Matt Mullenweg: Operating System for the Open Web – North Star Podcast

Check out the North Star Podcast Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Communication via the internet will accelerate the progress of the human species
  • You want to own the direct relationship with your customers
    • For this reason, creating a website with WordPress for your business > creating a Facebook page
  • “The written word is such a powerful magnet for people, ideas, and opportunities” – David
  • “Writing is not the most important thing, thinking is. But writing is probably the best way to improve your thinking.”
    • “With great thinking, you can have great actions”
  • Good creatives don’t wait for inspiration to strike
    • They carve out time every day to work on their craft
  • Writing advice:
    • Imagine that you’re writing for just ONE particular person
  • Think more long-term
    • “If the default is that we all think of what’s going on right now – what’s in the moment, what’s in the news, etc. – the most interesting things are going to be created by people who do the opposite”
  • Matt uses WeCroak 
    • It’s an app that sends you periodic quotes/notifications about death, helping users remember their own mortality

Books Mentioned

Intro

Matt’s Mission to Democratize the Web and Publishing

  • How do you measure this? – The percentage of the web that runs on open source code
    • “WordPress is just the a means to an end of getting more of the web on open source”
  • Why is this important?
    • “The web is the most important way for us to increase our rate of evolution as a species” – via communication
    • The capitalist tendencies of platforms will tend towards things that look more like Facebook than the web of the 90s/2000s which created an explosion of ideas, connection, and companies
  • What about the shift towards mobile?
    • Background:
      • Android is ~half open source
      • iOS is quite closed (not open source)
    • “The shift towards mobile has created far more web time than anything else”
      • All the podcasts you listen to are built on RSS feeds and open mp3s

Let’s Define “The Web”

  • “Fundamentally, it’s about communication” – not just about information
    • Money and transactions are a form of communication 
    • And ultimately – communication will accelerate the progress of the human species

How has Matt thought about making WordPress easier for people to use?

  • “There’s ‘easy to use’ and ‘easy to learn.’ I think the latter is actually more important.”
  • With WordPress – Matt has tried to make something powerful + intuitive
  • When creators try to make something “easy to use” – they might dumb down the interface/allow users to do less
    • But ultimately this is limiting to the user’s agency and freedom
  • Matt acknowledges that at first, WordPress may not seem that “easy to use”
    • But with a brief understanding of a few steps/mental models/why it works the way it does – people love it

How does Matt see “scale” differently than the average person?

  • He likes to think it terms of numbers:
    • There’s 8 billion people in the world
    • 3 billion of them are online
    • And 1.5 billion of them have devices that “do more advanced things and have a better connection”
    • To add – There’s probably <100 million websites that really matter

Own Your Relationships

  • In general, you want to own the direct relationship with your customers
    • Many small business owners get seduced into making something like a Facebook page (rather than their own website) for their business
    • “You need to create something unique for yourself, a direct path to your ocean of customers”
      • If that relationship is mediated at all, you want it to be mediated by folks who are aligned with your model of success
        • If Facebook’s model (or any advertising driven business) is selling your customers to other people who want to buy them (through advertising) – that’s a misalignment
        • Compare this to creating a website with WordPress – you own the direct relationship

The Power of Writing

  • “The written word is such a powerful magnet for people, ideas, and opportunities” – David
  • Matt has hired many people based on their writing ability (found through their online writing/personal blogs)
    • Like Ben Thompson, the creator of Stratechery – although he soon left in order to work on Stratechery full-time
    • Matt will frequently DM people on Twitter to make the connection if he enjoys someone’s writing
  • “Writing is not the most important thing, thinking is. But writing is probably the best way to improve your thinking.”
    • “With great thinking, you can have great actions”
    • “Clear writing begets clear thinking”

Building Your Personal Monopoly

  • David’s advice – develop a personal area of expertise and write like hell about it
    • If you’re lucky, and you do it well, you’ll become a world expert on the subject
  • What should your personal site look like?
    • It depends on your goal – reverse engineer it from there
    • If you’re creating a personal website in that hopes that someone like Matt will each out to you with a job offer, here’s what he looks for:
      • Taste
        • This has to do with the design aspect of the site – Is the site readable? Do the links work? Etc.
        • “The spaces we create demonstrate the care and input we put into things”
      • Work ethic
      • Curiosity
        • Is the person curious? What are they writing about?
      • Ethics (which you can’t really pick up from someone’s personal website)
  • What else does Matt look for in a good personal website?
    • The rate of improvement – he’ll frequently look back on someone’s archive of posts

What a Time

  • A well written blog post can go viral more easily than ever before
  • We have resources at our disposal unimaginable 30 years ago
    • It’s now easier than ever to publish a book or podcast

Why write online?

  • Matt started blogging a few year’s before creating WordPress
  • “The acceleration of evolution… we don’t evolve anymore in generations that live and die through genetic mutations, we evolve through through communication and ideas spreading.”
  • David adds:
    • “The reason why I’m so passionate about getting people to write is because so much information is siloed online or locked into people’s heads” 

On Good Content

  • Matt likes to think about the ratio of how long it took the author to create a piece of content vs. how long it takes to consume it
    • Fooled By Randomness took Nassim Taleb nearly his whole life to write, yet someone can read it in 6-8 hours 
  • “Expose yourself to more of the high protein, filling content that people really put a lot of work into”

Advice on Creativity and Writing

  • Matt says that every good creative he knows doesn’t wait for inspiration to strike
    • They carve out time every day to work on their craft
    • “Everyone I know makes a habit of it”
  • Allow yourself the time, space, and curiosity to go down the rabbit hole
    • Then go and create some art out of it
  • EVERYONE has doubt
    • And when this doubt seeks in – imagine that you’re writing for just ONE person
    • Often Matt finds a good conversation with a friend will help him get out of his dead
  • Advice from David:
    • When you’re having a conversation about a topic and get that “huh, that’s interesting”/surprised look – go write about it!
      • First make it a tweet 
      • Then make it an email to your audience
      • Then dive deep via a blog post
      • And then – make it a book (if you get this far)
  • “All great things from collaboration”
    • Whether it’s a song, a blog post, a book, whatever it is – with everything you do think about how you can work with more people on it
    • “Things get better when you work together well”

The Power of Iteration

  • “Anything you really enjoy in the world has gone through countless iterations”
    • Much of creating good work is about tightening this feedback loop

Blog Comments

  • This is an area Matt would love to work on more from a software point of view
  • “Blog comments are a mediated conversation space”
    • A piece of advice – Make sure you reply to comments on your site (even send people who comment an email, letting them know you replied) 
      • This rewards a behavior you’d ideally want to see more of
  • “If you do it right, your comments section becomes so much better than the blog post itself”
    • Matt gives the example of  Fred Wilson’s blog AVC

Think For the Long-Term

  • “Most of the problems in the world come from ‘short-termism'”
    • “If you can expand your thinking to be over a long enough time frame, it’s such an amazing filter”
  • “If the default is that we all think of what’s going on right now – what’s in the moment, what’s in the news, etc. – the most interesting things are going to be created by people who do the opposite”
  • Look for ways in daily life where you can remind yourself (and others) to better focus on the long-term
    • Matt is a fan of the app WeCroak – 5x a day it sends you a quote/notification about death, helping users remember their own mortality

Why have a personal website? Why not just write on Facebook or Medium?

  • Think of it as your online home
    • On all those other site, you’re what Matt terms a “digital sharecropper”
      • “You’re allowed to farm the land, but ultimately the fruits of your labor belong to someone else, and their interests are not necessarily aligned with yours”
  • Another point:
    • It’s hard to remember the specific author of specific Medium posts
  • Your personal website make YOU unique and allows YOU to stand out from the crowd
    • “There’s a lot competing for people’s attention, so make your hook” 

Additional Notes

  • Both Matt and David are huge fans of Stratechery
  • Check out Matt’s interview with Kara Swisher where he talks about why every tech company should have an editorial team
  • Matt took part in Rolf Pott’s Paris Writing Workshop a few years back which he highly recommends
  • Automattic recently purchased Longreads
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