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#87 – Jonathan Wold on Guildenberg, What It Is and How It Aims to Help Product Owners

[00:00:00] Nathan Wrigley: Welcome to the Jukebox podcast from WP Tavern. My name is Nathan Wrigley. Jukebox is a podcast which is dedicated to all things WordPress. The people, the events, the plugins, the blocks, the themes, and in this case Guildenberg, what it is and how it aims to help product owners.

If you’d like to subscribe to the podcast, you can do that by searching for WP Tavern in your podcast player of choice. Or by going to forward slash feed forward slash podcast. And you can copy that URL into most podcast players.

If you have a topic that you’d like us to feature on the podcast, I’m keen to hear from you, and hopefully get you or your idea featured on the show. Head to forward slash contact forward slash jukebox and use the form there.

So on the podcast today we have Jonathan Wold.

Jonathan has been deeply involved in the WordPress community for almost two decades. He began writing tutorials and freelancing, which eventually died him to the agency world, where he worked on large enterprise projects. In the past five to six years, Jonathan has shifted his focus to the broader WordPress ecosystem. He’s also had the opportunity to work at WooCommerce and collaborate with the team at Automattic. Despite the demands of his busy career, Jonathan’s passion for WordPress has only grown stronger over the years.

Jonathan is one of the co-founders of Guildenberg, and in the podcast today we discuss what this project is and how it aims to revolutionize the WordPress product ecosystem.

We start the conversation by highlighting the importance of behavior in the WordPress community and the core values that drive the platform. Autonomy, meritocracy, utility, and giving credit where credit is due. Jonathan emphasizes the significance of giving credit to the original creators of work, even though it may not be legally required.

We move on to talk about how Guildenberg aims to solve some of the key problems faced by WordPress product owners, such as monetization, compatibility and distribution. Jonathan envisions a system where product owners pay a fee for distribution of their products. With a portion of that revenue going back to the Guildenberg project. By aligning incentives and providing economic motivations for contributors, Guildenberg seeks to create a sustainable and thriving ecosystem for the open web.

We get into the inspiration behind the name Guildenberg, which combines the idea of Gutenberg and the guild institutions from medieval Europe.

We also discussed the team’s longterm vision of creating an app store for WordPress that spans the majority of installations, offering monetization options, and enforcing compatibility standards.

If you’re a WordPress developer, who’s keen to find a way to create visibility for your product this podcast is for you.

If you’re interested in finding out more, you can find all of the links in the show notes by heading to. forward slash podcast, where you’ll find all the other episodes as well.

And so without further delay, I bring you Jonathan Wold.

I am joined on the podcast today by Jonathan Wold. Hello, Jonathan.

[00:03:58] Jonathan Wold: Hey Nathan, how are you?

[00:04:00] Nathan Wrigley: Very good. Jonathan’s joining us, I think, for the second time on the Jukebox podcast. We’re going to have an in depth conversation about something which is close to his heart. It’s called Guildenberg. I’m going to make a link in the show notes to an article which I think probably would be a wise idea to read to give you some perspective.

Before we begin and dive into the subject matter though, Jonathan just tell us who you are. Tell us about your WordPress journey.

[00:04:27] Jonathan Wold: So I’ve been immersed in the world of WordPress now for about 18 years. I started out writing tutorials and I did a bunch of freelance early on. Spent a couple of years in the agency world doing some big enterprise stuff. And then spent the past five, six years or so focused on the ecosystem more broadly.

I also got to spend some time at WooCommerce. The lovely folks over at Automattic, and yeah it’s been quite nonstop for me. I think a good indicator is that I like WordPress even more 18 years later than I did when I started. And I think that the community is a massive part of that. That’s what got me hooked initially.

Folks on the .org forums answering my questions and showing me, oh wow, there’s something about this like open source space. And not just open source, but WordPress specifically that drew me. And yeah never looked back.

[00:05:23] Nathan Wrigley: Great, thank you. So we’re going to be talking about something called Guildenberg. I’m going to repeat that word, Guildenberg. It’s not the word that I’m used to saying, which is Gutenberg. So we’ve got the berg bit, that’s the same. But then we’ve got this guild bit at the beginning and I guess maybe Europeans, I don’t know, maybe I’m mischaracterizing that, but it feels like Europeans who have a thirst for historical knowledge perhaps know what guilds are.

I don’t know if it was something that came across the pond to North America, but did it? And if it didn’t, what are guilds?

[00:05:57] Jonathan Wold: So that’s a fun way to frame it. So first I’ll call out that one of the things that I’ve loved about this community. Because it is by default, like international in nature, I’ve had the privilege of being exposed to a lot of ideas that might not have been as prevalent to me with my North American base otherwise.

I can’t recall where the concept of the guild first came up, but where I went to immediately was reading about the history of guilds in Europe, right? That’s the foundation for a lot of my initial thinking about this. Here in the States we have the concept of unions, which has some parallels, but it’s focused more on trade and specific lines of work.

Yeah my basis for this was reading about the history of guilds in Europe. The positives and the negatives from a few different perspectives and I found that super helpful.

[00:06:49] Nathan Wrigley: I think at least anyway, that the guild traditionally was an organization which would bind together people who did a very similar thing. So, for example, you might have, I don’t know, a printer’s guild. Or you might have a blacksmith’s guild or something like that. And it would be a kind of club, for want of a better word, of people so that they could share their experience. They could share their knowledge. They could keep up to date with what the other people were doing. I think I’ve got that right.

[00:07:18] Jonathan Wold: Yes, and it’s curious too that just by the nature of who’d be involved you’d often have competitors. Yet they were working together. There’s benefits and trade offs, right? But overall though the idea is that they’d work together to improve the quality of their work.

So you had guilds that took this quite far where they also have seals that, you know, used by the guild to say okay, we have a quality approval here. Others who it was more loose, like an association where we’re supporting each other, sharing ideas, et cetera. Some got pretty heavy into regulating production and monitoring, and there’s a lot of different facets of it.

The heart of it though, and my primary interest is facilitating cooperation in what would otherwise be a decentralized space. And many of these just somewhat by their nature, the folks who’d be involved in these guilds, they were individual entrepreneurs doing their own things and decided to come together to facilitate cooperation, collaboration around opportunities of mutual interest.

[00:08:21] Nathan Wrigley: So you’ve put a article together. It was written at the latter part of last year, August, 2022. It’s called a Guild for WordPress Businesses. And helpfully you start out explaining your knowledge of what a guild is. But the intention of that really is to begin the conversation in which you propose, perhaps there should be a WordPress businesses guild. And you’ve come up with the name Guildenberg which for obvious reasons, kind of fits the ecosystem just perfectly.

Now in order to have a solution to something, presumably you have to have a problem for it to be solving. So again, right near the top of the article you outline three problems which you see going on in the WordPress product business space at the moment.

Now I could introduce them but I feel it’s probably better to just hand it over to you and you tell us what your thoughts are.

[00:09:11] Jonathan Wold: So quick shout out to my co founder Anna Maria Radu. She came up with the name, and it was a fun process. Like what are we going to call this thing? And she’s the one who picked it up and combined the idea of Gutenberg and the guild together. So she gets that credit, among many other credits.

The key starting point here was like what problems are we setting to work on, right? And it was that problem set that we’ll touch on in a moment that became the basis for saying, okay, what construct could we use to solve these? And that’s where the concept of the guild began to fit in.

So within WordPress specific product businesses, and I think that’s important to call out too. I care about the agency space, I have a lot of context and background for that. But what I think, let me take a step back. For about five, six years now I’ve been thinking more and more about WordPress as an ecosystem, and thinking about, okay, what are some of the leverage points?

What are ways that we can grow and improve this ecosystem? And for me that matters because of the position that WordPress takes within the context of the open web. I believe that the healthier our ecosystem is, the better it is for the web.

I like the proprietary platforms that they hold. They can foster innovation. They can bring clear value. I don’t want to see a web though dominated by proprietary platforms. And so I look at WordPress’ place today, it’s great in terms of its market share. We want to see it become even healthier and stronger, and be in a place where the proprietary and open source are meeting together. But there’s a balance of power there.

So that’s a starting point. What can we do to grow the ecosystem and make it stronger? At first, and for several years, I was quite convinced that helping hosting companies work together was going to be how we move the ecosystem forward. I still think that’s a piece of the puzzle.

But what I focused on, what I realised, in that process is that you have to figure out a way to align incentives. And there were some inherent problems with facilitating cooperation amongst the hosts. And that could be a whole topic in and of itself. What I ended up settling on though is that of the three primary business groups in the ecosystem, you have the service providers, that’s your agencies and freelancers, you have the hosting providers, and you have the product companies.

I believe that the product companies have the greatest opportunity for leverage, to grow and improve the ecosystem. Because they’re the ones that are directly touching, okay so there’s that idea that they have the greatest leverage. And I think that the reason why is when you look at WordPress through this framing of being an operating system for creating on the open web, which is something that Matt Mullenweg has been talking about for years now. He first introduced that idea.

If you think about WordPress as an operating system, and then you think about the products as being on the app store, that’s where I think it starts to come into perspective.

You need a whole ecosystem of hosting providers and service providers, but the products are like the apps that bring the core value. And if you think about it there’s very few people these days who would use WordPress without any plugins, without any apps, if you will.

And so I ended up settling on, okay, product companies are the key leverage point for being able to grow and strengthen the ecosystem. So what problems do they have? And there are three problems that stand out to me that are faced by product companies in the space. And I’m going to focus first on those that are just WordPress specific. SaaS is another category but they have some of their own, they have a different set of problems.

For WordPress founders the first one is what I just call like monetisation. This category of monetisation. A lot of folks who grew up in the WordPress space, created products, often had developer backgrounds. Monetisation has been something that we’ve struggled with. Whether it’s pricing, whether it’s business model, whether it’s just that we’re copying someone else who didn’t get that figured out. We tend to be poorly monetised in the space.

And the key here is it’s misaligned with value. There are end users, for instance, that look at the price of a WordPress product and don’t trust it. You’re telling me that I’m going to build my business on this product that only costs a couple hundred dollars. I’m supposed to have confidence in that when the SaaS counterparts are thousands of dollars.

So there’s more to it than that. It’s great to be able to pass on value to the end users but it needs to be a conscious decision. And a lot of times folks making decisions on monetisation don’t have a strong basis for it. And they’re not focused on aligning with value to the end user. They’re just picking an arbitrary price. So that’s problem one.

Problem two is compatibility. And it’s this idea that a lot of these products just don’t work well together. Not because they don’t intend to but because there’s so many different ways of doing things. There aren’t any shared, well there are intentions towards shared standards, but there’s missing alignment of interest to actually enforce those standards and improve them.

It’s like product developers will do so because they care about it, but those tend to be the minority. And oftentimes some of the most popular plugins don’t do that. It’s a lot of work and there’s not a lot of incentive to make things all work well together.

The last one, and I think the one that shows the most, that sticks out the most, that’s the most pressing, the most problematic for folks, is distribution.

You have these products that solve a clear problem for their audience. There’s a clear value proposition. They have that, what we’d call product market fit. And yet the majority of their addressable market within the WordPress ecosystem has no idea that they even exist. According to WebPro’s data we have 92 million active WordPress sites.

And on the one hand, if you’re building a product in the WordPress space that’s fantastic, right? You have a massive addressable market that you can get to. But on the other, there’s no clear cut way today to actually get to that addressable market. For the simple fact that all of those 92 million are spread out over thousands of different hosting companies, who are somewhat effectively their own ecosystems in and of themselves.

[00:15:15] Nathan Wrigley: Makes perfect sense. So let’s deal with those in turn. The monetisation piece where you talk about the fact that businesses are often either undervaluing their offering, or there’s a perceived, prejudice is the wrong word, but just the idea that things in the WordPress ecosystem ought to be cheap, everybody else is cheap so I should probably be cheap because I need to undercut my main competitor.

I don’t really have any insight into the world outside of WordPress, so I don’t really know how far that argument carries. Perhaps you do? What I’m really asking for there is a bit of clarification. Are we orders of magnitude behind in terms of the value that we put on our products? Are we, for example, charging a fifth, a quarter, a third of what you might typically find elsewhere?

[00:16:02] Jonathan Wold: So it depends. I would say at least from what I’ve observed and my sense of things on just the small business front, we’re behind but not terribly behind. Where it really starts to show up is with mid market and enterprise pricing. If we even go that far, right?

Like enterprise certainly makes use of WordPress and there’s a pretty big disconnect overall between value and price and business model even. And just for instance, offering enterprise level support.

It’s hard to pin down because sometimes it will be based on verticals, like you’ll have a WordPress creator or WordPress product that will focus on a particular vertical. But they’re not really matching the expectations in that vertical. It’s all over the board. On the one hand, it’s delightfully autonomous, people have the freedom to do whatever they want.

The real problem that I see with this is that they’re not explicitly aligning it with value to that end user, which can vary. An enterprise, for instance, they have a whole different, they’re doing millions of dollars a month in revenue and the plugin that they’re using as a basis for that is only a couple hundred dollars, that kind of scares them, right? Like how do we know that we’re gonna get the support that we need? And the author hasn’t even necessarily considered that.

[00:17:17] Nathan Wrigley: It is interesting as well, you were talking about products that were in the region of sort of $200 and presumably that was the sort of southern estimate. But it’s not difficult to find plugins that are considerably cheaper than that as well. You know the number 49 and 47 dollars for a license, for a single site license, for something might be something that you see all over the place. And it does beg the question, how many of those licenses does a product developer need to move in order for their business to become worthwhile to them?

You know if you’re going to be putting in the time to have that as your single focus, which in many cases I’m sure the developers would love to have. You really do have to be shifting tens of thousands of those, for support and all of the things that go along with that. So yeah, I think undervalued is an interesting term there.

[00:18:08] Jonathan Wold: And it’s interesting. Some folks might infer from this that, oh we just want to like price fix the ecosystem. Like no that’s not interesting to me at all. I love folks having the autonomy to price whatever they want to. What I’m concerned about, because it’s also a good way to drive innovation too, right?

If you’re going to charge more it should be tied to value. It’s not just about extracting. It’s how do you align with additional value to the end user? And just the general challenge I see, and I think this is one that we solve through education and through modeling, is developers and product owners, entrepreneurs who just aren’t asking the right questions, and aren’t focused on that value piece.

That’s like oh okay, well my competitors are generally doing this so I’ll just do less. Or they’ll think oh if I just do less I’ll get more volume. But they’re not considering the longterm consequences of charging less, and whether they’ll be able to support it longterm.

So it’s a problem that we solve I think through education and through better examples in the space, and we’re starting to get more of those. But I just wanted to point out it’s not like I just want everyone to increase their prices. I want people to align with value for the end users. And a lot of cases that does include increasing your prices so that you can provide more value to them. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s keep the price low.

[00:19:22] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. And then compatibility was the second point that you mentioned. This is really curious, isn’t it? Because I guess if you’re developing your own SaaS platform, really you don’t have any compatibility problems. You simply need to develop your own stack and you can ship whatever you like, whenever you like. So that doesn’t exist.

But also if you are building on top of, let’s say WordPress’ rivals, for example Wix or Squarespace or Shopify. Again, you’ve really only got one target to worry about. And that’s what Wix are doing and what Shopify are doing. So long as you’re keeping abreast of all of that, you’re good to go.

Whereas, as you say, in the WordPress space, 60,000 plus I think it is at the moment, WordPress plugins, the combinations there are almost infinite. And that really can upset your business. I would imagine that a typical WordPress company support channel is constantly filled up with emails saying, well I’ve got these plugins and they don’t seem to work together, what do I do? And yeah, what do you do? So yeah, this is interesting endeavor.

[00:20:21] Jonathan Wold: This especially shows up with the hosting providers, right? They’re the ones who often hear this first from the end users. And it’s a bit classic, right? If something’s not working, a lot of times folks will, one of the standard advice is well try to disable all the plugins and then kind work backwards from there. Which is a bit of a nightmare scenario really. To uninstall all your apps, I’m like what I don’t to do that. Like I picked these, there’s a reason for all this.

So this often comes up with hosts and compatibility is overall in all my conversations with hosts, like one of, if not the number one cost centre for WordPress is stuff that just doesn’t work together.

And again, I think that the core problem here is aligning incentives. It’s open source. One of the things we love about WordPress is the flexibility to do whatever we want. What often happens, and there’s benefits to this, but you’ll have developers who will do their own custom interfaces. They’ll try some new things. They’ll bring this thing, this development practice in or that one. They’ll try to use this SDK or something else. Like it’s just all over the board.

The flexibility is great, but the trade off really shows up on the compatibility front where these things just don’t work together. And there’s a lot of cost to the end user or to the developer, when they’re trying to make things work with someone else. Including just a lot that’s outside of their control entirely. You could care about compatibility, put in all the effort, maybe you even create a patch for some other plugin author, and there’s no guarantee they’ll ever do anything with it.

[00:21:47] Nathan Wrigley: That’s true. I speak to developers fairly frequently, some of whom do literally patch other people’s plugins so that they can get their support ticket queue down to zero. Yeah that’s really interesting. I guess the model that we would love to have, on the one hand, would be something akin to you know the Apple ecosystem where if an app is literally crashing the iPhone, Apple will just remove it from the ecosystem until it’s mended.

Now that’s brilliant in the one sense that you can just get rid of all problems with the flick of one switch. But the downside of that is that system is about as closed as it possibly gets, and 30% of the revenue goes to Apple in that case. So swings and roundabouts really. Seemingly this is going to be a really difficult one to tackle.

So is your endeavor around compatibility really just promoting what compatibility is? And just letting people know what the guidelines are for developing things and just making people good citizens of the WordPress development landscape.

[00:22:45] Jonathan Wold: That’s a part of it, but I really think we have to align incentives. Let’s talk about the app store piece. My longterm vision, so on the one hand, I’m okay with this looking like any number of things so I’m not caught up on the details of it. But like my longterm vision and what we’re laying the groundwork now with Gildenberg is for there to be a quote unquote app store that spans 80% of all the WordPress installs out there. That solves a lot of these problems built into it, right?

You’d have the monetisation piece taken care of by just accounting for standard models and having examples, etc. You’d have compatibility built in by having standards that are enforced at that submission level. If you’re going to be in this app store you have to follow these standards and guidelines and best practices. There’s a review process, etc.

The incentive is there because you’re offering distribution. They’re like yeah this is worth doing. A developer is like yeah we’ll align around this shared standard which is ideally community created because we want the distribution on the other side of this.

Now no one has to do it. This is I think where the difference shows up between what Apple has done. And there’s some comparisons to like, what do you have in the Android ecosystem? Our goal is not a hundred percent. Our goal is just the majority of WordPress installs. There’ll always be people who don’t want it.

But it’s more than enough to be significant and to create those aligned incentives for folks to say oh yeah I’m going to follow these standards. And we get the, I don’t want to just have guidelines and playbooks and things that kind of on their own. There needs to be real incentives for people to do it. And distribution to me is the big incentive.

[00:24:23] Nathan Wrigley: So distribution then, which is the third part, you mentioned it in terms of the 40 plus percent of the web which is using WordPress. And I think I’m right in saying that, is this really around discoverability as much as anything else? It’s trying to get traction for your product in a marketplace where you’re up against thousands of people. So if a guild were to be created there would at least be some structure, some formal network that you could rely upon to help spread the word if you like.

[00:24:50] Jonathan Wold: Yeah it’s a combination of things. Discoverability is one of them and there’s different ways that you solve that. But .org for all the things that it does well is not built around, nor incentivized to solve, commercial interest problems. Not today at least, not that it couldn’t be in the future.

The plugin review team is volunteer led. We have specific guidelines for specific reasons. And while we want to see growth and improvement there’s only so much that you can expect given the incentives, right? Like it’s volunteers and they work really hard to be as agnostic and neutral as possible. And at the end of the day, just from a end users and a product perspective, from a product perspective being listed on .org is no guarantee that you’ll be discovered by anyone, right? It’s par for the course, but .org is not trying to solve the discoverability problem. And ultimately plenty of folks get stuff like outside of .org.

[00:25:49] Nathan Wrigley: So the idea then behind all of those three problems is that you’ve got a potential solution, this idea of a guild.

So let’s move on to that then and describe what that guild looks like. Again, I guess it’s probably apropos right now to say you have not really fixed upon these ideas. This is the beginning of this conversation.

You presumably would love for people having heard this podcast get back in touch with you and say I like this idea. I want to put my idea to you, see if we can take it in this direction. But yeah just outline what is the guild that you would hope to build? What are the designs that you’ve got behind it?

[00:26:22] Jonathan Wold: The core idea right is to say okay what vehicle, what construct, is best suited to solving these three problems? It’s all rooted in this idea of finding and aligning incentives. So the App Store vision is the North Star. And the idea behind Guildenberg is okay, how do we lay a foundation for these things?

So what I’ve been focused on over the past year or so with my co founders is, what’s the right economic engine for this? Like there’s a ton of stuff that we want to do. We want to create playbooks, open source things, facilitate just a bunch of stuff in the space. I’m super interested in how this connects to Five for the Future.

And for all of that it’s like we need a strong economic engine that enables us, that aligns with value, that builds momentum in the right direction and enables us to do these things. And in my piece I originally outlined some different ideas on revenue models et cetera.

What’s become clearer since, and what I’m focused on now is this the distribution problem itself. Like monetisation and compatibility, those are things that are going to become clearer with time. What I’m focused on now is okay, how do we start helping products today grow through distribution? And distribution itself then becomes our core economic engine. That’s the business of Gildenberg Inc, Gildenberg .com if you will.

And so basically what we do today is we take products, we onboard them, we evaluate, review things, give them guidance, give them a roadmap. And then we help those products get distribution deals with hosting providers. And we’re basically the ones facilitating that.

And so the idea, and I’m curious to see where it evolves, is to say okay let’s solve those three problems now and do so in a way that lets us build momentum and scale over time. And I think there’s a lot of things yet to be worked out and much of that’s going to come through who we work with, right?

So right now it’s a small group of products, but I’m rapidly expanding that. And with each new product that comes in, where they’re bringing new ideas, new questions. The heart of this has been how do we create something that naturally builds on itself as we have success with what’s in front of us?

[00:28:34] Nathan Wrigley: The model that you’ve just described is you’re building this, as a company comes in you’ll onboard them and give them the benefits that you can provide at the moment. Presumably the idea is that over time more and more of these will come on.

And then you will have some kind of quorum of companies, enough to make this guild have enough clout out there so that you’re widely recognized. The name is out there. Everybody knows there’s benefits in this. But you’re in that kind of onboarding phase.

Now it strikes me that if I were to join a guild, maybe there’s a piece of me coming to you that would have some sort of exclusionary principle in the back of my mind. In other words, okay I am, I don’t know, let’s say I’m an SEO plugin or something like that. And I’m thinking to myself, I’m seeing Guildenberg all over the place. This looks like something I could be a part of. But I want to be the SEO person. How do we work around that?

Because I think in the traditional guild structure that was part of the deal, right? You got to be part of the guild and then you were the person in and we closed the door a little bit behind you because you’re living in that geographical area or whatever it may be.

So the way to describe that here would be, okay you’re the SEO plugin. You’re the form plugin. You’re the speed optimization plugin. From the article that I’ve read you don’t want to do that. You want to welcome as many people in as you can, but from a product point of view, I guess I’d be thinking well I don’t really want to be in a guild with all my competitors.

[00:30:03] Jonathan Wold: That’s a great question. And I think this is a good example where like the guild framing is, I think, the right framing for how we facilitate cooperation and collaboration amongst peers and that includes competitors.

The piece of it though that puts it all in perspective is the app store direction, right? Like an app store that only has one SEO plugin for instance, I would argue and I think most people would agree, is not the best for the end users, right? And this is certainly the case for the hosting providers as well. They’re looking for options.

So for us to do our jobs effectively, it’s not for us to like decide who’s the best one in this space. It’s to level the playing field to the benefit of the end users and for the host. Like okay let’s have security standards now, performance standards. Let’s have standardized design kits that can be used, right? Let’s abstract out the baseline stuff and let the product creators innovate on top of that and let the market determine. Let the end users determine which ones are the best through that feedback loop.

So I think there’s people who certainly won’t like it. Oh there’s a competitor in here as well. But if you just take it through the app store framing, I certainly don’t want to be part of an app store or have one that only has one app for a particular category. It’s like I want choices.

[00:31:23] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah it’s interesting because it’s just the language of guild I think is what promoted that question because it kind of feels like that maybe was the value of a guild back in the day.

[00:31:31] Jonathan Wold: And certain types of guilds, right? One of the common examples was of a trade craft. Everyone in the guild was a certain type of trades person and they’re all competitors. So to your point yes, sometimes there was geographic differences but there’s also plenty of these be in the same city. But they were aligning their interests against sometimes other guilds. As long as you’re clear on what you’re after there’s not a problem with people competing.

It’s going to be a challenge I’m certain of that. And part of why it’s so important to get the incentives right is much of that can sort itself out when you’re clear on what you’re here to do. And for me I’d always bring it back to hey we’re here to create a better ecosystem for end users. We all benefit from that.

And so for instance one of the dilemmas ends up being, someone creates a great WordPress plugin. How do they handle it becoming part of Core? Or if some piece of it’s sort of taken out. And those are examples of things that we have to come to terms with.

I’m sure that there are people who are upset when Apple baked a flashlight into iOS. The flashlight apps kind of died overnight, right? But from an overall good of the ecosystem perspective, I think the majority of folks would agree that that was useful and that was best to have just built directly in.

So there are things like that that you have to deal with. And my hope is that the construct of a guild on the people side of things gives us a place to do those things fairly and openly, rather than just like arbitrary and behind the scenes. There will be challenges. I think if we stay fixed on where the incentives are and aligning them, it’s going to be at least easier to navigate the challenges.

[00:33:04] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. You mentioned earlier that the kind of app store, for want of a better word, was the North Star. Now you’re not there yet. Presumably the distribution piece, which is what you said you’re concentrating on at the moment, that’s the low hanging fruit, because if people come to you you’re very well connected, you have that within your grasp. You can connect people. You know people in the ecosystem.

The other bits and pieces will come over time. But now this raises the always difficult question of finance. Because something like this will not be easy. And if it’s going to stretch just beyond the bounds of you and your co founder then presumably real work needs to be done, real time needs to be spent. And although that could be done with volunteers, really what would be the difference with what we’ve got now?

So let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about how you’re thinking of structuring this financially. I’m guessing at the moment people that come to you are paying you a fee. Maybe not. But in the future do you want to move this to more of a, I don’t know, subscription model, a percentage of revenue model? Something like that.

[00:34:10] Jonathan Wold: So great question. That’s a lot of what we focus on figuring out. So I have two co founders, Anna Maria Radu and Matt Fields. And so the three of us together, sort of the core base. We started this a year and a half ago but we’re slowly but surely also expanding the team.

So the way that we make money, we have the Gildenberg Partnership Program, that’s the one that focuses on distribution. For a product that wants to get distribution they come in and they pay an onboarding fee. That will vary. It generally starts at like 10,000 up to 30,000, but it’s dependent on sort of what’s involved.

And that covers our work on especially the first two things. So we look at the monetisation, we look at compatibility, we create a roadmap for that product. Like, all right, these are the things that you need to do to get ready for distribution. We look at the foundation for partnerships.

So there’s just time upfront there that’s involved. My hope is to see that reduce as time goes on, right? Become more standardized, more just open source as we create playbooks. That’s a starting point but the real heart of the business is a rev share model. So what we do is when we bring in a product and we do distribution deals with them, our standard approach is 25% of the deals in the first year. And then it goes down to 15% on average thereafter.

So if we take in a new product and we help them sign a million dollar deal then $250,000 of that revenue goes to Guildenberg. And so we’re not taking from their existing. We’re not tapping into that business. It’s all on what we add which is the heart of what brings folks to us to begin with.

What’s great about that is that we’re able to be really upfront with the hosts. When we go to a host and bring them in as distribution partners we’re not taking anything from them. We’re aligned on the interests of the products. And when the product is winning that’s when we get paid.

[00:35:59] Nathan Wrigley: So just to be clear on that, in the scenario of a million dollars, so you connect company A with hosting company B. And the deal there was a million dollars. I think you mentioned $250,000 would go where?

[00:36:13] Jonathan Wold: So that’s actually a good question. That somewhat depends. And this is a good example of what we’re working out. So in some situations we might be splitting that with the host who did the deal. And others the host would be on top of that. That somewhat depends on the product type and the category.

That’s a lot of what work we’re doing now is figuring out what’s fair, what makes sense. The guidance is we want to win for all involved, right? But the heart of it is, it’s like two things. One we’re incentivising ourselves. We make our money on the successful distribution side, right? So the revenue share is the heart of Guildenberg’s economic engine.

And two, we’re directionally going towards that app store. You can imagine the future state where it’s a straight 15%, right? And that covers the app store costs. And there’s a split there with the hosting providers who also offer it. So it’s like I’ll be flexible along the way to get there and do what makes sense, but I’m very clear on where we’re going. Which is going to be this sort of standardized target of 15% across products.

[00:37:18] Nathan Wrigley: Okay so in the Apple ecosystem which we had a moment ago, we were talking about that, there was some parallels there. The entire model of the Apple ecosystem really is profit, and dividends to shareholders. That’s the mantra. So I guess that question has to come next. Is there some alignment there? Is this the model that you’re going to be promoting?

In other words, if you grow do the coffers of Gildenberg grow? Or is there some reasonable, I don’t know, churn of those finances giving back to the community, giving back to the WordPress project? How does all of that work? In other words is Guildenberg a for profit? Is it a for profit with benefits to the WordPress community? Is it just a not for profit? What’s going on?

[00:38:02] Jonathan Wold: That’s a great question. This is another good example of something that I’m still working out. So let me start with my intentions. One of my motivating pieces behind this, if I could just wave a wand based on how I see things today, acknowledging that they could change and there’s pieces that I’m sure I’m missing. My ideal would be to get to where a product is paying 15% for distribution. And 5%, so 33 of that 15, of that revenue is going directly to the project.

In my current thinking we have two organizations if you will. Guildenberg Inc. which is for profit and does the distribution work, and returns dividends to its shareholders. Which can include members, it includes investors, etc. I want to be moving increasingly towards being community owned.

And then you have the .org, if you will, which is basically the member pool. So in my ideal an increasing amount of revenue goes into that pool to then be managed and directed by the members, right?

As one example, let’s say someone joins the app store in the future. They’re paying the 15%, they don’t really care about the project at all. So 5% or 33 of that 15 goes into the member pool on their behalf. And they really have no say over what it. So it’s directed by the members into projects, into initiatives and .org that matter to them.

Now, if that member, that product, decides that they do care they can then join the guild and now they have a say over where their funds go. They might say oh I care more about this initiative over here. So that’s the high level idea. Part of what set me out, what I set out to do here is like, how do we solve an incentives problem across the space?

I don’t want people to do Five For The Future just because they love WordPress. I want there to be an economic incentive behind it. And to me, what I’m intrigued by, what I’m working towards is, how do you just build that into this App Store model?

So that’s the direction. I don’t know how we get there. I suspect that you have the for profit piece and then a separate organization for the member pool. I don’t know and people have ideas, I want to hear them. I’ve had a number of inputs already. We don’t have to solve that problem today. We’re working on just getting the economic engine up and running, but that’s the stuff that I find especially motivating.

And that’s been a big piece of this. How do we create incentives that provide funding that the project needs to work on the things that might not get the attention otherwise?

[00:40:29] Nathan Wrigley: You said something a moment ago which, I’ve got to say, I’m not entirely sure I understood it. Because you implied that you could opt out say of the Five For The Future piece if you weren’t a part of the guild, or if you hadn’t joined the guild. But the implication would have been that you were still part of the App Store, let’s call it that. So have I misunderstood? Can you be somebody who can have a plugin on the Guildenberg marketplace but not be a part of the guild?

[00:40:56] Jonathan Wold: Yes. The idea is, so at least in my current thinking, what would happen is that if you just join the app store, it’s like a level one, there’s requirements and standards to do that. But you don’t have to be active in the community and be participating and kind of doing all this stuff.

You can join for just the pure business incentives. As long as you play by the rules you’re in, right? Because it’s merit based, it’s based on your behavior. As long as you’re playing by the rules, you’re in. And my thinking, so at that level, you don’t care where your 15% goes to.

We’re going to spend it on your behalf on the project, we’ll direct the funds. And the idea is that a year later you’re like hey this WordPress community is quite cool. You discover that the guild is something that you can join and you apply to do so, the members accept you. Then at that point, that 5% of the 15, the funds that have been allocated on your behalf automatically, you could now have a say over where they go. That’s the idea. Does that make sense?

[00:41:56] Nathan Wrigley: That’s cleared that up. Yeah thank you. That makes sense. Now you said the word behavior there, which is kind of interesting. Let’s extrapolate that because if we run that forwards, you can imagine a nightmare scenario where there is just this cabal of people who have control over the behavior.

What the behavior is that’s appropriate to be in and out of this community. And you can imagine a scenario in, let’s say that in 10 years from now Guildenberg is monstrously successful. Almost everybody’s going there to inquire about premium plugins and what have you. And yet we have gatekeepers of behavior and all of that.

So I want to address that. Almost every part of human history shows that given power things start to go a little bit pear shaped. And maybe the incentives that were there at the beginning of the project are not the incentives that approach when money is involved, or you’re becoming successful, or you sense that somebody else has an idea which conflicts with you.

So let’s just get into that. Who moderates the behavior? Who creates that charter? And how do we ensure that this cabal doesn’t occur?

[00:43:07] Jonathan Wold: Okay so there are two threads here that we have to look at. First, why behavior, and then second, how do you do the governance piece? It’s basically what we’re touching on, right?

Oh I love this stuff. So first one of the challenges when I was looking at the history of guilds is that because of human nature I’d argue, we tend towards exclusivity. We want to work with people like us, that look like us, talk like us, whatever the reasons are, right?

And so this is just like how we tend. So while there were a lot of good things that guilds did, they were also highly exclusionary at times, right? Where it just sort of propagated and just made even more prevalent some of the challenges that we recognize today of inclusivity and diversity, right?

So I feel like we can’t trust ourselves because we’re going to tend by default to just attract people that are like us. Which I’d argue is not good for the ecosystem as a whole. So in sorting through that for a while, it’s like well okay then what can you use? What becomes the basis?

And the only thing that stands out to me as fair is behavior. So it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you look like etc. If you abide by the same rules. And so let’s start with this. It feels to me like the right idea in principle. The question becomes, how do you practice it?

[00:44:24] Nathan Wrigley: The devil is in the detail here, isn’t it.

[00:44:26] Jonathan Wold: But you got to get that right first, right? So it’s like okay we can say behavior. Now there’s a couple of things we have to work with. We have our core values in WordPress. Andrea Middleton did a fantastic talk on this a couple of years ago. And there are a few things that stand out. Someone didn’t make a list somewhere these are just what we practice. And she did the work sorting through them.

We have this concept of autonomy. We value in WordPress doing what we want and we respect the freedom of others to do the same right?

We also have this concept of like a duocracy, like you get credit for doing. We care about utility, making stuff that works, that solves problems. We’re generally skeptical as a community. This conversation is a great example of it, right? We ask why, and we keep asking. And then quite importantly, we do a good job at our core of giving credit where credit’s due, right?

And so there’s a lot here Nathan to be figured out but I’ll just kind of give you one example. One of the behaviors that I would expect members to adhere to is, let’s take that last one, giving credit where credit is due. This is GPL, right? So on the one hand, you’re free to take someone else’s work, change the name on it and resell it as your own. You’re legally free to do that. And I respect your choice and freedom to do that anytime that you want to.

But in terms of who I want to work with, I wouldn’t want to work with someone who doesn’t give the credit to the person who originally did that. They’re legally not obligated to do so, right?

You can just kind of do whatever you want, it’s GPL. But when I think about the behavior that I would want to build around it’s like hey yeah I copied someone else’s work and I gave them credit for doing so and built on that.

That’s one example of a behavior where I would want people in who are happy to give the credit where it’s due to those that they worked with. And if you made a mistake, oh wow yeah I forgot to give attribution there. No problem. Let’s fix that. And they prioritize that because that’s one of the things that we value.

[00:46:29] Nathan Wrigley: I guess the other piece there would be the cabal piece as I mentioned, you know, just idea that you would have people who had been there from the very beginning. You can see how this works. It all boils down really to the word governance I think.

Who’s governing and what gives them the right to stay in that position? And who ultimately would be the person to say well you’re right at the top of this pyramid here? But your behavior isn’t living up to the code therefore you’re going to have to think about either modifying your behavior or going elsewhere. That’s a difficult thing to do because they’re the people that are governing, if you like, and yet you’re wanting them to adapt their behavior.

[00:47:06] Jonathan Wold: Okay so let’s talk about that. So again, that’s another one, lots to figure out there. But my guiding point, my starting point here, Leslie Sims pointed me to Elinor Ostrom’s book, Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. It’s a fascinating book. I highly recommend it.

And it goes back and looks at the history of commons. And contrary to what people think there are groups who’ve successfully self governed for as long as a thousand years over scarce fixed resources. And what Ostrom does in her work here is she looks at all the data and breaks it down. Figures out what’s working, what doesn’t. And she came up with eight design principles for what she calls a common pool resource.

So I’ve still yet to figure this out. But in my mind part of the key here is you have the commercial interest like the Guildenberg .com, right, if you will? And then you have this member pool which is like that Five For The Future type resource.

And the key there is that over time we want that to become the biggest thing, right? If the .com interests are successful we’re slowly but surely making the guild more and more powerful, if you will, by it having more and more resources. Every new product that comes in, that is growing.

So then it comes down to okay how do we then govern that growing pool of resources? And this is where Ostrom’s work comes in. She has eight principles for self governance in a commons scenario. And there are a couple of different pieces to it.

The first one is this idea of having clear boundaries. So there’s a very clear definition of what it means to be a member. This is where the behavior standards come in. You need to make sure that those make sense for the ecosystem that you’re in. They need to hold up to scrutiny. You need to make sure that the members themselves can modify the rules. That’s the key piece here, right?

And there’s a number of things that you have to think through. It’s not, it’s tricky, and a lot of it is this idea of you’ve creating an environment where there’s intended to be a healthy tension. And that’s part of how you prevent capture, right? So it’s not trivial.

But we have plenty of examples of how people have done this in the past. And the heart of my interest and what I’m moving towards is like okay let’s take what’s already been established here, let’s combine some of these ideas. The construct of a guild but then adding in the concept of a member, a resource pool, that is governed by the members. Which is something that guilds often didn’t do. It tended to be kind of arbitrary but they had some of these pieces.

So yeah there’s a lot of work to be done there. I feel directionally clear and the focus right now is on the economic engine. But as time goes on what I’m excited about is drawing in people who have a lot more experience than I do to take some of these ideas and break them down.

I know that we’ll make mistakes and my intention is that by staying focused on aligning incentives we’re giving ourselves a reason to learn from those mistakes and make it better. Yeah I at least feel confident in the direction where it’s all going.

[00:50:12] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. So you’re working on the distribution piece at the moment. It in a sense is the underpinnings of the monetisation and the compatibility pieces. They’re going to grow hopefully out of all of the distribution model that you’re working on.

Okay so you’re a year and a half in. This is the final question I’ve got for you. Do you have cause to be optimistic? Having had 18 months of playing around with this and obviously bringing some people on board. Do you have optimism? Does this still seem like it’s a long way off? Or do you feel that there’s legs to this? And two years from now we might be having a more in depth conversation about something that’s moved forward.

[00:50:47] Jonathan Wold: So I’m optimistic by nature. What’s been interesting to me about this is that I’ve tried somewhat hard over the years to kind of convince myself out of doing this. And Nathan after a year and a half of effectively full time on this, if I knew how hard it was going to be I probably would have tried harder to convince myself to not do it.

So hey I’m optimistic as a visionary. And I’ve been cautious about this. But the main reason that we are where we are and we have had significant traction is that at every turn I’ve either had yeses or affirmation of direction, or we’ve identified an obstacle that has offered an opportunity to clarify which has then led to a yes.

So my core focus has been talking with product companies and with hosting companies. And in those conversations I’ve just continued to get clearer and clearer on the problem sets and where the incentives are and what’s motivating. And I’ve either had explicit like, yes we want to be a part of this or, yes if you solve that of course we want to, like, let’s talk again.

And so it’s been a curious tension for me where it’s really hard because you’re tackling a lot of pieces at once. There’s a lot of moving parts. But it’s also easy in the sense that what we’re really just trying to do is create incentives to solve these problems that people recognize exist.

I’m happy with the progress. A lot of it’s been around like for me, one of my marks or my indicators is what am I hearing when I go to a WordCamp, right? I was starting some of these conversations about a year ago at WordCamp Europe. And if I look at what was happening then which was encouraging and optimistic, encouraged my optimism then versus now, it’s all just dialed up.

And now I’m having conversations with investors about giving us more capital to grow more quickly. And those are also going well. So we’ll see. We’ll see what happens but I’m encouraged. And this is one where as much as I believe in it, I’ve tried pretty hard to convince myself to like go do something easier.

And it just kept coming back. And my co founders are also encouraged that they don’t share my optimism. And so when I talked to Anna or Matt about this and they’re really like okay this is good. We’re seeing pieces of the puzzle sort of come together and they’re encouraged. I’m like okay well, then that’s another indicator that we’re going the right direction.

And what’s going to really matter though, what it all boils down to, is are we able to successfully help these products get distribution? And can we do that at scale? I’ve done it for individual products. We’re seeing good early signs, it does take time. And that’s going to be the proof, right? Can we have a meaningful impact on these products?

And that’s what all of our focus is on right now. I’m encouraged with what I’m seeing. And I think what you’ll see over the next year or two is that becoming a lot more public. And what I want to see happen out of this is to take the things that work and open source them. Make it available for folks. There’s no benefit because we have this clear overall guidance to grow and improve the ecosystem. We’re not trying to keep it to ourselves.

[00:53:55] Nathan Wrigley: It certainly will be worth listening back to this in a year’s time and see where you are. Obviously from my point of view, I hope it goes well. Fingers crossed that it’s going to all pan out for you. If somebody has listened to this and I would imagine probably they are a product maker will be most interested to get in touch with you because they’ve got things that they want to discuss with you. What are the best places for us to find you?

[00:54:16] Jonathan Wold: Just reach out to me through the Guildenberg website,, Or find me at a WordCamp. I’ll be at WordCamp US. Looking forward to WordCamp Asia next year, WordCamp Europe, and I’m going to start going out to some of the regional ones as well.

[00:54:31] Nathan Wrigley: Jonathan Wold, thank you for chatting to me today on the podcast.

[00:54:34] Jonathan Wold: Thanks for having me, Nathan.

On the podcast today we have Jonathan Wold.

Jonathan has been deeply involved in the WordPress community for almost two decades. He began writing tutorials and freelancing, which eventually led him to the agency world where he worked on large enterprise projects. In the past five to six years, Jonathan has shifted his focus to the broader WordPress ecosystem. He’s also had the opportunity to work at WooCommerce and collaborate with the team at Automattic. Despite the demands of his busy career, Jonathan’s passion for WordPress has only grown stronger over the years.

Jonathan is one of the co-founders of Guildenberg, and in the podcast today we discuss what this project is, and how it aims to revolutionise the WordPress product ecosystem.

We start the conversation by highlighting the importance of behaviour in the WordPress community and the core values that drive the platform; autonomy, meritocracy, utility, and giving credit where credit is due. Jonathan emphasises the significance of giving credit to the original creators of work, even though it may not be legally required.

We move on to talk about how Guildenberg aims to solve some of the key problems faced by WordPress product owners, such as monetisation, compatibility, and distribution. Jonathan envisions a system where product owners pay a fee for distribution of their products, with a portion of that revenue going back to the Gildenberg project. By aligning incentives and providing economic motivations for contributors, Guildenberg seeks to create a sustainable and thriving ecosystem for the open web.

We get into the inspiration behind the name Guildenberg, which combines the ideas of Gutenberg and the guild institutions from mediaeval Europe. We also discuss the team’s long-term vision of creating an app store for WordPress that spans the majority of installations, offering monetisation options and enforcing compatibility standards.

If you’re a WordPress developer who is keen to find a way to create visibility for your product, this podcast is for you.

Useful links.

Guildenberg website

Jonathan’s article – A Guild for WordPress Product Businesses

Elinor Ostrom’s book, Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action

Andrea Middleton: Will What Got Us Here, Get Us There? WordPress Community at Scale