Incredible as it sounds, WordPress was initially released back in 2003. And it has evolved quite a bit during that time. It has become a mature, if ever-changing, platform for building websites.
Its massive theme and plugin ecosystem have also seen its share of changes. We’ve witnessed solo entrepreneurs launching products, nurturing their growth, and eventually selling off to larger companies.
In between, there have been numerous success stories. Some products that were born in the days of the Classic Editor have happily adapted to the Gutenberg block editor. But that doesn’t mean it was an easy transition.
With that, I put out a call for WordPress product founders. I wanted to ask them about the changes they’ve seen over their time in the community. And, if they were launching their product today, what they might do differently.
I received quite a few responses! What follows is a sampling of what these entrepreneurs had to say. Note that some responses have been lightly edited for clarity/brevity.
A Sampling of Responses
Brand/Product: Mongoose Marketplace
What’s changed in WordPress: The biggest change in the ecosystem without a doubt has been the introduction of the block editor.
What I’d do differently: If I was just starting out today, I would approach most of my plugins with a blocks-first mentality. By way of being more of a PHP developer, I tend to build classic widgets and shortcodes before I consider building a block, whereas if I was starting out now I would start by building a block only and only consider adding a shortcode and/or classic widget if there became sufficient demand for it.
Brand/Product: Sunshine Photo Cart
What’s changed in WordPress: The biggest change that has had an impact on Sunshine Photo Cart has been the consolidation of plugin companies. Instead of small developers who are time and resource-restricted competing, suddenly one gets backing by a larger company with marketing experience and resources and they can then really run. For me, that is what has happened as NextGen is a main competitor and they now have major resource backing where I am still just one person doing it as a side gig.
What I’d do differently: If I started again, I would definitely partner with at least one other developer and ideally a marketing person. All the larger plugins that have become companies (that I am aware of) were founded by multiple people. It’s just too hard to do everything on your own even if you know it all and grow.
I would also start smaller in scope for a first project. I should have made smaller plugins first before going all out on an e-commerce plugin first.
Brand/Product: WooCommerce Name Your Price
What’s changed in WordPress: I think the WordPress ecosystem has gotten bigger, more mature, and more competitive. I was one of the first to build this feature for WooCommerce. I’ve therefore benefitted from their growth. And now I also benefit from having been around and having built a solid reputation within my niche.
What I’d do differently: But now there are multiple options for almost any feature you can think of so you have to find ways to make yourself stand out. If I were launching today, I think I would have to spend more time on marketing and really talking to potential customers about what their pain points are. If you can address those pain points with really good interfaces and back it up with solid customer service I think there are still niche markets that need addressing.
Brand/Product: WP Fusion
What I’d do differently: If I was launching something now, I’d probably start SaaS-first, and then build a helper plugin to connect to the SaaS. That’d give us better reliability (since we manage the servers), and probably cut down on plugin conflicts. Plus, then we’d have an easier time moving to other platforms (Shopify, Squarespace, etc.). I really like how Weglot has managed to build something that works on every platform.
Brand/Product: Plugin Republic
What’s changed in WordPress: The biggest changes in that time in the ecosystem are:
The move towards consolidation – even just a few years ago there seemed to be a lot more shops being run by a single developer.
The move away from marketplaces – it seems to me that CodeCanyon et al are no longer the first places for people to look for plugins (this is probably a good thing).
What I’d do differently: If I was launching today, I’d spend a lot more time on marketing. I spent way too much time adding great features to plugins that nobody knew existed.
Brand/Product: WS Form
What’s changed in WordPress: I think the biggest change we have seen since launching WS Form has been the progression with Gutenberg (now Block Editor). It was released days after we launched WS Form and we made sure we had a block ready from day one. I remember speaking with Matt Mullenweg at WordCamp Nashville in December 2018 and his first question was “Are you Gutenberg ready”, which I was pleased to say we were! Gutenberg has evolved significantly since then and continues to do so which is something we, as plugin developers, have to keep up with. We’ve re-written our Gutenberg block twice.
What I’d do differently: Marketing WS Form would have certainly have been done differently. I’ve learned that the WordPress community, as well as being awesome, is fragmented into many small interest groups and there is no single channel you can go to promote your product. It is about taking part in that community and offering true value, not only in the topic of your product, that helps get your brand name out there. We try to contribute to the WordPress ecosystem as much as we can both in sponsorships and also with our time.
A Changing WordPress Landscape Requires Adaptation
For those who launched a WordPress-related product or service even a few years ago, one thing is certain: the ecosystem has changed. That’s a result of both the evolution of WordPress core and the ensuing string of product acquisitions.
Taken together, the landscape is indeed different these days. And entrepreneurs have had to adapt to new ways of building websites and increased competition. It’s not only end-users who have been impacted.
Ultimately, whether or not a product survives will depend on how it evolves along with WordPress. In addition, it will have to identify and reach a very niche audience.
Thanks to all of the entrepreneurs who took the time to respond to my questions! Their stories reflect the current state of WordPress, and I sense that many others will relate to them.