Matt Mullenweg’s open-source blog and content management platform, WordPress, has grown into one of the most dominant and powerful tools on the web. In addition to leading development of the projects, he’s the CEO and founder of Automattic, which makes products that add value on top of the WordPress ecosystem and reach over one billion people per month.
Elliott Adams: Can we start by you sharing some quick background on WordPress and Automattic?
Matt Mullenweg: WordPress was, and still is, an open-source project. Years after WordPress started, I founded Automattic. Automattic was bootstrapped for probably the first six or seven months. Then, we raised an initial round of about $1 million. That was in 2006, and I brought in Tony Shatter to be the CEO. Then, in 2008, we raised a larger round of $28 million, and then in 2014, we did $160 million into the company.
EA: Are your acquisitions and products complementary in terms of how they function or the ethos of how the software's built? What's the driving thesis for you guys?
MM: We've done a few things over the years, but right now, we're focused in three main areas: WordPress, Jetpack, and WooCommerce. WordPress.com allows us to host WordPresses from all over the world and give people a really easy place to start. Jetpack is basically that, but it’s for all of the people who host someplace else, like GoDaddy, BlueHost, Amazon Web Services . . . wherever they might be. Then finally, WooCommerce is an e-commerce platform on top of WordPress. Even though it's very young, it has been extremely successful. That was our biggest acquisition thus far, with fifty-five people joining the company.
EA: Wow, that's huge. How do those products fit into the WordPress family?
MM: It's all WordPress and stuff that makes WordPress better. If it's WordPress related, I either invest or acquire it or whatever through Automattic. Then through my seed fund, Audrey, it's all things that I may want to be working on if I wasn't doing WordPress.
EA: Why did you choose those things that you are working on?
MM: I really love publishing and this idea of democratizing publishing and giving people a voice online. I believe that humans are fundamentally good, and that the more communication we have and the more you allow people to share their thoughts, of course some bad stuff happens, but it ultimately makes the world a better place and brings us closer together. I was into that when I was nineteen, fourteen years ago, and I think it is even more important now, as I round my thirties.
EA: There are always these big, crazy stats that about 20 or 40 percent, or some crazy number, of the web runs on WordPress. It’s a great success for you guys. What do you see as the outlook for the so-called open web?
MM: I think that the open web is really more important than ever, because as people come online, they might have their training-wheel platforms that are somewhat closed, but ultimately, people express themselves in very unique ways. Once you have a taste of freedom, it's hard to return to the previous state of mind. I feel like the inevitable march on the web is not a straight line. Progress is not always a straight line, but it's towards more freedom, towards more openness, towards more inter-connected systems, because these are the things that the web is really good at. There are companies which have created incredible centralized systems—Facebook, Google, etc.—but when you look at them, what do they have to do to make that work? The countless billions in infrastructure and data centers and running fiber under oceans and everything. It's valuable, because they're able to centralize things, but that's not how the web is natively. Over time, I think things that are more the approach of Bitcoin or WordPress or IPFS—the Interplanetary File System—or email are more the things that thrive, again, over several decades.
EA: The mobile experience for a lot of consumers that have come online in the last five to ten years is that it's the containerized app experience. How does the open web thrive in that kind of environment?
MM: Well, if you look at actual time spent, even when people are inside, say, the Twitter app or the Facebook app, a lot of that time is actually spent on web views. They're looking at websites. The content on the newsfeed side, I mean, that's really web driven through and through. Messaging, I think, is perfect for apps. Games are also pretty good for apps, but I think that's okay. We don't need the open web stuff there.
EA: Some people look at what's going on over the web and say, “It’s the Wild West.” They mean that in the pejorative sense. And there's what people consider fake news, so people say that maybe it's better to have a moderated platform. How do you feel about that?
MM: I think if you provide distribution, you do have a responsibility . . . not to moderate, per se, but to give your customer, the people you're serving this information to, as much relevant information as possible. A good example is that Amazon will sell anything, but they have a really great review system. So, you can find the electric broom that accidentally catches on fire, but you're going to probably figure that out before you buy it, and you'll be able to make a smart decision to buy a Dyson or something like that. We optimize for growth in kind of these first iterations of newsfeeds, and so we're just trying to get as many clicks and people reading things. Of course, that's not new. A hundred years ago, people bemoaned the “yellow journalism” and this idea that truth was lost because these printers had to move so fast and the newsies were distributing it. If it bleeds, it leaves. We've known that for a century. But Paul Graham has this great essay on the acceleration of addictiveness and how society develops antibodies to this. It's interesting, and the commercial and moral imperative that Facebook is now taking is a great example. I saw something at the top of my feed the other day that said, “Here's How to Tell Fake News.” And they're starting to bring things in line next to article links. It's hard to say if that works or not, but I think it's awesome that they're taking the initiative and trying to solve what is a very hairy, complex problem. Personally, with WordPress and with our own services, we fall pretty far towards free speech and libertarianism.
MM: But we're not really as involved in distribution. We're really about publishing, so we give you a space, and we don't necessarily help you distribute that message out.
EA: Since you’re with WordPress, what are some of the advantages of being able to offer to people open publishing that's not moderated in any way?
MM: Oh, I think that people use it and expand it in ways you'd never expect, and being known as an open platform also helps you attract the best authors. You give people the control and the autonomy and the agency over their own content and their own site and how they'll interact, and that's what's openly going to attract the best people.