I’m going to treat this as a raw outline for the moment to get the ideas out in writing, rather than getting held up on “getting it all right”. I set a high bar for myself with my piece on Ecosystem Plugins and while I have similar ambitions for this piece, I’m going to take it one step at a time.
For an entrepreneur with an audience and a clear problem to solve, I think the time has never been better to build a business, solving that problem, on WordPress.
Real-world examples that are top-of-mind for me include:
- Small private schools that offer “book a tour” functionality and integration with school services, including payments and reporting.
- Barbers and hairdressers that offer online booking and reminders, a “VIP club” that stores cards on file, and point-of-sale integration for in-person payments
- Local quilting associations that let members pay dues, share patterns, and manage a shared calendar of events
- Non-denominational churches that offer online giving, podcasting, and small group management
- Small property management companies that use a basic CRM and integrate with specialized property management software.
- Direct primary care providers that offer online intake forms and bill payment.
WordPress makes it easier than ever to put together a package for each of those scenarios and just about any other that you can come up with and then offer that package to a customer.
I’m inclined to skip this section, because there’s a lot I could say here.. but let’s not skip it.
- Open Source Software – WordPress is built on the “four freedoms” of open source software, which offers you confidence as an entrepreneur that the foundation you’re building on is yours.
- Growing Momentum – Building on WordPress gives you 17+ years of software development by tens of thousands of contributors around the world on a platform that now powers more than 37% of the web. The momentum is continuing to build and it’s getting better all the time.
- Lower Costs – There’s so much you can leverage with WordPress out-of-the-box and in existing plugins. Where that doesn’t work, you can find a WordPress developer that works with your budget.
The Key Ingredients
From my perspective and observations, I see the following ingredients as key to a successful WordPress-as-a-Service business:
- Audience with a clearly defined problem – The more specific, the better. I like each of the examples I shared above because they’re specific – you can create a list of business owners in each case. Entrepreneurs are often guilty of starting out with far too wide of a focus. Choose an audience that can be clearly defined and that has a clear problem to solve.
- Subject matter expertise – You either need to be an expert for that audience and problem space or work with a qualified, respected expert in that space. “Sales” is the hardest part of the equation and it’s a lot harder to sell if you don’t understand the space.
- A prototype built in WordPress – A “first client” that, preferably connected directly to the subject-matter expert, that clearly demonstrates the solution to the problem. It doesn’t need to be perfect by any means – it just needs to be an improvement on existing solutions – or, in some cases, the lack of a solution at all.
- An approach to sustainably replicating and maintaining the prototype – This is the different between a service business and a product business. You need to be able to sustainably replicate and improve on the “pattern” that you create.
Choosing An Approach
There are two primary approaches I see to building out a WordPress-as-a-Service business:
- Sustainable Assembly – An individual or small team is responsible for “onboarding” new customers and assembling their WordPress instance.
- Self-service – The platform is built to allow customers to go through and set it all up on their own, no human intervention required.
In most cases, the second option is ideal. (The place where it might not be ideal is a high-end product offering where onboarding is part of the value you’re offering)
Given the state of the ecosystem as of June, 2020, though, I recommend that for the majority of folks, starting out with Sustainable Assembly is the right approach. The idea there is that even though humans are doing the work, they’re doing so with eventual automation in mind and using the opportunity to do it manually to create as much value as they can for the customer.
Here are some principles that are top of mind in guiding the development of the platform:
- Audience Specific – Make sure that the prototype you build and the way that you sell it is as specific to your audience as possible. Barbers and hairdressers are similar, but not quite the same – if you’re going to start out serving both, build two separate working prototypes specific to each. The idea here is that the customer needs to be able to easily imagine their business using what you’ve built and the more specific it is the easier than tends to be.
- Problem Focused – Make sure that what you’re building is solving a real problem. Most business owners don’t just need a website – they have a job they want done. Maybe it’s saving them time with online booking, maybe it’s reducing their costs, maybe it’s bringing in more revenue – whatever it is, keep what you build focused on solving real problems.
- Curator Positioning – With a clear audience and a problem to solve, your role is to bring together the right pieces. In WordPress, this means abstracting away a lot of the choices they would otherwise have to make – what themes to use, which plugins to install, etc – you’re a curator, you understand them and their problem space, and you’re bringing together everything they need.
Sell It Before You Make It
The hardest work here is sales. That’s where most businesses fall apart. Before you get started building something, sell it. Go out and talk to potential customers, make sure you understand them and their problems to solve, and find out what they’re willing to pay.
Then put them on a waiting list.
Don’t skip this part.
Build out the prototype, for sure – as long as it’s for an actual customer – and then get a waiting list of folks who are ready to pay.
Then go build it for them.
Here are a few thoughts on how you could approach the business model and pricing:
- Product + Support – They pay a (usually) low monthly fee for access to the product, plus, in some cases, a percentage of revenue processed through the system. They manage it themselves and you support it when something goes wrong.
- Managed Service – They pay a higher fee for access to the product plus human service, updating the site with new content, etc.
There’s a lot to say here and I’m happy to update and expand this as long as it’s useful. I’ll start with a couple of resources with my thoughts and guidance:
Find a single theme that you can work with as the basis for all of the sites you deploy. Ultimately, it will probably make sense to have a custom theme built. Out-of-the-gate, though, don’t reinvent the wheel. Themes I recommend looking into include:
- Go – A theme built by the folks at GoDaddy. Lightweight, highly flexible, and well maintained. Solid support for the latest versions of the WordPress editor.
- Genesis – A theme built by the folks at WP Engine. A rich history and ecosystem that’s being actively developed.
- Twenty Twenty – The default theme that ships with WordPress. A good example of best practices with solid community support.
Plugins are the magic in WordPress and each bring entire new realms of functionality. There’s a lot I could say here, so let’s just start with categories of plugins:
- Forms – You’re going to want a good plugin to handle forms. Gravity Forms and Ninja Forms are two of my favorites.
- Auditing – It’s important to track what takes place in the WordPress admin, especially if you’re actively involved in supporting sites for customers. Stream and WP Activity Log are good examples.
- Commerce – Most folks will be selling something or accepting money online. WooCommerce is perfect for most cases. A lighter-weight solution like Easy Digital Downloads might be a great fit for others.
- Audience Specific – Depending on your audience, there’s a good chance there are already some audience specific plugins designed for their needs. Examples that come to mind including GiveWP for donations, Salon Booking for hairdressers, Seriously Simple Podcasting for podcasters, etc.
A quick word on licensing. Technically, once you’ve acquired a plugin you don’t have to pay anything further to share that plugin with your customers. That’s the beauty of open source and the license WordPress uses. You can purchase a premium plugin once and share it with all your customers. In the early days, that’s exactly what I recommend you do – just make sure that you are handling support, and not passing it on to the author – unless you’re paying them for it. As your platform grows, I recommend that you find ways to create custom arrangements with the author to help support their further development.
Once you’ve got a collection of plugins and a theme to work with you’ll want a way to sustainably bring them all together and manage them. Here are a few options to consider:
- SpinUpWP – This could be a great option for the sustainable assembly approach. Your cost to run hundreds of WordPress sites is really low and they’re adding new tools all the time (e.g. backups, cloning, etc) to make it easier to scale.
- WP Ultimo – There’s a lot to explore there. They basically provide a product and service that lets you create your own WordPress-as-a-Service business.
- Presslabs Stack – This is for the more technical folks. A Kubernetes based solution that can serve as an excellent foundation for a more custom self-service approach.
I really want to see more WordPress-as-a-Service businesses start and succeed! It’s good for the entrepreneurs who build them, good for the customers they serve, and good for WordPress and the Open Web.
If you’ve found this guide useful, let me know and let me know how I can make it more useful to you!