Interview with Mark Forrester, co-founder of WooThemes

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting WooThemes HQ in Cape Town, South Africa. Throughout the week I had the opportunity to interact with WooThemes' co-founders Mark Forrester and Magnus Jepson, as well as the rest of the Cape Town based managers and Woo Ninjas. It gave me a great opportunity to see the inner-workings of one of WordPress' largest commercial theme and plugin business.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting a handful of interviews and analysis about my trip and time there, to give you the insight I gained on what it's like to work for and at WooThemes. The goal is so that those of you that wonder what the grass is like on the other side can see just that.

My first interview is with WooThemes co-founder Mark Forrester. WooThemes started only five years ago, and now is a multi-million dollar business that supports more than thirty employees. I talked to Mark about the beginning, the initial growth of the company, and the evolution they've made from “just” a theme business to a mostly plugin business.

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The early days

Hearing the history of WooThemes was enlightening. They started so early in the market that they really had no idea just how sustainable such a business could be. Each of them had personal brands they'd been building up and some of them even had other ventures they were working on simultaneous to the early days of WooThemes.

WooThemes cut their teeth by delivering features to themes that made websites not feel, “like a blogging platform.” Features that are taken for granted today were brand new five years ago: featured sliders, grid layouts, etc.

It wouldn't be the same journey today

When WooThemes entered the market, the market was ripe for them.

We'll all agree, the three of us co-founders, that we had a lot of luck being at the right time at the right place. I think entering the market now is a completely different ballgame and a lot more difficult. … It's a very competitive space and I think a lot more research is required as to what specific niche you can sort of cater for within WordPress users.

Mark says that if they were entering the market today, they would need to take many steps that they didn't have to do when they started. Similarly, in order to stay relevant, they can't rest on their laurels when there is so much competition out there today. They utilize data and research in order to make decisions as to their next theme or product.

Modular plugins for enabling customers

WooThemes was one of the first theme providers to offer the kitchen sink to customers. They've learned over time, and have had a great deal of leadership from managers like Matty Cohen, that they can better serve customers going forward with modular plugins that customers can use and take with them as they change themes.

They've learned these lessons along the way because they have the customer base that helped teach them. Mark and the WooThemes team learned that giving an end-user so much power in a theme made support not scale the way it could with simpler plugins to add to the theme. Now they can better hold the hands of their customers with these modular plugins and allow them to use WooThemes' product to extend the functionality of their websites piece by piece versus just with the theme, which their goal now is to utilize purely for making the display shine.

Developing WooCommerce

One of the biggest requests from WooThemes' customers was for shop / eCommerce WordPress themes. WooThemes spent years trying to roadmap how to offer eCommerce. One of the mistakes they made was to invest a lot of time, money, and energy into building eCommerce by outsourcing development to third party developers.

WooThemes had worked with Mike Jolley and Jay Koster, the developers of WooCommerce, in previous projects developing niche themes; therefore Mark described them as the “natural partners” moving forward to work on WooCommerce. I noted to Mark because Mike and Jay had such a prominent role in developing Jigoshop (from which WooCommerce was forked), WooThemes' hiring them at the same time they forked Jigoshop was what made moving to WooCommerce an easy decision for me.

WooCommerce is 80% of WooThemes' business

Mark notes, “Today, it's a fully fledged eCommerce platform.” He also mentioned that there is an API in the works to make it even more powerful. What's interesting is that they didn't originally (pre-WooCommerce) intend to build a whole platform, they really wanted simple shop themes. WooCommerce as we know it now has evolved into the platform it is because of the needs and wants of store owners and customers providing feedback, along with WooThemes' realization of how powerful and enabling a new eCommerce platform in WordPress could be.

“It's a whole new business model for us.” Mark says of the fremium model they launched WooCommerce with. Releasing the core of WooCommerce for free in the repository, they were able to capture a large number of downloads and huge audience, and upsell them with commercial extensions as they realized new things they needed for their stores. Simultaneously, putting additional functionality in extensions allows them to keep the codebase leaner and more focused on the core product.

Our ethos is not just about being a profitable commercial entity upon WordPress. We want to leave a legacy, and WooCommerce is hopefully a big part of that legacy that we want to leave.

That said, WooCommerce is definitely a profitable entity. Today, WooCommerce's 200+ extensions, themes and associated revenues make up 80% of WooThemes' overall income.

Making eCommerce easier

I talked to Mark about how they are going to make WooCommerce easier. If any of you have experience with any eCommerce platform, there is a lot to think about, and just about any eCommerce platform is difficult.

Mark said that they are working to ensure their educational resources “are top notch to make life easier for those using our products.”

As for a hosted solution, which I think is the primary way for WooCommerce to get into the top tier of eCommerce providers outside of the WordPress ecosystem, Mark didn't give too much away. They do view providers like Shopify as competition, but they enjoy catering to WordPress based websites and businesses, and the “niche” of WordPress is so large that they are happy with that. But he did note that they are working hard to think outside the box and think of the best way to better serve customers and provide an easier experience for eCommerce.

Some sort of SaaS solution [software as a service] is definitely on the cards, whether it's going to be a full blown hosted solution or some powerful extension built on top of it, built as a SaaS, that's all I can really reveal at the moment.

They are also trying to make sure that WooCommerce can scale as much as WordPress itself. They are looking for feedback from customers running big stores with lots of orders or products to see how they can make it easier for them. Eating their own dog food, by using WooCommerce for their own sales, has been huge for them making it better in that regard.

Plugins that serve WooCommerce

One of the growth paths they see for WooThemes are with niche plugins that can be built onto WooCommerce, like Sensei. They see a number of opportunities, some closer to reality than others, that they can build and use to extend WooCommerce to create more opportunities for growth.

Leaving a legacy

WooThemes wants to continue to invest in the WordPress ecosystem, and has no plans for slowing down. They're proud of the team they've created, both in Cape Town and remotely. Their consideration for hiring “is always a talent versus culture fit consideration.”

I look forward to seeing the new things WooThemes has in store. I'm also incredibly thankful for Mark's time and his answers to my questions. WooThemes is one of the few companies that's been in the WordPress ecosystem long enough to have clear cycles in their company-life. They've had challenges for sure, some of which they are encountering even today. But they have set a foundation for steady growth as a mature company, and I think we'll see them as a market leader for a long time to come.

You should definitely follow Mark on Twitter, and keep up with the WooThemes blog for announcements of all the things they have going on.