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WooThemes: Mark Forrester, Adii Pienaar and Magnus Jepson

Local entrepreneurs corner market with off-the-shelf commercial themes for publishing platform WordPress.

Monique Verduyn

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Mark Forrester, Adii Pienaar and Magnus Jepson

In 2008, WordPress, a website and blogging publishing platform that’s known for its aesthetics, web standards and usability, had a growing community of like-minded and largely tech focused bloggers. Because it’s open source, the core software is built by hundreds of volunteers.

Back then, there was an abundance of free themes available to instal on a site, but the themes were simple and geared towards blogging in journal format. They also lacked support and updates — theme authors simply could not justify helping users as bills had to be paid and WordPress themes were pet projects.

A business model with a difference

That’s when WooThemes founders Mark Forrester, Adii Pienaar and their Norwegian business partner Magnus Jepson saw the opportunity to create more innovative WordPress themes that would give stock-standard blog layouts an online magazine look and feel.

“We created theme options allowing users to change colours, add a featured post slider, display their logo in the header and move sidebars around,” says Forrester. “We saw the opportunity to commercialise these themes and justify our price tag based on the originality of our themes, the guarantee that they’d work in future versions of WordPress, and the opportunity to offer customers support. This was what a lot of WordPress users had been looking for.”

As one of the first commercialised WordPress businesses in the market, WooThemes’ growth has mirrored WordPress’s own, says Forrester. The software has been chosen by more than 60 million people, powering close to 20% of the Internet, and is a top content management system for websites.

“All the while we’ve stayed true to the open source nature of the software and regularly commit code and resources into making the foundation even stronger,” he adds.

The early days

The three founders were young and had little experience in running a business when they established WooThemes. What they did have in common however, was the freelance WordPress work they were doing on the side, and building blogs for clients. They got the business off the ground by bootstrapping it.

“We were selling a digital product with the only cost of sale our time and effort. We were very early to the WordPress market and had an existing audience thanks to our personal blogs.”

Customers are largely designers, developers and digital agencies using WooThemes products as building blocks for client projects, which allows them to extend their offering at competitive prices.

“Our products also empower non-technical website owners, providing them with the tools to build their sites without any code and with limited knowledge of web development,” says Forrester.

Harnessing e-commerce

Today the company provides feature rich themes for WordPress and functionality enabling plug-ins. Its biggest and most profitable product is WooCommerce, an e-commerce toolkit for WordPress.

Along with the base plug-in (available for free), WooCommerce also has commercial extensions that allow for extra functionality like table rate shipping, CSV product importers and marketing tools, as well as tailor-made shop themes.

By January 2013, WooCommerce had been downloaded 500 000 times and powers thousands of online shops worldwide. WooThemes’ mantra is to please customers with simple, intuitive products and excellent support.

In 2012 employee numbers grew significantly to support the increase in customers.

“We brought the whole team together from seven countries for a week of team building, brainstorming and fun,” he says. “Seeing everyone together made the significance of our digital adventures a lot more evident. Our business supports and enables a lot of awesome people.”

Pienaar recalls that the company succeeded in almost doubling its revenue in the first two years.

“After that, we had two transitional years in which we focused on scaling the company. Our growth slowed down to about 60% year-on-year. In the last two years, since introducing our e-commerce products, we are back to doubling revenue year-on-year.”

The goods on growth

Growth, if not properly managed, can overwhelm a business, destroying value and in many cases even cause the business to fail. Research shows that every growth business – large or small – faces common challenges that have to be navigated.

Most often, internal processes and procedures struggle to keep pace with rapid expansion, making the business a victim of its own success. The complexities of managing and dealing with rapid growth usually revolve around recruiting sufficient people, product development, raising finance, and recruiting high quality senior managers who can work in a changing environment. WooThemes is a case in point.

Forrester says one of the biggest challenges WooThemes has faced is the pace of growth in 2012, driven by market opportunity.

“We were not prepared. We didn’t have the correct systems in place to provide support, nor the organisational structures to cater for twice the number of staff. We didn’t focus enough on finding the right people for the right job. But we have learnt a lot as a result.”

Pienaar adds that they allowed the business and the sheer number of customers to grow much faster than they were growing the team.

“Because WooThemes is bootstrapped, we were cautious about investing in a bigger team. But, we reached tipping point in 2012 and had to increase the team by 200% in a very short space of time. This put a lot of pressure on recruitment and it was also quite stressful to help new team members settle in quickly.”

On being open and honest

The company wears its heart on its sleeve, sharing the good and the bad with customers, including highlights, shortcomings and business strategies.

“We engage with our customers whenever we can and, within reason, let them dictate where our business is going. Customers who feel valued and important will become your product evangelists,” says Forrester.

Pienaar says the plan is to continue to deliver happiness to customers, help them build better websites, and indirectly help them craft better businesses of their own.

“As long as we stay true to this vision, we believe we’ll be winning,” he says.

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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