I spoke with Guy Raz about the early days of WordPress and Automattic on the latest episode of “How I Built This (listen on Pocket Casts).” We ended up talking for over four hours and the show has skillfully edited this down to just over an hour. We discussed my time at CNET, how I accidentally invented a new way to spam, why we didn’t sell Automattic, my feelings on Wix and competitors like Shopify (sponsor of this episode, hah, in which I speak about how their dashboard looks just like WordPress’s). Guy pivoted the conversation to grief that came with the loss of my father and challenges we faced during the pandemic. He kept the conversation going effortlessly and I had a great time taping the episode. Thanks to Guy and his team for a great experience.
In a podcast interview they’ve titled How WordPress and Tumblr Are Keeping the Internet Weird (listen on audio here), I spoke with Nilay Patel on economics of abundance vs scarcity, Amitabh Bachchan, the future of Tumblr and adult content, Gutenberg, Promethean app design, web3, NFTs, and more. A nice follow-up to our conversation in 2019.
Junk Your Jabra
I usually wouldn’t do a post about this, but I was so surprised I had to share. I picked up a Jabra Evolve2 30 UC wired headset, with USB-C, because my friend Hugo loves the wireless Jabra and I’ve been using an older USB-A headset and thought it would be nice to not need an adapter. I also thought for $89 it must be good. The reviews were also really solid (4.3 on Amazon right now).
Do not buy this headset. There was a constant buzz/hum in the speaker, people sounded lower quality, and the mic also was lower quality. On the plus side, it was a nice build quality and comfort.
For $29 cheaper ($60) the Sennheiser SC 135 USB-C had better speaker, way better mic quality, very nice build and comfort. Get that one instead.
So don’t mute, get a better headset. Krisp.ai is still great, too.
This is an unusually late birthday post (still backdated to January 11). I woke up on my actual birthday and was not feeling it. I was locked down even more strictly than January 2021 because I was trying to be extra cautious prior to a surgery my Mom had later in the month. I was also on a fairly strict diet and exercise regime after slipping into a weight range I wasn’t comfortable with.
So I was feeling extra isolated, had a strange pain in my lower back, and I just felt old all over. I thought of the Drake line, “I’m really too young to be feeling this old.” (Maybe originally from Garth Brooks?)
I meditated with a Daily Calm from Jeff Warren called “The Boggle,” which unfortunately I can’t hotlink but here’s how it starts: Sometimes we’re in the boggle, life is throwing everything at us: complicated situations, complicated relationships, we have all these feelings, all these impulses pulling us in different directions, and we have no idea what to do. No idea how to resolve it all. Even no idea what self-care strategy to implement right now. So what’s interesting about the boggle is that there’s the challenge of the situation itself, or situations, and there’s the added challenge of the confusion of it, the scrambling to make sense of everything. So we’re going to try something different, we’re going to stop scrambling and accept, even forgive, the boggle. We’re going to let ourselves be right here, inside any confusion, and take a break from trying to fix any of it. That’s the itinerary, let’s go. It hit close to home, and I’ve ended up returning to that meditation several times since.
The day really shaped up, though! Friends surprised me with a trip to a Teamlab exhibit at a museum that was closed on Tuesdays but they got opened up just for us. The museum was magical, but the best part was seeing friends I wasn’t expecting to, even if masked and relatively distanced. I wore a new comfy matching tie die outfit too, because, why not? Ended the day with a small dinner with Mom and three friends.
I don’t have any particular wisdom from this birthday except no matter how you feel, take some Advil and keep going.
This year on the personal side I’d like to take more silent retreats, get settled at home and out of liminal states, particularly construction projects, and listen to more operas. On the work side I’d like to set up alternative ecosystems for people tired of the traditional options for social with Tumblr, listening with Pocket Casts, and writing with Day One. (Update: A few weeks after my birthday I announced I’m working on Tumblr full-time.) Finally, I’d like to do my birthday post on time next year, but I’m forgiving myself for prioritizing friends and family that day. 😄
All birthday posts: 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39.
Celebrate by Writing
My birthday is coming up soon so it’s that time of the year when friends start reaching out and asking where they should fly to and how we’re going to celebrate.
After a good run in the post-vaccinated-and-boosted part of 2020 that felt relatively “normal”, including traveling almost 200k miles, I’m going back into a pretty locked-down state of things. Omicron has just been catching too many friends and loved ones, even with fairly careful measures and testing. So what’s happening on January 11th?
What I’m asking for my birthday is for people to blog!
Whether professionally on WP.com, socially on Tumblr, or privately journaling with Day One, there’s never been a better time to stop being a passive consumer of the internet and join the class of creators.
Write for a single person. Share something cool you found. Summarize your year. Set a blogging goal with reminders. Get a Gutenberg-native theme and play around with building richer posts. Start a nom de plume. Answer daily prompts on Day One. Forget the metaverse, let’s hang out in the blogosphere. Get your own domain!
If you’re a close friend that feels intimidated by the software at all or that you don’t know where to start, I’m happy to hop on a Zoom to go through everything on a screen share. That will also be a great learning for me for places we can improve things, which is also a fantastic gift!
Saving the Internet
David Pierce wrote a deep profile, over 4,000 words, for Protocol and asks the question in the headline, Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?
Which brings to mind Betteridge’s law of headlines (née Hinchliffe’s rule), “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”
I can’t save the internet. But you know who can? A movement. A community of like-minded individuals, unified by a common philosophy, and working together to create tools of freedom.
It’s a human right to be able to see how that technology works and modify it. It’s as key to freedom as freedom of speech or freedom of religion. So that is what I plan to spend the rest of my life fighting for.
Working together we’ve created something special, unlike anything the internet has seen before, and I’m excited to continue.
Thank you to David Pierce for taking such an in-depth look at the history of WordPress and Automattic and talking to dozens of sources. Thank you to the people quoted in the article: Scott Beale, Om Malik, Toni Schneider, Russell Ivanovic, Deven Parekh, Paul Mayne, and Anil Dash. Thank you to Arturo Olmos for the photos, and Odili Donald Odita for the amazing painting behind me.
State of the Word… in person!
Update: Here’s the recording!
I’m very excited that we’ll be broadcasting the State of the Word “live from New York City” this coming Tuesday, December 14th! There will be a very small “studio audience” of community members there in person.
Recording the solo version last year was actually one of the hardest things I’ve done in a long time. It’s funny, with a live audience I can comfortably present for an hour no problem, but recording that 25 minute presentation, alone in a room staring at a camera, was an excruciating process over two days and dozens of takes. I got the advice afterward that even if you’re just staring into a camera, it can be helpful to have an “audience” of a few friends in the room.
Even more than that, though, I’m positively giddy to see some of my friends from the WordPress community in person for the first time in several years. Please join via streaming on the 14th, and also there will also be at least 20 watch parties around the globe if there’s one in your neighborhood. Looking forward to catching up, celebrating the community’s accomplishments over the last year, and hopefully raising a torch for our march toward freedom on the web in 2022.
One of my favorite magazines, that I have issues going back to the 40s and 50s, has relaunched and redesigned their site on WordPress and it’s gorgeous. Speaking of great redesigns, the new Grist is pretty great too.
Frontity to Join Automattic
Since Frontity launched their open source framework, they have been making the integration between React and WordPress easier. Their proven drive and experience with clean technological solutions will benefit our efforts as we continue to make the block and theme APIs a joy to use and WordPress the best development platform on the web.
The next step in the growth of this relationship is for Frontity and its team to join Automattic and contribute to core WordPress.org as part of our commitment to Five for the Future.
I believe there’s still a lot that we can learn from decoupled systems and we can incorporate those learnings into WordPress itself as we emphasize performance, flexibility, and ease of development. I look forward to Frontity joining WordPress and channeling their efforts into the WordPress APIs, documentation, and Gutenberg’s full-site editing tools.
Funding, Buyback, and Hiring
In February of this year, Automattic closed a new primary funding round of $288M, bringing in some great new partners including BlackRock, Wellington, Schonfeld, and Alta Park. Existing investors ICONIQ and Aglaé (Bernard Arnault) also participated. This round was common stock, and like all funding since 2011, included a proxy assigning me the right to vote the shares.
Automattic was very busy during this time frame, as we were working on what would become the Parse.ly, Day One, and Pocket Casts acquisitions, our investments in Element and Titan, plus more acquisitions and partnerships we haven’t announced yet, so we haven’t mentioned the February funding round until now. And while we are a bit surprised the fundraise did not leak to the press, it’s now been an awkwardly long time since February and I’m pleased to formally announce it now.
And since then, Automattic has continued to grow at a rapid pace and we recently took the opportunity to do a $250M share buyback at a $7.5B valuation that just closed last week. The buyback was primarily targeted at current and former employees.
We’ve grown and increased our valuation at a rate higher than most other alternate investments available to investors. However, some of Automattic’s employees and former employee shareholders have been part of our journey for a very long time. Selling a bit of their equity holdings could have a significant impact on their lives.
Automattic was founded 16 years ago and is still private, so it’s important for us to try to provide liquidity to any shareholder who wants it. We do the same with our internal A12 stock plan where we let our employees buy our shares and also offer an opportunity for all holders to sell them back to Automattic, every quarter. (I need to do a longer post on that.)
One interesting thing we’ve been doing in these buybacks is holding the shares as treasury stock within the company instead of canceling the shares at purchase. This allows us to buy shares that come onto the market, and then when an investor comes and wants to put a larger quantum of capital into the company, we can re-sell the treasury shares that the company bought earlier. In effect, we are providing both a sell-side and buy-side for Automattic stock, serving previous and new investors and making money on these trades since we bought and took the risk earlier. We’ve established a logical valuation methodology, which is based on a simple multiple of the last twelve month’s revenue, so shareholders can track and anticipate performance.
All of this has been a lot of fun and we’ve seen a great amount of success, but it’s not all smooth sailing; we still have our share of challenges, probably the biggest being hiring. We have significantly scaled up our ability to find and hire great folks, with 371 accepted offers already in 2021 and it’s only August. However, with the growth of WooCommerce (hiring a Head of Payments) and our enterprise business, WPVIP, in particular, we need to move faster to keep up with the opportunity. For me and many other of the most-tenured Automatticians within the company hiring is the top priority. To that end, I’m also looking for someone to partner with me and our top executive group (which we call Bridge) in Creative Talent Development, an executive recruiter to help craft the highest performing teams of executives for each of our businesses.
We have a multi-decade opportunity ahead of us to create the best solutions for the open web platform of WordPress, and WooCommerce is doing the same thing for commerce; growing together over the long-term with people passionate about the same mission is my favorite part of my job.
One of my big themes is that open source will transform every industry, with key examples being WordPress in web publishing, WooCommerce in online commerce, Wikipedia in reference, and Bitcoin/Ethereum in finance. Medicine, though, has been relatively unscathed so far. Here’s a great video introducing the Open Insulin project, which for the past 6 years has been developing their own method of manufacturing insulin and is going to open source its process to the world for anyone to recreate.
It also reminds me of the What If? article in the Economist a few days ago about mRNA self-biohacking. Hat tip: Riaan Knoetze.
Day One at Automattic
I’m not sure when I first came across the critically acclaimed Day One product, which is the best private blogging and journaling app out there, but I began seriously using it daily in 2016 when my father was in the ICU and later passed. Having a private, safe place to write what I was going through kept me sane and helped me process everything.
Writing has always been a salve for me, and I’ve had local or private WordPress installations pretty much since 2003 to capture and archive writing that wasn’t fit for the public web.
Day One not only nails the experience of a local blog (or journal as they call it) in an app, but also has (built) a great technical infrastructure — it works fantastic (when) offline and has a fully encrypted sync mechanism, so the data that’s in the cloud is secured in a way that even someone with access to their database couldn’t decode your entries, it’s only decrypted on your local device. Combining encryption and sync in a truly secure way is tricky, but they’ve done it.
This is a long intro to say, as you can read from Day One’s founder and CEO Paul Mayne, from Eli at WordPress.com, and on Tumblr, that Paul and the team are joining the team at Automattic. For many years I’ve talked to anyone who will listen about my vision of making Automattic the Berkshire Hathaway of the internet, and Paul’s decision to continue to grow his amazing business as part of Automattic is a great validation of the way we’ve been building our culture and long-term orientation in our business. Day One is a beloved product, and bringing it into the fold is a responsibility I take very seriously and comes from a deep respect for what’s been built and a belief that working together we can create something for users better than we could working apart.
Great software takes time, and the Day One team has been at it for about a decade now, I can’t wait to see what they accomplish in the coming decade and beyond. If you haven’t tried out Day One yet, please check it out in the Apple or Google’s app store.
WCEU Open Thread
I just wrapped up a fun session with Matías and Brian, and though we covered a lot of ground we weren’t able to get to all the questions from the audience. Starting at 2:58:
So this is an open thread, if you have any question from the talk please drop it in the comments here, and myself or someone in the community will respond! We’ll keep this open for a day or so.
Today marks eighteen years since the very first release of WordPress. I consider myself so lucky to have co-founded the project alongside Mike Little. Who could have imagined that our nights and weekends hacking on blogging software, a fork of b2/cafelog, could turn into something powering over 40% of the web? Or that nearly twenty years in, it would be getting better faster than it ever has been?
I blogged these anniversaries when WordPress was five, ten, fifteen, and last year at seventeen, but as the project reaches an age that, if it were a child, it would be heading off to college, I’m uncharacteristically at a loss for words.
The overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude, so I want to say thank you to every person who has ever been involved with making WordPress as a contributor, a community organizer, or as an end-user of the software. It’s amazing what we can accomplish when we work together.
2021 Streaming Kit
My streaming setup post last year got an amazing reception — there are similar setups being used by executives across the board, from companies fundraising to several I know of with 100B+ valuations. Since that original setup, I’ve updated my own usage of hardware and software combinations to achieve similar or better results for about a quarter of the cost. So here’s the latest and greatest, and below I’ll talk about why the changes.
Video: Camlink, cable, and tripod are still the same, but the camera goes from an A7R IV and a separate lens to an A7C with a kit lens, which saves about $3,000. You also don’t need the dummy battery because the A7C runs great off USB-C.
Lighting: More is more, so I usually use two Key Light Airs (linked above) instead of one. If I’m on the road I’ll pair two Aputure RGB lights with two Lume Cube monopods.
Audio: My best audio advice is to upgrade to an M1 Macbook Pro so your computer is fast and the fan is never on, and position the laptop out of camera view but close to you so the built-in three-mic array picks up pretty good audio from you with no cables or earpieces. (Here’s a singer recording a song on the pre-M1 16-inch version, and note she has to remove fan noise in post-processing.) For bonus points add Krisp.ai ($60/yr) so you get background noise and room echo magically eliminated in real-time.
Teleprompter: The Glide Gear is much easier to set up and way cheaper than my old recommendation. Instead of an external monitor, I use an iPad and the MacOS Sidecar feature. I still don’t have a great way to reverse the screen; in the comments, I’ll share some of what folks have recommended to me.
The above setup removes 75% of the cost without sacrificing any quality.
I’ve gone through every permutation on audio, including using a MixPre-3, NoiseAssist plugin, and a MKH416 shotgun mic ($2k+ total), but I never use that setup unless I’m recording a fancy audio-only podcast.
Why am I using the Sennheiser SC30 in the above photo? Well it was an unusual situation…I was on the side of the road, next to an RV, with logging trucks rumbling by. Sometimes you don’t always know where you need to do a broadcast. 😄
Squarespace Direct Listing
Squarespace filed their S-1 last month, and went a direct listing route for their stock today under the ticker SQSP, so I’ve been getting lots of questions on my thoughts on their business. It’s easier to share here in a blog than individually.
Squarespace’s CEO Anthony Casalena is a thoughtful, creative leader. It’s amazing what he’s built since 2003, and he obviously has many decades ahead of him. From our conversations I know how seriously he takes the craft not just of designing great products, but designing great organizations that will stand the test of time.
Squarespace is a customer-centric company, that has reliable, well-designed services, great support, and puts their customers first by allowing things like standards-based export. I’ve always observed them to behave and compete with the highest of ethics.
Their products work well, and they’ve been strategic in their acquisitions, including recently Tock which I’m a big fan of.
Their metrics are great, and there’s huge opportunity still. If you add up all the companies (including Automattic) in the independent web space it’s still only tens of millions of subscribers. I truly believe the eventual audience is every business in the world, and a good chunk of the 7 billion individuals, so there is so much room for everyone to grow.
How about the stock? Some of my favorite investing advice comes from Charlie Munger:
“I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only twenty slots in it so that you had twenty punches representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punched through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all. Under those rules, you’d really think carefully about what you did and you’d be forced to load up on what you’d really thought about.”
If I had to pick between Squarespace or Wix, I’d pick Squarespace every time. They’re a company you could punch the card with. They’ve built a great brand through their marketing and rightly earned trust with their customers and within the community as a good business, and they have a founder-led path to success for many years to come. I’m wishing them the best in their next chapter as a public company.
CC Search to join WordPress.org
The WordPress community has long advocated for a repository with GPL-compatible images, and it’s time to listen to that need. CC Search, a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) image search engine, is joining the WordPress project with over 500 million openly licensed and public domain images discoverable from over 50 sources, audio and video soon to come.
I am a long-time supporter of Creative Commons and their influential work on open content licenses, and when we heard they were considering shutting down their CC Search engine we immediately started exploring ways we could keep it going. I am eager to give a new home to their open search product on WordPress.org in continued commitment to open source freedoms, and providing this community resource for decades to come. This is an important first step to provide a long-term, sustainable challenger to proprietary libraries like Unsplash.
Automattic has hired key members of the CC Search team and will sponsor their contributions as part of our Five for the Future commitment. I look forward to seeing the project grow and welcome them to the WordPress community! Will share in a few weeks when everything is live and running on the site.
Wix and Their Dirty Tricks
Wix, the website builder company you may remember from stealing WordPress code and lying about it, has now decided the best way to gain relevance is attacking the open source WordPress community in a bizarre set of ads. They can’t even come up with original concepts for attack ads, and have tried to rip-off of Apple’s Mac vs PC ads, but tastelessly personify the WordPress community as an absent, drunken father in a therapy session. 🤔
I have a lot of empathy for whoever was forced to work on these ads, including the actors, it must have felt bad working on something that’s like Encyclopedia Britannica attacking Wikipedia. WordPress is a global movement of hundreds of thousands of volunteers and community members, coming together to make the web a better place. The code, and everything you put into it, belongs to you, and its open source license ensures that you’re in complete control, now and forever. WordPress is free, and also gives you freedom.
Wix is a for-profit company with a valuation that peaked at around 20 billion dollars, and whose business model is getting customers to pay more and more every year and making it difficult to leave or get a refund. (Don’t take my word for it, look at their investor presentations.) They are so insecure that they are also the only website creator I’m aware of that doesn’t allow you to export your content, so they’re like a roach motel where you can check in but never check out. Once you buy into their proprietary stack you’re locked in, which even their support documentation admits:
So if we’re comparing website builders to abusive relationships, Wix is one that locks you in the basement and doesn’t let you leave. I’m surprised consumer protection agencies haven’t gone after them.
Philosophically, I believe in open source, and if WordPress isn’t a good fit for you there are other great open source communities like Drupal, Joomla, Jekyll, and Typo3. We also have a great relationship with some of our proprietary competitors, and I have huge respect for the teams at Shopify and Squarespace, and even though we compete I’ve always seen them operate with integrity and I’d recommend them without hesitation.
I have to believe that users will care about that in the long run, and maybe that’s why Squarespace just passed up Wix in market share. They natively support exporting into WordPress’ format and don’t have to resort to dirty tricks to be successful. I expect Squarespace’s upcoming IPO will be a great one.
Wix, though, continues to show their true colors. Regardless of their product, I hope people consider the behavior of companies in the world they support with their dollars. Wix really wants you to see their new campaign though, so let’s take the bait and watch the creepy, misleading way they are trying to represent themselves.
It’s not every day you see noted writer Cory Doctorow refer to a column as “the piece I’m most proud of,” and his essay in Locus Magazine on IP doesn’t disappoint, connecting the free software movement and the evolution of the term “author’s monopolies” to “intellectual property.”
The essay on DRM and Apple, available on his WP-powered blog, or Twitter, is also worth reading.
Invest Like the Best and Building Worlds
On a Founder’s Field Guide episode with Patrick O’Shaughnessy we had an interesting conversation that covered a lot new ground, including an idea I’ve been playing around with on, as Patrick put it:
The idea from @photomatt that the best companies are those that build intricate worlds (in the same way that J. R. R. Tolkien came up with the elvish language) will always stick with me.
We also covered the pendulum of centralization and decentralization, current challenges facing the internet, and being a connoisseur of things overlooked. You can check out the episode on Apple, Google, Spotify, Overcast, and Pocket Casts.
I’ve been impressed by the audience of this podcast, a lot of people I admire reached out after this episode.