Tumblr’s next step forward with Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg

After months of rumors, Verizon finally sold off Tumblr for a reported $3 million — a fraction of what Yahoo paid for the once mighty blogging service back in 2013.

The media conglomerate (which also owns TechCrunch) was clearly never quite sure what to do with the property after gobbling it up as part of its 2016 Yahoo acquisition. All parties have since come to the conclusion that Tumblr simply wasn’t a good fit under either the Verizon or Yahoo umbrella, amounting to a $1.1 billion mistake.

For Tumblr, however, the story may still have a happy ending. By all accounts, its new home at Automattic is a far better fit. The service joins a portfolio that includes popular blogging service WordPress.com, spam filtering service Akismet and long-form storytelling platform, Longreads.

In an interview this week, Automattic founder and CEO Matt Mullenweg discussed Tumblr’s history and the impact of the poorly received adult content restrictions. He also shed some light on where Tumblr goes from here, including a potential increased focused on multimedia such as podcasting.

Brian Heater: I’m curious how [your meetings with Tumblr staff] went. What’s the feeling on the team right now? What are the concerns? How are people feeling about the transition?

Matt Mullenweg: I think overall people are really excited. There are some folks who have been through two or three acquisitions now. But I think people are mostly optimistic. I got to speak to the whole team and also I did open office hours so that people could sign up one to one in addition to all the meetings that were previously set up, and so really got to connect, got to hear a lot of different perspectives, what’s important here next, what they’re excited about, what they’re worried about, and I could not be happier.

Heater: A lot has changed with the site in terms of traffic, valuation, things like that. What is your sense about what hasn’t worked with Tumblr under the Yahoo, Oath, AOL, Verizon umbrella, and what needs to change? Why did the valuation drop so quickly in so short a time?

Mullenweg: I guess I disagree with the premise of the question[…] You’ve seen me write and talk about the valuation. It’s not that the valuation dropped. I will agree, and I think Verizon would agree, that Verizon wasn’t the right place for it. And that’s where I think they did a lot of hard work to find a home for it.

Now, I don’t think that’s anything wrong, but there’s just a fundamental difference between a telecom company and a company that is really built on people publishing user-generated content. When you allow people the freedom and tools to express themselves, that comes out in a million different ways. And I could imagine that being very scary for a subscriber, a telecom-type business, but it’s right in the wheelhouse of Automattic, which has been doing this now for coming up on 15 years.

Heater: Do you think that the adult content [restriction] was a wrong move?

Mullenweg: I think that it’s really important and everyone would agree that you want to keep inappropriate content from people who shouldn’t be doing it, including minors. That’s really, really important and I don’t think there’s any controversy there. Now I do think there are some bugs in the implementation, that caught up a lot of content that they weren’t trying to block. So there’s, like I said, there are a few issues built into there, and any bugs we’re going to try to fix up as soon as possible.

It’s a very difficult problem. It’s also one that with WordPress.com we have a ton of experience in. WordPress.com also does not allow pornography, and we’ve been fine. Instagram doesn’t allow porn. It’s been fine. This is not an unusual stance and I don’t think it’s going to hold back the company’s growth. They’re just… You have to do it right. Blocking legitimate content, that’s a terrible user experience.

Image by Tumblr

Heater: It’s adopting the existing WordPress policy using that and applying that to Tumblr, is that correct?

Mullenweg: Yeah, I would say that you probably haven’t heard of these problems on WordPress.com is my guess. We’re a very mature network that publishes similar amounts of content to Tumblr. The best ways to address this would be very community-oriented, very humane, very common sense. And when you have the guidelines set up, it can be very clear.

I honestly think the problem was not with Tumblr’s policy, it was with the bugs and some of the automated tools. And I completely empathize with what a terrible experience it must be, if you’re posting something legitimate or something that’s totally fine to be blocked. I’m not saying that it’s open for business. I am saying that there is still a bot problem. It’s definitely a spam problem, a bot problem and probably a hate speech problem as well that we need to address.

This was less content than a lot of people seem to think. When we looked at Tumblr as a business, it was all after this had happened. I think that there is a beautiful thing about Tumblr that whatever you follow, it feels like all of Tumblr is that. If you follow FanFiction, if you follow art, if you follow architecture, or if you follow some of this borderline content, it can feel like the entire service is set, and that’s a testament to how good the community features are. But it is numerically not even close to half or anything. It’s a much smaller percentage and everything we did while making a decision to invest in this service has been after that.

Heater: The reports were that I think around 200 people will be moving over. Does that continue to be the case?

Mullenweg: Yeah, we’re excited to bring on the entire team. There’s a number of people from Automattic that are interested in working on Tumblr, and of course, Automattic is a fast-growing company so as we get them incorporated, we’re looking forward to incorporating them into our hiring plans as well.

Heater: So you don’t anticipate that there’s going to be much in the way of redundancy?

Mullenweg: No. The shared services at Verizon like HR, Legal, etc., are similar to the shared services at Automattic, so a lot of the Ops side of things. We’re buying just a product team.

Heater: The 200-person headcount that was reported, that’s just the product team.

Mullenweg: Right. Business partnerships, creative, all of it. It’s a very awesome team too. I was impressed with the diversity and creativity of everyone I met.

Heater: And the Tumblr team is going to stay primarily in New York?

Mullenweg: Yeah. We’re going to look for office space in New York. It’s new territory for us.

Heater: Do you anticipate a shift in the way in which Tumblr’s monetizing? Is that something that you’re looking at aggressively?

Mullenweg: Yeah, we want to explore lots of avenues. I think that Tumblr is a very unique place on the web. You can’t just apply a cookie-cutter model or something that’s worked elsewhere. You really want to integrate. We’ve talked about both premium services, e-commerce and advertising. You want to be integrated and feeling native to the product, so that’s going to be key for anything we introduce.