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Interview with Matt Mullenweg, Co-Founder WordPress
I recently had a chance to interview Matt Mullenweg from WordPress. He will speak about where WordPress comes from, where it is today and where it is going. He also addresses spam and his new product to combat it. You can listen to the interview in several ways listed below. The interview is about 30 minutes long.
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Below is a text transcript of the audio interview.
Allen: Can you give our listeners a brief bio overview?
Matt: I am Matt Mullenweg. I am from Houston, Texas where I was born and raised. I went to an Arts High School where I focused mostly on music. Along the way I fell into this den of Internet benefits and sort of got into creating web sites. I did it awefully at first using Frontpage and Dreamweaver and then one enlightened day I came across Jeffrey Zeldman and I was saved.
Allen: Describe your management style and philsophy.
Matt: I have a very hands-off management style. I try to hire people much smarter than myself and just let them do their thing. As much as possible I am still involved a lot in the day-to-day but at the same time if someone feels strongly about something I trust them. Because that’s my job, to trust these guys and girls.
Allen: What kind of software or platofrms do you use for management, timetracking or day-to-day operations?
Matt: I don’t use anything too fancy. I use Thunderbird for my e-mail which is where 90% of the stuff happens. We use IRC insternally to Automattic to talk to each other all the time. We have chat going on 24hours a day with people around the world. To manage my time I use 30boxes, I really like 30boxes as a web calendar.
Allen: How did you come up with the idea for WordPress?
Matt: WordPress was not an original idea. There were blogging systems far before WordPress. And WordPress was based on another software called B2 CafeLog. So it was really just a continuation of ideas that had been since day 1 and I did this page.
Allen: Did you start with funding or self-funded?
Matt: Not at all. WordPress started in between high school and college. I was about as unfunded as could be, unless you count my parents. But yea, it was just a couple guys working nights and weekends on something they love.
Allen: What does the current revenue model look like for WordPress?
Matt: WordPress.org doesn’t have a revenue model. It is just an open source project, free for everyone and it will always be that way. With Automattic, we have a couple of revenue models. Akismet, its free for nearly everyone who uses it, but we do have some commercial licenses and partners like Yahoo! which support the entire service. And there is wordpress.com which is the hosted version of WordPress. It is free to use if you want to just blog. We have paid ala carte items, we have one right now but more coming. Where people can pick and choose if they want to upgrade and it is a nominal fee like $10-15 a year.
Allen: Can you talk about the WordPress team? Whats the makeup and whats the future look like for the team.
Matt: The people who contribute their time and the best code are the ones we recognize. People come and go, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes for personal reasons. The very, very best people who contribute to the project are some of the first people I hired when I started Automattic. I think just like when you are hiring you don’t discriminate on age or sex or anything like that, we are approaching a time when its silly to discriminate based on geographic location. I want the best and brightest people from around the world. And on the Internet you don’t need to be in the same office, in fact it can be more of a distraction if you have a bunch of people sitting around a table bugging each other during the day.
Allen: What is the technology behind WordPress?
Matt: PHP and MySQL
Allen: Who are main competitors for WordPress and how are they different from WP?
Matt: There are probably 100s. The big guys are going to be blogger, MSN and AOL has a blogging service and probably the most direct competitor would be the Six Apart services, Moveable Type and Type Pad.
Moveable Type and WordPress have some fundamental platform differences. WordPress is entirely PHP and dynamic and has been since the start. MT was Perl from the start, they have added some dynamic and PHP stuff later. So it’s more of a hybrid program. It can make things difficult for people trying to develop modules. Often times things will work in one Perl module but not in the dynamic publishing. But mainly I would see the big difference is that MT has more of an enterprise focus with big companies and businesses who are concentrating on blogging.
Allen: Do you make any friends as a result of starting WordPress? Other software companies? With other projects you are in talks with just as friends?
Matt: Well I have made a ton of friends. There are certainly people building things with WordPress that I find incredibly exciting. From things like scraplog to some of the folks using it like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. In terms of people we meet with regularly nothing too formal, but living in San Francisco I see a lot of these guys on a social level.
Allen: Any upcoming partnerships, collaborations or integrations?
Matt: No… nothing really.
Allen: Can you speak to your user demographics?
Matt: That is a big enterprisey thing. I know we have a ton of international users. WordPress is translated into 20+ languages and we see a ton of international traffic on wordpress.com. I do know tech level, on wordpress.org we see about 80% are using Firefox which indicates a pretty tech-savvy audience. And on wordpress.com we see the opposite which might mean it is hitting a more mainstream audience.
Allen: What about blogging within companies? Where is it now, where is it going?
Matt: I think the lack of blogging to take off within a company is usually a result of HR and Legal stifling innovation. I think that is one of the reasons why I probably not a good person to work at a big company. Companies that can foster free speech within their firewall and are pretty liberal have embraced blogging. And there are some good examples of that. Microsoft for one has opened up more than any company that I can name in terms of letting their employees be out there and talk about the products and trusting them. Not keeping them on a leash worrying that the will damage the company and Microsoft is a big publicly traded company. IBM has also done a really good job as well.
IT also stiffles innovation as well sometimes and frustrates me sometimes.
Allen: Can you talk a little bit about blog/trackback spam – what is being done to combat this issue – for me its a big issue.
Matt: Well spam is very very tricky. The biggest mistake that most people make with spam is assuming that the people sending out the spam are dumb. Mostly they are very smart and they tend to not have many morals. Comment spam has been a huge problem and I have tried to deal with it 20 different ways including creating plug-ins. It would work for a couple months and then they would find a way around it. And so that is why I created Akismet. It is kind of a distributed intelligence to fight trackback and comment spam and has been working very well so far.
Allen: How did you come up with the name Akismet?
Matt: At first it was called Automattic Spam Stopper but once we thought about the initials would be we figured we needed a new name. We were going to call it Automattic something, and I was talking with my sister and she said something like kismet. I liked the word a lot. So I called it Automattic Kismet and we found that everyone was shortening it to Akismet and it seemed like a better name. And it was pretty cool because when we launched there were no hits on Google, 0 matches and now there are tens of millions of hits.
Allen: Will their be a drupal Akismet install?
Matt: People have adapted Akismet to about a dozen lanugages and double that modules. There is a Drupal module and a PHP module, a Google site module, and a module for almost anything you can imagine. (Allen’s note: I did find it here).
Allen: What are the top 3 things you have learned since starting WordPress?
Matt: Probably the top thing is that you can’t do everything yourself and you have to trust people. As an entrepreniur that can be a difficult concept to find someone that you are essentially giving control to and doing things that you previously did. I think the key there is finding the very best people you can imagine and that makes the task a lot easier to do.
I have learned a lot about the web and how web communities form. There is always a little bit of churn in a community but I think if you encourage the positives or shoo away the overly negative people you can maintain a pretty popular community.
I have learned a lot about spam. I would never have imagined the types of things that people are doing. Before my view of spam was pretty narrow and I thought of it as that e-mail I received. But now I know it is really an epidemic on Web 2.0 applications in that anything you put out there for public input will be spammed to no end. I think that is a huge challenge. I mean if you look at some of the blog search engines that have failed, I won’t name them, I think that part of the failure was that so much of the time and engineering was spent on fighting spam that they were not able to focus on the user experience or creating a better search algorithm because they were focusing so much on fighting the spam. And I worry about some other Web 2.0 companies that I see if they don’t consider that they will be spammed that might reach the same fate.
Allen: What is the top mistake you have learned since starting WordPress?
Matt: We spent too much money on hardware up front. I know now that you should start with the cheapest thing possible. Probably not talk to people enough as I should. So communication is very important, that includes e-mail. Design is very important and I didn’t put enough into the design in the beginning but now I think about it a lot more and I think listening to the users is really important.
When WordPress started the only user I really listened to was me. You have to think outside your little box and think of the breadth of people who will use your product. WordPress has been downloaded 1.1 million times on the last release and then number of people who are interacting with WordPress every day depend on it and there is a responsibility to them. Both in the product being efficient — if something takes 10ms longer than it should and multiply that by the number of users it ends up being years of wasted time. And so keeping those things in mind is a big responsiblity. At the same time it is incredibly rewarding knowing that something you do has an impact.
I learned a lot about copywriting. Before I used to write pages and pages of self-important copy, about me me me, why the software is so great. And now I try to cut that down to the bare minimum and also what you are going to do for the person using the site because they care about that, they care about themselves they don’t care about you.
Allen: Thoughts on mobile blogging?
Matt: I think mobile blogging is still really rough. And that might be due to the dismal state of affairs in mobile devices and mobile carriers here in the US compared to those in Europe or Asia. We have a mobile interface for wordpress.com so if you go to m.wordpress.com it is stripped down and optimized. And we find that the usage is quite disappointing. The people using it are generally not on mobile devices, people are using it because they want a stripped down interface. I think in the US we still have a couple of years before that becomes more important.
Now on the other hand, for photos, I use Flickr for posting from my phone because it is way easier and a pain to get things off my phone either with cables or bluetooth stuff. When at the end of the day it is easier to e-mail my photos to Flickr and they put it up immediately for my friends to see. And that is a pretty compelling mobile application to me. I would imagine it more about pictures and videos rather than mobile blogging.
Allen: Where do you see WordPress going in the next 1-2 years?
Matt: For WordPress, we have a new version coming out at the end of the year. Has a lot of new cool features. We continue to focus on the experience of the writer. We added things like spell check to the editor and auto-save to bring it closer to the desktop editor because at the end of the day that’s what’s WordPress is about. Writing on the web. Also updates to the plugins API. Content management, bulletin boards and other stuff, so we will continue to expand the frameworks and APIs as well. So that’s where WordPress is going.
Allen: Where do you see the web going in the next 1-2 years?
Well we have reached the end of our interview with Matt. Thanks to Matt for participating and to you for reading and listening. I actually had a thank you to Matt inside of the audio but somehow lost it when pulling it out of the Skype recorder.
If you would like to participate in a conversation on CenterNetworks, or if you have any comments or questions, you can contact me via e-mail at allen===at===centernetworks.com or visit CenterNetworks for all of our news, reviews, insights and conversations.