Gartner recognized four WCM Visionaries this year, including Automattic
Gartner recognized four WCM Visionaries this year, including Automattic. PHOTO: Jonny Lindner

Everyone who has ever tangentially tinkered with a website knows about WordPress. Automattic doesn't have quite the same name recognition, but it should.

Founded in 2005, Automattic is the web development corporation behind WordPress.com, the most popular open source content management system (CMS) on the planet, as well as WooCommerce, Jetpack, Simplenote, Longreads, VaultPress, Akismet, Gravatar, Polldaddy, Cloudup and more.

Once again this year, San Francisco-based Automattic earned recognition as a Visionary in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant (MQ) for Web Content Management.

The privately-held company, which was valued at $1.6 billion in 2014, is undeniably a major player. The WordPress market share has increased from 13 percent back in 2011 to 23.3 percent by January 2015 to about 27 percent today.

Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner reports strong interest in Automattic's WordPress.com VIP, the cloud version of WordPress. Flexible and easy-to-use, it is appealing to many business users, including a slowly increasing number of large enterprises. Gartner thinks the platform would have even more muscle if Automattic improved its sales and marketing efforts.

Simon Dickson, director of platform services with Wordpress at Automattic
Simon Dickson
In this second of a four-part series on this year’s WCM visionaries, CMSWire talked to Simon Dickson, director of Platform Services for WordPress.com VIP at Automattic.

Automattic: Big, Open and Growing

Roe: What differentiates Automattic from the three other Gartner WCM Visionaries?

Dickson: First and foremost, the scale of our ecosystem. According to the analysts at W3Techs, the WordPress software powers 27 percent of all websites. That’s more than every other detectable CMS combined.

We’re now also the most popular platform for e-commerce, with 39 percent of all transactional websites running our WooCommerce plugin. That adds up to millions of designers, developers and editors using WordPress for all kinds of digital experiences.

But it’s also our relationship with that ecosystem. Automattic grew out of the WordPress open source community, and we see the community as an integral part of our enterprise offering.

Other companies recognize that scale advantage, too. So when Google unveiled its Accelerated Mobile Page (AMP) Project, we were the only technology-based launch partner.

The biggest players in the business speak to Automattic first, ahead of the other visionaries, even ahead of Gartner’s Leaders, because they know they can’t ignore the influence of WordPress on the entire web.

Roe: Visionary suggests "groundbreaking." Does this describe Automattic?

Dickson: We’re very happy with the visionary tag. WordPress and Automattic have always been motivated by a vision of an open, democratic web. We believe websites should be easy for anyone to manage.

We believe everyone should benefit from the latest and greatest development, so we ensure our updates are easy and backwards-compatible wherever possible. We believe your content belongs to you, and shouldn’t be locked up in proprietary formats or channels.

We made a bold bet a decade ago, basing our business on a free platform and free software. There is now a consensus that open source has won, but it certainly wasn’t a foregone conclusion back in 2005. WordPress is one of open source’s most visible success stories, and we’re proud to have played a part in its victory.

Automattic attracts a lot of attention not only for what we do, but how we do it. We’re often cited as pioneers of distributed working, whereby all employees work from home or a coffee shop or a co-working space — wherever suits them. It’s a very natural way for us to work, given our roots in online collaboration.

Roe: Gartner noted there has been increased interest in your WordPress.com VIP offering. How do you explain this?

Dickson: A lot of it can be attributed to the growing influence and market share of WordPress, and the credibility of our VIP service. In the last few months we’ve launched People magazine and the UK’s Sun newspaper on VIP, both doing several million page views daily. People see that, and they think, "‘If VIP can cope with that, it can cope with my site too."

Meanwhile more and more enterprises are having bad experiences with proprietary solutions, which seemed like the safer bet last time they were in the market. But maybe the costs were higher than they were promised. Maybe it was just too slow or difficult to get it how they wanted it. Maybe the vendor changed strategy unexpectedly, or went out of business.

But they also see that running an enterprise-level publishing or retailing platform is a very different proposition to running a personal blog for $5 a month. Enterprises want added reassurance around security, performance, global availability. And when they work with VIP, they know they have the support of the people who know more about this than anyone else.

Roe: How do you persuade large organizations to your platform?

Dickson: I’d invite them to meet some of the VIP clients who are working with us every day. People who only know us as the operators of WordPress.com may not be familiar with the ways large enterprises make use of our platform.

Roe: Gartner was critical of some things, specifically noting, “WordPress does not reflect a deep an understanding of enterprise or industry-specific goals.” How do you respond to this?

Dickson: Our world view is very different from most software vendors. I sometimes wonder if that counts against us.

We don’t have the things that have classically defined the enterprise software space — armies of salespeople pushing GTM [Go To Market]] strategies or huge milestone releases which are incompatible with whatever came before. We just keep pressing onwards, quietly innovating and iterating every few months.

Roe: How do does Automattic feed into organizations’ digital transformation needs?

Dickson: Automattic was a digital business from day one. The shift to cloud hosting, the distributed working model, asynchronous conversations via chatroom or comment thread. These were the natural ways for our first employees to work a decade or more ago, and it’s truly part of our company DNA now. Our approach isn’t what many enterprise clients are used to, but they soon see the benefits and the value in it.

Other platforms are proud to be "by developers, for developers." But WordPress is committed to designing for most ordinary users, as they’re the ones who will ultimately be spending the most time using it.

Digital transformation is about flexibility and adaptability. Things move so fast. You can’t make big CMS investments today, and be sure the world will still look the same in three or four years while your investment pays off. You have to accept the uncertainty, and choose solutions which will be able to adapt to your needs, and the conditions around you. WordPress has been doing just that for over a decade, growing in sophistication, adopting new processes and methods as they have emerged.

Roe: What trends do you see emerging in the Web CMS space?

Dickson: We’re seeing growing levels of excitement around using WordPress as a headless CMS. WordPress.com has had a REST API for several years, but the inclusion of the community REST API plugin in the WordPress core software opens up all kinds of new possibilities. We’ll still be a PHP-based application, but if developers want WordPress to be something else, it can be.

We know of people using the WordPress back-end to power some very creative JavaScript front ends and native mobile apps, or to feed rapid-fire content into some very high-profile websites based on other technologies.

And conversely, we know people are using the REST API to push content into WordPress from other systems, when they’re migrating from other CMS, or because they want WordPress to bring all their content together. Often we only hear about these developments anecdotally.

We also see a lot of enterprises recognizing the need for greater maturity in their development processes. CMS have been around long enough, for most of us to have had our fingers burned at some point. Clients understand that it’s no longer a case of "Can it be done?" but more "How do we do it right, securely and sustainably?"