SA company wins the internet

Cape Town-based WooThemes was acquired by WordPress parent company, Automattic, mid-May 2015, for a price tag that US independent tech news site, Re/code, reported was $30m (over R368m).

Mark Forrester, co-founder of WooThemes, which gave birth to WooCommerce, is bound by a nondisclosure agreement and couldn’t confirm the amount.

However, he says rumours on various news sites give “a rough idea of the ballpark”.

Forrester’s offices are in The Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, Cape Town – somewhat of a cultural landmark in the trendy neighbourhood.

Upstairs in his offices Forrester has been baking with code.

The term “baking” in dot-com parlance means the work of creating code, of system engineering, of design and creating everything it takes to make a digital service or product that people or businesses will use.

Forrester is a humble, smart, yet soft-spoken man with a clear appreciation of good design.

“I think we were very fortunate,” Forrester says, talking about how the deal with Automattic came about.

“In my inbox I have emails and communications with 15 of the world’s top VCs [venture capitalists]. When I was in New York around this time last year, we got chatting with one of the bigger ones.”

While in New York, Forrester talked with VCs about how, money aside, their portfolio of companies could complement the WooCommerce offering.

WooCommerce is an e-commerce platform that powers some 29% of all online stores.

“E-commerce has just been such a hotbed over the last year,” Forrester says, speaking about the big deals and IPOs happening in this space. He’s right.

Global research company, Nielsen, declares that “e-commerce is big business and [is] getting bigger every day”.

Nielsen estimated that business-to-consumer e-commerce sales worldwide reached some $1.5tr in 2014, a jump of about 20% from 2013.

What is WordPress?

Automattic is the US-based company behind free blogging phenomenon,, and the owner of the open source content management system, WordPress.

Brands, people or entities that use this system include Sweden, Calvin Cordozar Broadus aka Snoop Dogg, Katy Perry, Usain Bolt, Silent Bob aka Kevin Smith, The New York Times, Wired, MTV… WordPress is the rock star brand of content management.

WordPress software can be installed on the most basic of hosted servers, and provides users with a user-friendly content management system.

This enables users to set up a blog or website without having to “get their hands dirty” with HTML, CSS or JavaScript code.

WordPress allows for widgets and plugins – these include “buttons” on each page that trigger social media “likes”, or software to filter out spambots from exploiting the comment section of a site.

Landing the deal

WooThemes was started in 2008 by Forrester, Magnus Jepson and Adii Pienaar.

The three had a common interest in creating beautiful themes for WordPress sites, and decided to collaborate on making themes that would be commercially available to companies or bloggers who were willing to pay for them.

“We were one of the first [companies] to go into commercial theming, and over the first couple of years we explored more and more niches of WordPress templating. We started out with basic newspaper and magazine type themes and we moved into business themes,” says Forrester.

The first plugin WooThemes built and released, in September 2011, was called WooCommerce.

It was created to accommodate the needs of many of their clients who were asking for an e-commerce enabled “theme”.

Clients specifically wanted to have a “shopping cart” feature on their website that would allow them to sell goods or services directly to customers.

Forrester explains: “There was only one provider at the time, called WP eCommerce, and we saw an opportunity. We thought: let’s build our first plugin, and bake this functionality into a plugin, and then we’ll build beautiful templates for the plugin.”

Within a short while WooCommerce became a major focus of Forrester’s business.

This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the 30 July 2015 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here

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