The cost of the Gutenberg transition for small WordPress businesses and independent developers

How Gutenberg may affect small businesses and the overall WordPress ecosystem

I’ve been watching the development of Gutenberg closely since June 2017, it was when I noticed that it’s going to be so much more than just an improved editor. I’ve also been a vocal critic of the Gutenberg introduction since then. This is not because I don’t like the idea behind Gutenberg or because I’m against it. For the record, I actually like Gutenberg in its current state and I can see how it’s opening up many new possibilities for WordPress.

Gutenberg Editor
Image Source: Screenshot – WordPress.org

However, what I don’t like is how Gutenberg has been introduced (unclear roadmap, vague information, missing details, etc…) and especially not how fast it’s being introduced. I’ve often heard that Gutenberg needs to be introduced quickly because WordPress has a problem with the competition. I’ve even read that in a year or two WordPress will be irrelevant if Gutenberg won’t be included soon. To be honest, I don’t agree with these theories.

WordPress market share

WordPress Logo
Image Source: 27707 – Pixabay.com / License: CC0 Public Domain

I may be completely wrong, but I don’t see that WordPress (at least not the open-source project) will have a problem with the competition soon. It’s dominating the CMS market with a whopping 60% market share and round about a 3rd of the internet is running WordPress. The market share of the so called competition is so far away that it’s even hard to find, often far below 1%. They have their own problems to deal with.

That leaves the question who’s market share are we talking about? I know that some people in the community argue that it’s rather about the market share of WordPress.com. I’ve expressed similar concerns in the past and I won’t go down that route again. However, actually most of the WordPress businesses out there are doing absolutely fine business wise (including us). I don’t see that changing within the next few years. But Gutenberg changes everything and I feel that the impact of Gutenberg on existing WordPress businesses is heavily underestimated.

It’s all a matter of perspective

While watching the discussions around Gutenberg, I noticed that people who express their concerns are often quickly called out as “being afraid of change”. I don’t think that this is reasonable when you take the major paradigm shift that comes with Gutenberg into account. I think it’s all a matter of perspective.

Perspective
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It’s interesting when people who are not running a product based WordPress business, or not even a business at all, tell business owners that being concerned about Gutenberg is wrong. It’s easy to say that with Gutenberg everything will be fine if you’re going to benefit from it or if you’ve nothing to lose. You may be even running an agency and look forward to Gutenberg so that you can charge your clients to fix or update their sites.

However, if you were running a highly profitable product based WordPress business before Gutenberg for years, Gutenberg then turns your whole business around and you’re not even sure what exactly your business is going to look like after the transition, then things probably are a bit more complicated. I think it’s perfectly legit that business owners are concerned in such a scenario, at least when they care about their own business.

I think this doesn’t have anything to do with “being afraid of change”. Change actually is a good thing, without change there is stagnation. However, there is a huge difference if you make a business decision when time is right because you notice an issue while running your own business or if someone else makes that decison for you. With Gutenberg some business owners may feel that they’ve lost control over their own business, as they are forced to adapt in a certain time frame while this was not even their own decision. Tony Perez said it pretty well in his recent blog post:

If I were the plugin / themes shops I would be rightfully concerned and upset. It’s this feeling of frustration, and possibly betrayal. As a small business, there is already limited time and resources to support the needs of acquiring new customers, let alone supporting the ones you have, and now there is new requirement that feels extremely exhausting.

The real question I would be asking myself is not whether I can support it, but rather what does it do to my product category when it becomes standardized in core? My general feeling is that the WordPress business landscape will be look dramatically different in five years. Where does your product / business sit?

Gutenberg will be the future of WordPress

Future of WordPress width=
Image Source: 27707 – Pixabay.com / License: CC0 Public Domain

Gutenberg will be the future of WordPress, and that pretty soon, whether we like it or not. In his State of the Word 2017 Matt Mullenweg has made that pretty clear. He’ll also keep his core lead hat on for another year to ensure that nothing gets in its way. That means we’re All-in into Gutenberg and we now need to do everything to make the best out of this situation. There is not much time left to prepare for this.

It’s worth mentioning that Gutenberg really has come a long way since its initial release. The Gutenberg team has done a great job, especially under the special circumstances. The editor can be used very well now, although there still are some unsolved issues. But I’m sure that the team will keep polishing Gutenberg until release.

Gutenberg Reviews
Image Source: Screenshot – WordPress.org

I also see that the communication and documentation by the Gutenberg team has greatly improved. This was one of the main issues a few months ago and it was causing lots of frustration for developers. It’s hard to recode your products and make a shift to Gutenberg if you don’t know what is necessary and where things are going next. Props especially to Tammie Lister who’s basically responding to each Gutenberg review on WordPress.org. Dealing with all these 1-star reviews must be tough, especially if you keep repeating yourself.

It’s obvious that Gutenberg definitely will open up interesting new possibilities for developers, which is exciting. It has the potential to change the way people create and consume content tomorrow. Morten Rand-Hendriksen even goes that far to take VR or AR into account as way to consume the content of the future. With that said, there are interesting times ahead. Ok, if you want to read more praise about Gutenberg, there are other articles for that. 🙂

The cost of making small businesses ready for Gutenberg

When you start a business, you usually have a plan. You know what your product is going to be and who your target audience is. You then start developing your product for the particular purpose. Usually your customers decide how your product will evolve and you listen to their needs and struggles. You then make decisions on how you’re going to change your product based on customer feedback. This decision is made by you, as the owner of your business.

Counting Money
Image Source: Pavel Kunitsky – Pexels.com / License: CC0 Public Domain

With Gutenberg on the other hand a 3rd party has made this business decision for the whole WordPress ecosystem. You can spend lots of time complaining about that, but it usually won’t make much of a difference. The only thing you can do is rethink your business. That means you need to deal with it and try to make the best out of it. The cost for the Gutenberg transition has to be paid, in reality by each WordPress business that wants to stay in business.

I’ve always been an advocate of small WordPress businesses as I think they are very important for the ecosystem. The thousands of independent developers, consultants, agencies, freelancers and more are what made WordPress what it is today. You can also call them the blue-collar WordPress workers and some would argue that they are responsible for a large portion of the current WordPress market share.

The Gutenberg transition comes at a very high cost for small businesses. These businesses usually only have the resources to deal with their own daily business, but that’s pretty much it. However, with Gutenberg development processes need to change, products need to be modified or completely recoded, people need to improve their coding skills (learn JavaScript deeply), documentation needs to be rewritten, customers need to be educated, new staff needs to be hired to deal with the additional workload and so on. All of this while there is not much time left.

The human side of things

Burnout / Stress
Image Source: andreas160578 – Pixabay.com / License: CC0 Public Domain

I think it’s crucial that we don’t forget the human side of things. Great leadership also means caring about people. It’s not only about dictating what needs to get done, it’s also about listening to the concerns, struggles and fears of the people within your responsibility. It’s not a secret that burnout is a common thing in the WordPress community.

Many small businesses in the WordPress ecosystem are often only a one-man show. These businesses are neither venture capital backed, nor do they have an armada of developers who can take care of the additional workload related to Gutenberg. However, these many many small businesses have made WordPress what it is today, they contributed many of the 50k+ plugins and thousands of themes on WordPress.org.

It’s not uncommon that these small businesses often generate only $3k-5k monthly revenue. This isn’t much to make a living, especially not if the business owner is located in the United States or in Western Europe. We’ve actually acquired 3-4 of these businesses in the past few years because the developers gave up their business. A 20-30% drop in revenue for these people means fight for survival. They don’t have the luxury to think highly strategic, they’re trying to pay their rent next month. Who’s going to tell these folks that they don’t need to be concerned?

No Money
Image Source: 1820796 – Pixabay.com / License: CC0 Public Domain

I see a risk where these people rather move away from WordPress and get a new full-time job somewhere than investing in an uncertain future. They simply can’t afford it. The cost related to Gutenberg is real, it’s not a theoretical event. Each and every business in the WordPress ecosystem needs to pay for it, whether they want it or not. Some can afford it, others won’t. We may even see a new flourishing ecosystem under Gutenberg, I’m actually pretty excited about that. However, if we’re honest, it’s all pure speculation at the moment and it may also come different.

What if you have that great idea for this awesome new Gutenberg block, it may even become highly successful and sell extremely well. But it also may end up in core at some point, if the particular authority notices that this is something many people want. I expect that adding new functionality to core will become easier than ever before because of the standardization that is introduced with Gutenberg. What are you going to do then? Start from scratch? Another reset of your business? I think this is a thought you need at least to be aware of.

Outlook on the great new world with Gutenberg

Roll the Dice
Image Source: Free-Photos – Pixabay.com / License: CC0 Public Domain

How will the WordPress ecosystem look like a few years from now? I think it’s hard to tell, but I feel it will be very different from what we have today. We may see SaaS companies like WordPress.com flourishing because they finally have the page builder in core to compete with their competition. New promising blocks may be added to core to simply extend this all-in-one site builder. Will we still see a rich ecosystem of many different themes and plugins?

I’m not sure if the majority of the ecosystem will survive this change, at least not the small product based businesses. I’m confident that the big guys will still be around. We’ll also probably still have WordPress themes and plugins, but I think they will play a different role than today. I think the number of actively maintained and compatible themes and plugins will heavily decrease. There is a great post on WPShout about the possible consequences for the ecosystem.

I hope you don’t get me wrong, this post isn’t supposed to be a rant. I’m not suffering from Gutenfear and actually I’m pretty excited about the future. However, I also think it’s important to raise awareness about the many independent developers out there who live in uncertainty while trying to find a way to survive this scenario. Don’t forget about these folks, they are the WordPress community too.

Mind the Gap
Image Source: aitoff – Pixabay.com / License: CC0 Public Domain

Gutenberg has the potential to become something great. At the same time it may also divide the WordPress community and kill a large portion of the ecosystem. Some even suggest that forking WordPress or at least a soft fork would be the way to go. I think it’s important that we don’t forget about the responsibility that comes with WordPress, we’re talking about 29% of the internet. That doesn’t leave much room for experiments.

I think introducing Gutenberg slowly while leaving enough time (not only a few months) is the least that can be done. That would give the ecosystem a chance to adapt and rethink businesses. Gutenberg could be included in core, but not activated by default. Instead it could stay a plugin for a while, until the adoption has reached a point where making it the default would be appropriate. However, I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. What are your thoughts?

About Michael Hebenstreit
Michael is the founder & CEO of Array Internet and lead developer at MH Themes, our successful brand for professional magazine WordPress themes.

11 Comments

  1. This is exactly what I believe as well. And it’s not just the many, many small businesses and one-person companies in the WP ecoystem that will suffer, but also the huge number of WP users who no longer have a developer looking after their sites. They wake up one morning to discover everything is different, possibly broken.

    Combine the two…all the freelancers and small businesses who make possibly meager livings off of WP, combined with all the WP users who maintain their own sites, but aren’t involved in the day-to-day WP world, who will be surprised when 5.0 hits….that’s a lot of people who may be instantly hurt by such a change. Some will persevere. Some will bounce back.

    I suspect many will lose their businesses, and users will jump ship because WP just kicked them in the teeth, knocking them all out, all while WP is saying that the shiny new gold Gutenberg teeth are so much better. “All you have to do is implant them, on your time and your dime.” Open source for the win.

    Gutenberg could be a fantastic move for the project, but as it is being implemented, it will likely crush hundreds, thousands, more?, of people in its fight to become something new and shiny.

  2. @Donna Really? I have to meet the first (non-techie, non-WP, non-website-expert) able to handle the simple WP-editor as we have now. Without breaking the layout or the website load speed or whatever.

    It may be news to you but most people outside the web sphere don’t even know how to style a Word document, let alone a text editor as we have now in WordPress. And let’s not even talk about Gutenberg. They simply have no clue and, when trying, just ruin their website. THAT is the ‘future’ of Gutenberg.

  3. There is a simple solution that will negate most of these concerns. You will be able to install the Classic editor plugin for sites you do not wish to spend any additional development time on.

      • … and there is nothing wrong with that. People can quickly & easily chose not to use Gutenberg on all their WP sites until they are ready to change.

        Also as 5.0 is a non-automatic major update, people will need to specifically chose to update to 5.0 with Gutenberg (unless they or their host are also running major updates automatically). Minor updates will also continue on 4.* for security patches.

        I believe people doing this will see little or no problems on their existing sites.

  4. However, these many many small businesses have made WordPress what it is today …

    I disagree – they’re part of the success but only part – there are many other factors that have contributed to the ongoing success of WordPress.

  5. All “competitors” that have been cited so far as threatening the future of WP are all hosted CMS. Hosted and self-hosted CMS solutions have completely different customer bases and are addressing completely different needs to completely different people. A one-man blogger is not facing the same challenges as an SME that pays a designer or dev to produce and maintain his website.

    Gutenberg is clearly geared towards the audience that will make use of hosted solutions. It is thus a wp.com enhancement and maybe also a Jetpack module. But certainly not anything else than a plugin for wp.org. “Plugin territory” as they use to say there whenever you suggest something new for WP core.

    • Hi John, you’ve made some good points. We’ve been selling WordPress themes to both WordPress.com and self-hosted users for several years now and I can absolutely confirm that these often are two different audiences.

      The interesting thing is that we’ve dealt with many bloggers that started on WordPress.com, but then moved their sites to self-hosted after some time when they noticed the limitations on WordPress.com in comparison to a self-hosted site. We’ve rarely seen it the other way around. When people get experienced, they want more freedom.

      That’s also why it may not be a good idea to take insights from WordPress.com and use these to implement changes for self-hosted users. People with self-hosted sites usually have completely different needs and they often prefer freedom and flexibility as much as possible.

      However, as the same people that build WordPress.com are now also in charge to take the whole WordPress project to the next level, you’ll usually have a hard time with these arguments. 🙂

  6. Michael – Appreciate your thoughtful discussion here. As an independent WordPress-centric developer, I agree with your concern for the small guy. I am stung by the need to change my business model, and, particularly because that change is being forced by a third party.

    Luckily, I have a lot of experience in business and with WordPress (I was using ‘b2’ when @photomatt forked it) and I trust in my ability to re-envision and remain successful in my field. And… I don’t mind changing the segment mix.

    Primarily, I am concerned about the theme and plugin abandonment levels. How will the rate of abandonment impact the ability for a small guy to grow his/her business in the direction he/she wants over the next 1.5-2.0 years?

    Even with ‘Classic WordPress’ turned on, I anticipate a much larger percentage of abandonment, especially of the free plugins. Abandonment causes breakage. Breakage creates ’emergency’ work. Clients make bad decisions under duress. My business and marketing plans go to hell because I can’t tick off any tasks when I am patching clients’ websites. I was planning a year of steady growth and now it looks like my time could be consumed with triage and stitches.

    And for the record, I wholeheartedly believe that WordPress’ current popularity is due to the early adopters who supported, promoted and advocated for WordPress. Commercial and larger businesses came along fueled by visions of saving a dime and, then, heard the buzz created by the independents.

    • Hi Karen, many thanks for joining the discussion and for sharing your concerns. I think the biggest issue at the moment is the uncertainty. The 1st phase of Gutenberg is somewhat clear, it will replace the WordPress editor and introduce blocks.

      However, there is almost no information about the 2nd and 3rd phase available. As far as I know, almost everything in WordPress is planned to become a block. The problem is, until it’s not clear what exactly that means and how this will work out, businesses can’t really plan ahead or develop new products as it basically would be based on assumptions and speculations only.

      At the moment probably the only people who have access to the whole picture and the overall vision of Gutenberg are the devs at Automattic. The rest of the community is informed bit by bit based on the current release of Gutenberg, making it very hard to prepare a business for the whole Gutenberg transition. What is missing is a detailed roadmap for developers so that it’s absolutely clear what’s coming next.

      When people express their concerns about Gutenberg, a common response is that there have been concerns with every major change in WordPress. For example the Customizer is mentioned often in this context. However, I’m not sure if this comparison is accurate. The Customizer in the end was just a new feature (like many other major changes in the past as well), making options available in a new panel including live preview.

      Gutenberg on the other hand basically is a complete rewrite of WordPress. It will change almost everything people used to work with for years. I expect Gutenberg to become an all-in-one site builder. We’ll see how this will affect the existing plugin and theme market in the coming years.

  7. As a small WordPress support company I am having to assign time to learn Gutenberg, increasing my knowledge of JavaScript and crossing my fingers that my clients will have the budgets to pay me to fix their sites. I have expressed my reservations on the speed of this core update and was very glad to see your article state that I am not the only one being told to get with it and stop being afraid of change.

    I have the plugin on our test bed and really like the idea behind Gutenberg. However I have also installed the plugin on a few live sites (with permission and in the middle of the night) to see what a wreck the site looks like. Just for my own site (If I maintain WordPress for clients, I should be running the latest version) it is looking at an estimated 100 hours to fix the massive wreck it turns into with Gutenberg. That by the way is a 100 hours I cannot afford.

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