On Saturday the 10th of May 2008, I was attending the first Italian Wordcamp, listening to Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress and Automattic, the company that runs wordpress.com.*
From that day on, through reading and studying about the WordPress community and Automattic, I gathered a lot of ideas that we later discussed and implemented into Kublai, when we introduced the Kublai Community Staff (in September 2008, inspired by WordPress angels) and the idea of a dual organization (community~coaching staff) with balance of power issues between the community and the related public project.
Therefore in May 2009, while we were waiting for the start of the second year of Kublai, I decided to fly to San Francisco for the SFWordcamp, the following Developer Day at the Automattic Lounge, and a short trip to Silicon Valley which included a visit to Ning, the company that provides the infrastructure for the Kublai social network.
During those days, I had the opportunity to talk with Matt a couple of times and to ask him some questions on the topics I was more interested in. Later on, I always referred to that conversation but never wrote it down; I decided to do it now because Kublai is reflecting again on its future. So here it is my short interview with Matt on WordPress and Automattic, I hope that it might be useful for the Kublai discussion and for people involved in similar kind of issues and projects.
Interview with Matt (recorded on the 31st of May 2009 @ Automattic Headquarter in San Francisco, California)
Marco: I work for this project in Italy called Kublai which is a social network for creative people that want to discuss and develop projects with experts from the public administration and the whole network of creative participants. The network is promoted by the Italian Ministry of Economic Development, who finances a related project with a staff which is hired half from the community and half among the public administration professionals. At this stage, the social network is evolving into a community, so we were interested in the WordPress organizational model, where there is a separation between the WordPress community on one side and the business project (Automattic) on the other. You have been able to do this in a way where these two different forces operate in the same direction, could you explain a little bit better how this idea came up and what have been the consequences for WordPress?
Matt: Sure. WordPress was purely wordpress.org, a nonprofit, for the first 2 years; then, I started a company but I kept it completely separated, so Automattic doesn’t own wordpress.org and doesn’t have any control over it. The only real communality is me. Automattic also doesn’t make any IP claim (intellectual property claim) over WordPress code. The reason for this was to create what in the US is called “checks & balances”, as there are checks and balances between the executive, the judicial, and the legislative branches; the congress; the president; and the supreme court; they balance each other out, so no single one has to much power and have control. The same has happened between the open source project and our company: the company cannot have too much power because it doesn’t own or control the open source platform-community, so by definition they balance each other out. That was the idea.
Marco: So the for-profit company came up later?
Matt: Yes, a couple of years later, which I think is best, ’cause the nonprofit was already strong enough; it had it’s own independent identity. It was able to develop user base, ideas and ways to do things without any profit motive at all. It was a sort of a sheltered way to build it.
Marco: And the people that work for the nonprofit are not the same who work for Automattic?
Matt: The nonprofit has no employees; it’s just the website, the code, and anything like that. The Automattic people contribute to wordpress.org just like anyone else in the world: they file tickets, they create patches, put scripts in the forums, participate in the mailing lists, and so on. Just like anyone else, they don’t have any special access or privileges, which I think is important to maintain that balance of power.
Marco: What is the structure of the nonprofit? I think you are the president…
Matt: Essentially no structure, it’s just me. Everyone involved is just volunteer. Certain people have more responsibilities; for example, there are five core committers, who approve all changes that go into the core. Two of them are now Automattic full-time employees.
Marco: So no one is getting money from the nonprofit?
Matt: No, the only real costs that wordpress.org have are for the infrastructure (servers, etc.), and that is just donated by Automattic. It was the easiest thing to do, and also it is a bit difficult in the US to become a formal nonprofit, our application is still pending, so donations are still not tax deductible. I think when there will be a formal nonprofit we might solicit more donations to cover our server costs. (Interview recorded on the 31st of May 2009**)
Marco: Do you think the community appreciate this kind of separation?
Matt: I think that people generally don’t understand very well the difference between Automattic and wordpress.org; there’s a lot of confusion, but among the people that are more close and involved, they understand and they see the difference, and I think it is important.
Marco: Are there any communication problems? Things that are discussed on one side than on the other…
Matt: No, because everything happens in the open; the work all happens in the open.
Marco: You mean in both sides?
Matt: There are not two sides, there is only one side, all development and all code are in wordpress.org, so 100% of the development and everything happens there.
Marco: What about a decision like the one in the newspapers these days not to pander to the China Government (details here)?
Matt: That was for wordpress.com, which is separate, under Automattic, so it’s just a decision I made.
Marco: Let’s talk a bit about community building, you attend a lot of wordcamps around the world, which takes a lot of energy and time I guess…
Matt: Yeah, I think that as a leader of the community for me it is important to meet as many people in the community as possible and listen to as many, so going to wordcamps it’s just one of the best way to do that.
Marco: Do you believe that going to wordcamps is important to build the community?
Matt: Yes, it’s important for people to meet physically, once a year, twice a year. So the wordcamp here in San Francisco is once a year, but there are wordcamps all around the world almost every week. They are all self-organized by the local communities, we don’t control anything about them, we just help to promote them if we can.
Marco: Ok… any suggestion about other similar stories in the open source world?
Matt: There are certainly better examples of purely open source projects, like the Apache Foundation has a different approach to create this independent open source nonprofit entity, which is a lot more formalized. Another one you might have a look at is Ubuntu and Canonical, that is also a sort of a hybrid model for profit~nonprofit, which I think is pretty interesting.
Marco: Where are they based?
Matt: South Africa.
Marco: Because another aspect I wanted to ask you about is San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. You are from Houston, Texas, why did you come here and what is the importance of location in your opinion?
Matt: For companies it is important, for nonprofits it doesn’t matter. Business wise it’s good for me to be here in San Francisco; it’s kind of magical for that because there are so many things in one place, but everyone else in the company can live in any place they like.
Marco: Yesterday John Lilly, CEO of Mozilla, spoke at the wordcamp; they also have both a corporation and a nonprofit foundation, right?
Matt: Their case is different; they have a corporation which is owned by the nonprofit, so technically is nonprofit as well. It’s very difficult to describe, it’s basically something they did because of laws in the US. Essentially I think they are run just like a nonprofit. They are based in Mountain View, which is nearby, 30 minutes away.
Marco: Ok, let’s come back to Automattic for a final question about the organization, if I asked you to draw the organization chart, how would you draw it?
Matt: It’s pretty flat. So everyone who works on product stuff sort of reports to me. And then there are four or five people parallel to me, the CEO and other business guys that work on different things. So it’s very flat. I’m the President, technically, but essentially I run all the product stuffs, so anything related to wordpress.com, Akismet, or any of our products.
Marco: I already asked Andy (Peatling, lead developer of Buddypress) about the tools you use as a virtual company (read here, here, and here for more in-depth info about it), so everyone in the team is spread around the globe, meeting format is online, and you eventually get together…
Matt: …once or twice a year in person, yeah.
Marco: That’s about all I wanted to ask you, thank you very much Matt.
Matt: My pleasure.
NOTES & CREDITS
The pictures in this article were taken from Sean O’Shaughnessy (1&2) flickr album; Matt’s photo is from the Linux Journal article (July 2008) I found and read at the Automattic’s headquarter that day.
*Matt’s interview by Sara Rosso, recorded at that barcamp (Milan, May 2008).
**On January 2010, the nonprofit organization behind wordpress.org officially became WordPress Foundation.