How doing everything wrong turned Automattic into a multibillion-dollar media powerhouse

How doing everything wrong turned Automattic into a multibillion-dollar media powerhouse

Nothing about Automattic’s success has been automatic. To those who haven’t been paying attention, the company now appears to be a near-overnight success. WordPress, the company’s open-source software, is now estimated to power about 42% of all websites on the internet. WooCommerce, Automattic’s e-commerce plugin, which it bought in 2015, is thought to power more than a quarter of all online stores. According to Crunchbase, the company employs 1,700 people in a distributed, asynchronous, worldwide workforce and funds approximately $1 billion, with the most recent round valued at $7.5 billion.

However, it has taken 16 years — or 18 years if you count the time when WordPress was founded — to get to this stage. In addition, if you ask venture capitalists, the corporation did pretty much everything wrong over those many years. Automattic chose to focus on media at a time when the internet was destroying the business. It avoided the kinds of walled gardens that transformed Facebook, Apple, and Google into monopolistic behemoths, instead relying on a volunteer-run, open-source infrastructure that gave many investors pause.

Its staff has always been completely remote and distributed – 16 years before the epidemic of last year disseminated that concept throughout the business sector. Matt Mullenweg, Automattic’s founder, was barely of legal drinking age in the United States (21) when he started creating, during a period when venture capitalists required “adult supervision” at their companies. In retrospect, though, doing everything wrong was the precise right plan – something that is only now becoming evident. “Things appear modest until the end with exponential development,” Mullenweg explains. Automattic, in his opinion, is not quite there yet, but the curve is beginning to emerge. It all started with a single blog post.

Massive shifts can begin as flimsy, unproven concepts. The technology is insecure and experimental, the target audience is unknown, and the commercial applications are hazy or nonexistent. That was the context for the so-called weblog in 2003, which was soon shortened to blog. Google had just purchased Blogger for an unknown and presumably low fee. The previous year, political bloggers at Instapundit and Talking Points Memo shook up American politics by focusing attention on a story about Trent Lott, compelling him to resign as the Senate minority leader. Traditional media remained the unchallenged monarch of communication, and professional blogs (such as the one you are reading) remained a faraway fantasy.

Mullenweg did not appear to be the right person to come up with a solution. While he envisioned himself as a future jazz saxophone, he was also studying political science at the University of Houston and spending a lot of time working on his photography (Mullenweg’s Twitter handle is still @photomatt). His father’s employment as a professional programmer encouraged his computer hobbies, especially open-source software, but Mullenweg did not appear convinced about following in his father’s footsteps.

Nonetheless, his essay drew the attention of a few other engineers, and the group formed the open-source WordPress project, which focuses on blog publishing. In May 2003, the first version of WordPress was published, and it replaced b2, an older project that had been abandoned. Mullenweg became the focal point of a rapidly expanding community. According to a Houston Press feature on him from October 2004, WordPress was powering over 29,000 blogs. Mullenweg’s own blog was the third most popular in the world, and the exposure he received led to an invitation to quit college and work for CNET, a San Francisco media business, as a senior product manager. Despite this, WordPress still referred to be a “hobby.”