Long before it became one of the most popular blogging platforms on the Internet, WordPress was just a side project for creator Matt Mullenweg, who fiddled with its programming code between classes at the University of Houston.
“It was kind of funny – when I was at UH, when WordPress first started, we had no users, so I ended up setting up blogs for all of my friends just so we could get the first five or 10 users,” Mullenweg said.
Now, WordPress has more than 23 million individual users and thousands more added every day from around the world.
“The fact that it has ended up being so useful for so many other people has ended up being a very pleasant surprise,” he said.
The journey from UH student to Internet innovator – Mullenweg was named one of PC World’s Top 50 People on the Web, Inc.com’s 30 Under 30 and Business Week’s 25 Most Influential People on the Web – was not a direct one.
In fact, though he grew up around computers and technology, Mullenweg’s first passion was the jazz saxophone. A student at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Mullenweg focused on his music for hours and hours a day.
“I really dove into it,” he said.
It wasn’t until his senior year of high school when he became involved in an economics competition run by the Federal Reserve that Mullenweg first began to contemplate another option. His team made it all the way to nationals in Washington, D.C., and Mullenweg got into blogging as a way to share his photos with friends from home.
He began the blog the summer before he started at UH and kept at it.
“I got frustrated with [the existing blogging software] and started hacking on the software myself,” he said.
At first, the blogging was on the side, done in spare time while he pursued his studies of economics, political science and philosophy at the university, where his father had earned a degree in computer science years earlier. Mullenweg said he enjoyed those subjects, particularly the classes taught by his favorite professor, the late Ross Lence.
“I was a big fan,” he said of Lence, who taught political philosophy at UH until his death in 2006. “He really inspired me to do a lot of reading of the classics, which I hadn’t really studied before.”
But soon, even in his political science classes, Mullenweg found his mind returning to the problems he perceived on the Web, the limitations of existing blogging software, and the ability of open-source software to solve those problems.
“In political science, you read a lot about how to organize movements and how things historically have worked,” he said, adding that he saw a correlation between the political movements he studied and the concept of open-source software, which allows users to use it, edit it and improve it for free.
“Open source was something I had attached myself to philosophically,” Mullenweg said. “I believed a lot in free software.”
He began to use those principles as he continued to develop what would eventually become WordPress, free software that enables people to publish blogs or entire websites online.
As the software gained users, Mullenweg began attracting the attention of Web technology companies. On a trip to San Francisco to see a friend, he visited not the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz, but technology companies like Google and Yahoo!.
When he returned to Houston with the intention of going back to school, one of those companies – CNET – offered him a “dream job – the kind I would have hoped to get if I had finished school.”
Mullenweg left UH after his sophomore year and moved to San Francisco.
“It still wasn’t an easy decision though, because my parents had always emphasized education so much, and also because my dad had worked so hard to go to school,” he said. “It felt careless in a way to be throwing that away to focus on the Web and WordPress, which no one really knew was going to go anywhere.”
In 2005, Mullenweg left CNET and founded Automattic, a Web development and services company, which continues to run WordPress, along with several other Web services such as Akismet, Polldaddy, IntenseDebate, Gravatar and VideoPress.
While he continues to get excited about the latest technological breakthroughs, and even on occasion still dives into the software code, Mullenweg said his passion is fueled by the connections that blogs are able to build between people around the world.
“The fact that we are enabling people to publish who have never had a voice before, and even in places where their voice might actually be suppressed by the government, or ruling forces, is very humbling,” he said. “WordPress is just a tool. [Users] are using the tool to actually make a difference in the world. The more people we can touch in that way, the more fulfilled I can be.”
Though he has found immense satisfaction in his job, Mullenweg said he has found himself recently feeling wistful about school – particularly when he visits college campuses across the country.
“I think I didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that dedicated scholastic endeavors provide for you – like you get to read the classics and really dive deep into them and discuss them with your classmates and professors who studied it for 20 or 30 years,” he said. “I think I treated my schoolwork more like something to get out of the way, so I could work on this Internet stuff. Now, I kind of miss the ability to just sit down with a book for a few weeks and really contemplate it.”
Despite his decision to leave school, Mullenweg said he generally recommends that students finish school, and take advantage of opportunities offered on college campuses.
When he thinks back on his time at UH, Mullenweg said he appreciates the university’s accessibility.
“It was a fantastic educational institution right in my hometown and provided me with an opportunity with scholarships and everything to be able to financially go to school and not have to work a day job like my dad did,” he said. “That was really special.”
Once he got there, Mullenweg said he was inspired by a few professors who “blew me away with their thoughtfulness” and inspired him with their fervor for knowledge.
“That sort of devotion and depth of research was kind of cool, because I think when you see someone who is really, really passionate about something, no matter what the topic, it is infectious,” he said. “Their passion for history and political science and philosophy and philosophy of language and all of those courses I took that I really enjoyed inspired my passion for the Web and publishing.”