WooThemes’ Mark Forrester on how an SA startup sprouted a global success story


Last week we witnessed one of South Africa’s greatest success stories to date. A local tech company was acquired by Automattic, which is the brain company behind one of the world’s most popular website builders, WordPress.org, founded by 31-year-old American entrepreneur Matt Mullenweg.

While the startup scene was abuzz with lessons and opinions on the matter, Ventureburn decided to sit down with Mark Forrester (pictured above) to find out how a local startup managed to become a global success story.

Founded in 2007 by Norwegian computer scientist Magnus Jepson, South African’s Mark Forrester and former business partner Adii Pienaar, WooThemes has not only managed to become one of the world’s most popular WordPress theme builders, but the company is also responsible for WooCommerce — its flagship product that’s powering well over a million online shops today.

Forrester and Jepson broke the news from Mullenweg’s apartment in New York. “We all published the announcements on our blogs at the same time and then there was silence for about an hour,” Forrester says. “All of us were just following the Twitter streams and watched it multiply across some of the biggest tech sites in the world. I was quite blown away by that.”

While the figures behind the bootstrapped company’s buy remain hush-hush, Forrester tells Ventureburn that the acquisition is the biggest Automattic has made to date, both in terms of company size and valuation. He also notes that while the rumoured US$30-million is off target, it is a good ballpark.

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The original Woo Ninja in physical form is called Hiro. You can read all about his origin story here.

The value of the acquisition would be nice to hear, but it’s less significant in the greater scheme of things; South African talent making an impact on the global stage.

Over the past year, there has been a lot of focus on tech companies in South Africa as well as its greater region. News such as this is a validation for other startups in the country. Stellenbosch-based radar company iKubu getting acquired by Garmin in January this year being the most prominent recently.

Read more: Why Automattic’s WooThemes acquisition is so important to South Africa’s startup space

But there’s also been HealthQ which has been showcasing its fitness tracking tech on a global stage earlier this year, attracting big international names, such as the former VP of the Internet Explorer team at Microsoft, Dean Hachamovitch, and VP of global product and strategy at Oakley.

Receiptful — headed by former WooThemes shareholder Adii Pienaar — is another fitting example. The company’s innovative email marketing plugin attracted a host of reputable angel investors only a few weeks ago, including Mullenweg, and a team of others.

Woo Office 1

Besides seeing a need to accelerate growth and market share in the ecommerce space, Forrester explains that the matching culture between the two companies has been incredibly instrumental in finalising the deal. This seems to hold true both in product and company.

In terms of product, he points to the importance of the General Public License which has been crucial to Mullenweg’s vision of third-party products and services being able to build on top of the open-source WordPress platform:

It obviously comes with its risks that anyone can fork a product, but our success has largely been around how open we’ve been. We’ve created a real entrepreneurial ecosystem allowing people to make money on top of our platform, whether that’s agencies selling their services or extension developers like Graphflow having real SaaS offerings.

Read more: Meet the WooCommerce plug-in improving the way thousands of people shop online

As mentioned in a Ventureburn article feature titled WooCommerce democratises ecommerce — a true WordPress child, both companies share the philosophy of openness and democratising web services.

Woo Team

The collage of Woo Ninjas since 2007.
Similar to Automattic’s company culture, which is run by a massive team of 325 so-called “Automattitions” spread around the globe, WooThemes has been a global company since day one. Though proudly South African, the company was started with Forrester being based in London, Jepson in Norway and Pienaar back in Cape Town.

Today, with some 12 working from its Cape Town office, WooThemes boasts a team of 55 Woo Ninjas. At the time of our visit though the office was basically empty with most of the team flown up to Chicago for the week.

“We’re seeing more and more distributed companies popping up who thrive on that. Though it’s great to have this brick and mortar location where we can really celebrate who we are as a South African company, which is at the heart of WooThemes,” Forrester says.

Jacques Coetzee: Staff Reporter


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