In this article, the third in our series on being ‘Open by Design,’ we focus on Automattic, a business which despite many challengers (Medium in blogging, Squarespace in websites) has managed to build a sustainable business built upon an open platform. The symbiotic relationship between the open source platform (wordpress.org) and the commercial service provider (wordpress.com) is an interesting case of how to balance contribution and commerce, and nurture a growing ecosystem.
Founded by Matt Mullenweg in 2005, Automattic is a globally dispersed team of about 550 employees, which develops and manages a set of services and commercial projects for Wordpress users. The Wordpress Foundation (Wordpress.org), established in 2010, maintains trademark for the Wordpress project core under a GPL license, and is the lighthouse for the wordpress developer and user community.
While the two organisations are separate, Automattic invests in cultivating and nurturing the Wordpress community, the ecosystem of web developers and small-scale entrepreneurs who develop plugins and themes for Wordpress. This community collectively manages the Wordpress open source core code.
Diversity and Self-Determination: Key Drivers for Organic Growth?
Achieving a large-scale, self-sustaining community is a holy grail of many organisations — yet success stories are few and far between. So how has Automattic managed to become the catalyst for a global, diverse, passionate community of contributors, developers and end users, which continues to expand not only geographically but also in variety of people? At least in part, this is thanks to Automattic’s embrace of democratic principles in community design: A relatively small team from Automattic ‘manages’ the Wordpress community, to facilitate dispute resolution, and ensure the tone of communication is respectful and that all individuals feel welcome regardless of gender or experience level.
Matt believes in open source, democracy — but not open democracy. He’s not excited about tolerating trolls … he’s not so committed to openness that he would let it affect the organisation or culture.
— Simon Phipps, Managing Director, Meshed Insights
Remember that there are people who are making their livelihood based on WordPress. Think before you type: the person asking a question may come from a very different position than you do.
— Experience Designer, Automattic, presenting to a Wordpress community audience
Turning Over Control
Another aspect of Automattic’s community success is their deliberate relinquishment of control over development of the Wordpress platform: the contributing community determines direction of the development in a democratic forum which is not beholden to Automattic.
Automattic’s approach to Wordcamps is similarly light-touch. Wordcamps are global face-to-face meetups between people using, developing and building businesses based on Wordpress. In 2016 there were 115 Wordcamps held in 41 countries, attended by over 62,000 people. Automattic offers organizing expertise, partial funding, and some community management, to ensure relevance and reach in local communities. But every Wordcamp is proposed, run and co-financed by local communities. Wordcamp events have become an important business networking opportunity, where a diverse set of service providers, designers, developers, and website-related businesses meet potential partners. The growth of this global small business ecosystem contributed a lot to the fact that over 25% of websites are now built using Wordpress.
We sponsor the WordCamp program heavily as Jetpack and as WooCommerce. To be honest our direct return there is low, but we want to be sure that other potential sponsors are seeing us as a major player in supporting the WordPress core — giving back to the community who keep WordPress alive.
— Jetpack Growth Engineer, Automattic
Gifting — a Sure-Fire Success?
As with many open source organisations, Automattic’s business was established through Gifting. On the face of it, turning technology ownership and management over to the community seems a great strategy for ensuring optimal feature development. However the practice bears challenges too: as the community has adopted and eventually come to rely on the PHP code base, plans to advance Automattic’s technology roadmap have met with resistance. For many the old platform simply worked fine and fulfilled their needs. What’s the problem then? Well, given the growth of competitive platforms such as Squarespace and Medium which benefit from responsive and faster protocols, the reluctance of the community to upgrade from PHP creates a risk of platform obsolescence in the long run. With project Calypso, a new WordPress.com interface built from the ground up, Automattic has been attempting to get around this challenge — by developing the project themselves. This has led to higher than expected investment of Automattic’s own resources.
Calypso had a very mixed reaction from our community — some people see it as a visionary brave move that can ensure the long term sustainability. Some feel it’s a waste of time, they want to keep using PHP.
— Jetpack Lead Growth Engineer, Automattic
The hope is that when the community sees the value of upgrading from PHP for their individual purposes, Calypso can become a successful community-owned and managed project.
Benefits Automattic Realises via Participation Modes
Automattic’s key innovation is in how the organisation is increasing market share and adoption by growing and nurturing an expanding ecosystem of entrepreneurs and small businesses that increase the overall usage of the Wordpress core. By opening up the ownership of the Wordpress core to this organised community of developers and designers who rely on it for their business, Automattic provides the structure for users to take ownership and co-develop tools. This has in turn lead to a better market fit for these, driving preference through better products and services. Automattic, as the other parts of this ecosystem, relies on the collectively-maintained Wordpress core as the basis for hosting and service businesses and in that way benefits of lowering product development & operating costs. Success, however, is not a guaranteed. An organization applying open practices cannot take for granted that the individual community goals automatically align with its own business goals.
Gitte Jonsdatter & Alex Klepel