Building a WordPress Business

WordPress is not easy – and that’s OK

If you pick a random WordPress user and ask her why she uses WordPress there is a good chance her answer will be “because it’s easy” followed by something about how you can get up and running in 5 minutes and “everyone can do it”. I encounter this sentiment all the time and you’ll even find me saying these exact same things, but I’m realizing this idea – that WordPress is easy – is becoming an issue because it is an ill defined statement: What WordPress experts mean when they say “WordPress is easy” does not correspond to what new and prospective users understand when they hear it.

We need to change the way we present WordPress to the people. WordPress is not easy. But learning WordPress is.

To illustrate my point let me give you three examples of conversations I’ve had around WordPress in the last several months and then I’ll go through what problems they unearth, and what we as a community can do about them.

“I spent the last 4 months building my website and it’s still not ready”

On New Year’s Eve I found myself at a party with a prospective political candidate. He was lamenting the challenges of recruiting new party members, the hours spent campaigning, the usual stuff.  Then he went on to talk about his web strategy and voiced his frustration: “I spent the last 4 months building my website and it’s still not ready”.

I hear statements like this all the time – from small business owners and event organizers and community groups and non-profits and pretty much any person or business with a small budget and big dreams. They want a website, they’ve been told it is easy to build one, and they’ve invested a substantial volume of time trying to make it perfect. But the end result is dismal and they know it. Now they feel either lied to or like failures or often both.

“Let me tell you why I hate WordPress”

In December I took a stroll with my developer accomplice Mark and we drifted onto the topic most people default to when talking to me: WordPress – and in particular the topic of why he hates it. I can’t quote him word for word so let me instead summarize his argument as I remember it:

“What WordPress does is make people think they know what they are doing when they don’t. It’s too easy to create something and the power you feel from being able to do things you don’t really understand convinces you you actually know what you’re doing. So you get people with the ability to do things on the web that have no idea if what they are doing is right or wrong. And they start doing very dangerous things. They set up insecure sites. They write terrible code. They get hacked. And then to top it off they start selling their services!”

“We paid a WordPress developer $200 to build us a new theme and we’re having some issues”

During one of my client consultations in 2013 I was presented with what I can honestly say is the worst WordPress theme I have ever seen. A quick look told me the person who built it had only a fleeting understanding of XHTML (yep, XHTML) and CSS, was firmly stuck in the coding practices of the early 2000s, and had zero understanding of WordPress. Bewildered I asked where they got this theme from and they told me they paid a “WordPress developer” $200 and that they were “having some issues”. When I asked them why they would hire someone who only charged $200 for this kind of work I got the deadpan response “Well, WordPress is free and it’s so easy anyone can do it so why should it cost more?”

WordPress is not easy

What the three examples above and many others like them show is that we have a communication problem when it comes to WordPress. Statements like “WordPress is easy” have created three common misconceptions, or myths if you will, about WordPress:

  1. Some* people think WordPress enables them to build a professional grade website with little to no effort.
  2. Some* people believe their ability to publish content with WordPress makes them web developers.
  3. Some* people conclude that based on 1 and 2 (and because WordPress itself is free), WordPress services should be free or cheap.

*I say “some” here though in reality these are commonly held beliefs.

Anyone working with WordPress on a professional level will have encountered each of these myths and knows they are not true: (1) While you can build a professional website with WordPress, doing so requires a lot of work. (2) Being able to publish content using WordPress makes you a web publisher or content manager. A web developer or designer has the ability to build the application that makes that publishing possible. (3) While WordPress is free and open source, the time and skill spent on building content for WordPress has a monetary value in much the same way air is free but being able to fly in the air has a monetary value.

Now that these myths have been dispelled, let’s look at how we can change the way we talk about WordPress so we can avoid these misconceptions moving forward.

WordPress is relatively easy.

At the beginning of this article I said that I often use the statement “WordPress is easy” myself. That may seem like a bit of a contradiction after what you’ve just read. It’s not. And here’s why: WordPress is easy relative to the alternatives. And when I tell people WordPress is easy I always point this out. If you set out to publish a website or blog that you control it is my opinion that WordPress provides the quickest, most secure, and yes, easiest solution. That does not mean WordPress does not require effort. It just means in comparison to the alternatives WordPress will spare your keyboard from frequent forehead impacts.

The reason for the myths above is the understanding of the word “easy” as “no effort”. This is a cultural phenomenon that has its roots in commercials and it is causing major headaches for the DIY culture WordPress is a part of. When you see a commercial promoting something as “easy”, what they are actually saying is “just click here and magic happens!” This is rarely if ever true, but it’s a nice an comfortable illusion we have trained ourselves to believe. The unfortunate pitfall of WordPress is that it really is easy to set up and start using so the illusion is carried into the application itself.

I would argue that WordPress’ ease of use is it’s most dangerous feature. If people were realistic and accepted that just because they had an easy time setting it up doesn’t mean they are immediately experts we wouldn’t have a problem. But in reality people do make that leap of judgement – from the ability to set it up to perceiving themselves as experts – and that’s not good for them or for anyone else.

WordPress is easy to learn

What is great about WordPress, and one of the main reasons I use it and am such a vocal proponent for this CMS, is that WordPress is easy to learn. WordPress makes sense to people in a way few other online publishing applications does. That’s what set it apart when it launched more than 10 years ago, that’s what made it rise to the popularity and power it has today, and that’s why most existing and new CMSes are emulating the WordPress user experience.

WordPress is a great platform to start your journey in web publishing, web design, and web development, because it takes away the basic hurdles that used to stand in your way. You are not starting from scratch. You get going right away, and you can experiment and tinker and learn at your own pace and on your own terms. With WordPress the learning process is less daunting and thanks to its semantic templating language and strict adherence to web standards you don’t need to be a coding genius to understand how it works under the hood.

I teach front end web development at and Emily Carr University of Art and Design and I use WordPress as the baseline for all my courses because in my view it provides the best platform and starting point for anyone wanting to work on or with web technologies.

WordPress is easy once you know it

My last point has two sides to it: On the upside, WordPress is easy once you know it because of all the things listed above and because of its logical and user driven development structure. Once you know and understand WordPress and its overall philosophy, new features and updates make intuitive sense. When new elements are added to WordPress they usually fall into the same overall approach as previous ones and thus fall naturally into your process. And because WordPress is open source the people who develop the application are the people who use it so new features are generally things the community want and need.

On the downside, WordPress is easy to use once you know it and it can be difficult to remember that a) when you began using WordPress it was much simpler than it is today, and b) you think it’s easy because you already know how to use it.

When I began using WordPress many years ago it was a simple blogging application with few options. And I grew with the application. Today WordPress is a complex CMS and new users are often overwhelmed by this complexity. We who have been using WordPress for a long time need to remember that just because we know how it works and think it’s intuitive doesn’t mean it actually is intuitive. Our tacit knowledge can easily cloud our judgement and make us confuse our own acquired understanding for intuitive understanding. And when that happens we become poor teachers and even worse developers.

WordPress is not easy. But it can be once you learn it. And when you do, help new users onto the same path.

Building a WordPress Business

I’ve been working with web development for the last 10 years and I’ve acquired a lot of hard learned lessons and well hidden tips and tricks along the way. As this new year begins I’ve decided it’s time to pay it forward. This article is the first of a series that will cover different topics and insights about building and running a WordPress business. The series will not be a how-to step-by-step guide but rather a series of stand-alone articles and possibly videos discussing common achievements and challenges that face a burgeoning WordPress business owner. I would love your input and requests on this matter so if you are looking for information on a particular topic hit me up in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer your request. And as always you can follow my ever growing series of courses on where I will push out a whole slew of new WordPress and web design / development related courses.