Anyone can start a WordPress business. As the world’s biggest open-source web platform, you can sell WordPress products or services without any qualifications or experience. There’s no need to have worked for yourself or run a business before.
But there’s a huge difference between starting a WordPress business and building a successful WordPress business. Sadly, there are several reasons why most people will never be truly successful.
This is the story of how I beat the odds and created Barn2 Media, a successful WordPress business with multiple income streams. I’m going to talk about the mistakes that most people make which get in the way of success – including mistakes I’ve made myself. I’ll also provide actionable advice on how you can avoid these pitfalls and achieve your own success with WordPress.
WordPress: The Perfect Opportunity to Build a Successful Business
I believe that WordPress offers many fantastic business opportunities. It’s free, open-source, accessible to all and has low barriers to entry compared to traditional professions. Literally, anyone can download WordPress, teach themselves the basics and start a WordPress business of their own. The global WordPress community is hugely supportive and there are many resources to help you get started.
As a big fan of the TV programme Dragon’s Den, I often cringe at how much investment is needed to launch traditional businesses. I’ve always wanted to start my own business, but never had any desire to seek investment or take big risks. I’m far too risk-averse for that! WordPress is perfect because you can start from nothing and there’s almost no upfront cost (other than the basics such as buying a domain name and hosting).
I also love the fact that WordPress businesses are largely home-based. This suits me perfectly, as I always wanted to work from home! You can work from home and sell WordPress products, or design websites for small and medium businesses. Big WordPress companies such as Automattic and Modern Tribe have shown that by building a distributed team, you can even take on enterprise-level projects while working from home. The lifestyle benefits offered by a WordPress business are so much better than most industries.
WordPress brings so many opportunities for starting a business. That’s why it’s such a shame that most WordPress companies will never be truly successful.
Why Most WordPress Businesses Will Never Be Successful
WordPress is a great industry to get into. But surprisingly, the benefits of WordPress mean that — almost by definition — most people running a WordPress business will never be truly successful. There are several reasons for this:
Lack of experience: It’s great that anyone can start a WordPress business. However, this means that the average WordPress business owner is less likely to be an experienced entrepreneur or business person compared to traditional industries. You can be successful without prior experience – just look at Mark Zuckerberg, who started Facebook while he was still in college. But most successful careers are built over time, after building experience and learning from mistakes.
Isolation: WordPress business owners often work independently or with a partner with the same skills as them (e.g. two friends who are both developers). You’re more likely to be successful if your colleagues have different skillsets. I think that’s a big reason why my own company, Barn2 Media, has been so successful. My husband Andy is a web developer with a computer science background, whereas my experience is in business, project management, and marketing. Together, our skills are the perfect combination for building a successful WordPress business.
Market saturation: Many areas of the WordPress market are saturated. This makes it difficult to find a niche where your business can thrive. We’ve found success by carving out niches for ourselves (more on this later) – I think this is vital if you have limited resources.
Lack of strategic vision: With so many opportunities available, it’s easy to spread yourself too thin without thinking strategically or specializing in an area where you can succeed.
Lack of diversification: Conversely, it’s also easy to focus too much on a single area, which leaves you open to competition and losing your customer base to a powerful competitor. WordPress is particularly prone to this because it’s open-source and you can’t protect your code.
As you can see, there are lots of reasons why a WordPress business might fail to be successful. How many of these apply to your own business?
The good news is that by recognizing these issues, you can build a WordPress business that overcomes these mistakes and has real potential for success. I’ll tell you how to do this next.
Inexperience Doesn’t Have to be a Barrier
I wish I’d started a business sooner. Instead, I languished in a traditional job (unrelated to WordPress) for seven over years before taking the plunge. Sure, I learned a few things from working for other companies. But this was nothing compared with everything I learned after starting a real WordPress business and throwing myself into the deep end.
If you’re not an experienced business person or entrepreneur, don’t let this limit your ambition. Instead, focus on how you can get access to the knowledge and experience you need.
The WordPress community is fantastically supportive. Attend WordCamp events and make links with like-minded people who are slightly further ahead in their WordPress journey. Ask for advice and listen to what they say!
Read articles (like this one!) and learn from other people who have found success with WordPress.
Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes
Yes, you’ll make mistakes. I think I made every mistake possible! The important thing is that I learned from each mistake and used it to improve the business.
For example, if you under-quote for a project then you might spend a few weeks (or months) working for little or no reward. Take the hit and work through it. When you’ve finished, analyze what happened and improve your processes for the future so that it never happens again.
The more mistakes you make, the more you learn. Before you know it, you’ll be an experienced businessperson and other people will want to learn from you!
Overcome Isolation and Get Access to New Skills
All successful businesses need access to a range of skills. A WordPress business needs one or more designers or developers, or at least people who can use WordPress proficiently (depending on your products/services). You probably have this. But do you have access to the other skills that are needed to make your business a success? This might include people with business acumen who know how to plan and monitor your finances; project managers; sales and marketing experts, and so forth.
I would estimate that the vast majority of small WordPress businesses lack at least one of these vital skills. It’s common for a business to have designers and developers who can build websites or WordPress products, but no one with marketing skills. This makes your business lopsided, and vastly restricts your chances of success.
How to Identify and Fix a Skills Gap
These are my top tips for ensuring your business has access to the skills it needs:
Decide which products or services to offer based on your existing qualities and skills. If you’re good at building websites, then offer this as a service. Offer hosting services if your background is in server maintenance. If you’re a developer, offer general development services, site speed analysis, build your own themes or plugins, or site security packages. If you’d rather advise people, then offer consultancy services or write an online training course or e-book. There are so many ways you can make money with WordPress — you might as well do whatever you do best.
Write a list of the skills that would ideally make your business a success. Don’t just write down your own skills – be honest, and include the things you’re missing. Armed with this knowledge, think about how you could meet this gap. A solution might involve partnering with someone who has the skills you’re missing (meeting people at WordCamps is ideal for this). Or, you could employ someone, if you can afford it. Or, you could find a freelancer with the skills you need.
For example, Andy is an experienced WordPress developer and I’m good at marketing, but neither of us is good at direct sales or networking. We’re both introverts and prefer to work in the background. This has always been a gap in our business. As a result, we’ve developed products and services that can be successful through other forms of marketing such as search engine optimization. I’ve also started working with Alex Denning (who I met at WordCamp Paris 2017) who’s a good networker and fills the gaps in my marketing skillset.
Avoid Market Saturation and Find Your Own Niche
A lot of people say that the WordPress market is saturated. I think this is a huge generalization.
Yes, some areas of the WordPress market are overcrowded and it would be crazy to try to break into that area. Multipurpose WordPress themes are a good example — you have little or no chance of competing with giants like Avada and Flatsome.
However, there are plenty of areas within WordPress where you can carve out a place for yourself. Lots of WordPress companies have done this very successfully. For example, Aelia is the leading company offering plugins to internationalize your WordPress website. Whether you’re running WooCommerce or Easy Digital Downloads, you can use their plugins to add multi-currency support, country-specific pricing, and more. They do one thing, and they do it well.
Similarly, HeroThemes sell a theme and plugin specifically for building a knowledgebase. They found a gap in the market, filled it, and are now the leader in this niche.
We’ve done the same with our suite of WooCommerce protection plugins. After launching our WooCommerce Password Protected Categories and WooCommerce Private Store plugins, we are now the world’s leading company offering solutions to make WooCommerce private.
Don’t copy what someone else has already done. If you do that, you’ll be competing with someone who is more established than you, which will limit your success. There are still lots of gaps in the market. Find them, fill them with your own unique products or services, and find your own success where there is little or no competition.
How to Find Gaps in the Market
If you work with WordPress then you’re in a unique position to find gaps in the market.
Listen to your clients: they’re an amazing source of ideas. We never came up with the idea for our bestselling plugin, WooCommerce Product Table. The idea sort of evolved as part of a much longer story. A client asked us to develop a WordPress table plugin that would automatically list blog posts in a table, so we created the free plugin Posts Table with Search + Sort. Users of the free plugin started requesting ways to list custom post types in a table, so we launched a premium version called Posts Table Pro. Posts Table Pro customers then started asking for extra features for listing WooCommerce products in a table, such as add to cart buttons and star ratings. It was only then that we developed WooCommerce Product Table, and its success has been truly overwhelming.
Ask people who already have a WordPress website what they would have liked that wasn’t available: This could be a product or a service.
Are there any pain points in your own business that you couldn’t find a solution for? If you’ve ever searched for a theme or plugin for your own website and been unable to find anything suitable, then you’re probably not the only one! A lot of successful WordPress companies start by scratching their own itch.
Join WordPress-related Facebook Groups: groups such as WordPress E-Commerce make it easy to see what questions people are asking.
Create a Focused, Scalable Business Plan
To be honest, I’m not a fan of formal business plans. I used to write them in the early days of Barn2 Media usually by downloading a template, but haven’t done so for years. I’m not a fan of financial projections either, as they seem fairly meaningless to me. But you do need a business plan, even if it’s just in your head.
All successful businesses need to understand where they have come from, and where they are going in the short, medium, and long-term. This is where the business plan comes in.
Many small WordPress businesses don’t have a plan for the future. They just continue offering the same products or services, with no real direction.
To be successful, you need to think strategically and analyze your business. This is the only way to learn and grow. For example:
What were your previous successes and failures? What worked, and what didn’t work?
If you provide services, which services are most profitable? Which ones are a drain on your time and resources? An understanding of the 80/20 rule is a great way to put things into perspective.
The same applies to your products. Do you spend most of your time supporting an unsuccessful theme or plugin, when you could be spending time on a more successful venture?
Which types of work do you enjoy? What do you hate doing?
Do your products or services generate one-off or recurring revenue? If it’s the former, then you need to change your business model!
Get a greater understanding of your business, and use it to prioritize and make changes. Drop any products or services that aren’t contributing to your success. Put more resources into the areas that are making the biggest difference.
I constantly did this when developing websites for clients. For example, some of our least profitable (and least enjoyable) projects involved making changes to a website that another company had originally developed. It was impossible to quote accurately for these projects, and we often ended up taking a hit for problems in someone else’s work. After a while, we decided to stop working on existing websites. There’s plenty of work out there, and we’re more successful and happier as a result.
Use Multiple Income Streams to Spread the Risk
I’m a firm believer in multiple income streams. They’re a brilliant way to reduce the risk for your business, because if one venture stops earning money then you have plenty of other safety nets. At Barn2 Media, we have more than 12 income streams – half of which generate recurring revenue from each customer (I’ve marked these with an asterisk):
*5 premium WordPress plugins – I’ve counted these as 5 income streams; if one plugin stopped selling then the others would continue.
*We host and maintain over 70 websites for clients whose sites we built in the past.
*New websites provided under our affordable MySimpleSite, MySimpleStore and MySimpleFood web design services.
*WordPress SEO services.
New work from previous clients, e.g. adding features to their existing websites.
So, you’re making a new website. Or maybe you’re redesigning your current one. Congratulations! You probably have all kinds of big plans for how you want it to look and what kinds of cool effects you want on it. You start looking at themes, even the most popular ones with hundreds of thousands of sales, but it’s just doesn’t have that special something you want.
You start to think to yourself, “I bet it would be better if I hire somebody to build the whole thing from scratch with a custom theme so it looks and acts exactly as I want.”
Do. Not. Do. It! The amount of overhead and upkeep that’ll be needed is going to turn your dream into a nightmare.
Still not convinced? Let’s take a look at some reasons why a custom theme is just a bad idea.
1. You need to keep paying to have it updated.
You may have budgeted for the initial development of the custom theme, but did you budget for having its code updated by your custom developer? If you aren’t having your custom theme regularly checked and rewritten by a developer, you are leaving it open to bugs, security vulnerabilities, and incompatibilities.
One of the most important things that your website should be compatible with is the latest versions of PHP. PHP 7.2 is currently the recommended version for WordPress and comes with a TON of performance enhancements that aren’t available with older versions of PHP.
However, if your theme isn’t updated to be compatible with PHP 7.2, it will start causing a lot of problems for your website if your server’s PHP version is updated to 7.2.
WordPress core updates are another thing theme developers watch for. When new WordPress versions are preparing to be released, there are Beta and Release Candidate versions that are available for developers to use for testing their themes and plugins to make sure they work with the updated WordPress software.
If your theme isn’t being actively updated by the developer who wrote it, you run the risk of the website not working once the WordPress update rolls out.
2. It’s probably not getting checked for security.
When commercial theme developers sell a theme license, what you’re usually paying for is support and updates. These updates are crucial for site security. As security issues are discovered, theme developers update their code to fix the vulnerabilities. Some of these vulnerabilities can be minor, but some may also be major vulnerabilities.
For a commercial theme, developers are being paid to update the code as quickly as possible to fix the vulnerabilities. When you have a custom developed theme, unless you are paying to have the theme’s code checked for vulnerabilities on a regular basis, it is most likely not being checked or updated.
3. It may not work well with popular plugins.
One of the most common issues we fix on sites that are on our care plans is conflicts between plugins and themes. Popular commercial themes are in use on millions of websites, so it’s safe to assume they have been tested to work well with all of the top WordPress plugins either by the developers or by website owners themselves.
On the other hand, a custom developed theme won’t be tested to work with all of the top plugins until you try to use them on your site. At which point, they may break your website.
There is a big update coming out in WordPress 5.0 that will include the new Gutenberg editor. This will mark a major change to how WordPress post and page editing will be handled, and it’s important that your theme is compatible.
Custom developed themes that aren’t being updated might not work with Gutenberg and could cause major issues. Commercial theme developers have been given months to test their plugins for Gutenberg compatibility and most have indicated they have already made sure their themes are ready for the change.
4. It might not be well coded.
When a commercial theme is used on many websites, users report issues to the developers on a regular basis. The developers who work with that theme when they build websites have also become very familiar with the theme’s code and often contact the theme developer if they find issues that require fixing.
However, with a custom built theme that’s only being used on your website alone, the only people checking that theme’s code are you and whoever developed that theme. In these situations, several bugs can slip through the cracks and negatively impact your site via malware, site performance issues, or both.
5. There is no user community to help you.
One of the best parts about well-known commercial themes is that they usually come with support from its developer and an active community of users that share tips and help each other out. For example, three of the best themes, Genesis, Astra and GeneratePress together have tens of thousands of users in Facebook groups dedicated to their themes!
A theme that’s only being used on one website also won’t have a community of developers with experience working on that theme. That means that each time the theme needs to be worked on by a developer (if it’s not being worked on by the original developer) you will have to pay them for time spent going through the theme to find out how it’s built just so that it can be worked on.
When you use a popular commercial theme, many developers within the WordPress community will be familiar with it and can quickly make customizations for that theme because they already know how it’s built. Over the course of a few years, the amount of money saved by being able to hire developers who already know your theme and can make quick edits can save you thousands of dollars.
6. You’re paying someone to reinvent the wheel.
When someone is creating a completely custom theme for you, they’re doing something that has already been done and perfected by many others. No matter how good of a developer they may be, they are still having to unnecessarily write code that would not have needed to be written if you had instead started with a commercial theme.
When editing a commercial theme to fit your design needs, a developer needs to only add enough code to make those design changes. The amount of coding needed is significantly less than what would be required to create the theme from scratch. The difference in time and cost isn’t counted in minutes and hundreds of dollars, but rather in hours and thousands of dollars.
The amount of time and money spent reinventing the wheel could instead be used to perfect your site’s design and grow your website’s traffic.
The Bottom Line
It may not seem like a custom theme is too expensive to get the features and design you want, but when you factor in all the hidden costs listed above, I hope you will consider using a well-supported commercial theme. It’s my plea, as someone who spends every day working with a dedicated team, fixing websites that are broken because of outdated and poorly written custom themes: please consider the future of your website!