You've likely heard a lot about the WordPress economy over the past couple of years. Tens of thousands of people make their living with WordPress. It's likely that many thousands more work at news sites, agencies, or other companies where WordPress is a key platform. Naturally, interest in business tracks at WordCamps has been strong.
Jake Goldman, founder of 10up, brought up a valid point the other day that there is potential for “snake oil” types to infiltrate such business tracks at WordCamps. His initial comments were a bit more pointed, but I understood his point. He's worried about WordCamps turning into gimmicky events.
Sure, there is potential for abuse from speakers in WordCamp business tracks. But there is potential for abuse for every type of track, especially when organizers are volunteers. Organizers have to work hard to screen speaker applicants to try and filter out potential bad apples. Will some make it through? Sure. But at least we can learn from mistakes and do better next year.
So, while I understand where Jake is coming from, and I did enjoy the conversation that came from his tweets, I do think there is value in these tracks. People are curious about how others are integrating their WordPress talents with business acumen. They are looking to learn from one another's ideas and methods.
That said, business tracks should never be a primary focus for WordCamp. That's what makes new events like PressNomics (which Jake also supports) so great. It's specifically geared toward such content.
What makes a speaker qualified to talk business?
I'd like to additionally comment on what I think defines “success” or makes someone “qualified” to talk about WordPress and business.
I believe that success in business is more than having a lot of employees or how much money you bring in. Success is, at least in part, about maintaining a high degree of craftsmanship, client satisfaction, and laying a foundation for a business (large or small) to function smoothly over a long term.
For instance, I love to keep my eye on companies like Paravel. Three people. But undeniably, Paravel is one of the most respected agencies in the world. Hell, this tiny little company worked with the behemoth Microsoft on their homepage. No one would deny that these guys aren't qualified to talk about business about the web in general. The same holds true for some smaller companies in the WordPress industry.
Off the top of my head, I quickly think of Range, Bill Erickson, and The Theme Foundry. Here we have a full service boutique agency, a highly regarded freelancer, and a theme shop. None of these three are large entities, but I'd freaking love to hear any of them talk about business at a WordCamp.
The Theme Foundry is a four person theme shop, Bill Erickson does projects large and small, and Range is a team of three. Nothing is stopping these folks from kicking ass just as much WooThemes, 10up, or even the company I work for (over 20 people working around WordPress).
It's silly to say that someone at WordCamp cannot give a talk about running a business, or getting contracts, if they “only” run a small shop or freelance. So, while I think it's wise to be careful to screen speaking applicants as best we can for WordPress business tracks, I also think we should be careful to not snub our noses at anyone that isn't “famous” or doesn't run a well known consultancy with dozens of employees.
I think Matt Mullenweg may have said it best when he responded to one of Jake's early tweets.
@jakemgold we're all amateurs.
— Matt Mullenweg (@photomatt) June 3, 2013
And we can all learn from one another.