I just finished Scott Berkun’s book “The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work”. In the book Scott describes his time working at Automattic (the company behind WordPress.com hosted platform and a contributor to WordPress.org self-hosted platform – learn about the difference between the two platforms here).
Automattic is a play on the word automatic with an intentional misspelling to include Matt Mullenweg’s name. Matt is a WordPress developer and the founder of Automattic.
Even though I love, recommend and use WordPress.org daily I did not know that much about the work culture within Automattic prior to reading this book. I only knew the more known facts such as them working remotely, having open vacation policy, doing continuous deployment and supporting open-source.
This book is a great inside look into an amazing and unconventional company that pushes the boundaries of work places while achieving amazing results. Hopefully it also inspires other companies to do the same. Here are some interesting insights from the book plus the video of Scott’s talk at Google.
All new employees start with customer support
I love this. I briefly worked in a customer support team for an online company to help pay the bills while I was studying at university. I noted that this was the best way to get to know the product, the users and what can be and should be done to improve the user experience.
A lot of suggestions for ideas for improvements to WordPress actually come from the customer support team.
All new employees work with the dedicated support team before starting their primary job. Making everyone work in support forces everyone to take customers seriously, which we should since they pay our salaries. Despite my distaste for it, the idea of making all employees participate in support, regardless of their distaste, was fantastic.
The staff at WordPress call support “Happiness.” Therefore it’s not the support team, but the Happiness team. And people who work in support aren’t called tech support staff; they’re called Happiness Engineers (HE).
1% of communication goes through emails
Internal motto is “communication is oxygen”. Skype chat (not voice calls that much) and IRC are the tools used for communication internally. They also use the P2 collaborating theme for their internal blog where they share and document information.
Only about 1% of communication goes through emails and that’s mostly to external sources. Imagine that! Every company I have worked for was based on emails (most of the day is spent in the inbox really), and conference calls and other meetings were very regular. Automattic is completely the opposite.
While Skype was more for one-on-one communication, IRC was where you went to talk to large groups, find help, or seek out people who wanted to socialize.
Matt Mullenweg’s Creed
Matt Mullenweg’s creed appears on all the official documents, including the offer letter. It is what the company culture is based on. Take a look:
I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.
Energizing team meetups
Once every quarter the individual teams meet up in real life, and once a year there is a Grand Meetup where the company gets together. All the meetups usually take place in interesting locations all around the world.
Even for the meetups there are no schedules, structures and PowerPoint presentations. One of the company-wide meetups that Scott took part in was especially cool as it shook things up.
Unlike the company meeting in Seaside, there were major curveballs this time:
1. Everyone worked on new teams formed just for the meet-up.
2. Projects were picked by Mullenweg based on suggestions.
3. Every team would have a new lead, someone who’d never led before.
4. Each team had to present to the company on the last day.
5. The goal was to ship something before the presentation.
It was brilliant.
Product creation roles vs supporting roles
This one is huge. At Automattic the makers are in charge – programmers, developers, designers. Nonmakers (such as legal, human resources, IT) don’t play a big role, certainly not nearly as big role as in other corporations I am familiar with.
Even though I am not much of a “maker” I still believe this is the right way to approach things and empower the people who actually do the work and make things.
The general way work was done was simple. If you are a programmer, you write code. If you are a designer, you design things for programmers to make or you make it yourself.
One major mistake Schneider (Toni Schneider – Automattic CEO at the time) had seen was how companies confused supporting roles, like legal, human resources, and information technology, with product creation roles like design and development. Product creators are the true talent of any corporation, especially one claiming to bet on innovation. The other roles don’t create products and should be there to serve those who do. A classic betrayal of this idea is when the IT department dictates to creatives what equipment they can use. If one group has to be inefficient, it should be the support group, not the creatives. If the supporting roles, including management, dominate, the quality of products can only suffer.
People: Autonomy, empowerment, and trust
Automattic is a fully distributed company – employees work remotely and they are passionate about the mission of democratizing publishing. It is all about autonomy, empowerment, and trust in their employees. People do not depend on the structure. There are no formal schedules, minimal hierarchy, little competitive pressure and absolutely no influence from marketers.
People seem to love it and the attrition rate (the rate at which people leave the company) is very low. Less than 6 people left in the 18 months that Scott was there. Automattic hires the best people they can, get out of their way and let them do their jobs.
It was not a promotion-oriented culture. Instead they cared mostly about how much value they were getting out of the work.
The best way to share knowledge is to share people. It was common for people to move between projects at Automattic, the philosophy being that movement was the only way to spread knowledge and simultaneously keep people challenged to keep learning.
Employees were treated like adults. By not having too many safeguards, we were trusted to pay full attention. Keeping things a little dangerous made things safer.
Hiring people with strong internal motivations changed things: “Labor was no longer coerced. Labor volunteered. When you signed up you in effect declared, ‘I want to do this job and I’ll give it my heart and soul.’”
Diversity of skill makes people self-sufficient. They didn’t need much help to start projects and were unafraid to learn skills to finish them. This self-sufficiency prevented the need for paternalistic management.
4 streams for making money with the freemium model
WordPress.com services are free and you can upgrade for some extra features. That is what the freemium model is. It was still interesting to learn about the other ways the company makes money and the approach they have towards driving profits.
It is really positive to hear about their non-pushy approach which goes hand in hand with their mission to ensure publishing is forever democratic for everyone. It sounds good for the future of the company and the quality of product and user-experience.
How WordPress.com makes money is simple and, much like the strategy of the company, transparent: the business works on the freemium model, where the core product is free to everyone. But there are four streams of revenue that make it work:
1. Upgrades. For users who want more storage space, a premium theme, or their own domain name, WordPress.com sells them for a small subscription fee. By giving many features for free, it doesn’t need a sales team because the product sells itself.
2. Advertising. If you count all the blogs on WordPress.com, the total traffic for WordPress.com makes it the fifteenth most trafficked website in the world. A small amount, less than 1 percent, of visited pages have ads displayed on them, and they generate revenue. One upgrade available for users is to pay for no ads, but few pages have ads, making it an unpopular upgrade.
3. VIP. Premier companies like CNN, Time magazine, CBS, and NBC Sports host their websites on WordPress.com servers. They pay a premium price to get the benefits of one of the best server infrastructures in the world and support from a special team of engineers (Team VIP).
4. Partnerships. WordPress.com sometimes does partnership deals with other services.
Mullenweg had fantastic restraint about the drive for profits. He’d seen many founders make the mistake of chasing revenue too early and too fast. He imagined many ways to make revenue growth a natural part of the design of WordPress.com, but in good time. During my year there, they chose targeted investments, like adding paid domain registrations to the steps of signing up for a new blog. Despite the alarm bells in my brain over leaving easy revenue on the table, I respected the conviction for patience. I’ve met few executives with similar faith and patience for the long-term prospects of what they were doing.
Draft launch announcement is written before the work starts
Many start with the idea, build it, release it and only then think about the actual use and what the users will think. At Automattic they do it before.
Long before launch, a draft launch announcement is written. This sounds strange. How can you write an announcement for something that doesn’t exist? The point is that if you can’t imagine a compellingly simple explanation for customers, then you don’t really understand why the feature is worth building. Writing the announcement first is a forcing function. You’re forced to question if your idea is more exciting for you as the maker than it will be for your customer.
No visible worries about the competitors
Mullenweg and Schneider never worried visibly about competitors. They paid attention, as did much of the rest of the company, but it rarely had a direct impact on plans. Notes about other blogging programs appeared often on P2 threads, but the discussions rarely went deep or triggered changes. When Tumblr, a lightweight blogging tool, became a media darling in 2010, with growth numbers that any analyst would see as a threat to WordPress, not much changed at Automattic. It was common to see P2 posts referencing trendy articles proclaiming the death of blogging and articles pointing to the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr as ending the era of blogs—articles that rarely mentioned WordPress’s continued growth, as those services frequently linked to the deeper content that blogs provided.
Employees have access to super admin privileges
An interesting fact is that all employees have access to a toolbar which gives them super admin privileges on all blogs on the WordPress.com network.
After getting the appropriate security access, a little toolbar appeared at the top of my browser window when I visited any blog that ran on WordPress.com’s servers. This toolbar, available only because I was working in support, granted me godlike powers. I could change how any blog looked. I could add posts, edit them, or delete ones even if they’d already been published. The toolbar itself was small and filled with confusing menus and weird symbols. But as he taught me what each option did, alarms went off in my brain. Anything the user of any blog could do, I could do. I could also do things no user could, like add credits for upgrade purchases, shut down a blog by marking it as spam, and more.