EP 23: How Wordpress Grew to 700+ Groups Hosting Events

Today, WordPress is powering over 60 million websites, and it is the most popular CMS in the world. In fact, it is being used by one third of the internet. This has created a global community that includes business owners, developers, digital marketers, students and more. And all of them contributing to its Open source project one way or another.

Connected through locally organized, in-person community events such as meetups, presentations, hackathons and workshops, participants mingle with each other over one thing only – their shared love of WordPress and open source.

We are lucky to have with us Andrea Middleton from Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. Andrea is the perfect person to talk about WordCamp and the global WordPress community. Why? Because Andrea is part of a team that includes fourteen individuals who help WordPress community organizers. They are offering these organizers planning support for events, connect the community and contribute to the WordPress project. Her role is specifically focused on these in-person community events, meaning she is the best person to share with us how this all works.

With Andrea, we will get a complete walkthrough of how WordPress has today 700 groups across the world since their first community event back in 2006 which was Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic. Together, we will trace back how Automattic ensured these communities were fostered by offering them support from full-time professionals dedicated towards these community events and gatherings.

The biggest challenge here is obvious: how do you bring together so many diverse communities together and ensure the events are engaging and interesting? Andrea shares with us how at WordPress.com and Automattic the goal is to offer guidance, training and freedom for anyone that wants to host these events in their local community, creating events expressive of their localities.

It’s a classic “bottom up” approach where organizers are supported by WordPress while given freedom to do what they want to do: to bring WordPress enthusiasts together, inspire people to contribute to the Open source project and encourage participants to do more with WordPress.

With over 2,000 volunteers and organizers all working independently, in coherence with Andrea’s team, WordPress has truly achieved something wonderful: a community of individuals that not only love WordPress but are working to make it better.


Derek Andersen: 00:03 Welcome to the C2C podcast. I am your host Derek Andersen. After holding my first event in 2010 I went on to create Startup Grind, a 400 chapter community based in over a hundred countries. Along the way, I discovered the greatest marketing tool of all time your customers. Yet I couldn't find anyone sharing how to build a community where people could experience your brand in person or at scale. On this show, we talk with the brightest minds and companies on the planet about how to build customer to customer marketing strategies and create in-person experiences for your brand and customers before your competitor does. Today our next guest is Andrea Middleton, who is currently the Dot Organizer at Automattic the company behind WordPress. She's worked at Automattic for over eight years. That's like 30 for a startup. Among the many things she has done, she has spearheaded the in-person community for WordPress, which has grown to over 700 cities and 2000 volunteers. Andrea is one of the smartest community people I have ever met and one of my favorite people to talk to. Take a listen. Andrea, It's great to have you. Could you describe what Automattic is and what's your role is in the company?

Andrea Middleton: 01:21 Sure. So, Automattic is the company behind brands like WordPress.com, Jetpack, Woo Commerce as well as some non WordPress based brands like Long Reads and Happy Schedule, it was founded in 2005. My role isn't actually on the for profit side of Automattic. My team and I are donated by Automattic to the WordPress open source project. So we focus exclusively on the free software that runs about one third of the Internet today and helping build and maintain and support the volume build and maintain that software and then support the volunteers who do that work.

Derek Andersen: 02:06 And how big is your team today?

Andrea Middleton: 02:07 We are 14 today counting me. But Automattic donates another 20 ish people to the open source project. My team only focuses on community events at this point.

Derek Andersen: 02:24 How did the in-person community for WordPress get started?

Andrea Middleton: 02:29 You know, I was thinking about this. I think the first intentionally organized WordPress focused event was the first WordCamp, which was organized by Matt Mullenweg, who is the Co-Founder of WordPress and also the CEO of Automattic. That was organized in 2006. Matt and a few other friends had just organized the first bar camp. Then Matt had the idea, why don't we have a bar camp about WordPress publicized it. People flew in from all over, I think at the time. WordPress, it only been around for about three years. So they had about a hundred, 150 people from all over the world and it was a really exciting event. It really caught on. Like three years later there were about 62 different WordCamps organized all over the world.

Derek Andersen: 03:22 And WordCamp is a event that you hold that you host or like a day long. Is it a day? Is it hours, for a couple of hours? Like tell us what is, what does it mean?

Andrea Middleton: 03:32 Sure, a WordCamp, The way we define it well the way everyone defines it is at least one whole day long, a community organized WordPress focused conference. Our minimum viable product for WordCamp as we explained to our organizers is 50 people in a room all day talking WordPress. There's no restrictions really about like format or anything like that. It's just a way to get a whole bunch of WordPress enthusiasts together to geek out about WordPress.

Derek Andersen: 04:12 And are these mostly developers? Are they administrators? Are they people running businesses that create WordPress content or that make their business off of WordPress? Like who, who is this group of people

Andrea Middleton: 04:26 That, yes, all of those! Hahaha we, we are a really locally focused and diverse group of people. So the question of like, who all comes to a WordCamp or a WordPress, a local WordPress monthly meetup, which is really the foundation of our community really depends on where it's being held. We have some communities that have a lot more content creators and marketers. We have some communities that are really rich and developers or designers. We have a lot of communities that are full of entrepreneurs, business owners site builders. It's just, there's, there's room for all of those people in our community.

Derek Andersen: 05:16 Do you have a hard time like creating content or keeping it interesting for so many different types of people with so many different types of problems or does just the banner of WordPress? Is that enough to bring everybody together and make it interesting who has ever attended?

Andrea Middleton: 05:34 It's done top down like that. There isn't a central organization programming all of these events. The events themselves come together through the local community organizers. Those community organizers who are trained and supported through, through the kind of a global community team, which is kind of our central organization for our community events. They train and support our local organizers in learning how to identify what topics are going to be interesting and exciting for the local community. But you can't organize a WordCamp in your town unless you're already part of the community that it reflects. WordCamps are really more of an expression of the local community and they are something that's delivered to the local community, if that makes sense.

Derek Andersen: 06:32 Absolutely. What, what most companies only have an online community. So how do you turn that into a thriving, in-person customer to customer community that gets together offline?

Andrea Middleton: 06:46 Well, so we're a little different at least. The part of WordPress that I work on is the open source project itself. So I'm not an actual company with customers per se, but really a huge multinational collective of people who are passionate about open source and democratizing publishing. In the open source project, people have come together through the Internet since 2003 to like build and maintain and extend WordPress, this free software that powers over a third of the Internet. The goal of our in-person community events is always is it generally centers around one three main purposes to connect WordPress enthusiasts, to inspire people to do more with WordPress and then to contribute back to the open source project that's made so many businesses and so many lives better. So really for our in-person community, what drives people? What keeps people coming back? I think our, those are frequently those three things that desire to connect with people who also are passionate about WordPress, that thirst for inspiration of how to like do more and extend what you thought was possible and then that gratitude for this free kind of platform that has been the foundation for so many life changing experiences for people.

Derek Andersen: 08:23 So you have more than 700 groups, which sort of boggles the mind.

Andrea Middleton: 08:30 Mine too. Hahaha!

Derek Andersen: 08:33 What has been the biggest driver of growth?

Andrea Middleton: 08:36 That's such a good question. I think as WordPress grows, the WordPress community grows with it. WordPress has been fortunate enough to continue some pretty spectacular growth as a CMS over the past 15, 16 years. I think also part of our, the community's growth is our kind of balance between freedom and support. We have a pretty open, actually I think a remarkably open and welcoming kind of gentle path to leadership within the community program. We provide a lot of training and support for people who want to learn how to create community and create more healthy and connected communities.

Derek Andersen: 09:32 I think what's amazing to me about how the scale that it's at and what you've been able to do with it and how has having like I think of a lot of these other brands that are trying to get from you know, 10 cities to 20 to 50 to a hundred and there are certain products and communities and in some cases companies that are sort of really their customer base is really suited to these kinds of interactions. Then there are others that it's maybe more difficult but it feels like the, the WordPress community is just in one of these total sweet spots of like this is just something that the community is really good for. These types of people. At the same time, WordPress and you and your team have been working at it and pushing it. It's not like you just like, oh here you go.

Derek Andersen: 10:29 Like good luck with that. You all had been really driving it and engaging with them and improving and making it better and tweaking it and doing all these things year after year. So you really have really put a lot of fuel on that fire. I think it's, it's interesting cause I think a lot of teams struggle to get funding and of their programs and, and yet you have sort of built this community empire in, in some ways of, of just incredible amounts of value in doing so much good. I just wonder like, how, how have you done that? Like how have you proved the value? How have you funded it? And I think somebody joined your team today, your team keeps growing. So what's been the secret or what have been the sort of stepping stones for you to be able to grow and get more resources and get you know, more attention and excitement internally around the program that you're building?

Andrea Middleton: 11:30 That is a huge question, Derek. Okay, let me, I'm gonna break it down into a few parts so I should be really clear. I have, when I talk about my team, I actually have a couple of definitions there. I have a team at Automattic that is that is 14 people fully focused on supporting WordPress community organizers and contributors. Then in the open source project I have a huge team of maybe 2000 volunteers and organizers that are all working independently to create, welcoming, inclusive, inspiring and connecting events all over the world. So while I, you know, so part of I think what helps stabilize that massive a group of people and massive movement is partially. I mean Automattic giving so many full time people to the open source project is really stabilizing, you know, an open source project can be really unstable and needs a lot of maintenance support.

Andrea Middleton: 12:49 And so that the support that Automattic has given to community programs I think has helped set WordPress apart from other open source projects, community programs. These kind of have a little bit more of a centralized structure that provides way more support than almost any other open source community events program that I've ever heard of, at least. Although I'm always interested in learning about ones that I've never heard of. So please come and tell me how you're doing it right cause I would love to steal your ideas. Then as far as like how, how that continues to scale and grow. A lot of it has to do with I think the enormous amount of trust that we have in the WordPress community. We give people some outlines and then we trust really deeply, really fast.

Andrea Middleton: 13:46 And by and large we don't get taken. Like, it's pretty amazing what happens when you kind of give people of lighthouse and then a lot of freedom on how to get there. Funding wise, we've been very fortunate to start out very early with a number of businesses that have wanted to encourage the growth of WordPress community events in a pretty generous way. So we started a thing called the WordPress communities sponsor, the global community sponsorship program. Back in 2013, me and a group of wide-eyed, optimistic, enthusiastic volunteers from a number of different kind of parts of the WordPress community came up with this way because we had, we had some large companies that wanted to sponsor all of the events in the world but didn't have enough people to like connect with 50 or 75 or 120 different volunteer teams can be time consuming, right?

Andrea Middleton: 14:53 So because we had set up some financial and kind of some infrastructure within the community team to support those groups already and those organizing teams already, we were able to arrange directly with these larger companies. Okay. If you want to support the, the kind of central entity that's, that backs all of our official events, then we can disperse those funds on your behalf. That's been a really powerful I think a enabler for our, for our community organizers. I'm really, really proud of the financial and infrastructure that we have in place right now because it, you, you can be living on public assistance and still be organizing a $30,000 conference for WordPress. No money ever needs to be handled by any community volunteers. We have nest eggs of sponsorship that are given to every single WordCamp in the world. No organizer ever risks losing their own money or getting, you know, they have the legal and financial support of a centralized organization and that really allows people to take some risks and extend themselves in a way that I find really inspiring. The growth that I've seen in our community volunteers over the year, over the years is really one of the things that gets me out of bed every morning. It's really exciting.

Derek Andersen: 16:28 Yeah, that's, that's really cool how you do that and how you really sounds like tried to take care of them and treat them at the organizers and volunteers is, is good as humanly possible. You've talked about this something called the 4 Gets and, and really distilling down what someone can get from being a community organizer with WordPress. Could you tell us about that?

Andrea Middleton: 16:55 Sure. I thank you for calling out one of the pieces of writing that I'm most proud of this year. Hahaha I was I think a lot about our program and I was thinking specifically about like how much we ask of our people and how much they're just selflessly willing to give. It's stunning and humbling all the time. Then occasionally people come to our program willing to give so much but not really clear on what they can expect in return. Every relationship is reciprocal, right? So I wanted to kind of be a little bit more overt, more explicit with what people can expect to get out of this experience. Organizing our events with us. So the 4 Gets I outlined them for our organizers include the primary one is impact. Like if you are motivated by impact organizing WordPress community events is guaranteed to change lives in your community.

Andrea Middleton: 18:03 It happens all the time. Every almost every WordPress story that I've heard starts with I set up the site and then I played around a little and Dah, Dah, Dah, Dah, and then I went to a WordCamp and everything changes. Right? So like the choices you make in that, in that leadership affect a lot of lives. So that's really powerful. Another thing that we provide are, is to, our organizers is growth. We don't require that you have much organizing experience to run a large and complicated conference or to organize a meetup. So, you know one of my colleague says, we we qualify the called the people who are called to the work. We then help put them in positions where they can take fairly low risk chances and really stretch themselves and grow.

Andrea Middleton: 19:05 The third of the 4 Gets is training and support. So we, you know, you can have never organized an event before and come to us and we'll help train you and give you all sorts of information whether you like it or not, about best practices in ways that we observe to things working well and not working well. Then finally the fourth Get is protection. Back before we had the centralized organization a lot of our organizers carried pretty substantial legal and financial risks when they were putting together events more risk than anyone contributing to WordPress core, you know so we wanted to remove that risk from our organizers and make it easier for them. I was given a fifth get by the community by the way. One that I didn't want to presume but was exciting to hear. A lot of our community organizers shared that the other thing they get from our program is legitimacy. Like being able to say, yes, I'm a leader in this space. Yes, you can see that I get things done and can collaborate with people and drive a community forward, gives them a certain amount of I wouldn't say notoriety necessarily, but it makes them makes it kind of makes it very obvious to lots of people that they can get things done with groups.

Derek Andersen: 20:36 and it's sort of an an obvious way to accomplish that goal, right? Like you think, oh, I need to, you know, I need to do this or I need to do this or, but actually like it's this really fascinating sort of way up the mountain in the non obvious way up the mountain to look if I, if I go out and really just help people and spend some time and energy helping the community and being a contributor and standing in front of everyone and sort of putting my hand up saying, you know what, I'll lead you sort of are now looked at as a leader. Right. You know, and, and it just sort of elevates you and it can, we've seen this too with startup grind, was that? It took somebody that was already a good person, that had good values, that had a lot to give, but it just elevated them to a place where now everyone's seeing them and they're like, I would have people say like, how did you find this person? They're amazing. It's like they literally like applied, like they found us. They were already always amazing. You just, nobody like gave them a megaphone to be able to showcase their abilities and, and to be able to put WordPress on their resume and as part of the things they're doing for their business. I can only imagine what an impact that must bring to them to legitimize what they're doing.

Andrea Middleton: 21:48 Yeah. And I think there's something else there around like they already have the values. The other thing we would try really hard to avoid is that kind of what I call the right person fallacy. I don't think it's, I think it's really dangerous to try to just find the quote, the right kind of person to do the work because that can really lead to a lack of diversity in your community. Some it can, it can, you know, to get businessy, it can really affect you, do your funnel and all that. That doesn't help. So what we try to do is make those values very, very clear and say like, Hey, here are our values. If this, if these values match your values, if these goals are something that you can genuinely get excited about pursuing, then this is the right organization for you. You know, and like how have, have it be real clear to people like, you know, these, this is the goal here. If you want to join our, our, our quest, do we, do we have your sword, you know, come along with us and then everybody wins.

Derek Andersen: 23:02 Thank you so much for listening. If you liked the show, please leave a review wherever you listen to this. If you'd like to see more about how to create your own event community, go to bevy labs.com/pod. Again, that's b e v y l a b s.com/ pod.

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