Lessons from Matt Mullenweg

Earlier in the week I posted the following thread to a business forum to which I belong. The members of this particular forum are largely over 35, and self-employed or running small businesses. There’s a fair amount of negativity about the country and economy hanging around at the moment, and I thought it might be a good idea to share a few positive ideas and insights with them.

I was privileged to get to meet Matt Mullenweg, the founding developer of WordPress, this weekend, after he spoke at Wordcamp SA.

He made quite an impression on those of us who heard him and interacted with him. The first thing that everyone will tell you is how incredibly humble he is. Seriously seriously humble. He’s a gentle, softly-spoken, well-mannered young man (he’s only 24) – not a hint of ego or arrogance about him.

One of the SA bloggers, who didn’t know what Matt looked like, met him on Friday evening and not realising who he was speaking to, asked, “So, what do you do?” Matt’s answer, without any irony as far as I can tell, was “I’m a blogger.”

So that’s lesson #1 – even if you’ve created what is arguably the best blogging platform in the world, you can still be an amazingly nice guy.

Lesson #2 – when Matt started his talk on Saturday, he said, “It’s so great to be here in San Fran… whoops, I mean Cape Town…” When this was mentioned on someone’s blog later, and the blogger suggested that maybe it was more than just a slip of the tongue, Matt left a comment saying, “Maybe it was…” The implication is that Cape Town is a hotbed of tech activity, like Silicon Valley, with a host of exciting start-ups in operation, and a wealth of tech knowledge and expertise. This makes me incredibly positive, and incredibly pleased to be living in this place at this time. I wouldn’t trade it for anything right now, not even Paris.

Lesson #3 – the economy is changing. And I don’t mean the petrol price and the rising cost of bread and milk. I mean the way we charge for products, and the way we exchange things of value. Matt chooses to provide WordPress free of charge, not because it’s a way to hook potential customers into buying his other products, but because he and millions of other open-source advocates hold the fundamental belief that software, information and art should be free and open-source. Business owners need to pay attention to the way that the economy is shifting – it might affect your business at some point. Just ask Microsoft about that.

Lesson #4 – be selfless and don’t approach everything in life with the attitude of “how can I monetise this?” Matt developed WordPress because he was unsatisfied with the CMS software available at the time. He didn’t start out with the intention of creating an empire. He shared what he was doing, because he figured that others might be able to use it too. The business aspect grew later.

Lesson #5 – take as many photos as you can. Matt’s Twitter username is photomatt, and there’s a really good reason for this. He takes many many many photos (he also has an awesome camera, but that’s another story). Now because Paul and I run a photoblog we take a lot of photos too, but they’re mostly of buildings and landscapes and things. Matt takes photos of everyone, so his blog is an incredible record of the places he’s been, the things he’s done, and most importantly, the people he’s connected with. I’ve resolved to take more photos of people from now on, as a reminder of the connections I’ve made.

Lesson #6 – one of the statements Matt made in his talk is that the Web is a meritocracy. The merits of your ideas will determine your success. If your ideas are good and add value to people’s lives, your legacy will be enduring. This kind of ties in with lesson #4 – go about your life adding value, and not trying to squeeze money out of every single thing. If people like what you’re doing, you’ll find a way to turn it into a lifestyle.

Lesson #7 – don’t discount anyone based on their age, gender, nationality or any other distinguishing traits. We tend to think that guys like Mark Zuckerberg are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to being successful web entrepreneurs. Think again. I can point you to a fair number of bright young things under the age of 25 and a host of them under 30 who are pioneering in the tech arena in South Africa, some even doing big deals with media companies like Vodacom and Naspers. It’s not just the VCR that they learnt to programme at a young age. They are bright, savvy, energetic and committed. For them, life is work and work is life – the two are completely intertwined.

And finally, lesson #8 – use Firefox. The highlight of Matt’s talk (for a room full of geeks) was when he told us that there actually is advertising on wordpress.com (who knew?), BUT you’ll only see these ads IF you’ve never visited wordpress.com before AND you’ve never visited a WordPress blog AND you’re not using Firefox. 😀

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7 thoughts on “Lessons from Matt Mullenweg

  1. Great post. I wish I’d known about Wordcamp beforehand and not three hours after it had started. Don’t know how I missed that info nugget but anyway….

    The only thing I can’t agree with is switching to Firefox (though I do use it), as I am a quiet Opera(.com) evangelist. :)

  2. Really nice post Kerry. Wish I could have made wordcamp. Sick family got in the way 😉

    Matt seems like a super guy.

  3. Cool summary of the important points, thanks Kerry-Anne! Sounds like a really good time.

    I guess that photo is proof of you learning from lesson #5? Some great lessons for SA’s young and aspiring business leaders of tomorrow [and today].

  4. @Mandy – Aw, pity you missed it – you should have come through anyway, though, these things are always so relaxed. :)

    @Shawn – Thanks. :) Well, there’s always next year, mmmm? WordCamp 2009 will be in Joburg, and by the sound of things, Matt will be back.

    @Darren – Yup, definitely trying to put the photo thing into practice. Now, if I could just remember to take the SD card out of my laptop and put it back into my camera every time I go out… 😛

  5. Great post Kerry Anne! I too learn’t tons from Ma.tt, not only from an online business perspective, but from how to conduct yourself in this ever booming digital age.

  6. Great post! I must admit, in a joking manner, I asked Matt what he did and he responded: “I blog a lot”, what a classic comment!

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