Sometimes the most generous acts come out of offering your work and yourself up to others. That’s exactly what Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress and founder of Automattic, did with WordPress, a blogging tool and content management system. What may very well be his greatest achievement is available for anyone to use and benefit from for free.
"I was much more concerned with getting something out in the world that I thought the world needed," Mullenweg says of his blogging site, which recently celebrated it’s 10th anniversary.
While creating his own website, Mullenweg discovered open-source software that makes source code available for anyone to study, change, and distribute at no cost and for any purpose. Without Mullenweg’s ability to build upon what came before him through open source, WordPress may not exist today.
"It just seemed like good karma to make WordPress also open source, even though that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to business models, investing, and stuff like that," Mullenweg says. "We’re all laying down bricks on the path for whatever comes afterward."
And WordPress has been both a driver of innovation and the economy. Mullenweg estimates that other people have generated from $600 to $700 million worth of business by using WordPress. At Catchafire, our professional pro-bono talent takes advantage of the free services to help nonprofit organizations set up a splash page or site.
"I’m really good at making software for publishing," Mullenweg says. "If I can leverage that skill I have which is unique in the world to help out other things that I care about, that’s really powerful."
WordPress grew organically as people stumbled across it in the free online marketplace and it solved their problems, much as Mullenweg had worked on its original development. He got his first taste of collaborating to problem solve during high school when he volunteered at a local nonprofit which offered computer services. Most of the fix-it volunteers were young like Mullenweg, drawn both to the free pizza and the cross-section of problems. "There’s something very real about helping someone one-on-one," he says.
Today, Mullenweg continues to concentrate his efforts on WordPress and Automatic. While the nonprofit side offers desktop publishing free to the world to modify, the commercial side offers complementary services that would not necessarily be possible in open source.
"I think the hybrid model allows bigger change than if we were purely nonprofit or purely for-profit," Mullenweg says. "So having a little bit of both has much bigger impact."
In addition to WordPress, Mullenweg donates from a good portion of his income to charities. His giving falls into three categories: foundational problems, secular issues such as freedom, press and climate change, and enrichment of the soul through music, arts and poetry. Some of his favorite charities include charity: water, which leverages technology to connect donors to projects and operates in a startup-like fashion, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which fights for online freedom and against censorship, and The Bay Lights, a LED light sculpture across the Bay Bridge.
"What’s important is probably not the amount you donate but having something that’s bigger than yourself that you’re connected to and that’s a part of your life on a regular basis," Mullenweg says. "I think it’s important if people can also connect their work to that something bigger."
As a board member of Grist, an environmental news site, Mullenweg applies his desktop publishing expertise towards tackling a pressing and often overlooked issue. Through media, Grist strives to impact people’s behaviors and perceptions of environmental issues on a mass scale.
After working on a Habitat for Humanity project with friends, Mullenweg realized he could have a greater impact by using his talents rather than doing construction for which he was unqualified. "Sometimes, you have to be frustrated and do something unscalable and a waste of your time to be inspired," Mullenweg says. "It’s important for everyone to find how he or she can have the biggest impact."
Mullenweg subscribes to the notion that giving back is the responsibility of people who have had much given to them. That financial security provides him with a sense of freedom and the flexibility to do things he might not be able to do otherwise, including supporting charitable causes and building a company.
"In every aspect of life, I consider myself incredibly fortunate," Mullenweg says. "The more I’ve given away, the more I’ve gotten back. That’s like my one-line bio."