Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

taking stock after 13 years

Today ww.com celebrates its 13th birthday. Since the day that it first started it has had quite a bit of effect, in spite of only being a ‘lifestyle’ business. We never set out to change the world, we simply set out to make something useful and we wanted to do so by writing our own ticket. In spite of that we managed to have quite a bit of impact. Here is a short rundown of the things that stand out for me as having changed the world for the better:

  • we created > 75 man-years of salaried work
  • we gave some people their first gigs in tech when nobody else would have given them the time of day
  • we gave a few million people their first taste of live video on the web
  • we gave a few million people a front-row seat during two space shuttle flights
  • we kept one of our (part time) employees debt-free through college
  • we paid off the student loan of another
  • we jump started the career of at least one of our employees to go on to greater heights than the ones we achieved
  • we bought a house for an elderly Canadian couple that was living in terrible conditions, they still live there today
  • we helped individuals and companies with little bits of money, traffic or a combination
  • we paid an indecent amount of money into the tax coffers

On the downside of the ledger, some people have used our service to pester other people, and this has caused some grief.

Now, the main reason I’m writing this here is not because I want to show you what a great person I am (plenty of the above was achieved by people that worked with and for me) but because I want to illustrate the kind of impact a small business can have. The list above is probably not exhaustive, but it’s a good representation of what I consider to be time ‘well spent’.

Think of a business as a broom, many small brooms are just as effective in making a difference as a single large one, and possibly many small brooms are more robust than a single, larger broom. The notion that big companies subsidize smaller companies is one that I don’t subscribe to.

This is not an ‘advertisement’ for running a life-style business, and I hope that it won’t be interpreted as such, it merely is a both-feet-on-the-floor report of the kind of net change that you can expect from a bit over a decade of dedication.

Now for the interesting part. When the bubble was good and hot (1999-2001) we had several options to join up with faster moving entities, but none of those panned out. We could have made our ‘shot for the stars’. I think that to some extent I should be really happy that they didn’t pan out because if we had hooked up with any of those other parties I’m fairly sure we’d have been a casualty of the .com crash like so many others. We were simply too small to fail, we weren’t out to change the world, we just wanted to sweep our own street clean and do so in a sustainable manner. A shot for the stars was out of my comfort zone and I decided against it, instead concentrating on the things that I knew best: turnover and profitability.

The other day one respected member of the start-up community decided to take the piss out of those that ‘advocate’ life-style businesses. Again, I would like to stress that I am not advocating any style business, whatever makes you happy is what you should pursue. But it bugs me when people that high on the ladder miss the point entirely.

Lets try real hard to recognize the following elements:

  • comfort zone
    Everybody has their own comfort zone. I would not be comfortable having the direct responsibility for the lives and well being of more than 10 people or so. Beyond that I get really, really nervous and this leads to mistakes or worse. The same goes for money. A few million in turnover I can deal with. Beyond that and it's silly money to me and I lose my sense of perspective. Push or pull me out of my comfort zone and accidents will happen.
    A comfort zone is a dynamic thing. You can grow up to be more comfortable at a higher level, or maybe you're born with that. Whichever way you're wired, operating outside of your comfort zone is probably not wise, growing comfortable at some level and increasing the scope of your comfort zone is doable and something to strive for.
  • ability
    Some people have no sense of the limits to their ability. In some cases this leads to great things happening but it can also lead to absolute disasters. Knowing your limits can be an asset, it can be your downfall if you place your own limits not conservatively enough, you may waste some potential if you place them too conservative. Getting a realistic grip on what's possible (and what you are capable of) is an asset. And if there is a hard limit to your ability, then so be it. I won't think less of your for that.
  • obligation
    The big 'O' word has been used, and that brings out the worst in me. *Nobody* is obliging anybody but themselves to 'do the very best they can'. Only you can know what is your 'best' and only you can know your circumstances enough to decide whether you have it in you to try to make a go of it in some way or other. We are not ants, we are not obliged by society to throw ourselves on the fire for the common good. That's just force by another route. There is nothing wrong with people that are employed, there is nothing wrong with people that run a one-man/one-woman shop. There is nothing 'wrong' with a mid sized business and there is nothing wrong with shooting for the stars using venture capital and other tools from the financial markets (Hi Elon Musk). Everybody gets to do what they want to do of their own free will. That's what defines our society more than anything else, and if you have it in you to cure AIDS but you decide to take up golf instead then that's just too bad, I won't begrudge you your freedom. Any other reasoning will lead to some form of obligation that I find very distasteful. As soon as it's forced, it's bad.
    Let's not kid ourselves and piss on those that are lower on the totempole of 'doing good', everybody gets to write their own ticket and if yours is more ambitious than that of someone else then more power to you. We'll take stock when it's all over or when sufficient time has passed and if you managed to do great things then that's fantastic. But don't go tooting your own horn before you've got something concrete to show for it, and even then recognize that it's just another datapoint, that it could have easily ended in a different way and that your achievements do not make anybody else's achievements any less.
    If you really want to be 100% sure that you're going to change the world for the better join Docteurs Sans Frontieres, if you're going by any other route recognize that (1) you're probably not just altruistically motivated (and the louder you say so the less I'll believe you) and (2) that means that you don't get to tell other people how to run their lives.
  • show don't tell
    If your plan is to change the world: change the world. Seriously, telling people how you're going to change the world, blogging about it, tweeting about it and ramming your philosophy down other peoples throats is not going to change the world for the better (in fact, it may make it worse). The only message that will be understood is to live by example. Your plans do not trump anybody else's plans, though your achievements may in time come to be recognized, and preferably not by you but by others.
  • not everybody that sets out to change the world for the better succeeds
    And conversely, not everybody that just scratches their own itch will manage to avoid changing the world for the better. Linus Torvalds is a nice example of that.

There is room for people from all walks of life to do their thing in their own way. Some will go on to do great things, some will fail. Don’t congratulate yourself too much on your own accomplishments, recognize that a good part of your achievements is a combination of luck and timing. Don’t berate yourself too much for failing either, the same holds true.

Just do what you think is best and do it with a smile. And don’t get too hung up on the labels that other people try to affix to your efforts, you’re not obliged to anybody but an effort to excel will be appreciated by others regardless of the outcome. If you’re in a position to make big strides, I’m happy for you. If you take the slow road because it suits you better than that’s just fine too.

On to the next 13 years, we’ll see what else we can squeeze out of this lemon. If all it does is achieve the goals I’ve set for myself I’ll be happy, if I manage to achieve more I’ll be dancing on the table.

That’s not a lack of ambition on my part, I sure would like to make a bigger impact than that. But I’m also fairly realistic about my own ability to effect change and the ‘footprint’ that my efforts can have. Age tends to temper the fires of youthful enthusiasm with that thing called reality. If there is more to be done, I’ll probably take it but if there isn’t I’m not going to sit crying by the wayside as though my life was wasted and as though I did not fulfill my obligation to humanity somehow.