12 tech leaders’ resolutions for 2012

Open Web FTW

By Matt Mullenweg, Founder, WordPress/Automattic (as told to Mathew Ingram)

Matt Mullenweg is the founder of WordPress, an open-source publishing platform run by a non-profit foundation, and also the founder CEO of Automattic, a for-profit entity that offers services based around WordPress. We asked him for his reflections on 2011 and his New Year’s resolutions for 2012 because he is an entrepreneur who has achieved great success but also someone who has insights into where the web is going.

I worry about the independent web. I worry about the content creators, and I worry that if 100 percent of the distribution of everything starts to go through just a few websites, that kills the vibrancy.

A few years ago, Google started favoring some of their own websites over others. They left a path of scorched earth through many prominent businesses and publishers. Facebook hasn’t done that, but they could. And I think that would be bad for the web as a whole.

As things like Facebook’s news feed become ever more ingrained in our lives, the knobs they turn are hugely influential. For a year now, I’ve said scripting is the new literacy. That’s something I strongly believe. In Douglas Rushkoff’s latest book, he talks about “program or be programmed.” That is, if you’re not in control of your inputs, you’re not really in control of your outputs either. You’re just a reactionary force.

It’s all part of a natural 20-year super-cycle that happens in technology. We’ll go towards AOL keywords and then we get the web. I hope this is the most closed it will ever be in my lifetime.

Everyone’s doing app stores now. Chrome has their store, Firefox has their store, and Microsoft is going to launch a store. As distribution mechanisms they’re going to be incredibly powerful, but they’re actually going to end up bringing more power back to the software creators and the developers. Because as they compete with each other, they will all be forced to open up and become better.

The Internet needs a strong, independent platform for those of us who don’t want to be at the mercy of someone else’s domain. I like to think that if we didn’t create WordPress something else that looks a lot like it would exist. I think Open Source is kind of like our Bill of Rights. It’s our Constitution. If we’re not true to that, nothing else matters.

The independent web is growing quite a bit. Although we have these great cloud servers for WordPress, the software that people run and install themselves is still as popular as ever. Our services are bringing more people online, but they’re also bringing more people who want to own their own space on the web–they want to own a house instead of rent an apartment. When we were first starting out, I thought, “Downloading and uploading software, managing databases, no one wants to do that.” But it turns out, a lot of people do.

One of the beautiful things about the WordPress community is that it’s a lot of original content creation rather than just a few things being regurgitated over and over again, which is a fair criticism of what happens on social networks. I think of blogging as a craft. It’s something that you think about, that you try to do your best at. It’s part of your identity.

My primary motivator is not money, it’s to make an impact on the world. I’m super lucky in that I’m able to participate both in the for-profit and the nonprofit side. The Open Source side is very fulfilling, knowing that I’m working on something that will outlive me by decades, that’s part of a larger movement on the web. There are 20,000 or 30,000 people that make their living from WordPress. That’s a bigger impact than most companies have. A really well functioning community paired with a well functioning for-profit entity is tough to match for its potential to affect tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of people.

I’ve become a lot more passionate about running the organization. It’s like the difference between Steve Jobs’ first and second term at Apple. He went from being a visionary to being a leader. Managing is a huge part of that. You need to know the block and tackle about how to run a staff meeting and get critical feedback. You know, make sure the right metrics are being followed in financial rigor. All that stuff which doesn’t come naturally to anybody. Once you learn that, you can take a step back and say, “Five, ten years from now, if we continue on our current path where do we end up? Where does the rest of the industry end up? What matters and what doesn’t?” Which is ultimately the most important responsibility of a leader.

Steve Jobs’ passing affected me more than I expected. I think we’re going to enter a golden age of design, just by virtue of thousands and thousands of founders and designers asking themselves, “What would Steve do?” The things that these people will create will be even bigger than Apple. That’s part of his legacy.

Disclosure: Automattic, maker of WordPress.com, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.