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The blue-collar WordPress worker and the 2,500+ websites built to grow the CMS

I’m not foolish enough to think that the entirety of WordPress’ growth is driven by our love for the software, but that we consultants are responsible for a sizeable portion of it. A portion that shouldn’t be ignored and one that should be welcome to the discussion more often.

Under-represented. Perhaps.

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I know many of you are like me, we don’t run 100+ person agencies, we don’t have 1mil+ plugin downloads, and we haven’t been contributing code to core for the last decade. However, what we do share in common is a life of servicing customers in the online business space. Servicing customers or our local community by way of building websites — helping organizations amplify their message.

This act of service is deeply rooted in using our favorite tool, WordPress.

Sure, we’re talking less and less about the tech side of things lately, but we know that it delivers a massive advantage as a platform to our customers. An advantage that might not matter to them in the short-term, but in the long-term sustainability of their business.

While many might join the ranks of offering WordPress services simply for the fact that it represents a big market to cash in on — and we all know that person — I believe many of us are in it for the right reasons:

  • Promote the use of open source software.
  • Give our customers a chance to own a sliver of their online presence and/or data.
  • Provide a flexible & sustainable platform for future opportunity.
  • Earn an honest living through service.

It’s at this point where I begin to disagree with a part of Matt Mullenweg’s theory of WordPress’ growth. Granted, he has a WAY better vantage point from atop a tower of data that I (we) don’t have access to. I’m relying on my own gut instinct, naivety, and feedback from my audience to deliver this message — take it for what it’s worth.

Tweet from @photomatt

Who is responsible for all of this WordPress?

A business can’t survive without strong sales & customer service, two competencies that are arguably the lifeblood of a company.

Many of you reading this fill that exact gap for the open source WordPress project. I don’t mean this as a slight to the thousands of wonderful people that build the software, document it, and support it in the forums, but that consultants (doing it right or wrong) are also fueling this locomotive too.

There are no official sales or customer service channels at WordPress.org and us consultants bear the brunt of it — for better or worse — and that’s where our job comes in. Just as you trust a core contributor to spot-check her code and ensure that we’ve sanitized all the things!

Consultants are the boots on the ground, and as you’ll see below in my feedback section, represent a disproportionate ratio of launching many more websites than an individual website owner. Mullenweg alludes to the end-user (what I’m calling the solo site owner) as the driving force behind growth. He might (probably does, can we have it please?) have more data than me, but on the flip side, it might be a vanity metric. If you count all the 1-click installs on GoDaddy or .com installs, perhaps, but how many of them were influenced or eventually turned to a professional to take over the reigns?

Just back-of-the-napkin math, a consultant might launch 50-to-1 websites in a year versus an individual blogger or business owner launching their first and only website. What happens when that number compounds over 5 years? On paper, I’m responsible for 500+ WordPress sites in the wild not counting the hundreds of other people online and in my local community I’ve influenced over the years.

I’m sure you’re in a similar boat as an individual or team that is responsible for the growing adoption of WordPress.

Thank you for that. Thank you to everyone else that makes this project possible.

1-to-many vs. 1-to-1

Again, maybe I’m just naive but out of the 500 websites I’ve helped build in some way, roughly 70% of the list counted on me to sell them on the software and support it. I was sales + customer service for the open source CMS. I was the face of their decision and the person they relied on to get it all working.

You too, I’m sure.

I could have offered Drupal, Expression Engine, or Squarespace and my customers would have bought it regardless. Many of my WordPress peers are making that same adjustment today. Sure, I would still have to support it regardless, but those applications and parent companies have an easier story to tell.

The waters aren’t muddied. You pay for a product, you know the expectations.

Matt, if you’re reading, do you know how hard it is to explain to someone new in this space what the difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org is? Add Jetpack, an Automattic company, to the mix and heads begin to explode. Especially when in-app ads cause uncertainty.

When you compete with yourself

Step outside of the WordPress bubble for a moment and imagine selling a product that competes with itself. Think of the confusion and apprehension a customer might feel when hearing that you have another paid alternative that’s getting coined as an “easier all-in-one” alternative or “made by the team behind WordPress…dot com. I’ve actually been there before, selling Chevrolet’s when customers would ask “What about GMCs?” Two of the EXACT same products, by the same company — different badges.

We all know how that turned out, General Motors went bankrupt. Maybe not directly because of mixed-brand recognition, but certainly adding this line of confusion didn’t help. They axed Pontiac and Oldsmobile because as a result — the least performant of the mix.

Enter in: sales. That’s where us consultants spend time selling. The story, the benefits, the future growth.

Blue-collar WordPress workers need a seat at the table

I consider myself a blue-collar digital worker.

I’m pulling at the strands of “WordPress” as it begins to move away from me. Jetpack + .com + Gutenberg are reshaping the opportunity we once knew into something — else.

A lot of what we do has already been commoditized in the last two years and it’s only getting worse.  I’m a believer that once the market corrects, we will discover new inroads, but for now, we fight to find ways to earn. I don’t know about you, but I’m rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands a lot dirtier navigating these uncharted seas.

On one hand, everyone has a SaaS, a podcast, an info product, or an agency to service customers. On the other, Jetpack and .com set their sites directly on consultants & product creators to ramp up their own revenue efforts potentially squeezing us out of the middle-market. I’ll let you formulate your own caricature of the upper-class vs. middle-class in this context.

Don’t lose sight of us

When I first had Matt on the show, it was off of his remarks that Jetpack was responsible for a large portion of the growth of WordPress. A comment that was almost thrown out or lost in the shuffle. To that I say:

  • What about the free/paid plugins?
  • What about the free/paid themes?
  • How have these helped boost the adoption of WordPress?

See, even some many years ago, Matt knew where Jetpack was going as a monetization platform that we weren’t aware of, yet. Now it’s staring us down the barrel of its golden money gun. Jetpack was about to take on the feature set and revenue share of other plugins — big and small — in the market.

And now, as I write this piece, I feel that the same squeeze play will begin with consultants. Not by taking away our livelihood, or that VIP will launch a services business, but that we’re not being considered to shape the product as our clients use it.

Why care?

I am so very passionate about the guidance of WordPress because it represents free speech, the democratization of publishing, and the livelihood of so many hard-working people around the globe. see: heropress.com

  • I respect the decisions being made from core & Auotmattic and expect the same in return that our collective voices are heard — regardless if we can contribute code or not. That not all of WordPress growth comes from a fancy feature or a new design language think tank, but from how real world people are using the software.
  • I yearn for the ambitious days where WordPress wanted to be the operating system for the web and not settle as just a Wix competitor.
  • I want to connect my refrigerator to a custom post type via the REST API — well — because I can.

I celebrate everyone that contributes to WordPress’ success from the smallest line of code to the sponsorship donations at WordCamps. You all have built something truly worthy of global recognition. If you’ve not yet contributed in your own way yet, I ask that you start however you see fit. A blog post, a YouTube video, or join over at make.wordpress.org.

Either direction you take, it’s important you make your voice and opinions heard.  Like Mullenweg said before me, I too believe that what got us here won’t get us there — a better software for all.

It’s up to us to get involved

While I feel that new mediums must be created for greater community feedback, we have some tools and places you can go to get involved. If you want to effect change, visit the following channels or conferences:

Who’s responsible for all the WordPress growth?

The following list of quotes & feedback comes from a question I sent to my newsletter based on Scott Bollinger’s post, Perspective on WordPress. Consider joining to stay connected. I’m incredibly proud of the feedback I received, not just because someone took the time to respond, but because of how diverse these answers are.

I hope you all use this feedback from my valuable audience to understand how we all define the growth of WordPress.

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I’m early on in my freelance career, but I do think we as WordPress Experts and consultants we are responsible for a large amount of WordPress’s growth. It’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about holding on to my clients and always being on hand to support them to grow online, after the website is launched. No one wants to see abandoned WordPress sites sitting sad! — @deandevelops 5 WordPress websites

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WordPress’ growth as a platform is primarily the outcome of a large community of independent creators who want to publish multiple ideas without technical limitations – that’s why WordPress is used and promoted by so many technophiles. — Brennan Bliss 40 – 60 WordPress websites

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The WordPress Growth is facilitated through adoption. Adoption specifically by developers, integrators and service providers. It’s also facilitated by time. At the time of WordPress’ birth, there were few alternatives that did it as well as WordPress. That though was a double-edged sword, by identifying the need we established a new market.

When I sit back and look, site builder platforms can be to WordPress, as WordPress was to Typepad and other solutions 10 years ago. They’ve gone one step further in the simplification process, and similar to WordPress, are building their network on adoption with developers and integrators. Interestingly enough, they don’t require service providers.

One of the very interesting things about WordPress was it’s ability to build a new economy for developers / integrators. Very few other platforms were able to do the same. This new economy propelled the platform forward. Today however, new economies are being built on site builders – Shopify being the most prevalent. Five years ago, when talking to website owners WordPress would be common language, these days the conversation starts with website builders first, WordPress second or third. When asked why, the responses are almost always uniform – it’s too much to deal with.

So yes, there has been growth. That’s undeniable. But there is also a slow down in it’s adoption, and I’m not sure downloads numbers count as an accurate measurement to best represent adoption. I travel the world, speak to a great number of website owners and small business, and at an alarming rate I am seeing a shift in the conversation around the solutions they use. There was a time when I would spend time with the Joomla! community and I would ask them what they work on. Almost sheepishly they would always mutter, out of ear shot, they build WordPress sites on the side to keep the lights on. These days, much to my surprise, from WordPress dev’s, I hear – I built and support [insert site build platform] on the side too. I find this to be a fascinating trend, and a strong indicator of what these platforms are contributing to the market.

Our successes tomorrow won’t be based on how amazing we were yesterday. Yesterday we fit a need, today that need is being satisfied by so many others. — Tony Perez a lot of WordPress websites

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A big % of WordPress growth has been agencies/consultants pushing it. Clients want a site that’s done and maintainable. They use whatever platform we say is best. — John Locke 65+ WordPress websites

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I believe the growth in WordPress usage is because it is easy to learn, free to use, and the community support is amazing! — Jay Van Houtte 7 WordPress websites and counting.

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I agree with Scotts wife it was super hard to figure out this platform. I build square and wix sites now and had to code my first ecommerce site back in 1998. Then I was off grid for about 7 years and came back to a whole new world.

I spent endless hours working it and with chat help and I almost bailed. I only stay on for the social media aspect of it.

I admin some facebook pages but am just me on my one wordpress site. — Gretchen Mauer No longer user WordPress

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Open source FREE, plugin selection, popular Word camps and awesome developer community are the reason behind growth — Ronik Patel 120+ WordPress websites

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WordPress is growing because of its enormous value to small businesses; it provides a great deal of autonomy and value to the end user. — Seth Shoultes 100+ WordPress websites 40,000 active plugin installs

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WordPress’ power is its flexibility. I can design whatever I want, and the client can easily update content. We both do what we do best. — Lisa Cerezo roughly ~150 WordPress websites

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The growth of WP definitely comes from non-technical users. Developers are the foundation, but users are rockets! — Anh Tran 80 WordPress websites

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WordPress has grown not because everyday users prefer it, but because the people *that they trust* prefer it. — Aaron Hockley 25+ WordPress websites

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There are tons of free resources for learning more and a plugin to do just about anything, making it one of the most accessible yet flexible web building tools around. — Jackie Latham 50+ WordPress websites

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I’ve probably influenced over 1000 people to become aware or use of WordPress – at least.

From my perspective, one major factor for WordPress growth is the technical and creative industries advocating WordPress (agencies/designers/devs), and the community creating paid/free plugins pushing the limit of what WordPress can do and thus making it a perfect fit for so many needs.

Extra comment: If the industry as a whole had seen a better CMS as an option in the past, WordPress would have faded to the background like all the others that didn’t have a commercial industry sitting alongside it to drive it forward.

Extra summary: It’s grown through advocacy. — Paul Lacey 250+ WordPress websites

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I would bet only a handful of my clients, in the history of my business, would have found WordPress on their own without me. The setup process for anything other than a basic blog is too much for average users in my experience. A lot of my clients are in an industry with high turnover and it’s a constant struggle to onboard new employees on the inner workings of the WordPress admin. — Brian Link 15 WordPress websites

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WP has grown because people view it as all free or they think they want/need more control. — Corey Maass 24+ WordPress websites

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WP has grown quickly because of the helpful inclusive community, enthusiasm of builders and developers, ease-of-use, and the GPL. — Eric Amundson 500+ WordPress websites

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I think WordPress grows in tune with the democratic back-bone of the internet. Sure we cane it for business, but ultimately wp represents the freedom to self-publish and the boundary-less opportunity of the net itself. — Woody Hayday 500+ WordPress websites

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I attribute the growth of WordPress to the quality, simplicity, and extensibility of the product and the diverse and perpetually generous community supporting it. — Brian Dusablon 75+ WordPress websites

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In the early days Matt had to differentiate and position WP as a non-technical platform during the days of strong Joomla and Drupal presence. Now with clear dominance in the CMS market and its size of not just users but of the support community, technical support community I might add, is the result of its learning curve. Because WP was never a WYSISWYG Squarespace experience. — Vadim Mialik 70+ WordPress websites

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Besides all the great WordPress sites on the Web, there are also countless dead, half-finished or poor SEO link bait sites. — Lisa McMahon 200+ WordPress websites

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13 comments on “The blue-collar WordPress worker and the 2,500+ websites built to grow the CMS

  1. I can think of 100 reasons WordPress grew, but Jetpack is nowhere on my list.

    Most clients I know don’t research whether Drupal or WP or Squarespace is best. They rely on the agencies and consultants to give them that advice. Without the blue-collar consultants telling businesses to use WP, it would be nowhere near the 29% market share that it has today.

  2. Love it. Thanks for taking the time to collect and curate all this and for sharing it Matt! It’s an important topic. Those responsible for bringing large numbers of websites every year into existence are often left out of the conversation.

  3. Strong thoughts! As a non-coding but increasingly professional WordPress user I feel what you’re saying.

    Regarding Jetpack, I don’t use it anymore. Two different times it disconnected on my main project site. There was no alert of any kind. The first time I had to upload a version provided by their tech support. The second I ditched it as unfit for combat.

    Thankfully, due to the rich community of WP devs, I don’t need Jetpack and will never use it or suggest it to others. Fool me once…

    1. Grav CMS is promising. I like how it works, but it’s still too new. If all about writing content in Markdown (as Grav CMS does), I’d suggest static site generators. I’ve been using Jekyll for Meta Box documentation and some of my company’s websites and it works really well, especially with the help from Netlify.

      1. I think this is down to personal preference. Jekyll is okay for some, but I have the feeling that with Grav CMS it is possible to do much more.

        I have done a few sites already with Grav, the rebuilt of SO WP as well as the Docs site of my latest plugin Lean WP and I must say that experience is a pleasure. I also must admit that there is a bit of a learning curve and my obvious next step will have to be to build a custom theme, instead of heavily relying on an existing theme or skeleton.

        Over at Dig WP where Jeff Star recently published his opinion on Gutenberg, he mentions that he has tried Grav CMS, but decided against it. See here his comment and reasons why below that: https://digwp.com/2017/11/thoughts-on-gutenberg/#comment-66614

        I still have high hopes for Grav and I expect to build websites for small to medium companies on it.

        I am seriously concerned and need to have a contingency plan in place for when WP and Gutenberg are forced down our throats. The latest release (1.7) promised working metaboxes, but apart from showing under the editor, it is impossible to do anything with them as the data simply is not saved.

        But of course the problems with WordPress are far more than only the current difficulties. Matt touches on various points in his article, thanks for publishing it!

  4. For someone who wants a seat at the table you have a difficult time saying exactly what it is you want. Or are you saving that for the next post?

    1. Hey Peter,

      You bring up a valid point and it’s probably because I haven’t fully mapped out what a solution looks like because it’s, well, beyond me. I’d also argue that my point here is to raise awareness and not be foolish enough to think that *I* have all the answers. I do hope that these words encourage others to start thinking about what that solution could/should be. Maybe there are a few listeners in my audience that aren’t aware of the proper channels we already have, which is why I linked them up in the article.

      Either way, there are people WAY smarter than me, like Morten Rand-Hendriksen to name one, that provide some serious critical thinking around the future of WordPress. With an upcoming WordCamp US, I’d say it’s a great time for folks to meet in person to hash out these ideas.

      So, I’m curious, if you feel the same way — what would your solution be?

      1. I think Matt’s raising issues to which a lot of people including myself can relate and it isn’t necessary and possibly inappropriate for him to create an agenda for those people at this point. We have to do that together.

        But I’m listening to any ideas you guys have.

  5. Hi Matt, excellent post and I 100% agree with what you’ve said. I didn’t know that Matt M. really mentioned that Jetpack is responsible for a large portion of the growth of WordPress. I rather would argue that WordPress definitely wouldn’t be what it is today without the thousands of developers, freelancers and agencies who adopted WordPress (the open source project) to build great sites for their customers.

    What if there wouldn’t be 50k+ plugins for basically everything you can imagine, if there wouldn’t be thousands of themes for all kinds of niches, if there wouldn’t be thousands of consultants who sell their customers WordPress as the best solution? Customers usually don’t contact a consutant and say: “Hey, I need a new WordPress site”. No, they just want a website and it’s up to the consultant or web designer to offer a solution. In the past the answer often was WordPress, because of the awesome .org ecosystem, flexibility through meta boxes, etc…. As we all know, these things may be on stake at the moment. What if the answer to customer’s needs soon won’t be WordPress anymore? Will Jetpack then still move WordPress forward as the driving force?

    I think especially in the current situation, with highly controversial discussions about the future of WordPress, it would be a huge mistake to make decisions based on experiences and data that comes out of a WordPress.com bubble. What may be cool on WordPress.com and work there, may be a complete fail in a world where customers need a flexible solution, based on their personal needs and requirements. Standardization isn’t the answer to everything and assuming what customers need instead of actually asking them, may go south as well.

    Anyway, let’s hope that the critics of the current course are all wrong, that the growth truly comes from Jetpack, from the awesome flexbile solutions on WordPress.com and that Gutenberg is the thing the majority of users are asking for (even if most of them aren’t even aware of it yet). I have my doubts, but maybe I’m not in a position to know these things, especially not if Jetpack or .com is the driving force behind the growth of WordPress.

    I also encourage everyone to read this awesome comment from Philip Arthur Moore. It explains pretty well why “simple” isn’t the answer to what many people need. Sadly, there has been no response to that comment, instead the comments were closed, which may be a response as well.

  6. Hey Matt,

    I agree 1000%.

    In another other industry those would speak about would be called WordPress’ “channel.” And many businesses have a strategy that is very supportive of their channel.

    WordPress is ironic in that it ignores it channel at best and is hostile to it at worst. Which is a shame and makes us all look foolish, if you really think about it. We that are helping WordPress grow are at best tolerated by those who benefit from WordPress’ growth.

    FWIW

  7. Matt, I’m really glad that you took the time to highlight the importance of “the boots on the ground”.

    WordPress consultants (you can also call them influencers) are the locomotive of WordPress’s popularity train.
    Yes, the tracks are generally laid out by the people in charge, they choose the direction of the tracks, the tracks can go uphill or downhill and we have no control over that. But when it comes down to actually moving the train, it’s not investors or Automattic marketers doing that.

    P.S. Your voice sounds great, it is very pleasant to listen to.

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