Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Nate Wright. Nate is a WordPress developer and solopreneur. He runs Theme of The Crop, a niche WordPress theme company geared toward restaurant websites. You can learn more about Nate on his Post Status profile and follow him on Twitter.
Here’s a scenario you’re probably familiar with: a friend or family member, not terribly tech-savvy, approaches you with an idea. Why don’t you build Facebook for clowns? What about Uber for sandwiches?
Their ideas are often a little better than these. Sometimes they’re worse. But in my case the conversation always gets to the same point in the end.
You can build stuff on the internet. Why aren’t you shooting for the stars? Don’t you want to be rich like Zuckerberg?
Right now some of you may be thinking: yes I do! This post isn’t for you.
This is for those of you who cringe at the thought of your days filling up with hiring and training staff, conducting meetings, or filling out paperwork. Those of you who don’t want to live the big siloed life of a CEO. Who dove into the WordPress market because you wanted to build things yourself. For yourself.
The rockstars and the rest of us
It’s hard to find someone more widely admired among WordPress developers — and more deserving of that admiration — than Pippin Williamson. So when he described his evolution from staunch go-it-aloner to team leader, many of us sat up and listened.
The comments in response to that post exhibit a common mix of anxiety, frustration and hope for us go-it-aloners, who have carved out small (and not so small) niches in the WordPress world.
We’re overstretched and under resourced. We lack good marketing strategies. And we can see that growth will come from transforming our businesses into larger enterprises.
But then we start thinking about what that means. The hiring. The firing. The training. The meetings. The paperwork. The liability.
‘I don’t want to be the next Zuckerberg,’ you may think. Then, hopefully, you’ll laugh at the absurdity. But really, you may think, ‘I don’t even want to be the next Carl Hancock or Joost de Valk.’
Let me be honest with you. I’ll stop putting words in your mouth and put them in mine.
I have a lifestyle business. No, I don’t sell lifestyle products. I have a business tailored to my lifestyle.
I have a business that allows to me to take lunch when I want, finish the day when I want, go on holiday when I want, write the code that I want. That’s my job perk. That’s my killer bonus. No, that’s my Shangri-La.
When people tell you to hire early or scale quickly, they’re right that giving up control can be liberating. But it can also be encumbering. It brings new responsibilities at the same time that it releases you from old ones.
Whether or not growing your team is right for you will depend on your temperament, your appetite and the kind of lifestyle you want.
Being a little fish in a big pond
But let’s be honest. You took a chance on the WordPress market because you saw a window of opportunity. That window may be closing.
In the last few years we’ve seen a lot of consolidation. The theme market exploded, made millions for a few, and then caused a gold rush which saturated the market and pushed out small operators.
At the same time, two big traditional distribution channels dried up: the official WordPress.org theme repository, which has a huge backlog of themes awaiting approval, and Automattic’s marketplace, which is closed to new entrants.
We’re also seeing more traditional investment in WordPress properties. The big one is the $160 million raised by Automattic and Automattic’s subsequent acquisition of WooThemes. Many actors are moving more aggressively to leverage or retain their market position. Syed Balkhi is on a buying and building spree (1, 2, 3, 4). Ninja Forms did a ground-up rebuild. Pippin’s shedding non-essential products (1, 2) and purging some third-party addons.
The ecosystem looks increasingly unfriendly to us go-it-aloners. Automattic was the first to go big. Given exclusive commercial access to the WordPress trademark, it carved out its own space and split WordPress down the middle. Now the other half — the WordPress for the rest of us — is going big too.
The nice thing about being a small operator is that you only need a tiny sliver of the pie. But as the size of the market has grown, it’s become more difficult to attract attention. Showing up with a good product isn’t enough.
Going it alone, together
My lifestyle business is working well for me. Revenue keeps inching up. Slowly.
But it might not make it in a different kind of WordPress space. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. And I bet you have too.
Where’s the market going? What am I willing to trade to survive? Which headaches are worth changing direction for and which headaches aren’t?
Here are some of the ideas I’ve been tossing around:
Hiring out. I could scale up or down easily, depending on how well it goes. But it’s tough to manage quality when juggling vendors.
And what would I contract? I’d like to shed my bumbling efforts in marketing and traffic generation. But that seems like precisely the kind of job full of jackals who don’t know what they’re doing.
Ok, that’s harsh. I’ll just say: I worry it’d be a headache to manage it well.
Theme development seems the most plausible, since there’s a large body of talented, hungry themers washing up from the stormy seas of ThemeForest. But it may be the least valuable since the market is being swallowed up by a few big themes.
Affiliate marketing is already working for me. A little. I could go further and recruit theme or plugin developers to sell from my site on commission.
Then I’m saddled with support for products I didn’t build. Can I maintain quality? Can I drive enough traffic to be an attractive outlet for them? Will I end up with all of the headaches I wanted to avoid?
Maybe I’ll trade in my king-of-the-hill cap and bring on partners. Not employees. Genuine partners with overlapping skill sets. Instead of being a go-it-aloner we can be two or three go-it-aloners going it alone together!
Or maybe that’s just a terrible way to run a business.
There are a lot of us out there. Independent themers looking to expand beyond ThemeForest or give up on the old freemium approach of the official repository. Plugin developers looking for a new home or seeking out themes that will integrate with their plugins.
We could probably do something special if we made stronger alliances. Combined to build to stronger platforms for our products.
But that sounds like a lot of project management. Isn’t that what we were hoping to avoid?
I don’t know. I’m going to go write some code.