Q&A: WooTheme’s Mark Forrester talks hacking, investment tips & more [update]

Mark Forrester is easily one of the most well-known startup founders in the SA industry. In 2015, his co-founded website theme builder WooThemes was acquired by WordPress founding company, Automattic for a rumoured US$30-million, which he commented is “off target, [but] it is a good ballpark”.

Started in 2008, WooThemes grew to 55 staff members across 20 countries by the time it was acquired in 2015. The company also launched shopping plugin WooCommerce, which saw over 7.5-million downloads and active installs at the time.

Along his journey, Forrester has co-founded IT solutions company Gravit8, social media aggregator Afrigator, invested in Over and Sentian, and was a Team Leader, but now an advisor at Automattic.

Ventureburn had a chance to catch up with Forrester to chat about starting companies, the high and low points in his life, and where he is now.

Ventureburn: Tell us something we don’t know about Mark Forrester.

Mark Forrester: One of my only jobs I’ve ever had was as a Christmas temp, during a university holiday, at the iconic London department store, Selfridges. I was put in the crystal department naively attempting to sell champagne flutes to aristocrats.

VB: What does an average day look like for you?

MF: As of February, I don’t really have an average day as I’ve recently moved into an advisory role with Automattic, nearly two years since our acquisition.

I’m trying to be more intentional in spending time with the family and we hope to do some travel this year, before our nearly five-year-old starts school next year. We also have a one-year-old at home and it’s incredibly special to be 100% present for so many early milestones.

I still keep up to date with what the WooCommerce teams are working on via occasional meetings, Slack, and our p2 sites.

Having made a handful of early investments in some exciting tech companies, I also spend some time working with their teams.

VB: Did you ever want to do something besides WooThemes/WooCommerce?

MF: I have a huge passion for photography and have often thought being a wildlife photographer sounds pretty appealing. That said I’m pretty impatient and pale skinned so I’m not sure I could do long stints in the bush.

VB: Do you think everyone should start a business once in their life?

MF: Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, but I do believe the only way to find that out is by starting something, or being involved with a small team from the earliest of stages. If you can, do it whilst you are young, though, before self-doubt and financial responsibility plagues your risk appetite.

VB: What was the highest point of your career so far?

MF: Literally and figuratively, the highest points of my career involved being on the top of New York skyscrapers.

The first poignant moment was standing on the balcony of the top floor of a famous New York tech building being swooned over by a venture capital firm keen to invest in Woo[Themes].

The second was the day after we announced the acquisition of Woo[Themes] from Matt Mullenweg’s condo. The Woo/Automattic leadership team summited the Rockefeller building to celebrate.

VB: What was the lowest point of your career?

MF: Getting hacked. Twice. Once in 2012, and then again in 2014. With growth and success comes great responsibility and the wrong type of attention from malicious, shady individuals. We learned a huge amount from both incidents, and grew up very fast, but I wouldn’t like to relive those experiences.

VB: What is Automattic up to these days?

MF: So many things. Automattic, the company, consists of a lot of products and services, with WordPress.com servicing millions of websites around the world. They also play a very active role in developing the open source WordPress codebase and community.

In more recent years they are facing strong and well-funded competition, but having worked at Automattic for the past couple years, seeing them re-invent themselves with Javascript, and seeing the diversity and passion amongst the team I have every faith that they will embrace change and continue to innovate and push the boundaries of web publishing.

It’s exciting to see WooCommerce playing such a big role in Automattic’s roadmap for the platform’s future. We’ve got over a million sites using WooCommerce to power their stores and we are focussed on ensuring absolute customisability and flexibility for developers.

VB: What do you look out for when investing?

MF: I look for products and services that I can understand and am excited by. Built by passionate, creative people with a clear mission that I can identify with. Having already proven some form of growth and traction. Beyond an MVP [minimum viable product] prototype.

I’m very new to investing in my personal capacity, but when assessing an investment I try to ensure expectations are carefully managed, as to the time and resources I can commit.

VB: Are there any companies you wish you’d invested in?

MF: Hindsight is 20/20 🙂

VB: Have you ever had any strange pitches (you don’t have to name any!)?

MF: I’ve seen many wild and wonderful WooCommerce stores, but not too many strange business pitches. Of course a few pie in the sky ideas, with the overuse of words like “disruptive” and “we want to be the Uber of…”

VB: As an investor, are there any challenges you face in SA?

MF: Investing in startups is high risk. Investing in South African businesses, in the current economic and political environment, adds further uncertainty.

Section 12J funds are a step in the right direction, acknowledging and incentivising individuals and businesses willing to invest in entrepreneurs. What our country so desperately needs.

With WooThemes we struggled with exchange controls and IP regulations. Growing a global tech business, with foreign revenues and a distributed workforce. We jumped through many unnecessary and time-consuming hoops. That’s tainted my belief in what is possible and commercially viable from within SA, but I’m optimistic with the Reserve Bank recently announcing they are relaxing exchange controls, and engaging more with entrepreneurs.

VB: Which South African entrepreneurs/investors do you admire?

MF: I like discovering unusual South African entrepreneurs who quietly fly under the radar, turning problems into profits. Like Piet Warren, an entrepreneurial farmer. Piet’s earned a huge reputation and has made millions off breeding the endangered Sable antelope. His next big bet is on rhino farming.

The Paddock brothers and the Getsmarter empire they have created. Providing online short courses from many of the world’s leading universities from here in Cape Town.

I may be biased, being a current investor, but I respect how Tigue Little and Trevor Lewis have both been personally affected by crime, but seen this very real South African problem as an opportunity. Their business, Sentian, is a powerful home security and automation company that makes your alarm system more intelligent. Specifically built for South African needs.

VB: What advice do you have SA entrepreneurs?

MF: When we started Woo in 2007 there was no sea of Product Hunt startups, no useful how-to startup guides, and it was a time before the “Lean Startup” was written by Eric Ries. Those are some intimidating barriers to shipping your idea.

That said, just get started. Find your niche, or even your niche of a niche (like we did with eCommerce for WordPress). Ensure you have fun along the way, and create your own norms. Magnus and myself made some of our biggest strategic decisions in the surf at Muizenberg. Board meetings can be fun and productive.

Most importantly let your passion for your business be your beacon.

VB: What are you up to next?

MF: I’m not sure yet. I’m still waiting for that big idea aha moment, until then, adventure I hope.

Update: clarification



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