AIB Featured Business Leader Matt Mullenweg
If you have a personal website or work in marketing or tech, chances are high that you’ve already encountered WordPress: the user-friendly content management system (CMS) which is used by 26.5% of all CMS based websites. This figure doesn’t fully represent just how dominant WordPress is, but its nearest competitor claims only a 2.7% CMS market share, one tenth of WordPress’s reach.
The business behind WordPress, Automattic, is the brainchild of young entrepreneur Matt Mullenweg. Born in 1984, he started WordPress at just 19 years old before forming Automattic just two years later. He now also runs startup angel investment firm Audrey Capital and is aiming for a 50% market share of all websites to be built through WordPress.
Unlike a lot of young tech entrepreneurs, Mullenweg didn’t originally intend to make a career out of his hobby. He grew up in Houston, Texas, studying jazz saxophone at Texas’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Initially, he struggled in school due to debilitating migraines that plagued his childhood. Eventually, doctors discovered a raging sinus infection which had been present for so long that the young Mullenweg was at risk of losing his sight. He underwent a dozen surgeries during his school career to correct the damage, meaning that he missed a lot of school and found it a challenge to keep up. His determination not to fall behind paid off, and he went on to university in Houston to study political science.
Mullenweg, however, also had plenty of programming experience, thanks to helping his father, who was a computer programmer. He would help people fix their computers, and learned how to take them apart and put them back together. By age 12, he had created his first website, and when he was 16 he designed a site for his jazz teacher and local musician, David Caceres.
In his freshman year, at 19, Mullenweg was running a personal website called photomatt.net, which was published using an open-source software product called b2. But the software had been abandoned by its original developer, and needed some refinement. Because it was open-source, it was available for others to work on, and that’s just what Mullenweg did, taking on the project with a friend, Mike Little, and renaming it WordPress at the beginning of 2003. Other coders contributed to the project, at that time a labour of love, but Mullenweg retained control over the platform. Official updates were rolled out from 2004, all code-named after famous jazz musicians as a testament to Mullenweg’s first love.
Mullenweg also built a following with his willingness to help individual users. A year in, WordPress was hosting almost 30,000 sites, with Mullenweg still treating the platform as an unpaid hobby. Users having trouble making the move across from other sites would reach out to him and get help in using the platform, free of charge. He continued to do the online support for WordPress for several years, which he says made it simple for him to identify user difficulties and come up with responsive solutions before they got too unmanageable.
By then, he had dropped out of college to focus on coding, and was getting attention from bigger fish for his efforts. In late 2004, CNET recruited him, with an agreement that 20% of his time would be spent on WordPress. The relationship endured for a year, until Mullenweg left to devote full-time energies to WordPress. A couple of months later, he announced Automattic, the company behind WordPress, which employed several of the lead coders who had contributed to the software. Automattic also controls Akismet, an anti-spam program that works within WordPress to cut down on unwanted comments. That spam solution was a huge selling point for WordPress, and Mullenweg wasn’t shy about reaching out to influential bloggers and promoting his product.
It was 2005, and Mullenweg was fending off offers for WordPress from venture capitalists. As an open-source product, WordPress was in an unusual position: the code had been contributed for free, and was vulnerable to anyone who wanted to take it. But he was reluctant to make it into a privately-owned business, because he hadn’t the experience to run the business side himself (Mullenweg, at this point, was still only 21) and didn’t want to lose the communal philosophy of the project to someone with very different views.
Toni Schneider solved that problem. Schneider, a Swiss engineer who had recently sold her webmail service to Yahoo, hit it off with Mullenweg immediately. The two found that their visions for WordPress were compatible, and Schneider joined Automattic as CEO in January 2006. The two of them raised a modest venture-capital round of $1.1M, and launched wordpress.com which takes advantage of the rise in cloud computing to avoid cannibalising the open source work. Automattic runs on a ‘freemium’ model common in tech startups, where the main product is free to use, with upgrades available that suit larger companies and businesses who want a full suite of products.
Automattic is a very scalable company. It employs 120 people, but they’re spread over 26 countries, each working with a lot of independence that keeps the overheads down. It’s a nod to the company’s open-source roots, as is Mullenweg’s continued focus on users rather than premiums. He has always focused on long term growth, with ambitions to increase WordPress’ share of the market to 50% – a staggering goal when you consider that its nearest competitor holds less than 3% – and claims that this necessitates low profits. Worth around $40 million himself, Mullenweg is a modest player in the tech entrepreneur stakes, but at only 32 years old, he’s already achieved much more than most college dropouts ever will.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: W3techs, Houston Press, Elegant Themes, Mixergy and Forbes.
Photo credit: Agile Impact