In an episode of the How I Build This podcast, Guy Raz interviews WordPress’ founder Matt Mullenweg about the early years of WordPress. WordPress powers around 25% of the websites on the Internet.
In 2004, while attending SXSW, Mullenweg was introduced to someone from CNET. This person invited him to visit their headquarters in San Francisco. Shortly after his trip, CNET offered Mullenweg a position and a very nice salary. He would help them with blogs and new media offerings while continuing to work on WordPress. Mullenweg was clever enough to negotiate that WordPress would remain his property, even while working at CNET, which are not very usual terms. (Most companies would require you to sign an agreement that everything developed while working for the company belongs to the company.)
Mullenweg was 19 at the time. He was majoring in political science at the University of Houston. He accepted the position, dropped college and relocated to San Francisco. Some months later, CNET had moved several of their domains to WordPress, which allowed them almost instant updates to their pages.
In 2005, WordPress was already gaining traction. However, installing WordPress was not easy. For starters, you required a server to host the software. Server instances in 2005 were not the commodity that they are today. Also, you needed some technical knowledge to configure WordPress, which reduced its audience mostly to geeky types.
Mullenweg wanted to make WordPress installs so easy that no technical knowledge were required to run a blog. Users would signup on a webpage and, after some clicks, they would have a webpage running under WordPress in seconds. To eliminate the need for a server, WordPress would provide a server for the users that needed one.
He pitched the idea to CNET. CNET had a lot of registered domains they were not using and servers to spare. They could use one of the domains for this project. But CNET was not interested.
In October 2005, Matt Mullenweg left CNET to work full-time on WordPress. According to Mullenweg, they parted on good terms.
A few weeks later, Mullenweg launched Akismet, a service for stopping spam on websites that used the collective input of everyone using the service, available as a WordPress plugin. In December, he announced Automattic, which became the parent company for Wordpress.com (the idea he pitched to CNET) and Akismet. In January 2006, he recruited former CEO of Oddpost and Yahoo! executive Toni Schneider as CEO of Automattic. Mullenweg was 21.
The rest is history. Automattic, the company behind WordPress, has a valuation of $7 billion and has a workforce of 2000+ employees who work 100% remotely from more than 80 countries around the world.
From Matt Mullenweg’s point of view, his reasons for resigning were clear: he wanted to work full-time on WordPress.
However, the story doesn’t make sense to me from CNET’s point of view. CNET was great at spotting talent. Mullenweg dropped college and relocated to San Francisco to work for them. There is a lot of information we don’t know about the situation. Also, it’s easy to talk about missed opportunities in hindsight. Even so, why go through all the trouble to hire such great talent as Mullenweg, just to see him leave a year later? Didn’t they realize what Mullenweg would do when they passed on the opportunity to build what would become WordPress.com?
Many companies are great at hiring talent. Few are great at putting people where they can do their best work.