Matt Mullenweg, WordPress founder: Why it pays to stay faithful to open source

Interview: Automattic wunderkind on his blogging tool's success, Barack Obama and why games are so important
Written by Tim Ferguson, Contributor on

Interview: Automattic wunderkind on his blogging tool's success, Barack Obama and why games are so important

Matt Mullenweg is the 26-year-old founder of Automattic, the company behind the innovative blogging platform WordPress. The popular open source tool boasts millions of users - including big businesses such as Ford, National Geographic and the NY Times.

silicon.com recently sat down with 2009 silicon.com Agenda Setter Mullenweg to talk about the challenges of making money from open source products, why Barack Obama is the first open source President and how having fun makes you more productive with office applications.

WordPress, which Mullenweg began writing code for in 2005, is an online publishing platform that straddles the open source and commercial worlds.

The hosted blog service at WordPress.com is free to use. But for customers - usually businesses - looking to deploy the technology on their own systems, the company offers a number of additional, paid-for services. These business customers can download the open source software from WordPress.org and then upload it to their own web host.

As an open source project, WordPress is licensed under the General Public License (GPL). The code for WordPress is created both by Automattic developers as well as a community of hundreds of third-party developers. The open source nature of the product means it can be used by anyone and for anything without paying a licence fee.

Over the years, the blogging function has been developed to include thousands of plug-ins and can even be used as a content management system for large, commercial websites.

When founding Automattic, Mullenweg was motivated by a desire to create a company that could combine open source software development with the economic interests of shareholders.

"I never wanted to be in the situation that you see in other open source companies where maybe they develop a cool new feature but they don't release it as open source because they want people to buy it. It seems like the web, particularly software as a service, provides ample opportunities for you to flourish economically, completely aligned with the broader open source community," he explained to silicon.com.

This approach has proved successful. The open source development community has embraced WordPress, while Automattic has been able to generate revenues through a range of paid-for services.

One such service is VIP Support which, among other things, offers user-response-time guarantees, active site monitoring and scaling and performance tuning. Prices range from $15,000 per seat per year for the basic package to $150,000 for the top-of-the-range back support.


The WordPress blogging platform has millions of users including some big names from the world of business (Screenshot: Tim Ferguson/silicon.com)

Mullenweg finds that remaining faithful to open source ideology while making money can sometimes be difficult, although ultimately it's worth the effort.

"When you 'open source' something it's a lot more work, you have to do it in the right way, you have to involve the community, you have to test the code a lot more thoroughly. But I feel like it's just intrinsically good, and when you do something as a company that's intrinsically good, that's morally right, you get more excited in the morning when you wake up."

It's this philosophy, rather than financial reward, that Mullenweg believes has attracted some of the best people in the world to his company.

He said: "Particularly if you're a good engineer, there's a lot of ways you can make money but to actually have an impact on the world is rare and when you find an opportunity for that, it's very special. And it's also fun to work with other people who share your same values."

Looking to the future, Mullenweg said the development of WordPress into a capable business tool will continue to be central to Automattic.

"Our biggest priority [at Automattic] is WordPress and WordPress.com. . . It's been evolving in a way I didn't expect when I started it, in that people are now using WordPress to power their entire website where it used to be just something you plug into your website. It [was] just a blog - and now it's really the whole thing so that's causing us to evolve the software a little bit differently. . .You need [the product] to be a little bit more robust, and also it functions more as a platform, so we're concerned with things like auto updates and plug-in installs."

Thanks to the rapid growth of WordPress, the company has learned a lot about how to scale the services. Initially, WordPress.com could host a few hundred thousand views per day but the recent launch of Apple's iPad saw blogs hosted by Automattic successfully cope with 68 million page views in 24 hours, something which really tested the infrastructure. "It's pretty fun actually, I really enjoyed that," Mullenweg said.

The company currently hosts its data via Amazon and Rackspace services but is working on an internal cloud storage service which, when completed, could potentially save the company $30,000-40,000 per month on bandwidth costs, according to Mullenweg.

As well as coping with these demands, the software development team is trying to make WordPress a more social proposition.

"On [WordPress.com] we've seen great results with simple stuff - probably stuff we should maybe have done years ago - things like auto posting with Twitter and we're launching something soon that better integrates it with Facebook. Obviously microblogging and social networks are really powerful, particularly to drive traffic to your blog."

The other main focus for Automattic is...

...creating add-on services for WordPress - many of which are free to use for the basic version but paid-for if customers want the VIP extras. For example, BuddyPress - which Mullenweg describes as "a social layer on top of WordPress" - can add profiles, private messaging, groups and photo albums to a blog.

These and other features are developed both by Automattic staff as well as by third party developers who contribute code to the project. These independent developers donate code for free and generally license it under the GPL. If, however, the code they submit is independent of other WordPress code, they can license it how they like.

"Our default at Automattic is to open source everything. It's more that we default to open sourcing things and then keep something proprietary if there's a really important reason for it or there's some weird quirk where we need to keep it private - but that's honestly extremely rare. Often things we haven't released [as open source] are just things we haven't got around to yet."

Automattic's video product, VideoPress, demonstrates this open source/commercial dichotomy. The VIP version is available as a paid-for service but it's also an open source application that third-party developers can use to create bespoke video applications.

Automattic also acquires technology. Spelling and grammar checking application After the Deadline and online polling tool PollDaddy are two recent examples.

"The idea with. . . pretty much all of our acquisitions, are services that are very, very complementary to blogs and also agnostic - so they work with WordPress but they also work with basically every platform out there."

Speaking of open source more generally, Mullenweg believes the underlying 'open' ethos has spread beyond software development. Many people, for instance, are happy to share their data on social networks and broadcast content on services such as Twitter and Flickr - as long as they have control over who it's being shared with.

"Those concerns I believe come from an open source mentality which is not only very libertarian where you have the ability of ownership, you have property rights over what you create. And to me that's a special type of concept especially when applied to information."

"My lifetime has been fairly short so far but it's the most powerful idea that I've ever been exposed to and once you really comprehend it you start to think 'why isn't everything I do this way'?"

Mullenweg believes open source thinking has extended into information dissemination and even politics - he suggests Barack Obama could be described as the first open source President.

"If you think of the ideas of open source applied to information in an encyclopaedia you get to Wikipedia - lots and lots of small contributions that bubble up to something that's meaningful. Whereas with President Obama's campaign it was lots and lots of small contributions that bubbled up to an amount that was meaningful for him to compete on the national stage," he said.

Personally Mullenweg is excited by several current technology developments. He believes the ability for mobile devices to embed metadata could lead to "really interesting applications". Likewise he's interested in the ubiquity of wireless access and user interface advancements such as the "evolution of touch".

Mullenweg believes the biggest challenge for software designers now is to make sure users can take full advantage of the increasing complexity of applications.

"If you think about it, complexity is actually not a bad thing - I mean users are not dumb, they're actually very smart. You just need to give them the best way to learn and discover all the power that you have, and the best example of this is computer games. Computer games are so, so good at this. Think how complex the average computer interface is. It varies from game to game almost 100 per cent - the way you play Mario is not going to be the way you play Modern Warfare. But it starts you out on a training level - you start out, you get your legs, you walk around and you advance from level to level. And this applied to traditional software I think is going to one of the most interesting trends."

Evidence of this trend is already being seen in business software. Ribbon Hero is a Microsoft Labs-commissioned game which was developed to help people learn about the functionality of the Microsoft Office applications .

Ford WordPress site

Car giant Ford uses WordPress as the platform for its customer community site, The Ford Story. Among other things, the site integrates with Twitter and Facebook (Screenshot: Tim Ferguson/silicon.com)

"When you think about it that sounds completely ridiculous: how can Microsoft Word be a game? It doesn't make any sense. But everything I've read about it says that they've basically succeeded - that this is actually kinda fun. Think about what an impact that could have because there are people who spend five or six hours of their day in Word or in Excel or something like that and even just like a 10, 20 per cent productivity gain could have a huge impact both on their output, on their happiness, on their effectiveness, everything."

Mullenweg suggested that one of the best examples of people learning about technology in an engaging way is Facebook: "I would say the best game in the world right now is Facebook. They're really brilliant how they encourage certain behaviours and how they tailor their news feed and the way images work and everything like that. Essentially it's a social game but the other players are your friends and the objects are updates and photos, videos and news stories. The game never gets old because it's constantly fresh from the content your friends are feeding into it. It's utterly brilliant."

The fact people are getting so comfortable with sharing their information online and spending so much time on the web will, according to Mullenweg, "drastically change how software is built".

He said: "When WordPress started, there was no equivalent Facebook or a dominant social network. The [ones that did exist] were very basic, they didn't drive activity in the same way - they were essentially just profiles. Now when you have streams of activity which are incredibly engaging, that changes how you think about everything."

This increasing use of technology in everyday life and the widespread uptake of blogging software by home users are the main drivers for the growth of WordPress in enterprises according to Mullenweg. Businesses which use WordPress - from media companies like CNN and the New York Times to blue chip businesses such as Ford, Sony, National Geographic and Nikon - often attribute the adoption of the technology to the fact their employees first used the free blog hosting at home.

"Almost every time I talk to the folks behind [WordPress implementations] it's the same story: They're like, 'Well I use WordPress for my [personal] website and it just seems silly that we might spend half a million dollars on a proprietary CMS that sucks at work and at home I get things for free that are so much better'."

Mullenweg wouldn't have it any other way.

"You know in 2000, [businesses] probably would have spent $10m [developing an online presence] and today they spend zero dollars on WordPress, which I think is beautiful. It's a democratisation of publishing which was kind of our goal from the beginning."

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