Russ: Hi, I’m Russ Capper and this is The BusinessMakers Show, coming to you today from the BBVA bank’s Bright Perspectives, and I’m very pleased to have as my guest, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. Jimmy, welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show.
Jimmy: Very good, thanks. Good to see you again.
Russ: You bet. Yeah, well you were here in 2007. In fact, you spent a lot of time with our own Erica O’Grady. I think that was shortly after Time magazine had named you one of the 100 Most Influential People.
Jimmy: Yeah, that was a while ago.
Russ: That must be quite a feeling to have that describe you.
Jimmy: Yeah, it was pretty amazing. On the other hand, they also had, I mean, the list of people was quite a mix. I actually, what I said is it’s only the 50 most influential people in the world and 50 who are interesting that year. That was my year.
Russ: Well, but that’s a good point. So here you did that, you know the company is what now, 15 years old?
Jimmy: 15 years, yeah.
Russ: Ok, but you’re still playing this Chairman Emeritus role, and actively involved. Do you think you’re going to do this the rest of your life?
Jimmy: Yeah, I mean I keep very busy. I do a lot of different things, but yeah, this is a big part of my life and I’m still on Wikipedia every day, talking to the community, and yeah, it’s my life’s passion. A free Encyclopedia for everyone is my goal in life.
Russ: Well and then there’s so many people that talk about what really sort of changed the world. The democratization of the internet was really, a lot of people said the first step that they realized the power was your step, Wikipedia. And it is huge, it’s just huge.
Jimmy: It is. We have over 400 million visitors every month, we’re in 250 languages, we’ve got volunteers all around the world, and it’s incredibly impactful, and I’m quite proud to be part of it in some small way.
Russ: A big way, a big way. So, it was kind of interesting, I heard you speak here today, too and you just touched on this very briefly about the whole digitization of society these days and what’s hot, and you kind of mentioned social media, and then sort of compared that to Wikipedia, which is knowledgeable reasoning. It was so refreshing to hear that because, you know, the internet and social media, and the way that blogging, and we’ve gotten so adversarial it looks like it’s an argument all the time; a polarized argument. And it’s so cool the way that you keep Wikipedia in the middle of everything. Talk about that.
Jimmy: We try. One of the fundamental principles and values of the Wikipedia community is neutrality, neutral point of view. Really trying hard to present all sides of a debate fairly, and there’s really two reasons for that. One reason is quite fundamental is, it’s a good way to try to get people of different perspectives to be able to work together. So, you may not agree about a certain issue, but you can agree to characterize it and to explain the debate to people. And that actually works pretty well. The other reason is really more fundamental. It’s, what do you want from an encyclopedia? You really want to get all sides of the story. You want to get an understanding of the debate rather than just have one side of the story and not hear everything else.
Russ: Sure. Well, it’s so refreshing though because I mean the world seems to be, at least the United States of America is so polarized and both sides of the issue seem to want to keep it that way, and nobody gives an inch.
Jimmy: Yeah, it’s troubling, and I think the media has a lot to answer for in the current climate. There’s a lot of animosity and it doesn’t give anybody a good feeling. Certainly, we’re coming near the end of an election cycle that almost no one can say, ‘I’m really proud of our country. We had a reasoned debate about the issues, and I may not agree with who gets elected but I’m happy we had it out about real things that matter.’ I mean, it’s just been a train wreck of noise and so it’s a huge challenge and it’s something that I’m very passionate about that we need to change.
Russ: We totally agree there. So, out of curiosity though in that neutrality thing, sometimes that must be even difficult to attain with your editors. I mean, I know everybody that sort of really contributes and believes in the cause works real hard at that, but still.
Jimmy: Yeah, of course it’s hard, and there are cases where we really have to work quite hard at it. What’s interesting is, where we find neutrality the hardest is not on the great issues of our time, because there’s a lot of different sources out there to draw from and so forth. It’s sort of amusing, sometimes where it’s hard to be neutral is on fairly obscure topics that almost no one cares about other than the fans. I always say, if you go and read about what, to most people, is fairly obscure: Japanese Anime, sort of Japanese cartoons, the articles are very, very favorable in Wikipedia because literally no one cares except the fans. You don’t get a lot of neutrality there, but it’s fairly harmless in that case.
Russ: Describe a little bit the business itself and how you raise money. I mean, it’s a business show, and it’s just so phenomenal what you have succeeded at without really trying to turn it into a billion-dollar company.
Jimmy: We are organized as a charity, so we are a non-profit organization, but of course you’re right to ask about it from a business perspective because even charities have to run in a businesslike manner. You aren’t necessarily trying to maximize income minus expenses, but you’ve got to make sure income and expenses are in line with each other.
Russ: Whether it’s a charity or a non-profit that doesn’t mean you operate at a loss.
Jimmy: Yeah, exactly. And so basically, we exist primarily from donations from small donors. We ask you from time to time to please chip in, and people do. We have over 2 million donors every year, and we raise about 70 million a year, and that’s always been increasing. It’s kind of been leveling off the last few years, but we’re not too concerned about that. Basically, we run at a very financially cautious way, so we always have a bit of a surplus. We build up reserves, and sometimes we’ve had some, I’ve sort of rolled my eyes at some unfair, not real press, but bloggers who sort of go crazy saying, ‘why are they still asking for money, they have 70 million in the bank.’ It’s like, well general advice for non-profits is to have 6 months to 2 years of reserves, and we try to achieve that. So yeah, we have 70 million in the bank. We spend 70 million a year; it’s good. That’s when we’re raising money. It shouldn’t be that we’re down to the last penny in the bank before we ask for money. We try to run in a responsible way. We are very transparent in our finances. Our whole budgeting process is all done in public, and so forth, because we really do want to be very careful about making sure that people trust us and that we’re not sort of blowing money on nonsense.
Russ: Right. Well, 70 million can sound like a lot until you look at what you guys do, and the coverage. It’s not much at all.
Jimmy: Certainly. It’s not much, yeah. What I always say to people is it’s, if you do the math it costs about a penny, per reader, per month to provide Wikipedia (Russ: What a deal.). So, It’s not that much, and I always say to people, ‘well look, you see the fundraising banner and you give 20 bucks, then the next 2,000 people you see, you can say, hey, I paid your Wikipedia bill this month.’ So, it’s very efficient, and has a huge impact on the world.
Russ: That’s great. All right, so I also heard you announce today this endowment idea that’s for the long term. That’s pretty cool, too.
Jimmy: Exactly. So, we do well with our fundraising. We always have to take it very seriously, and we’ve managed to build up a decent reserve. But we look at long term trends, and we see things like the ongoing shift to mobile is impacting our revenues in a negative way. You know, we don’t know what the future holds, and we really think of Wikipedia as a cultural institution, like a library or a University or something like this, and so we really want to think about, well how do we make sure Wikipedia is safe for the long run? We’re not just a .com flash in the pan, and so now we’re raising 100-million-dollar fund that’s with a separate board. We have a separate board of directors, and so we’re really doing it in the right way. So, it’s not just a bank account for some future CEO to dig into when they’ve got a loss. They’ve got to justify to an outside group, of like, ok what is this for? And it can be for a surprise need or a surprise opportunity, that kind of thing. We’re leaving it open ended, we’re trying to do that. And then for that fund for the first time we’re really saying, yeah actually, let’s go out and raise money from major donors. That’s something that we’ve traditionally not done very much of. Just to say to people, ‘hey, actually, we’re not going to come and ask you for a million dollars every year, but this is something for the long run, and we hope people will contribute.’ And so far we’re getting a good response. We have lots of friends in the industry.
Russ: Sounds like a great strategy. So, before I let you go, I do want you to mention, I want you to tell our audience about your for-profit business, Wikia. That’s pretty cool too.
Jimmy: Right, so Wikia is, one way we’ve characterized it is it’s the rest of the library, beyond the encyclopedia. Most people will be familiar with it because they’ve probably seen one of our Wikias about a really popular TV show, so like, the Game of Thrones Wikia is one of my favorites. So we have very passionate, uber fans. It’s really all about fandom who write incredibly in depth materials, and they’re writing it as a sense of community. It’s not quite charitable like Wikipedia; it’s advertisement supported, but it’s for their community of, the broader community of fans, not super fans. It’s doing well. It’s about the 15th most popular website, and still growing very, very fast, and it’s doing very well.
Russ: Jimmy, I really appreciate you sharing your perspective with us, today.
Jimmy: Great, yeah thanks for having me in again. I’ll come back again in 9 more years.
Russ: There you go, all right. And that wraps up my discussion with Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, here at the BBVA bank’s Bright Perspectives event. And this is The BusinessMakers Show.
brought to you by