The Bowery Farming TC-1

Farming is the most fundamental activity of civilization. Efficient, reliable and abundant food allows the great majority of people today to eschew cultivating plants and raising livestock and instead pursue every other activity that makes up an economy. It’s also an enterprise that has seen extensive innovation over the millennia, and farming has never been more efficient than it is today.

Unfortunately, that’s no longer enough.

The skyrocketing global human population — expected to hit 10 billion sometime this century — coupled with the accelerating effects of the climate crisis are leading to a decisive crossroads: How can the world continually increase food production while also mitigating its overall environmental impact?

A growing chorus of researchers, activists and entrepreneurs believe that at least part of the solution is vertical, indoor farming. Once derided for tasteless vegetables and wild-eyed (read: unprofitable) schemes, vertical farms are increasingly compelling thanks to progressive technological improvements and more efficient designs.

While dozens of vertical farms have sprouted in the past decade, few have attracted the amount of attention that Manhattan-headquartered Bowery Farming enjoys. Founded in 2014, the company has raised nearly $500 million in venture capital — most recently at a $2.3 billion valuation — and is expanding from two experimental grow facilities to multiple scaled-up production hubs as it serves its leafy greens to customers at more than 850 grocery stores. The question the company asks is simple: Can it bring the newest and most innovative technologies to bear on civilization’s oldest and most optimized industry?

Answering that question in this TC-1 is Brian Heater, TechCrunch’s hardware editor. Heater has been writing about hardware and robotics for more than a decade and also hosts our annual TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics conference. As we’ll see shortly, hardware and robotics are key to making the Bowery model work at scale, profitably. The lead editor for this package was Danny Crichton, the assistant editor was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto and illustrations were created by Nigel Sussman.

Bowery Farming had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Heater has no financial ties to Bowery Farming.

The Bowery Farming TC-1 comprises four main articles measuring 11,100 words and 44 minutes of reading time. Here are the topics we’ll be uprooting:

  • Part 1: Origin storyBowery Farming is forcing us all to look up at the future of vertical agriculture” (3,500 words/14 minutes) — explores the evolution of vertical farming, it’s expansion in Japan and how Bowery Farming was started to bring indoor farming to the masses in the United States.
  • Part 2: Produce developmentHacking lettuce for taste and profit” (2,500 words/10 minutes) — evaluates how Bowery collects data from its farms in order to optimize flavor while also potentially expanding its produce line into new categories like strawberries and turnips.
  • Part 3: Agtech engineeringCan LEDs ultimately replace the sun?” (2,100 words/8 minutes) — investigates two of the most important questions about Bowery Farming: Can it develop a competitive moat with its technology (which it dubs BoweryOS) and just how much environmental benefit can the company derive from its farms?
  • Part 4: Branding, finances and competitive landscapeThe voracious fight for your salad bowl” (3,000 words/12 minutes) — looks at the extremely competitive nature of the produce section at the grocery store and how Bowery intends to build a brand with consumers while finding a route to profitability.

We’re always iterating on the TC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at

Bowery Farming is forcing us all to look up at the future of vertical agriculture

Food is the very nourishment of life, but it’s also becoming increasingly challenging to grow at scale. A combination of explosive and unsustainable population growth, human-made climate change and depleted sources of clean water is contributing to overcultivation across the world.

For its many advocates, vertical farming is a critical piece to solving that puzzle, even as skeptics cite its intensive power demands as a major hurdle toward achieving the long-term positive climate impact it promises.

Existential crises of climate change and substantial food shortages have fueled interest in alternative forms of food production, while innovations in technology have created the potential for delivering those ideas at scale.

The pursuit of sustainability was a key catalyst in the formation of Bowery Farming — and, for that matter, the development of vertical farming as a whole. Global climate disasters have spurred companies and governments to increasingly explore large-scale solutions, and that’s why increasingly bullish investors are pumping money into the space — the company raised a $300 million round this May.

Companies like Bowery have captured the imagination of the public for the role they might eventually play in helping reshape the 10,000-year-old practice of agriculture. It’s big talk, but it’s unsurprising in a world inexorably drawn to the notion that the solution to righting the wrongs of decades of harmful technologies can be found in technology itself. It’s a hopeful thought.

In the first part of this TC-1, I will look at the origins of Bowery Farming as well as the vertical farming movement as a whole. I’ll also discuss how Japan’s 2011 tragic earthquake catalyzed interest in the model and also explore how these new approaches to agriculture could usher in critical changes on an Earth with rapidly changing climates.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

The best way to understand a farm is to visit it, so I set up a tour to see what Bowery is building. I intend to arrive early, making some vague plans to walk to a nearby coffee shop, set up camp with caffeine and Wi-Fi, and prep for the day. As we approached the destination, however, that plan is quickly scrapped.

As the crow flies, Bowery Farming’s Kearny, New Jersey R&D center is roughly five miles from Manhattan, but the surrounding neighborhood contains none of the trappings of bustling city life. Just industrial warehouses and little else as far as the eye can see.

Hacking lettuce for taste and profit

“The first thing you notice is just the smell,” chief science officer of Bowery Farming Henry Sztul says excitedly. “It’s got that smell, right?”

There’s a kind of visceral sense memory that hits you as you enter Farm Zero, a Proustian moment that overtakes the senses after years of living in a major city. It smells like greenhouses and grow rooms: fresh, alive and a dramatic contrast from the world immediately outside the building here in Kearny, New Jersey.

Years of indoor farming breakthroughs have made it possible for leafy greens to be grown at larger and larger scales — and, eventually, at a profit.

As I walk through Bowery Farming’s three active vertical farm and research facilities, my mind is teeming with questions about climate change and the potential of sustainable vertical farming. Yet, when it comes right down to it, it’s the taste and, yes, that smell that will drive the company’s — and the industry’s — success.

We’re decked out in clean room coveralls and hairnets. Watches and jewelry are off, the soles of our shoes still damp from standing in sanitizing solution. “In here, we have a fully enclosed environment,” Sztul continues. “We control temperature, humidity, CO2, water flow, nutrients, light levels. When I say light levels I mean the color of the light spectrum, the intensity of the light, the photo period, the day/night cycles.”

Unlike traditional software products, inventing produce is an entirely different endeavor. Perturbations in the inputs of Bowery’s vertical farm can lead to radically different flavor profiles in the leafy greens it distributes.

In the second part of this TC-1, I’ll look at how the company experiments in Farm Zero and what it dubs Farm X, how it develops new produce lines as it expands outside of leafy greens and how it transforms farm work for the urban 21st century while scaling up at its newer Farm One production facility.

Tilling concrete

The smell is the first sense to hit, but it’s the visual that really grabs you. Right in front of me are the grow systems that give vertical farming its name. It’s a kind of scaffolding setup with row atop row of leafy greens nestled in long trays and lit by bright LEDs. PVC piping snakes up and down, delivering the water that cycles through the systems — saving 15 to 20 million gallons of water per farm over traditional growing each year, according to the company’s estimates.

Grow trays bask in light at Bowery Farming. Image Credits: Brian Heater

This entire room is part of one closed irrigation system, circulating the nutrient-rich liquid to all the plants. Bowery says that even the water lost from natural plant perspiration can be captured with its HVAC system and recirculated back into the loop.

The glowing lights are a stark contrast to the gloomy industrial park outside, but even indoors, the visual is somewhat difficult to reconcile. The little pods of bright green vegetation exist in almost a laboratory setting, a strange juxtaposition of the natural and the synthetic that speaks to the heart of what vertical farming attempts to do — effectively hacking 10,000 years of agricultural knowledge.

Can LEDs ultimately replace the sun?

Agriculture has a 10,000-year history, and it’s predominantly a history of technology. Developments from the plow and wheel to enclosures and the modern mechanical miracles of gas-powered tractors and sorters have consistently improved crop yields, allowing humanity to expand from tens of millions of people to a global population projected to top 10 billion this century.

When it comes to the next stages of that long course of innovation, vertical farming would seem to have all the right properties. Precise controls backed by data analysis can calibrate food quality, leading to further improvements in yields while reducing raw inputs like water. That’s critical at a time when the world’s climate is increasingly at a breaking point.

The energy efficiency of lamps or production systems can be improved, but not infinitely, so indoor crops will always be heavily dependent on electricity and other industrial support.

For Bowery Farming, no technology is too small to optimize, and no data is too insignificant to track. Combined together, the startup hopes to orchestrate the future of farming — and build a competitive moat in the process. To ultimately create a company of value, it needs to not just build differentiated technology but also build a brand with consumers, which we’ll turn to in the final part of this TC-1.

In parts one and two, I covered the history of vertical farming, Bowery’s origins and how it develops produce. In this third part, I’ll look at the company’s core tech infrastructure, explore how developments of just one component, LEDs, made vertical farming viable and investigate just how much climate savings Bowery can be expected to wring out as it grows in scale.


We can’t understand Bowery without describing BoweryOS. It’s the secret sauce that ties its automated systems, sensors and data collection together into a central nervous system. The company is tight-lipped about specifics but notes that it unlocks the ability to rapidly replicate its growth system at new farms.

“You could be the greatest farmer in the world in Salinas Valley, and I pick you up and bring you to New Jersey and that knowledge doesn’t transfer,” says Irving Fain, founder and CEO of Bowery Farming. “You put the Bowery operating system inside of that farm, and that farm now has the knowledge and understanding of every crop we’ve ever grown and every process we’ve ever run immediately available to it. In essence, what we’re really doing is building a distributed network of farms, whereby every new farm that enters that network benefits from the collective knowledge of the network that came before it.”

The voracious fight for your salad bowl

There are several plastic clamshells sitting in front of me on a conference room table — around 20 or so boxes, labels facing forward, with a plate of turnips and a tub of those R&D strawberries we saw back in part two.

It’s a nice photo opportunity, backdropped by Bowery Farming’s impressive grow system and a good visual representation of the product’s life cycle. More importantly, it’s a reminder of how most people will ultimately interact with the company.

Bowery’s clamshells in the foreground and grow system in the background. Image Credits: Brian Heater

My position at TechCrunch afforded me the grand tour, of course — the whole Willy Wonka, clean suit coveralls and taste-testing experience. In the company’s FAQ, the answer to “Can I visit a Bowery Farm?” is a simple, “At this time, we do not allow visitors to our farms.”

It’s understandable, of course. While the farms themselves are a great visual, there are too many resources and health precautions required to worry about giving tours to outsiders. On my own visit, my guides were extremely cautious about what could and couldn’t be photographed — trade secrets and all.

Given the novelty of vertical farming, and that some stigma still exists against the taste of indoor-grown produce, Bowery’s branding strategy largely revolves around blending in.

Press coverage, like this feature you’re currently reading, is part of the outreach. The company opens itself to journalists and the occasional video camera knowing that putting its farms on visual display is a powerful way to unlock the fascinating story of vertical farming.

Ahead of my own visit, I watched a broad range of videos featuring vertical farms from all over the world. My playlist featured everything from Nordic Harvest’s newly opened 75,000-square-foot facility in Copenhagen, to the modular urban farming setups Brooklyn-based Square Roots creates inside a shipping container you can purchase for just $80,000.

The size, the scope, the potential impact — the mind reels. Vertical farming may be a nascent space, but it is growing rapidly, and the greenfield is being taken quickly.

Most consumers will never interact with a Bowery farm beyond reading an article or watching a clip online, and there’s nothing particularly wrong about that. The truth is that urbanites will almost never set foot in the place where our food is grown — that there’s a connection at all is a kind of win in and of itself.

Ultimately though, building that individual connection with consumers will determine the fate of Bowery in the ultra-competitive produce market. Branding is a high priority for the firm, particularly as it battles competitors like AeroFarms, which recently announced that it will go public via SPAC before failing to secure investor approval.

In this fourth and final part of the TC-1, I’ll look at how the company is trying to invent brand loyalty in the produce section, figure out its packaging, design its supply chain and, finally, seek a path to profitability against a broad competitive landscape.

Lettuce have a taste

Bowery sees opportunity in the boutique clamshells that have begun propagating across produce shelves in recent years — first in upscale markets and then more mainstream grocery stores.

The Automattic TC-1

It’s hard to build a publishing empire, and it’s just as easy to lose one. Newspaper magnates were mostly replaced by broadcast moguls, first radio and then TV and cable, and now of course, they are all fighting against the social media tycoons and streaming impresarios who want to capture our attention. Each generation of media titans dies off and is replaced, just as each medium finds its niche only to be supplanted by something novel.

So when it comes to Automattic, the leading commercial complement to the open-source WordPress publishing platform, time and longevity have a rather peculiar meaning in an industry littered with the gravestones of media sites of yore. Founded in 2005, the company continues to assiduously evolve and expand as it staves off that ambient and inclement sense of doom that pervades media.

Sixteen years in and now valued at $7.5 billion, Automattic has found a multitude of strides, even as it strives to own ever more of the media market. It’s a publisher, a social media network via its acquisition of Tumblr, an e-commerce giant with WooCommerce, a productivity tool with P2, and more. It reached this peak doing pretty much everything wrong, according to VCs, a strategy, as we will see, that proved to be exponentially effective in the long run.

The lead writer for this TC-1 (our slightly rechristened EC-1 to match our TechCrunch+ rebrand) is Chris Morrison. Chris has been among our most productive analysts of breakthrough companies, profiling Roblox and Klaviyo in previous entries of this series. In addition to writing and analyzing, he’s an independent game developer and brings his expertise in business development and engineering to bear in understanding Automattic and its open source focus. The lead editor for this package was Danny Crichton, the assistant editor was Ram Iyer, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto and illustrations were created by Nigel Sussman.

Morrison has no financial ties to Automattic or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

The Automattic TC-1 comprises four main articles numbering 10,700 words and a reading time of about 40 minutes. Let’s take a look:

We’re always iterating on the TC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at

How doing everything wrong turned Automattic into a multibillion dollar media powerhouse

Nothing has been automatic about the success of Automattic.

Today, to those who haven’t been paying attention, the company looks a bit like an overnight success story. WordPress, the open source software behind the company, is now estimated to power roughly 42% of all websites on the internet. Automattic’s e-commerce plugin, WooCommerce, which it purchased in 2015, is believed to run more than a quarter of all online storefronts.

The company has 1,700 employees in a distributed, asynchronous, global workforce, and has raised nearly $1 billion, according to Crunchbase, most recently at a $7.5 billion valuation.

Automattic founder and CEO Matt Mullenweg at TechCrunch Disrupt 2014. Image Credits: TechCrunch

But reaching this point has taken 16 years — or 18, if you count from the founding of WordPress. And over those many years, the company did pretty much everything wrong, if you ask the venture capitalists.

Automattic focused on media at a time when that industry was being demolished by the internet. It eschewed the kinds of walled gardens that turned Facebook, Apple and Google into monopolistic powerhouses and built its business on top of a volunteer-run, open source infrastructure that gave many investors serious pause.

Its workforce has always been fully remote and distributed — 16 years before last year’s pandemic spread that model throughout the corporate world. Automattic’s founder, Matt Mullenweg, was barely of American legal drinking age (21) when he began building, at a time when venture capitalists wanted “adult supervision” at their companies.

But in retrospect, doing everything wrong was exactly the right strategy — a fact that’s just now becoming apparent.

“With exponential growth, things look small until the end,” says Mullenweg. In his reckoning, Automattic isn’t yet close to the end, but the curve is starting to become visible.

It all began with a blog post.

The jazz saxophonist who started a weblog revolution

Massive changes often begin as ephemeral, uncertain ideas. The technology is unstable and experimental; the audience unclear; and the commercial applications murky or completely unknown.

Back in 2003, that was the context for the so-called weblog, which would shortly be elided to blog. Blogger had just sold itself to Google — for an undisclosed and presumably small price. The year before, political bloggers at Instapundit and Talking Points Memo had shaken up American politics when they managed to intensify attention on a story about Trent Lott, forcing his resignation as the minority leader in the U.S. Senate. Yet, traditional media remained the undisputed king of communication, and the era of professional blogs (including the one you’re reading) was still a distant dream.

One early adopter was Matt Mullenweg, a 19-year-old jazz enthusiast in Texas. In a blog post that’s still online, he wrote:

My logging software hasn’t been updated for months, and the main developer has disappeared, and I can only hope that he’s okay.

What to do?

Mullenweg himself didn’t necessarily look like the person to come up with a solution. His interests were eclectic and wide-ranging — while he imagined himself as a future jazz saxophonist, he was also studying political science at the University of Houston, and spent a good deal of his time working on his photography (to this day, Mullenweg’s Twitter handle is @photomatt). His tech hobbies, including open source software, were inspired by his father’s job as a professional programmer, but Mullenweg didn’t yet seem certain about following his father’s profession.

Nevertheless, his post got the attention of a few other developers and the group set out to create the open source WordPress project, focused on blog publishing. The first version of WordPress was released in May 2003 and became the official version of b2, an older project that had been abandoned.

Mullenweg became the center point of a growing community. An October 2004 Houston Press profile of him noted that WordPress was running more than 29,000 blogs. Mullenweg’s own blog was the third most popular in the world, and all the attention he received resulted in an offer to leave college and become a senior product manager at CNET, a San Francisco media company. WordPress, though, was still referred to as a “hobby.”

The good side of spam

CNET turned out to be the perfect employer. The company’s job offer allowed Mullenweg to spend 20% of his time working on WordPress and also let him retain ownership of source code he wrote while at the company. The role also gave him an inside view of the internal systems of a large media organization.

There’s nothing Automattic about balancing commercial growth with an open source developer community

The tech industry has made a full 180-degree turn with regard to open source in the 16 years since Matt Mullenweg founded Automattic, a major commercial backer of open source content management system WordPress.

Microsoft, whose executives once used phrases like “un-American” and “cancer” to describe open source, is now one of the world’s largest contributors. Elastic, Confluent and GitLab have proven that startups, too, can layer commercial success on top of open source projects.

Even true believers can be shocked by the extent to which open source has succeeded. “To me, one of the most incredible examples of this is Chromium being used not just by Brave, but by Internet Explorer,” Mullenweg, who is also CEO of Automattic, said. “That’s the tech equivalent of peace in the Middle East — it felt so far away and unimaginable.”

WordPress and Automattic are key leaders in this trend. WordPress remains a vibrant project: Around a thousand active “core” contributors engineer the product, while a massive, 55,000-strong group of “extender” contributors builds themes and plugins that expand the platform’s functionality. The more than 28 million WordPress sites represent about 40% of the web, making the project among the most deployed open source platforms.

Mullenweg, however, views all of this as merely a starting point. In his reckoning, WordPress could double its current scale in the coming years, a proposition that can make even the most bullish open source software engineer nervous.

To get there, Automattic has to shepherd and evolve its developer community even as it empowers more and more of its open source contributors to take leadership roles in the future of the WordPress ecosystem. That hasn’t always gone well, as we will see with a transition around a new version of WordPress called Gutenberg, but ultimately, the company is doubling down on community engagement, hoping that growth in the next 16 years of Automattic will be even faster than the last era.

One company that doesn’t rule them all

Both large and small companies contribute back code and time to the community, often following some version of Mullenweg’s Five for the Future initiative, which asks organizations using WordPress to spend 5% of their resources contributing to its further development.

Automattic founder and CEO Matt Mullenweg. Image Credits: Automattic

Automattic may be the largest contributor in the WordPress community, but there are many other companies who lend to the success of the ecosystem. The largest are mostly domain registrars such as GoDaddy and Bluehost, which use their lead generation from registrations to upsell customers on WordPress hosting.

Scores of other companies round out the ecosystem. Most are small design agencies and paid plugin developers, such as Yoast, a search engine optimization tool that has over 5 million users.

Then there are the thousands of individual contributors. Contrary to the perception that open source developers work exclusively for free, most open source communities include the concept of “sponsorship,” in which a commercial company like Automattic underwrites an open source developer to keep working on the project full time.

In its annual open source contributor survey from 2020, the Linux Foundation and The Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard found that more than half of core and frequent contributors to open source projects were financed for their work, either by their current employer or by a third party. That proportion is actually lower for WordPress, where only about a third of developers are believed to be sponsored.

Founding privilege

While thousands of individuals and companies contribute to the development of WordPress, it’s clear that Automattic plays the lead role in shaping the community, even though many paid contributors to the project are not even sponsored by the company.

One of the founding strengths of WordPress is that it was conceived without immediate commercial intent. The project started two years before Automattic, as we saw in part one of this TC-1, so no company’s leadership was written into the project’s creation. Mullenweg was simply a co-founder of the project, albeit one of its most active public cheerleaders.

Even after Automattic launched, a few other startups seemed poised to lead the community. Hosting service WP Engine, for instance, was founded in 2010 and grew quickly, raising nearly $300 million, according to Crunchbase.

Automattic gained one sustainable advantage early on, however: It successfully secured the domain as a as a counterpart to the open source project’s That ownership gave Automattic symbolic and long-lasting weight within the community.

“Because we were the first to do it, we had the name, and our service took off. The copies sat there for a while and gave up,” recalls Toni Schneider, who served as Automattic’s CEO during the company’s early years.

Can social and e-commerce transform the future of the open web?

Despite Automattic’s respected position, awareness of its myriad businesses tends to be spotty.

“I spend a lot of time with investors, press and research analysts, and I’m always stunned that people say, ‘We know WordPress.’ But they don’t know Woo,” says Mark Davies, Automattic’s chief financial officer, referring to the company’s WooCommerce subsidiary. “It’s always interesting when we say we’re doing $30 billion of payments volume through Woo and Automattic.”

Why should they care? For starters, WooCommerce is used by more sites than Shopify — which those same investors, press and analysts definitely know about.

It’s also the lifeline that Automattic needs this decade to rebuild the internet in an open direction. Sixteen years after its founding, the company has seen its valuation grow rapidly from $3 billion with a round led by Salesforce in 2019 to $7.5 billion with a share buyback a few months ago. That growth has been predicated on expanding beyond its traditional remit of publishing into the hugely lucrative terrain of e-commerce, as well as through its acquisition of Tumblr.

The strategy here is simple: Continue opening up larger swaths of the internet to open-source innovation outside of the walled-garden platforms developed by Amazon and Facebook. If Automattic’s strategy works out, Woo, Tumblr and WordPress will link to new services that nobody yet associates with Automattic.

It’s an audacious vision, but the company is setting itself up for a battle against some of the most formidable — and deeply pocketed — companies in the tech world.

From custom themes to billions in payments volume

WooCommerce logo. Image Credits: Wikimedia

WooCommerce began life as WooThemes, a small design firm that didn’t look very different from the many others that created WordPress themes. In 2011, the company expanded to build themes for online stores.

“They’d spotted an opportunity where a lot of the themes they were selling were more commerce oriented, so they hired some guys they were incubating for a commerce platform, brought them into the team, and that quickly overtook the company for the lion’s share of attention,” says Paul Maiorana, the current CEO of WooCommerce, a subsidiary of Automattic.

Despite WooCommerce’s popularity (its plugin was among the top 10 most popular for WordPress), its success was mostly contained within the broader WordPress ecosystem. When Automattic acquired WooCommerce in 2015, the move went mostly unnoticed in the broader tech community.

WooCommerce still had less than 100 employees, and it didn’t appear to be a significant buy. E-commerce, while obviously growing, had yet to reach stratospheric highs.

Internally at Automattic, there were uncertainties over whether WooCommerce was worth the purchase, the value of which was never disclosed but was described to TechCrunch at the time as “the biggest acquisition by Automattic to date.”

“Even at the board level, we honestly asked if we should even be doing this. Everyone is saying this is a bad idea and you can’t compete with Amazon,” recalls Matt Mullenweg, Automattic’s founder and CEO. The counter view was that it was important for Automattic to cover all its bases. “Our ambitions are incredibly broad, and we take a very long-term view.”

Before long, WooCommerce was exploding in size, and the acquisition proved to be one of the most important decisions Automattic had ever made. “I’d call it a significant moment, like the birth of a child,” says Mullenweg.

The future of remote work is text

It’s impossible to talk about Automattic without talking about remote work. The company is a role model and innovator in this area: It has been entirely remote since 2005, and at 1,700 employees, it has helped prove that a remote workplace culture can succeed at scale.

But “remote” has taken on a different meaning than it denoted two years ago. Since COVID-19 began, companies that never planned on working remotely have moved millions of employees online. Zoom’s video meeting minutes grew 30x as employers made a mad dash to replicate physical offices within virtual meeting rooms. Initial studies have shown that productivity declined as a result.

Perhaps that’s why Automattic rejects the word “remote” entirely. Instead, its leaders use words like “distributed” and “asynchronous.” There is no online analogue to an office; indeed, Automattic doesn’t even require that employees know what each other’s faces look like.

At its most basic level, Automattic’s model isn’t about remote work at all. Instead, it’s about how the company is structured, from its management, to its communication style, right down to its hiring process.

No more meetings

I got a peek into just how different Automattic is from ordinary companies while scheduling one of the interviews for this article. Usually, finding a good time with interviewees involves hunting through a packed schedule for the few morsels of time available. A busy executive might have two or three openings during a week with every other slot filled.

Instead, when Monica Ohara, chief marketing officer of, sent me her Calendly link, I saw a wide open schedule. Ohara, by all appearances, wasn’t doing much work. When I asked about it, she laughed.

“It’s the thing I think is really broken with normal office work,” she said. “Your meeting calendar was a badge of honor and having so many meetings meant you were so important. That’s not a paradigm here.”

Instead, most communication is written and asynchronous — meaning that it can be addressed anytime during the work day.

A CMS for a CMS company

Automattic’s replacement for meetings and most office collaboration is P2, a modification of WordPress that it announced in August 2020 at the height of the pandemic and offers as a paid service.

A P2 post looks more or less like a blog post, with threaded discussions, the ability to follow replies and a Like button. Whenever employees want to discuss anything with distant colleagues — for instance, a coder in the United States who wants to share something with a designer in South Africa who’s asleep at the time — they can write about it on the company’s P2 instance. Anyone else who is potentially interested can find the same post with a search or through various discovery features built into the platform.

Automattic CFO Mark Davies. Image Credits: Automattic

Documentation is the order of the day, up to and including information that would be hidden at other companies.

“You need to be extremely transparent. Matt [Mullenweg, Automattic’s founder and CEO] posts what he’s working on. I post what I’m working on,” said Mark Davies, Automattic’s CFO, who previously worked at smart home platform Vivint, which operated as a much more traditional company. “When I came here for the first time, I had a board meeting, and I said, ‘Let’s get to work.’ They said, ‘No way, you need to post the board deck and what the decisions were.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!.’”

P2 isn’t the only communication method at Automattic — the company also uses software like Slack and Jira. Nonetheless, all the company’s tools share a common thread of asynchronicity: You have colleagues across the world, so don’t expect an immediate reply.

“You’d think that things could move slower here, but they really don’t. I think in offices, there’s also this perception that you have to be in-person. People are saving things up for their one-on-one or meeting when they could have sent an email,” said Ohara. “Here, I’ll often wake up and find out there’s lots happening in Europe that I need to catch up on versus us having to wait a week or two to get a conference room.”

Documenting everything and allowing employees to consume only what they need saves time. “I spend a lot more time communicating and a lot less time listening and sitting in reviews,” said Davies.