Thinking of Getting into The WordPress Products Business? I Urge You to Look Before You Leap.

If you’ve spent any time in the world of WordPress, you have probably seen certain names appearing frequently. There are subsets, cliques, if you want, that are comprised of developers, marketers, designers, hanger-ons, podcasters, and mutants that span several of those simultaneously. The people arrive at their notoriety by different means. For some it’s pure drive and skill that’s been compounded over time. For others it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. For others, it was hard work and simply knowing how to play the social media game. And believe me, there’s a game in it all. If you’re unfamiliar with who these people are, you can just look at who I follow on Twitter for an idea. And I actually don’t follow some of the biggest WordPress “celebrities,” but you may already know who they are.

Over the past several years, I’ve been an outsider to it all, observing all the players, participating humbly when and where I can as I level up all the skill and knowledge I can muster in the given time I have. I haven’t slept much over the past few years.

And in that time, during all the observation and interaction, I’ve seen some interesting things happen with WordPress, and the space in which it competes. The changes and evolution of not just the software itself, but the people involved with it and marketplace that rely on it is always changing and, not surprisingly, rapidly. It’s huge and dynamic because of all the people involved-both creators and users. One thing that has remained constant, however, is that it’s all been growing, a lot. And that noticeable growth, as with any enterprise, seems to have gotten a lot of people thinking about how to capitalize on it. For all the open-sourceness and good will that exists in the “WordPress community,” which is generally a global circus of sorts, there are over 20,000+ people, at last count, that make some sort of living from WordPress. Point is, there’s money to be made.

So, how do people make money around software that’s free? The most common ways are through selling premium themes, plugins, and consulting. Even extensions on free themes and plugins is a cottage industry, and there’s no shortage of people that blog about WordPress and sell advertising on their popular websites, and eBooks about how to do something or another with WordPress. Usually, make money like they’re doing. Past results don’t guarantee future success, it should be clearly noted for those impressed by these impresarios. For many, it was simply the aforementioned “right place, right time,” and replicating that success may very well be futile at such a later date, no matter the amount of perseverance.

I’ve watched all this from outside but quite up close, because I myself run a business that does a lot of work using WordPress and it behooves me to stick as close as I can to the action. I also think I have a somewhat unique perspective on it all because, to my knowledge, there isn’t anyone around with my background in the industry. If there is, they’re very quiet. I don’t consider myself all that quiet online, but I do try to remain as humble as possible with my interjections, knowing the impressive development talent that’s out there which I gratefully teach myself from, and I pay attention to as many details about the people as I can to make sure I learn from the best. It’s really amazing how much generosity there is by some very talented developers and designers.

My background is in business, specifically marketing and strategy, with no small amount of humanities tossed in for good measure in the form of writing, editing, design and, a term I’ll just use wholesale: “art.” That all paints a relatively broad stroke, but the colors are strikingly deep and luminescent, no pun intended. All in that list are endeavors that I’ve spent decades upon decades day-in and day-out using, honing, studying, and improving upon. I have a masters degree in business, just for example. I package these skills and knowledge and have built a competitive business around them, in fact.

“So what?” you were probably already wearily asking a few paragraphs back. So, this:

Just because you can develop doesn’t mean you should start, what amounts to unsurprisingly, a business. And if you DO decide to start a business, put the same amount of work and forethought into it as you did becoming a competent developer. Of course, this assumes you plan to have a sustainable business. If you have bothered planning at all.

I fear this sounds condescending, but I’m saying this in a friendly manner as someone who knows learning developing, and doing it well, is very hard. Successfully starting and growing a legitimate business is even harder. Creative problem-solving aside, there aren’t many transferable skills between the two. Developers surely think quantitatively, but that doesn’t mean creating a workable financial model and accurate spreadsheet with a 5 and 10 year sales forecast is innate. Knowing just how to craft a workable marketing plan, and business plan(they aren’t identical), then executing them proficiently takes a lot of time to just learn how to do, not to mention actually doing. And to state the obvious, implementation and execution are extremely important. As important as the front-end work of planning and researching before pulling the trigger. I hate to think of people going willy-nilly into business, placing their incomes and future at stake, because it seems like what they should be doing for an arbitrary reason. And there is becoming a lot more persuasion and celebration from the WordPress fanboys about doing just that.

Articles like this one start out of the gate with poor presumptions. This author believes that since this developer is going to release a product, he’s going to have MORE TIME to develop. Seriously? Who’s going to support this product? Who’s going to handle the marketing, the taxes, the budgeting, the insurance, the daily administrative tasks associated with just 1 single plugin? And the train of thought seems to be that because people in the limited WordPress fan club know who he is, he’s going to be wildly successful. Based on what? Who’s the target market? Why did he release it at 10:30 on a Friday night, with no promotion at all? What support is in place? I don’t know, but I hope he does. I contacted the company and asked a question about the product. I got no response. I asked on Twitter, where most of the introductory parade seems to be, and my ping was hidden. That’s worrisome as a potential customer.

I don’t mean to single out this product and “company” (I assume it’s registered as such–no way to tell) but it’s the latest example of what I mean and what prompted me to write this post. Core competencies shouldn’t be set to the side. And be careful of what is really involved by turning all the stones over and making sure the numbers work. What you believe you’re selling — a “product” may turn out to be actually just a service — support of said product. And that may burst your bubble if dealing with support tickets and complaints all day wasn’t part of your business plan. And if you had no workable marketing and business plan, the reality may quickly become a nightmare.

2 thoughts on “Thinking of Getting into The WordPress Products Business? I Urge You to Look Before You Leap.

  1. Hi Michael,

    Thanks so much for the link to my post!

    Just wanted to clarify a point or two, as you seem to find my presumptions poor.

    Here’s the reality: Mark’s a super smart guy. He is as involved with WordPress as he is because he shares the same vision as the other lead developers: To democratize publishing on the web.

    A couple reasons I think my post is spot on:

    1) Mark is smart. I’m frankly shocked that it’s taken him this long to launch a product – but he knows what he is doing. He isn’t going to waste his time doing it wrong. One can only imagine the due diligence he has done.

    2) https://twitter.com/markjaquith/status/429467092816257024 – he has partnered with people to handle everything else – he’s just focusing on the code. Time will prove one of us right – but building a solid commercial product is a fantastic way to align your reality with your priorities. If Mark’s priority is to continue leading core development for WordPress (and I think it is), then this is a phenomenal way to do it.

    You don’t have to agree with me – but it might be worth researching what you’re saying a bit more so that your counter-arguments come across as a bit more convincing.

    • Hi Justin-
      Thanks for coming over here. I know Mark’s working with 2 others on this project/business/plugin, and certainly agree he’s a smart guy.

      The concern that prompted my post is that what developers may see as a good way to monetize their skills and interests-WP and development-by an easy vertical, may not be all it seems. I’ve been around long enough to have seen some similar cases turn into regretful decisions.

      Your first point is correct however, one can only imagine the due diligence done, because it isn’t very apparent at all to me. The plugin is released at v .9 and there are some aspects I can already identify which make it seem like it may not have been fully-baked. If that’s what they decided will work best, then Godspeed.

      My intention, however isn’t to criticize Mark or his and his partners’ endeavor, at all. I wish him all the best and just used him as a recent example. It’s simply to point out that there seems to be a surge lately of developers getting into some sort of WP-based business, and if it’s a hasty decision, it’s one that they may come to regret. I’ve seen a LOT of people start businesses with the best intentions, but crash and burn quickly because of insufficient planning. That’s all. I would urge anyone thinking of dedicating time, money and other resources to take their time and, like I said, turn over every stone and make sure the numbers work. And the way to make sure the numbers work is to create a sound, workable marketing plan. It can save a lot of time and heartache.

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