According to Google, Matt Mullenweg is the most important Matt in the world. Fans of his most famous project, open source blogging tool WordPress, will agree. Oliver Lindberg finds out who the man behind the software really is and what’s up his sleeve
This article originally appeared in issue 160 of .net magazine in 2007 and was republished at www.creativebloq.com.
Matt Mullenweg set out to be a jazz saxophonist. Things didn’t turn out quite as planned and now he’s the founding developer of WordPress, one of the most popular blog-publishing platforms on the web. About a year ago, at the tender age of 21, he launched his own company, Automattic, and is a sought after speaker at web conferences. Matt has never lost his passion for jazz, however, and believes that blogging and jazz share common attributes. “There’s an elegance and symmetry to music, which parallels programming and blogging,” he explains. “In music, there’s a motif or something tying it down. Blogs certainly need something tying them down to be accessible to readers. The ones that I enjoy most tend to be intensely personal and not too predictable, which are also characteristics of jazz.”
Matt Mullenweg got into blogging just a few years ago. He went on a trip to Washington DC, took some pictures and wanted to share them with friends and family, so he started a personal blog on Movable Type. He quickly felt frustrated with some of the limitations of the software and began tweaking on his own. “WordPress was a fork of another open source project called b2\cafelog. Basically, that software had stopped development and there were a lot of things I wanted to see in it, so I started focusing on the typography and the quality of the HTML.”
“I was an awful programmer, I probably still am. I couldn’t even spell HTML. I was really, really bad”
One of the secrets of WordPress’ success — besides the fact it’s open source — is the ease of use, which, to a degree, Matt believes is due to his own lack of technical expertise. “I’m not a terribly technical person or a really heavy-duty programmer,” he admits. “So I try to make things that I can understand.” The laidback San Francisco-based entrepreneur certainly isn’t one to boast about his abilities. “I was an awful programmer, I probably still am,” he says. “I couldn’t even spell HTML. I was really, really bad. Over time, doing it and making mistakes, and running into the limitations of horrible programs such as FrontPage, I started to pick things up. And then, one day, I discovered Zeldman — by luck — and that opened up the world of clean code and good design to me. From there, I learnt a lot.”
How to make a successful web app
Ease of use is, in fact, the recipe for a successful web app. “You have to remember that a person’s goal in life is probably not to use a web application,” Matt Mullenweg says. “People have a million things in their lives that are far more important than your web application. What you have to do is respect their time. The more you can get out of the way to make it easier for them to achieve whatever their goal is, the more successful your web application will be. The hard part is identifying that goal and then keeping it in your mind every minute of every day you’re working on it.”
It’s worked for Matt. The popularity of WordPress is mind-boggling. WordPress 2.0 was downloaded more than 1.1 million times in nine months, making it not only the most downloaded WordPress release ever, but also the fastest growing. After just eight months, the hosted blog service at WordPress.com recorded more than 300,000 blogs, including the first blog from space by space tourist Anousheh Ansari and Scobleizer, the online home of technology evangelist Robert Scoble. In December, WordPress.com blogs generated 103 million page views and 64,000 different blogs were created.
Yet, Matt remains down to earth about his most famous creation. “It’s just a very basic content management system and there are probably dozens of other packages that do exactly the same thing — possibly better — but WordPress has a really amazing community. You can get great support on the forum: there’s a vast quantity of themes and plug-ins available for WordPress, and that’s harder to duplicate or switch to for another project. What makes me really excited about WordPress is enabling people to publish who wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. It’s enabling them to do it in very clean, solid HTML, with a clean URL format. Essentially, I believe that the more information is out there, the better place the world would be. Whatever small part I can contribute to that — it’s quite rewarding personally.”
Matt the Automattor
On his personal blog at www.photomatt.net, Matt Mullenweg says that, “WordPress is a part of who I am. Like eating, breathing and music, I can’t not work on WordPress.” That’s why, after a year at CNET, Matt left the company in October 2005. He founded his own company, Automattic, a few months later to focus on WordPress and related projects full-time. “The company has been incredible fun,” Matt says. “It’s also something a little different and more challenging than what I’ve attempted before. But it’s been very rewarding and beneficial for WordPress. Basically, we’ve been trying to find people who’re smarter than me and hiring them to work on WordPress full-time.”
Besides WordPress, Automattic is known for Akismet, a comment spam filter plug-in for blogs. Since its launch in October 2005, it’s killed more than 550 million spam comments and TrackBacks. “Akismet has taken off a lot faster than WordPress,” says Matt. “I think that’s because it’s a painkiller. People were getting hundreds of thousands of spam messages every day and wasting their time going through and deleting them. Some of it is quite vile content, not the kind of thing that you want on your screen every day, in particular if you’ve got kids or a wife. Akismet can make all that disappear.” Like WordPress, it’s free, but it isn’t completely open source because of the huge number of attacks the centralised service gets every day. “It’s a very competitive situation,” Matt explains. “If the spammers can reach your source code and know what you’re doing, Akismet might only be 90 per cent effective, which would mean hundreds of thousands of spam messages getting through every day and that wouldn’t be acceptable. It wouldn’t be worth using.”
The core principle of Automattic, which has recently released forum software bbPress, is to open source as much as humanely possible. “I’ve always said that charging for software is something of a dead model. On WordPress.com, the things we charge for tend to be services — support, upgrades or hosting. The software itself, the core, is free.” For example, WordPress.com now features VIP hosting for people with unusual blog needs. It costs $250 a month, but it’s more of a marketing tool than a money machine. “Even the fee is something we’re going to lose money on, because the setup and support is going to be far more than the fee. The idea is that the promotional aspect of these blogs — that a person coming from the BBC’s website is going to come to the space blog and see in the corner ‘Powered by WordPress’ — is very powerful.”
Matt isn’t short of plans. He has a translation application and a project management application lined up, and WordPress 2.1 will have a spellchecker, autosave and resizing functionalities. You can’t imagine a time when Matt won’t be working on the blogging software. He says his company will always be focused on WordPress but there’s always a degree of experimentation involved. “Everyone at Automattic has the ability to go off and spend time doing something that might be unrelated to anything else we do. That’s how Akismet started. It was a short project that turned into something big. Who knows what the next Akismet or WordPress will be?