(Why) I’m stepping down from my WordPress marketing role

I’m going to step away from my role as Marketing Lead. I consider this mostly a personal failure, both in correctly setting and getting expectations and in fitting into another type of organization. Matt and I have talked this through and there are no hard feelings on either side whatsoever. At the same time I’m sad about not having been able to leave more of a mark. Let me explain why I’m stepping down.

When I first talked to Matt about this role he asked me to become “the CMO of WordPress”. In my eyes, a CMO is involved in all aspects of a project / company. When I was announced, I was announced as a “change in WordPress leadership”. My experience over the last few months made me feel that while I was doing things and getting things done, I certainly wasn’t leadership. Which is why I want to step away from my role: I don’t want to pretend I have a say in things I don’t have a say in.

What is marketing?

It seems the problem of defining of what marketing is beforehand, is one of the problems of why I failed in my role. Marketing to me is not just the last step of “promotion”, but the entire process of bringing a product to market. It’s clear that others within the WordPress project don’t necessarily see it like that, and when they describe marketing, it’s a lot more like what I would call advertising. A lot more tactical. I don’t dislike that tactical work, but I think my qualities lie elsewhere.

There’s a stark difference between where I thought I would be in the organization in this role, and where I am actually finding myself now. Even things that every outsider would consider marketing (release posts, about pages) are created without even so much as talking to me or others in the marketing team. Because I felt left out of all these decisions, I feel I can’t be a marketing lead.

Clarity about my position

My position is unclear, not just to me, but to many people which makes me uncomfortable. I’ve been asked dozens of times on Twitter, Facebook and at WordCamps why I now work for Automattic, which of course I don’t but that is the perception for a lot of people. On other occasions I seem to be the token non-Automattician, which I’m also uncomfortable with.

At the same time I feel hampered by my WordPress position to do the work I need to do at Yoast. I notice I’m sometimes shutting up about things Yoast does because that would look weird on the outside and could be perceived wrong. I also felt I was “defending” WordPress too much, on stuff I had otherwise perhaps been more critical of.

WordPress mission and vision

I am used to having a strong vision and mission for a company and a product, and to be translating that into product & marketing decisions. Matt has certainly shown some of his product vision in State of the Words over the year but I’ve found it very hard to get more of the vision behind all the recent changes and the roadmap “out there”.

I’ve not encountered (or been brought into) any discussions about our product vision, something I would need to translate into day-to-day actions. I was expecting there to be some backchannels where these discussions were had and these decisions were made, turns out these simply don’t exist. Matt takes his input from core devchats and lots of other chats and then decides what the roadmap should look like. I honestly think that process needs opening up, even though I do appreciate that Matt has so far been pretty good at bringing the product forward.

An inevitable conclusion

Combined, this doesn’t work for me. I was expecting to be actively involved in larger product and marketing decisions. That didn’t happen. At the same time I have to explain what we do to the outside world and to other people within the WordPress ecosystem, because they assume I know and I’ve been involved. I’m unwilling and unable to do that.

I think some of these things need to change. I see the value in what Josepha is doing and also in projects like the governance project, but these processes take time and patience, and patience is a virtue I’ve not developed well. This was my way of trying to broaden WordPress leadership. I’m sad to conclude that I failed. I’m of course still available to advise and strategize should the project want for that, and will give my opinion, whether I’m asked to or not 😉

Turns out failing burns me out faster than going fast does… That’s why I’m taking an extended holiday this summer, after which I’ll focus my work time for 100% on Yoast and my Chief Product Officer role there. In that role, and outside of it, I’ll absolutely still be an active voice and contributor in the WordPress community.

Photo by Ugne Vasyliute on Unsplash

A headshot of Joost de Valk, author.

Joost de Valk

Joost is an internet entrepreneur from Wijchen, the Netherlands. He is the founder of Yoast. Joost is married to Marieke, who is also Yoast's former CEO. Marieke and Joost have 4 kids together and run Emilia Capital together, an investment firm.


WordPress » (Why) I’m stepping down from my WordPress marketing role

35 thoughts on “(Why) I’m stepping down from my WordPress marketing role”

  1. Thank you so much for trying this new thing out, I think we both learned a lot and I’m looking forward to trying more new things together in the future. I really appreciate your passion, impatience, and drive for growing WordPress.

  2. Being the first to try a new thing is hard and I agree with you entirely that it’s a matter of patience and small wins. I really enjoyed the candid relationship we developed as we took this journey though, and I hope you mean that about being available for advice! 🙂

  3. You can’t fail at something you were never truly given an opportunity to succeed at.

  4. Wishing you luck and vacation recovery and time to reflect…. There’s no failure if we learn from a thing. Sounds like you already have the seeds of some new insights. Vacation might help you turn what feels like a failure now into a new opportunity or success!

  5. Thank you for your contributions. Although you may have failed at your role you certainly haven’t failed at personal and professional growth and I’m certain you will do well no matter what your next steps are.

  6. “A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.” – B. F. Skinner

    Thank you very much for your honest assessment of the challenge you faced. It proves greatness to know where the weaknesses and strengths lie and even more to communicate them honestly to the outside world.

    If there is one thing I have learned over the years as an active contributor to WordPress, it is to be patient with the deep trust that constant drops hollow the stone. A global project of this size requires not only a lot of energy but also political calculation.

    I can well understand that it triggers a feeling of frustration and exhaustion when things don’t go as you know them from your everyday business life.

    Your decision also shows how important it is to pay attention to your own health and to consider and let go of obligations.

    So you have my greatest respect for at least trying and still being available as a consultative contributor.

  7. I always look at life as you either win or you learn. Turns out this was a big learn for you and I am sure for others as well. I hope that you have an amazing summer and I look forward to seeing you back in some of the emails from the Yoast brand.

  8. Joost, Keep you chin up. You tried it. It wasn’t right. I takes a big person to admit when something isn’t right and doing something about it!

  9. I appreciate your candidness about your experience. I know the decision to step down can’t have been an easy or comfortable one for you to make, and writing such an intimate post can’t have been easy either.

    It can be very, very hard to be honest with ourselves and our peers in this industry. Nobody wants to admit defeat, or weakness, or show that we are struggling; we think it will make us unwelcome or unworthy. We all publish our best works and hide our failures as if they could destroy us. But it keeps us from growing, learning, sharing, helping others. The truth is, seeing that the people you look up to are also struggling reminds us that we are all human, that it’s okay to admit defeat and it’s okay to own up to it. This experience was not a failure. It shows great strength to bow out gracefully when you know something isn’t working. Many great figures have fallen because they were unable to do this.

    I hope that your actions encourage more of the WordPress community to speak up about their own experiences – because addressing and solving our problems openly and honestly is the way to grow and move forward as an open source community.

    I wish you the best of luck, and I look forward to seeing more great things from you and the Yoast team.

  10. Thank you for the experience and your guidance the past few months, and your candid assessment provided in hindsight. I look forward to working with you throughout the Community in the future. In the meantime, have a terrific sabbatical!

  11. For a second I thought you might be stepping away from working on/with the WordPress platform Joost so it is a relief that you will still be involved, that in itself is marketing WordPress.

  12. Your points are valid and it’s the right decision – thanks for trying 🙂
    Seems to me that this role needs to be 100% internal, and that it also needs to be defined in the context of the type of beast WordPress is. Perhaps more of an orchestrator who can bring disparate and distributed ideas together, process and refine them, and re-distribute them out again as ‘toolsets’ that can stand alone (to be used by whoever needs them) or form part of a bigger, coordinated campaign. Open sourcing marketing, kinda.

  13. So…

    “I do appreciate that Matt has so far been pretty good at bringing the product forward.”

    … is the most understated point since Lebowski told the nihilists, “Hey this is a private residence, man.”

  14. Hi Joost. You didn’t fail. When starting a new position expectations must be clear from the beginning. After reading your post it seemed that everyone involved had their own agenda.
    And I agree with you that marketing and advertising are two different beast. Marketing is focusing on the total delivery of the product from start to finish. Advertising is telling someone about a hamburger. Marketing is taking the person to the restaurant , experiencing the architecture of the building, the colors on the walls, in the logo, and staff uniforms. When marketing is done right no matter what you can’t forget the experience. I’ll stop. Marketing is a new found passion. I get excited. lol
    Great blog. I look forward to the next.

  15. It’s a tough gig when Marketing and Advertising are seen as interchangeable. Unfortunately more and more of this is getting common.

    Regardless you have built something amazing at Yoast, better build on something you can control than fight for something you can’t 🙂


  16. Thanks for being so transparent about your decision and thank you so much for all the work you do for the WordPress space!

    Enjoy your extended holiday, and please know that you and your efforts are greatly respected 🦁.

    Keep on rocking 🙌!

  17. @joost: don’t blame yourself. It was just an unworkable situation in the first place. Thanks for trying anyway and accepting that challenge. You and Yoast-team are probably the biggest company contributors to WordPress. And percentage-wise, way bigger then what Automattic does. If you guys and girl’s haven’t interfere with Gutenberg, the outcome would be way worser.

    To be frankly: you stepping down is just the next one in row bumping to the static walls of the WordPress Community. You on the highest level is the biggest opportunity that we had so far to really open up WordPress leadership. A missed chance, if we can call it a chance.

    @matt says he learned a lot. I’m so curious what he learned and what he will do about it. It’s in his best interest to make this the highest priority or the community will turn more backs to Automattic and sorts. They just can’t stretch their favour role endlessly. It’s gonna snap.

    And sharing leadership is not so difficult as we think.
    Just look at Drupal: https://www.drupal.org/association/board

  18. You live, you learn.
    Stepping out of our comfort zone is never easy, and always commendable.
    I am happy to know you Joost, and happy and grateful for your efforts and trailblazing…
    Enjoy the break, and know I’m here if I can ever be of any help (even just shooting the breeze)

  19. One of the best things you can do is admit something is not the best fit and walk away openly and honestly before you become embittered.

    Life has taken me away from contributing to the marketing team over the past 18 months or so, but I appreciated your efforts while you were there

  20. > Marketing to me is not just the last step of “promotion”, but the entire process of bringing a product to market.

    I’d make a step further and say that any touch points with the “customer” is Marketing. Hence the way this Gutemberg dissatisfaction is managed is HUGE marketing fail. But it’s not Joost fault.

  21. Confusion between marketing strategy and tactics is common. Most people focus on product first. It comes down to “what it is” vs. “what it does.” Simple as it sounds, that distinction is hard for many to grasp.

    On top of that, you went from leading a strategic culture in a focused market to a product-centric tactical culture in a wider market. Getting everyone to make that conceptual leap takes time.

    The thing is, market re-definition and product positioning happen, one way or another. That 34% is a “what-it-is” share that could shrink faced with strategic “what-it-does” competition. Matt might now have a better idea of the challenge ahead.

    Thank you for trying, and for your open and honest appraisal of the issues. I agree this wasn’t a failure. You gave it your best, and I’m sure that’s all you ever ask of your associates.

  22. Thank you for being open about failing! Josepha is definitely on a path to opening up WordPress in a new way, and to no fault of Matt, I believe you just came in too early in that process.

    I hope the future of WP will mean, an open roadmap not only related to devchats. Things online are so much more than the core development of the product!

  23. Thanks for your contributions Joost. WordPress is a giant product and doing effective marketing for it needs power in C level without which you will be a sole advertiser to a product already built. Also a round of applause for your transparency and your respect to your health!

  24. You definetely are one of the faces in the center of the WP community and that is something very huge. It looks like your expectations did not aline with reality, but as a WP user and of your work specifically, I can only say from the name of my company – Thank You! It is nice that you are choosing your “battles” and are not afraid of giving up, despite the popular cliche, because if you don’t have control and you are the face of something, then maybe this is a good decision. I wish you all the good luck in your future plans.

  25. That is sad to hear. Enjoy your break. Your refreshing honesty is a big part of what makes your company so trustworthy, and worth using. I look forward to the film adaptation, I’m thinking Mark Ruffalo for you Joost, and Matthew (Matt) Mcconaughey for Matt, obviously…

  26. You have made the right decision. Having one foot in and one foot out is never a good position to be in. Yoast, enjoy some toast and move on. Thanks for all you do at Yoast, where you are the most!

  27. Hey, it’s sad to read this. I think that many of us in the project are lost and confused in terms of expectations or experience, I hope to see you again collaborating in some other area. Your contribution during this time and before becoming CMO is very valuable for the community, and we hope to learn from this experience how the governance project or a more defined structure could help everyone to be more transparent, inclusive to take WordPress to a future together.

  28. Thank you for your contributions to WordPress, Joost. It might not have been an easy ride, but having clarity and the ability to change things at Yoast may be what’s best for you, moving forward.

    Looking forward to more innovations at Yoast! 🙂

  29. Although you may have failed at your role you certainly haven’t failed at personal and professional growth and I’m certain you will do well no matter what your next steps are.

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