Why WordPress.com for education (and portfolios, restaurants & musicians) is a big fat fail

Why WordPress.com for education (and portfolios, restaurants & musicians) is a big fat fail

Talking of big fat things, I’ll start with a hefty disclaimer, I’m the founder and CEO of Edublogs – the largest education blog provider (and also based on WordPress) on the web.

So, having got that out of the way let me tell you why I’m profoundly unconcerned by the announcement today that WordPress.com is venturing into the ‘education vertical’ and why I don’t think it should scare of any other niche site builders out there.

tl;dr – it’s shallow, insincere, cynical, lacking in focus and flimsy.

Here’s why…

Almost too shallow for words

It’s got an apple on it, thus it must be for teachers

Let’s ask what WordPress.com education’s offering really is, what have they actually added or dome to the site itself.

Well, there’s the education landing page.

And that, literally, is it.

No extra functionality, no education specific support, nothing that, you know, might actually make it easier for teachers to run a class – need I mention that Edublogs has all of those – nothing except for this:

I’ve got that 90s feeling, hang on a minute, where’s the marquee text?

And an announcement on TechCrunch. They get a lot of them.

Achingly insincere and creepily cynical

Is it just me, or does the jump into all these different verticals (man, I hate that word, feels so VC-esque) smack a little of a business being driven by, oh I dunno, investors?

Rather than the folk on the ground, responding to users needs, people who might say, for example something like:

I mean, that’s not all that surprising, WordPress.com got off the ground courtesy of a pretty hefty chunk of change.

But that was back in January 2008, 5 years ago. You would imagine that the folks that stump up that kinda cash, would be in the mood for seeing it come back to them.

Something that while certainly feasible with revenues previously expected to be $45m in 2012… but let’s face it, VCs would rather have their cash in something that’s gonna reach for the stars or crash and burn, and just being a very successful company doesn’t really nail that. Perhaps.

So, really, where is this initiative coming from? I’d contend, strongly, that it’s a crack of the investors whip, and as such I reckon it’s probably doomed from the start.

Lacking in focus

This is something I’ve had to contend with myself, and thus can talk about with a little authority.

If you’ve already got a focus issue, maybe adding more ‘stuff’ isn’t the fix you need

Once upon a time we were not only running WPMU and Edublogs, but also, ahem:

  • Incsub – WordPress MU consulting service
  • Blogsavvy – Blog consulting service
  • WP.MU – WordPress MU installation & hosting service
  • BuddyDress – BuddyPress theme provider
  • Blogs.mu – and MU version of WordPress MU (start your own MU network!)
  • WP Plugins – WP plugin marketplace
  • And some more that got horribly close to release and wasted a heap of time

You know what this did? I reckon it set us back years, it slowed us down and it messed with us, a lot.

Reason being that all of those were a distraction, which failed because we couldn’t find the time to focus on them, and which hurt our core businesses by demanding that we spent any time on them at all.

Catering, largely, to my starry-eyed ‘it’s the internet, we can do anything, we’re a startup, woot’ approach to things, it was fun, with lots of highs, but at the end, a lot of grimy lows, protracted failure and the dumping of a great deal of effort.

And what I figured out from was that if you want to succeed, by all means throw shit at the wall, by all means try stuff out, but try as much as possible to do that without making it a big damn issue and feature of your business… because then it’s (likely, with every project) failure is not going to feel, or look, good.

Flimsy, flappy, flotsam

And last, but not least, you’re only as strong as the people behind your project.

At Edublogs we are blessed to have some amazing people, who care and deeply love the project. Ex-teachers, as am I, committed to what we’re doing, understanding what’s needed and where things need to go, talking to teachers, going to conferences, teaching themselves.

I’d wager that Automattic don’t have any serious educational experience backing this up… that terribly patronising theme would certainly indicate it :/

And while obviously there are people keen on having portfolios, and I’m sure the odd musician within their ranks, I very much doubt they have any ex FT restauranteurs running that side of the business too (although I could be wrong).

The fact is, I reckon that I could no more succeed in some sort of fashion startup than I could in a gardening one… just not my bag baby. However, education, WordPress, media… mmmm, bring it, I love that stuff, I understand it, I’ve lived it… and I reckon I know what is required.

I don’t think WordPress.com does here, I don’t think their site creation and management tools come anywhere near some of the other people in this space targeting specific niches, and I don’t think there’s an honest motivation behind these projects.

Give it a year or two, these will pass, and it’ll be the team who can provide the product, passion and people who will win.