The Future of the Success of WordPress

I want to share with you some insights (or my take) on the future of the success of WordPress, but to do that, I think I need to tell you three stories first. These stories shape my perspective and will help you get where I'm going.

A story about my first skateboard

When I was a kid I wanted to ride a skateboard. A family friend was really into skateboards so my folks talked to their folks to find out where to get one. What they discovered delayed my short entry into the world of skateboards because our friends had built a best-in-class skateboard.

In other words, they had bought separate parts – the trucks, wheels, and deck – and assembled a skateboard. That was too much work for my folks, so it was another year or two until they found a pre-assembled one at Price Club (the predecessor to Costco).

My parents didn't have the time to research and figure out which parts worked with which other parts. Nor did they have the time to assemble a skateboard – fearing that they would do it wrong and it could have an impact on my ability to ride a skateboard safely.

My first custom computer

Years after my first skateboard comes the story of my first custom-built desktop computer. From 1994 until about 2004 I had been upgrading Windows computers with better RAM, bigger disks, and all that. But it wasn't until sometime in 2005 that I asked my friend to help me build a PC from scratch.

These were the days of overclocking CPUs and liquid cooling them. It was a bit over my head and my buddy had already built several. Of course that meant buying a case, buying a motherboard, buying a CPU and buying a power unit – none of which I had ever done.

Initially I did the buying but my buddy soon discovered I had purchased items that didn't work with each other. So a week-long project turned into more than 5 weeks as I burnt out a motherboard by attaching the wrong power unit, and somehow ruined a CPU.

We finally did get that liquid-cooled computer going, but the fans were so loud while I was on calls that it was the final straw in shifting to a Mac.

The choice to buy an iMac was pretty easy after going thru all that work to assemble a custom PC. I didn't have to make any choice. Every component worked with every other component. All of the complexity disappeared.

A SaaS product failure

They weren't always called SaaS products. In the early days we called them web applications. Then ASPs because we were more than an application, we were also a service provider. And then eventually we called them Software as a Service.

While I've built tons of SaaS products over the last 24 years, I'll never forget the one that never was. I'd had a lot of success building these SaaS products, which helped me get introduced to a real estate broker/agent in Southern California that was teaching his method to others.

He had already been a huge success as a broker & agent, and again as an instructor. Now he wanted not only an online course and membership solution, but a SaaS that would be a tool to help his young students actually put his program into practice.

Then he (and I) learned a big lesson about blame.

When he taught people his program and they didn't succeed, they blamed themselves. When he taught people his program and gave them a SaaS product to run it, and they failed, they blamed him and the SaaS.

He quickly killed that product and continued teaching his course.

The success of WordPress already

In my mind, WordPress has succeeded for tons of great reasons. Some of them strategic, some of them accidental, and some of them simply because they are still standing while others have made their own fatal mistakes.

Today WordPress powers 4 out of every 10 sites, and is the most widely used content management system around.

  • Open source has been a huge part of it.
  • Tons of freely available themes and plugins has been a huge part of it.
  • The fact that people can create and sell premium products has helped.
  • The ease with which people can learn has been fantastic.
  • The community that has helped welcome people has been huge.

There are tons of fantastic things that have gone right. So I don't want to take anything away from any of that. WordPress has succeeded where lots of other products haven't.

Nevertheless, I'm often asked about the future. And that's what today's post is about.

Which is why I told you those three stories.

But before I jump into my version of what we need to do to take this all to the next level, let me circle back to one more thing: the philosophy that powers the WordPress project.

WordPress Philosophy

One of the philosophical underpinnings of the WordPress project is “Decisions, not Options.” I love it and appreciate it so much. Here's a short quote from the larger philosophy page.

Every time you give a user an option, you are asking them to make a decision. When a user doesn’t care or understand the option this ultimately leads to frustration.


This frustration is so true. I can't tell you how many people I have watched over many years get frustrated with software because they're being asked a question they don't know how to answer.

Imagine being a merchant who wants to buy eCommerce hosting – which is some of what I spend my day on at Nexcess – and being asked how much RAM they'll need. How are they supposed to know that?

So I appreciate the project's approach to WordPress for the last 18 years, so clearly articulated on that philosophy page.

The problem we're facing right now

So how will WordPress succeed in the future? I think it requires a shift in thinking.

Let's say you wanted to build a membership site today. At minimum, you would need to do all of the following:

  1. Find a plugin that delivers membership features
  2. Make sure that membership plugin works with your payment gateway
  3. If not, figure out which one you're going to change
  4. Find a theme that works with your membership plugin
  5. If it doesn't, figure out which one you're going to change
  6. Find a hosting company that works for membership sites
  7. If it doesn't, figure out which one you're going to change

With more than 50 membership plugins available for WordPress, and at least 10 that are all pretty awesome, and more than 10 hosting companies that offer viable solutions (depending on what you're doing), and at least 10 themes that could work…guess what?

You have 1000 options.

Not exactly decisions, not options. Right?

And I'm not blaming anyone. I'm simply highlighting the problem.

And most importantly, we're putting those options in front of end-users (the ones we care deeply about) and expecting that they know how to make the right decisions.

So how do we make this better for people? How do we focus on making the WordPress world easier for everyone?

The future of the success of WordPress

This is where I wrap up and connect my take on the future to those three earlier stories if you haven't figured it out by now.

Eliminate the time it takes to get started

When someone says they want to create a membership site, we can't turn this into a science project. There are very few people who can spend the time to figure out what they need, and what to put together to make this work.

The everyday person is like my folks when they wanted to buy a skateboard. Telling them that they can build their own custom board isn't an answer – it's a problem.

It's also a lot more work and takes a lot more time than they expected – which often leads to indecision.

We have to package and build “solutions” instead of simply pitching parts.

Eliminate the complexity of assembling a solution

Whether customers want to run a non-profit fundraising site, an eCommerce store, an online course, or a membership site, they hate the idea of picking plugins and figuring out which ones work or don't work together.

The complexity of assembling a PC was the final straw that moved me to an iMac. The complexity of assembling a membership site often sends people to Podia, while merchants choose Shopify.

If we want WordPress to succeed in the next years, we're going to have to solve the “works with” problem.

You've seen hardware in BestBuy that says, “works with Alexa” right?

Eliminate the blame game

This one is a bit more complicated.

Hosting companies have benefited from not being strongly opinionated. They say, “you can host anything you want.”

Plugin companies have benefited from not being strongly opinionated. They say, “You can run our plugin on just about any host, and it works with just about any theme.”

Theme companies have benefited from not being strongly opinionated. They say, “You can run any plugin with our theme, on just about any host.”

In other words, if things break, it's likely the customer's fault.

By staying out of the strongly opinionated space, no one has to take the blame. But what we need are some folks willing to take the blame. Folks that want to push further into a recommendation that says “We've assembled a solution that we know works. If you have an issue, it's on us. We'll fix it.”

To succeed, we have to see companies take ownership and willing to take the blame. In other words, we need to eliminate the blame we push to customers.

We're going to try something new

The beliefs shared here are the ones I've been sharing inside of Nexcess for the last couple of years. I'm so thankful that so many teams inside of Nexcess have been willing to try something new. Because all of this is a risk. I can't make any guarantees that it will all work.

But what I know is that to succeed, we all need to think about the way customers have been dealing with these WordPress challenges in a new way.

We won't be the only ones trying things. I'm thankful for that too.

But soon we'll announce a highly opinionated way to solve your membership problems as we create a package, a solution, that cuts down the time to get started, eliminates the complexity, and has us take ownership so that no one is pointing fingers to someone else. Hosting, theme and plugin – all working together to make your membership site easy to launch.

It's just one experiment among many, from just one company. But it's driven by this underlying thesis that we need to make these changes for the success of WordPress in the future.