Matt Mullenweg: An Open Source

© Liz Caruana Photography

“Hello World!”—It’s a friendly greeting and disarmingly simple. These words greet you when you start your very first WordPress blog and whisper, “You can do this.” The phrase has launched a hundred million blogs, giving voices from Argentina to Zimbabwe all the permission they need to make themselves heard.

Less than 10 years old, WordPress has been astoundingly successful. According to W3Techs, an estimated 17 percent of the world’s websites are created using WordPress. Part of that success is clearly attributable to WordPress’ free, open-source web platform, its plug-in architecture, and the vast array of templates that make it both flexible and easy to use. Yet it is also due in part to the fact that WordPress has empowered the blogging generation with a force that has changed not only the way we read and report news, but also how we create and market ourselves. WordPress is a kind of clay, and users have happily become the sculptors. For this, we have Matt Mullenweg to thank, along with Mike Little and Michel Valdrighi.

For someone who has been listed in Business Week’s 25 Most Influential People on the Web, Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Media, and Vanity Fair’s Next Establishment, Mullenweg—like his creation—has a remarkably down-to-earth presence. I had a chance to catch up with him recently at his Automattic headquarters in San Francisco, where I heard more about his journey to “democratize the web” and what the future of blogging might hold.

© Liz Caruana Photography

It’s a fairly safe bet that Mullenweg was not your typical teenager; nor was he your archetypal computer tech geek. Driven by a love of music and photography, Mullenweg started using blog software to upload photos to the internet. He began making minor changes in the code to meet his personal needs, thereby customizing it. This marriage of art and code ultimately became an overarching theme in his life’s work. “They were always and still are tied together,” Mullenweg said. “The first websites I built were for musicians. All of the technology I do today is inspired by art in some way, whether it’s building things, or listening to music.”

The creative force driving WordPress was Mullenweg’s access to open-source software—software that is public and built on collective collaboration rather than corporate proprietary code. For Mullenweg, making WordPress free was a way of “paying it forward” for the gifts and opportunities he had received through said software. This approach is at the core of his philosophy and has subsequently attracted legions of devotees to WordPress. Mullenweg explained, “I think technology is incredibly interesting as a means to an end—a super scalable means because, with software, hundreds of millions of people are just a click away. That’s really powerful. The opportunity [for society] to have an impact in such a short period of time—it’s intoxicating.”

WordPress’ staying power grew because it made blogging accessible through ease of use and inviting templates, encouraging the average American to find his or her own creative voice and, for many, exercise their First Amendment rights: freedom of speech and freedom of the press. As Mullenweg sees it, “to me the quintessential American idea is equality of opportunity, the idea that there is a level playing field. It’s kind of amazing that you and I can use the same software that the New York Times does, and we are on the same internet. People can click a link and come to either of the sites just as easily. And that equality of opportunity changes the game. It’s not just the people who have the printing presses or millions of dollars to spend on software anymore; it’s anyone with an internet connection.” This directto- consumer pipeline has forever altered communication habitsof our global cultural landscape. The soaring trend of blogging has been catapulted not only by free software, but also by a society with an insatiable hunger to express themselves.

© Liz Caruana Photography

As a platform, WordPress’ broad availability revolutionized the process of exchanging information. David Vinjamuri, a Forbes contributor who teaches branding and social media at NYU, bears witness to the blogging evolution: “Blogging—the ability to self-publish instantly and without intermediation on the web—has changed journalism irrevocably. Just fifteen years ago in order to report or comment on the news you needed to belong to an organization willing to edit, publish, and distribute your views. Blogging tore down the wall.” Vinjamuri sees parallels between blogging and other newfound forms of expression in history, such as pamphleteering during the Revolutionary War era. “At first, bloggers were diarists and amateurs. Then new and unheard voices crept into the dialogue. Because of the way that Google assigned page ranks, well-linked and frequently updated blogs showed up high in searches, giving them prominence and exposure. It became clear that blog economics were different. Topics that wouldn’t support a paper or magazine were great fodder for blogs. Narrowly defined news and commentary succeeded. Bloggers went from being ignored to scorned, scorned to grudgingly accepted, then respected and finally co-opted and integrated. Most professional journalists and columnists now blog. Some bloggers cross over. And entire media platforms like The Huffington Post and Forbes Online are based in large part on the contributions of unpaid bloggers.”

The ramifications of this new technology and cultural change are clearly still being played out as new factors arise, such as mobility. Next up on WordPress’ list is perfecting its mobile app experience. Mobility in blogging is crucial as global smartphone sales surpassed PC sales in 2011 according to Mashable’s Chris Taylor and market analyst firm Canalsys. For Vinjamuri, mobility is a key trend: “I think that both mobility and the profusion of new voices have changed the nature of authenticity. To be authentic now, you have to be in the middle of it, on the scene.” In addition, new, competing content management systems (CMS) and blogging alternatives such as Blogger, Tumblr, Joomla, and Drupal have emerged on the scene. However none have reached the popularity of WordPress for a variety of reasons, including the simplicity of WordPress for the non-coding masses.

Mullenweg’s provocative tagline—“trying to democratize publishing”—is a curious mantra for a software mogul. In 2006, Mullenweg approached Toni Schneider with an offer to become CEO of Automattic (WordPress’ lesser-known parent company) and create a sustainable and profitable business model from this altruistic ideal. Schneider accepted. “When Matt and I first met about it, he asked me if I thought it was possible to create a business on top of WordPress that would support and grow the opensource project instead of exploiting it for commercial purposes,” Schneider said. “It’s an exciting project to work on.”

© Liz Caruana Photography

Although some in the blogosphere speculate on how profitable the company can actually be, WordPress continues to grow, seemingly fueled by good karma and an army of devoted bloggers. Their new headquarters in SoMa has all the “un-corporate” trappings of a typical startup: an open concept, a huge space for events, buffed cement floors, exposed ceiling and walls, and shuffleboard courts as well as ping pong tables. The seating is inviting; chairs and couches face each other, dotted with the occasional cheery, tiny succulent plants. In the center is a library housing each employee’s favorite books, including Mullenweg’s choices, such as On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Antifragile by Nassim Taleb, The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig, and Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

Life at Automattic is unconventional: 95 percent of the workforce is dispersed around the globe rather than being located in the headquarters. The company prioritizes freedom and collaboration, mirroring its open-source roots. Mullenweg himself is a digital nomad of sorts. Last year he spent approximately 290 days on the road, either meeting with his 150 Automatticians or pursuing his own passions. His next trip? Paris. Outside of work he enjoys personal travel, music, reading, and the occasional bottle of whiskey (Yamazaki 1984, to be exact).

When I first came across WordPress, I was struck by a phrase on it’s website: “Code is Poetry.” At once idealistic and pragmatic, it is easy to see how the WordPress team has created so much poetry from the mundane bits and bytes of their trade. Fast forward a few years—and several shots of very expensive whiskey—and it is clear that the idealist remains. Mullenweg explains, “For me it’s all about the people, right? It’s about the creators, not necessarily what they’re creating, because WordPress is a very open platform. You can create anything. But we’ve always been sort of creator-focused, author-focused. You have words that you want to say, a story you want to tell, and a narrative you want to put into the world. That’s what really matters. So how can we get out of the way and be almost invisible and still do the thingsthat will make your world just a little bit easier.”

WordPress has proven to be for millions of people who don’t know their PHP from their SEO—and don’t really care to. The enticing format and ease of use have given this mini-army its own path to expression: free, uncomplicated, and fueled by their own imagination and initiative. The result is perhaps one of the best examples of a democracy in action. Mullenweg’s unusual story of a man with high ideals and the sense of a revolutionary: an artist who set out to lend a global microphone to the creative voice inside each of us. As the iconic phrase suggests, creating your place to shine is really that simple: “Hello World!”

Text by Debra Winter
Photography by Liz Caruana