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Insider Access: WooCommerce's Origin Story Directly from their Founding CEO
WooCommerce was actually created to help sell more themes. I got a fever and the only prescription is more acquisitions. And is Wish the next meme stock?
“Insider Access” is where I talk with founders and CEOs, as they share with us what actually happened and the why behind the most pivotal moments in their company’s history.
Following last week with Alek Koenig, the CEO and founder of Settle, we have one of the most influential founders in ecommerce technology: Adii Pienaar.
Adii is the co-founder and first CEO of WooCommerce (acquired by Automattic aka WordPress), founder and CEO of Conversio (acquired by CM Group, formerly Campaign Monitor), and now the founder and CEO of Cogsy.
Continue below to read the actual origin story of WooCommerce, which now powers over 5-million websites today…
Casey Armstrong: What was the real origin of WooCommerce?
Adii Pienaar: The origin of WooCommerce actually started with WooThemes.
That often gets overlooked in our history. Along with Mark Forrester (London, UK) and Magnus Jepson (Stavanger, Norway), we started with WooThemes, as we were all "designers" with HTML, CSS, and PHP skills to build themes.
Our goal there evolved to democratize superior functionality and a set of features for those that wanted to use WordPress. Before we launched, that was only attainable with pricey custom development projects on WordPress.
Initially, we built themes for bloggers and then more sophisticated “news” websites. We continued following our customers though and a new category of “business” themes started to emerge. By the time we launched WooCommerce, we had around 100 themes already live.
After 2 years, we spotted an accelerating trend: our customers kept asking us about adding shopping cart functionality to their websites.
We couldn’t find a great ecommerce plugin for WordPress that would meet our design standards. So we embarked on a journey of building our own.
To be honest, it was with the goal of selling more themes.
Little did we know, WooCommerce would completely change our business model and still have such an outsized impact today.
CA: How long did it take for your focus on WooCommerce to overtake WooThemes? And what became of WooThemes?
AP: We launched our first theme in November 2007 and then created the WooThemes brand in July 2008. We didn’t launch WooCommerce until three years later, so Q3 of 2011.
After about a year after we launched it, WooCommerce-related revenue was about 90% of Woo’s total revenue.
During that year, we were still working on other initiatives under the Woo umbrella including our legacy themes business, a navigation plugin (which eventually got included into the WordPress core) and a plugin for sliding photosets. But WooCommerce kept demanding more of our attention.
We continued to shift more towards WooCommerce and in year 2, we got closer to matching resource allocation to revenue. We kept “WooThemes” as the main brand though and it wasn’t until after Automattic’s acquisition of Woo that the full transition to WooCommerce was finalized.
In fact, Storefront is the oldest theme still live. It was the “core” theme we built to showcase WooCommerce’s capabilities.
CA: You and your co-founders were so ahead of the times across many aspects of your business, including remote work and distributed teams. How was running a distributed team across multiple continents in the late 2000s? With so many fewer communication tools, what were the pros and cons?
AP: Fun story that will make everyone else cringe now: we only used email and Skype to communicate. For the first couple of years, there were very few synchronous calls and no video calls. For example, the laptop on which I built the first Woo product in 2007 didn’t have a webcam. Magnus, Mark and I also worked together for almost 18 months before the 3 of us ever met up.
At that time, we had three other employees, who were based in South Africa with me and recruited locally. It was only thereafter that we started hiring remotely internationally and it was mostly people in the WordPress ecosystem pinging us about jobs or we often hired from within our customer base.
I’m convinced that hindsight now that we would find so many inefficiencies and mistakes in the way we built the business back then due to the state of remote work. A big part of me though believes that this blissful ignorance of not having better tools or methods actually created a resilience and forced us to learn and figure things out ourselves. That got baked into our DNA which is a huge part of why Woo has become the company it is today.
CA: Another element where you were prescient was the “creator economy.” In the late 2000s and early 2010s, it was bloggers and you made commerce easily accessible. Today, it’s social media: TikTok, Instagram, Twitter. If you were to launch WooCommerce in 2022, what would it look like and what are other platforms missing today?
AP: I think the key consideration to point out here is that WordPress’ open source nature has always attracted tinkerers and people that need to bend a tool to their will. WooCommerce just followed that ethos and whilst not every edge case is supported straight out of the box, the goal was always to allow anyone to sell anything with WordPress and WooCommerce.
As I look at the creator economy, I’d love to see more tools that are less opinionated about “the best way to sell online” and more focused on just following what the creator is already doing.
The tool that best adapts to the creator’s own process and allows them to monetize that process will win. I also suspect that we’ll see a greater fragmentation of these tools, where it’s less about being a platform and more about really serving a specific kind of creator. The more recent success of platforms like Ghost (to monetize newsletters and content) and Podia (for anyone selling a digital product) is illuminating the path forward already too.
CA: As a co-founder of WooCommerce, it’d be impossible to believe that over 100M websites would install your software and over 5M websites would still be actively running their business on what you built. What stands out the most to you about the impact of Woo?
AP: I’m really proud of the fact that WooCommerce is open source and that we built a whole ecosystem around us that has created so much economic value; both for those that are selling through Woo or have built product or services business on top of Woo.
And then I hope that our origin story never goes missing as a way to inspire others: Magnus, Mark and I didn’t go to prestigious schools, had no prior experience, were mostly self-taught coders, weren’t based in tech hubs, and had no access to venture capital. We did the work though, did it in our way and ultimately built a really meaningful business.
CA: Lastly, after all of your success, you founded Conversio, which was then acquired by Campaign Monitor, and recently founded Cogsy. What’s your driving force to continue to build in ecommerce and start from scratch again?
AP: I have a huge passion for helping entrepreneurs build better businesses, which is something that has been persistent from Woo’s origin through Conversio and now with Cogsy.
I’m particularly excited about Cogsy, because we’re building a product in the “unsexy” part of a business: the back office where operations are often messy and not very efficient.
With Cogsy, our goal is to enable modern brands to make smarter inventory purchasing decisions and improve their operational efficiencies with inventory and working capital. I’d love to help those brands create more margin and profitability in their business, which ultimately helps them be more resilient and sustainable.
Fun fact: I bought my first WooThemes in September 2011. When did you buy yours?
If you enjoyed this, please let me know who we should feature next and go say hi to Adii.
The State of Ecommerce
What’s happening in the ecosystem? Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s building the future?
Amazon continues eating the world: With 85 new countries accepted to register for selling on Amazon, including Pakistan, Venezuela, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, the total list is now at 188. Interestingly, only nine countries have more than 10,000 sellers, including Canada, Thailand, and Ukraine.
Stripe continues eating the world: They launched links to further speed up their fast checkout. #nocode
Is Wish the next meme stock? Up 91.1% yesterday, WallStreetBets has Wish trending.
Puff Daddy launches Shop Circulate platform for black businesses: With Salesforce, Diddy brings a digital platform to serve as a one-stop marketplace for black-owned businesses.
Sephora is trying to make social commerce a thing in the US: With 20M followers on Instagram, Sephora is looking to emulate social commerce trends in China in the US. This reminds me, I need to re-read Packy’s Shein piece.
Record low inventory-to-sales ratio: Business inventories declined by 1% YoY, while sales grew almost 20% YoY. I live 25 miles south of the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, and you can see containers ships parked in the ocean like it’s the 405 freeway. I’ve lived here nearly my entire life and had never seen a container ship that far south until 2021.
Long Live Cyber Week: Walmart, Target, and Best Buy will be closed again on Thanksgiving.
ShipBob + Walmart + 2-Day Shipping: Walmart partners with ShipBob to enable 2-day shipping for ecommerce brands with 100% 2-day coverage across the entire United States from just one fulfillment center.
Acquisitions & IPOs
The acquisitions and IPOs have not slowed down.
Liquidity events fuel the market, drive new innovation, and create new founders with deep experience and even deeper pockets. Who’s getting acquired? And who’s going public?
Privy: Attentive acquired the SMB martech platform that powers well over 100,000 stores.
Teaser: Open next week’s email to hear how it happened.
Depop: Every time I think I’ll have a newsletter without mentioning recommerce, I am greatly proven wrong. Etsy acquired the fashion resale app Depop for $1.6B. Etsy’s stock price jumped over 7% on the news of the acquisition. As of typing this, their stock is down 1.1% on the year, but up 123% from last June 9.
Ecwid & NuOrder: In a rare move, the Canadian-based POS provider, Lightspeed acquired both Ecwid and NuOrder for a combined $925M. Financials were disclosed: Lightspeed will pay $175M in cash and $325M in shares for Ecwid, and $212.5M in cash and $212.5M in shares for NuOrder.
Barkbox: In an anticipated SPAC, dog-focused subscription ecommerce company went public by merging with Northern Star Acquisition Group. Twitterers tweeted.
DLocal: The Uruguay-based cross-border payments company went public raising over $600M in their IPO with a market cap over $6B. Shout out to my former colleague, Mathieu Limousi, who’s now VP of Marketing over there!
D-MARKET: The Turkey-based ecommerce platform is going public with $815M in TTM revenue.
EverCommerce: With $338M in revenue on a $60M net loss, the Denver-based service commerce platform with over 500,000 customers has filed for an IPO.
Following the Money
Who are VCs betting on to lead the future of ecommerce?
Klarna: In an undisclosed round with SoftBank, the European buy-now-pay-later company is expected to close a funding round that would value the company at $40B. If the deal goes through, Klarna will cement its place as Europe’s most valuable private technology company.
Perch: Similar to recommerce, the rollup marketplace concept is arguably the hottest business this summer. SoftBank Vision Fund 2 led the largest ever Series A raised by a consumer packaged goods company with their investment in Perch.
Delhivery: The India-based ecommerce logistics startup raised $277M led by Fidelity.
Flink: Just 6 months after launching, the Berlin-based delivery startup raised $240M in their “not a unicorn yet” round. They claim to deliver items in 10 minutes or less, and are operating in 24 cities across Germany, France and the Netherlands.
Project44: The Chicago-based supply chain logistics company raised $202M co-led by Goldman Sachs and Emergence Capital, doubling its valuation to $1.2B.
Flash: The Thailand-based delivery startup raised $150M to hit unicorn status making it Thailand’s first unicorn. They claim to have 7,000 delivery points and 27,000 employees with plans to add another 10,000 workers within two years.
Intrinsic: Similar to Perch, this New York-based marketplace rollup company raised $113M in debt and equity to target health and wellness companies on Amazon.
Chipper Cash: The San Francisco-based African cross-border payments startup raised $100M led by SVB Capital. They offer mobile-based, no fee, P2P cross-border payment services, across African countries, including Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa, and Kenya.
Sennder: The Berlin-based freight forwarder raised $80M led by Baillie Gifford to push its valuation over $1B.
Mayflyer: The Irish-based financing platform for ecommerce merchants raised a $76M Series A led by Left Lane Capital.
Shippo: The San Francisco-based shipping solution raised $50M led by Bessemer Venture Parters, which values the company at over $1B.
Yalo: Founded in Mexico and now based in San Francisco, the chat commerce solution raised $50M led by B Capital.
Locus: The India-based supply chain platform raised a $50M Series C led by GIC.
Commerce Layer: The Italy-based headless commerce platform raised a $16M Series B led by Coatue with participation from Benchmark and Mango Capital.
Oliver Space: The San Francisco-based subscription service for furniture and home decor raised a $13M Series A led by US Venture Partners.
Treet: The San Francisco-based recommerce platform raised a $2.8M seed round, as they look to bring P2P resale to the long-tail of ecommerce merchants to fully own the resale experience for their brand.
Companies to Watch
Each week, I’ll highlight a couple companies in the ecommerce technology and brand space that stand out to me. If you have suggestions, please reply to my email or DM me.
I’m cheating here, as this company is definitely a tech company, but not in ecommerce: Acorns. Similar to Kajabi and Oculus, I have to call them out, as they were founded in my hometown of Irvine. With 4M users, they are looking to go public in a $2.2B SPAC merger with Pioneer Merger Corp. Congrats to the entire team!
How about Mad Happy continuing to pull in celebrities at the most optimal points in time like Lebron James right before the NBA Playoffs tip off and the debut of Space Jam 2? Keep doing your thing, Peiman.
I have a few more founders lined up for Insider Access, but who should I really stretch for and why?