I wanted to put this post together to do a little ranting and theorizing on “legitimate” WordPress design/development, “WordPress implementing”, the expectations that have stemmed from all of the various WordPress products that make creating websites with WordPress relatively simple, and the impact all of these things have on the perception and value of WordPress service providers (and WordPress in general). There have been a few recent posts that also offer great perspectives on these ideas. Two of these posts actually came out on the same day I wrote this post. I encourage you to check them out and read their comments.
- On WordPress Talent Shortage – Mario Peshev
- Envato Continues to Rake in the Cash from WordPress Themes Packaged as Complete Website Solutions – WP Tavern
- The WordPress Talent Shortage Might be a Pricing Problem – Andy Adams
- UPDATE: More good reading on similar stuff: The $15 WordPress Gig
Before starting, I want to make clear that I do not intend to come off as arrogant or rude with what I write…just trying to be honest and call things the way I see them. These are my thoughts based on my own experiences as a WordPress service provider.
Legitimate WordPress Development
WordPress development is, in my simple opinion, the ability to take a WordPress installation and customize it with a combination of existing tools (no, the wheel does not need to be reinvented just because you’re a developer) and custom code written from scratch to fit most (if not all) of the requirements of the site. Development is much more than installing WordPress and uploading a theme. If there’s a need, a WordPress developer can typically find a solution and is comfortable writing the code necessary to produce it if need be. This doesn’t mean that developers can do everything, never have to search Google for assistance or ask peers for help, but they can, by current knowledge or through research, write their own code to do a lot. Developers control and shape WordPress to fit their needs.
Legitimate developers are people you see creating awesome WordPress plugins and themes, contributing to WordPress core, providing awesome code support in discussion forums like Stack Exchange, writing quality tutorials on how to do cool things, etc.
WordPress Developers vs. WordPress Implementers
If you haven’t heard the term “WordPress implementer” before, let me explain. I heard the phrase a while back (I’d provide a link to where but, unfortunately, I can’t remember where I saw it) and it’s pretty straightforward. A WordPress implementer is someone who does not actually develop with WordPress but rather sets it up, installs a theme and various plugins and configures these things within their given limits. A WordPress implementer, depending on their experience, may also know some HTML/CSS and might be comfortable with copying and pasting code snippets into a functions.php file (albeit with little to no understanding of what it’s actually doing).
The main difference between a WordPress developer and an implementer is that the implementer is not capable of creating in the same way as a developer. While the developer can put together custom code to come up with a solution that does not yet exist in the community, an implementer cannot.
Determining whether you fall into the implementer or developer category, you can ask yourself: 1.) Am I comfortable navigating the WordPress Codex to reference WordPress code and using it in my own way to create something? 2.) Am I able to grasp and make use of more advanced WordPress and PHP features? 3.) Do I know how to set up local/staging environments for debugging/development purposes?
Those three questions are general basics of actual development. They certainly do not comprise a comprehensive list of what a developer can do but they are to serve as a very basic checklist to see where you likely fall if you are not certain (i.e. impostor syndrome). If you do these things with relative ease, you’d probably fall in the developer category. If you answered no to them but you can still create WordPress websites, you are an implementer. If you can’t do these things and have very little to no WordPress experience and knowledge of anything to do with WordPress but are still selling WP services, well, you’re pretty much a fraud (I won’t be discussing this type of individual to any extent in this post).
So is a developer a better person than an implementer? Of course not. Are both honest developers and implementers better professionals than frauds? I’d certainly say so. A developer just has a higher skill-set than an implementer and is more likely to begin writing some code as a solution before trying to piece together existing tools for a less exact solution. The point in comparing the two is to highlight the current state of “WordPress services” and how seemingly identical services can differ to a great extent. Before I get into this, I want to quickly mention the tools that enable a WordPress implementer to be a player in the WordPress services game.
As I mentioned before, a typical WordPress implementer relies heavily on existing plugins and themes to do what they do. Tools like Visual Composer, Beaver Builder, Divi, Headway and many other visually based drag-and-drop builders have made it possible to build nice, complex websites without needing to know any code. While there are developers who use these tools as a means to expedite certain projects or to provide clients with specific abilities, an implementer is going to rely on these tools to be able to even provide a service in the first place.
On the other hand, developer-centric utilities like _s (underscores) and the Genesis Framework are things a developer will typically reach for when building a client website because they offer a much greater deal of flexibility. However, they do require some degree of comfort with PHP code.
WordPress Services, Providers and Perceptions
Now that I’ve laid all that out there, I want to discuss the real point of this post: the way WordPress professionals and services are often perceived because of cheap tools and vastly different service providers.
To start off, let’s consider a soon-to-be WordPress user named Dan who is considering three options to build a website for his photography business: hire “Developer A”, hire “Developer Z” or built it himself. For Dan’s website, he’ll need a modern/elegant design, an easy way to showcase his work, some information on his services, a way to contact him and maybe a system for selling some prints he has available for sale. Nothing too crazy here! Now let’s look at his options more closely.
After receiving quotes from a couple agencies to develop his website, Dan said the agency route was more than he wanted to spend so he reached out to a freelancer who seemed to know his stuff. Developer A has a blog full of useful resources, a cool looking website, a few products available to the public and a portfolio of nice work. Developer A asks important questions and wants to take the time to get to know Dan’s business and goals. After discussing some initial ideas, Developer A quotes a fee of $4,000 for a full setup, custom design with photography portfolio and e-commerce support (includes getting SSL in place and proper security measures). Additionally, Developer A estimates 4-6 weeks for development.
While not as expensive as the agencies, Developer A is still “expensive” so Dan contacts another freelancer, Developer Z. Developer Z doesn’t have as much of a public profile as Developer A but still has a nice website so Dan sends a message asking for a quote. Much to his surprise, Dan gets a message back from Developer Z, who says he can build the website for $800 and have it done within 2 weeks.
Now that Dan has quotes from two different developers, he obviously sees that the first developer’s quote is five times costlier than the second. At this time, he’s thinking “What the hell is up with the price difference and why is the first guy charging me $4,000 when the second guy can do the same thing for $800 AND have it done quicker?”
After a bit more thinking and researching, Dan finds a website called Themeforest where he sees a bunch of WordPress themes that look awesome, include what he needs and essentially claim to be a total solution for him. On top of that, most of them don’t exceed $65! Now he’s wondering why he’s even being quoted $800 when a design can be purchased for $65.
At this point, Dan thinks that Developer A is smoking some quality shit and loses all interest in hiring him for the ridiculous price of $4,000. Now the choice is between Developer Z and saving some cash by purchasing that theme from Themeforest and doing it himself. What to do?
In this fictitious story, we will say that, in an effort to save money, Dan decides to first take a shot at doing his website on his own with the theme he likes from Themeforest. He goes and buys the theme, manages to get WordPress installed and, after a couple days waiting to hear back on the support request he submitted to the theme developer, gets the theme uploaded (he was unknowingly uploading a zip file that contained documentation and demo files in addition to the actual theme). After that, he notices that the design doesn’t look like it did in the demo that he fell in love with. After messing around in the theme settings for a couple more days, he submits yet another support ticket to the developer only to receive a lousy, unhelpful answer four days later. Finally, he gets so pissed that he throws in the towel and goes back to Developer Z to sign up for the $800 deal.
Proceeding with Developer Z, Dan submits payment and Developer Z gets to work. A week later, Z gets back with Dan and shows him a website that still needs to be filled in with content. No problem. Now Dan just needs to get him content so he types up what he wants on his pages and sends it over along with some images he wants to use. Z plugs it all in and reports back to Dan that the site is almost finished. A few products are added to the site using WooCommerce and, a couple days later, Z tells Dan the site is done, hands over passwords and says to contact him if needed.
Dan’s pretty satisfied with the time it took to finish the site (he’s also fortunate that Developer Z didn’t flake out and disappear before delivering a finished product). He takes a look at his new website and is more satisfied than not with the overall look. Finally, he logs in to the WordPress dashboard and sees a ton of menu items on the side. The appearance of the backend looks to have a lot more going on than before.
After a few days, he’s been able to spend time looking through everything and getting familiar with the setup. He discovers the various plugins installed on the site, changes some settings and, afterwards, notices something on the front end no longer works. Promptly, he sends Developer Z a message, doesn’t hear back after a few days, sends another email, still doesn’t hear back, sends yet another (and noticeably aggravated) email, still doesn’t hear back and, finally, sits there feeling lost and screwed over. Little does he know that the reason Z never responded was because Z doesn’t know how to fix what Dan was talking about and he wouldn’t even know where to begin. Therefore, he just avoids it and hopes Dan will either give up or fix it on his own. In reality, Z was never qualified to accept the job to begin with because his experience and knowledge of WordPress was very limited.
Dan’s frustration has now led him to start thinking that WordPress is garbage and that developers are scammers who build crap websites and disappear. After coming to terms with the likelihood that he won’t be hearing back from Z, he manages to feel somewhat grateful that at least he didn’t spend $4,000. Since he’s basically stuck with this site, he decides to start posting help questions in any free forum he can find in attempts to fix things on his own because he can neither afford nor wants to hire another developer. His forum posts often include statements along the lines of “I was burned by my previous developer” or “My last developer disappeared”. In general, he comes off as feeling entitled to detailed help because he was burned in the past and, even if subconsciously, this is pretty much his sentiment exactly.
Moving forwards, maybe Dan will decide to contact another developer but, if so, he plans to make it clear that he was screwed over by his last hire and is hoping to get some help at a discounted rate. Perhaps he even has some possible “referrals” in exchange for a better rate (he really doesn’t but an unsuspecting developer won’t know that). Either way, his only concern is getting his needs taken care of for as little as possible.
Does this sound familiar to you, WordPress pros? If you’ve been doing client work for a while or helping out on forums, it likely does. I’ve heard it many times from clients (paid and potential) and people on discussion forums. I enjoy helping out on the StudioPress forums when I have time but I admit that, for me, this is the most annoying part of doing so. In fact, I often just leave the forums because I get aggravated with people’s posts and don’t feel like contributing. I know this might make me sound like an ass but, truthfully, I don’t really want to volunteer my time to help someone (for free) complete a client’s website when that person is getting paid to do a job they aren’t qualified for.
Pulling Everything Together
So far, I’ve discussed legitimate WordPress development, WordPress implementers, tools that enable WordPress implementers to do their work and the fictitious, unfortunate experience of our example WordPress user, Dan. Now comes the time for me to bring all of these things together and present my primary argument: WordPress services have become far less valuable and often negatively perceived because of an (over)abundance of WordPress themes and plugins (many of them low in quality) that make simple WordPress implementation a relatively easy task for anyone, thus causing an overflowing pool of people with no experience or skill who begin offering WordPress services. When given the options of an “expensive” developer, a “cheap” implementer and the DIY approach, most people will choose one of the two latter options and, as a result, the overall value of true WordPress professionals decreases. This problem boils down to three main ingredients:
- Relatively inexpensive plugins and themes make it possible to get a website up and running for very little upfront cost.
- People begin to use these tools to build a website of their own or for a friend/family-member and pick up a false sense of ability that encourages them to offer “web design/development” services for cheap. After all, WordPress is easy to use so it must be easy money, right?? Just buy a cheap theme, install it with some free plugins and charge a few hundred bucks. Easy as cake!
- $4,000 vs $800 is a serious difference and one of the most common types of WordPress users (individuals pursuing a business idea on a budget) flat out will not want to invest that kind of money ($4,000) when a $800 “developer” is available or a $60 theme that claims to handle everything for them.
That said, WordPress services from qualified developers that range in the thousands become services targeted at a much smaller group of potential buyers.
Let me make this clear: I do not think all WordPress implementers are doing a disservice to the WordPress world and I am not making some sweeping statement that blames plugins and themes for having a negative impact on the value of WordPress services. WordPress would not be what it is today without these assets and the developers who create them. They have contributed significantly to building an entire ecosystem that enables many people such as myself to make a living doing what they enjoy. Given WordPress’s immense popularity, WordPress implementers do offer a service of value if they have enough experience and knowledge to bring to the table. However, confusion and disservice arises from people who honestly have no business selling WordPress services to clients and from not drawing a clear line between actual WordPress development and WordPress implementation. All of this together teams up to produce a negative impact on the perceived value and reputation of WordPress service providers and WordPress itself (Dan thinking that WordPress “developers” are shady operators).
To remedy this, I would argue that we, as WordPress service providers, need to be transparent about what exactly we offer our clients in terms of expertise. Doing this will benefit both us and the clients and also improve the standing of WordPress service providers in general. Our clients will know before-hand whether we have the ability to deliver the product they need, those providing a service will not need to “disappear” when faced with the reality of hitting their technical-limits with a client, and other WordPress professionals will not have to deal with as many people thinking less of their value because of bad work done elsewhere.
If you are an implementer who will be installing and configuring pre-made themes and plugins, make that clear. People who need that service and nothing more will still hire you. If you’re a designer who only designs, admit that you don’t write the code. Personally, I am a developer who has experience with an array (pun intended) of WordPress tools and practices, such as the Genesis Framework, WooCommerce, writing plugins, and many others. I do not have the experience or know-how to build, for example, custom backends with integration for your third-party, enterprise-level software. Today, there are plenty of things I cannot do. This not because I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s because I have not yet needed or wanted to do them and, therefore, do not have the experience. In the field of website development, you learn by doing and there’s a lot of things I have not done. I’ve come a long way during my time using WordPress and I intend to do a lot more in the future but, until I know how to do something, I will not market myself as knowing how to or accept payment for doing it. By admitting that and letting those more skilled than I on any particular task do what they do best, I save my potential clients and myself headache, as well as preserve the overall perception of WordPress (or at least I don’t play a part in degrading it).
UPDATE: I should have made an additional point in all this. I do not frown upon anyone saying they can do something that they cannot if they can still make sure that what why claim to be able to do is delivered to the client in a professional manner, such as outsourcing certain work to someone who can do it. As I mentioned in a comment below, a better way of explaining my stance would be to say that service providers should be honest about what can be delivered rather than what one can do individually. If you are a designer but outsource your development work, then telling a client that you can achieve a developmental need of theirs is perfectly fine in my opinion. I just thought this was worth noting.
If you want to make money with WordPress by offering some type of service, that’s great! I hope you succeed and enjoy your time. However, please consider what it will take before throwing yourself out there as a WordPress service provider. Don’t just install WordPress and a theme once or twice and think you’re ready to start taking on clients (please don’t do this). Take the time to learn about WordPress and its nuances before offering services to clients. Honestly evaluate your skill-set to determine what you are capable of taking on. If WordPress is the product from which you hope to make a living, represent it well. Don’t contribute to degrading it.