The Way I Work: Matt Mullenweg
As a high school student, Matt Mullenweg worked on open-source software projects in his bedroom. Seven years later, he still does most of his work from home. Mullenweg, 25, is the founder of Automattic, the company behind the open-source blogging tool WordPress and a handful of other software projects. WordPress.com powers 12 million blogs, including those of The New York Times, which invested in Mullenweg's company last year. Although Automattic's headquarters is within walking distance of Mullenweg's San Francisco apartment, he rarely visits the place. Instead, he spends his days either traveling the world to meet WordPress fanatics or holed up in his home office, where he often blasts Jay-Z and writes software code into the wee hours.
In the morning, I have certain aspirations. One of my goals is to avoid looking at the computer or checking e-mail for at least an hour after I wake up. I also try to avoid alarm clocks as much as possible, because it's just nice to wake up without one. I leave my shades up a bit, so I usually wake up about an hour after the sun rises. I usually don't eat breakfast, and I avoid caffeine. I've got enough stimulating things in my life already. I also avoid morning meetings: The earliest meeting I'll do is 11 a.m.
I like to read first thing in the morning. I'm addicted to the Kindle. I read a lot of business books, because I feel like I should figure out how to be a real businessman before someone figures out that I'm not one. I really enjoy reading classics as well, which I try to work in once every two months. Reading is my break. Otherwise, I go to sleep and wake up thinking about WordPress.
I travel a lot, but when I'm in San Francisco, I usually work from home. Everyone else works from home, too. We're a virtual company. We recently got an office on Pier 38, a five-minute walk from my apartment. I'll go to there once a week, usually Thursdays, and for board meetings, which happen about once every two months. We leased it so we wouldn't have to keep borrowing conference rooms from our VC partners. It's kind of sad; we have this great space right on the water -- and six days a week, it's empty. Of the 40 people working for the company, eight are in the Bay Area, but that's just a coincidence. They could be anywhere in the world.
We all communicate using P2, something we launched that allows users to publish group blogs in WordPress. It's a bit like Twitter, but the updates come in real time. With P2, we can share code and ideas instantly. There is a dedicated channel for each part of the company, and when there's a new message, it shows up in red. It may be someone talking about development or what he or she had for breakfast. I also use Skype for one-on-one and mini group chats.
In my home office, I have two large, 30-inch computer monitors -- a Mac and a PC. They share the same mouse and keyboard, so I can type or copy and paste between them. I'll typically do Web stuff on the Mac and e-mail and chat stuff on the PC. I also have a laptop, which I have with me all the time, whether I'm going overseas or to the doctor's office. I'm pretty rough on my laptops. I go through about two a year. I keep a server for my home network in the closet. I really enjoy computer networking. I sometimes do tech support for our employees who live in the Bay Area.
One of my favorite programs that we didn't make is Rescue Time. It runs in the corner of my computer and tracks how much time I spend on different things. I realized that even though I was doing e-mail only a couple of minutes at a time, it was adding up to a couple of hours a day. So I'm trying to reduce that. I have a WordPress plug-in that filters all my messages based on the sender's e-mail address -- so high-priority e-mails go into one folder and the rest go into others. Tim Ferriss, who wrote The 4-Hour Work Week, advocates checking e-mail twice a week, but that is too severe for me. Instead, I'm trying to implement Leo Babauta's approach from The Power of Less. He suggests small steps, like checking e-mail five times a day instead of 10. It's like dieting: People who binge diet gain it all back. That happens to me with e-mail.
I listen to music every day, a lot of jazz -- Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins. I also like Jay-Z and Beyoncé. I have an analog stereo that was hand built in Japan by a guy who makes a few systems a year. The aural experience is mind-blowing. Music helps me when I'm coding, which is still my priority. When you're coding, you really have to be in the zone. I'll listen to a single song, over and over on repeat, like a hundred times. And I turn off instant message and e-mail. If you are taken out of the flow, if that little toaster pops up that says you've got mail -- and you look at it, you've lost it. You're juggling variables and functions and layouts. The moment you look away, it all falls to the ground, and you spend 10 minutes getting it all back in the air again.
I also manage the support, usability, and product development people who are scattered all over the globe, from Alabama to Ireland to Bulgaria. My management strategy is to find extremely self-motivated and talented people and then let them go. There's no manager looking over your shoulder every day, so you need to be able to completely direct yourself. For every person we hire, we might get 800 applications. We always start people on a contract basis. And many of the people we've hired are contributors to the open-source project. It's what they were doing for fun at night after they'd already worked for eight hours a day, only now they'll get paid for it.
I'm also the primary person on Akismet, Automattic's anti-spam software for websites, which we created from scratch. We just added the first engineer six months ago, but for the past four years, it's been just me. I decided to do it because I was worried about my mom. She hadn't started a blog yet, but I had this crazy fear that when she did, she'd be bombarded by spam for Viagra and think that had something to do with what I did all day.
I go out for lunch whenever I can. I really enjoy lunches. There's something very personal about sharing food with someone. It's a chance to develop personal connections with folks. Often, I'll have lunch with Toni Schneider, my CEO. He and I get along superwell, which is one of the reasons I think the business has worked. He brings the gravitas because he's a digital native -- the former CEO of Oddpost, a webmail company Yahoo acquired in 2004. We'll go to lunch at 12:30 and stay until 5. If I'm in town, I'll get together with Toni as frequently as we can, because we really enjoy each other's company.
I'm very disorganized. I'm wildly late all the time and really bad at keeping a schedule. That is one of the many reasons I love Maya [Desai]. Her official title is "anti-chaos engineer," which is another way of saying office manager. She does a bunch of things for Automattic, including streamlining my schedule and arranging my travel. Last year, I was on the road for 200 days and clocked 175,000 miles. That's seven times around the globe. The bulk of my travel is to WordCamps. We did the first one in San Francisco in 2006. We invited people from the local tech community to come talk about open source. Later, we decided that, rather than having everyone come to us, we would go wherever people want to have the camp. So instead of paying thousands of dollars to go halfway across the world, it's 20 bucks to go down the street. And for that, you get a full day of great speakers, a T-shirt, lunch, and an open bar. Since then, there have been hundreds of WordCamps in countries such as Argentina, Japan, and China. We host one annually in the Bay Area, but the rest are organized by local tech communities.
Of the 45 or so WordCamps a year, I go to about half. If I went to all of them, I would be traveling practically every weekend. I open up each event with my "State of the Word" speech, which gives a broad overview of WordPress and the history of open source. I feel it's my responsibility to spread these ideas, because they have had such a profound effect on my life. The smallest gatherings have 50 participants, and the largest have about 500. In the Philippines, people treated me like I was a rock star. After the camp was over, I spent two hours taking pictures and signing autographs. People were like, "Will you sign my laptop?" "Will you sign my badge?" "Will you sign my body part?"
I use my camera when I travel to document my day. The photos are autobiographical -- because my memory's so bad, I'll often forget everything about a trip. Then, usually on planes, I process, upload, and edit those photos on my laptop and then craft a narrative of what I've seen throughout each day. It's like a visual diary. But it's hard to keep up with: I have photos from 2005 I haven't posted on my blog yet. On a trip to Vietnam last February, I took 2,000 to 3,000 photos. They say the difference between an amateur photographer and a pro is the amateur shows you everything. I'm somewhere in between. I'll post maybe a quarter of how many I took.
I used to think constantly about building an audience for my blog. But now my attitude is, If I'm not blogging for myself, it's not worth it. So I don't post once a day, only when it feels natural. Some people complain -- they say, "Write more about WordPress; we don't want to see photos of kids in Vietnam," but I don't really care. I really like posting photos of places I've been. For my 25th birthday last January, I published a list of 2009 goals on my blog. It included learning Spanish, learning how to cook, and posting 10,000 photos. The Spanish is going all right, but I'm failing the cooking one. I go out for every meal. If you open my refrigerator, you will find Girl Scout cookies and barbecue sauce. But I will reach the photo goal. By March, I'd taken about 6,000 photos and posted 2,000 of them.
People write a lot of comments on my blog, and I actually read and manually approve every comment before it gets posted. I think the broken-windows theory -- that a broken window or graffiti in a neighborhood begets more of the same -- applies online. One bad comment engenders 10 more. I'll happily approve a comment from someone who completely disagrees with everything I believe in, but if I get a positive comment with a curse word in it, I'll edit it out. My blog is like my living room. If someone was acting out in my house, I'd ask that person to leave.
I look at our numbers every day -- usually after 5 p.m. -- via an internal dashboard, where we track 500 to 600 statistics, from the number of words people are posting to how often they're logging in to WordPress.com. I wrote a lot of the software, and I'm most interested in the activity numbers -- how many people use the site every day. All the numbers update instantly.
I do my best stuff midmorning and superlate at night, from 1 to 5 in the morning. Some people don't need sleep. I actually do need sleep. I just sleep all the time. I'll catch naps in the afternoon, or I'll take a 20-minute snooze in the office -- just all the time. Our business is 24 hours. Our guys in Europe come online at midnight. Sometimes, I will go out at night, come home from the bar at 2 or 3 a.m., and then go to work.
For WordPress, we're trying to set up a community that will be around 10 to 30 years from now, that's independent from the whims of the market. I feel like the nonelected benevolent dictator: It's my responsibility to meet as many users as possible and direct the software project in a way that reflects their interests. Last year, I probably met 2,000 or 3,000 people who make their living from WordPress. We want to be like Google, eBay, Amazon -- they all enable other people to make far more money than they capture. And that's ultimately what we're trying to do. We're trying to create a movement.
My mom started a blog a couple of weeks ago. Six years into this, and we finally made it easy enough for my mom to use.