Millions of blogs — including Mixergy.com — run on WordPress. So I invited the entrepreneur behind this insanely successful software, Matt Mullenweg, to do an interview about how WordPress went from idea to a growing business.
I organized this interview like a biography, so you’ll hear how it all started at an economics summer camp, how Matt figured out the revenue model for the business, how he evangelized his product to bloggers, how he figured out what new features his customers wanted, and more.
Listen to it and tell me what you think.
Matt Mullenweg, Wordpress
Matt Mullenweg is the co-founder of WordPress, the open-source blogging platform, and the founder of Automattic, the for-profit business which owns WordPress.com. You can read his personal blog at ma.tt.
Matt started blogging after a trip at summer camp
I visited Washington DC as part of an economics summer camp, because I was that cool!
I had just gotten a little Sony Digital Camera and was taking a million photos and wanted to share them with my friends in Houston.
He used the b2 blogging software
It was a very different software world at the time. There was Blogger. There was MovableType. There was a b2. There were all these different ones, but b2 was the only one that was open source.
But development of b2 essentially stopped
b2 had actually, through a series of circumstances, essentially become abandoned. So, I blogged about it, which is what we bloggers do. And a fellow left a comment on my blog and said, “Well, if you’re interested in working on this, let’s work together.”
That was Mike Little, who’s the co-founder of WordPress, who I actually got a chance to see a few months ago at Word Camp, UK.
Matt and Mike developed WordPress from the b2 codebase
We wanted to continue the development of b2, because it was a good program. We really liked it, so we started thinking of what it could look like.
I had a number of things I didn’t like about it. It was very hard to set up. It was very hard to configure. To modify the code, you essentially had to copy and paste code into different parts of it. Things like that. So, we started working.
Then CNET hired him
CNET started to use WordPress on some of their properties. There was a guy there named Mike Tatum, who is very prescient; he sees things coming years before anyone else, and he got in touch with me.
I blogged that I was going to go to San Francisco, so he reached out and said, “Hey, while you’re in town, let’s meet up and talk about RSS and blogging and stuff,” and then it was just, it was a weird meeting. There were some folks from news.com there, and he was there and it was just totally random. But then, when I got back, he said “Hey, would you like to work at CNET?”
He worked on WordPress “every free moment” he had
20% of my time at CNET was spent on WordPress, because there was a lot of work otherwise. But, especially after work, every free moment I had at that point of my life, was spent on WordPress.
He quit CNET to launch Automattic
The idea behind Automatic was mostly to create an umbrella group that would support lots of open source developers, working on open source things. But, it wouldn’t be a non-profit because I felt like you could have more impact on the world as a for-profit, because you don’t have the same number of restrictions. I wanted it to be a virtuous for-profit, where the way it made money was completely inline with its users and its community.
He wanted to make money by being a commercial Robin Hood
To make money, we decided to do web services. The first one of those that I wrote, after leaving CNET, was actually called “Akismet,” and it was a plugin for WordPress that you’d drop in and it would stop all spam from coming in.
But it would do this using a centralized service that could adapt to new types of spam as fast as the spammers are creating it. So it maintained a high level of effectiveness over a long period of time, which no spam plugins prior to it had done. So that was the first ever service.
And the idea behind it was what’s now called “Freemium.” So it would be free for personal use, and then, for businesses, we’d charge money, sort of like a commercial Robin Hood. And that worked out really well. That was our first service.
The second service was WordPress.com, which is the big one now. Today I think it gets over 200 million visitors per month. That idea was saying “Well, there’s the WordPress software. What would happen if we make it available to a really wide array of people, with the push of a button?” Revenue from that would come from letting them get their own domain, revenue would come from extra bandwidth, extra hard drive space, etc.
He evangelized his business because he believed in it
I’ve never been shy about promoting things that I think are better. So a lot of early WordPress users came though personal evangelism, from me talking to people one by one, getting them to switch over.
I read a ton of blogs, so it wasn’t random people. It was people who I admired and followed and often had some sort of online relationship with. I was a commentator on their blogs or vice-versa.
When it got to the point where WordPress actually was better than the competition, I wasn’t shy about reaching out and saying, “here are the reasons you should check it out.” Or if they ever had trouble with their blogging software, I’d say, “well, this doesn’t have that problem.”
Actually, one of the things that actually helped out a ton was spam. Spam was a huge, huge problem on blogs and it would take sites down, which is really bad. And so WordPress having a really strong spam solution helped a ton.
He took risks because he had safety nets
I’ve always been fortunate that I’ve had safety nets.
In the beginning, it was probably my parents. No matter what happened I could always go back home. That would suck, but I knew it was always sort of there and my parents have always been very supportive. So moving back home would suck but wouldn’t be terrible.
Later, it was the job at CNET which provided another safety net and job security.
Also, as an engineer you kind of always know that, worst case scenario, you can get a pretty good job working somewhere, which is good to know and isn’t true for all industries.
And now, my net is Automatic. Automattic has been very successful as a business. And, it’s profitable and we now have over 50 people. So that’s a huge net as well.
Taking venture funding was a net. One of the main reasons for that had to do with the first couple employees. I could go back and live with my parents if I had to. The other folks I was working with, couldn’t. And some of them were leaving jobs where they made 2 or 3 times as much to work for Automattic.
Lack of money in the early days led to innovation
WordPress had forums and I was really unhappy with them. I wanted to make them better, and so that was sort of the genesis of BB Press. The other thing was, I had stupidly decided that I couldn’t pay for a ticket to go home, but I didn’t want to tell my parents because then they’d worry.
I told them I really wanted to spend Christmas in San Francisco. I don’t know if you know San Francisco, but it’s a horrible place to spend the winter. It was cold and rainy and depressing and horrible! It was also the only Christmas, in my lifetime, that it snowed in Houston and I missed it.
While I was in San Francisco, I started working on BB Press. There was not much else to do. I think the first version I wrote in something like three or four days, from the database schema to the first version.
BB Press doesn’t have the same widespread usage that WordPress does, but it’s really, really flexible and useful. It’s a core part of our infrastructure. For example, our entire plugins directory, and the plugin update system and everything, was built on BB Press. Most of the work on WordPress.org was built on BB Press, not WordPress.
He learns what to build next from doing tech support
Another thing I believe strongly in is when you’re the developer of the project, you should do support for your it. So I was doing all the support on the WordPress forums at the time.
I still have ten thousand posts or something on the WordPress forum. Doing that helped me see very immediately what people were having trouble with. It keeps you close to your users. It gives you empathy and also helps you prioritize development.
The problem has never been ideas. Everything around WordPress and everything I’ve done, I’ve always had a million ideas a minute. There are a thousand directions you can go. It’s really, just choosing which one is the next best thing to do. And that’s hard, if you’re just sort of thinking about it in the abstract. But if you’re in there, everyday, talking to users and listening to them and watching them and helping them, it actually is often very obvious.
Full program includes
– Hear how WordPress.com was almost called “Online.com,” and owned by CNET.
– See how he got scammed (my opinion) in the early days because his business was running out of money — and how that experience led to Akismet, his first revenue-generating product.
– Learn how having a non-profit side to his business helped him promote his business.