How to Build a Community

I have the pleasure of speaking with Matt Mullenweg. Thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you.
It’s a pleasure.
Can you introduce yourself?
Sure. My name is Matt Mullenweg. I was born and raised in Houston, Texas and while there I co-founded the WordPress open source project. And a few years after that founded a company called Automatic after moving to San Francisco. And Automatic makes WordPress.com, Simplenote, Gravatar, CloudApp, WooCommerce. A number of different sort of plug ins and services to help you have an amazing web presence.
Why the portfolio of products? Why not just focus on WordPress?
So WordPress, probably the best way to think about it is kind of like a web operating system. So the features that it does, a lot of people use and love, but really I mean more so than I think many people who call themselves this. It’s a platform that hundreds of thousands of people make their living from and tens of thousands of different apps are built on. So it’s always been natural for us to both do WordPress and things that complement WordPress.
So they complement what WordPress is doing?
Mm-hmm.
Have they been responsible for growth as well?
Oh, absolutely. I think it’s very true to say that, well, for example just WordPress.com having a hosted version of WordPress that people can get started with in just a couple of clicks. Vastly it’s been the audience of the open source software.
So why did WordPress win, when you look back? Because you wasn’t the only one that was doing this.
And we still have lots of great competitors today so I wouldn’t say that we have won.
But you’re definitely a leader in the space.
WordPress was flexible enough that it could power both an individual blog and scale all the way up to power a top 20 website which was WordPress.com. It’s the same software from one to the other. We didn’t have to have multiple platforms. And the software, because it’s open source, has always been very accessible and responsive to its community. So we were able to maintain a pretty fast pace of development that is far better and bigger than Automatic could do alone. I mean Automatic is now 400 people, which is a lot. But I mean we get thousands and thousands of people contributing to every WordPress release. So you really do get the benefit of the commons working together towards a single goal.
Yes, because the amount of plugins that are on the WordPress ecosystem is insane.
Yeah. And it’s trivial to copy the features of WordPress. I mean writing blogging software is like a Hello World tutorial from watch Frameworks. Right [laughter]? But what no company has successfully copied so far is the community around it. Both around board camps, events, around the plug-ins, around the themes, around the third party developers. I mean there’s a whole ecosystem, in the true sense of the word, that really comes together and works on WordPress together.
Is it easy to build a community? Did you struggle?
I would say it’s way harder than building software.
Yeah. I’ve realized that. I have realized that. Yeah. The software is the easy part. Getting people to rally behind what you’ve created is the harder part [laughter]. How did you do that?
Well, I mean, being open source is a great start because you really have shared community ownership, as well as participation. Personally, I’m glad I’m not trying to build a community on proprietary software because I think it would be a lot, lot more challenging, and people would be much more mercenary or sort of what’s-in-it-for-me minded, rather than having the more altruistic approach that they take with WordPress. And then, after that, probably the best thing is just leading by example. When I was young and maybe a little bit of a jerk and liked to argue online [laughter], that was the type of people that were attracted to WordPress. And as I saw that that was unhealthy and started being kinder and of more considerate online, that was the type of people that got involved with the WordPress community.
Did you actively reach out to people? Say, “Hey, you should build on WordPress.” Was it just [crosstalk]?
Oh, I still do today [laughter].
Yeah?
Yeah.
I mean– because the reason why I started these interviews was to sort of see what goes on behind the scenes. That kind of effort. Because it’s– you can easily say, “Oh, WordPress was just at their right time, and you got lucky.” But I don’t believe in that. And I believe that there’s a lot of things that you did to ensure your position now. So on building the community, what did you sort of actively do to get that traction?
Reaching out one-on-one. I think is huge. My mom actually jokes that I built WordPress one person at a time [laughter]. And literally, just yesterday I reached out to two people on Twitter asking if they’d like to try WordPress or use it or [laughter]– I’m always kind of pinging people and talking to people and–
Are you more of a salesman than a developer [laughter]?
No. I’m definitely more of a developer. I don’t think I could ever do sales. That’s part of, I think, what people like, is reaching out from the point of view of being passionate by the product and the technology. Is a very genuine place to hear from. And they also like, probably, hearing from the co-founder. So, yeah. I definitely did that in the early days. If someone wrote a blog post, for example, complaining about all the spam they were getting on moveable type, I would leave a comment saying, “Hey, on WordPress we don’t get as much spam [laughter]. Come over here, try it out.”
Does that work now then? Leaving comments on purpose?
I don’t–
Would you do that today? Say you launched another product, and you do not have the ecosystem. You don’t have the user base. Would you leave comments on blogs and say, “Hey, check out this product”?
Yeah, I’d probably be more likely to email them now, just because leaving a comment for a commercial product is kind of the definition of spam [laughter]. But–
That’s what I’m thinking [laughter].
Yeah. Essentially, it was very friendly spam that I did in the early days [laughter]. And non-automated. So now I’d probably be more likely to tweet someone or email or try to reach out through a mutual contact.
Before we started the interview, you said something interesting, “San Francisco is overrated [laughter].” And you’re now based in Houston, correct? But you built WordPress while you was in San Francisco. Could you’ve done it in Houston?
No. I do think that, especially as a tech founder, you can learn a ton in San Francisco. And many of the early-stage financiers are there as well. You definitely have to be there some of the time, but I don’t know if living there and basing your company there is needed or required. I know you can save so much money being almost any place else, even Japan or some place that’s otherwise very expensive seems like a bargain in comparison. I honestly think you can recruit better. It’s not that they aren’t fantastic, brilliant people in San Francisco. Many folks at home admired by and respect a ton I’ve met in SF or live in SF, but if you’re building your company, you’re competing for the same engineers with the other 10,000 startups in a seven mile radius, and the internet giants, the Googles, the Amazons, the Microsofts, the SalesForce, the Oracle, everyone who has offices there. Being more geographically agnostic, I think allows you to both attract and retain people who just you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach. Honestly, at any compensation level. Now, we’re a larger, more successful company. Our compensation is the same, basically. But, we’re still the reach people who want the flexibility. For us, we’re distributed, so they want the flexibility of working from anywhere in the world and having actual control over their hours. If you’re a new parent, for example, we have lots and lots of moms at Automatic who want to be able to take their kids to school and pick them up in the afternoon. And if you’re in an office, even if the office says, “We’re cool with that”, I think you would maybe feel weird if at 3:00 PM, you’re leaving your colleagues for an hour or two. And people are probably scheduling meetings in and things like that. By being a company that spans time zones, by being one that sort of allows people to work whenever they want, as long as they’re getting their job done. It doesn’t just provide the flexibility, but also sort of, it’s normal for people to do that. It’s not strange for someone to work strange hours or to leave for a couple of hours in the middle of the day, or whatever it is. I think that allows– diversity in tech is a big topic. I think that companies are doing a great job of diversity in tech. Like, let’s say, Pinterest. Still have very much a monoculture with how they actually work and collaborate, and I think that’s excluding people who could be amazing contributors in all of these companies.
You have a strange way of working. So, you work from home, and you work for 25 minutes, and then you exercise.
[laughter] Well, not all the time, but yeah. When I’m trying to really grind through some longer task. Like, let’s say something that’s almost never-ending, like reviewing resumes or applications. I find it’s best to break it down, to just focus hardcore for 25 minutes. It’s called the Pomodoro technique, so I have a little timer app, and then take a break for five minutes. If I can exercise, that is super good. If I’m ever in a coffee shop, that might be a little awkward [laughter]. That I’ll drop and do a bunch of push-ups in the middle of Starbucks.
Good coffee.
Yeah. Yeah, just a break from something. Whether that’s walking around, reading for a few minutes, or looking at distractions, like Facebook or Twitter.
Are you more productive at home? I’m touching on productivity now, and sort of just on your found day, you just have to be efficient. What are your thoughts on just being really productive throughout the day?
Yeah, and personally I would say that’s a process, not sort of a thing I know for sure. And that, for me, productivity is always something that’s– it’s more dynamic. So, some days, I find that to really focus, it’s better for me to go into a library or a coffee shop, or co-work with someone. You know what, I don’t know why, but it’s not important why, it’s just that I have that flexibility to do so. The vast majority of days I find working from home– You know, my own setup, with my own music, all that sort of jazz, is far more conducive to me being able to get into that zone where you do your best and most productive work.
Over the years, WordPress has got simpler, especially the– and you recently made a post around Mario and the user experience. New user experience, did you call it?
Yeah, we call it NUX internally, new user experience.
NUX. Why not just user experience?
Because it’s specific to that onboarding. Think of someone’s first 5 or 10 minutes. It’s basically the point until they get to that magical a-ha that really helps them understand your product and why they want to stay with it.
So is that what you’re focusing on? Is that what everything’s optimized around, just getting them to that a-ha?
Yeah, well we have teams for both. So we have a team that focuses on getting to a-ha, and we have a team for everything after the a-ha.
And what have you learned from getting people– how have you been able to get people to a-ha really quickly?
Well, I think if we’re honest about the growth of WordPress thus far, all the marketing has been word of mouth, and I think most new users probably have someone who helps them out to get started. WordPress is kind of like– right now, think of it more like an SLR. Once you get to know it, it’s very easy and extremely powerful. People love it. But if you can have someone maybe with you the first 10 or 20 minutes, to just kind of show you where things are, it’s way easier to onboard. So what we’re trying to do is for all the people– I mean, we get tons of sign ups every day, tens of thousands. For people who might not have someone sitting next to them saying, “Go here, click here,” how can we make that more intuitive, and put things where they think they should be, have things work like they think they should work? And if needed, maybe have some guides or some things that walk them through it just like a person might.
Yeah, I remember setting up my first WordPress and having somebody there.
Oh, you did [laughter]? I think that’s true of most [crosstalk]–
Yeah. I mean, if you think about it, that’s really crazy [laughter]. But it just shows the value that WordPress is providing, that people are sort of willing to– people don’t have that patience anymore [laughter]. If a product is not simple straight away, they sort of give up and Google for an alternative. So yeah, it’s–
I think you have to have a lot of value on the other end. And to WordPress’s credit, there’s a huge amount of value. I mean, you’re essentially getting millions of dollars’ worth of software for free [laughter]. It’s true. We compete with proprietary packages from Adobe and other places, and when big enterprises are considering WordPress they’re comparing it to something that might cost them 3 to 5 million dollars. You and I can download that for free from the website tomorrow, or today, or go to wordpress.com and sign up. So there is a lot of value being provided, and we also need to work on making that better. So it’s a challenge, both making it more intuitive for new users and more powerful and flexible for the experienced folks that make up, I mean, really today the core of WordPress’s user base.
Do you bring ideas on how to make things more intuitive, on the top of your head? For people listening to this interview now, it’s like, “Okay, I have my product map. How can I make this better?” Is that core principles that you follow? Or is it just, “Hey, just do user testing and see how people use it, and then optimize around that?”
If you’re going to do one thing, user testing would be the best. Because I find it is, even for myself, who, I’ve been doing this now for 13 years, it’s difficult to get out of your own mind and context for how something works. And it’s great. It’s like a splash of cold water to the face, to see someone get really stuck on something you thought was maybe intuitive. But the actual techniques, I think change from time to time. Sometimes, maybe we had a link that wasn’t underlined, and people just weren’t seeing it. And putting the underline there really helped someone notice it. So sometimes it’s following conventions of what people expect, given their experience thus far in browsers, on apps, if you’re on iOS or Android, sort of the conventions of other things, that could help make it more intuitive. But I would say at the same time you can have an interface that’s completely novel. If you walk people through it or make them interested enough in wanting to use it, they’ll figure it out. And when you think about it, that’s what most games are. I mean, almost every game has its own unique mechanics and interactions.
So for this value that you’ve created, how then do you monetize that and then build a business? How are you guys making money from this?
So, what Automatic does, is we essentially provide services on top of WordPress. So for people who host WordPress themselves, that’s– there’s something called Jetpack. So we have the Jetpack plugin, things like it gives them an antispam, VaultPress backups, and these range anywhere from free, to $40 a month essentially. And so they help people who are really serious about their WordPress make sure it runs in tip-top shape. And on WordPress.com, you can sign up, again also free, it’s freemium. But there’s a $100 a year or a $300 a year plan that gives you extra themes, extra support, extra features, everything like that. And a very small percentage of WordPress users buy these upgrades, but the percentage that does, allows us to continue developing the software and putting a ton of stuff out there for free. So we’ve found a model that works well for that.
What percentage are we talking?
Oh. Well like, 1%, if that. Probably less.
I think that applies to all of the products. Is that fair to say that the products that have a paid option, paid component, it seems to be a 1% of the user base [laughter]? Is that true?
Perhaps. Yeah.
Or not? I don’t know if you know that as well [crosstalk].
The 1% that’s more serious, or maybe that just wants to upgrade for altruistic reasons, to support Automatic and the mission that we support, essentially subsidize it for the other 99%. Some of which, to be honest, couldn’t afford WordPress, or if it was charged for everyone.
How do you get more people to pay? Or is that not even a concern for you?
Oh man. Well, I would say that’s the question for every business [laughter]. I mean, fundamentally you have to have, and this is, I think art and science, you have to have enough value on the other side of what ever you’re charging for, that people value it more than what you’re charging. So if it’s $99 a year, you have to have stuff on the other side which they feel is worth way more than $99 a year. Because if it’s worth exactly $99, they’ll be like, “Oh. Maybe. Maybe not.” So it has to be worth a lot more. And then the tough part is balancing people who pay, with growth overall. So if we took one of the best features on the $99 plan, and made it free, maybe we will grow faster. But would it be sustainable?
Is growth more important than making money? Or is it making money should be the focus?
We’ve always been very much focused on sustainable business and part of the reason Automatic is ten years old now. I think that part of the reason we’ve been able to raise the funding we did, for example, last year is because we were a sustainable business. We had great unit economics, we had great subscriber growth, great loyalty, great churn. Those sorts of things that make people know that even if funding dried up, we would be a sustaining concern for another decade.
You’re in a very good position [laughter].
Well, I think that you have to think about it, right. Probably, we could have grown faster if we made everything free. But then we would have been at the mercy of the funding markets. Already we’ve been through one cycle which was sort of 2008 through 2010 that showed that sometimes you can’t count on that. And I saw some great companies go out of business, to be honest because they had assumed funding would be there because it always had before. And then when the time needed– when you need it the most is when it’s often not there. So being in control of your own destiny, if you’re building something you think really should exist in the world, I think is the most important thing to do.
I met up with some founders today and they’re exploring some ideas. And then they’re going to pick an idea and then raise money [laughter]. And that seems to be the conventional way.
We’re talking a lot about consumer tech, in which case it’s fantastic to have traction before you raise money. But in other life sciences and enterprise software, it’s pretty common to raise money based on the team, the idea, because your customers aren’t going to want just a MVP. They want a full product before they purchase it for enterprise software.
Well, they were doing consumer tech and tech.
Yeah. It’s just cheaper than ever to build it.
You wouldn’t do that now. You wouldn’t just have an idea that’s like, “Okay. I’m just going to go to countries and hearts and raise some money now.”
No, and in fact, when we first– I mean when Automatic raised its first round in 2006, WordPress was already pretty big. We already had a lot of traction. So it was actually somewhat similar to what companies do today.
So how– the reason why people raise money is so that they can survive. Because what funding gives, as you know, is that buffer. And building a sustainable business takes times. So how was you able to have no funding but then survive as well? Was you consulting on the side or was you making money from the get-go?
Well, both. So I had a job in the beginning which was at CNET. And so I used that salary. And then we bootstrapped it with some sort of initial revenue in partnerships and things like that. But I would say that– I mean the reason to raise capital isn’t to survive, it’s to accelerate. Right. So if based on your revenues, getting from A to B takes you two years, I mean do that. Bootstrap [laughter] that gives you– you’ll be in a much stronger position. But if there is a reason to sell part of your company to someone to accelerate that, maybe make the two years, six months or one year. If that’s required for your business, that’s the reason to raise money. You should never raise money just to survive, in my opinion. You should raise it to accelerate.
So how then do you just stay alive then?
You stay alive.
Because doing a startup is really hard [laughter]. And you know that.
Well, if it wasn’t hard everyone will do it [laughter].
Yeah. You know what I’m saying, though, right? You know that the current landscape is just, “Hey, there’s so much money available. Why struggle? Let’s just raise 300 or 500 seed capital and see where it goes.” [laughter].
Sure. Sure. Sure. And you know what? If that’s possible do it. But I would say that your optionality greatly increases if you do get some initial revenues, some initial traction. If you’re able to get– I mean, part of it is just get into that point where you have both the economics and the growth to be someone that everyone wants to be a part of. And at that point, raising money is very, very easy and not raising money is always an option. But different companies are different so I wouldn’t say there’s one advice which is universal for everyone.
I think a common goal for ambitious entrepreneurs is to make a big impact, but few rarely do. And you’re one of those exceptions that have. I mean, you’re powering. what, 22% of the web now?
Mm-hmm.
Do you know why you are where you are now? Was it an accident or was it planned [laughter]?
I would say company’s success is some combination of execution. So how hard and how well you work. Idea. You know, the idea does matter. So you’re in a space that potentially has a big market or a big impact. And there’s a kind of a luck multiplier, as well, that could be anywhere from 1 to 10,000. And maybe you can call it timing, maybe you can call it luck but there’s some sort of combination of things that I think– sometimes the world is ready for something to exist and if you don’t create it, someone else is going to.
Was you ever in doubt about the fate of WordPress or was it just growth, growth, growth, growth from the get go?
I would say any entrepreneur who listens to this know that you’re always in doubt all the time [laughter] even for me today. So–
Even today?
Yes, even today.
What are you in doubt about [laughter]?
Oh, man, so much. There’s [laughter] basically– I mean, it’s conceivable that we could go in a direction where the web doesn’t matter anymore. WordPress on mobile is a completely different thing that’s not as functional as WordPress on the browser. What else? We have competitors spending a quarter billion dollars on advertising this year between Squarespace, and Wix, and GoDaddy and all these folks, Weebly. So there’s a lot of going on there. I think you constantly are in doubt, but that’s part of the intellectual clarity and rigor that you apply to what you’re doing, to really think through. What are the implications of, say, a world when everything is on a proprietary social network and everyone’s on a proprietary mobile platform. What does that mean? What does it mean when your competitor sponsors every podcast? Maybe even this one [laughter].
No.
It gets distribution from that [laughter]. You have to think through all this because it’s– businesses don’t exist in a vacuum. For sure, you shouldn’t focus on your competition. It is true that the market is growing far faster than any one of the people I just mentioned could capture. But you have to be aware of it and it influences what you can and should do.
So, for example, you mentioned about advertising. You know that they’re advertising. You can see their plays in the open. Isn’t it just easy to do the same thing and then that sort of ensures that you also have the mind share? So, if Squarespace or whatever spending X amounts and I would say, “Okay. Let’s do our advertising.” Don’t you think that way or you’re thinking of alternative things to do?
Well, I think you have to use the hockey metaphor. You have to escape to where the puck is going, right? So you can’t do what someone’s doing today. You have to both figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing today, whether it’s rational, how they got there and if you can, get ahead of it. So go to where they’re not at. Maybe because they don’t know, maybe because they haven’t done it yet, or maybe because they’re really attached to what they’re currently doing. So it’s hard for them to imagine the thing around the corner.
Do you spend a lot of time thinking?
I hope so [laughter].
I get that impression. I hope so.
As opposed to not thinking? I don’t know. I guess you’d have to ask my friends.
No, but there’s a fine balance between thinking, planning, and execution.
Yeah. I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about the percentage. I think there’s probably a little bit of everything going on at once, all the time.
Coming to a close now. You’ve been in the game for a long time for tech standards. 10 years. What’s been a truth for you when it comes to building a product or building something that people want? What’s something that’s sort of stuck with you?
I don’t know if I’ve found any universal truths there. If there’s a commonality it’s that it’s very difficult to predict. While it’s good to have strong convictions and operate from first principles, you also need to be agile and not be too attached to what your previous idea or previous way of approaching things has been. And certainly, if you go to interviews I was doing three, five, maybe even one year ago, I might have said something completely contradictory to what I said today. And this is also why I don’t want to write a book or anything because I feel like things are evolving so quickly and the environment is changing so quickly. One of our competitors, 30% of their user base uses a version of the software that when it was released there was no app store for the iPhone [laughter]. I mean you really– I think staying fast and iterating quickly is true and advantageous regardless of what place you’re in or even if you go in the exact same direction for five years in a row. It being able to iterate quickly just gives you so much of an advantage over competitors and it can work whether you’re small or whether you’re large. Whether your competitors are well funded or unfunded. Execution is such a big part of it. And in terms of you said, do I think a lot? I would say probably the thing that inspires me to think the most is reading. Both books and the domain. Like, let’s say what I’m reading right now is Work Rules, which is about Google HR essentially. And things completely outside of it. Fiction, art books, history books. Those things can give you a lot of inspiration and ideas to your area. And I think sometimes maybe you just need to give your brain a break. Like I have some amazing, amazing business ideas when I’m at the opera or visiting a museum. So if you can provide yourself, be constantly trying to enrich your personal intellectual life and keep your edification being an ongoing concern, I think that the one area entrepreneurship that provides a little bit of balance and sanity outside of the craziness which is starting something. But also provides a lot of inspiration. Everyone’s going to have their different passions. Maybe you’re into ballet, or maybe you’re into street art, or maybe– so it’s going to be different for everyone. But just spending some time there I think is good for your soul which is ultimately going to be good for everything else you do.
Matt, thank you so much. Thank you.
The podcast audio file has been transcribed exactly as it is. We don’t take responsibility for grammatically incorrect language or errors in general.

 

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