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WordPress Entrepreneurs: Should You Diversify Beyond WordPress?

2015 was a landmark year for WordPress. We saw massive acquisitions, regrettable spats and entertaining rants, incredibly exciting technical developments looming on the horizon, and much more besides.

In many ways, it felt like a year when WordPress finally started growing up. That’s a slightly odd thing to say about a platform that’s over a decade old and powering a quarter of the web, but there are still growing pains very much in evidence across the ecosystem.

In this article, we’ll cover one nagging question in particular: Is it time for WordPress entrepreneurs and developers to start looking at diversification or will that one big egg-filled basket be enough to get us all down the line?

We’ve reached out to three prominent figures in the community for their take on the subject and will be throwing in our own two cents along the way.

Let’s get going!

The slightly unexpected rise of the WordPress entrepreneur

Before we start talking to experts in the field who are making their living from the platform, it’s worth briefly considering just how far we’ve come to be even considering the question of diversification in the first place.

Back when WordPress was merrily puttering along as a blogging platform in the early naughties, the idea of it supporting whole classes of businesses would have seemed faintly ridiculous.

To be fair, Matt Mullenweg obviously had his eyes on the prize from the get go with the establishment of Automattic and back in 2005. To the rest of the world, however, it wasn’t entirely apparent just how far WordPress could go in the early days.

Booming plugin and theme markets fuelled the software’s gradual rise to the top of the CMS tree and quickly started opening people’s eyes to the potential scale of businesses that could be built around WordPress. The roots of many of today’s most successful WordPress-based outfits were sown in those heady years.

Skip forward to the present day and the range of people making a more than healthy living off the platform is astonishing. Official community surveys and more informal data both highlight the scale of the current opportunity for those on the development side of things.


What’s perhaps even more impressive is the wider entrepreneurial ecosystem that WordPress now supports (events such as PressNomics show the range of commercial opportunity around WordPress).

As we stand on the edge of WordPress taking its place as a fully-fledged application framework and powering on to perhaps 50% of the market, it’s an excellent time to take stock and consider if it’s wise being entirely tied to the software in your business.

WordPress has never looked healthier but can it keep up the type of explosive growth we’ve seen over the last five years in particular?

Will WordPress live forever?

The short, sharp answer here is no. Nothing lives forever. Empires fall, stars (both gaseous and otherwise) eventually burn out and fade away.

With its accelerated timelines and relentless pace of change, the computer industry has more than enough cautionary tales to illustrate this on both the hardware and software side of the fence. After all, there was a time when nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. More recently, the prospect of Microsoft giving up its share of over 90% of the personal computing market seemed frankly laughable.

Microsoft market collapse

In today’s world, it’s hard to see too many chinks in the armor of our current digital overlords at Apple, Google and Facebook, but give it time and those cracks will gradually come. The almost complete collapse of Flash as a technology and Adobe’s wider struggles to maintain their former dominance are both excellent examples of this process in action as we speak.

The story of many industries, as Clay Christensen has so eloquently demonstrated, is one of disruption. Incumbents get bloated and lazy and some sort of largely unexpected entrant arrives (usually from below) to eat their lunch. At 25% of the market and still growing, WordPress has firmly moved from disrupter to potential target for disruption.

Let’s not over-egg this particular pudding, though. WordPress will not be falling off a cliff anytime soon, but if you’re currently all-in on the software, now is an excellent time to be asking how long the current ride may last and how best to potentially approach diversification.

We reached out to three leading WordPress entrepreneurs to get a grip on where the puck might be heading.

The view from three leading WordPress entrepreneurs

We boiled our list of diversification concerns down to three key questions and put them to three leading WordPress entrepreneurs. The questions were:

Let’s see what the feedback was!

1. James Farmer of WPMU DEV

James Farmer

WPMU DEV CEO James Farmer

James Farmer should need little introduction to most in the WordPress community. As the founder and CEO of Incsub, Edublogs, and WPMU DEV, he’s been behind some of the biggest commercial WordPress successes to date and has been a consistently outspoken and entertaining figure in the world of WordPress over the years, never afraid to ruffle a few feathers when the situation demands.

Let’s get James’ view of the future from the perspective of a WordPress entrepreneur leveraging the core platform across a variety of commercial fronts.

Q: How do you see the short to medium term future of WordPress as a platform?
The key word here is “platform” because the future of WordPress as software is more than strong. People will, in my opinion, be using WordPress 25 years from now probably as much as they are using it today. But, if we’re going to think about WordPress as more of an OS or operating environment for smaller software, I think the future is quite different.

We’re increasingly seeing a trend towards monopoly/duopoly, be it via Jetpack or Envato, and I reckon there’s going to be an increasing shift towards a more Automattic-regulated environment. I think the most likely medium-term future for WordPress will match the experience of a kinda bastard child of OSX or Windows, although there are certainly players that would rather it looked more like iOS.

I’d personally rather it was more like Android, but I’ve got a vested interest. 🙂

Q:  What is your biggest fear for the platform?

Squarespace. And other easier, third-party hosted environments. They’ll start to be able to achieve a whole lot more very soon, with very little effort.

I think will hold out well enough, but that’s not the WordPress as a platform we’re talking about – a point that’s fairly obvious to us, but not to the vast majority of users.

The time is coming, very shortly, when your $10k and $25k+ clients are going to be really having a think about using WordPress versus these other platforms – for lots of reasons. Those price ranges are the bread and butter of lots of WordPress businesses.

Q: Are you taking steps in your business to diversify beyond WordPress-based work?

We were, and now we’re not, but we will again at some point. To be honest, there’s still a great deal of opportunity and things that can be done a heap better (and differently) in the WordPress World and it’s a pleasure tackling and thinking about that – although constantly fighting 500lb gorillas can get a bit tiring.  🙂

2. Christian “Kriesi” Budschedl from Kriesi

Christian Kriesi Budschedl

Theme developer Christian “Kriesi” Budschedl

Kriesi are one of the leading commercial theme makers in the WordPress world and their slick, multi-purpose Enfold theme is the best-rated top-seller on ThemeForest and an inspiration to theme designers worldwide.

We reached out to Christian “Kriesi” Budschedl for his thoughts on the topic of diversification from the point of view of a top theme developer.

Q: How do you see the short to medium term future of WordPress as a platform?
I think WordPress is going to grow further in the next few years and, with the introduction of the WordPress REST API, it’ll probably end up powering sites and applications we can’t even picture at the moment.

It will definitely end up powering even more websites than it does right now, which will be highly beneficial to both established plugin and theme developers – and new entrants with well-executed fresh ideas!

Q: What is your biggest fear for the platform?

That it’s going to get overly complex from the point of view of the end user. There are already features that almost no one seems to use that (to my mind) should not be part of the core.

The ease of use for end users and developers is a crucial part of WordPress’ success and I hope the WordPress team will make every effort to keep it that way.

Q: Are you taking steps in your business to diversify beyond WordPress-based work?

We already did that a few years back, on the off-chance WordPress would fall from grace! It’s an affiliate site that generates passive income, just in case our WordPress plugins and themes can no longer pay the bills, but since WordPress is still growing it is really more of a hobby. 🙂

The secret isn’t to diversify out of WordPress, it’s to understand how WordPress is changing and how you can innovate and change to add the most value. I think that applies to everybody from individual dev shops all the way up to the big guys – and those of us who are somewhere in between.

3. Mario Peshev from DevriX

Mario Peshev of DevriX

Mario Peshev of DevriX

Mario Peshev is the CEO and chief architect at leading WordPress development agency DevriX and a WordPress Core Contributor. He also provides consistently insightful, top-tier business and development advice over at his personal blog DevWP, in addition to popping up across the web giving typically forthright interviews on the current state of WordPress and where it might be heading.

We put our three questions to Mario to get a breakdown from someone used to leading large-scale development projects that rely on the platform to deliver results.

Q: How do you see the short to medium term future of WordPress as a platform?
Right now, WordPress is a flexible platform used by businesses varying from bloggers just starting off all the way up to large media outlets, university networks, and Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms.

Unfortunately, the WordPress core team does not maintain a long-term roadmap that allows the rest of the community to plan accordingly, adjust to future goals, or find other alternatives for specific types of projects.

Based on the latest conversations on Slack and the planning for WordPress 4.4, I see several feature plugins that will probably land in WordPress over the next several major releases.

The upcoming integration of the REST API is promising and would potentially lead to the arrival of developers using different technical stacks who could leverage the power of WordPress and connect it to different applications or frameworks. The core framework is being decoupled slowly, introducing new component classes that allow for easier database management and data organization.

Q: What is your biggest fear for the platform?

We use WordPress as a technical framework for our WordPress multisite platforms, SaaS applications and large WordPress applications interacting with lots of third-party APIs. Being a generic platform adds some overhead to WordPress that makes it somewhat challenging to scale in high-load environments, especially when interacting with other systems.

Some of the recent major (and even minor) updates caused various issues while switching to utf8mb4 or changing core components such as the Shortcodes API.

My biggest fear is that the race to the bottom will result in low-quality plugins and “all-in-one” themes leading to security and performance issues which harm the entire ecosystem, drive great businesses away, and artificially suppress freelancers and small businesses who would like to build products and services for a living.

Also, with the latest updates in the Customizer, I’m worried that the long-term direction of WordPress may be focused on bloggers and mom-and-pop shops which may be a far less attractive choice for entrepreneurs to target.

Hopefully, the Core team will keep maintaining a high level of stability and code quality that will allow us to build high-end applications for successful businesses, but we’re yet to see what the future of WordPress really holds.

Q: Are you taking steps in your business to diversify beyond WordPress-based work?

We use WordPress exclusively as our main framework for building software applications. However, the majority of our work is software engineering – migrating from proprietary platforms, building integrations with different services, and building a lot of custom code for each of our projects.

Our team has a mix of expertise in several programming languages and various platforms and it wouldn’t be technically challenging to switch to Laravel, Drupal or even turn to Java or Python development if we had to. However, our marketing efforts and involvement in the WordPress community would need a complete revamp if we were to switch our main platform, so we are carefully monitoring the development of WordPress and explore other options every now and then.

Diversification is everywhere once you start looking

In addition to our interviewees above, we’ve also spoken privately to more than one high-profile WordPress developer who’s also keenly aware of the value in diversification.

One thing that leaps out from the answers above is that diversification – though not necessarily item one on the current to-do list – is very much on the agenda of leading entrepreneurs from all sectors of the WordPress ecosystem.

Even taking a wider look around the community at present, it’s obvious that people are stretching their wings in all directions. Whether it’s Andrew Nacin answering the call of the U.S. Digital Service project, Copyblogger’s astute marrying of WordPress technology to their wider content and marketing skillset in projects such as the Rainmaker Platform, or any one of the prominent WordPress developers currently tempted by the siren song of JavaScript.

It’s also, of course, worth mentioning the scale of head honcho Matt Mullenweg’s own diversification. Automattic and WordPress are obviously capturing much of his day-to-day attention, but a quick look at the portfolio of his angel investment arm Audrey Capital shows that he’s also not averse to keeping a lot of irons in the fire at any one time:

Matt Mullenweg Audrey portfolio

Much of this is a matter of simple common sense. It seems to me that there is a natural lifecycle for successful entrepreneurs of all stripes, regardless of what their particular background is:

  1. Gain a foothold and experience success in a market.
  2. Grow their initial product and/or service offerings.
  3. Once established, look to diversify.

In my humble opinion, this is a sensible process to follow – the third step in particular. WordPress is a wonderful piece of software and I don’t know where I would be without it but, ultimately, you have to look after number one and guard against pinning all your hopes on one platform that’s outside your control.

WordPress knowledge is valuable knowledge

The good news in terms of diversification is that as either a WordPress developer, designer, entrepreneur (or even all three), a lot of your current expertise is eminently transferable – as, potentially, is your client base.

The key point to bear in mind for any future moves is that you are already almost certainly using WordPress primarily as a tool to solve high-value problems in one way or another. Regardless of whether WordPress is there or not, those valuable problems will remain, as will your ability to solve them.

On a purely technical level, your existing set of front and back end skills (HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, probably some level of system administration knowledge) port nicely into many other environments and give you a head start if you need to pick up another technology.

Huge opportunities exist in the world of JavaScript generally with the rise of Node.js and front end frameworks like Angular and React. The impending arrival of the REST API gives you a natural jumping off point for getting to grips with these technologies right now – in a context you’re already familiar with.

Similarly, the REST API also gives you a simple way of experimenting with related languages such as Python or Ruby, or even jumping into entirely new fields such as Swift or Elixir.

On the commercial front, the real bulk of your skills will be in standard business areas where you just happen to be using WordPress as one solution in an overall toolchain. Skills such as client acquisition, deal-making, project management, team building and so on are infinitely transferable if you decide to get your diversification on down the line.


Before we finish up, we’d like to extend a big thank you to James, Christian and Mario for the candor and clarity of their responses to our questions.

As their answers suggest, diversification is by no means a necessity but it is certainly worth starting to think about it in the context of your wider business future.

Many of us (myself included) are comfortable living in a WordPress bubble, but that bubble could burst at any time (look at, for example, Envato’s recent plummeting sales). Not keeping all your eggs in one basket is nearly always a sensible long-term strategy.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Are you planning to diversify down the line? Or sticking to your guns for now? Get in touch and let us know!

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