The Profile Dossier: Matt Mullenweg, the CEO shaping the future of the internet
“You shouldn't restrict people's freedom on what they can and cannot do with code.”
If you’ve ever had a blog, you’ve likely used WordPress. That’s because the free and open-source publishing platform powers approximately 43% of all websites on the internet today.
WordPress is the brainchild of co-founders Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little who released it in 2003. At the time, Mullenweg was only 20 years old.
Today, he is the CEO of Automattic, which is one of the web’s largest platforms and the distributed company that oversees WordPress. It has more than 1,800 employees working across 96 countries — from the United States to Ireland to Bulgaria.
Although he’s soft-spoken and well-liked by his peers, Mullenweg holds a lot of power. As the CEO of a $7.5 billion company, he is one of the most powerful CEOs in tech.
Mullenweg is making a big bet: He believes that open-source software will underpin everything on the web. But first, what exactly is open source? In a nutshell, it refers to code designed to be publicly accessible, meaning that anyone can see it, modify it, and distribute it as they see fit.
Mullenweg defines it like this, “Open source is kind of like software with a Bill of Rights attached to it.”
The Bill of Rights he’s referring to was proposed by a hacker named Richard Stallman in the early 1990s. It’s a list of four freedoms that he believed were fundamental for software in a tech-dependent society. They are as follows, starting with “zero,” which is the freedom that underpins the rest:
The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions, giving the community a chance to benefit from your changes.
Mullenweg goes as far to say that it's a human right to be able to see how technology works and be able to modify it. “Good ideas aren’t the sole province of groups of people behind high walls, and software shouldn’t be either,” Mullenweg writes.
He says the future of our digital lives is decentralized and independent, supporting things like cryptocurrency and Web3. He believes an open internet is the key to societal freedom. It’s certainly an ambitious task, but Mullenweg believes “there is no problem that’s insurmountable.”
I’ll leave you with Automattic’s official creed, which Mullenweg wrote in 2011:
I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.
Here’s what we can learn from Mullenweg about the future of open source, the importance of collaboration, and the value of remote work.
On shaping the future of the internet: Automattic is a company that’s a direct reflection of Mullenweg. He started building web software because he wanted a place to store and share his photos. He loves jazz, which is why WordPress releases are named for jazz musicians. He loves to read and write and work from anywhere, so he turned Automattic into a company that supports bloggers and promotes remote work. He buys companies that make products he likes, and companies that have missions he believes in. Most of all, he believes that open-source software is the future of everything. And he’s betting on it every way he can.
On the future of remote work: Long before the pandemic, Mullenweg relied on a company without an office. Over the years, he has become an evangelist for remote work, and recently developed a framework that outlines the five levels of distributed work. “It’s one of my life missions to have more companies be distributed,” he said. “It’s good for the environment. It’s good for opportunity. It’s good for the economy.”
On building billion-dollar companies: Transparency is the bedrock of trust. Mullenweg says the smartest people in the world have “perfect BS detectors.” He adds, “It’s much better to say I don't know than to try to make up an answer to something you don’t actually know.” In this podcast, Mullenweg offers practical tips and tools for building a meaningful business, developing high-quality relationships, and how “polyphasic sleep” boosted his productivity.
On the beginning of WordPress: In this conversation, Mullenweg discusses the beginning of WordPress, the growing importance of open source in the age of cloud, lessons he's learned as a founder, and — more optimistically — why he's excited about the distributed workplace, a core founding principle at Automattic.
On the importance of collaboration: Mullenweg said he created WordPress and other open-source products “to essentially allow all the kids being bullied on the playground to work together and to gang up.” And that was through a decentralized system of collaboration. “Of course, that’s what makes humanity great is our ability to collaborate.” Here’s why he believes incentives play out differently on the web versus in person.
On the new future of work: After Sept. 11, people were encouraged to engage with fellow humans at restaurants, theaters, and parks. In 2020, it was the opposite. They were forced to stay at home. Even though this is not a normal work-from-home situation, Mullenweg explains how we can feel fulfilled in our new roles through mastery, autonomy, and purpose.
On the major business lessons he’s learned: In this podcast, Mullenweg says that the most important business lesson he’s learned is that the best creators don’t just build products, they build worlds that live on after them. “It’s not just a products, it’s a movement, it’s an ecosystem, it’s a philosophy,” he says.
On the future of open source: Mullenweg says open source is the most adaptable form of technology. It can evolve much faster than proprietary software. “I think it’s inevitable over a long enough time frame that all crucial technology either has an open-source option or the open-source option becomes a natural monopoly,” he says.
On the future of publishing: Is the independent web over? Mullenweg says it’s just a cycle. “We have a generation growing up and learning that if you don’t control your digital destiny, then you’re really at the whim of these other parties whose business model can change and they are likely not aligned with yours.” Here’s what Mullenweg thinks about the future of publishing.
Remove unconscious bias through remote hiring: Mullenweg takes an unorthodox approach to hiring candidates at Automattic. The hiring process is done entirely over chat. So you could start a job at Automattic without ever seeing or talking to a person in real time. “I don't care how someone lives or how good their spoken English is,” Mullenweg says. “I do all of my interviews on Skype text chat - all that matters is their work.” It’s unconventional, and that’s by design. Mullenweg believes that hiring through chat removes many opportunities for unconscious bias, such as how the candidate is dressed, how they sound, how they look, and where they live. “All those things ultimately don’t matter, particularly for an internet company,” Mullenweg says. So let’s just remove it from the process entirely.” Remember, many times, our first impressions can lead us astray. Find ways to give people a chance without room for superficial judgement.
Think through reversible and irreversible decisions: The best advice Mullenweg has ever received is about decision-making. Toni Schneider, the former CEO of Automattic, once told him, “Make reversible decisions quickly and irreversible ones deliberately.” This mental model is quite useful during times of uncertainty. If the decision reversible, you can make it quickly without a ton of prior information — and you’ll probably learn a lot more by doing it. If the decision is irreversible, however, you should be slow, deliberate, and analytical before making it. So ask yourself: “Is the decision I’m about to make reversible or irreversible?”
Writing clarifies your thinking: I once had an editor tell me that he could tell my thinking was sloppy because my writing was sloppy. Mullenweg believes something similar. He says clear writing represents clear thinking. This is something he looks for in potential candidates’ emails, cover letters, and resumes. (It’s also why he likes to interview people over text-based chat.) “When you can write well, you can think well, he says. “Obviously, in Warren Buffet’s letters the thinking is so clear. If someone's a great writer, they tend to be a great programmer, more efficient or something else.” Writing clarifies and illuminates. If you don’t know how you feel about something, try writing about it first.
Learn from the greats: Mullenweg enjoys reading deep dives on people like Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett and Ben Franklin, “who have been successful over decades versus many of the folks if you pick up a magazine.” Remember, you can learn a lot from people who haven’t hit the jackpot once — look for the ones who have succeeded, failed, learned, and found a way to succeed again.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking.”
“Technology is best when it brings people together.”
“Money and salary is not a particularly good motivator in the long term.”
“If you’re not embarrassed when you ship your first version, you waited too long.”
“I am an optimist, and I believe that people are inherently good and that if you give everyone a voice and freedom of expression, the truth and the good will outweigh the bad.”
“You shouldn't restrict people's freedom on what they can and cannot do with code.”
“Sometimes, you have to be frustrated and do something unscalable and a waste of your time to be inspired.”
“It's good to work for someone else. Because then you appreciate it more when you are an entrepreneur.”
…Want more deep dives of interesting people?
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