#6 – Cory Miller on the WordPress Mergers and Acquisitions Landscape

#6 – Cory Miller on the WordPress Mergers and Acquisitions Landscape

About this episode.

So on the podcast today we have Cory Miller.

Cory is likely well known to many of you, he’s been a big part of the WordPress community for many years. He founded, grew and sold iThemes and is now the owner of Post Status, which is a community dedicated to informing WordPress professionals and enthusiasts about the industry.

So the topic of the podcast today is the WordPress Mergers and Acquisitions Landscape, and it’s the perfect subject for Cory. He’s been on both sides of the equation having sold iThemes to Liquid Web in 2018 and then buying Post Status earlier in 2021.

When we talk about Mergers and Acquisitions in WordPress, it really seems to polarise opinions. Companies are being bought and sold on an almost weekly basis at present.

There are those who worry that we’re at a point where larger companies have bought, and continue to buy up, smaller businesses. They see this as a cause for concern; a concern that we’re in danger of straying into a future where a few big brands own ‘all-the-things’.

On the other hand there are people who see this as a sign of the maturation of the WordPress ecosystem. It’s a consequence of the success of the WordPress economy that smaller teams have a pathway to profitability, one in which the possibility of being acquired is an attractive option.

There’s a great deal to discuss here, some of it unexpected, and I’m sure that you’ll have your own opinions.

We try to tackle the subject by going through a list of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ of WordPress Mergers and Acquisitions. We don’t attempt to cover every single angle, but we do try to look at it from both sides.

It’s great to get Cory’s take on the topic.


Nathan Wrigley: [00:00:00] Welcome to the sixth edition of the Jukebox podcast from WP Tavern. My name is Nathan Wrigley. Jukebox is a podcast all about WordPress and the community surrounding it. Every month, we’re bringing you someone from that community to discuss a topic of current importance, and this month is no different. If you like the podcast, I’d suggest that you ought to subscribe, and you can do that by going to WP Tavern dot com forward slash feed forward slash podcast. Use your favorite podcast player and click the subscribe or follow button. If you have any thoughts about the podcast, perhaps a suggestion of a guest or an interesting subject, then head over to WP Tavern dot com forward slash contact forward slash jukebox, and use the contact form there because we’d certainly welcome your input.
Okay, so on the podcast today, we have Cory Miller. Cory is likely well-known to many of you. He’s been a big part of the WordPress community for many years. He founded, grew and sold iThemes and is now the owner of Post Status, which is a community dedicated to informing WordPress professionals and enthusiasts about the industry.
So the topic of the podcast today is the WordPress mergers and acquisitions landscape, and it’s the perfect subject for Cory. You see, he’s been on both sides of the equation, having sold iThemes to Liquid Web in 2018 and then buying Post Status earlier this year.
When we talk about mergers and acquisitions in WordPress, it really seems to polarize opinions. Companies are being bought and sold on an almost weekly basis at present. There are those who worry that we’re at a point where larger companies have bought and continue to buy up smaller businesses. They see this as a cause for concern, a concern that we’re in danger of straying into a future where a few big brands own ‘all the things’.
On the other hand, there are people who see this as a sign of the maturation of the WordPress ecosystem. It’s a consequence of the success of the WordPress economy, that smaller teams have a pathway to profitability. One in which the possibility of being acquired is an attractive option.
There’s a great deal to discuss here, some of it unexpected, and I’m sure that you’ll have your own opinions. We try to tackle the subject by going through a list of the good and the bad of WordPress mergers and acquisitions. We don’t attempt to cover every single angle, but we do try to look at it from both sides. It’s great to get Cory’s take on this subject.
If any of the points raised in this podcast, resonate with you, be sure to head over and find the post at wptavern dot com forward slash podcast, and why not leave us a comment there?
And so without further delay, I bring you Cory Miller.
I am here with Cory Miller. Hello Cory.
Cory Miller: [00:03:45] Hey, Nathan. Good to see your face. And I know this is a podcast, but also hear your voice again.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:03:51] I don’t think Cory that we need to introduce you in all honesty, I think you are one of those people that goes with no introduction, but nevertheless, just in case there is a handful of people out there who’ve not heard of you before or come across you. Would you just take a moment to explain a little bit about your journey with WordPress and how come we’re chatting to you on a WordPress podcast?
Cory Miller: [00:04:11] Yeah. So my original start with WordPress started in 2006 as a blogger. In 2008, I started a company called iThemes. Ran that for 10 plus years, we did backups security and maintenance for WordPress websites, in addition to in the early days themes, thus the name iThemes. And then in 2018, we were acquired by Liquid Web. 2019 I started on my next chapter in my journey. Currently, I am the… I don’t know what my title is, but Post Status dot com is now I’m full owner of it. Brian Krogsgard, the founder, and I partnered up and then he is onto awesome stuff in the crypto software space. And I’m now the community lead, I guess, for Post Status, a awesome community of WordPress entrepreneurs and professionals.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:04:59] There’s an awful lot to unpack there, but regrettably, we don’t have time to go through the history too much. But what was highlighted there is that you have been through the very thing that we’re going to be talking about because we’ve got Cory on the call today to talk about mergers and acquisitions and whether this is potentially for the good or for the bad, whether there’s upsides or downsides. And let’s go back to your journey. I’m sure that things are different now, that is to say, I think things have hotted up since you sold iThemes, probably there’s a lot more paperwork going involved and a lot more scrutiny on how things are transferred and so on. But just wondering if you could tell us, what was your journey like, how did you come to sell iThemes? What were the reasons behind it? And what were the options available to you at the time that you sold iThemes? Were there people clamoring at that time, or was it very much we don’t know, people don’t sell things in the WordPress space. How did it all work out?
Cory Miller: [00:05:47] There had been a couple of acquisitions in the WordPress space, for sure, and I shouldn’t say a couple, numerous acquisitions in the space, but it wasn’t like the last year. Last year, the space has been on a tear with mergers and acquisitions, but there had been acquisitions before, in fact, at Post Status, we’re working on a page to document all that, the acquisitions that happened in WordPress.
So in 2016 or so I started to think, what does the future look like? It feels like one day somebody at all the hosting companies goes, I wonder how much this thing called WordPress, what kind of footprint is it in our customer base, in our stack and somebody came back and probably said 40%, 50% or something like that, I’m sure way back in the day. And it seemingly overnight a bunch of money and attention from particularly the hosting space turned to WordPress and rightfully so, I mean WordPress is a huge CMS and its footprint on the web is enormous. So around that time, I’m seeing all these players kind of come in and, big money, start to come in, and we’re talking about billion dollar companies or billion dollar valuation companies or companies with private equity in the billions coming into the space and really turning their attention, and I thought, my job as the leader is to fast forward the movie and see where we’re going and make sure, you mentioned in our pre-talk about Monopoly, the game Monopoly, and I thought, wow, we are definitely the David versus Goliath now. We’ve been bootstrapped from the beginning from 2008 on, and what does the future look like, and our toolset, the software we’re offering at the time, it was very utility, backup security, and maintenance. GoDaddy had bought Sucuri, ManageWP. Automattic was already kind of our competition from the beginning anyway, with Jetpack and at one point their backup service VaultPress. And so Jetpack is another behemoth out there. And, I just go, I think it’s time for us to figure this out, what’s the next step in a big way, and really that ultimately came down to being acquired. We had a partner in Liquid Web. So they were obviously the first people that had been partnered with him for like a year and really appreciated their leadership team. Eventually my friend, Chris Lema joined them and then my friend AJ Morris was the one that put us on the map for Liquid Web. And they were doing some, wanting to really do some big things and WordPress and long story short that just all worked out. But for us, it was like, at what point do you just need to pull up your stakes and tents and move on and see what you can get? And two reasons, one is financial, of course, but the other is my team. You know, we had about 25 people at that time and I want to make sure our team has a place to land and a great career, and that up until that point, it was either Matt Danner and I, and we had to leave for anybody to have upward mobility really well. When we joined a Liquid Web, at the time, they were like 600 people. So there was a lot of opportunity, career opportunity to move within the company. And they were also doing some great stuff. Now, maybe early in my worries, you know, Mark from Wordfence a great founder, co-founder over there told me, he said, great book called only the paranoid survive. I spent about 10 years in paranoia, like insecurity. But it was time it’s turned out to be everything Joe Oesterling and the C Suites team over at Liquid Web, everything they said to me, they have been to the letter of their word. I have really great respect for them. And so iThemes is under the leadership now of Matt Danner is killing it. There have been on the acquisition tear in the last year.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:09:16] It is amazing because I think there’s two sides to look at it. And we’ll explore that as the podcast goes on. There are the good sides and there’s possibly some downsides to this whole thing. And certainly from your perspective, it sounds like you had a really positive experience. You managed to hook up with a company who delivered on everything that you hoped that they would. So that’s great. But then of course, I suppose there’s the other side. The customer side, where there may be more concerns about, well, what does this mean for the product going forward? How is this going to affect the thing that I’ve deployed on all my websites? Will it still be maintained? Are these people good custodians and so on? So just to unpack this a little bit. Over the last, like you said, maybe a year or something, we seem to have a real landslide of things happening. There’s lots and lots of things, to the point where really a week doesn’t go by where there is some merger and acquisition news.
Cory Miller: [00:10:07] Truly.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:10:07] Yeah. You follow this probably more closely than I do, but it’s happening every single week. And some of them are big names, some of them are much smaller names, but there’s a story there every week if you choose to go and find it. I’m just wondering if you think this is inevitable. And what I mean by that is, was this always going to be the case? A rising tide carries all boats. If WordPress is getting bigger, it’s inevitable, all the things which are supporting WordPress and are built on top of it are going to get bigger as well. Did you see this happening all over the place five, ten years ago? Or did you feel yourself to be a slight exception all those years ago?
Cory Miller: [00:10:45] No, no, no, no, no. 10 years ago I was just living my dream as an entrepreneur growing a business. Most of the time, just holding on to the runaway stagecoach and was just loving every day and every week and every month and every year of our journey. I had a five-year commitment when I started the business, because I knew I’ve been a career hopper since I was 16. I’ve had a job on average about every two years. Until I started iThemes. I knew when I started iThemes, I had to have a five-year commitment minimum just to get the bird off the ground? So when five years came up, I was like, well, do I want to renew and this is about that time that I’m talking about. And I was like, heck yeah, I want to re renew. I want to keep renewing these things. I worked with the most amazing people on earth. That were my friends and my coworkers who held my babies when they’re born, who’ve been in my house for dinners and fun times, and I got to meet their children, because we had a hybrid remote team. And so I just wanted to keep pushing renew, renew, renew, renew. And it was just at the point where I was like, I don’t know what the renew button looks like now. I probably got in a little bit of a dark space in my fast forward in the movie to the end, but no 10 years ago, didn’t understand the world of all of this M&A stuff.
But as I’ve come to learn, this is a by-product to WordPress’ success. That’s it. First and foremost, it’s a by-product that people would go there’s money here, there’s value to capture all that kind of stuff. And this is what’s called we’re kind of seeing it, it’s call it a roll-up that they say in that kind of a industry, the M&A kind of field. You’re just seeing right now, a big roll-up going on. Small players been scooped up adding features or customers or revenue and all that, but I just wanted to keep renewing until I thought, I don’t think my chances are very strong to be able to renew, was concern for all parties involved.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:12:31] The thing that I find curious is that I was in a forum the other day, and we were talking through this exact topic. It was a real split. Essentially the conversation was fairly polarized. It was, is this a good thing that we’ve got all of these acquisitions? Is it a bad thing, you didn’t really get to sit on the fence? You were either going to be one or the other and the people on the, this is a good thing side really were talking about the fact that this is what happens. This is a maturing thing. When an ecosystem, an area of business matures, this is what goes on. There is a coagulation that the people who’ve been successful, the people that have got the money to buy things, they go out and they shore up the offering that they’ve got. So that was the one side. This is just maturation of an industry. And then on the other side, there were the people who didn’t see it that way. And they saw it more as it’s just the big guys getting bigger, and there’s concerns there because that’s going to stifle all of the competition and we’re terribly concerned about whether or not things that we’ve been built with dedication and heart and by an individual are going to be consumed and they’re going to lose their focus and they’re going to lose their way. So it really split either way. And because of that, because it was so split, I decided that we’d take the podcast in that direction and we’d talk about the good bits and the bad bits. So let’s go with the good, let’s start with all the good things. And I actually think the good list, I was able to come up with more good things than bad things, not many more, but more, some of them really unexpected to me.
So first of all, If you want to espouse all of the things that you think are good, and then I can do my list or I can do my list, and then you can tell me whether or not you agree with it. It’s entirely up to you.
Cory Miller: [00:14:15] Before we dive into that, I wanted to say, if you pushed me to say yes or no on it, I’m very conflicted. Given a broad statement, I’m very conflicted. And I started to parse out, is it good for the platform, WordPress? Is it good for the entrepreneurs in the space? Is it good for the people doing the acquisitions? That’s a firm yes. The firm yes is for the people acquiring. This is a great thing for the people acquiring. Because of WordPress’ success the entrepreneurs that have built and help build WordPress to what it is today. I’m talking specifically the service agencies, the freelancers, the users, the people that built products like me and my team and others out there that have really contributed to the success of 40% or whatever the footprint is to WordPress today.
That’s been a significant contribution by the commercial community, the Post Status type tech community, the people of WordPress. So I wanted to say that first cause I was like, oh, that’s interesting, if you forced me to pick, I’m really conflicted. But if I parse out some of those, I’m like, okay, maybe I can share. It’s still a yes here and a no there, yes here, on each audience. So all that to say, you go with your list and we can talk to you that for sure.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:15:25] Okay. So this list in part came out of conversations that I was having with people who had been in the middle recently of acquisitions, and some of them were unexpected to me. I couldn’t have worked them out myself. So imagine you’re working in a company, a small company, much like you had at iThemes, 25 employees. Curious thing, better working conditions came out. So that is to say that the people working at the small company are now working at a big company and they were able to make use of all sorts of things that weren’t available to them. So that might be heathcare.
Cory Miller: [00:15:59] Yeah, I would reframe the phrase, working conditions to benefits and the worker benefits, absolutely, at least in my case. Way better PTO policies, way better health insurance. I’m still on Liquid Web, we went on what’s called Cobra because my wife worked there before we were acquired, by the way she’d worked there three or four years or so. And then when she left last year to start Content Journey for her business, we continued on with Cobra. I’ve been on Liquid Web health, probably five years, I think, five years now, I want to say. And so absolutely. And most of the other ones, yeah, they can do it at scale. So, yes.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:16:35] Yeah, you’re right. I don’t know why the word conditions came into my list of there, but yeah. So job security. Better healthcare and… the UK, we have a different healthcare system and it doesn’t require quite so much money up front if you know what I mean? So those kinds of things don’t matter.
Cory Miller: [00:16:50] Ah, so jealous.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:16:52] Well, yeah, health insurance and so on. But then, more of the nuts and the bolts. There’s obviously more resources to throw the development of the project, because it may be the developer of a particular project. Maybe they were a solo person, or maybe they were working with a small team and they’d reached the end game of what it was that they felt that they could achieve. That really, they were running out of runway. They’d run out of inspiration, perhaps they were fed up with it and it gave them an opportunity to hand it on. Maybe they’re going to carry on the journey. Maybe they’ve been acquired as a part of the deal, but it gives them more people to talk to more ideas and more resources to update their plugin, theme or whatever it might be.
Cory Miller: [00:17:32] I would say yes, with this caveat, is the direction is no longer in the hands of the original founder, entrepreneurial team, always, there’s new owners, they get to decide what the direction is. That’s why you got to be really careful what you carve out in your agreements. But, it’s a new owners. Yes, I would think for sure, like us going to Liquid Web, we had the resources of a hosting company who owned their own data centers. I want to say that again, hosting company actually owned their own data centers, which I had set foot in and go, wow, this is kind of rare in today’s age. So that was exciting for us because we’re like, what would happen if we could control the server hosting environment. Wow. Okay. That’s awesome. So, yes, I think in theory and most what I’ve seen in practice, absolutely more resources in terms of team products, money, even to fund.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:18:26] Yeah, I guess everything that we raise on one side probably has a flip side, but in this case, I think we can easily understand and pass the good side of that. The other thing of course is that if you bring along your product or service, just to keep it simple, let’s say that you are a plugin developer and you brought along a plugin, then you are rolling into a bigger ecosystem of plugins. And so it becomes a more desirable thing. So from the end user’s point of view, my point of view, if I can subscribe to one subscription service and get four or five different plugins all rolled into one. That’s a real benefit for me. I’m getting them from one vendor. I’ve got one support channel, one price to pay. And I don’t have to worry now about those three or four different plugins, which I’m hoping will cobble together and make my website work perfectly. They’re now being managed by the one team. And so there’s something to be said about the fact that it’s all getting rolled in and you might have just one subscription. I mean, obviously you tried to do that and succeeded with that at iThemes, you had a whole bunch of stuff going on, loads of different things and having them all under one subscription was a great offering. And the bigger that subscription gets in the more things that you can feed into it, the better it is.
Cory Miller: [00:19:38] Yeah. I think the team that probably does this the best that I’ve seen is Syed and his team over at Awesome Motive, which has brands of Optin Monster, WP Forms, Monster Analytics, all that. I don’t know if I see a lot of cross selling going on, but I see them being able to take products and promote to an ecosystem to expand that. You’re right, at iThemes we call it the Toolkit and it was like the treasure chest. I don’t know if you ever get to a dentist’s office, and there’s this big treasure chest, like a pirate treasure chest. And after you get your teeth cleaned or whatever you did, you can go and dig through that. And that’s the way I thought about our toolkit. If I fast forward the tape, I want to see a company within the space actually do that.
I don’t know if I see that right now, one subscription to rule them all kind of thing. I get hosting. I get my plugins, maybe themes in there too, but really, hosting and plugins. I want to see a company doing that. Maybe if we get close to that is maybe Jetpack, where they bundled security and backups and maintenance. And now they’ve got these, in their whole ecosystem. Jetpack just rolled out their own mobile app. That’s really interesting to me where it’s like one price, because here’s the problem. Nathan, you’ve seen this, you know this. Wix, Weebly and Squarespace, when I first started back in 2006 with WordPress and in 2008 with iThemes, we could gobble up all this, what I probably think of as the lowest end of the market, the ones that I just want to buy hosting for five bucks a month, they want to get a domain name and cobble their site together and do it for under a hundred bucks a year or something like that. Wix Weebly Squarespace came on the scene. I can’t remember what it was. I want to say 2013, 14, 15, somewhere around that maybe, and started eating at that bottom level. And now as WordPress has gotten more complex and maybe the dashboard hasn’t been updated as much as it should have been, Wix, Weebly and Squarespace come in and just provided this complete ecosystem for one price.
They don’t have to go over here and buy a theme or plug in and pull it in, separate recurring fees and all that stuff. I don’t have to worry about updates because it’s SaaS and they started eating at the bottom of that. Now that affected our theme business in a big way. And that’s a dynamic I’d love to see like awesome motive can pull it off. GoDaddy can, they’ve made some huge strides with their onboarding. It is pretty dang incredible. I think WP Engine has with their Studiopress acquisition is starting to do some of this, pull it in, into their ecosystem. Liquid Web for sure. Now they’ve rolled out Stellar WP, which is basically their brain for all their WordPress products, but I want to see it. I want to see it. I don’t have to have 15 subscriptions, I can have one. Now somebody smarter than me, with financial engineering is going to have to do all the math and see if that plays out. But I want to see it as a user.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:22:24] I feel that that’s the inevitable direction of travel and we’ll come back to that because I think possibly that has negatives as well as positives, but yeah, good point. Although the promise of one subscription is a nice one. We don’t appear to have that.
Cory Miller: [00:22:38] You mentioned, here’s a subset of this whole conversation is WooCommerce itself. WooCommerce is a platform in itself, even though it’s technically a WordPress plugin and all that. But its footprint is enormous. It’s the default defacto software e-commerce software on the planet and it’s going to be for the foreseeable future. But if you have five ad-ons, you could probably go through the store to do that. Again, somebody had done initially when they rolled everything together, it’s like how much you would spend on a WooCommerce store. I have any commerce operation I’m partnered in called the vidibars dot com [?] And it’s my first physical product and stunt months it’s Anna’s who runs it, CEO, but we are not going to go with WooCommerce, we’re going to go Shopify. We were started on Big Commerce. Because I didn’t want to handle the tech stack. I’m not a developer. I might seem sometimes like one second at a, you know, a whole interview that I know what I’m talking about, technically, but I wanted to relay all that over there. I didn’t want to have to worry about separate plugins and updates and potential car crashes. I wanted SaaS for that. So we went Big Commerce, now we’re going to move over to Shopify soon, and it’s probably going to be cheaper than tagging those together. I think WooCommerce is fantastic, but that’s this result of now one company can controls the ecosystem too, which it has all along, but, you start add up these separate things and it’s quite a bit of money.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:23:58] Yeah. So a good example of that would be Stellar, who just recently acquired Iconic. So they’ve obviously got the hosting side taken care of, and now they’ve got Iconic WP, which is a suite of WordPress plugins specifically for WooCommerce. You feel that that could become an interesting rival for something like shopify in the e-commerce space because you know that those plugins are going to work. Hopefully they’ll maintain them. They’re going to sell it as a part of a package. Presumably the support will go with it as well. Just feels like that could become a one subscription rival. And then of course you’ve got companies which are still independent, people like Yith and so on, who knows maybe by the time this goes out that have been bought. But for now, it remains by itself.
Okay. That’s intriguing. The other thing which occurred to me is still on the good, is innovation. The ability to innovate, and grow things. Obviously, if you are a solo developer, you are probably hands down, writing code most of the time, your ability to market is going to be constrained. And I actually see this quite a lot in other things that I do. I get quite a lot of email from people who have been building their own plugin. They’re simply asking for a bit of advice and a bit of help. And can you assist me in marketing this and you feel that the quickest way to do that would be if it was sold and then the company who have all the chops, they have a marketing department, they could do that on your behalf. So I saw that as another possible area, the ability to grow it, market it, and just push it out in front of more.
Cory Miller: [00:25:29] Yes. If the leverage all, when you pull in, let’s say in your latest example, Iconic. Pull their customer base and then be able to share that with the Liquid Web, Nexcess customer base. That’s awesome. Fantastic. Yes, absolutely. From an innovation standpoint, I will say my commentary on it and you probably have bad where I can say good or whatever, but my thoughts are, you and I root for the little guy, the David or the Sally or whatever, we root for the entrepreneur. I think today, capitalism or entrepreneurship, the ability to go out there, make money by innovating and serving people and their problems. Now I subscribe to the mantra of purpose plus profit is awesome entrepreneurship. It’s not just profit. Profit shows, we’ve seen so many weak, terrible examples of people bulldozing other people to just make a buck. I don’t believe in that kind of entrepreneurship, but the real awesome entrepreneurship when you want to innovate to serve someone’s need better, make their life better, that kind, I bet on all day, every day, because that’s where I think innovation comes. Not to say that innovation can’t come from any of these companies. It can and does, and will like, for instance, in 2015, 16, maybe, people they’d ask me, do you think someone can start a theme business in 2016, 15, 16. And I was like, no, I don’t think so. I think the likelihood is very small that would be successful. And then you had companies like, even though they’re, I guess technically a plugin, Beaver Builder. You had Elementor, even though those we could nuance that and say their plugins and all that stuff, they innovated in the theme space. And I was like, nope, it’s done. But see there again, entrepreneurs will prove you wrong. They’ll show, I’ve got an idea, I’ll execute on the idea and innovate for my customers. And I did look at those two companies, Elementor is gigantic. They are a platform in itself just like WooCommerce is a platform within a platform, but they’re a platform. So I think innovation happens in the spark from entrepreneurship, but that’s my comment there. It will happen at the bigger companies for sure.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:27:42] Maybe it starts with the smaller companies, that seems to be my experience, certainly over the last 10 years, is that the real fascinating innovation is happening on the solopreneur side or the small team side. And then I wonder maybe it gets stifled a bit, but certainly from a marketing point, you’ve got the opportunity to spread your message wider. That’s interesting.
Cory Miller: [00:28:03] This comes back to our discussion. Overall, our theme is M&A, and let’s take a company like Apple. Huge. I mean, insanely profitable on that. The one I think about a lot is Shazam. It started out as an app on the platform where you could hear something, push the button and like me, this is how I learned, finding music is like, I would Shazam it and it would tell me what the song was and then I’d go buy it from iTunes.
Well, Apple at some point goes. Wow, this app is big, they have technology we want. I don’t know if Apple actually acquired them or how. I think they eventually did. And I don’t know what the details were, but think about that big company like Apple known for innovation takes a smaller startup, pulls it up into their platform. That’s a great example of how M&A can work, where the smaller people, the innovation labs known as entrepreneurs in my mind get snapped up by the bigger one, that’s harder sometimes to innovate on a large scale like that and pulled in and done that. parts of iThemes we’re a strategic acquisition for Liquid Web in that we had iThemes Sync, which does software updates, theme plugins for wordPress websites from one dashboard. They wanted to do that in their product. Cool. Now they got to do that with that product. So connecting that back, you see how there’s an natural progression of flow, where an industry like a WordPress starts, at least entrepreneurs innovating, putting products out, making money, and then big money comes in and goes or big companies, whatever, and I was like, wow, let’s see what we can do. And they start to pull these pieces in. Like Iconic WP. That is a great product set. I know James, he’s a member of Post Status, talk to James. I love his products. That’ll be a great add on to whatever WooCommerce hosting that Nexcess – Liquid Web has, you know, to accelerate, I guess, is the word, accelerate their technology.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:29:50] The big companies, which as you say are often hosting companies, they get to fill in the gaps as well with their offering. You just described Shazam, it’s a perfect way of Apple making more money because you discover it and you go and buy something off iTunes. Nearly said iThemes then. And so it just fills in the gaps. You can acquire things where you feel that you want to be going in this direction as a bigger company, but you don’t have that technology, build it yourself, or just buy it out from somebody who’s already built and on 90% of the hard work that you need.
The other option of course, is just from the point of view of the developer, they might want to just move away. They may just wish to have a slightly different life. They want to stop what it is that they’re doing and having a bulk injection of cash very quickly and suddenly being able to take a breather and reevaluate what it is that they want to do with their lives. I know that’s a bit of a peculiar one, but I’m sure, maybe there was a bit of that with what you were doing at iThemes.
Cory Miller: [00:30:40] You mentioned that in our pre-talk with Elliot Condon, from Advanced Custom Fields, that’s the stories. I don’t know him personally, but everything I’ve heard and saw written about it was he wanted his startup baby to go to a good company. And it did with Delicious Brains, and Brad Touesnard over there is fantastic, and this whole team. But Elliot was ready for a next chapter and whatever that is, he was ready for the next chapter. When I was going through mine, I will not say Nathan, consciously, it was like, I’m ready for my next chapter. I was really in, oh, wow, we got to figure this out. I got to transition our team, make sure they’re taken care of. I want to pull value out of the business, that’s my 401k. That’s my nest egg, was the business. And so all those things needed to happen, but I’ll tell you now what, three years after it, I needed a kick in the butt for my next chapter, I would have kept pressing renew and what had happened to me and here’s the downside for entrepreneurs is I put, at some point you experienced some success and you’re like, oh gosh, this was tough. Maybe I just want to sit back and enjoy the ride for a little bit. But what happened was I put my career, my skills on autopilot and didn’t really grow some key skills, cause I didn’t have to. What the acquisition did, and when I left was actually put me in the box of like no other torch, you got to. I didn’t get live on a beach forever money. And I didn’t, I don’t want to live on a beach forever. I want to work. I want to do things that makes people’s lives better. And in this thing we call video game, we call it entrepreneurship, but I’ll tell you, in retrospect, looking back, I needed that, even though I hated, I still miss my team, I still miss my friends. I still get to talk to some of them, but I’m like, I miss those people. They were incredible people. They still are. That was the biggest pain of that. The other probably secondary was identity, and, what am I going to do next? I didn’t have a plan B. I put all my eggs in one basket.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:32:38] It’s just a great option though, isn’t it? You mentioned Elliot in that particular case, if those were the thoughts going through his head, he could either just walk away from it, and let the product stagnate, or he can move it along to somebody that he, in his case, like you said, Delicious Brains, trust them feels that that’s a perfect place for it to go. He’s happy. It’s going to have a good future. Millions of people are using it and they continue to be happy, but also he gets to do what he wants, which is to take a bit of time out and have a bit of a change of lifestyle, which is really nice.
Okay. That’s my list of goods. I don’t know if you’ve got any that you feel we missed, but we’ll move on to the bads if you don’t.
Cory Miller: [00:33:16] No, let’s go.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:33:17] Okay. Let’s do the bads. One of the things which I fear in all of this is the stifling of competition from it. So you get to the point where a particular product has so much reach. It’s got so much marketing clout, they’ve got all the money to spend on the advertising of it, and it just becomes… there is no competition. The other thing which I’ve seen happen, I won’t mention any names, but people who have the money simply buying out the competition and then just letting it go to waste. They literally take out the competition with money so that their own product is the last man standing for want of a better word. So I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that, but that was one negative.
Cory Miller: [00:33:58] Your competition is a very valid point because what happens when there’s only four players, right? Which, it may be like four players in a couple of years, four or five, maybe, I don’t know. And that’s a very fair point that you see these entrepreneurial companies like us. We’re scrappy. Every day, we felt like we had to wake up and earn our right to continue to serve our customers because we’re not hugely funded and got all the steam in the world to own it. We were ultimately building on another platform and actually two platforms, WordPress and hosting. Whatever the hosting company they were with.
So I think that’s a very fair point, like competition, where you kind of seen that within the managed WordPress hosting industry, look at all the different players. And I won’t say about names cause you know them all, but go and just research and look at the prices and the feature sets. They’re pretty similar. I know because about six months, eight months ago, I was looking for managed WordPress hosting. I was dismayed. So you see that where I’m not saying there’s collusion or anything, but you go, well, there’s just this many competitors. They’re going to all look at each other and see how they can co-exist and outmaneuver each other.
But I fundamentally believe even though I hated us as an entrepreneur, Nathan, I’m never going to tell you otherwise I hate competition as entrepreneur, but it is absolutely essential, for entrepreneurs for our customers because without competition, you’re absolutely right. So they’re going to be in a monopoly and then you can force any changes out that you want.
A great example of this is Google. They are dominant. And from the beginning I’ve been saying like a broken record, their thing was don’t be evil. Well, I want to have a sign up that says Google… remember… don’t be evil. Remember this are you straying against this, but that’s the pressure we put within the environment because all those publicly held companies have stockholders to satisfy that stock price, they manage religiously because it’s part of their job security. And unfortunately, this is a system we’ve created is that they’ll keep pushing down and ultimately become about money. It’s a big cycle that I’ve seen that I just baffle at. Down here at the bottom, you got people that have 401ks., Like I had at Liquid Web and my team had it and iThemes and all that. Right. And that gets invested into the stock market and you want it to grow. You expect it and demand it to grow. Well, on the other side of this equation are the people that are at these big companies that you’ve invested your nest egg into you. And what’s the message out? Go increase value, make sure it’s whatever percentage, year over year, quarter over quarter, all that stuff.
And it’s a vicious cycle where then they push it back down to the same people contributing to the 401k to say more money, more money. We got to have this money. It’s a crappy viscious cycle. Back to your competition thing. That’s part of it. I think competition is good for the space and ultimately for the user, particularly the WordPress user, you got my diatribe here.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:37:10] No, no, that’s good. It’s a pleasure to hear it. I guess the flip side of that might be the country argument may be that in a vacuum where the competition has been basically bought up, possibly stifled. The vacuum creates the opportunity for the next round of people who suddenly want to fill up that vacuum with their own plugin, keep saying plugin, it could be anything, but we’ll go with plugin.
So, okay. All of the decent things, decent plugins in the WordPress space have been acquired by these large companies. Now there’s space, now I can come in and pivot and of course the question is, whether you’ve got the nouse to compete against the giant marketing budgets, but yeah, Google was a great example. It became something gigantic. It became the incumbent. And at some point there’s no choice left. If you want to have a decent search, they seem to be the way to go.
Okay. What about this one? The fear that licensing or terms and conditions that you signed up to, maybe changed. So a plugin is acquired by another company. You’ve got it as a WordPress website builder or developer, you’ve got it on 50 sites spread around the internet and it works, and you read through the terms and conditions. You know what you’re expecting, you know, what your license fee is, you know, the tier that you’re on that fear that whoa, hang on. This is all going to change. I don’t know what’s going to happen now. All of my websites are in jeopardy. That’s a thing.
Cory Miller: [00:38:32] I’ve seen it happen. You’ve seen it happen, Nathan. And I’ll tell you. My values are and do right. Do good. And then you do well. If you do right and good in the world, right? And well in the world, or good in the world, you should do well. If you serve people and help them make their lives better, you should do well.
You should be handsomely rewarded for that. But sadly, I’ve seen companies that kind of went back on their word or whatever had been initially agreed. And I would challenge my colleagues and my friends in the space not to do that. Do right. Do good by people, which means honoring your word. And if you did a lifetime deal or you did something like that, you got to honor that because I’ll tell you, I think in the future, Nathan, there’s going to be a swell of, in the United States back in the early part of 20th century we had unions. They came about because they were needed because workplace conditions were terrible, particularly in manufacturing and these unions sprung up. Now, today, we see some of those professional unions going down, but I think in the future, there’s going to be consumer unions. And you talk about one that’s like right, for a consumer union, it’s called WordPress, the WordPress community, because all the people around there can band together and say, we won’t accept what you’ve done.
I think that’s going to have to be the way, we the people are going to have to band together and say, no, that’s not right, Google, don’t be evil. Facebook, don’t be evil. We’re going to have to band together and put our force. And that’s the only way. And the way you do it, as you hit their hot pocket book, we felt like every customer came in with a dollar voted for our business. And if they stop paying, they voted our business out, out of office or whatever you want to call it. And we can do that, Sally is going to have to happen in the future is because there’s going to control so much of the space. So much of the key parts of the board that consumers are going to have to band together and say, no entrepreneurs are going to have to rise upand say, here’s my innovative solution. Thankfully, we have a little bit of the GPL to cover us maybe downstream. That is one. I’ll give it to Matt Mullenweg, he’s been the champion of the GPL from the beginning. Keeping products that aren’t SaaS, particularly in the WordPress repo, GPL. And I applaud him for that. I haven’t always agreed with him, but I’ve respected them. And that’s one that I think will help ultimately the WordPress user in the future.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:40:54] Good point. That’s one of the things I’ve got down, neither in the good, nor the bad side, is that depending on how it goes, somebody with the right skills can just fork, whatever it is that they feel aggrieved about. But it does concern me that the terms and conditions change, we had a really good example of that not so long ago where there was confusion, it would appear. I think it was a tweet or an email or something led people to believe that the licensing terms were going to be changed. And then the social media storm happened. That seems to be the way at the moment to get everybody’s voices out and say, we don’t want this to happen, please honor what was the case, and in this particular case, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about. The company said, oh, okay, that’s what you want, that’s what we’ll give you. And it all resolved itself very quickly, but concern that those kinds of things in the future will happen. Especially if you’ve got a plugin, which is used on millions of sites and literally as the underpinnings of your website business, that would be terribly, terribly worrying.
The other… an another concern that I’ve got is the simple acquisition of the audience. You are buying the plugin. You have no intention to maintain it at all. You are just buying, dare I say it, you’re buying the opportunity to put a little advert in people’s WordPress admin area, or you are buying an email list or what have you, and I’ve seen that happen as well. So that’s a point of concern, not often, but I have seen it happen.
Yeah. It’s an effect, potentially effect of all this, but that’s back to let your voice be known. WordPress is so strong because, it’s eclectic, it’s so diverse in a good way, but democratize publishing is the WordPress mission. And so like that means have your voice, say your voice, share your voice. Even if I don’t like it, I still promote it. WordPress users are going to have to wake up. And I’m going to say it again. WordPress users have to wake up. They have to let their voice be known. They have to find the place to let their voice be known and congregate and share and rally.
Now it doesn’t mean like a coup all the time. It means, let your voice of displeasure be known. Mostly, I love how WordPress has been built. Obviously I’m so thankful for the thousands of contributors that have made WordPress, what it is today, selflessly over the years to build it to what it is today.
I’m so thankful for that legacy and their work, but it’s also a meritocracy where when you contribute and we listen to people. By and large, we, the community listen and let the minority voice be heard. And it’s one of the great things about our community is you can have a voice in the community if you choose so. WordPress users have to start choosing to do so.
That is basically my list. There’s a few others, but that was my good / bad list. I have a question for you to round us out and it’s a peculiar question and it’s yes, no, you got a binary choice or I suppose you could try and sit on the fence on this one.
Given the exact same plugin from a big company or a, let’s say solo preneur or a small company. So literally if they were the same Who would you buy from?
Cory Miller: [00:44:04] Solopreneur every single day.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:44:05] Really. That’s interesting. And is there a reason behind that? So obviously we’ve had this discussion, we’ve decided there are these merits and there are these drawbacks to both sides of the argument. Why that way?
Cory Miller: [00:44:15] If there’s feature parity, both are doing what you need, and you can rely on support and updates and all that, solopreneur every single day. Because I go back to man, I root for the entrepreneur. I am an entrepreneur. I root for the entrepreneur. So I would for sure lend my support to the entrepreneur over the big company every single day.
Like I’m going to go for the David over the Goliath. Every single day I’m going to root for the underdog. That’s what I take a lot of calls I don’t get paid for from Post Status members and others asking, hey, how did this acquisition? Can you give us any tech ways? I’m always eager to have those calls because I’m trying to walk the talk
I root for, I believe in the entrepreneurs. I think entrepreneurship as a career vocation in the world is a sacred one. It’s a noble one. If done right. If we do the kind of equation. Do good, do right in the world, and you should do well in the world. What happens when it gets poisonous and terrible and all that is when the script gets flipped and people just say, oh no, no, the equation just profit, profit, profit.
Well, I’m sorry if you’re just in the profit, profit, profit, and you bulldoze people, I hope you fail. You’re not in the entrepreneur category, you’re a mercenary. Only about profit. So that’s why he said, this is binary and I gave you all this commentary, but I root for the entrepreneur and the one that’s doing it right, and doing good for people and serving people and taking care of their people, customers and their team. I’ll put my money there every single time.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:45:46] Really interesting. I wonder what the take-up would be from the audience listening to this, which way they would flip on that one. I had a comment, I said earlier that I was, and I’ll round it out here. I was in a forum and we were talking about this exact same thing. Somebody in that forum, I won’t mention the name in case they didn’t want it to be mentioned, but they compared the current marketplace for WordPress to a game of Monopoly. And in that game of Monopoly, we’re at the stage where the houses are being slowly replaced with hotels.
And what was once a fun game starts to get really serious. And big money starts to move around the board and things blip out of existence with one roll of a dice. It’s just struck me as a perfect moment. We are putting hotels on the board, the WordPress board. Fascinating.
Cory Miller: [00:46:32] That’s a very good example or analogy or metaphor, whichever one it is.
Hey, here’s another question. I’ll answer. I’m going to give you a question and I’m going to answer it. If I have a chance between a non WordPress company and a WordPress company, who am I going to buy from? And that includes Automattic. I’m going to say WordPress every single time. I’m going to go with a WordPress company for sure. I am a customer of all the companies we’ve talked about. Including Automattic. I give my money to those. So WordPress company over non-WordPress company, I’m sorry. I’m biased. I’m going to pick WordPress. Just why I live in Oklahoma. I root for every Oklahoma sports team, because this is my home.
WordPress is my home entrepreneurs are my people, which is why I love what I do at Post Status. Cause it’s the club. It’s the tribe. It’s the community of WordPress professionals. So Viva WordPress and viva the entrepreneur.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:47:23] Cory Miller. Thanks for joining me on the podcast today.


2 responses to “#6 – Cory Miller on the WordPress Mergers and Acquisitions Landscape”

  1. As someone who’s casually followed Cory Miller since “discovering” WordPress (WP) in 2008, I really appreciate the depth and candor of the exchange. You both put a lot of deep topics on the table and provided unique insight into the vast WP ecosystem from an entrepreneurial vantage point.

    The audio was pristine and the overall “flow” of the interview was very motivating. Excellent job!

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