In September’s WordPress plugin acquisition news, StellarWP acquired LearnDash, the de facto learning management system plugin for WordPress. We don’t do a lot of LMS work over here at Sterner Stuff, so, you know, whatever.
But if you receive any kind of business-minded WordPress newsletter or are otherwise plugged into “the business of WordPress”, you might have noticed that acquisitions are happening quickly and furiously in the WordPress space. We’ve seen some – I’ll say it – concerning levels of consolidation happening. Very quickly:
- February 6th, 2020 – Awesome Motive acquires All in One SEO
- September 14th, 2020 – GoDaddy acquires SkyVerge
- December 4th, 2020 – Awesome Motive acquires Smash Balloon
- January 6th, 2021 – Liquid Web acquires The Events Calendar
- April 6th, 2021 – iThemes acquires Kadence WP
- May 11th, 2021 – Liquid Web acquires GiveWP
- June 1st, 2021 – Delicious Brains acquires Advanced Custom Fields Pro
- July 7th, 2021 – Awesome Motive acquires SearchWP
- August 12th, 2021 – Newfold Digital (⚠ Endurance International Group ⚠) acquires Yoast
- September 17th, 2021 – Automattic acquires SomewhereWarm (definitely not related to GoDaddy acquiring the other major WooCommerce extension developer or anything)
- September 20th, 2021 – StellarWP acquires LearnDash
- September 22nd, 2021 – Awesome Motive acquires Sandhills Development, which includes AffiliateWP, Easy Digital Downloads, Sugar Calendar, WP Simple Pay, and the Payouts Service
- November 4th, 2021 – Literally as I was writing this, Automattic acquired WPScan
I’d wager most folks making any kind of money providing WordPress development services are familiar with pretty much every plugin or organization up there that was acquired.
that list becomes much smaller when you realize that Liquid Web, iThemes, and StellarWP are the same thing.
In the same period, Automattic (the for-profit business run by WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg) has acquired a number of non-WordPress products, including Tumblr, Frontity, MailPoet, Day One, Pocket Casts, and Parse.ly.
I shudder to think how much money Rocket Genius has turned down for Gravity Forms in the last 18 months.
You could write this off as a shuffling of ownership without any real impact, but take a close look at that list, and several names start popping up again and again. And that list becomes much smaller when you realize that Liquid Web, iThemes, and StellarWP are the same thing.
I’ve cherry-picked the above a bit to showcase what I arbitrarily believe are the most notable acquisitions, and Post Status attempts to maintain a full list.
Running a plugin that makes money…
There’s not much direct money in open source. It’s generally developers giving back to a community that they themselves have depended on for a variety of things. So when you start developing something particularly big, expensive, and good and solving a problem, you want to charge money for it. Which is fine! I’ve long been an advocate of paying for plugins when possible, because they save me tons of time and provide tons of value to my clients.
And when paying for plugins, there’s an unspoken contract that you’ll get some level of support in exchange and a steadily improving product. Often, that support is coming directly from the development team, or perhaps a single step removed, because in so many cases, paid plugins are run directly by the developers who create them. These developers are intrinsically invested in the quality of their product and understand first-hand the frustration that comes with dealing with products that don’t work as advertised.
…versus running a business that makes a plugin
But the more money that changes hands, the more likely someone with an MBA shows up. For those folks, a product is all too often simply a means to retirement.
The unspoken contract? Gone.
Intrinsic investment? Gone.
It becomes more likely that you’re dealing with support teams with little knowledge of the plugin, and that long-standing bugs will remain unfixed in favor of new features that will bring in more capital.
The $99/year I may pay for a plugin license used to fund a small team directly involved in developing it. Now, a chunk of that pays people dreaming of a C-suite position who are spending another chunk negotiating expensive legal contracts and buying fancy dinners to try and land that next big acquisition.
In the hosting space, we’ve been watching this model extrapolated into a pump-and-dump scheme for a long time, and developers make good money saving websites that have fallen victim to it.
Endurance International Group
Endurance International Group is a giant hosting conglomerate that owns a variety of hosting companies that all are offering essentially the same thing: bottom-of-the-barrel discount cPanel hosting. Any developer who’s been in the game a while and has done enough digging to even be aware this company exists will tell you the same thing.
Hilariously, EIG itself was acquired by Clearlake Capital (“a leading investment firm focused on private equity and special situation transactions”) and rebranded as Newfold Digital, getting caught up in the exact same bleed-it-dry model that they themselves have been perpetrating.
Too Late to Pivot
In the wild wild west days of WordPress, there were a lot of plugins solving similar problems. The ecosystem, overall, was less mature, meaning plugins were still working toward providing everything you need to solve a particular problem.
For example, let’s look at event calendars. When I started in WordPress, there were a few options that were all pretty passable, including All in One Events Calendar, The Events Calendar, Event Espresso, Events Manager, and so on.
Today, some of those options have stalled out, some proved easier to use, and some have expanded to be more all-in-one solutions. Despite a bunch of click-bait affiliate-driven list-icle websites telling you there are lots of good plugin options out there for making an event calendar in WordPress, The Events Calendar kind of won out in this space, and I meet very few people who would actually recommend anything else.
In that wild wild west, if The Events Calendar’s team had wronged me or I didn’t like their business model, I could move to a competitor.
But today, between lack of features, depth of community and likelihood of longevity, I wouldn’t advise that. If, for some reason, I don’t care for The Events Calendar’s support policies, it’s unlikely I make a switch. Not because it’s the “good” option, but because in a field of less bad options, it is the least bad.
Should I be Skeptical of the Plugins Above?
I have really strong opinions on this stuff, but I’ve also interacted quite a bit with the plugins listed above in a variety of ways – meeting their developers or reps at WordCamps, DM’ing their community support rep on Twitter for a fast-tracked client request, using their support channels, parsing their documentation, and customizing their plugins. Given all that, the only acquisition above that will inspire me to make immediate changes is the Yoast acquisition, because there are still other really strong SEO plugins and because EIG is just that bad.
Rather, I think this is sort of just the result of the WordPress space growing up, for better or worse.