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Ep. 16, Featuring Daniel Walmsley from Automattic

Dan Walmsley – XWP Tonight Show – S3E03

In this episode, Amit hosts Daniel Walmsley: Technical Lead at Automattic and one of the key forces behind Jetpack, to talk about how he became involved in Tumblr, collaborating with XWP, and his current focus.

Learn more about what Automattic learned from the pandemic, finding your audience with Tumblr and bringing performance to the people with Jetpack Boost for WordPress.

Transcript:


If you want a site for your organization, the only game in town is WordPress. And if you want to go WordPress, then you want to ensure the site is secure, runs fast, and helps you grow your audience. Enter: Jetpack. This is the one WordPress plugin packed with all the tools you need to achieve your goals. My guest tonight is Daniel Walmsley. He is a code wrangler at Automattic, and he was a powerful force behind Jetpack. Now he’s putting his focus on Tumblr. The place online culture is created. 

Amit
Good evening everyone and welcome to the show. I’d like to introduce you to our guest, Dan.

Dan
Hello! Hi, how are you doing?

Amit
Dan, let’s start from the beginning—Automattic: the force behind WordPress. How did Jetpack come to be a part of Automattic, and similarly, what’s the story with Tumblr? What kind of relationship did these divisions have with Automattic and with each other?

Dan
Yeah, so the history of Automattic is quite long. We’re kind of mature. We’re definitely not a startup anymore- but nor are we a global mega-corporation. But we started out with wordpress.com which was basically a hosted version of WordPress where you could go and create a site without having to get your own hosting or register a domain and we thought that that was a really great way for people to get started with WordPress and get a free site and get experienced with publishing. And what happened over time is we had people saying hey, like, I love all these features of wordpress.com but when I go to my own site, I don’t have them anymore. And Matt was like, “We want people to have the freedom to host anywhere we need to live up to these values.” And so he created and the team then which was quite small I created a plugin called Jetpack so that people could bring all their stats and data and all the extra features from wordpress.com with them to any site in the world.

Amit
Now a question from out there. If someone is starting a business and they want to grow their audience, how do Jetpack and Tumblr help people to find their audience?

Dan
Yeah, that’s a great question. So both of them have social features. So you know, when people can engage and share—engagement provides you with a way for your audience to ask you questions and interact with you. And sharing obviously: let’s send that, or share that engagement with different people who might enjoy it. And I think anybody who’s got a brand wants to go where people are the most engaged. So I think people are realizing that it’s not about going as big and as broad as possible. It’s about finding the communities of people who are really going to respond to what you’re doing. And both Tumblr and WordPress have very strong, narrow communities of interest that you can go and tap into and see how they all link to each other and explore and engage. It’s not about broadcasting, it’s about conversation, and I think that’s what those two platforms have in common.

Amit
Now in our engagement together, XWP cares a lot about site performance. We have a long history with Automattic, including Jetpack. And from our side, it’s been fantastic to see our experience being productized in products like Jetpack Boost, but I’d love to hear about the relationship from your point of view. How did you come to the place of inviting XWP to partner on some of these products and what was that experience like for you?

Dan
I’ve always had a huge respect for XWP and the work that you do and of course I’ve heard of you through VIP and I’ve been to the WordPress VIP meetups and had talks and things and somewhere along the way I met Leo, who is a real force of nature and he and I used to just have these great, inspiring, “what if” kind of conversations and I was just like, yes, he’s a really cool guy. And over time, sometimes ideas would come out of those or different collaborations. I would ask him for advice or connect to someone who knew this or that, and I think at some point, he introduced me to you and said that Amit’s just come on board, he’s looking for different types of things we could do in the world, different arms of the business. And so we just started brainstorming about, should it be some kind of VIP bundle of Jetpack or should it be a search product or SAS offering? It was totally blue sky. And then what ended up coming along was an opportunity to create a performance plugin, where we worked with you guys to figure out what are the real performance bottlenecks most sites hit, and which of those do we think we can productize and just bake into something that could help a lot of people with a free version, and then maybe have some cloud services layered on top. And so that became Jetpack Boost. I was actually talking to James today, the head of Jetpack, and he was straight up, he was like, without XWP, that product wouldn’t have happened. Because we’re in a big organization where there’s a lot of different competition for resources. And when you have an idea, and you feel like its moment has come and this was an idea with a deadline—we knew Google was going to introduce ranking changes. We knew that there was a marketing opportunity. We had to get on this quick, and we were able to say, yes, let’s do it because we knew that XWP could provide the person power and the expertise, and that led us to really kick that thing off. And I don’t think we would have, we’d have to wait until we had the resources to do it ourselves entirely in house. I think we would have missed that opportunity. So that I think was really powerful, that combination of deep expertise on real world websites, and the brain brainstorming that comes out of that and then just the people who know what they’re doing and can chip in.

Amit
Wow, greatly appreciate the feedback. And it’s something that we wear very proudly, the opportunity to make an impact with Automattic, to see Jetpack Boost, and to see what it’s become has been a really big point of pride for XWP, something that we really appreciate the ongoing relationship that we have together. Can I ask you, in your view, how’s the pandemic affected the growth of Jetpack and Tumblr and the type of customers you’re attracting? And also the use cases that you are seeing, that people are taking it on to adopt?

Dan
You know, there was definitely a pandemic bump, where there’s tons of businesses trying to do digital transformation, trying to sell things online. Jetpack is now an integral part of WooCommerce. So we’re seeing a lot of connections coming through WooCommerce, and people trying to quickly spin up stores on the dotcom side, again, a lot of that sort of thing. People trying to quickly start a store or at least get their business online so that people know that they do deliveries or curbside service or whatever that is. But that’s actually been tapering off the last little while, and I think there’s two stories to tell there. One is the people who got up and were successful and sustained the virtual side of their business. One of the first things I did when we went into lockdown here in California was I had a friend who ran a yoga studio and she had a Squarespace site, we didn’t convert it to WordPress, but she wanted her yoga lessons to go online. So we did that and we thought, it’s this interim thing, I tried to do the cheapest, fastest thing. Quick amazon.com, get a camera and headphones and plug it in and see what we can do. And now that’s a huge part of her business. It’s a big maybe a third to half of her business, even though they’re back doing lessons in person, is this virtual side of things. And so, if you can achieve escape velocity, you can come out of the pandemic not only having survived, but also having more resilience in the future and having additional ways that you can grow. And that’s been a really great thing to be part of on the dotcom side, with all these businesses going digital.

Amit
You know, when I thought of this question, it was specifically based on an early conversation that I had with you just when the pandemic was starting, and we were discussing the growth that was being experienced, and how people were adopting technology. And the fact that if the pandemic had hit us, I don’t know, 30 years ago pre internet, how many businesses would not have been able to survive, to adapt, to evolve in order to still have commerce. So I think it’s been a very sad situation in the world but very interesting from the perspective of the adoption of technology for commerce.

Dan
It’s a different story all over the world, right? Because also in the last 30 years, you see an increasing urbanization that’s meant that more people were affected by being locked down, and things like that. So it’s a really big multivariate, “what if” kind of problem, but definitely, having Slack, having Zoom, having these technologies that are pretty mature and ubiquitous and can run on your phone and your laptop and your kitchen display, and that sort of thing. I mean, it’s an absolute game-changer, and the fact that Zoom had just achieved this sort of stability for the masses and similarly with Slack right around that time was pretty amazing.

Amit
Well, that’s how we can have you on the XWP tonight show you know, welcome to the studio. Dan, thank you so much. Love working with you, love the conversations that we have. And thank you very much for being on the XWP Tonight Show. 

Dan
Thank you so much. 

Amit
Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next time.