Automattic Buys WooThemes: Can you replicate the success?

Automattic, an American company that runs bought South African company called WooThemes for a reported $30 million.  Some statistics speak about the scale of business that WooThemes have built in eight years. Its ecommerce solution, called WooCommerce is estimated to power 24% of all ecommerce websites. This free plugin has been downloaded over 7,5 million times.  Automattic the buyer of the company is amongst the tech elites referred to as “unicorns” – which are companies with a valuation of over 1 billion dollars. The transaction is thus huge in possible impact, and all the more interesting as WordPress is open source software, and what it may mean for economic policy.

WordPress in South Africa

The deal shines a spotlight on WordPress in South Africa. The purchase of WooThemes by Automattic is a confirmation that South African companies are serious players in the WordPress space. The next most prominent South African WordPress company is called Obox are attempting to create a platform for non-technical users to easily make changes to their websites, which could be a game changer.  Smaller plugin companies and theme developers, such as Tiny Giant Studios, Site Origin and Promola, offer niche solutions and compete on the international stage. In the hosting space, smaller companies offer WordPress specific hosting, outcompetes on price, features and services many of the larger hosting providers. There are probably a couple hundred companies – mostly smaller ones – in South Africa selling services and products related to WordPress.

Open Source and Jobs

In our search to create more small businesses in South Africa, it is worth exploring what it would take to go from say 100 companies selling WordPress services or products to say 1 000 businesses. Assuming that each person would employ about 2 people, and that 50% of businesses succeed it could yield 500 new companies and around 1 000 jobs. All without the need for government to run expensive incentive programmes. To be clear, the government would need to play a role in supporting rapid skills acquisition and fostering a venture capital sector for smaller investors. To be successful, the market will require some support.
It may also sound as wishful thinking, given the skills challenges that we face in South Africa. Work opportunities in WordPress ecosystem are however not just about coding, with a range of employment opportunities being available. Skills needed in this ecosystem include skills of building communities, graphic design, warehousing and a range of other opportunities. Simply stated, expanding the South African ecosystem for technologies like WordPress could provide a way to stimulate jobs for people, with a short training period.
But, an ecosystem like WordPress requires world class coders. An interesting feature of both Automattic and WooThemes is that they have what are called distributed teams. Basically, employees in these companies work from wherever they want, and have no need to be physically present at an office. World class coders could thus be sourced from anywhere in the world. Moreover, South African already has a small number of world class coders, and with changes in our education system, a wide pool of coders could be developed over a 10 year period.
The foundation for expanding business ownership in South Africa are already there as companies like Automattic exist in other spaces, and allow for integrations with their core offering.  South Africa needs to quickly understand these opportunities, for in them lie potential areas for significant growth in the number of new firms being established, and for a radical revamp of education a nation of coders. It holds the promise of using the Internet to equalise our society, and with an expanded unemployment rate approaching 40% even the most doubtful should consider the prospects for service based jobs and businesses based on the Internet.


Now, let us get a little more excited. If we widen the lens to include other open source companies and those allowing integrations to the core offering. Think about large Internet companies like Salesforce or Slack, and the many smaller ones. Our estimates would become much larger for new businesses, established businesses and employment. These businesses and jobs will be created in the services industry, but in a sector that is growing and international. In some respects, it resemble outsourced call centres. But, with one crucial difference: the cost of owning a business are much lower.
The deal reached between Automattic and WooThemes is an incredible deal, that places South Africa on the map. WooThemes is obviously an exceptional success story, but there are opportunities for smaller players. The signal however is not merely that WordPress is changing, but that as the Internet takes hold, it will not merely destroy jobs but will create opportunities to create new types of businesses.  If you an entrepreneur, what are you still doing reading this? is another Zapreneur site, that will be officially launching soon. Please signup to the newsletter.)

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