How an English Lit. Grad. Who Didn’t Know PHP from FTP Bootstrapped a Successful WordPress Company

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.”

Edublogs
Edublogs sponsorred Edtech Karaoke Sunset Station in San Antonio in 2013.

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.

Mudbrick shed
Incsub’s first headquarters – A mudbrick shed.

“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.

Incsub Headquarters
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.

25 Responses

      andrew_billits

      Nah, I’m not going to do a whole “well, actually” post slamming James. James is a great person and I honestly don’t have any ill will towards him. He obviously has a certain opinion of me and it’s certainly his right to talk about it. Free speech is awesome.

      Hindsight is always 20/20 and while I don’t regret parting ways, I do wish I had listened more to James in certain regards. We should have definitely hired more staff, etc. Ultimately though, James is a very ambitious person where as I like to keep things simple and stress-free. Though, I do wish that I had discussed this key difference with James earlier on rather than letting the working relationship degrade. That was my mistake. Although the whole “fingers hurting” bit wasn’t just an excuse. Early onset arthritis is a bitch. All that said, I’m glad to see Incsub/WPMUDev flourishing under his lead.

      I will note that I’m not exactly living in a mansion with a vacation home as the article implies. I’m not even sure what things were referred to by the “bought a lot of things” bit. Shortly after selling my ownership in the company to James I sold everything, bought a small townhouse and bought car I planned on keeping. My legal fees from selling to James also ate up massive chunk of change. From the article I gather lawyers aren’t quite as costly in Australia. I also signed a non-compete agreement which essentially prevents me from earning income via developing for the WordPress platform. So yes, I stopped working full-time with WordPress like I had for years. It wasn’t quite a “I’m retired bitches!” situation like the article implies.

      At the end of the day it was an amazing learning experience and I’m thankful to have worked with James. I learned a lot about what I ultimately want and learned a lot of lessons I can apply to my next venture after my non-compete agreement expires.

        rocketgenius

        Non-competes are pretty much worthless in much of the United States. In Virginia for instance I might as well wipe my ass with the paper than print a non-compete agreement for someone to sign. Kentucky is the same. A non-compete when it prevents you from doing what you would be thrown out of most places. I don’t know why people think they have any kind of real power. If you’re a WordPress developer a non-compete can’t prevent you from making a living as a WordPress developer. Just wanted to point that out as you stated after working with WordPress for a long time now you can’t. Not true. No matter what your non-compete may say.

          andrew_billits

          I’m sure there are ways around it. That said, I signed the agreement and it’s valid as far as I’m concerned. If it was preventing me from putting food on the table then I might feel differently. However, it’s not. So there’s no reason or excuse for me to break our agreement.

    msaizan

    There are some great posts on this blog, but i have to say that this one has become my favorite. Love hearing the backstory behind Incsub because…well.. I have been around for a while now -This is where I cut my teeth in multi site – and it’s all I do. multi-site. Andrew I am glad you weighed in too, and I so appreciate your honesty and transparency in taking stock of strengths and weaknesses. I am indebted to both you and James for your tremendous efforts in forging new ground.

    wpmudev75

    Awesome article. I hope this happens for me one day too and I can sympathize with Andrew… when stress happens it can be all too much to want to bother with anything that takes time from being happy.

    Thanks to Raelene for writing this and James for allowing this detail to be out there.

    I am a fan of everything that wpmudev does simply because you do not get the level of customer service you get anywhere else.

    Brilliant!

    Cheers
    Chris

    Joey

    I am new to wpmudev, and this is an incredible story to share. I am working on a website too, that I hope will help a community of people, and in turn make it a profitable business for me.

    I look forward to hear more about, how this duo got wpmudev to make profits, and the hardships they faced to reach there.

    WP-Networks

    +1(million) for long over due!

    Frankly, even after obtaining a 4 year premium membership, I was very hesitant to actually use most WPMUDev plugins… I think that this was due in part to not feeling like I really knew who/what the company was.

    The most public face of the company are the front line support folks in the forums, and well, while I’m sure they’re awesome as people, many of the comments they deliver seemed either mis/under-informed or simply completely self-serving (in favor of WPMUDev).

    I figured that if these folks were any indication of the developers, that I should be very careful in actually using the plugins. Again, this is not meant to be personally targeting; as people I’m sure y’all are fairly awesome and have seen evidence of that in some of the articles and forum responses I’ve read. I am trying to say that I think WPMUDev could more clearly articulate that it is a professional enterprise, run with acumen and with an eye towards staying in business long-term.

    I have really liked some of the plugins, and honestly wish I had started using them earlier. Instead, as I mentioned, I waited until I had a better basis to judge their quality – mostly until I found folks who I trust (and pay) to give me good advice about all the technical stuff I don’t get who could help inform my decisions to use/not use WPMUDev plugins.

    All the best, much aloha, and many thanks for producing some really great value for the WP community, by extension the internet generally, and therefor most of humanity… :)

    Cheers!

      WP-Networks

      Rereading my comment above, I felt that I should add a few additional points in the interest of hi-fidelity feedback…

      1) In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m a non-coder & its no fault of WPMUDev’s that I lacked the skills to evaluate their work.

      2) I am now a committed fan of several WPMUDev plugins and plan to use them on many of my sites.

      3) I am not a fan of WPMUDev’s historical stable of themes. I use the Genesis Framework.

      4) When I initially joined WPMUDev, my impression of the ‘support’ offered was that I might as well save my typing energy for google. However, I must be clear that I haven’t really spent much time in pursuing support through WPMUDev since then & realize that I may so be perpetrating a disservice upon myself.

      5) I’m hypercritical. What can I say, its just true. (But at $600-$1200/y I’d say a WPMUDev membership merits very high expectations.)

      6) One of the hardest & most frustrating parts of my WP Multisite journey has been finding a host who’s competent with it and doesn’t become unaffordable at scale. This seems like a situation that WPMUDev might be in a unique position to ameliorate. How about a list of hosts that WPMUDev users find to be awesome and/or general/anon performance metrics obtained through the Dashboard plugin (again, I’m no dev but it seems like y’all could include some sort of testing/data-gathering tool with the Dashboard)?

      7) I’ve now abandoned WP Multisite as a currently viable approach to managing a large number of sites. I have opted for a self-hosted controll system and distributed my sites across many servers with several different hosts. (I’m developing a fair-sized domain portfolio of my own & starting a few local/specialty WP website design brands.)

      8) Eight is great, and this comment is already waaay too long. Thanks for reading it, hope it can be helpful.

        Timothy Bowers

        Hey there.

        If you’re getting to a point where you need to start scaling and you’ve outgrown the managed option then it’s probably time to start looking for someone to manage that side of the business. There are managed services out there if you don’t have the required level of funding to employ someone like that, WP Engine for example is one of those.

        We currently employ 4 system admins (one is also a developer on Edublogs for us), and we have a range of servers that are located with Serverbeach. Edublogs (a multisite) powers over 2 million blogs.

        As for who to choose, well, that’s a personal preference most of time and you’ll always get mixed reviews regarding any host that is popular (even amongst our staff). We wrote reviews on a few hosts, keep in mind these reviews are that of one person, the reviewer:

        https://premium.wpmudev.org/blog/wp-engine-review-super-duper-fast-and-secure-managed-wordpress-web-hosting/

        If you look in the bottom of the article you will find links to other reviews we’ve done.

        Anyway, have a read through the comments on each review we did and you’ll find vastly different experiences.

        With regards to your third point, you don’t like our themes?

        It’s OK, many of us don’t either! ;)

        And that’s why we’re on the verge of releasing a new theme project, we’ve had various members testing this and we’re about to run another phase of testing so hopefully it won’t be much longer.

        I started here as a member too, in fact I’d been around DEV since around 2007, I contributed a couple of theme related things. I didn’t signup as a paid member until around 2010 though, I never considered it expensive or had overly high expectations because I knew the real cost of hiring quality full time developers to assist with projects. Plus I’d also been a member of other popular services and become accustomed to the type of support offered regardless of price.

        Thankfully when we’ve spoken with members the vast majority are like Chris above or Andréa here:

        https://premium.wpmudev.org/forums/topic/exclude-pages-password-protected-plugin

        Of course we’re not perfect but we are always working towards improving our service and what we offer, thank you for your feedback here. :)

    Jenni McKinnon

    Cool article! I very much enjoyed it. I thoroughly did not expect to see a reply from Andrew but I think it’s amazing at the same time. It’s too often we only get one side of the story, so it’s very valuable to me when there’s more transparency on that front. Also, I agree with everyone else who said Andrew’s insights were very well balanced. It certainly is a gift. I am also one of those people who couldn’t live with WPMU dev. It certainly is one of the things I’m most grateful for, right up there with my husband lol — mostly because I couldn’t live without either. :)

    Karen

    The guys who help with posts and issues are great especially when you get frustrated with things not working…which happens to non-IT people like me a LOT.

    The behind the scenes is interesting, but for the love of sanity a can someone write a decent manual for Membership so we non-geeks ‘get it’ on the FIRST read. Please EXPLAIN things (underlying rationale, why things are set up the way they are and assumptions behind how you meant it to operate) and give LOTS OF CASE STUDIES for us poor users to follow.

    Do not tell me to tick box a and check box b…we can SEE that. The WHY is missing, and assumptions.

    Pllleeeaaassseee make it easy, even idiot-proof.

    Thank you. PS It is needed ASAP.

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