Practical WordPress Development

The Complexity of WordPress Solutions

Yesterday, I was talking with a friend of mine about WordPress and some of the annual revenue reports that have come out over the past few months (which tends to be the normal around the end of the year and on into the first quarter for our industry).

Though he’s no longer working in this particular economy, he mentioned something that I thought was interesting:

the work I’m working on right now is far more exciting and challenging BUT the opportunity to make stupid simple money is pretty large in the WP world

Before I go any further, I want to be clear that I am taking this quote out of context so it’s probably not presenting him in the best light. That isn’t my intent at all.

In fact, I actually think he makes a compelling point that I’ll talk about momentarily, but I also think that the problems that we opt to solve in and/or with WordPress are as challenging as we accept and as we allow them to be.

WordPress Solutions

Depending on who you talk to, I think the phrase “WordPress solutions” will evoke a different concept for different types of people.

  • Some will think of it as a way to manage their content
  • Some will think of it as a way to provide a theme (and some plugins) to assemble a site
  • Some will think of designing and building a theme to elegantly display data
  • Some will think of writing solutions that solve a problem that the core application doesn’t (through the use of plugins)
  • Some will think of using it as a foundation for web applications
  • …and many more

The thing is, your idea of what WordPress is capable of doing is usually limited by the most difficult or the most complicated thing that you’ve done with it or that you’ve read can be done with it. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But I think it’s important to differentiate between what it means to make easy money with WordPress and what it means to develop complex solutions with the application. One important thing to note, though, is that a complex solution doesn’t necessarily equate to lots of money and lots of money doesn’t necessarily equate to a simple solution, either.

I think it’s more complicated with that.

Low-Barrier To Entry

First, one of the things that we hear so often – especially from the development community – that WordPress has a “low-barrier to entry.” But what does that really mean?

From what I’ve seen and in my experience, there actually seems to be a lot that’s required to get started with truly building WordPress-based projects.

That is, you need to have a working knowledge of PHP, JavaScript, jQuery, HTML, and CSS. This doesn’t take into account knowing how to setup a local development environment, possibly a staging environment, and a production environment. Nor does it include things like Sass or JSHint, version control, any type of continuous integration or automated deployment and so on.

And it’s really only getting more complicated the further we move forward.

Instead, I think this phrase is actually best associated with those who are able to select a theme, understand the relationship between a theme and a plugin, install a few plugins, and then begin adding content to a site.

WordPress Themes

And there’s a lot of money to be made here, but is it the same as developing a complex piece of software? No.

If you’re talking about that then I’d argue that it does have a fairly low-barrier to entry comparatively speaking. 

There’s still more to it than that, but if you’re a developer and you’re trying to present WordPress as this platform that has a low barrier to entry then I’d argue that – at least to a point – you’re being at least a little intellectually dishonest because it requires quite a bit of learning to get up to speed with it (I didn’t even mention any of the multiple APIs) and this differs very little from other frameworks and platforms that are available.

Yes, we can talk about the core application’s architecture or other decisions that you probably wouldn’t make were you to be building a similar solution from the ground up using your own technologies of choice, but that’s a completely different conversation.

This is about what it means to get into the world of WordPress.

Complicated Problems

With that said, the problems that we opt to solve with WordPress are as complicated as we accept. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes it’s something like building a theme or providing a simple plugin to fill a gap that the current application doesn’t offer.

Other times, there are far more complicated things that we’re building that integrate with third-party APIs, that have to deal with caching, that must be aware of race conditions if multiple people are entering data into the database at the same time, or that have to account to malicious input. The usual list of complicated tasks goes on and on as it does with any other platform such as .NET, Rails, or Laravel.

But here’s the thing: Solving these types of problems doesn’t necessarily mean the developer is making a lot of money. In fact, s/he may opt to release the code completely free of charge. By nature of its relationship to WordPress, it must be open source, but that’s yet another conversation.

For example, one complicated problem that I think everyone can agree on is solving the issues of eCommerce and all of the various nuances that come with dealing various payment gateways, tax laws, regulations, and international rules.

Easy Digital Downloads

There’s a lot wrapped up in that, and there are a number of people who are working to tackle the problem. And they are doing a stellar job of it. This is one example that results in a nice financial return in exchange for solving a complex problem.

Then there are other plugins that do a lot of heavy-lifting for us but don’t charge anything (unless you opt to go the route of the upsell). They do a stellar job at their core mission, but don’t make a dime off of it.

Easy Money

So, sure, I think it’s fair to say that it’s not terribly difficult to make easy money with WordPress, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that you can also make incredibly mature, advanced, and complicated solutions that work alongside the software, as well.

Further, the nature of the project on which you’re working – be it setting up a theme for someone or solving a complicated caching problem that must also deal with race-conditions – doesn’t necessarily equate to the amount of money that you’re going to make within the economy.

I think that it’s easy to read the revenue reports of many of these notable shops and think “Man, I need to be there.” Sure, we’d all like to be there – some of us choose to do so and make good money, some of us choose to do so and still have other jobs, some of us choose to do so and not report on it, and some of us choose to do so if for no other reason than to have fun and to build cool stuff.

So when you’re talking about the money that comes with building WordPress solutions, remember that there’s much, much more in play that the revenue reports that you’re seeing being published by some of the authors.

Don’t mistake what I’m saying, though: They’re deserving of respect, but it doesn’t paint a complete picture of the WordPress economy – it paints a picture of the part that they are playing within the economy.

What’s This All About?

Granted, this particular post and been a little bit all over the place – I’ve talked about themes, plugins, complex solutions, simple solutions, jobs, etc., etc., etc.

I’d like to think it can be reduced to the following:

Above all else, if it’s just about the money – as is true in any other industry – then the novelty of the experience will wear off. It should be about solving problems for other people and the reward that comes with being able to do that with a platform that they’ve selected and one with which you enjoy working.

Ultimately, if you’re looking to get involved in a vibrant, active economy and want to make money. You can do it. If you’re looking to get involved in a vibrant, active economy to learn, you can do it. Just don’t expect lots of money for simple work to be the normal – that’s rarely, if ever, the case.


  1. Dan

    If you want to focus on craft, creativity, and direct (especially long-term) relationships with the end user or consumer, then you’re “doing it wrong” from the perspective of a business model based on minimizing costs, maximizing profits, and growing in scale. Of course neither model is right or wrong, but they serve different ends and support different types of people, businesses, and lifestyles. It’s the low barrier to entry in terms of cost with “free software” that enables this diversity. Whether you sell services or products (or productized services, or both) I think you should measure success based on personal goals, not revenue comparisons with other (especially very different) businesses. Are you doing work you love, are you helping people, does your work take you deeper into local and global communities you care about, are you — in a full sense — “making a living?”

    • Tom

      I think you’re spot on with the low barrier of entry being that the platform itself is free, but the technology required to know how to achieve certain things is not as low as some would like you to believe.

      The people who say that are usually the ones who have been in the field of development for years (not that you don’t know that, but I’m just adding to your comment).

      But I’m right with you on this:

      I think you should measure success based on personal goals, not revenue comparisons with other … businesses.

      And that’s true. Rarely, if ever, is there win in comparison.

      Though I think this could quickly turn into one of those posts about “follow your passion” and all of that stuff (which I don’t plan on talking about), I think you’re right in that we need to be happy in what we’re doing and we need to be satisfied in what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis.

      Further, we need to make sure that the people to whom we’re working for are happy with the outcome of our work, as well.

      How the solution is implemented, the amount of profit generated, and the creativity required to solve it second to that, I think. Maybe. Might have to think on that a bit more ;).

  2. Rick


    I’ve twice written and twice deleted. LOL. (or not).

    WordPress part I can write about. The part in as far as business, money and that stuff. God takes over my hands in respect to purpose and well, just not sure how thats received here. So so so many folks just dont get purpose. Took me 48 years before the light bulb went off to what I knew all the time inside.

    WordPress is easy for a WebMaster to really dive into., Weebly, Wix etc. have unfortunately displayed this enormous market to corporate entities who will devour it. Why I said to you (Tom) in another post, I hope you’ve also kept you .NET base intact, what Adobe alone is doing is just unreal. I saw some videos of it as the college here will be deploying courses for students on it.

    Coding for WP is kinda different. Even if one’s an experienced developer. My interests in WP are more in support of a CMS needed for a .NET application. My gal wants try her hand at theme’s, ok. The work done is all for God pretty much.

    Its quite a journey I assure you, be happy to relay it to you Tom, guaranteed to make you go “wow”.

    In as far as business, welp… Took me 48 years like I said. Its all dipsy doodle. It really is. If the historical record of this planet doesnt prove it to anyone who cares use what the good Lord gave em’ then nothing will except God. Remarkable.

    One cannot know purpose or self value if one does not know poverty of the soul. Simple. Yet, ever ever so complex. Because once one knows what the statement above actually means then pretty much all that they thought meant something and was of value the quickly realize is chaff.

    Its sorta a puzzle. I am still trying understand alot of the pieces and I am told this happens for a lifetime. I gotta late start! But the pieces come from all over. Literally. Once one see’s the patterns of how it all fits together whats displayed is just undeniable. That is to say, not a single human being on this planet can deny it and actually science is proving it albeit bouncing around like a pinball in doing so.

    Disclosures of stuff, corporations need do this for the most part due to investors and other factors. Any business college professor will inform any small business never do it. Its just one of the worst things can be done and serves absolutely no purpose to do public like. In as far as “look at me”, ego, glory, self-pride, thats all chaff. A drug. Fleeting and away from purpose.

    As many many have found, purpose of being here is purpose. All else has no value. Its chaff. It moves one away from truth of purpose and establishes a wall between that one cannot see past. Many are called but few shall pass and thats the truth.

    To live life to life live means why bother. Why not just yield then and let others who do understand purpose or are on the path “get there”?

    Life is beautiful beyond all beauty if one changes one’s perspectives away from what they think self value is and towards what self purpose is and “do the work”… well, its the most fascinating journey a human being can ever take. More so than anything one can experience in business or stuff or toys or money. And its what we are called to do. Its WHY we are here. To put it in a nutshell, “We are here to come as close as we can muster to perfection of our purpose”. We cant do that if we dont know what that purpose is. Thinking some other human defines it, nope. Thinking we self define it? Nope. LOL. All fools follies.

    I am EVER so astonished that 2000+ years ago and in other texts that even pre-date that it was defined. Not only defined but even with instructions! We all tend think we are “smart”. With whats happened to me over last 4 years in seeking, learning, using my reverse engineering ability, programming, logic etc. I realize, I’m just dumb. But I am trying. Funny, professor friend of mine few years back poured a beer over my head and said, “For such a intelligent person I’ve been waiting for you to wake up from your sleep for the last 22 years”. I told him, “Well, clearly, I am not intelligent at all”. He responded by saying, “Ah… There you are wrong. For it is the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the nose to smell, the brain to think and the soul to purpose. When working together in unity truth of purpose is revealed. When they are not or gone astray we then use mankind as the measurement rulers and in doing so we are then blind, deaf and dumb”

  3. Fred

    Plugins, themes, or templates are often not the real problem for WordPress users. They want to get traffic, they want an online business. Keep adding plugins and other features does not solve their real problem. WordPress “as is” won’t build an online business.

    So, despite the dazzling display of WordPress features, the reality for most (non-tech) people who want to create a web business with WordPress is that they need to adhere to an easy-to-follow, all-in-one, proven, ethical webbusiness-building system (not a get rich quick scheme) to get (1) a significant amount of traffic and get (2) targeted traffic (example of such a system: WealthPrinciples dot net). Otherwise you’ll end up having (and building) only a WordPress webSITE but not a webBUSINESS.

    • Tom

      I think this is a good comment.

      Some people still perpetuate the “if you build it, they will come” mentality and that’s obviously not the case.

      Businesses aren’t born nor thrive by simply existing.

      • Dan

        That mentality is always going to exist; it comes from the end user more than anything else.

        Some businesses can expect an easier path than others, but the idea that maintaining a full and effective web presence is simple or automatic is attractive because people want to believe it.

    • Patty J.

      I disagree: WordPress “as is” (including themes and plugins) can definitely build an online business. It sounds like you’re doing a soft-sell ad for something: what in the world is “an easy-to-follow, all-in-one, proven, ethical webbusiness-building system”?

      A viable online business can certainly be built with WordPress without any kind of third-party “system”.

    • Patty J.

      Ah! You mentioned a commercial product as an example of a “webbusiness-building system”. I assume you’re not associated with it in any way. :-D

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