Simplicity and Start-up Alchemy: An Interview with WordPress Creator, Matt Mullenweg (Plus: 4HWW Party in SF and Stunt Competition)

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All your blogs are belong to Matt. ((c) misterbisson)

Shame on me.

I don’t know how to code. I should, but I need to get my Indonesian and Arabic fix before I can tackle Python and Ruby on Rails and Sugar-Coated Sugar Bombs.

That is part of the reason that I love WordPress, the blogging platform this blog runs on. The simple-to-use and open-source WordPress, or WP, is a favorite of diehard bloggers, and its 22-year old lead developer, Matt Mullenweg, is #16 on The 50 Most Important People on the Web list by PC World. Damn. That’s bad-ass.

More proof: I met his girlfriend at SXSW, where she threatened to kick my ass after we both had downed a few drinks. I thought that was the greatest thing ever, we had some laughs, and I decided then and there that I had to track Matt down. In this interview, Matt and I explore the concept of simplicity and some of the key decisions from his WP experience…

Who were your most influential mentors or role models while developing WordPress?

Jeffrey Zeldman had an astonishing ability to craft a seductive coolness using educated references, dry humor, and retro/organic imagery. The way WordPress was originally presented to the world was a pale imitation. Zeldman also introduced me to web standards.

Philip Greenspun had a huge impact on me. He was the first person I knew of that embraced online communities, created a real business around open source, gave back to the community through education, and inspired me to explore photography.

Many years ago Tim Berners-Lee penned an essay called “Cool URIs don’t change.” It’s a simple goal to have the addresses you create today be addressable in perpetuity, but it has broad implications. Permanence forces you to approach the world differently. You have to imagine how people will interact with your creation in 20, 30, 100 years. If you do your job, they will be. Of course, immunity to obsolescence is the only obsolescent-immune conceit of the past millennium.

Until relatively recently, I had no direct contact with any of these people. It was purely the strength of their writing that influenced me. I’m honored that two of the three now blog with WordPress.

What were the biggest mistakes you made along the way?

1. The misguided “hotnacho” monetization on WordPress.org.
2. Not centralizing the plugin and theme directories from the beginning.
3. Thinking we were immune to spam. [Note: Matt's company Automattic makes the anti-spam Akismet, which I use for this blog]
4. Trying to do too much myself.

Why is simplicity important?

Because it is scarce. Our age is defined by, as Bruce Sterling puts it, cognitive load and opportunity cost.

However, I think the current 37signals-inspired trend of “less software” is a red herring, the manifestation of cyclical infatuation with complexity. True progress isn’t doing less, it’s doing infinitely more without creating cognitive bloatware like Word 2003. Think of what happens when you do a search on Google.

Do you have any personal examples of where simplicity has helped or complexity has hurt?

It’s a false dichotomy and a leading question. [Editor: Doh! Got me there.]

I can think of many examples where the creators of objects or services haven’t fully anticipated usage or iterated on observation of their creations, but I believe this is orthogonal to simplicity or complexity. Complexity sells, so I think the inherent conflict of that and an elegant user experience is fascinating to watch companies navigate.

What are the top 3-5 principles you focused on that made WP successful as a product?

Besides timing and luck, I’d say:

1. Minimizing startup costs — focusing on the out-of-the-box experience, minimizing switching costs [from other blogging platforms to WP] with robust importers. The underlying principle was time is precious.

2. Being adaptive to user-led changes in product direction. The underlying principle is we will not and cannot predict far in the future.

3. Articulating the broader philosophy around where we are and where we want to go. The underlying principle is people want something to believe in, not just use.

4. Aligning the economic and social incentives of businesses around WordPress. Capitalism is a lever.

What are the top 3-5 principles you focused on that made you successful as a developer?

1. I try to imagine code like the poetry of T.S. Eliot, where words can work on many levels but their economy is paramount. To remind me of this, I sometimes code in a large serif font like Georgia rather than the traditional fixed-width font.

2. At the same time, I’m happy to ship a crude version 1.0 and iterate. I find my time is more effective post-launch than pre-launch.

3. Eliminating distractions.

Of course these are aspirations, many times I have fallen short, but I keep trying.

Where have you seen simplicity make the biggest difference?

Simplicity can have a negative impact when it’s the crude reduction of nuances beyond appreciation, a Matisse presented as a 16-color GIF. Politicians campaigning for presidency have simple messages, but they’re not intrinsically better, except at creating polarization.

The simple things in life are not. When simplicity is the result of careful thought and consideration it multiplies growth. Some direct marketers understand this.

[More simplicity to come, next time from my conversation with one of the greatest athletes of all-time!]

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4HWW Party in SF, VIP Invite, and Stunt Competition:

Join me on 8/25, this Saturday, in San Francisco!
Come party with me and my friends beginning at 9:15pm at Dolce in SF. If you’d like to attend a private VIP party (open bar) with me and some of SF’s hotshots from 8-9pm at a secret location TBA, just be the first person to give $1,000 or more to this mentorship fundraiser. Send amy-at-fourhourworkweek.com the confirmation via e-mail and you’ll get the location and secret handshake. [Note: This spot is now filled. Congrats and thanks, Aaron!] Even if you can’t make the party, consider earning some positive karma (I know what you do when I’m not looking) and avoiding reincarnation as a dung beetle—give a few dollars to this mentorship program. It’ll make you feel good.

Stunt Competition and Free Planet Earth DVDs:
Here’s the deal: Labor Day is coming up, and I need to think of a killer PR stunt of some type that will get major media attention (think TV and big newspapers). What’s your best idea? What would the headline read in the media? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and the best suggestion gets you a free set of the incredible Planet Earth DVDs, shot over 5 years with 40 cameramen in 200 locations… all in HD. It’s by far my favorite DVD set of the last two years. Go nuts and hope to see you this weekend!



Posted on: August 21, 2007.

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106 comments on “Simplicity and Start-up Alchemy: An Interview with WordPress Creator, Matt Mullenweg (Plus: 4HWW Party in SF and Stunt Competition)

  1. It’s entirely possible that I copied that individual number across incorrectly (and that the index was correct), but when I did the query just then it returned a Technorati Rank of 37, so as you say there would be no change in the rank, but an improvement in your index.,

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  2. Nice interview. Also what made wordpress so great was it’s simplicity of use, I remember using it for the first time in 2007 and just being blown away. It was so exciting to create content online and be easy to manage it. WordPress pretty much changed the world as it allowed people with no coding skills to create websites sharing their particular domain knowledge and it was all because of its simplicity.

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