W3TC, Placester, and Frederick Townes

Placester is a Boston-based startup that gears toward real estate agents, and they've recently raised $50 million in a Series D round — bringing their total fundraising to $100 million. Why should you care? Well, two reasons.

  1. Placester uses WordPress — big time. Their real estate websites are made with WordPress. It's a big real estate network with a custom interface, and they market IDX websites as a primary feature for their company.
  2. Their co-founder and CTO is Frederick Townes — yes, the same one who has been a controversial figure due to W3 Total Cache issues.

By raising yet another round of funding for Placester, it's more evidence of just how big a project it is for Frederick. They have more than 170 employees, and according to one article, have tripled revenue three years running, but they are not profitable yet.

Seeking to tell an interesting story about how WordPress is used in a promising startup, I wanted to talk to Frederick. After some prolonged Skype misses and a phone call to Placester's home office, I eventually got in touch with him, but he's been unwilling to talk beyond a few text messages.

I told him that I'd like to talk about how exactly Placester is using WordPress — as examples of large hosted networks are very interesting. I also said I wanted to learn more about what changes have been made in regard to how W3TC is being managed. Frederick said he was, “Not really interested in stories of either of these topics.”

About a year ago, W3 Total Cache was at the center of some WordPress compatibility issues, and between that and other public customer complaints, a debate sparked about whether the project was active at all. I wrote at the time about how I felt about the responsibilities of a plugin author:

I have no sympathy for Frederick Townes in regard to the commercial plugin complaints. If he continues to promote the commercial version, yet fails to perform the services he promises, then he deserves to get called out. The comments from folks like Philip Arthur Moore and Mike McAlister are quite damning. I trust both of these folks, and they wouldn’t complain about something unless it was a real problem. I believe that if they are speaking out, there are probably many more who are truly affected. Frederick should fix the issues he’s having delivering on promises with the commercial plugin, make it right with those folks they’ve done wrong, and if they can’t fix the issues then they should stop promoting the product β€” period.

As for the free product, I can certainly sympathize. Frederick is a co-founder and executive with a service called Placester β€” a company that’s raised $50 million. I highly doubt W3TC is a priority for him these days. That’s fine. It’s perfectly normal for free plugins to fall by the wayside, though it’s unfortunate when they are as broadly used as his.

My opinions haven't changed — though I am disappointed in that it doesn't appear like much, if anything, has actually changed with W3TC. Moreover, Frederick is unwilling to clear the air about what the heck is happening with the plugin.

Unfortunately, it appears he feels pretty burned by WordPress. While he didn't want to talk for an interview, he did say this (edited only mildly for clarity):

I get that folks will say what they wish, however historically these interviews with the community have not been helpful, nor has been expressing my intentions or accomplishments. Your case may be different, but I'm not interested in finding out at this time.

Talking to others about this, it seems Frederick has long felt the WordPress community has asked for a great deal, considering the base plugin is free, without much gratitude to offer back. And I'm sure it's true; for years, W3TC was the go-to option for a complete caching solution, and it is still active on over a million websites.

Like I mentioned in my last critique, I sympathize with the struggles supporting free plugins, and I totally believe it is typically a thankless job. The thing is, once you start charging for something, the expectations rightfully change. So there is an obligation to fulfill your promises when you sell support and services — even when the base plugin is free. The obligations are not to every free user, but they are to your paid customers.

When I asked if he is even providing commercial services for W3TC any more, Frederick said, “I'm not interested in confirming any details at this time.” Yet, the plugin clearly has a checkout process for services and support that start at $250.

If there have been changes made in response to past issues — which he promised would occur in a Reddit thread — you'd think he'd at least be willing to address them.

I wanted to tell a story of making good on past mistakes, which he himself admitted. I wanted to be able to talk about, at worst, what it's like to have a free plugin turned into a commercial service and product, and the process of sunsetting it to move on to bigger things. I also wanted to learn more about how a promising startup, Placester, uses WordPress. Unfortunately this is none of that.

I don't know how much, if any, Frederick has improved the W3TC commercial services. I hope he has, but I can't confirm it. If Frederick has not made substantive changes to the way commercial services for W3TC are provided, then it's quite a shame.

Given that it's hard to confirm what kind of course corrections have been made with W3TC, and given Placester is clearly (and rightly) Frederick's priority, I would not advise people reading this to use or put sites on W3TC.

I hope he's corrected past mistakes, but I can't show that he has, and he's unwilling to confront the conversation — unfortunately, and maybe unfairly, I admit — just making me even more skeptical.

I'm still very interested in Placester. WordPress-driven real estate sites are one of their core products, and for a team of nearly 200 with $100 million in funding, it would make for a great case study — especially as I've been beating the drum for hosted and catered WordPress for so many years now.

For people that liked W3TC and want to use something similar, there is a another version deemed a “community driven build” that is offering more frequent updates. Or of course, there are myriad other promising caching solutions out there.

Meanwhile, you now know as much as I do in regard to the current state of W3TC.

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