WooThemes: Making WordPress Beautiful
WordPress theme specialist WooThemes has been giving WordPress themes the wow factor for over five years. Web Designer catches up with cofounder Mark Forrester to talk themes, friendships and passion
WooThemes has developed into one of the leading providers of WordPress themes on the web. What’s the story behind WooThemes and how has the company evolved since you started?
In the early days of WordPress (circa 2007), when it was only seen as a blogging platform and themes were all free and very basic – both visually and functionally – my two business partners and I were freelancing from our homes in South Africa, England and Norway, doing custom WordPress jobs for clients, charging by the hour for our time and skills. It was around this time Adii was testing the waters with selling a ‘premium’ theme, transforming the traditional WordPress blog layout to more of a newspaper/magazine design with customisable theme options.
Magnus and I connected with Adii via our own personal blogs, and quickly started discussing an opportunity to create a passive income stream by selling off-the-shelf commercial WordPress themes with styling options, giving blog owners the tools to transform their stock standard WordPress sites into slick business brochures and news sites. Selling a product and support, as opposed to our time, afforded us to take holidays, and earn money 24/7.
WordPress now powers a huge chunk of the top sites on the internet and the latest version has already been downloaded over 12 million times. It’s a huge target market.
We were lucky to be early to the marketplace and secure a prominent position in the WordPress community. As competition has grown we’ve prided ourselves on the innovation shown in our themes, some of the code even made it to WordPress core and became the WordPress menu system, and that innovation has since led to us exploring WordPress plug-in development.
Themes are the core product at WooThemes, with well over 90 available to users. How often are new themes added, and what is the process for creating and bringing a new theme to the market?
Up until recently we were releasing two themes a month. Once we reached the big 100 though we realised it wasn’t efficient to have such a large catalogue, and retired a bunch. We now only guarantee one release per month. By retiring themes and reducing the amount we develop each month we can concentrate our attention on producing even better, more flexible and extendable themes, and ensure our community is serviced with the quickest and most thorough support possible.
Our theme development process starts with an idea, usually submitted via our ideas board where users have the ability to submit their ideas for themes/plug-ins, and other community members can vote it up if they like it. The ideas with the most votes rise up and get discussed in our internal product meetings. We then decide on the feasibility and likely feature set and plan to design either in-house or seek an industry leading designer to collaborate with.
Once we’ve nailed the design, after numerous rounds of focus group feedback, we get it into the chop shop and convert the design to our WooFramework. All our themes are built from a base theme that we’ve tailor made and kept up to date with our latest codebase.
Once the design has been converted to a basic WooTheme we get the senior developers in to do the heavy lifting and build any unique modules required.
The theme is then thoroughly tested in-house by a focus group, bugs fixed, browser tested, demo created, and documentation written. It’s a long, thorough process, carefully mapped out and monitored on Basecamp, but something we’ve mastered over the years.
WooThemes has grown from a team of three to now include over 20 team members from across the globe. What talents and traits do you look for when recruiting a new addition to the WooThemes family?
We pride ourselves on the fact that we’ve built the business around our lifestyles. We haven’t been shy about marketing that fact either. We work a four day work week, which is not entirely true with our massive userbase requiring 24/7 support, but our team enjoys a long weekend where they chose the exact hours they want to work.
We also try to all meet up once a year somewhere around the world and have fun. We’ve been skiing in Austria, sightseeing in London and later in the year enjoying the sun around the beaches of Cape Town. These facts have certainly helped us attract a lot of job applicants from around the world, and seeing as we are an online business we are lucky enough to be able to hire where ever we like. We can therefore be picky and find the cream of the crop designers, developers, sales, and support staff.
Along with a strong skillset, a creative application often gets our attention. We’ve had applicants submit crazy videos of why they think they’d be a good fit for WooThemes, a CV submitted via Instagram photos, a CSS generated mockup of our Woo mascot illustration, and a dedicated website created (including video submissions from all the WordPress community in their area recommending the applicant).
The number one trait though is passion. It’s something that’s worn on your sleeve. When we see someone passionate about WooThemes, and the WordPress community as a whole, we want them on our team.
The WooThemes team works from various global locations including South Africa, the Netherlands and the UK. How do you collaborate on projects and what issues arise from being in different locations?
We now have staff in nine countries, so are truly global, which can be a problem in itself with the finances and what employee taxes are paid where.
With the three of us cofounders starting the business and operating it for the first six months without having met, we’re pretty experienced with mobile officing.
I guess one of the biggest problems with a team the size it is now, is making sure everyone feels connected and working optimally. We can’t physically see the team in the office, and it’s easy to misread emotion through an email or text chat, but our mission is not to micro-manage, rather, we empower our staff to innovate and push themselves.
For each project we follow strict guidelines we’ve put together, and set lots of to-dos lists, assigning team members for various parts of the project cycle. We make use of a variety of online tools including Basecamp and Trello for project management, which are our saving grace.
Skype is always open and our team members always online and available to chat when at their desk. We also have weekly voice calls for product and strategy meetings.
As the company has expanded so has the WooThemes product range. WooCommerce is a relative newcomer to the WooThemes stable. What inspired you to add eCommerce functionality and how successful has it proved to be?
As WordPress matured into a fully-fledged content management system we were getting a lot of requests for more feature-rich themes. The most commonly asked was eCommerce themes. In the past we had built heavy functionality directly into our themes, and learned the hard way that themes shouldn’t include the kitchen sink – rather, [you should] keep them lean, robust and extendable.
After months of exploring building an eCommerce plug-in, with themes dependant on it, with contract workers and a lot of dead ends, we decided to pull the project entirely in-house and employed some super talented guys. A couple of months later we launched WooCommerce and we haven’t looked back since.
WooCommerce has proven there is a huge demand for people wanting to run eCommerce shops from within their WordPress sites. We released the plug-in for free with all the required features, and that has got us over 250,000 downloads. Charging for premium extensions; for example, country-specific payment gateways, a table based shipping module, or an affiliate system, has proven that a freemium model can work if the code is extendable. Developers building on top of WooCommerce have seen there is a large marketplace for selling extensions.
WooCommerce now makes up a huge chunk of our revenue and has proven that the plug-in space is hot, and often poorly serviced. Our code is solid, but our support is equally strong. The combination is our winning formula.
Constant development is key to growth and success. What plans do you have for the short and long-term?
We’ve realised our experience and knowledge of WordPress theming has given us a unique understanding of what WordPress users want and need. We plan much more plug-in innovation, and to further build on our WordPress platform offering. We want to offer our loyal userbase the whole WordPress package they need to run and host their site.