What I call a “Community Virus” is a fraction of a community that sets a bad example. You know, when you’re a part of the society and there’s a small (or larger) number of people doing bad stuff and are loud and annoying at the same time, and you tend to get embarrassed while shopping near them in the supermarket or at the airport.
I was reading an email from Curtis with his manifesto – “NO is NOT a Curse Word” (definitely subscribe here and read it) and he’s explaining his strategy for working with customers and valuing his services. It’s a great read and I would certainly recommend it to every freelancer and agency owner out there. There are numerous tips in this book that would shift your understanding about the business world and the whole business relationship as long as you apply them.
The Bad Example
Whenever a Community Virus infects a given community, it’s important for that society to get rid of it as soon as possible. Otherwise, contagious viruses tend to turn into a plague, and it’s incredibly tough to heal and get back to the normal state in question.
And the Community Plague of WordPress is the pricing and service quality.
The Java Example
Stanko and I were discussing the Java community last week since we’ve rebuilt the local Java Meetup Group website. I was a Java developer before (and a Sun certified Java programmer) and the reason I stepped into PHP was that it was the only way to do freelancing back then. I had some Java and Python background and C# experience, but there was no freelance ecosystem for Java or C# developers – projects are large, usually enterprise-y, so enterprise businesses hire large development companies with hundreds of developers for each project.
Those projects aren’t necessarily complicated. I’ve seen a good number of projects worth millions of dollars, that could easily be built for a 100K or so. But that’s how the community there works, and that’s how they’re selling themselves.
PHP was easy to get in – I learned it overnight (three nights to be exact) when I was reassigned to rewrite a company Java project in PHP. It was much easier for students and young freelancers, too – and building websites became a commodity that required a large pool of people who can do that. So far, so good.
However, unlike other programming languages – C/C++, Java, Python, C#, Ruby etc – PHP does not require any entry level. It sets no boundaries, it’s easy to do everything. The language is damn tolerant, even significant errors can sometimes be parsed by the engine silently without crashing everything. Try with a minor syntax or linking error in another language and see how the server goes down in an instant. And given the memory management in C/C++ – you won’t risk to do anything with someone who’s not a wizard in the language.
There are also tons of ways to build web solutions with PHP. There’s no clear convention, no “best practice” book (or too many of them, depends on where you stand), and hundreds of frameworks. Quality is arbitrary, the majority of the projects don’t require enough resources and won’t alert a wanna-be developer that the code is terrible. At the same time, frameworks and CMS take care of the heavy lifting and cover the obvious holes.
PHP – Great Opportunity, No Standards
I won’t get into technical details given my favorite article about PHP: a fractal of bad design, plus I’m not a language evangelist anymore. But two things are clear: PHP was one of the major reasons that made freelancing and remote working possible and more affordable in the IT world, and it’s been incredibly easy to get into PHP development even if you have zero technical background so far.
I’ll quote something from the PHP 2.0 documentation mentioned in the article above as well:
Once you start having separate operators for each type you start making the language much more complex. ie. you can’t use ‘==’ for stings [sic], you now would use ‘eq’. I don’t see the point, especially for something like PHP where most of the scripts will be rather simple and in most cases written by non-programmers who want a language with a basic logical syntax that doesn’t have too high a learning curve.
PHP – scripts written by non-programmers for basic logical syntax and low learning curve.
So that’s the good thing – getting more people into programming is great. But how about the quality?
The lack of worldwide conventions is frightening. People write whatever they want however they want. There is no strict discipline for learning the environment – server management, performance or security basics, not to mention packaging, unit testing or anything else that’s been an integral part of the other platforms out there. Since WordPress is also built on PHP and the easiness of the admin has attracted millions of bloggers and regular users, that’s much more apparent here, too. There is no reputable and worldwide-recognized training program that is being used for reference in order to acquire experience and learn the concepts of the language or the platform.
The Pricing Factor
That vague quality factor affects the pricing, too. Why?
Well, because everyone could become a developer. If I got a dollar for every “WordPress Expert” or “WORDPRESS Specialist” I’ve seen over the past few years, I would be able to buy a penthouse in New York now. People tend to edit a few files and self-reward themselves with an expert position in a job that usually requires years of experience. They read a quick tutorial and say: “Alright, that’s easy – I get it, so I’m a pro”. They customize a theme and they suddenly become GURU theme developers.
And since they don’t have a proven track record of successful projects, or they come from no job/no education background or a regular, low salary job, they start building web projects. Websites for $200? Done. Maintenance for $5/m? Checked. $15 customizations? Why not. Custom themes for $30? Sure.
The market is trying to stay afloat. More engineers try to jump on the WordPress bandwagon, commanding comparable technical salaries.
“If everything in this industry is copy-paste from other sites or editing themes and plugins, then it’s all easy and we can certainly do it”, they say.
That wouldn’t have been a problem if that was not a representative number for the majority of the industry. And yes, I’m serious – while 1% of the WordPress “developers” or “designers” are actually a part of our community that values the standards, attends conferences in order to learn more, share experience and get better, about 99% have never heard about that community and never cared about it. All they care about is attending Chamber of Commerce events or other meetups and selling $200 sites to their clients. Quality is impossible with the wrong pricing strategy.
That’s Real – See For Yourself
Yes, a small percentage of these 99% are also educated and experienced people and agencies with a solid background. But if you don’t believe me, spend a day or two looking for WordPress developers. I’m serious – try it.
Go on oDesk, Elance, Freelancer.com, Guru and the other large freelance networks.
Quick example. There are 201,819 freelancers with WordPress skills on oDesk right now. 88,690 of them are within the $3-$10 hourly rate, and another 80,845 are in the $10-$20 per hour rate.
Extrapolate it to all of the other networks and see what happens. Look for “WordPress developers” on Google as well – tens of thousands of small agencies and freelancers offering their services.
Now, don’t get me wrong on the pricing factor. Even though the work is all the same, the costs in India or Pakistan are a tenth of the costs in San Francisco or New York. But even so, conduct a few interviews with them and let’s not compare costs, but actual value, experience, and background.
I’ve interviewed more than a thousand people on oDesk and Elance since 2010. Most of them were WordPress “experts”. And I’ve successfully worked with about 5 of those WordPress “experts”. You can’t imagine what percentage of them edit the WordPress Core to fix a website, and I’ll just stop there since the list is long, very long.
The WordPress Business Plague
WordPress.org conducts its annual study about the number of people working with WordPress, and it’s in the tens of thousands. In reality, over a million people can be easily found and hired online for WordPress work.
Would you consider the total number of self-made “experts” real? What would be your expectation for the percentage of actual professionals in that large pool of people?
Right. But almost all of them work with clients. They win projects and deliver work.
And those 99% define the standard for the cost of a project, the type of work, the quality of the end product and the easiness of WordPress.
And because of them for every client you meet, there are 99 people who would be willing to charge him $200 or $500 and deliver a quality for $0. They will know nothing about design quality, user experience, code quality, performance or security, reliable hosting solutions or whatever. They will edit files from the WordPress editor or FTP on a $1/m hosting, scrap a cheap (or even warez) ThemeForest theme and mix up a few bloated plugins. And the average Joe looking for a solution will ping some of his friends, and probably most of them have already conducted the research and worked with a 99% rep.
If you were a client with no technical background, what would you see? 99 “experts” on $10/hr rate and one crazy dude with $80, $120, $150, $200/hr or whatever rate. Statistically, that’s the marginal error of someone willing to rip them off.
Try comparing that to the other communities. As I said on WP Tavern, I get regular work requests for Java, Python, Android or other technologies that I’ve worked with – even other PHP frameworks – and the perception is completely different. The communities sell themselves differently. They value themselves in a specific way and operate like that. The margins in enterprise-level technologies are huge, but even the comparison to other PHP systems is frightening, see “Why Drupal Developers Make x10 More than WordPress Developers” by WPML.
What about the doctors or lawyers? How many of them have you seen representing themselves for fake experts, or drastically undercharging for their services?
Lets 8x Everything
Even considering the average cost of a plugin or a theme in the WordPress community is a joke. A $50 or $70 theme is somewhat average for most theme markets. If a single theme shop triples or quadruples the cost, they won’t get any sales because the 99% will buy from the other stores.
And they’ll sell $250 sites with a $50 theme, right?
Imagine what will happen if the average cost of a theme turns to $400 overnight across the entire WordPress theme market network. It’s a 6-8 times more.
Since the 99% possess no skills whatsoever, and understand nothing about design, they will have to keep buying beautiful themes. Therefore, all of them will keep purchasing from these markets, but they’ll start charging $600 or $800.
Now, is $400/theme closer to a custom design than $50? Yes (not equal, but it’s closer). Is $400 a sustainable model that would allow a theme company to build a product with high quality, usability testing, decent support, compared to a $50 theme? Well, yes.
How many broken, non-supported or poorly written cheap plugins have you seen? I won’t mention the free ones for a bit, but over the last 2 months I’ve cursed at least 5 plugins with $100 or more single license costs each. Even they can’t afford to spend more time in high-end development, QA, usability testing, because the number of sales is low. What if they sold for $500 a piece? Or $800?
Quality Costs Money
People keep complaining about WordPress being insecure, sites getting hacked all the time and so forth. Most of the agencies who hire me as a consultant call me for security code reviews, performance optimizations or setting up servers since their clients were hacked multiple times due to working with “experts”.
I’ve had prospects arguing with me: “Websites don’t work, we have never gotten any clients from them” when they had purchased a $200 website. It’s setting the bad example just because SO MANY freelancers and agencies offer website installs without bringing any value on the table whatsoever.
So yes, I would most certainly recommend everyone to read Curtis’ Manifesto. And I’ll share my free Clarity link for a week for everyone who wants to provide quality and improve their skills and stop offering cheap solutions without spending enough time to understand the model by providing actual value. Which is why I have my own Contributing Manifesto.
Until then, we’ll keep struggling to provide quality and spend hours and hours educating clients on the difference between a generic WordPress install and a business engine that generates leads.