How Automattic Grew Into A Startup Worth $1 Billion With No Email And No Office Workers
Automattic is so unusual, it's the subject of a new book "The Year Without Pants" by its employee Scott Berkun. Berkun is a former Microsoft employee who documented how Automattic grew into a 190-employee company with a $1 billion valuation, while nearly all employees work from home.
Even though the company has a gorgeous San Francisco office, Automattic doesn't consider location when hiring employees. Workers are scattered across 141 cities and 28 countries and get a $2,000 stipend to decorate or improve their home offices (in addition to a new Mac and other tech equipment), WordPress creator and Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg told Business Insider.
The company also has a huge travel budget. Any team can meet whenever they want for a "hack week" in any location in the world like Tokyo, Athens, Kauai, San Francisco, Amsterdam, or Sydney.
In his book, Berkun describes his first team meet up, in Athens:
Who gets on a plane to meet with coworkers in ATHENS? ... It never entirely made sense to me why we were there, but the effect of it was clear: we were all energized, inspired, and ready to earn our trip to an amazing place.
As for daily work, the company uses chat rooms, Google Hangout video, and its own blogging tools instead of email and conference-room meetings. In this way, they update and support WordPress, which is open source software. Open source is a way of writing software in a community. Anyone in any location who uses the software can write code for it, employee or not.
We asked Mullenweg to tell us more about running Automattic this way:
Business Insider: When did you realize it was better not to use email, have meetings or have everyone in the same office?
Matt Mullenweg: At Automattic we knew we didn't need to be in the same place from day one, as the first four Automatticians were all in different cities around the world. We had been working together for a long time already on the open source WordPress project, which like almost all open source projects takes contributions from all over the world.
Email came a few years later. Around 2009, about four years after the company started, we found ourselves using email a lot and our blog not that much, so we decided to turn the concept of a blog on its head and make it easy to post and have a conversation without ever leaving its home page, that became P2. (Editor's Note: P2 is like a combo Tumblr/Yammer blog and comment service.)
BI: How can a company that begins as a meritocracy, when it's small and everyone knows each other, continue to be a meritocracy as it grows and everyone no longer knows each other in person?
MM: You don't need to know someone personally to be able to discern whether their work is high quality or not. The idea of a meritocracy is that it's what they do, not who they are. Also, when you work with someone closely you get to know them well, and we do bring teams together three to four times a year so they can spend time together in person for fun and brainstorming.
BI: Is there a different attitude toward "failing" and "success" at your company than at other software companies? What does it mean to succeed? What is the attitude toward failure?
MM: We try to orient not toward success or failure, but toward speed of iteration, which I feel leads to success in the long term. Since we can move quickly, something is only a failure if we didn't learn something from it or if it took too long.
BI: What's the biggest lesson from your company's culture that other managers can use, even if they don't work in typical companies, that use email, have meetings, etc.?
MM: It's hard to reduce it down to one thing, but I think regardless of what tools you use to communicate if you give people autonomy to execute on something meaningful, and bias the environment to moving quickly, amazing things can happen.