Automattic, Forbes, and the Future of Work

There’s a great article in Forbes today that covers some of the early days of WordPress through Automattic as a business today. I recommend everyone check it out! I wanted to respond to one bit about Automattic’s global nature though, which is actually timely because next week the entirety of Automattic is going to San Diego:

As a legacy of its open-source roots its 120 employees are spread across 26 countries and six continents. Although most work alone at home, each team–usually made up of five or six people–has a generous budget to travel. “All of the money we save on office space, we blow on travel costs,” Mullenweg laughs. Groups have gathered in Hawaii, Mexico and New Zealand. Once a year everyone meets for a week at an accessible destination with a solid Internet connection. A distributed workforce means Automattic can hire talent from around the world–without having to offer the perks and pay of Google, Facebook and Apple.

I’d like to counter the last sentence, which implies this is something we do as a cost saving scheme: being distributed is not a legacy, it’s a conscious choice. The people at Automattic are truly world-class — I invest in and advise a number of startups, and spending time in New York and the San Francisco Bay area I would put the caliber of people inside of Automattic on par or higher than anyone I’ve met from Google, Facebook, Apple, or any of the traditional tech giants.

How do we do it? Automattic offers a benefit above and beyond what they ever could: We give people the perk and the luxury of being part of an internet-changing company from anywhere in the world. This mirrors the meritocracy that makes Open Source great and treats people on the quality of their ideas and their work whether they’re in San Francisco or Argentina. (Or if they started in San Francisco and moved to Argentina.)

Even when big companies try to adopt this (sometimes under the lovely moniker “telecommute,” which reminds me of “horseless carriage”) people still face cultural resistance from their managers and teams, or find themselves as a second-tier citizen versus those in headquarters. The same often happens in “remote offices.” For it to really work it has to be part of the DNA of the company from day one. You have to be really committed to keep the creative center and soul of the organization on the internet, and not in an office.

I really believe this is the future of work, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

45 thoughts on “Automattic, Forbes, and the Future of Work

  1. I work at a company where half our team is spread over the world and many of us routinely travel and I can honestly say that my productivity and my communication with my distributed co-workers are often times better than with the ones sitting just over my shoulder. Whether this is a sign of the future of working or a harbinger of civilization’s spiralling doom I can’t say, but it works. It works for our times and our culture. People love their freedom, it’s what keeps us creative.

  2. Just a question to set fire on this: giving a “no borders” workspace for everybody (putting everything on the web) or creating ways to use the real “self service”, what we do with ordinary jobs, e.g. a Starbucks cashier? Could be the Internet an answer for every situation or we’re just talking about IT and creative jobs?

    Best,

  3. It’s funny how the author’s own take on the value of a distributed workforce makes it sound like a synonym for “offshoring” to save a buck. He tries, but doesn’t quite “get” that WordPress (being open source) isn’t really about shareholder value: It’s about real value. :)

  4. If half the stuff in that article is true, you are the coolest most idealistic big name tech CEO since Craig Newmark back in the day. No offense, but your company is, um, a fascinating comparison to the one your dad worked for. I am finally working full time as a web developer and I feel like I should thank you. WordPress helped me take coding web pages from an occasional hobby, to a passion, to a small freelance gig, and finally to a decent career to support my new family. Only get to work with WordPress once in awhile now but it keeps getting better and better. Being one of the many people the article mentions who never gives you a dime, I promise to at least contribute some code/plugins to WP someday soon!

  5. I just discovered Automattic. I’m in awe of the great produces you guys produce. Now I discover the company culture is awesome too. Hire me, please!

  6. “…has the look of a quiet messiah” made me chuckle. :-)

    I think distributed working will increase as we improve or reduce friction to limbic resonance over the internet. The heart and soul was never in the office, it was between all the people in the office. To distribute that means the technology and the people have to be able to recreate that depth of connection without sharing the same air. Which I think is first about safety/comfort, and second about shared reality. I think it’s do-able, and happening, but the UX of collaboration and the technology of connection has to be seamless for the majority to move that direction. You’re *creating* the future of work, by developing systems like P2 to de-friction-ify collaboration.

    Which is awesome, because that means the future of work will be based on Open Source ideals. :-)

  7. I read the article yesterday – great read, refreshing. And I once again asked myself, why have I not applied for a position with Automattic yet?! Got not answer from within … :)

  8. How shocking that Forbes would interpret it as a cost-saving measure ;-)

    Obviously, Automattic has a world-class team – it’s a world-class product. I’m at a start-up accelerator right now, and I’ve met a lot (and alot) of founders who are inspired by the Automattic model. Maybe we’ll see a leap forward with this next wave.

  9. Hi Matt,

    Having worked at a remote office of a US-based company for many years, I certainly can relate to your observation.

    No matter how sincere and committed everybody is to make it work (the remote employee, his or her direct manager at headquarters, the company genuinely trying to make you feel like a top-tier citizen and providing a generous IT and telecommunications infrastructure to support you), you still end up feeling a bit far away from all the exciting, fast-paced, stuff and face-to-face interactions happening in headquarters. The DNA of the company is still not quite meant to support a truly distributed organization.

    I couldn’t agree more with what you are trying to accomplish here. It’s really a win-win situation for Automattic and WordPress, and for the smart people who have already joined you from various parts of the world.

    Xavier.

  10. I will echo what Matt has written. The number one resource that Automattic has is its incredible talent of people who work there. I know for a fact that Matt (and Toni Schneider) think about all the ways to provide superior compensation and benefits to its worldwide workforce. There is never any discussion about paying people less than they deserve or could get elsewhere. The discussions revolve around how to best provide the most rewarding work environment and quality of life for its people. Automattic is one of the best places to work *in the world.* Congratulations to Matt and the team for an awesome article.

    Phil Black
    On Board of Directors for Automattic

  11. I think your last paragraphs are dead on about the future. I was just asking my network this week if I should go corporate or remain a freelancer. Each has its own set of pros and cons. I was pretty shocked when everyone sad to stay where I am and that they would help if I needed to round-up more work. Which is awesome.

    In fact the reverse is happening from my friends, they are transitioning out of the office into their own business being run online.

  12. My only gripe with Automattic or with WP in general is that the way it sports Facebook or other third party icons and buttons. Does Twitter use G+ or FB? No! Does FB use G+ or Twitter? No! So why does WordPress has to use? It does not even ask me whether I wanna see these or not, and shows it by default (force).

    I wish Automattic was just as independent and as unique as FB or G+, w.r.t icons and buttons.

    Automattic or WP should use G+ ()

  13. Matt,

    Thank you for clarifying that statement in Forbes. When I first read that last sentence in the original article, I was puzzled as to whether it was the writer’s opinion or an actual statement that you or Toni Schneider made. It’s good to know that Automattic made a conscious choice to have a distributed workforce and, as Phil Black pointed out, to hire world-class talent and compensate them above and beyond what a traditional company would be able to offer.

    I’m truly impressed with Automattic and I hope to have a chance to contribute to your growth in the future.

  14. Matt, I’ve been trying to start a coworking space here in Maui based on the concept you’re talking about, but more specifically what you said, “committed to keep the creative center and soul of the organization on the internet” with the facility being a mere cool and cozy place for coffee, conversation and WiFi. But it’s challenging to articulate this concept to a mainly tourism based economy. Aloha and Much Mahalo!

  15. Whenever an alternative lifestyle (or in this case “workstyle”) is described, people always take it to an extreme — “That won’t work for everyone, so it is obviously wrong.”

    The Internet has created massive freedom in workstyle in a ton of areas, but until robot technology advances significantly, there will still be location-bound jobs. At the very least, who will build and maintain the telecommunications infrastructure?

    Furthermore, there are benefits to human interaction that cannot be described in terms of money or efficiency. I like interacting with cashiers, waiters, etc.

    The Internet is a great solution to a lot of problems, but not a solution for everything — especially non-problems.

  16. Great article, Matt. I wrote about this on my blog — Fully Distributed Teams: Are They Viable?

    http://www.pixelmonkey.org/2012/05/14/distributed-teams

    In it, I drew the distinction between “horizontally scaled” teams, in which physical offices are connected to remote workers via sattelite (home or commercial) offices, and “fully distributed” teams where, as you said, “the creative center and soul of the organization on the internet, and not in an office.”

    At Parse.ly, we’re only a couple years old but have been operating on the distributed team model, with ~13 fully distributed employees, and it’s working well. Always glad to hear stories about how Automattic has scaled it to 10X our size.

    And, likewise, we blow some of our office space savings on camaraderie-building retreats; our most recent one was in New York, see http://www.flickr.com/photos/amontalenti/sets/72157629938809778/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/amontalenti/sets/72157630060466656/

  17. Hi Matt,

    This is a great article and of course that the comments that you have here are great as well.
    I also believe that is the future of work and let me tell you this, as you say, it is not evenly distributed yet, but sometimes also people are reluctant to make that change.

    I recently resigned from an office job to dedicate my full time to an online business, many thought that I was crazy but this is a reality that is happening right now and right here.

    I now feel privileged to be able to share more time with my family and at home because of this, it has not been easy all the time, but every change comes with some challenges.

    Thanks for sharing such great piece of content, I’m about to read the article at Forbes.
    Best Regards,
    Jose Luis Lozano

  18. I was struck by Colao’s characterization of the .org users. He didn’t seem to truly understand the value their activity represents for Auttomatic.

  19. I agree with Evan Aagaard – I feel more connected to online colleagues than with the ones ‘sitting just over my shoulder.’ Some teams working together (in one area) fall prey to ‘group consensus’ which is a creativity killer, imho. That is, group consensus drifts toward the extreme of the initial prejudice (Myers & Bishop 1971).

    Office politics and an alarming rise in workplace bullying (many of which are non-verbal, negative behaviors used to intimidate others) can be taken completely out of the equation . . so can title or status. The new hire just might have the best ideas.

    You will find the best talent from a diversified background – you’ve attracted the best talent and client base from around the world. Parents of young children can continue to support their family, from home. I believe it IS the future of work . . we need to embrace it.

Comments are closed.