Inside recently chatted with Matt Mullenweg, the co-founder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic. Mullenweg is also the creator of "The Distributed Podcast," where he interviews companies and leaders like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about remote work and more.

Topics included success tips for working remotely, creating an online business, an open-source project, an upcoming feature that will change how we see WordPress, the future of open-source, his daily routine, and more.

We’ve specifically divided the interview into two parts to make it more readable.

Part 1:

  • How to succeed in a distributed environment based on what Mullenweg has seen work for WordPress, Automattic, and his discussions with top CEOs and major companies
  • Specific tools and practices for running a long-term term distributed team that cost little to no money
  • Growth tips for online business creators, and how to achieve long-term success

Part 2:

  • WordPress 5.7 and WordPress/Gutenberg features coming out in 2021
  • How full-site editing will revolutionize WordPress
  • Mullenweg’s advice for theme developers so they can remain competitive
  • His predictions for the future of open source and his thoughts on Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub
  • Success tips for open-source developers and projects
  • What daily activities inspire his creativity and success

Watch or listen to the complete interview on YouTube.

Covid and Remote Work

What are some overall best practices for remote work you can offer based upon your experiences and conversations with company leaders like Jack Dorsey on The Distributed Podcast?

“The success of the business is a product of the quality of its communication both internally and externally,” Mullenweg said, adding that this is true for all companies, regardless of whether they’re distributed. “Even when you’re in person, as that group gets larger and larger, it’s harder to make sure everybody has a shared understanding of what’s being communicated,” he explains. “And then of course, once you start to not be in the same room with people, you get all sorts of communication barriers.”

Communication, Mullenweg adds, is what’s been key to Automattic’s success.

“A lot of what my company has done, Automattic, and a lot of what we’re trying to do on The Distributed Podcast, is just try to find these modes of how we can communicate and collaborate better together so what we produce is more successful.”

What’s the best mode of communication?

Mullenweg says it depends on the team, but generally, being multi-modal is the way to go.

“A good way to think about the different modes of communicating in a distributed team is, 1) The medium: is it written, audio, or video communication? and 2) whether it is synchronous or asynchronous. For any of them, you can have asynchronous video or synchronous video. And they can also combine.”

Being multi-modal, he says, gives people several options to consume what you’re creating and communicating, making it easy to get what they’re trying to get out of it. This, he says, is why so many successful podcasts post content on YouTube while also publishing transcripts and more.

“I think companies could learn so much from what the most successful media organizations do and the most successful podcasts," he said.

“With so many companies, the only way you could be successful was if you were good in meetings in a room. That was the way to get and transmit information. But when you start to allow people to consume and interact with that information in a variety of forms, it really unlocks a ton of creativity and contributions from people that might not succeed in meetings which drove so much of business productivity in the past.

“I do believe that this is the best time we’ve ever been given to experiment with different modes of working together. We’ve already seen many of these experiments go well. I think a lot of companies I’ve spoken to have been pleasantly surprised, especially in the later stages of the pandemic, with how people have been able to integrate their work and life. I’d say almost universally everybody’s talking about not returning to the way things were before, but combining the best of what we’ve learned during this not-asked-for experiment in remote work, and bring it back to our office.”

What advice would you give to help remote workers and companies deal with issues like loneliness and disconnection, especially during the pandemic?

“You know, everybody needs connection, and some more than others, but all of us need that connection to other humans,” he says.

“People don’t talk about it as much because they see Automattic as this distributed from the beginning workforce, which is true, but from the very beginning we’ve also always brought people together usually a few times a year. So we fly everybody together and we spend a week together. Typically when we’re hiring we tell people to expect that 3-4 times a year to see their colleagues, so we travel 3-4 times a year to do that.

“I can’t wait to get back to this. I think this was sort of a secret ingredient in what allowed us to work so well when we were apart is that we came together sometimes. You could just get to know someone in a way that is less transactional and a little less mediated by technology.”

For remote workers right now during the pandemic, Mullenweg says it might be a good idea to “pod” up.

“What I’ve seen the people that navigated the pandemic best do, is those who found a small pod with those they could follow the same protocols to be safe and spend time with. For some it’s family, others a small group of friends. I’ve known a lot of folks who got an Airbnb and lived together for a month – there are different ways to do it.”

Here’s a question from a reader: "Many tips I’ve heard on Distributed assume a budget for decent equipment, annual-in-persons, etc. Meanwhile, the technical ability to collaborate on audio production remotely live is in its nascent stages. What tools and practices do you use (or have you heard from others) to successfully run a long term distributed team that cost little to no money?"

The good news, Mullenweg says, is that tools will just get better and more affordable every year.

“When Automattic started, there was no Slack or Zoom or iPhone, so the good news is that at a fairly affordable cost, the technology is getting better every year.”

Having said that, Mullenweg listed out some specific tool recommendations:

  • Sennheiser’s $40 USB headset, the SE30, he says “has both amazing sound quality” that he’s used for many of his podcasts that filters out background noises extremely well.
  • Software solution Krisp.AI. Mullenweg says it does the same thing as a headset, except it's real-time machine learning software you can run on your computer. “It costs somewhere between $50-$60/year subscription I think, and it’s incredible. I use it almost all the time, even in quiet environments, just because the ability to filter out background noise and its federated sound quality is unparalleled.”
  • He also says he’s excited about asynchronous audio as a business tool. Right now, he says, Telegram probably offers the best features around this.

Could you offer some success and growth tips for online business creators based upon your personal experiences and what you’ve seen does well?

For online business creators, Mullenweg says the most important thing is to develop "as close of a relationship with your customers as possible."

"When you’re starting out, put your phone number on the website; answer every call, answer every email yourself, because the wisdom you get from those customer interactions and doing support yourself is going to be the best thing to help you reach that product market fit. You will hear so clearly in the tone of voice and how people talk what sort of emotional experience they’re having with your products."

Mullenweg admits that, even now, despite how big WordPress and Automattic has become, he still secretly goes into customer support.

“I go into customer support pretty regularly, because I just learn so much every time. As advanced, as great, and as smart as we think we are, it’s really humbling when you talk to customers sometimes. Your best laid plans or roadmap for how a feature should work is totally different from how someone experiences it. And that’s the beauty of the iterative design process.”

The Future of WooCommerce and WordPress

Reader question: "You recently said WooCommerce is on Day #1. How long until we see a more mature hosted option to compete with a Shopify or a Webflow? Is there a greater opportunity for WooCommerce than just a hosted version?"

There is an opportunity for that, Mullenweg says, although he admits there’s not a huge demand for it.

"A lot of the people building WooCommerce stores already have hosting, or are already WordPress developers. There are a few different folks who offer some really nice WooCommerce bundles that give you a WooCommerce out of the box when you’re signing up."

In addition, he adds, the real reason people choose WooCommerce is because of its customizability. "It is typically being chosen and implemented by folks who are much more on the developer side of things than the average Shopify user."

Still, he says, he can imagine "something in the next 18 months where somebody who might choose Shopify can find that, for less money and more flexibility, they can sign up for a WooCommerce store. We are working towards that as soon as possible.

"The beauty is, because WooCommerce is built on WordPress, and is open-source, you will never be forced to use one solution that Automattic does. You’ll always have the choice of running on a different host or running on your own infrastructure."

Briefly reverting back to the previous topic, he emphasizes it’s that flexibility every serious independent online business should demand over time for sustainable success.

To not have that means you’re then "stuck to the whims of the changing business models and choices of whatever SaaS service you’ve chosen."

"Long-term, I don’t think that tenable for a really strong, independent business you want to be able to control every part of the stack that’s mission-critical for your relationship with your customers. When you don’t, that’s when we see people get kind of messed over by an Amazon, or an Etsy, or an eBay when their incentives no longer align with the people building on them."

Check out Part 2 of the interview, where Mullenweg and I dive into the future of WordPress, open-source, and more. Share this interview on Twitter.

Sheena Vasani is a writer, creator, and UC Berkeley, Dev Bootcamp, and Thinkful alumna who writes Inside Dev and Inside NoCode. Subscribe to her personal blog here and follow her on Twitter.