power logo




 



The Blog Prince | Matt Mullenweg | By Jay Oatway | Photography Laurent Segrétier

College dropout Matt Mullenweg・s team of software developers created the greatest boon to freedom of expression ever: open-source blogging software. Or is it a bane?

MATT MULLENWEG IS a young man living his dream job. What began as a humble contribution to an open-source software project has blossomed into a global operation that provides the back-end programming for more than 12 million blogs worldwide, and even used by heavyweights such as CNN and the Wall Street Journal.

At 25, Mullenweg is sitting on top of US$30 million in venture capital and has turned down a $200 million offer to buy his company, Automattic. While you may not have heard of Automattic, if you have thought about starting a blog, either personally or for your company, Mullenweg・s free, open-source platform, WordPress, should be a familiar name.

The vast majority of the Top 100 Bloggers (as rated by Technorati.com) use WordPress. And more than 10,000 volunteers are actively contributing open-source programming code to expand the possibilities of what WordPress-powered blogs can do.

But the laid-back, softly spoken Mullenweg remains humble about the whole thing. He・s living proof that a person doesn・t need to be intensely serious to be a major success.
Officially, Mullenweg・s title is Chief BBQ Taste Tester. He loves collecting vinyl jazz records. He・s continuously photographing the world around him (he carries a camera with him at all times). He admits to having a secret crush on Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanys. And, of course, he likes to blog.

Wasn・t blogging supposed to be a passing fad? Isn・t it dying off?
Blogging has been declared dead at least five times since we started WordPress, but basically we just look at our own numbers. It isn・t showing any signs of slowing down. There are not fewer people wanting to express themselves online every day. The trends are on our side. You can also see that where broadband has increased, the adoption of blogging also increases.

We・ve seen organic growth of around 10 percent month-on-month, starting from a few dozen blogs per day back when we first launched WordPress in 2003 to now more than 15,000 new blogs per day.

Blogging for personal use is better than it has ever been because the tools are so much better. It・s so much easier to use photos and videos and music than it used to be. That・s a big part of how I express myself V through these other media, not just text. The software is more accessible than it has ever been. If you look at what you had to do to start a blog in 2003, it was pretty tough.  And now we・ve finally reached the ultimate promise of the Internet, which is the democratization of publishing.

Blogging has proven to be very adaptive. Even the term blog, which we・ve had since 1999, has evolved. If you look at what people now call blogging, it can include just about anything. I・m confident that it will continue to adapt to whatever the future holds.

The Blog Prince | Matt Mullenweg | By Jay Oatway | Photography Laurent Segrétier

So how is blogging adapting to business use?
Increasingly, companies are engaging their customers in a more direct way. Having a company blog today is the equivalent of having a website 10 years ago. Every single company that is :customer-facing; will have to have a way to engage their customers directly. It will happen via forums, via Twitter, via blogs, via everything and anything. The conversations about your company are happening anyway, you can be a part of it or not.

Smarter companies have already chosen to dive in. Companies that were once universally despised, like Microsoft, have actually done an amazing turnaround in their public perception by using social media to say, :Hey, we・re humans too. We・re not evil robots trying to crush the world.;
In a few years・ time, companies that aren・t talking to their customers through blogs and other social media are going to seem completely out of touch. The more out of touch they are, the more we are going to choose one of their competitors who speaks to us on our terms. Not the ones that treat us like faceless, nameless numbers.

However, I don・t think companies should build their own content management systems anymore. There・s no reason. It・s impossible to mirror the activity and the growth of an open-source project, where you get continual performance improvements for free.

How do you survive as a business that is best known for giving away free, open-source software?
Well, WordPress.org (the repository for the open-source software people use to host their own blogs) will be around forever, because it・s a non-profit entity. It will exist as long as people care about it. But my business, which I started in 2005, is Automattic. It does have a business model, which provides services around blogging and around WordPress.

We make money in four main ways: we provide premium services, such as unique domain names and extra storage space on WordPress.com (which hosts free WordPress blogs for people); we also sell advertising on WordPress.com; we have services like Akismet (a comment-spam filter) and Polldaddy (online polls and surveys) that we license to businesses; and finally we offer a VIP hosting solution for major media outlets like CNN, Fox News, and the Wall Street Journal.

Big spikes in traffic for them, like on the last election day in the US, are just a blip on the radar for us.

So if you weren・t giving away WordPress you wouldn・t have anyone to sell Akismet to?
That・s true, but we・ve seen the same thing happen in proprietary ecosystems as well. Bill Gates once said that for every dollar Microsoft made on Windows, another $18 was made in the tech world. So I think that・s a good model for most companies to follow. If you can create far more wealth outside of your company than inside, then you don・t have to concentrate on getting a larger slice of the pie. You can just grow the whole pie. It・s about generating wealth for others.

How many people does Automattic employ? Where do you have offices?
We employ 38 people worldwide, including Australia, Japan, Canada, Ireland, England, Bulgaria, France and China. We have an office in San Francisco, but it・s actually more of a lounge for the six of us in the Bay Area to hang out in once a week. I live a block away from it, so if I have a meeting, I・ll conduct it there.

Otherwise, Automattic is a virtual company, where nearly all of our company interaction is online via written means.

Do you regret not building your own proprietary software that you could have sold to Google, like Blogger did?
If WordPress had been proprietary, I don・t believe anyone would be talking about it today. It・s one of those things where I felt that I had received so much from open-source projects that the morally right thing to do was to make much of my work open source. The more you give away, the more that comes back.

Open source is less about the price and more about the freedom.

How did you manage to make a small open-source project into such a huge success?
We got lucky. In 2005, Movable Type was the dominant blogging system, and it was a proprietary system, and they decided to change their license. So people who were using it for free one day, woke up the next day to find they would have to pay more than $500 to continue the license and upgrade to the new version.

We luckily released our 1.0 version that same week. We included a Movable Type importer and saw a big spike in our growth as people switched from their platform to ours.

At that point, a lot of more prominent bloggers began to switch over. A pivotal essay was written by Mark Pilgrim called :Freedom 0,; which is the freedom to use the software for any purpose. It received more than 200,000 visits and was widely shared among bloggers.

Freedom 0 means that no one can ever take your software away from you. To make his point, Mark Pilgrim took the Moveable Type upgrade fee, which was going to be $535 and donated it to WordPress V which to this day is our largest ever donation V he said, :It・s not about the money, it・s about the freedom.;

You・ve been named in the top 25 most influential people on the Web and in the top 30 entrepreneurs under 30. Is there a big advantage to being a young entrepreneur?
I tend to de-emphasize the young part, because I・m getting less young every day.

The disadvantage is that people don・t take you seriously. There is definitely reverse ageism. And when I was just starting out at 19 years old, I couldn・t even go to a lot of the events because you need to be 21 to get into the bar.

The way it evened out is that I had this wunderkind halo effect. People assumed I was smarter than I really was, because they would think of themselves at my age and wonder what they had been doing with their time.  

Have you never felt like your life has gotten a bit off track at some point?
I dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco because I got a job offer from CNET, which was the sort of job I was hoping to get after college anyway. I programmed for CNET, but got to spend about 30 percent of my time working on WordPress. I remember thinking, :Wow! I can get paid for working on this.; It blew me away.

But life at CNET was like something out of the movie Office Space. I started in a corner office, all windows, very nice. Then one day a VP comes in and says, :Nice office.; Two weeks later I・m out. Then they moved me to an interior office, but still quite a nice space. Three months later the games division was doing really well so they took over that space. And they literally moved me into the basement where there was barely any lighting at all. It was like that scene from the movie where the character is reduced to thinking, :If they take my red stapler, I・m out of here!;

I originally pitched WordPress to CNET but their response was, :Meh. We don・t think that blogs are going to be all that big of deal.; So I felt like I had to go someplace else with it.

When did you realize WordPress had grown bigger than you could ever have imagined it?
In Beijing, at a WordCamp (conference) last September. I・m sitting in the back of the room watching as more than 300 people were all engaged in talking about WordPress and they were all speaking in Chinese. I had no idea, not the vaguest conception of what was going on. That・s when it hit me.

Do you feel you・ve lost ownership of WordPress?
I・ve never really had ownership of it. I・m sort of the figurehead for it, but in reality if I was the only person working on it, no one would be using it today.

Your company slogan states: Code is Poetry. What does that mean to you?
It grounds us a little bit because it・s so easy, especially in open-source technology projects, to get caught up in all the day-to-day minutia that don・t really matter to the end user. :Code is Poetry; reminds us to stay grounded in other forms of art. It helps us think more about the end-user・s relationship with the product and not just our means of creating it.

Will the rise of micro-blogging, like Twitter, change the way we blog? Is Twitter going to kill blogs?
No. I still believe that most people have thoughts longer than 140 characters. And they・ll need some place to express them. Micro-blogging is about the instant feedback, which is totally addictive and totally fun.

Twitter proves an important aspect of blogging V readership isn・t as important as the comments. Sure, getting picked up on Digg [a highly popular hyperlink sharing services] gets you a huge spike in traffic, but it・s not a conversation I like having. It・s like having a bunch of people suddenly show up at my house, scream, drink all my beer, and leave. I prefer the more salon-like atmosphere that is generally created by comments on blogs.

But I do twitter [@photomatt]. My four favorite micro-blogging platforms are Plurk, Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook. Each one is pretty different but they also share a commonality V they all allow you to access the posting interface :promiscuously; V in as many ways a as possible. You can do it from your mobile phone, from email, via SMS, from the Web or from instant messenger.

They also combine the reading and writing quite well, where with blogging you go to your own blog to write, but then you need to go to something like Google Reader to read other blogs. So maybe the way we need to go with WordPress is to create a means of reading other blogs that closes that loop between reading and publishing the same way that micro-blogging does.

Do you ever wish you・d stayed in school?
I wish I had the degree, especially when I・m hanging out with other members of the team who have got PhDs. The decision to drop out was a tough conversation to have at the time with my parents. I was studying political science not computer science. Political science is actually far more relevant to running an open-source software project than computer science is.

How so?
The hardest challenge in open-source development is that the team・s communication medium is mailing lists, which by their nature lend themselves to being divisive. People talk the most about the most trivial things. There is even a term for it: :The Bike Shed Problem; (also known as Parkinson・s Law of Triviality).

So if a group looks at a billion-dollar nuclear facility, they・ll basically say yes or no to it because the complexity is beyond most people. But if you build a bike shed people say, no it should be here, it should be there, it should be this color, no it should be that color. Everyone has an opinion because it is simple enough for everyone to understand.

In open source, often the biggest arguments are about things that have a relatively minor affect on the end-user experience. So we solve problems using the open-source model that has been most successful, called the Benevolent Dictator model.  It・s also what Linux uses. If there is a deadlock, or the community gets a little too off track, I just come in and says, :This is it.;