“The office is empty most days. I haven’t been there for months,” says Matt Mullinweg, founder of Automattic and possibly the most laidback CEO on the planet. “It’s working great and I honestly can’t imagine working any other way.”
Mullenweg set up Automattic, the company that runs WordPress, when he found that site he used to power his student blog to be a bit too “high friction” for his liking. After linking up with a handful of developers scattered around the world, he moved from Houston to San Francisco to get the company off the ground. Now, WordPress runs 20% of all sites of the internet (including this one!), and 50% of the world’s most popular sites are based on the platform.
Although the company does have a small HQ in California, Mullenweg felt that “it didn’t make sense” to ask the whole team to relocate to “one of the most expensive places in the country, if not the world” when they could carry on working quite happily in their own homes, in their own time.
“A lot of people love the autonomy of working from home, setting your own schedule,” he says. “I don’t really care when you work, how late you sleep, whether you pick up your kids from school in the afternoon. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about your output. Maybe someone can do the same work that most of us do in eight hours in one hour – and good for them!”
As they grew, the company faced plenty of scepticism over its structure, or lack thereof. “Still, to this day, people say, oh it’s gonna break!” laughs Mullenweg, who employed 275 people at the time of the interview.
“They say, ah, that works great when you’ve got 10 or 15, but when you get to 30 people, it falls over. Oh, you’ve got 30? 100 is the magic number… we’ve kinda blown past all of those.”
While many might question how the company holds onto its vision when its people are so widely distributed, Mullenweg feels that a dispersed workforce is no less connected than any other company of the same size.
“It sounds like it’s really different and weird, but it’s probably not all that different to what a company that is on two floors of a building deals with,” he says. “Beyond a certain point, you’re not going to see everyone every day, so it’s all about communication.”
Rather than endlessly cc’ing each other into emails in order to stay in the loop, Automattic uses a novel system that is more akin to social media, in which all work-in-progress is published openly within the company and individuals follow relevant tags and keywords. It can take new recruits a little while to adjust to cutting through the information overload, says Mullenweg, but in fact it’s much closer to how we communicate online outside of work, while ensuring transparency and sharing ideas across teams.
Plus, he says, with all the money saved on conventional office space and associated costs, Automattic gives teams free rein to decide where in the world they want to go when they do meet. This means that face-to-face interactions have taken place anywhere from Japan to Hawaii – a great incentive for employees that “love to travel” and far more conducive to enthusiastic team bonding than popping to a conference room for a few hours.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of Automattic’s approach to management is the way that each team is essentially its own little startup. As Mullenweg explains, teams are very small – about 5-10 people – allowing them to form close working relationships, focus intensely on particular projects and, essentially, work like a small business. Once they get any bigger than this, they split off into smaller teams again, and team leaders typically work on a rotational basis, avoiding unnecessary hierarchies. It might sound like a hippy dream, but as evidenced by the huge and sustained success of WordPress, it really can work.
Of course, for a business like this to function, you have to have the right people involved (those that value “autonomy, mastery and purpose”), and Mullenweg says that he spends around a third of his time on recruiting newbies, who then test out how well they like the working style by doing a paid trial over their evenings and weekends. This way, they can decide if they can handle the amount of self-reliance involved, while Automattic can get a sense of whether they’re a good fit – essential, says Mullenweg, because “you can’t manage your way out of a bad team.”
Ultimately, what Automattic favours is a model that prioritises quality of output over the presenteeism that is prized by most organisations.
“What does it mean to be working?” says Mullenweg. “We have, like, this factory model, where we think someone’s working if they show up in the morning and they’re not drunk, or they don’t sleep at their desk, or they leave at the right time, and they’re dressed nicely, or whatever.
“But that has so little to do with what you create. And I think we all know people who create a lot without fitting in those norms.”
Click below to watch Mullenweg’s full interview with Lean Startup.