Ten years ago today, WordPress, the open source blogging software, was born. It’s amazing to think that it’s been that long, but considering it had all of the elements that other startups and projects have tried to emulate over the past 10 years, then it makes sense.
When speaking with WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, you’d think that he was only a small part of the movement that attempted to empower anyone and everyone to self-publish. While that might be partially true, Mullenweg has taken all of his learnings over the years and poured them into the for-profit arm, Automattic.
The project started as a form of the blogging platform b2/cafelog, and the name itself, WordPress, wasn’t even Mullenweg’s idea. It came from a friend of his. It was essential for WordPress to be open source, as Mullenweg explained to me last month: “When I first got into technology I didn’t really understand what open source was. Once I started writing software I realized how important this would be.”
By allowing an infinite number of developers to collaborate on a platform, WordPress had the best chance of its peers to reach critical mass. Only developers knew what the hurdles were to setting up their own publishing platform. The competitors had their own idea of what those hurdles were, therefore putting themselves at an immediate disadvantage. It was a numbers game, community vs. corporate. WordPress has won, with more than 18 million downloads of its latest version, 3.5. The WordPress formula, when it comes to community, has been copied, but never replicated.
Mullenweg told me that early meetups were the key to finding the passionate individuals that would push WordPress to where it is today: “Technology is best when it brings people together.”
Writing is one of the hardest things to do.
Most people don’t consider themselves to be writers because they simply don’t know what to say. Mullenweg felt that for people like that, giving them a platform that was easy to set up and use would allow them to spend more time on the important parts of writing. If writing is one of the hardest things to do, as Mullenweg says, then figuring out how to publish your thoughts shouldn’t be.
The power of community, especially for developers, is best thought of as a group of like-minded people working towards a similar goal. The people that work on WordPress are problem solvers, they’re people who like to make things easier for themselves and for others. Those types of people are special, and WordPress was able to capture the best of the best. Some have even moved on to paying jobs at Automattic.
Mullenweg tells me that one of his main early contributors, Ryan Boren, used to say: “Just code. It’s just code. Anything that we want to do is just code. There’s nothing you can imagine that can’t be done.”
That type of mindset is paramount to the success of WordPress and every open source project since. Even when Mullenweg decided to turn WordPress into a business with Automattic in 2005, which has since raised $80.6 million, the community was not to be forgotten: “We figured out a business model that was complementary to the growth of the community.”
By leveraging all of the hard work of thousands of contributors, Mullenweg found a way to keep giving back. By keeping WordPress open source, which was key from day one, the business side of things hasn’t alienated those who continue to work on the code that’s available to all. In fact, much of the work that’s done by the community continues to make its way into the paid WordPress.com offerings.
Some of the WordPress community has found ways to create a career built off of the work that they’ve done. Whether they’re consulting, designing or implementing, the software itself has changed a lot of lives. Mullenweg tells me that while this is great, many of the open source contributors would still work on the platform even if they didn’t find a way to get paid. “They approach code like a craft, and not a job.” he says.
The passion from the WordPress community has not only brought people together, but their collective work now powers 17 percent of the top 1 million websites on the web. That couldn’t have been done by Mullenweg alone, and he knows that. That’s an obvious statement now, but the key is that he’s always known that.
The founder shared his thoughts about the anniversary in a blog post today, as if the software itself was his child:
You’re so beautiful… I’m continually amazed and delighted by how you’ve grown. Your awkward years are behind you. Best of all, through it all, you’ve stuck with the principles that got you started in the first place. You’re always changing but that never changes. You’re unafraid to try new things that may seem wacky or unpopular at first.
He wasn’t writing to the code, he was writing to the people behind it.