I'm stepping into the WordPress world full time
Tomorrow morning I step full time into the WordPress ecosystem. I'm no longer simply a blogger who coaches some companies in the space. And so, with the several questions I've received about my take on things, I thought I would give it to you in a single shot.
WordPress is growing at the edges. While many technology advances grow because of a central core (a single or group of companies), WordPress growth is happening as outsides become insiders, as non-users become users.
The technology that's powering a fourth of the internet's websites is the name spoken by dentists, mechanics and barbers, not just tech companies or multinationals.
This adoption, at the edges, is precarious, however. Because the promise of simplicity and utility can be oversold. And when people embrace a technology like WordPress and it disappoints, they don't blame a theme, a plugin, or a vendor. Instead they blame the technology.
Ease of Use
This is why it's essential to keep the focus on ease of use. Technology that's easy to adopt rarely goes away. After all, ATM machines were adopted in a single generation and have now been in use for decades.
The power of that model is that the basic use of the keypad, whether it's at a gas station, supermarket or bank, is essentially unchanged.
Unfortunately sometimes we get enamored with technology for its own sake. When that happens we end up with a variety of different admin screens and control panels.
In essence our job must be to keep interfaces not only easy but re-usable so that once the appropriate behavior is learned, it doesn't need to be learned again.
Learning, which happens for more than just end users, will always be a core component of any strategy that keeps WordPress front and center as a solution for blog, websites, and even applications.
This isn't simply because WordPress continues to evolve. The deeper driver for education comes from the need for self service as the platform reaches ubiquity.
Whenever you see growth and adoption at the edges outpace growth in the middle, a strategic investment in education is required to support self service.
People need to learn on their own, get help on their own, try things and resolve them on their own. It's what makes the platform feel like their own. And ownership drives evangelism – which helps the community grow at the edges.
When I talk about the community around WordPress, I normally distinguish between the Capital C Community and the lowercase c community.
The Community is that group of people that contribute to the codebase, speak at WordCamps, run meetups, work in dedicated WordPress jobs (and agencies), answer questions on the WordPress.org forums and more.
It sounds like a lot of people, but if it’s bigger than a few thousand I'd be surprised. Even if I'm wrong, I don't think it’s orders of magnitude more than that.
And while it sounds big, it’s tiny when you think about how many people are actually using WordPress. Even if every person spun up two blogs, and even if the WordPress stats aren’t exact (they keep growing you know), that means there are over 30 million people who have WordPress-powered sites live.
That’s what I call the lowercase c community. They’re end users. But they buy plugins. They buy themes. The need education. They attend WordCamps. Some of them are even the marketing and tech professionals in large enterprises. They've heard of WordPress but don’t know it well.
And our goal must never be to simply engage the Community because they're our friends. Our goal must be to engage the community because they're the driving force that keeps the entire commercial ecosystem growing.
Moving into the Enterprise
While WordPress will continue to grow at the edges, the reality is that it’s becoming a common term known by more than those in the Community.
That means it’s moving into the enterprise. Initially we saw this in the most logical place ever – publishing entities. After all, WordPress had it’s roots in pure publishing (blogs) and it made sense to take it upmarket in that initial direction.
Today companies like 10up, Human Made, and WebDevStudios, in partnership with Automattic (and their VIP hosting), have proven that WordPress can power the largest publishing sites on the web.
Like with any platform, adoption in the enterprise requires more than simply delivering stand-alone solutions. We saw this dynamic in the 80’s where departmental solutions were everywhere. Enterprises today want each new platform introduced into their corporate ecosystem to be additive, to be able to integrate with several other technology investments they've already made.
The most recent work on the WordPress API suggests a deeper understanding of this reality and WordPress is preparing for the countless integrations that it will need to make into back office applications to fully be accepted in the Enterprise market.
That said, that isn't the only way the commercial ecosystem will grow. It will also grow down-market as it grows at the edges.
The Rest of the Commercial Ecosystem
Six years ago we saw the rise of premium theme providers creating a commercial marketplace. Companies like iThemes and WooThemes, along with folks like Brian Gardner and Jason Schuller, stepped into the wild west of commercial themes and demonstrated that money could be made (good amounts of it).
Over the last two years we've seen those initial business models (selling yearly access to tons of themes in a package) struggle a bit. Companies like iThemes and WooThemes have shifted their revenue mix significantly towards plugins rather than themes (i.e. BackupBuddy, WooCommerce).
The sustainability of ponzi-like schemes of unlimited everything have been questioned as presumed return visits for additional revenue haven’t always matched return visits for additional support.
And we've seen other plugin developers add revenue models (Yoast embracing a Pro version for his wildly popular SEO plugin) to their existing free products.
All the while, the folks behind WP Site Care and WP Beginner have each announced that they're stepping into the theme business – declaring the pronouncement of its death premature.
Marketplaces continue to grow and we shouldn't expect that to stop. People want choice and they want inexpensive choices at that.
In so far as we can protect quality, thereby protecting the first experiences of newcomers, the rest of the commercial ecosystem looks strongly positive. This is especially true if we continue to see the growth of business-oriented education at WordCamps.
There’s no question that in the downmarket of the WordPress ecosystem, several “shops” simply backed their way into generating revenue.
These were developer- or designer-first folks that put a proverbial shingle out and started generating revenue.
But that didn't mean there had been plans, evaluations, business modeling or any other business-oriented strategy development before putting a price tag on a product, or pricing a service.
What we've seen over the last two years is the strong demand, across the country, for continued discussion and education on the business front for many of these small shops.
Companies with less than 5 people in them may not be able to afford an MBA (nor will they need one), a coach, or a silver-haired CEO.
But they can each afford spending an extra day at a WordCamp where a business track provides education and resources to help them think as strategically about their business as the other tracks help them develop their development or creative chops.
This demand won’t shrink. Especially if people want to win.
Playing to Win
One of the most interesting trends in the WordPress space is the emergence of the “all in one” solution. Companies like StudioPress have seen the demand from non-technical users who want everything in a single package.
Hosting, themes, plugins/features, and site assistance all wrapped into a single product purchase – which they call The New Rainmaker.
But they're not the only ones we're seeing this from.
Others are attempting to do the same thing, for good reason. There’s a segment of customers who want the power and features of WordPress without wanting to become a server administrator. They don't want to log into their site regularly to update plugins.
They're willing to pay to have it all taken care of. And this means you can either attempt, like StudioPress, to build the entire thing on your own, or you can partner with others to develop a solution like this.
Partnerships have often been described as similar in complexity and challenge as marriage. But if done carefully and correctly, the alignment produces benefits like no other corporate transaction.
Acquisitions exist without question. And these days we see tons of acquihires – where it’s faster and easier to purchase a whole team than it is to assemble one piece by piece.
But the strategic alignment of companies allows each to optimize for and maximize their own revenues, while still leveraging the benefits of not doing everything themselves.
We've seen a few partner programs in our ecosystem but more often than not, the alliances aren't among equals – and that will always shape the dynamic and create a model that may not be as interesting to replicate among other companies in the commercial space.
The challenge with partnerships, one that won't ever disappear, is that the evaluation of “the right” partner isn't something that happens fast.
And this suggests that to be successful we need to truly take the long view of things.
Taking the Long View
One of the realities that I often share with companies that I advise is that a majority of the challenges they face are of their own making.
Sometimes if you just stop doing something, you make life a lot easier.
One of those classic mistakes companies make is that they move too quickly. They're in a rush.
Is it any surprise that the same people who are in a rush, often make several announcements each year of the things they're going to do, and then have to follow up with posts explaining that they’re not doing that anymore.
They hold up their failure and the need to pick themselves up to try something new (again) as a badge to be honored. But to what end? To demonstrate a willingness to rush into endeavors without a plan?
There is no badge for that kind of failure other than the lessons learned. But if no one slows down, has any lesson actually been learned?
If our goal is to further the community as a whole, if our goal is to ensure that WordPress stays around for another decade, if our goal is to help it step into the enterprise market, and if our goal is to find partners that can help us create total solutions that our customers want – then doesn't it behoove us to take the long view on things and slow down?
What is our Goal?
As I step into the WordPress ecosystem in a full time capacity, having picked one company to work for rather than coaching several, the question has come up time and again.
What’s your goal?
It’s a great question. My answer surprises folks because I suggest it’s the wrong question. Much like folks who contribute code to core without compensation, the goal isn’t as individualistic as the question suggests.
The goal should be a communal goal. One that we can all agree on. After all, if the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater because the outside fringes who were told how easy WordPress is decided to buy a massive theme from a marketplace and ended up thinking the whole thing was crap, we will all suffer.
Consider, for a just a moment, what life was like for Flash developers a month or two after iPhones no longer supported it.
Our goal, beyond individualistic desires to maximize impact, revenue, or stability, should be focused on the larger lowercase c community.
Our goal should start and end in the same exact place – a healthy community that is sustainable.
Only after that will we each be able to enjoy the benefits from commercial work in that ecosystem.