How Automattic wants to build the operating system of the web

Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, WooCommerce, Longreads, Simplenote and soon Tumblr, is now worth $3 billion. But its founder and CEO Matt Mullenweg has a bigger goal. He wants to make the web better, more open and diverse.

With the rise of social networks and closed platforms, Automattic’s mission statement has never sounded so important. Automattic doesn’t want to be the hot new startup. It wants to build a strong foundation to empower content creators for decades to come.

In an interview this week, Matt Mullenweg discussed why he raised $300 million from Salesforce Ventures, what he thinks of the current state of the web and how Automattic has a shot at building the open-source operating system of the web. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

(Photo Credit: Christopher Michel / Flickr under a CC BY 2.0 license)


Romain Dillet: Tell me more about how much money you’ve raised, who you’ve raised from.

WordPress.com parent company acquires Atavist

Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, WooCommerce, Longreads, Simplenote and a few other things, is acquiring Brooklyn-based startup Atavist.

Atavist has been working on a content management system for independent bloggers and writers. With an Atavist website, you can easily write and publish stories with a ton of media.

You might think that this isn’t particularly groundbreaking as anyone can create a website on WordPress.com or Squarespace and do the same thing. But the company also lets you create a paywall and build a subscription base.

Many writers don’t want to deal with the technical details of running a website. That’s why Atavist gives you the tools so that you can focus on your stories.

Atavist is also running a publication called Atavist Magazine. The publication is also joining Automattic. It’s unclear if it’s going to be part of Longreads or remain its own thing.

The CMS itself won’t stick around. Automattic said that the publishing platform will be integrated into WordPress. And this is the interesting part.

While WordPress is probably a much more solid CMS than Atavist, it could mean that Automattic wants to start offering subscriptions and paywalls. You can imagine WordPress.com websites that offer monthly subscriptions natively.

30 percent of the web runs on WordPress. Many of them are open source instances of WordPress hosted on their own servers. But many websites are hosted by WordPress.com, including TechCrunch.

Subscriptions on WordPress.com is good news for the web. Medium abruptly canceled its subscription program leaving many independent publications in the dust. So it’s hard to trust Medium when it comes to providing enough revenue to independent writers.

Automattic could create a seamless portal to manage subscriptions to multiple publications. And this could lead to less advertising and better content.

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WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg breaks down the blogging platform’s biggest overhaul in years

wordpress dot com matt mullenweg

Yesterday Automattic, the company behind WordPress, revamped and open-sourced its biggest asset: WordPress.com.

It’s a massive change for WordPress, which claims to already power about 25 percent of the Web. So we sat down, metaphorically, with WordPress creator and Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg to learn more. Here’s our interview, trimmed of my “ums” and “likes” for clarity.

VentureBeat: So would you mind dumbing down the update?

Matt Mullenweg: For users, it basically means that there’s a new, fast WordPress. And if you’re on a Mac, you can get this awesome app you can put on your desktop.


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For developers, we sort of redid 13 years of work in about 20 months and instead of PHP, we wrote the whole thing in JavaScript.

VB: This is an update to WordPress.com, and on the WordPress.com developer blog, one of the comments asks: “Will you consider redoing the WordPress core using a similar technology stack?”

MM: So I think what might happen is that the technology that drives the server side of WordPress and what drives the client side can diverge. Again, this is really up to the community, so we’ll see where it takes us. This thing we released has only been out there one day. Maybe someone will make something much better? But PHP is still really fantastic for server-side stuff, so it drives the API fantastically.

But for the client-side experience, I think this Calypso approach is going to be both better for users immediately and also developers will be able to iterate faster.

VB: I’m looking through comments on Twitter as well. I was kind of expecting people to freak out. Do you expect pushback?

MM: I’ll say as well that learning new things is scary. Personally I now have 13 years experience coding in PHP, and you kind of have to — if you’re learning a new language — you’re kind of back in that beginner phase which can be frustrating at first. I’m sure there will be some people who are sort of scared or worried about the change. It’s a very disruptive change. But the benefits are pretty huge. What’s on the other side is totally worth it.

I think the reason WordPress is still relevant 13 years later, which is almost unheard of for technology products, is that we’ve always been really honest with ourselves about what’s good and what’s bad.

VB: Another question that’s been asked on Twitter: Are you competing with Medium?

MM: We don’t see Medium as a direct competitor. I think some people might choose to write there versus writing on WordPress, but certainly this move was not started because of it. In fact the roots of it predate Medium. And also I think it’s a different scale. We’re very much north of a million people per week publishing using the current stuff. And I think we can grow that to many, many more with this new interface.

VB: Is Windows and Linux support coming soon? How important is the desktop?

MM: Desktop’s really important because laptops and desktops are still the best tools for blogging. iPads with their split screens are getting better but still, when you write, you do research and you open up a ton of tabs, you’re probably on a desktop.

What we’ve seen from initial data is that the folks who use the desktop app (maybe because it’s so much faster) are actually engaging at a higher rate than in the browser on desktop. So I’m very excited about both Windows and Linux. We don’t have a date to announce, but we’re not far from supporting Windows and Linux.

VB: This is a pretty well-organized push … Seems like everything was considered, but at the same time you say this was very risky. Is there anything you’re concerned about? Are you the most confident you’ve ever been in the future of what you’re doing?

MM: I have all of the feelings — all of the feels. The first feeling is probably pride. I’m very proud of the team because this was a big thing to pull off. I’m anxious, right? Because this is a new thing in the world. And we’re proud of it, but you know, usage is oxygen, and this is the first time most of the world is having this new experience. So that’s a little bit nerve-racking.

And the next feeling I have is probably “time to get back to work,” because there is so, so much left to do. Just in the next couple weeks, we’re launching more things for the remainder for the year. Our big once-a-year conference is coming up. This is a beginning, not an end. What Calypso allows us to do is to iterate on things much faster. But I think you’ll see, as a WordPress user, it will feel better and better every day.