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I am Jason Cohen, founder of WP Engine. Ask me Anything!

Oct. 28, 2015

I've founded four companies, both bootstrapped and funded, both software and hardware, grew all to more than $1m in revenue, sold two (ITWatchDogs, Smart Bear), helped start local Austin incubator Capital Factory, invested in about two dozen startups, and currently spend all my time as CTO and founder of WP Engine, owning innovation and technology strategy. I've written for eight years at blog.asmartbear.com/, and in fact the popularity of that blog (more than 60,000 RSS subscribers at peak) is how WP Engine got started nearly six years ago!

I wanted to thank MWP for having me for this AMA so I wanted to share a special coupon for the audience in case you want to check out WP Engine. Just use the coupon code “SPEEDUP” to get 20% off your first payment. When you combine that with our normal 2 month discount on annual accounts, you get a year’s worth of service and only pay for 8 months.

Ask me anything! (Literally anything!)

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28 votes   Flag
Ahmad Awais

Hey, Jason!

Nice to have you here. A few questions

— What does a day in your life look like?
— What do you think about WordPress as a platform after the recent addition of REST API's infrastructure, and endpoints (which are still in the beta plugin stage), what kind of impact do you expect?
— I am a Full Stack WordPress developer with focus on theme development, together with our partners we have a Power Elite Author account at ThemeForest (i.e. $1MM+ in sales), with roughly 26,000 customers, how do you suggest we can add the "hardware" factor to our business and build a SaaS-based recurring business? Do's and Dont's?
— Which TV seasons are you watching this fall :)?

Thanks :)

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Jason Cohen

1. Day in Life: Because we have a large and growing team (WPE is over 300 people now), my job is to help determine the strategy for technology and innovation, especially in Product, and then align everyone to that, which means both inside and outside the R&D department, and even outside the company, i.e. to customers, the press, analysts, partners, etc.. Also, talent is always of top importance, so I spend a lot of time interviewing and recruiting. Everything I just wrote requires talking to people, thus my day is almost all meetings, with a wide variety of people and topics.

2. I think the REST APIs will have the immediate impact of creating new front-end products to WordPress which are still variants of CMSs. That is, it will replace wp-admin and templates. I don't believe the current REST API will suddenly make WordPress the platform of choice for generalized application developers, because what it accomplishes -- CRUD operations for a dozen tables which have simple relations to each other -- would take a Rails developer less than a day to set up, including an at-scale hosting environment (e.g. at Heroku). So there's no reason to use WP as a replacement for e.g. Rails. Hopefully we'll see innovation beyond just API'ifying the database which will enable applications which indeed are not easy to replicate with other frameworks, in which WordPress is the right choice. In the meantime, "better CMS's" seem inevitable, and in fact are already starting to appear.

3. This is a big question! I think the critical thing for the theme developer is to answer this question: How does the product continue to deliver as much value in month 2 or 10 or 30 as in month 1? Currently the answer is "because you might call Support," but the truth is in most months they won't, so that's not a good answer. If you can't answer, it's hard to justify the recurring revenue component because people wonder "why am I still paying this company?"

4. Ha! I don't watch much TV, but when I do my wife and I will watch whatever is available on NetFlix so we can binge-watch without commercials, and discover post hoc which are worth watching.

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Ahmad Awais

Thanks for the answers.

Our themes grow and change at a smart pace. In every three months, our themes grow by 25%. By growth, I mean
— Additional features are added based on the feedback
— Bug fixes
— Code Refactoring

If I were to put both Updates & Support to a comparison table, I think we spend more resources on updates than on support.

But I see, what point you are trying to make. There should be a definite reason for recurring SaaS.

Thanks again!

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Vladimir Prelovac

Hi Jason

Thank you and welcome to this ManageWP.org AMA! Plenty of things that I'd like to ask you.

- What do you think is the biggest threat to WordPress growth nowadays?

- Is WordPress hosting space becoming saturated? What effect do giant players (EIG, GoDaddy) have moving into the managed WordPress niche?

- One could say that WPEngine was a text book example of how to build a brand in the WordPress space. Is there anything concrete that you can share with other aspiring WordPress startups?

- If you switched places with Matt Mullenweg for a month, what would you bring to WordPress?

- Boston, San Francisco or Austin? Why Austin? :)

- If you were to create a new startup what would it be about?

- Please share a pic of your workdesk and some favorite tools you use every day.

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Jason Cohen

Hi Vlad!

1. WordPress has always been strongest with the smaller, non-Enterprise sites. But those are the sites which can use things like Wix, SquareSpace, Weebly, etc instead. We all know that the successful folks will outgrow what those services offer and will eventually switch to something like WordPress, but it's compelling for a v1 of your site. I think the threat is that a "simple website" is not difficult to have anymore, as it was when WordPress began, and yet WordPress hasn't added the kinds of features or market positioning that make it attractive to the larger, more complex sites, e.g. to compete with the likes of Adobe, SiteCore, IBM, Oracle, Acquia, etc..

2. Certainly the hosting space for SMB (small business) is saturated. There's 5-10 players who you would consider to be "a perfectly reasonable choice for folks with non-demanding websites." GoDaddy doesn't seem to be winning new business at a faster rate than we've seen in the past, but I imagine they are retaining more of their own business that would have churned had they not had their managed offering. Of course the market in SMB is massive, so there's room for a variety of players there.

3. Maybe we're textbook, in the sense that it hasn't been a straight line. In early 2012 and again in spring 2014 we had significant hiccups in which our reputation (rightly) took a hit, due to our crazy-fast growth in customers, employees, servers, and so on. Reputation takes years to earn and you lose it in an instant. Therefore, all we can do is put our heads down and demonstrate operational excellence in the platform and support, to earn it back. We've seen that pay off in spades in 2015. So in this sense -- that it's about trials and tribulations, difficulties and redemption, using honesty as the guide -- that is probably more replicatable.

4. I don't think you can move a ship as big as WP in a month! Also it's impossible to know what's in Matt's head for the long-term product roadmap and vision of WP, so making some tweak in the absence of that information would be folly. However, the fact that there isn't a shared understanding of the product roadmap is itself a challenge for all of us in the community, because it means it's hard to know how to contribute to the success of that roadmap, and how to make our own plans so that they are compatible and supportive of the roadmap instead of finding out months later that it is incompatible. Thus, if I were switched for a month, I would "download" that vision into a manifesto that the community could rally around.

5. "What's the best city in America and why is it Austin?" :-) I grew up in Austin and always had a reason to return here -- family, business, school. Of course Austin is well-known (now) for its incredible food scene, music, eclectic residents, strong economy, and a steady influx of new people from the university and from outside of Austin.

6. I don't believe picking a topic is a good way to start a company. It needs to be a result of natural observation and need, a true insight you have, a passion for solving the problem, a love of the customers of that product, an ability to execute that particular company, and so on. I'm already working on the startup I want to be at! In fact, the day we stop innovating like a startup is the day we start dying, so my new few startups are projects at WP Engine.

7. My workdesk is often "wherever I am," so it's my laptop. I use the beta version of Remember the Milk (finally they added start dates!), Google Inbox (I know, they're Big Brother, this makes me a terrible person), and Evernote.

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Robby McCullough

Hi Jason! Thanks for taking some time to do an AMA!

It seems like the majority of companies in the WordPress space are bootstrapped. VersionPress recently raised a round of funding, but it's rare to hear. Why do you think that is? Is it a good or a bad thing? Thanks! :)

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Jason Cohen

I definitely don't believe there's "good and bad" about raising money. It's just different paths, different trade-offs, for different purposes, i.e. different goals. A healthy ecosystem should probably have a mixture of companies and company-types, so that there's maximum optionality for customers.

Why so little funding? This I have some direct perspective on, especially as an angel investor myself.

The goal of a funded company is for the stock to become very valuable. The way that generally happens is the company gets a large number of happy, paying customers, i.e. a genuinely wonderful product at a good price point. (Yes there's exceptions like Instagram, but then the number of happy customers is orders of magnitude larger, and anyway the number of *successful* VC-backed companies who are like I described is 100x more common than the anomaly written about by TechCrunch.)

The key here is "large." For investors to make a profit, the successful companies have to be *so* successful that the gains covers the much more frequent losses from the other bad bets, thus the successes have to be mega-successes, certainly north of $100m/yr in GAAP revenue and growing to achieve a stock value in the mid-to-high 9-figures and occasionally the "unicorn" int he 10+ figures.

So the question an investor will ask herself when considering backing any company is: "Can this company grow to more than $100m/yr in revenue in 8-9 years?" Here "can" means "is there *any* plausible way this could happen," not "is there a business plan." No one has a real business plan. The question is whether it's even possible.

For it to be possible, the market has to exist. Sometimes you create a new market, but generally the best evidence is that people are already paying for something that you will replace.

What products do people collectively pay more than $100m/yr for, right now, in WordPress? Hosting is one. But for almost all product categories the answer is: Nothing. Not themes, not premium plugins, even taken as a whole, nevermind if you were to focus on just one area of premium plugins like e.g. forms or SEO.

One valid answer is: eCommerce. And that's still possible, but then you get to other questions an investor would ask, like: Are there already at-scale and still-growing companies doing this, which we would be 5 years behind on forever, and thus we'll also be "#4" in the race, and thus this isn't a good bet? In eCommerce, that's the likely conclusion.

Now I'm not trying to paint all doom and gloom! Rather, it's a high-level explanation why most WordPress businesses as currently formulated would not be good candidates.

But!

1. So what? Raising money sucks. Make an amazing business and don't worry about making $100m/yr in revenue. That's not a path to happiness and fulfillment anyway! If you'll forgive to links to articles of my own about this topic and why you shouldn't worry: blog.asmartbear.com/startup-success.html and blog.asmartbear.com/relativism.html

2. So reformulate the business! The vision you have today might not be fundable, but if you really do want to take that journey, expand your vision. Don't just think about selling into WordPress as it is today, but about how to create a broadly-applicable product that happens to include WordPress as a component or base. So for example it's an eCommerce platform that happens to be based in WordPress, not a "WordPress plugin." There are opportunitites for platforms in a wide variety of fields which could make sense on top of WordPress, both sold into the existing WordPress market as a way to start, as well as sold outside of it as a way to expand.

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Ryan Love

Seems like there's a massive market for another "hosted WordPress company" which targets the customers who use Wix, SquareSpace, Weebly.

Something were the customers could get their hosting and an easy to use, drag & drop design system.

Perhaps a company who already has a great page builder built on top of WordPress, someone like www.wpbeaverbuilder.com/ maybe...

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Robby McCullough

Haha! Hi Ryan! As always, thanks for putting together another stellar AMA.

Yes, we've always "wondered" about that as well.

There are many people leveraging Beaver Builder to create hosted, DIY website builders on a smaller scale. Faithmade is one on the top of my head: faithmade.com/

It's a fun idea to fantasize about. Our immediate plan is to focus on what we're good at, and unfortunately that is NOT server architecture/scaling or hosting WordPress sites at scale.



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Ahmad Awais

Jason these insights are really helpful.

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Ivan Bjelajac

Hi Jason,

Thank you for taking the time to do this AMA!

- WPEngine prides in great customer support. How did you build your support team and handle the problems that come with scaling support teams?

- What would you like to tell people that are skeptical when it comes to WordPress managed hosting or consider it too expensive?

- What was the main reason you chose RackSpace to host your infrastructure?

- You guys sponsor both US based and Europe based WordCamps. How do they compare?

Thanks :)

Reply
Jason Cohen

Hi Ivan!

1. Wow this could take up an entire novel. :-) It's been nearly six years and nearly 200 people, so there's different answers at different stages, sizes, goals, etc.. I would say the #1 thing is to keep the customer's experience as the primary goal; everything else should be in service to that. It's easy to get bogged down in metrics, processes, prioritization, people, shifts, training, etc., so it's useful to keep the purpose in mind. The #1 way to handle problems is to be honest with customers and yourself about those problems. Without introspection and outward reflection, the problems cannot be solved, and customers (rightly) won't believe you can solve them.

2. Our lowest-end plan is the same price as about a dozen competitors, so I don't think it's more expensive for a small business. For enterprises, the "cost of servers" is not the primary way that either they or we think about selling. Rather, it's the business problem they're solving, and what our combination of team and technology can do to solve it. If there's a fit, then we can talk about what it costs to deliver that combination. If the customer is fixated on something like what sort of load-balancer it is or what AWS instance-type is being used for the web-heads, probably it's the wrong conversation in the first place.

3. We host with a variety of vendors -- Rackspace, Linode, AWS, and we're testing a few others right now. Each have a different set of tradeoffs which are useful either for different parts of the stack or for different customer requirements. For example, Linode's servers are substantially faster (both CPU and disk) than either AWS or RAX, however they don't have solutions for high-availability or seamless scaling beyond a single, fixed server. For many customers, having a few hours of downtime a year or being able to burst scale to an entire piece of hardware is an acceptable trade-off for maximum speed for the other 8760 hours per year. But for some customers, even a few hours of downtime a year is in fact not acceptable, or not being able to burst to 100x normal traffic is not acceptable, and then complex clustering and scaling configuration is required. So it's more about "right tool for right job" rather than "which is better overall."

4. Well even WordCamps within the US vary, so it all varies! I think in Europe the concept is newer and thus there's the added excitement of novelty and utility, meeting people and vendors you haven't met before (in person), whereas in the US it's more like a reunion -- people and vendors you've met before, getting to say "hi" again.

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Ryan Love

Hi Jason, thanks so much for doing this, already some great q & a's.

- How as the founder of WP Engine, do you deal with times when you perhaps disagree with a decision your CEO makes, or if you have a difference of opinion?

- Given that, for instance your tech support could work from anywhere in the world, why do you favor employees based in a location vs remote staff, similar to the likes of Automatic or Buffer, where you'd be massively expanding the potential talent at your disposal?

-What's been the biggest challenge you faced in the last 6 months and how have you worked your way through it?

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Jason Cohen

Thanks Ryan.

1. Disagreement and debate are essential to making the best decisions. At many companies, true, difficult debate is impossible, because of title, power, retribution, political capital, fear (justified and unjustified), tradition, and other factors. These, however, result in politics and dysfunction. Without debate, you're guaranteed to not make the best choices or consider all the options. The way to achieve this state is through a set of conditions such as complete personal support and respect, i.e. no matter what we say in here, we leave as more than friends, but advocates. And that we all have the interest of the company at heart, first, not personal interests. And that we share common values which we all pre-agreed are inviolable. There's more of course -- this is a complex but important subject. As a result, of course we can disagree and debate, and the wider exec team, and in fact everyone in the company, but come away strong and safe. A meeting that doesn't include debate is either just informative (which is likely not a good use of time), or people aren't saying what needs to be said.

2. Questions of location are much more complex than that. While you expand the potential number of people who could work at the company, you also change the type of person who can work at the company. You might have noticed, for example, that we have a tremendous diversity of people at WP Engine. You would think that would necessarily be true of a globally distributed workforce, but actually if you look at the demographics of the companies you mentioned, you'll find that is not the case. To find someone who is ready and able to work for home, with the socioeconomic implications of things like access and whether they're in the "circle" of people who know who those companies are, especially outside of the developed world, you find that it's a select group of people. It's also easy to imagine that "with today's tech, it's the same whether you're in the office or not," but that too is untrue. If you've ever worked remotely with a team in which the other members are not remote from each other, you'll realize just how much is lost by being remote, which "slack" doesn't solve. The culture of learning and teaching we have at WP Engine, while not impossible to replicate remotely, is certainly harder. Ultimately of course these are just pro/con tradeoffs and you can argue either side. Fully-remove is in vogue at a very small number of companies -- so small that everyone can name them. That there are so few examples of it working well, is perhaps telling. No one, for example, likes to mention that 37 signals -- just as cool and hip and modern as Automattic or Buffer -- eventually decided remote work was no good.

3. Handling the results of high-growth -- i.e. scale + change -- has been the #1 challenge for a few years, and will probably continue to be for the next few years. Change is never easy, even for people (like me!) who love change, especially when it's continuous, and especially when it's drastic and unrelenting. These maybe the "the good problems to have," but they are problems nevertheless and they don't feel "good" when you're dealing with them. It's hard for me to tell stories about this online, because it's too easy for people to read into them, whether trying to figure out who I'm talking about, wondering if I'm talking about someone at the company now, and so on. So it can be disruptive for me to talk about it in detail. Suffice to say, there's a reason everyone who has gone through it always says it's incredible difficult. "The Hard Thing about Hard Things" touches on this a bit if you like reading books. :-)

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Jordi Cabot

"No one, for example, likes to mention that 37 signals eventually decided remote work was no good. "

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Jordi Cabot

Looks like the commenting system keeps removing the second part of my comment. Maybe there was some character breaks the submission. Anyway, the short version would be: any reference to read more wrt the previous statement regarding 37 signals backtracking on their remote work philosophy?

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Mark Gavalda

I'm curious too. I've searched extensively and haven't found anything that would suggest they're against remote working now...

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Eric Karkovack

Hi Jason,

I've happily used WP Engine for a few years now. I'm particularly impressed with the speed and responsiveness of the support team, and the one-click staging environments.

The staging environments are the subject of my question(s). How did they come about? What kinds of technological hurdles did you face in rolling out that feature?

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Jason Cohen

Staging was actually in the very first release of WP Engine back in early 2010! It was a feature no one else had, and to this day there are competitors with "staging" but not with "push back to production safely," without which of course staging is handy (test something out) but ultimately incomplete (you have to do that something again in production, and what if something goes wrong when you do *that*?)

For staging small sites there's not much trouble. Copying files is almost as simple as rsync (you also need to change values in wp-config.php to point to the staging database etc). You need to dump/load the database after safe search/replace for domains, but nowadays you can do all that with wp-cli.

Staging large sites is tricky because data-dump can impact production unless you use a tool more sophisticated than wp-cli, and database-load can take hours again if you don't use a better tool. Similarly large filesystems take time and space. One trick we use there is to not copy over old wp-content/upload materials, as there could be 100GB of that but not useful for what you're trying to get out of a staging environment. If this is on the same server (which is maybe not a good idea, but it's inexpensive), you could look at XFS or another copy-on-write filesystem; that allows you to get all the files without taking up 2x the disk space, and it's fast.

Pushing back to production is where more tech hurdles happen, because production is still active, which means you have to "merge" the databases. Often our customers elect to copy over only certain tables (e.g. wp_options) and not others (e.g. wp_comments) to deal with that, but clearly it can be more subtle, such as a post being editing in staging and you want to push just that one post, but there's post-meta and other stuff that might need to come with it.

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Borek Bernard

... which is why the copy-paste approach, i.e., statically comparing two environments, can only take you so far. Which is why other cool projects are working on a merge and hopefully, they will be supported on WPE one day :)

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Jon Dalrymple

Hello Jason,
I'm a customer on WPEngine. I love your support staff, they are awesome! They have helped me numerous times with issues and have always been helpful and professional.

I'm wondering though how I can get one of my unresolved support tickets addressed. It has been moved months ago to some special department, and they say it will be worked on (I actually got a call from an upper level staff member! :-)) but that it was not a priority item since I am the only one asking for it.
The issue involves a plugin incompatibility with one of wpengines required plugins and a plugin I'm trying to use from wpmudev.
I would think that a plugin incompatibility from a major plugin provider like wpmudev would make it higher on the priority list. There could be thousands of users that want to use it.

They say it can be resolved, but they have higher priorities right now. But that was several months ago.

This issue is a criticle part of my site and is holding me back from proceededing with business. Is there anything you can do to help me move this forward?

Thanks for your help,

Jon

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