The dotcom entrepreneur doing it for love not money

If anyone’s Wikipedia page should make for accurate reading, it’s that of Jimmy Donal “Jimbo” Wales, who is the co-founder and promoter of the open-access online encyclopaedia.

Wikipedia was launched by Wales, Lawrence Mark “Larry” Sanger and others in 2001, in reaction to the slow moving ‘safe encyclopaedias’, such as Britannica. Wales and Sanger sought to democratise knowledge and did so by allowing anyone at all to edit and upload entries online.

While Sanger lamented Wikipedia’s “lack of respect for expertise”, Wales saw the project as a vessel for offering the world free access to the sum of human knowledge.

He’s not your usual billionaire dotcom entrepreneur, in that he isn’t a billionaire, even after founding the 5th most popular website in the world his net worth was estimated at $1 million by the New York Times in 2013.

Wales started his career as a trader at Chicago Options Associates, a futures and options trading firm. He accumulated enough wealth, by speculating on interest rate and foreign currency fluctuations, to leave financial trading and become an entrepreneur.

As it seems with many dotcom entrepreneurs, Wales’ obsession with the internet led to his success. In graduate school, Wales’s interest in open-source software, allowing programmers to collaborate online, piqued and an obsession to create an online encyclopaedia anyone could edit began.

In 1996 he cofounded search engine, Bomis with Tim Shell and Michael Davis who later formed the initial three-member Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees.

Bomis was a success, in the short term at least, and turned enough profits to finance Wikipedia’s predecessor. Nupedia had some distinct differences to Wikipedia, but most importantly it relied on peer-reviewed entries written by experts and academics, rather than a broader community of contributors. Bomis kept growing, but Nupedia struggled.

It’s been Wales’ job for many years to campaign and ask the public for money to support Wikipedia in the hope he can prevent the organisation becoming a commercial operation.

Only Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft get more visitors. There are 30 million registered users (137,000 of which have performed an action in the last 30 days), 5.3 million content pages, almost 900 million page edits since Wikipedia was set up and 1275 administrators.

The scale of the operation must make commercialisation tempting, but Wales has stuck to his guns, not considering himself a benevolent dictator, but a constitutional monarch, without any actual power, other than waving.

His early success with Wikipedia saw him become a household name. Bono invited him to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he was named a Young Global Leader. Time Magazine named him one of its 100 Most Influential People of 2006.

Wales is now driven to speak at major forums and events about the threats and opportunities in a globally connected world. He advocates for organisations’ need to innovate in a world that is more open and collaborative than ever before.


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