An interview with PublishPress founder Steve Burge

PublishPress recently announced the acquisition of Daniel Bachhuber’s Bylines plugin for PublishPress. I got in touch with Steve to catch up with him and his unique take on the WordPress economy.

Steve Burge is an old hand within the open source CMS space but a relative newcomer to the WordPress plugin market. Perhaps best known for OSTraining, which caters to a broad array of open source technologies, Steve has been consolidating and acquiring Joomla-based products over the past two years and also moving into the WordPress space. In 2016-17 he released Upstream, an extensible project management plugin, and PublishPress, a suite of publishing tools for editorial teams. Recently Steve announced the acquisition of Daniel Bachhuber's Bylines plugin for PublishPress. I got in touch with Steve to catch up with him and his unique take on the WordPress economy. [DK]

DK: You first got into the WordPress market with OSTraining quite a while back, right? But PublishPress seems like maybe your first real dive into the pool. Would you say that's accurate? How do you describe your relationship with WordPress along with all the other Open Source platforms you touch in some way?

SB: WordPress is a fascinating challenge. WordPress is like the end-level boss in a video game.

After working in WordPress for a couple of years now, it’s safe to say that the market is not twice or three times as competitive as Joomla, Drupal or Magento. The competition is at least ten or twenty times as numerous and tough.

Did you see that WPEngine-Silver Lake deal that was recently announced for $250 million? That’s just one deal for one WordPress company, but it’s as much as the main Magento company raised last year. It’s significantly more than the main Drupal company (Acquia) has raised in their 10 year history. So WPEngine would be the largest company in most other open source platforms, but you could argue that Automattic, GoDaddy, EIG and perhaps Envato are all bigger WordPress companies.

Speaking personally, we had no problems successfully entering the Joomla, Drupal, Magento and MySQL markets. In comparison, the WordPress market has been uphill all the way.

We did have some luck entering WordPress training with OSTraining, including partnerships with GoDaddy.

Entering the plugin space has been tough. I wrote a mea culpa explaining all the mistakes we made in 2017.

DK: It looks like you've picked up on the value in Daniel Bachhuber's old Edit Flow codebase and also his new work with Bylines. What drew you to build a new business around this suite of features for publishing teams? Is Daniel going to be working with you at all on that?

SB: PublishPress is [our] first [WordPress] plugin that has broken through and gotten people’s attention, so when Daniel told us he was selling Bylines, we jumped at the chance.

PublishPress is a fork of Edit Flow, which Daniel originally co-wrote. I think we both saw the same hurdles when it comes to larger organizations using WordPress.

Our reason for focusing on publishing workflows comes from our training work. The training classes took us inside a lot of large organizations, from tech companies like Apple and IBM, to pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and Merck, to the U.S. government agencies.

These organizations really care about getting things right. They don’t just log in and click “Publish” for their content or their code. So, we heard the same two requests time and again:

  1. A development workflow, so they can move through dev / staging / live environments.
  2. A publishing workflow, so they can ensure all their content is edited and approved.

In short, these organizations don’t want to leave anything to chance. They want to test and approve changes at every stage, whether it’s a coding change or new content.

Many of those large organizations chose Drupal simply because it offered better solutions for these two problems.

Nowadays, WordPress hosting companies are doing a better job of providing development workflows, but no-one seemed to be solving the lack of publishing workflows. So we launched PublishPress.

The idea to use Edit Flow as the starting point for PublishPress came from a conversation with Daniel at last year’s Loop Conf in Salt Lake City. He immediately said, “If you’re going to fork Edit Flow, you may as well fork Co-Authors Plus as well.” Daniel had written them both, but by that time was developing WP-CLI. So we followed his advice, and that’s now the Multiple Authors plugin [for PublishPress].

We’d love to collaborate with Daniel on something in the future; however, Daniel has worked on many great projects in the WordPress world, and his main focus has shifted from Bylines / Edit Flow / Co-Authors. He was working on WP-CLI, and now he’s helping prepare Gutenberg for the WordPress core, making sure as many plugins as possible are ready for WordPress 5.0.

DK: It makes a lot of sense that your training work put you in touch with the pain points, needs, and ultimately the platform selection process of potential WordPress users in the enterprise space. Is training people for WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and Magento still a growth industry for all these platforms?

SB: No, CMS and eCommerce training probably peaked in about 2013 to 2015. Lots of trainers were one-person operations, and they discovered you can make more money as a developer. Lots of book publishers have shrunk their ambitions and exited the open source market.

The training side of our business is still strong thanks to loyal customers, and an increasing number of partnerships. We’ve launched books and videos in partnership with GoDaddy, Pantheon, Acquia, InMotion, Ecwid and others. We call it training-marketing. It’s 100% training, but we’ll showcase the partner during the class. For example, during the WordPress classes, we’ll show a normal installation, but it just happens to be on GoDaddy servers.

DK: Are you optimistic about the future of open source? What are the things that you see that drive your optimism about WordPress? It seems like there’s a lot of focus on weaknesses and threats, especially around legacy elements in WordPress and now change resistance over Gutenberg, which presents a big unknown.

SB: That’s a big question. Let me quickly describe another couple of open source projects [that] went through a massive change like Gutenberg.

In the Drupal world, we just went through Drupal 8. It was done with the best of intentions. Everyone wanted to update Drupal for the modern marketplace. But scope creep set in, and before anyone knew it, years had passed. The goal posts had shifted. The technology chosen at the beginning of the process wasn’t so hot by the end of the process. The upgrade path was very difficult, and both developers and end-users were reluctant to migrate.

In the Magento world, we just went through Magento 2. All the things I said about Drupal 8 can also be said about Magento 2. Except for some reason, it kind of worked. Magento was a struggling platform for several years, but [now it] has a new energy behind it. The community seems re-energized by the fresh technology.

So don’t trust anyone who says they know what the impact of Gutenberg will be on WordPress. This could go in any number of directions, both positive and negative.

Big challenges lie ahead – and Daniel is tackling many of them! – but the Gutenberg is team is making enormous progress too.

I think everyone involved with Gutenberg knows that this is a major roll of the dice. It’s perhaps the major roll of the dice in WordPress’s history. But the alternative is stagnation, and the Gutenberg team are open about the risks and the rewards.

DK: Media/publishing and also higher education users typically need and often require a CMS with the ability to define roles and delegate access within a workflow that shepherds content from draft to publication. It’s not just about custom access levels, it’s about the larger purpose of content publishing where a number of people are responsible for each item, from co-authors to co-editors to the marketing team. Why do you think there has never been a robust WordPress solution that caters to this type of market and need previously?

SB: It’s not easy to see the need for publishing workflows unless you spend a lot of time inside larger organizations.

In Drupal, most of the development on their publishing workflows is driven by a team at Pfizer. They’re a massive company and see the need for these tools.

Most of us work for smaller companies with just a handful of people. We log into WordPress, write a post, and click “Publish.” Later we might go back and fix some typos or broken links if we have time. It’s a much more fluid process.

DK: What are you reading or watching in your down time? Any special sources of inspiration or relaxation?

SB: 90% of what I watch and do is driven by my kids. So, “Coco” deserves to win the Best Picture at the Oscars next month. I’m only half-joking, it’s really an amazing movie.

On TV, if you haven’t seen The Man in the High Castle (and most people haven’t), check it out. It’s an incredible show and really doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. The plot is a little slow at times but the ideas are engaging and some of the visuals are incredible.

For a book recommendation, many of you have probably read The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. But he wrote another book that I keep with me constantly: How Will You Measure Your Life? This book might not appeal to everyone, but I’m exactly the target audience – busy people with families. One of the reasons I love being around the open source world is that so many other people in the community have similar priorities and place their families ahead of their work.

DK: I think that's absolutely essential wisdom – often heard but hard to live by under the pressures of the moment. Thanks for sharing your experience and insights with us Steve!