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The WordPress themes’ space has gotten quite crowed in the last few years. From ThemeForest to Elegant Themes, the competitors have boxed it out for dominance, or at least tried to establish their niche within the WordPress ecosystem. All the while one competitor has quietly gone about its business, and reaped the rewards. This is WooThemes.
Everybody loves a good origin story
A proudly South African company, although many don’t know it, WooThemes has quite a Romantic tale behind it. It was founded (and registered) back in 2008 when the space wasn’t quite so crowded, by Adriaan Pienaar, Magnus Jepson, and Mark Forrester, before they’d even all had a drink, let alone a conversation, in the same room.
For the first 18 months Pienaar, Jepson and Forrester worked from three different countries, South Africa, Norway and England respectively, developing the company with a focus to take WordPress themes beyond blogging – theoretically giving the engine a more commercial use.
Back then the WordPress themes’ market was largely untapped, Forrester told Ventureburn. WooThemes began to establish its name by creating beautifully-designed themes for magazines, portfolios – anything outside of blogging — and, although it probably didn’t know it at the time, its foray into business templates was a sign of where WooThemes’ future lay.
That was just the beginning though. Over the first three years of dabbling in themes (the aesthetics), the company realised that there were support and customizability problems when packaging too much functionality into the themes themselves.
The solution was to modularise the themes, and take the functionality and put it into plugins. This not only kept the themes clean, but it opened up a new market to them – those who did not just want the aesthetics, but also/just the functionality.
Having the freedom to shift or pivot the business model at this stage is something Forrester attributes to having been bootstrapped.
Two gentlemen named Mike Jolley and James Koster were working for a magento-based shop in the UK a few years ago, but they were passionate about the potential of eCommerce being realised in WordPress. They had an idea.
The idea was a WordPress plugin that could, in effect, turn any website running the WordPress engine into an eCommerce platform. The plugin would take care of everything, from a product catalog and database, to facilitating payments. This idea would later become known as WooCommerce. They began to work on the idea in their spare time at the company, but they were undervalued, and weren’t given the credit nor space to take their idea to the next level.
WooThemes, linked to the two gentlemen via some previous theme-work, offered the company a sum of money to take on the idea, as a sign of good will and to see if they could partner. Things did not quite work out, and so WooThemes forked the software, and given its GPL licensing this was completely legal. WordPress itself, started as a fork of another software called b2/cafelog. In this sense, WooCommerce is a true child of WordPress.
WooCommerce fast become WooThemes’ flagship offering. Built on a freemium model, the plugin is free to download, with extensions paid for. Extra functionality is built into the extensions and keeps the core plugin lean. Forrester explains that this is better for support, but also helps commercialise the product to sustain it for the future. There are over 190 extensions for WooCommerce.
WooCommerce has seen some incredible growth since its inception about two years ago. From just May 2012 – May 2013, there was 458% revenue growth, averaging 38% per month. WooCommerce has officially been downloaded one million times in the last two years. Meanwhile, WooThemes just last month had 1.4 million unique visitors to the site, and over 8500 transactions made across its product catalog. WooThemes began as just a company of three, its staff is now touching 30 across seven countries.
Forrester attributes WooCommerce’s success to what the plugin can do for entrepreneurs and SMEs. “It’s an enabler”, he told us, and so anyone with a US$70 WordPress theme can have a fully-functional eCommerce platform within minutes.
For potential webtrepreneurs in a country like South Africa, where eCommerce is just starting to take off, WooCommerce provides an opportunity. It lowers the barrier-to-entry for anyone starting off in the eCommerce game.
WooThemes isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Sensei, another popular plugin which allows users to create online courses (and charge for them with WooCommerce should they wish), is also enjoying strong growth.
For Forrester, the next phase is about refining the WooCommerce product, refactoring the code and optimising it, so they can eventually get a full API.
WooThemes has found its niche in the ‘business themes’ side of the WordPress ecosystem, and leading the way is its flagship WooCommerce. What is perhaps the most Romantic part of this whole tale is that WooCommerce (and Sensei for that matter) can do for young webtrepreneurs what WordPress itself did for blogging. Just as WordPress democratised publishing, WooCommerce is democratising eCommerce.
Check out the WooThemes blog to connect with the community.