Matt Mullenweg was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Houston when he clicked ‘publish’ on a new blog post. His personal website, Photomatt.net, was growing, he explained, but he needed a better publishing tool to replace the neglected, open-source software called b2 that he preferred. “It would be nice to have the flexibility of Movable Type, the parsing of Textpattern, the hackability of b2 and the ease-of-setup of Blogger,” he mused, citing the popular blogging services of the day. “Someday, right?”
That hit-the-button moment on January 24, 2003, can’t quite compare with Cyrus Field’s first transatlantic telegraphic message or the flick of George Westinghouse’s electric switch at the World’s Columbian Exposition. But Mullenweg made his own history. He immediately set out to create WordPress, the online publishing software that is now the Web’s lingua franca—the world’s leading blogging platform and the crown jewel of Automattic, the San Francisco outfit Mullenweg runs with CEO Toni Schneider, a veteran developer, entrepreneur and venture capitalist.
Today WordPress powers one of every six websites on the internet, nearly 60 million in all, with 100,000 more popping up each day. Those run through its cloud-hosted service, which lets anybody create a free website, attract 330 million visitors who view 3.4 billion pages every month.
Automattic’s enterprise option, WordPress VIP, is now the default digital publishing tool for major media companies (including Forbes.com). For many of these organisations, it’s the promised land—a standard, easy-to-use, multimedia-friendly platform—after a decade of lurching through clunky, expensive, jerryrigged content-management systems.
Given the ubiquity of WordPress, why isn’t Mullenweg, now 28, a billionaire? Since its founding in 2005, Automattic has chosen scale over scratch, giving away much for free. Only 1 percent of WordPress.com devotees pay. Not among them: Users of WordPress.org (the open-source version), who run servers and implement the software themselves. A small percentage has only recently been coaxed into paying for additional features like file backups. Automattic implemented an ad-sharing service—on a limited basis—just last year.
“Monetisation is just at the beginning,” Schneider insists. The company is profitable, he adds, having doubled sales every year since 2005. Yet, Automattic projects just $45 million in sales for 2012, a small whorl of its enormous footprint.
Mullenweg is in no rush. With a wispy beard and shoulder-length hair, he has the look of a quiet messiah. His soft, sandy voice sounds earnest, especially when discussing open-source software. When Mullenweg was a kid, his father, a software engineer at Halliburton, let him help rebuild computers in their Houston home, a skill he soon parlayed into a business. Matt built his first website at age 12 and found blogging at 18, eager to share his photos from a trip to Washington, DC. By 19, he felt confident enough in his programming skills to contribute code to b2, his favourite open-source project.
After his January 2003 blog post, Mullenweg teamed up with Mike Little, a programmer from Stockport, England, who offered to help build new blogging software. They released the first version of WordPress in May. It offered relatively easy installation and enough customisation to please code-savvy bloggers. In a field dominated by Movable Type, their service attracted thousands of users through word of mouth. After Movable Type’s owners decided to charge users in 2004, WordPress attracted a deluge of incensed refugees fleeing the company.
By that August, WordPress boasted 15,000 users and a pack of loyal developers refining code for free around the world. Mullenweg dropped out of college to take a job at CNET Networks in San Francisco, helping navigate the new world of blogging and online media. “In those first couple of months, I met almost all of the people I still work with to this day,” he says, including blogger Om Malik, investor Tony Conrad and Toni Schneider.
Schneider changed his life. By 2005, Mullenweg had already rebuffed venture capitalists and takeover offers from companies eager to capitalise on the brand’s loyal following. That April, he publicly apologised for a half-hearted stab at funding WordPress with advertising. His chief concern was that someone might try to turn WordPress into a commodity and wreck its open-source efforts. “Part of my resistance to making it a business was that I hadn’t met someone who could meld the business side of things with my philosophy,” he says. Then along came Schneider.
The two met over lunch. Though Mullenweg was 30 minutes late, they hit it off, and lunch turned into early evening. A Swiss software engineer, Schneider had recently sold web mail service Oddpost to Yahoo for $29 million. In further discussions over the next few months, they kicked around ideas about the future of WordPress.
Quitting CNET in October 2005, Mullenweg launched Automattic in December, when it raised $1.1 million from Polaris Ventures, True Ventures (where Schneider is a partner), CNET and Radar Partners. Schneider joined as CEO in January 2006.