When I worked with Automattic I always thought to myself, “Wow. Pretty amazing that millions of people are using some of the code I touch.” It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t deployed something at scale. It’s scary at first. After a while it becomes normal and after that it becomes fun. It’s always a little jittery, though. Having to check and triple-check a commit before deploying it, knowing that the rewards are silent and the failures are loud, makes the heart hop.
I’m on the outside now but I still commit and deploy to millions in a few key ways: through Underscores and through the premium themes that my company sells on the WordPress.com premium theme marketplace. Up until today, that marketplace utility was limited to users of the WordPress.com platform. If a self-hosted WordPress.org user (confused yet?) wanted to purchase one of our themes, they’d need to come directly to us for it. That’s incredibly good business for us,—WordPress.com retains a percentage of our sales, naturally—but hasn’t always been the best experience for users. WordPress is fragmented enough as it is and making them traverse one more step in the site building process wastes their time and confuses them. Not all. Some.
The business side of me finds this somewhat troublesome. Not only does this recent announcement by the Jetpack team worry me from a percentage-of-sale perspective, but mostly from a business branding perspective. I’ve long-held the belief that themes are not cereal boxes. Far from them. Anyone who disagrees with me is advised to purchase one from us and purchase one from another shop and determine a few things: how was the purchase experience?; were pre-sale questions answered generously and without expectation?; did the product perform as shown on its demo site?; if it didn’t, did we work hard to make it right?; post-purchase, did we treat you as well, if not better than, potential customers?; and did we leave your business better off than it was before buying from us?
On the other hand, I get it. WordPress is so fragmented, so confusing, and so awful of an experience for the average beginner that Jetpack’s intentions of easing this pain point really do come across as genuine. They most certainly are more worried about providing WordPress users with an excellent experience than they are about how good of a job I have done positioning my company and its products in a market that fluctuates but never goes away. It’s not Jetpack’s job to care about me, just as it’s not WordPress.org’s job to promote a premium theme shop that creates a free theme with the expectation of ROI. Whether or not my company makes 100% of a sale or 70% of a sale or 10% of sale should be, and is, the least of Automattic’s concerns. So I get it.
I’ve gone back and forth on this internally for a while now, both knowing that this was an inevitable shift in how premium themes on WordPress.com would be delivered to users and needing to prepare for it. Two questions that recur in my mind are 1) do we continue to develop WordPress themes with a WordPress.com-first design and build process in mind, and 2) will another distribution platform ever come around that is as reliable and safe as WordPress.com and as ubiquitous and varied as ThemeForest? It thrills me that the premium themes on WordPress.com are immediately within the grasp of the other half of the WordPress universe, but it does confuse me at times with regard to where our interests as a company should rest.
If I’m worried about revenue first, then I frankly do not care how my themes are distributed or what percentage I make from them. All I care about is volume.
If I’m worried about my company’s reputation and branding first, then fragmentation potentially harms us. If a user purchases my theme on WordPress.com or through Jetpack, has an awful experience with a support engineer from Automattic, and confuses that experience with one from my company, I face grave danger in how we are viewed.
If I’m worried about access and democracy, then I couldn’t care less about how Automattic decides to distribute our products as long as everyone has equal access to them.
And if I’m worried about user experience the one thing I want to make sure of is that any premium upgrades on the WordPress.com platform, like custom colors or custom fonts, have a clear equivalent in Jetpack or the WordPress.org free market.
My knee-jerk reaction to this was initially super-defensive and negative. Themes aren’t a hobby for me. They are food, water, and shelter. To have my business needs as an important stakeholder on a platform that largely succeeds due to the efforts of people like me ignored is difficult.
I don’t think it’s insurmountable though. That users will be able to access our themes through Jetpack is a good thing. The inside baseball, behind-the-scenes conversations around what that means in terms of our viability as a company should not be anyone else’s concern but our own.
My only wait-and-see concern, then, is how this will affect our buyers. If they find that purchasing through Jetpack is one less hurdle to leap over when setting up their business, then that’s a win for us. If they become confused, then it’ll only add to the litany of issues in the WordPress world that contribute to user confusion already.
I’ll stay optimistic. The premium theme team at Automattic and the Jetpack team do not lack heart. And mine waits to skip another beat knowing that my next commit has just been introduced to the other half of the pie.