Matt Mullenweg on how open source is democratising the web

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From the mind of a 19-year-old to the world’s most popular content management system (CMS) — WordPress has done some serious growing up in 10 years. Used by major publishing houses such as CNN and the New York Times and influential blogs like TechCrunch, the CMS has making publishing easy for a decade.

When we chatted to the platform’s founder Matt Mullenweg two years ago, he spoke about the future of WordPress, early mistakes he made by “trying to do it all himself” and why developers are five steps ahead of everyone else.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of WordPress and the eighth year of Automattic, Mullenweg’s web development company and the driving force behind WordPress.

We got the chance to catch up the man named one of 25 most influential people on the web about open source and what he has learnt in the 10 years since WordPress’ founding.

For Mullenweg, the past 10 years have been a great learning experience, showing him how to be better at design, a better manager and a better leader. He reckons that his role at WordPress is constantly evolving and every few months what he does changes.

The internet entrepreneur argues that the “most important thing” about building web-related software is being able to democratise the web. He believes as a tech entrepreneur it is critical to build a product that you would like to use, a philosophy that guided him to found WordPress.

The open source enthusiast is excited by the open hardware movement, saying that the “idea of applying collaboration and rapid iteration to things that we interact with and hold in our hands everyday is super revolutionary”.

Memeburn: What was it like starting out in the open source publishing industry?

Matt Mullenweg: In the beginning, it was only a few people. It wasn’t a big deal at all. I was looking back at some of the early blog posts for WordPress because we’re coming up on our tenth anniversary in May — there were 6 000 websites using it in the world and it was very very exciting. In the early days, it was more just about making software for myself, things that I would like to use. To be honest, that’s still kinda what we’re doing.

I’m still a frequent and daily user of WordPress in many forms. From P2, which is the theme used to run Automattic, to my own blog, to other blogs I contribute to. Every time I use it, I have five ideas about how we can make it better. It’s just a matter of building an organisation to have those ideas and also execute them better than I ever could myself.

MB: How important do you think it is to build something you’d use yourself?

MM: I think it’s pretty crucial, or at least it’s way easier. If we were making accounting software for oil companies and not something I would use everyday, I probably wouldn’t be as motivated to work on it everyday, and I also wouldn’t have the same insights. That’s why larger software companies jump through so many hoops to do user testing and research, often because they may not use their own software. We’re extremely privileged that many of us do.

MB: What are some of the lessons you’ve learnt over the last ten years at WordPress?

MM: So many lessons. I think I’m still learning more every single day — how to become better at design, a better leader, a better manager… all of the aspects of growing a company, from five, to 15, to 150 people now. There are challenges around every corner, which is part of what makes it so interesting for me. The job that I do today is a little bit different from the job I’ve done before. It’s not like I’ve done the same job for the last ten years. I pretty much get a new job every three to four months. It just happens to be at the same company.

MB: A lot of big publishers use WordPress now. Is that more pressure for you to make sure it’s up to scratch?

MM: No. The reasons those folks use it is because we created great software that writers love. For me, it always comes back to the blogger, the author, the designer, the developer. You build software for that core individual person, and then smart organisations adopt it and dumb organisations die. Versus the enterprise model, where you’re making sales calls and cold emails, wining and dining CTOs and spend US$5-million on your software — that’s just not how we do it.

It’s an honour to be able to serve media like the New York Times, like CNN, like Memeburn. I also get a real thrill out of the fact that anyone in the world can download the same software that the New York Times uses to publish their site to publish their own. It’s an equality of opportunity that I don’t think has really existed on the web before, that some of the larger sites on the web are powered by the same software as some of the smaller sites.

MB: How important is open source software to democratising publishing online?

MM: I think it’s the most important thing. As the web becomes more and more of a part of our every day lives, it would be a horrible tragedy if it was locked up inside of companies and proprietary software. Part of the reason I do this is because I believe that open source is the most important idea of our generation and the only way to get the web on open source is to create a better product.

I believe in it philosophically, but I don’t expect other websites to use it just because they share the same beliefs. They care about something else. They care about their audience or writing a story or something like that, not about the software. So to have them choose us, you have to create the best software. It’s a free market.

MB: What are some of the most exciting open source projects you’ve seen?

MM: One thing about open source is that even the failures contribute to the next thing that comes up. Unlike a company that could spend a million dollars in two years and fail and there’s nothing really to show for it, if you spend a million dollars on open source, you probably have something amazing that other people can build on.

Traditionally, open source has been in the software realm. Two big things have been happening. One, we’ve been moving from back-end software to consumer software. WordPress has been at the forefront of that, but also things like FireFox and Chrome have been pretty amazing at putting open source on the desktops and in front of hundreds of millions of people.

Two, is open source ideas applied to hardware. I’m an investor in MakerBot, which is a good example of the ‘thingiverse‘. The idea of applying collaboration and rapid iteration to things that we interact with and hold in our hands everyday is super revolutionary.

If you think of what really ignited the software revolution it was that from having punch cards, and distributing floppy disks and mailing out CDs, to something like on WordPress.com, [where] we ship new code 70 to 80 times per day. Per day, we’re changing the software that hundreds of millions of people see per month. That’s so incredibly empowering.

Darwin’s often misquoted — people say the strongest of the species survives, but it’s not actually what he said. He said the most agile, the most adaptive. So it’s not really about who’s the strongest or smartest or who has the most money, it’s who is going to adapt most quickly.

This is why startups, with their ability to turn on a dime, out-innovate big companies. It’s because they’re steering a ship that can only turn one degree at a time, where a startup can get behind a new idea tomorrow and have 10 or 15 people dedicating their lives to it. That agility is huge and if we can bring that to the physical world we’ll see cool things like we’ve never seen before.

There’s a platform coming called SmartThings. It’s the idea that sensors are just a couple of bucks now, batteries are becoming pretty good, and if you can get different surfaces to talk to each other you can do really interesting stuff.

So for example, think of what a home security system does. In the US people pay US$50 a month to have some motion detectors and things on the windows that call a company if someone breaks in. That stuff is probably US$100 worth of hardware. So why not just have those motion detectors and windows detectors, and maybe something like a BlueTooth detector that detects whether you’re in the house or not, that can do certain things based on certain events. So if a window is broken in the house, maybe it notifies you and calls an emergency contact. If you’re not in the house, maybe it calls you first, or activates a camera, or activates dog barking to come out of your speakers.

You can hook up any number of things to this. People are basically scripting these devices to interact with each other. The combination of sensors and software. One of the funny ones in the open source community they call ‘the Barry White’. Basically, you can have sleep sensors that can detect whether someone is asleep or not, and people put that on their kids’ beds. So when the kids go to sleep, it dims the lights in the master bedroom and turns on Barry White. When they wake up, it turns the lights back on and turns off the music.

MB: Do you think entrepreneurs are cottoning on to the trend of open source technology?

MM: Sure. Even if it’s not open source, just the idea that it has to integrate with everything. It’s so important. So yes. I’m also excited about the opportunities that this creates just because when a platform like SmartThings exist, I don’t need to build the whole thing from scratch like Nest is trying to do. I can just build that one script that Barry White sings to, or some speakers or a sensor, and innovate on that one part. Together, the ecosystem becomes really strong.

Not unlike WordPress plugins. WordPress is great… I dig it, but I would say the majority of its adoption is because of the 20 000 plugins and 10 000 themes on there. Collectively, it creates something. It’s easy to clone what WordPress does. Some smart engineers could do it in a year. But to clone those tens of thousands of add ons is a life’s work. It’s difficult to match, even for big companies like Google.

MB: Speaking of Google, what do you think about Glass?

MM: Love it. I want one.

MB: Do you think that type of contextually aware technology is going to be the future?

MM: Absolutely. Look at what’s happened with your phone just in the past few years. You know the map in Harry Potter that seems like magic? We have that! You can see a map that shows your little dot moving. It could show the dots of your friends if they opted in.

Sure, it’s going to be a version one. Microsoft had tablet computers in the late 90s. Maybe it’s that. Google’s gotten very good at design and hardware in the last three years and I wouldn’t bet against them.

MB: Where are you seeing the innovation coming from in terms of WordPress plugins?

MM: Often I’m less interested in the plugins and the themes than about what people create with it. I see the concept of publishing, or a community publishing something, applied in so many different ways. Even on tech news sites — the idea of a PandoDaily versus a TechCrunch or a GigaOm. Each has its own take on roughly the same problem and they approach it in completely different ways, but all using the exact same software.

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