The Son of Gutenberg

matt_mullenweg

A year ago, Justin Halpern was an underemployed comedy writer who had to move back into his parents’ home in San Diego. Today, he’s got 1.4 million Twitter followers, the
No. 1 book on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, and a CBS sitcom starring William Shatner. All it took was writing down quotes from his father that he tweets out as “Shit My Dad Says.”

Technology and social media are redrawing the roadmap to authorial success. And for every Justin Halpern, there are 10,000 professional writers wondering how to turn blogs, microblogs, and Twitterfeeds into media empires, especially now that their magazines, newspapers, and media organizations are contracting at an alarming rate. Blogs, of course, are the first refuge for professional writers fleeing the withering establishment media, and for hordes of would-be scribes finding their own voice. For these multitudes, WordPress.com has become the 21st-century equivalent of Gutenberg’s printing press.

As the leading blogging software, WordPress is an essential tool in the transformation of media. WordPress.com hosts 11 million blogs pumping out the enthusiasms, opinions, and ideas of its authors to 256 million unique monthly users. Unlike social media giants Facebook and Twitter, WordPress doesn’t sport a multibillion-dollar valuation or a murderer’s row of VC investors. That’s because WordPress itself is open-source code that anyone with skill could make his or her own. (They just can’t call it WordPress.)

That’s not to say that the creators of WordPress are altruists. They’re making money too. Matt Mullenweg, the 26-year-old who gathered WordPress together seven years ago after a yearlong stint at Cnet, founded a company called Automattic in 2005 to sell services around WordPress. As CEO, Mullenweg hired Toni Schneider, an ex-Yahoo! executive who ran the site’s developer network and was the former CEO of Oddpost, a paid e-mail service that was acquired by Yahoo! for $30 million in 2004. Together they raised $31 million from investors, including a chunk from the New York Times.

A profitable company, Automattic runs with a small staff of 60, mostly developers, who work out of diverse locations on three continents with no corporate offices (you can see their names and locations here). The company is an ephemeral presence. Automattic employees coordinate their work over an open IRC channel and get together regularly in different cities around the world. That puts Mullenweg on the road more than half the year, camping out in hotel suites with his colleagues as they collaborate in a circle with laptops open.

This may seem like a strange modus operandi for an outfit that supports some of the most heavily trafficked and straitlaced news sites. But you don’t have to be a bohemian to appreciate the power of blogging. Certainly, CNN, BBC, Time, Fortune, the NFL, CBS Radio, Rosetta Stone, TechCrunch, LinkedIn, Discovery, the SEC, and GigaOm think so. They all host their blogs on WordPress.com. Many other companies also use the open-source code to run their own sites hosted on their own servers.

In either mode, part of the company’s appeal to big media is enterprise access to small-scale agility. “One thing we’ve been seeing with our VIP customers,” says Schneider, “is that corporations are looking at these consumer-level services and saying we want that. We don’t care if it came from the consumer side.” What they want is the ability to work with the search engine optimization, mobile applications, and rich media that are built into WordPress.

Schneider believes that WordPress’ advantage will only multiply as the Web becomes more oriented toward mobile devices. “We’re seeing a big increase in people managing their blog from a mobile device,” Schneider says. And mainstream news organizations are following the trend, too, with more writers gathering and reporting the news with smartphones.

This is where WordPress seems to sink the hook in deep. “As people consume your content in different places,” Schneider remarks, “you don’t have to do that much work. If somebody visits your blog on a web browser, a tablet or a mobile device, we can make sure your content is presented in the best possible way without your having to go back and re-release it. It’s actually to our benefit that there are as many devices as possible out there because we can support all of those. It’s something we can take care of under the hood.”

It’s all under the hood because Mullenweg runs the development side as an open-source battle of wits and ego. He oversees a consortium of developers who are trying to outdo one another with a better response to the myriad needs of bloggers. “Open Source projects aren’t really democracies,” says Mullenweg who will be spending the next six to eight weeks working in Montreal so he can hang out at the local Jazzfest. “They’re more like meritocracies. So the people who are most passionate about something or most able to do the work tend to rise to the top and develop contextual authority.”

With the flexibility of open-source development, Automattic is free to operate under a different sort of business plan—one that seems a bit too laid-back and diffident for a Silicon Valley company. “A lot of times people end up starting with us as their host,” Toni Schneider says, explaining how Automattic works with some of its big corporate clients. “But because it’s open-source, they can bring it in-house anytime. So we say: If you want to host with us, you pay us. If you just want to use the software, you’re on your own.”

Though most companies would fret about the prospect of clients walking out the door, Schneider is much happier keeping his team small and profitable: “We’ve been able to grow the business without having to hire lots of people up front.” That’s because their revenue comes from upgrades, plus ads sold against 10 percent of those 256 million visitors, enterprise services like hosting partnerships and bolt-on services like anti-spam software. Upgrades create around 40 percent of the income, with ads and enterprise services splitting the remaining 60 percent fairly evenly.

But that doesn’t mean Mullenweg views his corporate clients as his primary customers. “We’ve really seen the writer and author as our No. 1 user,” Mullenweg says, with the tone of an idealistic 26-year-old. “If we can make something that people love to write in, love to compose in, you know, that’s a sacred act.”At bottom, WordPress is transforming the aspirations of writers. Mullenweg is somewhat dismissive of the idea that being an author is a job. For him, it’s a vocation. “It all comes back to what motivates people to blog. It’s recognition, audience, and the joy of writing, more so than pure monetization.”

The fact that blogging is driven more by passion than by profit-motive is convenient. For Automattic, for all its open-source smarts, hasn’t discovered an economic engine for the blogging industry. “The monetization opportunities on the blog are relatively uninspiring right now,” Mullenweg says. “You have Google AdSense, or you could do a deal with Federated Media if you are really popular. If you want to make money on AdSense, you should write about mortgages or Viagra or mesothelioma. That creates the wrong kind of motivation.”

Blogs, however, are nothing but passion. A microscopic minority, especially in the tech sector, has been able to turn its blogs into ad-supported media businesses—but most bloggers are getting paid in other ways. “People get rewards because of their blogs,” Mullenweg says, “not necessarily on their blogs. People are starting to get speaking gigs. Or they get jobs. We’re seeing publishers using blog traffic as an indicator of an audience. Or they get the enjoyment of engaging with an audience, which I would say is nontrivial.”

You might not be able to make money directly from blogging, but the practice can lead to opportunities in related fields. Twitter micro-blogger Justin Halpern is Exhibit A for this case. So, too, are Mullenweg and his team of developers Exhibit B. Blog-enabler WordPress doesn’t try to turn a profit, but Automattic, which helps companies use WordPress to its fullest potential, does.

“If we can democratize publishing,” Mullenweg says with his idealism firmly in front, “if we can make these communication mechanisms just completely effortless and ubiquitous, the world becomes a better place, and that’s very motivating for everyone.” That is, if you think something like “Shit My Dad Says” really makes the world a better place.

And, there, you have the conundrum of Mullenweg’s innovation. He’s brought professional publishing tools to amateurs; one in a million of whom will be able to make writing their profession.