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Mena Trott

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In: Interviews

By Kristopher Krug

Published on September 15, 2004

Digital Web: How many people are using your products these days, and how many sites/blogs does that represent?

Mena Trott: It’s pretty hard to tell right now, especially with blogs. Nobody can even figure out exactly how many blogs are out there really—especially with something like Movable Type, where for so many years people would just download without registering or having any way of seeing if they were actually installing it after registering.

Now that we have registration, we see that there are a number of people who are using it and coming back. I’m hesitant to give a number because I really don’t know. But I would say there are hundreds of thousands of users, at least. Our estimates were lower before the licensing changes, when people said “I do have X number” or “I have 20 people on my one install.” So, I would say it’s in the hundred of thousands, definitely, for Movable Type.

And one of the other things is that a lot of the popular blogs you’ll see happen to be Movable Type, so that always influences its penetration and perception.

DW: So, now that you’re keeping track and looking at stats and registrations, what is the pace like? Do you feel like it is still growing and people are starting new blogs and doing new installs, or have we reached critical mass?

MT: I definitely feel like it’s still speeding up. With Movable Type, we’re still on the dev release. The 3.1 release is … the first release where we’ve said publicly, “Now it’s for everybody to download.” And we’ve been very happy with the results of that. We’ve already exceeded every set of goals for downloads and revenue. Between pricing and the friction of requiring registration, downloads have slowed down, of course, but people want the product and they got the product, and I don’t see that slowing down. Also, TypePad continues to grow. We’ve actually had an influx of users because blogging has become more popular in the mainstream.

DW: As it continues to grow and become more mainstream, do you see products like Movable Type being offered by the AOLs and Microsofts of the world? In the end, who’s going to end up offering blogging tools to consumers and how are they all going to be packaged up?

MT: I think there is going to be a mix. I mean, Movable Type is the base for that kind of group—the people who want to tinker, who know the companies’ businesses. TypePad is intended to be our consumer mainstream product. We have licensing deals in Japan that bring it to a large number of users via ISPs.

A hosted service is most likely where those mainstream users are going to go to. They’re not going to want to install server software. But there is still a need for that and that’s why we have these two products which segment to different audiences. Some people who start on TypePad then go to Movable Type, but some people who will try Movable Type will go to TypePad because there is a better fit.

It’s becoming easier to see who chooses what tool. And it’s good. I’m glad that we offer two. I was always frustrated by the limitations of Movable Type. Many users find it hard to install and, therefore, aren’t able to use all the tools we have available. At least with TypePad, people are [able to use the tools].

DW: You bring up Japan. Why you have chosen to distribute Movable Type through ISPs in Japan as opposed to distributing it directly to individual bloggers?

MT: In Japan, we actually have a 100%-owned subsidiary that runs the operations. The licensing is based on demand. The largest ISPs want blogging solutions that are integrated with other services they offer their customers. They already have portals set up that are co-branded, so that’s just one avenue. We actually have TypePad Japan which is run by our Japanese team and geared for individual users, and actually sells Movable Type, as well. We also have distribution deals with a number of companies. So, we are actively pursuing a lot of different routes in Japan. The ISPs just happen to be the most visible.

DW: Are you not seeing the same demand from ISPs to offer this through portals as a bundled service to customers in the U.S. and Europe?

MT: In Europe we are, and that’s why we have our European team working on that. In the U.S., it’s just different. We have bigger players and it’s often a “make or buy” decision—and they choose “make.” But it takes them longer to get it out. We are working with ISPs to allow distribution of Movable Type on a smaller scale in the U.S. In Japan, there are huge providers, such as NTT and Nifty. The equivalents in the U.S. are pretty large and we think there is more of an in-between solution for this market.

DW: Have the American ISPs that have chosen the “make” route launched their own products? If so, how are you guys matching up against those?

MT: AOL launched AOL Journals and it didn’t seem to take off. But I think one of the reasons has to do with the fact that it’s within AOL, so there is always that sort of “walled garden” mentality. And we’ve seen Microsoft launch its Japanese product and MSN Japan try to play around with blogs in that country, but they haven’t done anything here. We haven’t seen the big moves from the big companies, other than Google purchasing Blogger.

DW: How do you characterize the nature of the competition between you and Blogger and WordPress, and some of the other folks out there? Is it collaborative, with everyone wanting to grow the whole industry in an effort to get a piece of a bigger pie, or is it becoming more competitive?

MT: It’s hard. We and Blogger are both very focused on what we’re doing. In terms of knowing people, we talk to the Blogger team a lot and are on very good terms with them. We both have such different markets. When you have a free product and a subscription product in the same market, there is overlap, but it’s not cutthroat. In terms of collaboration, there can be more.

Unfortunately, we’re given a rap because we are so dominant, I guess, in terms of use. People see us as this big guy who they want to bring down, oddly, when we really aren’t—we’re still a small company. That’s frustrating. We’re more than willing to work with people. Being big and corporate completely goes against the things the company is all about.

DW: How do you respond to high-profile, vocal people like Molly Holzschlag, who say you’re moving away from community bloggers and toward enterprise software and professional-level dev tools geared toward big companies?

MT: I think that they kind of forget that we have TypePad. There is this impression from a lot of people who are bloggers and who are early adopters that using TypePad isn’t really blogging. But it’s a pretty powerful tool itself, and it’s not going away from the mainstream at all; we really want a tool for people to use.

I think that we have all of our bases covered because you can also use Movable Type—and it’s still affordable and free if you have one author and three blogs, which a lot of people have. You know, most people aren’t using the products extremely to the max. I’m not sure where the criticism comes from. I think people don’t recognize our whole portfolio of products. We put a lot of work into both TypePad and Movable Type and we’re really proud of what we’ve done; we’re a two-product company right now.

DW: How are your development resources allocated right now? Are you devoting more resources to TypePad or to Movable Type?

MT: I think in terms of how we divide our time, we have a lot of stuff we’re juggling and we’re wearing a lot of hats but everything is being addressed.

We’re basically staffing for two teams. A lot of people overlap. You have people working on TypePad one week and Movable Type another. Right now we’re focusing on basically having both of the products complement each other. We want to merge the back-end and the core software so that if one change is made in one product, it’s easily integrated into the other.

We’re ramping up in terms of staffing. We’ve got a lot of great hires. I’m going to be announcing that Brad Choate is joining us. This is really great because he’s been with us since almost day one and he’s moving from the East Coast with his family. It’s a really great feeling for us that he wants to take a chance with this company. And he obviously is focused on Movable Type.

DW: Speaking of people wearing different hats, tell me about your transition from CEO to president. What has that meant to you and how has it affected your day-to-day responsibilities?

MT: I kind of made this decision last November—and November doesn’t seems like a long time ago, but it is kind of a long time ago, almost a year. So, last November I became comfortable with the decision that I didn’t want to be CEO. But it wasn’t as though one I day and woke up and said, “I don’t want to be CEO.” It was something I had to think about for the two months leading up to it. It’s a hard job—and especially for someone who has her roots in being a designer.

I got to the point in November that I wanted to make the transition, and I knew that Barak Berkowitz, who has always been involved with us, was the person I wanted to take on the role of CEO. I didn’t want to bring somebody in. No doubt you can run a company without having to bring in more experienced management. Some people succeed but most people who are our age and who have the background to make sure the company succeeds we have, need to pay attention to all levels of management. So when we brought him in he just came in the next day and had a different title. It didn’t really seem that different.

As far as my role, I’m still doing “in the trench” stuff that I probably shouldn’t be doing because we’re still a small team. I’m still doing a lot of creative directing and design. I’m also doing a lot of the communications outside the company. Generally speaking, I’m involved in most of the company’s decisions—and the decisions I’m not involved in are ones I don’t want to be involved in at this point. Sitting through every single business meeting isn’t something I want to do. But I like to see how everybody is doing and working to make sure this company stays true to what we wanted it to be when we formed it.

DW: What is Ben up to these days as people wear different hats and take on different roles? Where is he spending his time?

MT: Ben is still spending a lot of time coding. He’s responsible for the hiring of our new engineers. He does a lot of the higher-level engineering and basically determines if something is technically feasible. He’s also involved in the day-to-day stuff with me.

What he wants to do is less “in the trench” programming and probably more product stuff. Our dream is to spend time like we used to thinking about what we want to do with the product and then letting other people implement it. We get so bogged down in administration, and business trips and HR stuff that right now we can’t spend time just thinking about the products.

DW: You’ve said you think some of your critics probably don’t view TypePad as blogging. What do you think creates that perception? Why do you think they don’t value your work on TypePad?

MT: I guess that’s maybe not the best way to say it. People say we have spent all our attention on TypePad and have neglected Movable Type. It’s true that for a while we had to build up TypePad because we were too small to support two products and we needed a product that was actually bringing in revenue. I’ve seen people dismiss TypePad because it’s not Movable Type, but Movable Type is our flagship product and it’s what made us.

Blogs made with TypePad are great-looking blogs, and there are a lot of smart people writing them. They’re just as great as Movable Type blogs. But I think there is a perception that because TypePad, unlike Movable Type, wasn’t a pay product from day one, there is something inferior about TypePad. I wish people would take more time to see that our goal is to make blogging something anyone can do—not just Web developers. TypePad blogs may be more personal and, therefore, attract less of an audience than Movable Type blogs, but I think that it’s a valid service because there are people who want to express themselves.

DW: What’s the big news with Movable Type 3.1? What are the hot features?

MT: It [was] released on August 31.

The new version introduces three big features:

  1. Post-scheduling: You can post to a future date, which is something that people have wanted for a long time.
  2. Sub-categories: A really nice interface lets you create and move categories and sub-categories around. It’s pretty flexible.
  3. Optional dynamic templates: The option to render your pages dynamically through optional dynamic templates. So, you can have static pages for some content and dynamic pages for others. You can have a completely dynamic site or you still can have a completely static site.

In addition, the tags within Movable Type have all been rewritten so they can actually have PHP calls within them. This is what Brad Choate worked on as a contractor before we officially hired him. He did a lot of the dynamic conversion.

So it’s a lot of cool things and it shows that we changed licenses and changed our pricing but we’re also able to ramp up and get momentum and hire three dedicated people for this.

In terms of enterprise software—or just using our blogs for marketing a business—we still have a lot of small organizations using Movable Type. Libraries and schools are really into Movable Type. They need a tool that is simple and not too complex. So we’re staying true to the idea that simplicity is key.

If enterprises want to use our software, it’s because they want to use our tools—not necessarily because we’re targeting enterprises per se. We’ve never marketed to enterprises. We’ve never actually gone after a sale. So I think it’s just been timing and a lot of luck, too. We were lucky to get a lot of users very quickly.

DW: Have you been able to fix the comment spam problem with TypeKey?

MT: I don’t think it’s fixed completely. I think a lot of people are happy that once users register, they tend to be a little bit more polite and that’s probably a really good thing. I think the combination of trackbacks and TypeKey has helped a lot.

TypePad 3.0 also has a pretty robust comment engine. We have the option to moderate all comments. We have different levels of permission, so that TypeKey people can get through if they’ve registered while others have to be moderated. Because of the attention paid to the licensing changes, people didn’t have a chance to focus on this before. But we’ve done it in a way that we think will get the most use by the most people and it’s really smartly done, so we’re very happy about that.

DW: Do you think the release of 3.1 is going to stir up the whole pricing/licensing debate again? As people start upgrading and doing new installs, do you think it’s going to be an issue?

MT: I don’t think so. We’re not changing licensing or prices, and people who have bought licenses are entitled to a free upgrade. It’s not going to be another $99 or whatever. The people who have had their say have had their say, and I think anyone who tries to rehash it won’t get much play.

I think a lot of people who didn’t even see the conversations about this—who have been focused on their blogging—will be happy to have a new release. It’s news to them that there ever was a hubbub.

I don’t want to relive another licensing incident, although I honestly feel it was a really good thing for the company. I’m happy with the way we handled it. It was incredibly hard for me and Ben because a lot of the things that were said to us were really personal (e.g., “They betrayed us” or “They’re just greedy capitalist pigs”). But if you look in the Movable Type archives, you’ll see that we’ve always intended to have a pay product. The problem was that we talked about Pro before we even realized that Pro was something we needed to rethink. But most the things we’re doing now are basically what we promised in Pro but that we’re rolling out at a slower pace.

In the end, the licensing stuff wasn’t the best experience but it wasn’t the worst experience either, in terms of realizing that we need to communicate better. And I think we are doing a good job of that right now.

DW: Now that you have a bigger office, bigger staff and outside financing, has Six Apart become something that is bigger than yourselves and out of your control? Or is it still your baby?

MT: I think it’s still totally our baby. I mean, we’ve brought in people like Michael Sippey, who is doing product, so that’s the first time that Ben and I aren’t completely in control of the product. But we wouldn’t bring in someone like Sippey if we felt he was going to do a mediocre job. Everybody here is really aligned with what we think the product should be.

In terms of venture capital money, that’s not even really an issue. Barak was the person who vetted our initial investment from Neoteny. So, he’s been with us from the beginning. His experience with both financing and creating actual products will keep these issues in harmony. I’m actually excited because we’ll be able to implement things that we’ve talking about for so long but haven’t had the resources for. This next year, we’re going to have a lot of great stuff come out that previously we had only dreamed about.

DW: Do you want to give us a little sneak preview of some of the ideas you’re working on for the future?

MT: I think one of the biggest things is definitely simplicity, in terms of use. TypePad isn’t as simple as it should be. (That doesn’t mean it’s powerless, though. I think that simple and powerful is a really great combination.) We imagine a tool that everybody can use. We’re in the wireframe stage of a new way of blogging, and we’re extremely excited about that. As far as Movable Type goes, we’re hoping to create a better development environment for our developer network, because that too is a really important thing.

Our developer community thrived without much help from us other than providing APIs and giving them an architecture for plugins. But what I want to do is make this product something that people feel like they can tweak to their heart’s content and actually make money off of it too.

DW: What is your relationship with your developer community like?

MT: We have our die-hard developers who have been with us for such a long time. Bringing them in house is really one of the first ways we want not only to thank them for what they’ve done, but also use their talents from within. We also do contracts with a lot people who are prominent in the developer community.

We just had an event for our developers as well as the general public. We like meeting people and actually hearing in person what they are thinking. Blogging is so much more than just posting—even though that’s still the fundamental reason to do it. I think what the developers contribute is immeasurable. We want to keep them happy and we’re working really hard to do this.

DW: Andre Torres and Jason Kottke recently launched their Dropcash service based on TypeKey and Paypal APIs. Is this the start of a trend? What do you think this means for the future of publishing and Web building applications?

MT: Absolutely. We think this is great. I think it’s definitely something we’re going to see a lot of. I already have my own campaign, my own fundraiser.

Kottke and Torres worked on this and wondered why they should replicate an authentication system. It’s not a particularly fun thing to do. So we took this step out of their work, so now they can focus on making the service even better. We want to provide the building blocks that allow people to do projects like this. Being a larger company enables this.

When we see people doing smart things, we want to reward them—by sending work their way, having them work with us, or just promoting services that use our tools well. It feels like a new era.

DW: How do you see this new era coming together? Users are not going to want to subscribe to 18 paid services from 18 startups. Are products like Movable Type and Flickr going to get bought out by the 800-pound gorillas of the industry and rolled into some uber-blogging package? Or are you going to need to compete with them?

MT: I definitely don’t think we have to compete with Flickr. First, because they are our friends, and second, because I think there is enough room for us to compliment each other.

As for someone like Microsoft gobbling us up, you can never tell what’s going to happen. But it’s not in our game plan. I think that we can act as independent vendors and still contribute. It doesn’t have to be one company owning all the assets.

We work together through APIs and shared authentication systems and, basically, have the same vision of what we want to offer. I think the other companies’ goal (and I don’t want to speak for them) is to make a simple, yet cool, tool—and that’s what we want to do, as well. And people definitely want integration with Movable Type and TypePad. Ultimately, it’s about finding the right groups of people to work with, and then working with them. Andrew Anker was brought on as our executive vice president of corporate development and he talks to these other companies and figures out ways we can all work together. I’m really excited about how we can integrate and what that means for the product.

DW: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. Is there anything else that has been on your mind that you’d like to mention?

MT: One of the biggest things that I want to get through (and that I probably don’t a good enough job of getting through) is that it’s completely untrue that we’re this big corporate company and that we don’t care about the users—that it’s all about just Ben and Mena and the venture capitalists. It’s not so; there are so many smart people here who love what they’re doing and love blogging. It dismisses their value when people say the company is just a big corporation that doesn’t care about its users.

People should understand that when you’re insulting the company, you’re insulting a lot of people. We’re all good people and I wish everyone would take some time to see that. There are so many other targets to focus on; our little company from San Mateo is the least among them.

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Mena Trott is co-founder and President of Six Apart, the creators of the TypePad service and Movable Type software, two of the leading tools for publishing weblogs. In addition to her role helping lead management and business efforts at Six Apart, Mena enjoys working on making the products aesthetically pleasing as well as functionally intuitive. Named one of Fast Company's Fast 50 for 2004, Mena has been involved in the weblogging space since she first began publishing to her own weblog, dollarshort.org in early 2001. She speaks regularly at industry conferences and has appeared at Supernova, South by Southwest, AdTech and DEMO 2004 and writes frequently on the weblogging space and Six Apart at "Mena's Corner." She lives in San Francisco with her husband and co-founder of Six Apart, Ben Trott.

 

Kris Krug (l: kristopherus krugulus) is a passionate web creature who rarely emerges from his habitat. Since sightings are rare, moments with him are generally exquisite treats.

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