Interview with WordPress Creator, Matt Mullenweg

Simplicity and Start-up Alchemy: An Interview with WordPress Creator, Matt Mullenweg

Posted September 5, 2007

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

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
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

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

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

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.

Timothy Ferriss is author of the new #1 New York Times bestseller,
The 4-Hour Workweek. For free sample chapters, visit


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