Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales Tells Young Entrepreneurs ‘Fail Faster’

Jimmy Wales


When Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales set out to bring his idea for a free online encyclopedia to life, there wasn’t a collaborative model to follow.

“We were Web 2.0 before anybody coined the term Web 2.0,” Wales said.

Fifteen years later, Wikipedia contains more than 36 million articles in 288 languages created collectively by volunteers around the world. As the fifth most visited website in the world, it logs more than 400 million unique visitors every month.

But, as Wales told a packed ballroom of guests during a BBVA Compass client event Wednesday at the Hilton Anatole, Wikipedia still isn’t perfect.

“We were Web 2.0 before anybody coined the term Web 2.0.” – Jimmy Wales

For starters, distribution of Wikipedia around the world is not even. Factors such as wealth, literacy rates, and access to broadband internet all play into that, Wales said.

As more and more people get cell phones and connect to the internet — especially in the developing world — that starts leveling those barriers.

“We’re talking about people who just a few years ago had almost no access to information and suddenly the entire world — including Wikipedia — is in their pocket. That’s an amazing thing,” Wales said.

Even though the number of desktop page views hasn’t decreased, Wikipedia recently hit the milestone where mobile page views surpassed desktop page views.

“Which means that as many people are reading Wikipedia on their phones as they do on their desktop and that has a lot of implications for how people can contribute,” Wales said.

For Wales, increasing the numbers of people who have free access to information still drives him.

“When I started the encyclopedia project, I did it because it’s just something I thought should exist in the world,” Wales said. “I was passionate about the idea. I didn’t choose something because I thought it would make me the most money.”

Wales joked that Wikipedia’s worth is “maybe $1 million” as he brought his pinky finger up to his mouth like the Austin Powers movie character, Dr. Evil.

In fact, Wales admitted he has no idea how much Wikipedia is worth.

To the crowd Wednesday, he joked “maybe $1 million” as he brought his pinky finger up to his mouth like the Austin Powers movie character, Dr. Evil.

The encyclopedia website is run as a nonprofit through the Wikimedia Foundation and is funded through donations. This year, it’s expected to raise $70 million.

Wales believes Wikipedia’s fundraising model is sustainable, but it’s not for everyone.

If he were giving advice to young entrepreneurs today, he would say: “fail faster.” He said many people just starting out spend too much time writing their business plan.

“Everything’s got to be perfectly perfect before they start, but nothing is ever perfectly perfect. Things are not going to work the way you think,” Wales said.

Follow Jimmy Wales on Twitter @jimmy_wales. 

Photo illustration: Michael Samples

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