WordPress is a popular tool for bootstrapping startups the world over. The once simple blogging software is now a fully-fledged digital publishing tool that powers some of the biggest sites online – Mashable, BBC America, CNN Blogs, The New York Times blogs – and Startup Norway of course.
In 2008, three guys from different countries met online and began creating themes and addons for the growing WordPress community.
Five years later, the WooThemes project is now a multi-million dollar business employing 28 people from around the world.
A little-known fact about WooThemes is one of those three founders, Magnus Jepson, is from right here in Norway. We bumped into him at the recent WordCamp Norway event and he was only too pleased to share his story.
Can you explain what WooThemes does, the business model, and your role today?
WooThemes is a provider of premium (paid) themes and plugins for WordPress. We sell these products through our website directly.
My role in WooThemes has changed a lot in the past 5 years. In the beginning when we were only 3 co-founders, we all did everything which consisted mainly design, development and support of our themes. Today I have taken on a mixed role as CTO, but my main tasks each day consist of making sure our team leaders are doing their job, and managing projects. I still keep in touch with our users and our code by doing some support each day.
Let’s go back to the beginning. What were you doing before WooThemes? Specifically, how much experience with WordPress did you have?
I worked seven years as a programmer/support tech at a software company in Stavanger, which developed POS system for our main electronic shops in Norway. I started doing some web design in my spare time, and came across WordPress whilst looking for a PHP news module for a site. A friend recommended I try it and at first I thought it was overwhelming, but by simply customising a free theme, I quickly fell in love with it.
How did you meet your co-founders?
As soon as I got the hang of the templating system in WordPress, I started to create a couple of free themes, which I put up for download on my site. They became quite popular with thousands of downloads, so I started charging for them, as I had seen other people do this (including one of my co-founders, Adii Pienaar). This is how I got in touch with Adii via his blog, simply asking for advice on selling themes, and asking if I could design a theme for him to code and sell through his website. At the same time, Adii also worked on another theme with our third co-founder Mark Forrester, and that is how we three got into business.
At what point did you start to think WooThemes could become what it is today?
It took me a year before I had the courage to leave my old job, so I guess once I did that, and saw the month to month growth we were having, I realised the potential. It’s still hard to grasp how many customers we have though, but I think this is also due to the popularity of WordPress and the massive growth it has had in the last five years.
Have you personally had any involvement in the Norwegian startup scene – and do you consider yourself a part of it?
I’ve never been involved with any Norwegian startups. The only involvement I’ve had is that I believe I gave motivation to my old co-worker to quit his job and start a company himself, six months after I quit. His business is one of the biggest providers of Magento webshops and services in Norway (TrollWeb)
Now WooThemes has a physical office in South Africa, are you still a global business?
Both my co-founders are from Cape Town, and Adii ran a little design business on the side which had an office. He shut this business down and we took over the offices, so all of our Cape Town employees now work there. This is only about 30% of our total staff though, so I still consider us to be a global business.
Your membership model is similar to the “Software As A Service” model. Is finding ways to charge recurring fees key for a modern startup?
We give our customers the option of subscribing to our “club”, or purchase a theme or plugin individually. The club has never been more than 20-30% of our sales, so it isn’t the key to our business model. But I think if you can apply recurring themes to your business, especially if you aren’t selling a downloadable product, is the best method of charging.
Related to the above – am I right in thinking you took no outside investment? If so, any advice for bootstrappers out there?
We didn’t take any outside or inside investment, and have been profitable from day one. We started off with a fairly simple product compared to what it is today, so my advice would be to set a MVP early on and stick to it so you can test the waters before going large.
Should Norwegian entrepreneurs with an idea look to the resources within Norway, or consider looking for partners globally?
If you can find the right people online, then there are no boundaries, but this obviously doesn’t apply to all business ideas. As an example, we built WooThemes without speaking on the phone, or meeting in person for the first year of business. All communication was via mail and Skype text chat. It might sound crazy to some, but we didn’t think much about it, since it worked for us.
Do you have any advice for smaller startups who can’t afford dedicated support staff, but need to support customers as they grow?
We neglected support in the start, but then realised we as co-founders needed to do some support each day. We’ve struggled with support as our business has grown so fast, but I believe we’ve finally found a platform (ZenDesk) which allows us to scale better. We still struggle with making our documentation easy to understand for normal users, so this is something a small startup can focus on to lessen the support.
Do you have any opinions on Norway as a place for doing business?
I struggled for the first few years on how to setup my business. First I had an ENK which worked fine, but it took quite a bit of reading up to understand how to do accounting. In the end I just had an overview in Excel which is allowed. Now I have a NUF where my company is a subsidiary of the main company in Cape Town, and I also have an accountant do do the stuff I don’t know how to do. My suggestion is to setup an AS and use an accountant. I found my accountant through Google, and they happen to use a WordPress theme that I designed and coded (www.regnskapshjelp.no)