With almost 61 million websites across the world and 40 million new posts published on its platform each month, WordPress is one of the truly remarkable stories of the internet age.
But while one of its two founders has gone on to ‘rockstar’ status in the global tech community and a net worth estimated at $40million, the other lives in virtual anonymity in Stockport running his own small web development company.
For Mike Little, there are no magazine profiles or keynote speaking appointments. There are no lists naming him one of the top 10 most influential people online, as Business Insider named Matt Mullenweg, his co-founder.
Even the people who attend his WordPress training courses are sometimes stunned to discover that they are learning from one of the creators himself, the man who put down the first lines of code on a content management system that has gone on, virtually single-handedly, to change the face of online publishing.
Now everyone from CNN and NBC to Telegraph Blogs and TechCrunch, right down to one-man blogs and indeed Prolific North itself, uses the WordPress platform.
The story begins almost 10 years ago to the day. Little, now 50, was working as a technical architect at Manchester e-commerce specialist Zendor.com. Mullenweg, then a prodigious 19-year-old from Texas, had been contributing some minor code improvements to b2/cafelog, an early blogging platform that he used to host his photos.
After a quick email exchange regarding the software Mullenweg was using, Little started following his blog. Before long the unlikely pair were communicating more regularly and sharing ideas, and when Mullenweg announced he was planning a “fork” – software developer speak for taking code from one piece of software and creating a new thing entirely – Little posted the following comment on his blog:
Mullenweg took him up on his offer, and for the next three months the pair beavered away on the code for the new project before, on May 27 2003, releasing the first version of WordPress.
The b2/cafelog had only ever been downloaded by 2,000 people, but WordPress spread like wildfire. Suddenly, anyone could create a website.
“The first few versions we put out were user-friendly, good looking and a move away from something that only geeks could use – as Matt always used to say, he wanted his mum to be able to use it,” says Little.
Within months it had gained serious ground on its far more established rivals, and one key moment arrived when a competitor, Movable Type, announced it would be begin charging for use. Legions of influential users instantly migrated to WordPress and the path to domination was begun – WordPress now accounts for a staggering 54% of all off-the-shelf content management systems used in the world.
Little’s involvement is perhaps all the more remarkable because he was entirely self-taught. He wrote his first computer program in 1978 at his school, Stockport College, in the days when code was produced not on screen but on punch tape.
Having not gone on to university, Little’s passion for computers led him to a successful career in software development at companies like Pantek in Stockport and Eunite in Manchester.
After his initial involvement at WordPress, Little “drifted away” from WordPress in 2005 when he no longer had the time to give on a voluntary basis. Mullenweg set up Automattic as a means of employing and paying key developers working on WordPress, and also went on to create apps such as Akismet, Gravatar and VaultPress. His stock – and fortune – continues to rise.
Little stayed in Stockport with his family, and in 2008 set up his own consultancy, Zed1. As WordPress remains free and is protected by the WordPress Foundation, a not-for-profit, it does not make Little a penny and he does not own a share.
As for the future, Little sees “absolutely no rivals” and can only see the growth continuing. “I can only see it going from strength to strength,” he said. “When it first started it was purely a blogging platform, but it got a bit more sophisticated and about five years ago it became a really accomplished CMS and has gone on from there. Now it has really turned into an app platform – there’s almost nothing you can’t build on it. It is incredibly capable.
“Matt is really driven towards mobile – making the sites not only look good on mobile but also making the back end work so that you can actually create your content on mobile.”
WordPress continues to grow and develop, its open source attribute ensuring its core software is constantly being built and improved by hundreds of community volunteers.
Little humbly accepts the part that Mullenweg has played. “He is a clever guy and very single-minded, and WordPress would not be what it is without him. He does upset people sometimes but I still 100% believe in what he does. He would love to get to the situation where everyone used the platform but nobody knew what WordPress was.”
Although Little did make some contributions to the latest version, 3.5, he is not involved in the future direction of WordPress. He will continue to build his business and train others – and reluctantly accept his major role in one of the technological stories of the last 20 years.
“I’m a classic geek,” he added. “I don’t make a big play of it – a number of friends of mine tear their hair out because I don’t. I do make people more aware now, but I’m not really the type of person to do that. It’s taken a while to put myself forward.”