👨‍💻 Brainstorming opportunities in the WordPress ecosystem with Iain Poulson

Last week I got the chance to pick Iain Poulson's brain. He owns two successful plugins, founded a popular WordPress community, writes regularly about WordPress trends, and runs a SaaS business targeting WordPress plugin owners.

So there's probably no better person to talk to about opportunities in the WordPress ecosystem.

Below I'll summarize the most important takeaways from our conversation. You can listen to the full conversation here.

And in case you want to research the WordPress ecosystem we've prepared a database with information on all WordPress plugins that are listed on WordPress.org:

In addition, here's another database with information on all premium plugins sold on Codecanyon:

Let's dive in.

It's crowded (but that's a good thing)

Source: Google Trends

Here's some data that might be quite demotivating at first glance:

  • WordPress has been around since 2003 and is certainly not a hot or trendy technology.
  • There are around 50,000 plugins listed on WordPress.org.
  • Many plugins are backed by huge companies and have accumulated thousands of reviews by now.

So it seems unlikely that you can create a plugin no one has thought of before. (An exception is when you bring a new trend to the WordPress ecosystem. More on that below.)

No matter what use case you have in mind, there's probably already a plugin that does the job. After all, that's WordPress' biggest strength. It's the Swiss army knife among the content management software products.

But the fact that WordPress is already so well-established is not necessarily a bad thing. Depending on whom you ask, between 30% and 40% of all the websites on the Internet are powered by WordPress. That's a huge market.

So while the chances to compete with the big players are as slim as anywhere, the good news is that if you manage to grab even just a tiny piece of the pie, you'll have a viable business.

For example, Iain discovered that the owners of the Ultimate Member plugin were making thousands of dollars each month from it. (They used to publish public income reports). So when a similar plugin was up for sale on Flippa for a reasonable price, he bought it immediately even thought there are plenty of competitors. And just a few months later it's his most successful project.

Another interesting example is WP Rocket. They started in 2013 even though there were plenty of free caching plugins. Now, 7 years later, they are the market leader and generate $4,000,000+ in revenue each year from over 148,000 customers.

This story is even more impressive if we take into account that WP Rocket didn't succeed because they introduced any novel, superior technology. Instead, their main differentiator is price. Along with its premium price they offered better support and a better UX and this was enough to convince thousands of customers.

WP Rocket's success hints toward an exciting development: the WordPress ecosystem is finally professionalizing. So let's talk about that next.

The ecosystem is becoming more professional

For a long, long time the WordPress ecosystem was dominated by a free, open-source spirit. WordPress is free and there are thousands of free plugins and themes. To this day, only free plugins and themes can be listed in the official repository on WordPress.org.  

This is amazing if you're short on money and certainly played a large role on WordPress' road to CMS dominance.

However, as anywhere in life you get what you pay for. While it's easy to install dozens of plugins to get a site that has exactly the features you want, the resulting WordPress site is often far from satisfactory. As soon as you start installing plugins, WordPress sites quickly become clunky and slow. This shouldn't be too surprising given that many plugins are developed by hobby developers in their spare time.

In addition, without subscription revenue there's little incentive for developers to keep their plugins up-to-date and fix security holes. As a result, WordPress sites are popular hacker targets. For example, the Panama Papers hack was the result of a vulnerability in a WordPress plugin. Almost anyone who manages WordPress sites has some experiences with hacked sites. (I certainly have. This is why this site is running on Ghost and my personal site on Jekyll.)

None if this is particularly surprising. But for many years WordPress users simply came to expect that there's always a free solution and there were always plenty of new developers who were willing to offer them.

In addition, while it's easy to publish a free WordPress plugin, for many years there was no simple way to offer a plugin with a subscription model.

Luckily all of this changing right now:

  • Website owners are more willing to pay for premium solutions. We can see this by looking at the success of plugins like WP Rocket and Gravity Forms.
  • Thanks to services like Freemius it's now easier than ever to build a sustainable (aka subscription) plugin business.

So right now there is an opportunity to go through the list of the most popular free plugins and create a premium version with similar features but better customer support and UX.

Another side effect of "WordPress" and "free" effectively being synonymous is that there is still little tooling for professional WordPress developers. Freemius and Iain's Plugin Rank are just two early steps in that direction. An interesting strategy hence could be to study what tools exist, say, for Shopify app developers and then build something similar for WordPress developers. (We'll publish a Shopify app ecosystem deep dive soon.)

A related but more ambitious opportunity is to build a modern marketplace for premium WordPress tools and plugins that supports subscriptions. (The current market leader, Codecanyon, does not support subscriptions.)

Another interesting framework that Iain told me about is to look at what's happening in the rest of the tech world and then import these trends into the WordPress ecosystem.

  • Iain launched a plugin that connects Instagram with WordPress after he noticed that his wife spend more and more time on the platform.
  • Right now newsletters are all the rage and Lesley and Ahmed are taking advantage of this opportunity by building Newsletter Glue which is effectively Substack for WordPress.

Here are three ways to find these kinds of opportunities.

  • Have a look at the most popular WordPress Zaps. A Zap is by definition a workaround and many users would probably prefer a dedicated solution (like Iain's Instagram plugin). For example, one interesting Zap I found is "Publish new Revue issues to your WordPress blog". Services like Revue (which was recently acquired by Twitter) make it easy to publish newsletters. But most of them give you little control over the newsletter's archive. Importantly there's usually no good solution to paywall certain issues or change its design. Hence a dedicated WordPress plugin that integrates with services like Revue and makes it easy to create a beautiful archive you fully control seems like a great opportunity.  
  • Which social networks are taking off right now and what could you build that helps WordPress users take advantage of this trend? For example, it certainly could make sense to advertise upcoming Clubhouse shows on your WordPress site but so far there are zero "Clubhouse" plugins in the WordPress.org directory.
  • Check which apps for Shopify store owners are trending right now and think about importing them into the WooCommerce ecosystem.

Themes are the past, plugins the future

One anti-trend Iain told me about is that while for many years themes were the best way to make money in the WordPress ecosystem, this is no longer the case.

"I think most people believe themes will become obsolete in the next few years as Full Site Editing becomes the norm. [...] Who needs WordPress themes if you can build a site like that?"  - WP Trends

The main reason is that Elementor and Automattic (the company behind Wordpress.com) are betting that drag and drop page builder functionality within WordPress is the future which, effectively, would kill themes.

But as usual, when one door closes another opens. Instead of themes, users now use pre-designed blocks for editors like Gutenberg or Elementor to style their sites.

One additional data point that supports this hypothesis is that were quite a few App Sumo deals for Gutenberg blocks that did well recently.

Scratch your own itch or acquire an existing plugin

One final piece of advice Iain shared is that if you want to maximize your success chances you should either scratch your own itch or acquire an existing plugin.

  • The WordPress ecosystem is crowded and it takes work to stick out. You can't just upload a plugin and hope that it will magically become a success. If you create a new plugin from scratch probably the best strategy is to invest in content marketing. But this requires either a lot of stamina and passion or deep pockets to pay writers. And if you go down that route you better be sure that the problem you're solving is big enough.
  • Hence, especially if you dollarize your own time, it's probably much cheaper to buy an established plugin than to start one from scratch. Iain acquired WP User Manager for a 1x multiple of its previous 12-month revenue and in just 15 month was able to triple it (primarily by raising prices).

There's currently no dedicated marketplace for WordPress plugins (which might be an opportunity in itself), but Iain regularly shares great deals on sites like Flippa in his newsletter.

That's all I got for today. If you want to learn more about the WordPress ecosystem, I highly recommend following Iain on Twitter and subscribing to his newsletter. (Sorry for mentioning it twice in a row here but it really is that good.)

Please do share with your friends. I spent 5+ hours on this so it would be nice if a few people read it.

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