How an English Lit. Grad. Who Didn’t Know PHP from FTP Bootstrapped a Successful WordPress Company
James Farmer was a university lecturer in education design loitering around WordPress forums for scraps of code when he saw the potential in Multisite. Now he runs the largest WordPress plugin store, WPMU DEV. This is the story of how it all started.
Pleased with the horrendous looking theme he had set up on his blog, James Farmer was drunk on too many red wines when he installed WordPress MU – now Multisite – and launched the very first version of Edublogs.
When he woke up the next morning, 70 people had signed up for what was to become the world’s largest network of blogs and websites for education.
His first thought was: “Holy crap.”
“It just seemed like a good idea at the time,” he says. “I was just trying to help out teachers. That was my job and I couldn’t help them out.”
“I thought, ‘This is a business opportunity. This is my chance to actually make a difference, create something and do something cool for myself.”
Back in 2005 he was working at Melbourne’s Deakin University as a lecturer in education design and helping faculties make the most of teaching online. An English Lit. grad, James found himself setting up sites with Joomla, Drupal, WordPress and even Mediawiki, despite the fact he barely knew how to use FTP.
In addition to his colleagues asking him for help with their podcasts, he suddenly had 70 people relying on him to provide a blogging service.
“Some people in business say they started out because they had an itch they wanted to scratch,” James says.
“For me, I just wanted to do my job better. When Edublogs arrived I didn’t have to set up installs anymore. Everybody could set up their own installs. It was awesome.”
How Does a PHP Illiterate Lecturer Run a Growing Blogging Service?
“I was scrabbling about in the WordPress forums, just basically trying to find shit there,” James says.
“I was begging, borrowing and stealing what I could.”
In the forums he met Andrew Billits, a developer who seemed to know his stuff, and who would eventually become his business partner – not to mention an expensive mistake.
James proposed they go in 50/50, with James in charge of business development and Andrew working as a developer for their umbrella company, Incsub.
Together, the pair built up Edublogs and Incsub as a development company for clients looking for Multisite setups, while on the side Andrew worked on WPMU DEV, a place where developers could store plugins. But soon WPMU DEV became their focus.
At first, it didn’t matter that James was based in Melbourne and Andrew lived in Alabama. Email helped them overcome the time difference.
Astoundingly, during the entire time the pair worked together, from September 2007 to December 2012, they never once spoke on the phone or even met each other in person.
“I think he’s a very private person. I tried to talk to him a few times, though I must admit it was kind of convenient for me,” James says.
“You know, I don’t like meetings so it suited me, but it did become a problem.”
By this time James had left both Deakin and The Age newspaper where he had been the online community editor. Andrew, meanwhile, had been working as a theatre technician.
“I asked him, ‘How much money do you need to make?’ He said about $38,000, maybe $40,000. I was like, ‘Cool, what about if I said to you we’re definitely going to make that in six months?’
“And we did.”
In fact, the pair turned over $200,000.
Going For Broke is “Fucking Terrifying”
While Andrew bought a condo and jet skis, James renovated his kitchen.
It was around this time the Global Financial Crisis hit and WPMU DEV became a premium membership site.
“People were spending $50 a month to buy plugins. They were basically plugins Andrew built for Edublogs and theme packs I made. I did the manuals and Andrew did the technical support,” James says.
As Edublogs continued growing rapidly and new members were signing up for WPMU DEV everyday, the money kept rolling in and it quickly became apparent that this was a business far more reliable, and enjoyable, that working for clients.
So he quit, again, jumping out out of consulting and into SaaS.
“Quitting a job and starting your own company is fucking terrifying,” James says.
“But for me, a year after I left work was the best year of my life.
“While everyone else would go off to work in the morning, I’d get out of bed and think, ‘Oh my God! I can go and have a coffee!’
“It was massively liberating, a huge adrenaline rush. It was disappointing when that feeling went away. I still miss it. I need to work again for six months and quit again. Though it’s still exhilarating and exciting, but in different ways.”
While James was riding a high, getting up each day for the morning commute to the mudbrick shed in his garden where he had set up his computer, it was obvious Andrew wasn’t so happy.
“It was really hard from the start. The problem with me is that I’m super ambitious. I would bring ideas to him and he would get incredibly stressed about work. I said I’d get somebody else in to help but he didn’t like that,” James says.
“He’d just get really tense and antsy about it. For him it was all hard work.”
A Development Company… Without a Lead Developer
So James approached – or should I say, emailed – Andrew with an exit strategy.
Tens of thousands of dollars in lawyer’s fees later, the pair agreed to a 10 year deal where James would buy Andrew out. James now sends Andrew a quarterly payment and Andrew… doesn’t have to do anything.
“I’d just bought a house in Albert Park and had a fucking enormous mortgage and then I got an even bigger mortgage with Andrew,” James said.
“The thing was, Andrew got really comfortable. He paid for his house in Alabama, he bought his condo outright, bought a lot of things and that was it, boxes ticked.
“He just stopped wanting to do anything. He made random excuses like his fingers were sore. In the end he just wasn’t interested.
“I mean, I couldn’t have done it without him. Well, I could have. I could’ve done it with somebody else. But it’s alright. It was a good learning experience.
“But after all that, my attitude to sharing equity is out the window. I just don’t want anymore partners.
“We could get venture capital funding if we wanted, we could walk into anywhere and come away with $10 million, but I’d rather not because it’s a nightmare being responsible for somebody else in that context.”
Building a Successful Company
So now James doesn’t have to answer to anyone – no business partners, no investors. But is responsible for a distributed team of about 50 developers, support staff, designers, network admins, videographers and writers based everywhere from the United States and Indonesia to Serbia and Greece.
WPMU DEV is based at the Incsub headquarters in Port Melbourne, Australia.
After Andrew left, James was free to hire all the staff he needed, and there hasn’t really been a time since when jobs haven’t been open across Incsub’s brands.
Six years since WPMU DEV began as a simple plugin repository, it now sells 140+ plugins, 140+ themes and has more than 300,000 members.
Not bad for a guy who couldn’t code and had too much to drink one night.
So What’s Next?
After six years, there hasn’t really been much published about what WPMU DEV is and who’s behind it. So we want to change that.
We’ll be releasing a new post each week to give a little insight into WPMU DEV, who we are, what we’re doing and where we’re taking our members.
We’ve got lots of new plugin updates and releases due out this year, plus it’s no secret we’ve got an awesome new themes product coming out soon.
See you next week for part two in our series.