Jimmy Wales: Wikipedia

The Wikipedia co-founder talks exclusively to Startups about the UK start-up scene, his future plans, and why being under-funded fosters innovation

Jimmy Wales is the co-founder of Wikipedia, the non-profit internet encyclopedia which currently commands approximately 365 million readers in 282 languages around the world. In recognition of his role in creating the most popular reference work on the internet, Wales has claimed a flurry of honours and awards, and was named by Time magazine in its 2006 list of the world’s most influential people.

Startups caught up with Jimmy at Tech Entrepreneurs Week, during which he judged a series of start-up pitches, to discuss the evolution of Wikipedia, the latest trends in the online space, and his future plans.

You said that London enjoys advantages over Silicon Valley in attracting entrepreneurs, can you elaborate on what these advantages are?

Well I’m definitely an advocate of the concept of a creative class, and for this type of person London is a very attractive city. Whereas Silicon Valley, as creative people who live there will tell you, has got its disadvantages.

Also, in an increasingly global world, London is very well positioned. It’s a very cosmopolitan city, with easy access to Europe and all the European languages. In America, by contrast, access can be quite difficult. I was based in New York for a while and New York to Hong Kong is often 12 hours. That matters.

You recently praised the entrepreneur visas introduced by the coalition. What other government actions have you been impressed by?

As well as the entrepreneur visas, the £10m lifetime capital gains exemption is, in my view, very powerful for people to start businesses, and quite attractive for someone who’s thinking of launching something new. And the tax breaks for new entrepreneurial ventures are really great.

What else should the government be doing to stimulate entrepreneurship?

As I say the tax breaks are really effective, so I think they could be extended. I think we should also continue to review immigration policy, to ensure that we’re never turning away people of talent – a mistake that the US is beginning to make.

You’ve mentioned Badoo was an exciting UK start-up. What attracts you to the business?

Badoo is interesting because of its incredibly fast growth. The site and the app aren’t really for me, I’m not in that market, but what excites me about them is how they’ve taken advantage of a lot of things that we’ve learnt about social interaction, and developed a quite interesting business model. Who knows what the future holds for them – it might just be a fad. But it’s quite interesting.

What other start-ups in the UK have caught your eye recently?

In terms of other UK start-ups I’m quite new to the scene here so I’m looking around, hoping to meet people and see what’s going on; one of the reasons I wanted to come and be head of jury for this competition is to get to meet some interesting people in the community.

You’ve said that video collaboration excites you – what other trends in the tech space are exciting you at the moment?

I think we’re still very much at the beginning of the world of apps, particularly on tablet computers, so it’s very exciting to see the development of the iPad and similar Android devices. To be honest I don’t think we’ve even begun to get our heads around the platform yet, and there are huge opportunities there.

What major challenges did you face in launching Wikipedia, as a start-up entrepreneur?

Well the interesting thing about Wikipedia is that it was very poorly funded from the beginning, and that was actually a big component in why we were able to be so innovative; the community had to work together to solve problems. So I guess one challenge we had was lack of capital, but I also kind of viewed that as an opportunity too.

And you raise all your funding from donations now, right?

That’s right, although we do have some trademark licence agreements with mobile carriers who want to run an advertisement against our brand – saying things like ‘get a smartphone because you can use it to go on Wikipedia’. They can do that but they have to pay us if they’re selling smartphones using the name Wikipedia.

Are you planning to diversify and explore other channels of funding in future?

Not really. Although some of the ad deals I’ve mentioned have worked out really well, in terms of revenue it’s never been a big part, and it’s not something we foresee being a big part in the future. It’s primarily about the donations.

Given it is essentially written by amateur authors, Wikipedia is amazingly accurate and objective. Is it difficult to verify the content?

Well, no, not really. We get people who are very passionate, it’s a very transparent and open system; we have a lot of rules in the community about reliable sources, a lot of checks and balances. It’s not perfect for sure but, you know, as people use it they see it’s actually pretty good.

Do you have a team of editors checking all the content?

Not employees, no, it’s all volunteers. But there are teams of people in many, many different subject areas, we call it a Wikiproject and it allows people to set out systematic plans for reviewing things. The administrators are elected from within the community.

But if people are imagining a big building somewhere with 600 editors checking facts, that’s not the way it works. It is all done by the publishers.

And what are your plans for Wikipedia? Do you plan on exiting or launching any new start-ups?

For Wikipedia, our priorities going forward are growing our user base in the developing world and introducing various technical innovations to make it easier to edit in all the languages.

My for-profit company, Wikia, is doing very, very well. Wikia.com is now ranked around number 45 among the world’s leading internet companies according to Quantcast – we just passed the New York Times in terms of traffic which I am pretty pleased about! We have advertising on the site and we’re profitable, but just profitable, and that’s continuing to roll right along.

For me personally, I’m sure I’ll do something else in the future, but I don’t know what yet.

Is censorship a big problem for you at the moment?

It’s not a big problem for us, but it’s a problem nonetheless. Many countries around the world filter the internet and neutral, high-quality information can be banned in some places.

I think the biggest threat at the moment is in India; the Indian minister for communications has made a very strong statement in favour of censoring the internet. Thankfully the Indian internet community is going crazy against this, and it’s not going to pass. But it’s always a threat.

And finally, based on your experience at Wikipedia, what tips can you offer Britain’s start-up entrepreneurs?

Just try and keep all your costs as low as possible, and be flexible. It’s all about profitability, sustainability, and survivability.

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