Anyone can start a WordPress business. As the world's biggest open-source web platform, you can sell WordPress products or services without any qualifications or experience. There's no need to have worked for yourself or run a business before.
But there's a huge difference between starting a WordPress business and building a successful WordPress business. Sadly, there are several reasons why most people will never be truly successful.
This is the story of how I beat the odds and created Barn2 Media, a successful WordPress business with multiple income streams. I'm going to talk about the mistakes that most people make which get in the way of success - including mistakes I've made myself. I'll also provide actionable advice on how you can avoid these pitfalls and achieve your own success with WordPress.
WordPress: The Perfect Opportunity to Build a Successful Business
I believe that WordPress offers many fantastic business opportunities. It's free, open-source, accessible to all and has low barriers to entry compared to traditional professions. Literally, anyone can download WordPress, teach themselves the basics and start a WordPress business of their own. The global WordPress community is hugely supportive and there are many resources to help you get started.
As a big fan of the TV programme Dragon's Den, I often cringe at how much investment is needed to launch traditional businesses. I've always wanted to start my own business, but never had any desire to seek investment or take big risks. I'm far too risk-averse for that! WordPress is perfect because you can start from nothing and there's almost no upfront cost (other than the basics such as buying a domain name and hosting).
I also love the fact that WordPress businesses are largely home-based. This suits me perfectly, as I always wanted to work from home! You can work from home and sell WordPress products, or design websites for small and medium businesses. Big WordPress companies such as Automattic and Modern Tribe have shown that by building a distributed team, you can even take on enterprise-level projects while working from home. The lifestyle benefits offered by a WordPress business are so much better than most industries.
WordPress brings so many opportunities for starting a business. That's why it's such a shame that most WordPress companies will never be truly successful.
Why Most WordPress Businesses Will Never Be Successful
WordPress is a great industry to get into. But surprisingly, the benefits of WordPress mean that -- almost by definition -- most people running a WordPress business will never be truly successful. There are several reasons for this:
- Lack of experience: It's great that anyone can start a WordPress business. However, this means that the average WordPress business owner is less likely to be an experienced entrepreneur or business person compared to traditional industries. You can be successful without prior experience - just look at Mark Zuckerberg, who started Facebook while he was still in college. But most successful careers are built over time, after building experience and learning from mistakes.
- Isolation: WordPress business owners often work independently or with a partner with the same skills as them (e.g. two friends who are both developers). You're more likely to be successful if your colleagues have different skillsets. I think that's a big reason why my own company, Barn2 Media, has been so successful. My husband Andy is a web developer with a computer science background, whereas my experience is in business, project management, and marketing. Together, our skills are the perfect combination for building a successful WordPress business.
- Market saturation: Many areas of the WordPress market are saturated. This makes it difficult to find a niche where your business can thrive. We've found success by carving out niches for ourselves (more on this later) - I think this is vital if you have limited resources.
- Lack of strategic vision: With so many opportunities available, it’s easy to spread yourself too thin without thinking strategically or specializing in an area where you can succeed.
- Lack of diversification: Conversely, it’s also easy to focus too much on a single area, which leaves you open to competition and losing your customer base to a powerful competitor. WordPress is particularly prone to this because it's open-source and you can't protect your code.
As you can see, there are lots of reasons why a WordPress business might fail to be successful. How many of these apply to your own business?
The good news is that by recognizing these issues, you can build a WordPress business that overcomes these mistakes and has real potential for success. I'll tell you how to do this next.
Inexperience Doesn't Have to be a Barrier
I wish I'd started a business sooner. Instead, I languished in a traditional job (unrelated to WordPress) for seven over years before taking the plunge. Sure, I learned a few things from working for other companies. But this was nothing compared with everything I learned after starting a real WordPress business and throwing myself into the deep end.
If you're not an experienced business person or entrepreneur, don't let this limit your ambition. Instead, focus on how you can get access to the knowledge and experience you need.
The WordPress community is fantastically supportive. Attend WordCamp events and make links with like-minded people who are slightly further ahead in their WordPress journey. Ask for advice and listen to what they say!
Read articles (like this one!) and learn from other people who have found success with WordPress.
Don't Be Afraid to Make Mistakes
Yes, you'll make mistakes. I think I made every mistake possible! The important thing is that I learned from each mistake and used it to improve the business.
For example, if you under-quote for a project then you might spend a few weeks (or months) working for little or no reward. Take the hit and work through it. When you've finished, analyze what happened and improve your processes for the future so that it never happens again.
The more mistakes you make, the more you learn. Before you know it, you'll be an experienced businessperson and other people will want to learn from you!
Overcome Isolation and Get Access to New Skills
All successful businesses need access to a range of skills. A WordPress business needs one or more designers or developers, or at least people who can use WordPress proficiently (depending on your products/services). You probably have this. But do you have access to the other skills that are needed to make your business a success? This might include people with business acumen who know how to plan and monitor your finances; project managers; sales and marketing experts, and so forth.
I would estimate that the vast majority of small WordPress businesses lack at least one of these vital skills. It's common for a business to have designers and developers who can build websites or WordPress products, but no one with marketing skills. This makes your business lopsided, and vastly restricts your chances of success.
How to Identify and Fix a Skills Gap
These are my top tips for ensuring your business has access to the skills it needs:
- Decide which products or services to offer based on your existing qualities and skills. If you're good at building websites, then offer this as a service. Offer hosting services if your background is in server maintenance. If you're a developer, offer general development services, site speed analysis, build your own themes or plugins, or site security packages. If you'd rather advise people, then offer consultancy services or write an online training course or e-book. There are so many ways you can make money with WordPress -- you might as well do whatever you do best.
- Write a list of the skills that would ideally make your business a success. Don't just write down your own skills - be honest, and include the things you're missing. Armed with this knowledge, think about how you could meet this gap. A solution might involve partnering with someone who has the skills you're missing (meeting people at WordCamps is ideal for this). Or, you could employ someone, if you can afford it. Or, you could find a freelancer with the skills you need.
For example, Andy is an experienced WordPress developer and I'm good at marketing, but neither of us is good at direct sales or networking. We're both introverts and prefer to work in the background. This has always been a gap in our business. As a result, we've developed products and services that can be successful through other forms of marketing such as search engine optimization. I've also started working with Alex Denning (who I met at WordCamp Paris 2017) who's a good networker and fills the gaps in my marketing skillset.
Avoid Market Saturation and Find Your Own Niche
A lot of people say that the WordPress market is saturated. I think this is a huge generalization.
Yes, some areas of the WordPress market are overcrowded and it would be crazy to try to break into that area. Multipurpose WordPress themes are a good example -- you have little or no chance of competing with giants like Avada and Flatsome.
However, there are plenty of areas within WordPress where you can carve out a place for yourself. Lots of WordPress companies have done this very successfully. For example, Aelia is the leading company offering plugins to internationalize your WordPress website. Whether you're running WooCommerce or Easy Digital Downloads, you can use their plugins to add multi-currency support, country-specific pricing, and more. They do one thing, and they do it well.
Similarly, HeroThemes sell a theme and plugin specifically for building a knowledgebase. They found a gap in the market, filled it, and are now the leader in this niche.
We've done the same with our suite of WooCommerce protection plugins. After launching our WooCommerce Password Protected Categories and WooCommerce Private Store plugins, we are now the world's leading company offering solutions to make WooCommerce private.
Don't copy what someone else has already done. If you do that, you'll be competing with someone who is more established than you, which will limit your success. There are still lots of gaps in the market. Find them, fill them with your own unique products or services, and find your own success where there is little or no competition.
How to Find Gaps in the Market
If you work with WordPress then you're in a unique position to find gaps in the market.
- Listen to your clients: they're an amazing source of ideas. We never came up with the idea for our bestselling plugin, WooCommerce Product Table. The idea sort of evolved as part of a much longer story. A client asked us to develop a WordPress table plugin that would automatically list blog posts in a table, so we created the free plugin Posts Table with Search + Sort. Users of the free plugin started requesting ways to list custom post types in a table, so we launched a premium version called Posts Table Pro. Posts Table Pro customers then started asking for extra features for listing WooCommerce products in a table, such as add to cart buttons and star ratings. It was only then that we developed WooCommerce Product Table, and its success has been truly overwhelming.
- Ask people who already have a WordPress website what they would have liked that wasn't available: This could be a product or a service.
- Are there any pain points in your own business that you couldn't find a solution for? If you've ever searched for a theme or plugin for your own website and been unable to find anything suitable, then you're probably not the only one! A lot of successful WordPress companies start by scratching their own itch.
- Join WordPress-related Facebook Groups: groups such as WordPress E-Commerce make it easy to see what questions people are asking.
Create a Focused, Scalable Business Plan
To be honest, I'm not a fan of formal business plans. I used to write them in the early days of Barn2 Media usually by downloading a template, but haven't done so for years. I'm not a fan of financial projections either, as they seem fairly meaningless to me. But you do need a business plan, even if it's just in your head.
All successful businesses need to understand where they have come from, and where they are going in the short, medium, and long-term. This is where the business plan comes in.
Many small WordPress businesses don't have a plan for the future. They just continue offering the same products or services, with no real direction.
To be successful, you need to think strategically and analyze your business. This is the only way to learn and grow. For example:
- What were your previous successes and failures? What worked, and what didn't work?
- If you provide services, which services are most profitable? Which ones are a drain on your time and resources? An understanding of the 80/20 rule is a great way to put things into perspective.
- The same applies to your products. Do you spend most of your time supporting an unsuccessful theme or plugin, when you could be spending time on a more successful venture?
- Which types of work do you enjoy? What do you hate doing?
- Do your products or services generate one-off or recurring revenue? If it's the former, then you need to change your business model!
Get a greater understanding of your business, and use it to prioritize and make changes. Drop any products or services that aren't contributing to your success. Put more resources into the areas that are making the biggest difference.
I constantly did this when developing websites for clients. For example, some of our least profitable (and least enjoyable) projects involved making changes to a website that another company had originally developed. It was impossible to quote accurately for these projects, and we often ended up taking a hit for problems in someone else's work. After a while, we decided to stop working on existing websites. There's plenty of work out there, and we're more successful and happier as a result.
Use Multiple Income Streams to Spread the Risk
I'm a firm believer in multiple income streams. They're a brilliant way to reduce the risk for your business, because if one venture stops earning money then you have plenty of other safety nets. At Barn2 Media, we have more than 12 income streams - half of which generate recurring revenue from each customer (I've marked these with an asterisk):
- *5 premium WordPress plugins - I've counted these as 5 income streams; if one plugin stopped selling then the others would continue.
- *We host and maintain over 70 websites for clients whose sites we built in the past.
- *New websites provided under our affordable MySimpleSite, MySimpleStore and MySimpleFood web design services.
- *WordPress SEO services.
- New work from previous clients, e.g. adding features to their existing websites.
- I have an online course about how to build a WordPress events website, and 2 accompanying e-books. I've combined these into 1 income stream, as the e-books only bring in a small trickle of income.
- As a sideline, I run a WooCommerce Amazon affiliate marketing site called Best Toys for 2 Year Old.
- We also inherited a cardiology jobs site from a client who didn't have the resources to maintain it themselves.
My only warning about multiple income streams is not to spread yourself too thin. Use the 80/20 rule to put most of your efforts into the most profitable projects or activities.
From reading the above list, you might think that we're spread very thin for a company of just 2 people. However, we've streamlined each product and service and focus our energies on the ones that generate the most income. We spend most of our time developing and promoting the premium plugins, as they generate over 60% of our income. Some of the income streams are largely passive, such as hosting, the online course, affiliate site, and job site. Others are outsourced, such as maintenance and SEO. We stopped offering a full web design service back in 2016 because each project was taking too much time, and that's why we only offer affordable pre-built websites now that fit better alongside our other ventures.
It takes time to build up multiple income streams, and it's best to focus on one at a time. Create a new product or service, make it a success, and structure it in a way that will keep earning money while you work on the next one. After a few years, you should have multiple income streams that spread the risk and make your business more successful and more sustainable.
You Can Build a Successful WordPress Business!
WordPress comes with some fantastic opportunities for building a business. However, like any business, you need to work in a focused way that has a clear strategy and a sound business plan.
By following the advice in this article, I hope that you too can build a WordPress business and grow your success to a level you always dreamed of.
Katie Keith is co-founder of UK WordPress company Barn2 Media, which she runs with her husband Andy. Responsible for business development, she supports and markets the company’s 5 premium WordPress and WooCommerce plugins, helping to build their sales and make them a success.