O’Reilly Media’s history, business model and values
Ars on your lunch break: Sitting down with legendary publisher Tim O’Reilly (After On podcast, serialized July 2018).
“Tim is by far the best-known publisher in an industry in which books matter immensely. Software developers, IT people and other technical folks can easily consume dozens to hundreds of books during their careers, keeping up with the ever-changing programming languages and skillsets that are core to their jobs. A huge share of those books are published by O’Reilly Media, and multiple billionaires have publicly stated that their startups got going on a couple of O’Reilly Media books. The company has also organized innumerable conferences, has a popular online training platform and more. But significant as it is to be tech’s preeminent publisher, that characterization doesn’t even begin to convey the influence Tim O’Reilly has on the industry. Starting in the earliest days of the World Wide Web, he has repeatedly convened conclaves of tech’s most thoughtful, prominent and/or powerful people to face important industry transitions to plot courses through them and, quite often, to name them.”
Roundtable with Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson, and Bryce Roberts (August 2017). When I mentioned on Twitter what a great time I'd had at lunch in Chicago with Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (founders of Basecamp, CEO and CTO, respectively), Bryce Roberts (my partner at O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures and the founder of Indie.vc) asked us to get together for a live indie.vc webcast. Basecamp and O'Reilly Media have been in business for nearly two and four decades, respectively. Both companies remain independent and profitable to this day. We have built our businesses on our own terms, from day one, without venture capital. In this one-hour live discussion, we talked about what it's like to run a tech business outside of Silicon Valley and the advantages of bootstrapping a business and staying in it for the long haul rather than taking VC money and entering the race for the exits.
The Oracle of Silicon Valley — May 2010. In his cover story for Inc. magazine, senior writer Max Chafkin profiles O'Reilly Media's history and touches on my efforts to encourage transparency and interactivity in government.
Interview with IBM's developerworks — February 2007. I tell the O'Reilly Media story: its focus on innovators in the field, growth, goals for the future.
First of all, our basic methodology, as we've developed it over the years sort of through trial and error, is that we find interesting people who are innovating from the edge. And then we just watch and see what they do. So, for example, we have an event called foo camp… we invite these guys together with no program, and on the Friday night, they introduce themselves and then there's a bunch of big whiteboards with space for talks, and they put up the talks that they want to give. And we watch that and we say, "Wow — what are they wanting to talk about?"
Wired Profile: The Trend Spotter — October 2005. Wired writer Steven Levy visited Tim at his home in Sebastopol and wrote this profile, expounding on the history of O'Reilly Media and the O'Reilly Radar.
INTO: What Are You Into? — November 2003. I don't know how old I am, but I do know I'm passionate about making jam. Macromedia produced a short video clip of me (requires Flash Player 7) on its "Into" web site. When you've launched "the experience," click on my head, the third mug from the left. "What I hope for the future of the web is that it becomes unnoticed. The ultimate success of any technology is for it to be transcended. And that is the essence of human progress, that things that were once cutting-edge become common place. And that's kinda cool."
Buy Where You Shop — May 2003. If you like shopping in bookstores, remember this: many independent booksellers are on the ropes. If you value the bookstore experience, my advice is this: buy where you shop. I buy lots of books online. I read about them on a blog or a mailing list, and buy with one click. But when I shop for books in bookstores, I buy them there, and so should you.
SLAC Symposium on the Early Web — November 2001. The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) is hosting a symposium to honor the ten year anniversary of the Web in the U.S. (SLAC hosted the first U.S. Web site.) Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Caillieu, and others will talk about the early Web. Dale Dougherty and I have been invited to talk about our experiences creating GNN, the first Web portal. I wrote up a few thoughts in my weblog.
As to advertising, we started out with the hope that the Web would lead to a new era of content-rich advertising instead of quick jingles with little or no information content. Despite the proliferation of increasingly intrusive advertising, starting with rotating ad banners up through today's pop-ups, pop-unders, and streaming media downloads, there was a way in which we were right. All those intrusive ads are really just advertisements for the real ads—the sites themselves, where rich product information can actually be found. For example, oreilly.com provides far more detailed information about our products than could ever be found before the era of the Web.
The O'Reilly Business Model — January 2001. Student Dave Heisler chose O'Reilly & Associates for his research on e-business models and strategies. In this January 2001 Ask Tim column, I answer Dave's questions about the company. Topics include community involvement, the development and objectives of O'Reilly's Web site, the motivation behind spinoffs, and the company vision, past and present.
You can't fake community involvement over the long haul. It only works if the community as well as your company benefits. And if you don't really understand the communities you're working with, you can easily look foolish or greedy.
Giving Away Free Books — November 2000. A posting to the StudioB mailing list in which I tell a story about giving away free review copies of books, and a small bit of industry history that happened as a result.
That conversation with Steve Wolff has a small but more important part in Internet history as well. It was just at the time that we were about to roll out the Global Network Navigator (GNN), the first web portal/catalog/magazine, and the first site on the net to use advertising as its business model. For those who weren't around at the time, there had been a very strong tradition of no commercial activity on the net, backed up by what was called the AUP, or Acceptable Use Policy, of the NSF. I told Steve what we were up to and asked his blessing. He said "Our mandate is the support of research and education. If you guys aren't in support of research and education, I don't know who is. Go for it." I still treasure that moment.
Tim O'Reilly in a Nutshell — April 2000. Dena Brooker of the Canadian bookstore chain Chapters, interviewed me for the Chapters web site:
"We're not just about computers or computer books," says Tim O'Reilly, president and founder of O'Reilly & Associates. "We're really about solving information problems. Our core mission is transferring information from people who have it to people who need it."
Beyond the Book — March 2000. At the Waterside Publishing Conference, I was invited to speak on a panel called "Beyond the Book." The organizers were no doubt expecting a few words on what O'Reilly & Associates is doing with eBooks, with the online sites we publish, like xml.com, and with our technical conferences. But instead, what I spoke about was why O'Reilly has always reached beyond the book in all of our publishing efforts:
I like to compare business (or life for that matter) to an extended road trip. Say you want to travel America by the back roads. You need gas for your car, food and water for your body. Especially before heading across Death Valley or the Utah salt flats, you'd better be darn sure that you have enough gas in your tank. But you certainly don't think of your trip as a tour of gas stations! What's the real purpose behind what you do?
Big Hairy Audacious Goal — January 2000. One of my new managers asked me to write down a succinct summary of my business strategy and tactics. Here's what I wrote. This exercise forced me to articulate some things that had been implicit but never fully spoken. I left off the short term tactics section here, since that would give away too much information to our competitors. If they want to emulate the overall strategy, more power to them, since having more people do what we try to do would be a good thing!
The authors of the book Built to Last say great companies have Big Hairy Audacious Goals. Here's mine: To become the information provider of choice to the people who are shaping the future of our planet, and to enable change by capturing and transmitting the knowledge of innovators and innovative communities.
Why Isn't O'Reilly Publicly Traded? — January 2000. This has come up frequently in the Ask Tim column. This was my answer:
We like our independence at O'Reilly. Our customers like it as well, since it lets us serve them rather than the stockholders. Part of what has made O'Reilly so successful is that we don't chase quarterly earnings targets. Instead, we follow our dreams, our curiosity, and our sense of what's important.
Why We Opened a UK Office — October 1999. A short piece I wrote for the formal opening of O'Reilly UK:
The technical community we represent is global, tied together by the Internet. The technologies and computing platforms we document transcend the local trends or fads of any one country.
O'Reilly Brings the Net to Book — April 1999. An interview with the Irish Times by Fiachra O'Marcaigh. There's nothing particularly earth-shattering in this interview. A bit of company history, a bit of speculation about where we're going (the network as computer). But I was touched by the way the interview made much of my Irish heritage and "owned" me as an Irishman, and because Fiachra was such a nice guy. (He spent a few hours after the interview driving me and my mother around Dublin for a narrated tour.) If you want more on my Irish heritage, check out my story in Travelers Tales Ireland.
He has an easy Californian manner which masks two things. The accent hides the fact that Tim O'Reilly is Irish, born if not reared; and the quiet delivery the fact that his publishing has informed, shaped and sometimes driven the way the Internet has grown as a mass medium. No other Irishman has as big a say in cyberspace.
Why Travel and Medical Books? — August 1999. An Ask Tim posting.
I want to say a bit more about what our books in these other areas have in common with our technical books. They actually spring from a remarkably consistent vision: I have always thought of our core competency as being one of solving information problems. There are lots of areas where the gulf between the people in the know, and the people who *need* to know, is wider than it should be. What we've always tried to do was to bridge that gap, to write down what leading-edge people know for the benefit of those who follow.
Calliope's Revenge — August 1997. This Forbes.com article reveals the series of happy accidents that gave rise to O'Reilly & Associates, from my chance meeting of Peter Brajer, to the pandemonium that ensued at MIT's first X-Windows conference when people literally threw money at us to obtain Xerox copies of the X-Windows books-to-be, to the weekend doodling of Edie Freedman, who became our graphic designer when she came up with the animal engravings that are the O'Reilly trademark.
Positioning and Branding — July 1997. A piece I wrote for O'Reilly's internal employee newsletter. It relates what we do at O'Reilly to the ideas of Geoffrey Moore (Crossing the Chasm), Ries and Trout (The 21 Immutable Laws of Marketing), and William Davidow (Marketing High Technology). In particular, it explains some of the lessons I learned from our venture into the software business.
Ten Years as a Publisher — January 1997. A short piece I wrote for one of our catalogs in late 1996 or early 1997, reflecting on why we got into publishing in the first place.
I believe Joseph Campbell once said that the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table was the quintessential myth of Western civilization. The knights seek out not the high road to success but the deepest, darkest part of the forest, where there are enemies to fight and people in distress.
A Management Retreat — September 1995. An account I wrote for our company newsletter about a management retreat we'd just held. There's a lot of gory intra-company detail in there that's out of date and fairly obscure by now, but there are a few good nuggets, and it's an interesting milepost in the evolution of our story about who we are and what we do.
We talked about how honesty was a touchstone of our products—their straight across, no nonsense approach—as well as of how we want to treat each other and our customers. We recast this as "truth matters." We talked about how many of the other values—caring, freedom, fairness, personal growth, balanced life—added up to a statement that "people matter." And in a funny way, that's also been at the heart of our product vision: you might say that we wrote computer manuals as if the people using the computers mattered more than the computers themselves."
Fishing With Strawberries — early 1995. A brief article I wrote for O'Reilly's internal company newsletter.
[The investment banker] made a statement that really struck me, and the more I thought about it, the more I saw in it, both to agree and disagree with. The statement was this: "You don't fish with strawberries. Even if that's what you like, fish like worms, so that's what you use." …That's really good advice for any sales situation: understand the customer and his or her needs, and make sure that you're answering those needs. No one could argue with such sound, commonsense advice. At the same time, a small voice within me said with a mixture of dismay, wonder and dawning delight: "But that's just what we've always done: gone fishing with strawberries. We've made a business by offering our customers what we ourselves want. And it's worked!"
Some Necessary Qualities — December 1993. A piece I wrote for our internal company newsletter at the end of the year in 1993, as I realized that we were starting to move from a company in which everyone knew each other and culture was based on personal relationships to one in which our values needed to be institutionalized.
[Our biggest challenge] is how to institutionalize the qualities that have up to now been carried for the organization by us as individuals. Especially as the pace of growth picks up, it's increasingly easy for a company to be defined solely by its commercial goals.
It's becoming clear that the company is going to keep growing, and to be around for many years to come. If that's the case, one of our major challenges is to find a way to build company structures that support our underlying goals and values, to create a truly moral organization that is as effective as it is good, and will stay that way a hundred years from now, when all of us are gone."
The Long View — September 1993. A piece I wrote for our internal company newsletter. In addition to exploring the idea that some of the things we were exploring might not lead to revenue for a long time, this article contains some interesting early history of the Davenport Group, the O'Reilly sponsored-project that led to the development of the docbook DTD.
You don't know exactly where you're going. But you know what you're looking for, and you trust yourself to know when you find it. This approach takes a lot of courage, a lot of tolerance for ambiguity, a willingness to pass up short term opportunities that somehow don't seem quite right, an ability to change direction suddenly when you realize that one path you've headed down doesn't quite take you where you want to go… I could go on and on.
The point I'm trying to make is that this effort has been entirely in the same spirit that launched our book publishing efforts in the first place. That spirit of exploration driven by "I know what I'm looking for" that's so foreign to most business planning is the very essence of what has made ORA successful.
Getting in Sync — March 1993. A piece I wrote for our internal company newsletter. A piece wrestling with company growing pains.
It seems harder to me each year to sway the company just by force of personality. I had a curious feeling in the talk I gave in the Cambridge office when I was there last month. The closest concrete image I can use to describe it (and one that came to mind from trying to jump-start Sue's car the night before) was of trying to push a car that is just a bit too heavy or on too great a slope.
Knowing When to Let Go — November 2002. A piece I wrote for our internal company newsletter in November of 1992, in response to mounting stress at the company as we became more and more successful.
When you feel yourself starting to clutch, to worry that you can't keep up, let go! There are times when the conscious mind can't keep up, but the unconscious will do just fine. The faltering steps of a newcomer to a dance become assured to the extent that she is able to forget the individual steps and yield to the music. The straining load of an engine getting up to speed gives way to a smooth hum as it slides into gear. I seem to remember (or did I make this up?) a wonderful martial arts book or movie in which an old master "bumbles" his way through a room, accidentally disposing of each of his highly trained opponents with strokes that might be luck but are more likely the highest level of skill guided by complete reliance on intuition.
Why We're In Business — April 1992. A piece I wrote for O'Reilly's internal employee newsletter.
I thought it was time for a reminder of our beginnings: the company is a means, not an end. The end is a better life for those of us who work, for our customers, and (as far as we can stretch it), for everyone we touch. If you start dreading coming to work, something is wrong. If work so consumes you that it's all you think about, something is wrong.
Rules of Thumb — July 1992. In the late 80s, I wrote a draft of an employee handbook called Rules of Thumb that was never distributed. An employment lawyer I sent it to for review told me "It's the most inspiring employee handbook I've ever read, but I can't let you use it." I struggled with it for years, before giving in and letting the lawyers rewrite it. A watered down version was finally distributed to employees in the year 2000! The Preface, Introduction, and a chapter entitled Your Job should give you an idea of the flavor. The version here is the earliest draft I could still find, and dates from the summer of 1992.
I called this booklet "Rules of Thumb" because every rule in it is meant to be broken at some time or another, whenever there is good reason. We have no absolute policies, just guidelines based on past experience. As we grow, we will learn, and will make new empirical rules about what works best in new situations.
Documentation and The Future of UNIX — October 1984. This is the first industry op-ed piece I ever wrote. It was done in the fall of 1984 for a Boston area technical newspaper called Mass High Tech. We hadn't come to realize the publishing opportunity yet. I was evangelizing the idea that with UNIX as an open system, and one that had been developed in a research setting to boot, documentation was one of the key value adds companies needed to think about. I had developed some base manuals that I was customizing for a number of clients. Some of these customizeable manuals morphed over the next year or so into our first books.
One condition of success in the UNIX marketplace is increasingly coming to be the quality of the documentation and training materials supplied with the system. In order to distinguish themselves from the competition, UNIX system developers need to provide their users with friendly, effective UNIX documentation that goes beyond the standard document set supplied by Bell Laboratories.