Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales is most famous for being the founder (and omnipresent face) of Wikipedia but is also the co-founder of Wikia, a for-profit business that supports the creation of wikis communities on any topic.
What advice would you give to younger self?
Fail faster. Try more things, and don’t be too emotionally tied to any one idea. I wasted nearly two years in the start of Wikipedia with a previous site called Nupedia, a project which was plodding and slow and which I wish I had been faster to cut short.
What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Assuming that a small dream is easier to achieve than a big one. Particularly in the internet world, I see people doing really interesting work, but with a narrow scope, when everything online should be thought about from the beginning as potentially global and potentially universal.
What — in your career — have you been most proud of?
I think it is Wikipedia’s impact on the developing world of which I’m most proud, even though I think it many ways it is just beginning. During my travels, I often take detours to visit schools in poor areas, and sometimes I meet students whose lives have been transformed by the internet, and by Wikipedia. Access to knowledge is the first step to building a better society, the first step to healing in conflict zones, the first step to genuine progress.
What has been your worst business decision to date?
Andrew Mason of Groupon tells a story about how he contacted me before he set up Groupon, asking me about a precursor project to Groupon… a political site. I don’t remember it now, but he tells me that I wrote him a long email with lots of advice that he found valuable. Based on what I know about how I usually write those kinds of emails, I probably told him that I was too busy to do more than write a single email. I should have asked to be on his board and for some stock. Ha ha. Every journalist should bug him to dig through his email archives looking for that email. I haven’t been able to find it yet, but I’m really hoping to find out that I would have become accidentally wealthy in the Groupon IPO.
Which transformative technology or market force did you not predict?
I think the most important was Youtube. I remember hearing about Youtube, and watching their growth in the pre-Google days. I thought they were bonkers; I thought their investors were bonkers. I remember hearing at one point that they were burning through a million dollars a month in bandwidth bills, and I thought they were going to be yet another of the long history of disastrous video startups. Then, like 15 seconds later, Google bought them for billions and of course they’ve become a part of the overall infrastructure of our world.
What keeps you awake at night?
Let me be really simple about this: the baby! She’s nearly a year old now, and she went through this astounding lovely period of sleeping through the night but now she’s back to her old ways.
Which single device could you not live without?
My laptop. You could take away my phone, and I’d have trouble but I could make calls with Skype or in a fit of being old school, I could get a landline (haven’t had one for years). You could take away my television, and I’d hardly even notice. I love my iPad with a passion that almost frightens me, but honestly, I would survive in a damaged state without it.
Which startups are you most excited about?
I’m sure it’s dreadfully self-serving to say Wikia, but I’m going to do it anyway. For Wikia, it’s been hard breaking through to the mainstream press and getting the attention that it deserves. By the time Wikipedia was this size, I was getting global press coverage about it. The key is that the product is just really good and people really like using Wikia. I think it’s really exciting that a site most people haven’t heard of has grown from 25 million users a month to 60 million users a month in a little more than a year without the press particularly noticing.
Shifting out of self-serving mode, I’m really excited about Dropbox (it just works, and has a sensible business model), Pinterest (massive adoption by people who aren’t normally tech early adopters), and Badoo (fascinating game-like business model and astonishing growth).