project (syndicated on a dozen or so NPR affiliates between 7-9am ET) called me this morning for a brief chat about the Congress rules fiasco that I’ve been monitoring.

Not only was this interview important for me personally (it’s NPR during the morning drivetime commute) but it’s very important for the issue at hand (it’s NPR during the morning drivetime commute!). Going on NPR this morning broke the story outside of the blogosphere and catapulted it into the attention of millions of Americans, many of whom use social communications tools everyday.

Thanks Laura and the BPP crew for the call.

Note: this is a rough recording off my computer while the show streamed. Will update with the “clean” copy from NPR after the archive copy goes up.
Listen Now.

Update: The NPR archive is up. Go listen to a better quality here.

Interview with the Entrepreneur: Jesse Thomas of JESS3

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jesse Thomas of JESS3 an innovative design firm here in the DC area. He has been working hard to create a business that is not just about design but about transforming the innovation process and working with the startups that will one day change the world.

So let’s get started….

1. Please provide us with a bit of your personal background in business and entrepreneurship.

I was always business-minded as a child. I lived by a swimming pool where they charged 75 cents for a soda. I realized that I could provide sodas at a better price and offer a larger variety. I put together a business plan, took out a loan from my parents, and started selling drinks outside the pool. When the summer ended, I modeled the same business plan around selling gum and candy to my classmates.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Busboys and Poets, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., was one of my first freelance clients. I pitched my ideas to owner Andy Shallal and landed the account. From literally before the restaurant existed, I consulted with Andy and gave him key creative input. I helped come up with the name, designed their logo, mural, signage, and built the website. Partnering with Andy Shallal was another very important experience in my career. We still do lots of work for Busboys and I am their Creative Director.

At that time I was working at Qorvis Communications. I wanted to improve my skill set and breadth of knowledge, so I spent my money on attending workshops and traveling to various conferences all over the country. Through networking and meeting many interesting people during my travels, I received several job offers and ended up taking a position at Ogilvy PR as Art Director for John Bell’s 360 Digital Influence team. Building on my experiences at Qorvis, I further cultivated a keen business sense for what it takes to execute at the agency level while at Ogilvy.

Then I left Ogilvy and worked for AOL in the Experience Prototype Lab team creating new products for AOL. This added another tool in my tool belt in terms of what it takes to conceptualize and develop a product; it was also done so on a less profit-pressure-based system. While at Qorvis and Ogilvy there was a strong emphasis on account billables and profitability, which was an important set of lessons I carry with me now that I run my own company, at AOL there was a broader sense that we needed to think about the future of the Internet and industry as a whole.

When I left AOL in December 2007, I took with me a hybrid vision of always watching my margins (just as an Ogilvy would), but pushing the boundaries of conventional thought in the industry, letting ideas that are not bound by what is possible today, but possible tomorrow lead the way (as AOL would). I believe I have combined the best of both worlds with JESS3.

2. Your current venture is JESS3 – what’s your elevator pitch for it?

JESS3 is a creative interactive agency that specializes in Social Media. We design branding and interactive projects for fortune 50 brands and small businesses. If it is a product that exists online, we are able to build it. If it needs to look extra amazing, we have the ability to craft it from scratch using many old-way methods of typography and illustration often lost on a digital age.

And, if the elevator happens to be in Washington, DC, I would mention my contribution to Busboys and Poets. From its inception, I have been a part of what it takes to build a meaningful, community-minded brand. We are now in the process of providing tools for their vibrant offline community in an online setting.

My team is comprised of project managers, web developers, and super creative people. I really enjoy brainstorming big ideas that can be achieved on cost effective budgets.

Our current clients include Wall Street Journal, Verizon, AARP, AOL, New Media Strategies, Lookery, Heritage Foundation, Blue State Digital, Advertising.com, Userplane, Clearspring, Busboys and Poets, Shopzilla, Social Times, Brian Solis’ PR 2.0, Tech Cocktail, the Interact 2008 Conference, Ellwood Thompson’s, Buzzwire, and the list goes on. We are always looking to partner with creative, talented, go-getters.

3. There’s a ton of competition in the interactive space. What makes JESS3 unique?

We focus on branding, content creation, and social media PR. Many of our competitors focus mainly on the coding aspect, or sometimes view design as turning the crank; our advantage is creativity and drawing from atypical places for inspiration (I went all the way to Paris to come up with the just-right font for a local market down in Richmond, VA ““ Ellwood Thompson’s). JESS3 happily works with large corporations, but we also love to take on very abstract projects. We are active in a lot of communities and events such as Social Media Club, Barcamp, Podcamp, Tech Cocktail, Interact2008, Social Times, Facebook Developers Garage, AIGA, Art Directors Club, Startup Weekend”¦ this list also goes on J Not only are we leaders for these events and in these communities, we are also service providers and sponsors. I feel that it is very important to give back to the ecosystem in which I live and do business in ““ it just feels good and seems right that way.

4. Since your business model seems really aligned with pushing the boundaries using Web 2.0 technologies, what is the general roadmap for your business so readers get a sense of your vision?

My roadmap for the future culminates in a Think Tank/Lab business model. I am inspired by IDEO, Fabrica, and the work I did at the Experience Prototype Lab at AOL. I believe that innovation doesn’t have to happen inside a handful of large companies in room with “œInnovation” written on the door. JESS3 will be expanding into product design as well as IP patents.

I want to cultivate my team and build the ultimate work environment. Generating revenue from select clients and being an incubator for select startups is my passion.

The JESS3 of the future will be heavily focused on Venture Capital. I want a full service, integrated agency that can service the incubated companies and can ultimately provide award-winning work at cost-effective prices. I plan on continuing to work with friends, creating new experiences, and patenting as we move upward and onward. A big part of this expansion will be recruiting talented, young college graduates and developing them into priceless ninja innovators.

5. Could you elaborate a little more on your approach to revenue creation?

My approach to revenue creation is to be profitable on everything I do. If I take on a small project I try and keep my out of pocket expenses below the project fee. As I expand the margins get smaller, but the clients get bigger.

Right now, I’m doing my best to maximize effectiveness and efficiency for our 86 active clients. I’m also traveling the world, hiring, and training new employees. Hiring the right people is a big part of my strategy and I’m a big believer in hiring only the highest quality individuals. Zvi Band, CTO, is a tech genius. James Callahan, Art Director, is an absolute artistic prodigy. Leslie Bradshaw, President, is insanely smart and hard working; she grew up on a farm and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago. I am so inspired by my team and partners.

6. How many employees do you have at JESS3 now? Is it important that they all share your entrepreneurial spirit and drive? How do you find that in new hires and keep that entrepreneurial energy alive?

Currently, I have 4 full-time employees, 15 part-time and 1 intern. Keeping the energy and spark alive is essential, especially because we are growing so rapidly. I highly value people who are hard-workers and I like to think that the harder and smarter we work, the more it pays off. We are beginning to attract some very big brands and I think this brand recognition helps encourage my team to continue their phenomenal work and dedication to the company.

7. What are the most important elements for a successful start-up company?

In the film Wall Street, Gordon Gecko said “œA fool and his money are lucky enough to get together in the first place” and I believe this to be particularly true for start-ups. I think innovative branding, a well-executed website, and a presence in social media are all essentials for a successful start-up. Cash flow and the core team are also very important elements. I believe a successful company is 20% ideas and 80% execution. Start-ups should focus on quality and enforce standards regarding execution and consistency. A start-up should spend their advertising budget on customer service. Microsoft and Google can come in and beat you on size and scale, but one of the few advantages small tech start-ups have is a combination of agility and freedom.

Travel to conferences that make sense for your market and meet new people, broaden your perspective. Always have a nice business card and make sure you always have plenty of them with you. Read blogs that pertain to your industry and always be a part of the conversation. Listen to your heart and be the best start-up you can be! I am a big believer that “œif you shoot for the moon, even if you miss you are still amongst the stars.” It is important to have big dreams and large goals. One thing I do is talk to everyone that will listen to my ideas. When someone says something negative or criticizes the idea, I think of the answer, and sometimes I change part of the idea or the way I explain it, depending on the feedback I get.

8. You are self-funded which is poses a different set of challenges versus those who get money from the likes of Sequoia and Novak Biddle. Can you give us a bit of detail on your approach to managing cash flow while trying to grow?

I am so blessed to have great cash flow and a long list of clients waiting in line to work with us.

9. Is there room in the web development space for more competitors? Have you seen any recently that seem interesting?

Sure, I believe there is a lot of room for competitors. I just completed a tour of Asia (Japan, China, Hong Kong), where I participated in lectures at design schools, took tours of agencies. What blew my mind is that, even in China, with billions of people, there is a labor shortage for Interactive Designers. At the universities that we visited, there was a lack of teachers, and in some cases it was the blind leading the blind. This is such a new concept that the rest of the world hasn’t caught up with and I believe this to be an incredible opportunity. Richard Florida writes about creative classes, and I think we should all read his books to realize that we can cultivate communities that attract smart, innovative people.

As more people get online around the world in different more exotic ways, there will be more web development needed. Brands will always need craftsmen to build beautiful original web services. The cream of the crop will always rise to the top. We are in the middle of something akin to the Industrial Revolution. It is as if I am a car creator and I am trying to explain to someone about the future of the car market. We are at a game changing moment, like the invention of the cotton gin.

10. What approach to marketing plays a significant role in promoting and attracting customers to work with JESS3?

Passion. My own passion and that of my team. My customers are so important to me; we have an amazing set of existing relationships and partnerships. I spend a lot of time in the trenches by attending events and volunteering my time and services to industry groups whenever possible. I talk to a lot of people in this industry. I pass out a lot of schwag and ask even more questions. At JESS3 we practice what we preach with creative and social media PR; we use the products we build and we hyper-actively participate in the online space that we help shape.

11. If you want people to remember one thing when they think about JESS3, what is it?

I want people to know how passionate about design and technology we are. We truly put our blood, sweat, and tears into this business. The second thing I’d like people to know is that JESS3 isn’t just me: my core team is comprised of Leslie Bradshaw, Zvi Band, James Callahan, Nick O’Neill, Jamie Gale, Eric Leach, and Becca Baker.