Transparency Report #28 – On Leadership, WordPress.org Challenges, and New Partnerships

Welcome to the 28th edition of the monthly transparency report (for May 2017). This is a series where I do my best to discuss all the current goings on that were at the center of our attention last month, plus everything else that’s interesting from a business-ish point of view. Click here to see the previous reports.

Something I shared in one of the previous reports was how we were planning to invite third-party authors to offer some of their themes through our directory at ThemeIsle.com. Well, it’s happening!

But this month’s report is not only about that. There’s been a lot more going on, actually, and I hope to get to all that further down in this report. Feel free to jump around, though:

Third-party themes in the ThemeIsle directory | Is there room for a Jetpack alternative? | Community and the Theme Review team (TRT) | Listen less, care less, but do more

Third-party themes in the ThemeIsle directory

Here’s the current state of events with our theme partnership program (you could call it like that, I guess):

We’ve just had our soft launch of the whole initiative on June 20th this year, which was, if you look at the calendar, just two days before this report’s publication.

In this introductory phase, we’re getting started with 4 awesome themes from 2 renowned theme stores: ProteusThemes and Anariel Design.

A sneak peek of the themes:

Theme 1
Theme 2
Theme 3
Theme 4

Here’s what our current plans are for the partnership program in general – our roadmap:

  1. Start with 4 themes. Check ✅. Add the themes to our directory, email customers to let them know that there’s cool new stuff on the way (for no additional payment required), and then see what people think of the themes.
  2. Make sure that everything is going well and that we can also support the new themes without bigger hurdles (site note; yes, we do offer support on these third-party themes as well).
  3. After a month or so, expand with another 4 themes from the same theme stores.
  4. Wait another 3 months and then evaluate how things are going.
  5. Start laying out a plan for rebuilding the website around this very concept entirely.
  6. Get 2 more partners on board and 6-8 more themes.

Although this plan might sound like it’s very specific, as usual with those things, we’ll surely tweak and adjust as we’re going forward. For now, I’m really happy with our first partners and the quality of the themes they’ve brought to us. I know that our users are going to love them, particularly within the niche markets that those themes are meant for.

Ultimately, our goal is to create a hand-picked collection of 50 themes max, all coming from top theme authors (quality-wise, not necessarily “top” in terms of current popularity, so don’t hesitate to reach out to us). While at the same time, our in-house team will probably focus on one or two flagship themes – more general/multipurpose in nature – while the niche side of the equation is going to be catered to by our partners – other theme authors.

“But wait, there’s more!” (as they say in marketing)

So changing our direction with themes a bit is only one piece of the puzzle. The other, huge piece, is something entirely different:

Is there room for a Jetpack alternative?

Long story short, we’re thinking of launching a sort of a more open, Jetpack alternative.

The story with that starts during the difficult times of having Zerif Lite banned from the repo. One of the requirements back then was to move some of the theme’s functionality to a separate companion plugin, and thus have the theme just be a theme, while everything else – all added functionality – would be handled via a plugin.

We built such plugin and called it ThemeIsle Companion. Its purpose has been to add all the missing pieces back to Zerif Lite (and later to Hestia as well).

While developing it, we realized that people who are using other themes, not just ours, might benefit from a plugin like that as well. For instance, the plugin adds some content widgets initially used on the Zerif homepage. Widgets for stuff like: testimonials, team members, your “focus” or mission statement, clients list. If those elements are universal enough then they can be quite useful in other themes too.

This is where our new plugin comes into play. It’s a rebuilt version of ThemeIsle Companion, more features, more modules, better architecture. Overall, you could call it a more open, Jetpack alternative. Now, when I say “our new plugin comes into play,” it’s not actually ready yet. On its way.

Before you dismiss the idea of Jetpack alternative entirely, let me just show you what it is that we want to do with this plugin exactly:

First off, the goal is to enhance your self-hosted WordPress installation with a package of small tools and upgrades that can be easily activated one by one. And “one by one” is the keyword here – so that the plugin doesn’t bloat your system, but instead only gives you what you actually need.

Here’s part of what’s coming in the plugin:

  • basic social media share buttons,
  • Elementor modules and templates,
  • Beaver Builder modules and templates,
  • Gutenberg modules and templates,
  • custom menu elements (allowing you to add things like cart icons, search, etc.),
  • integration with GPL-compatible stock images from MyStock.Photos,
  • image optimization,
  • SMTP integration,
  • security,
  • caching,
  • subscription modules.

This may seem like a lot, but every module will be a more or less standalone thing. Meaning, the plugin won’t slow down the site due to importing everything at once, but instead will give you the possibility to activate whatever you need specifically.

Also, we don’t aim for a certain module to be the most complete of its kind in the market. Let’s take caching as an example, when suggesting modules to enable, we’ll detect any other caching solutions already running on the user’s install, particularly if there are any fully-fledged alternatives. And if there are, we won’t activate our own corresponding caching module. So for instance, anyone who has WP Rocket enabled, probably won’t even see our caching module mentioned on the list.

The end goal is to provide a simple, self-hosted site enhancement solution that tackles multiple areas. This way, the user doesn’t have to go through 10 other plugins and deal with sometimes very complex configuration pages for an otherwise basic functionality.

For instance, security is a good example here. Our module might only add things like limiting login attempts and captcha protection. It’s not a lot, yes, but on the other hand, not everyone needs a solution like Wordfence, nor wants to have to deal with all the config.

At the same time, to keep the plugin from getting bloated, we will make things as modular as possible, and, like I said, load them only when they are needed. For example, if you don’t use Elementor on your site, everything Elementor-related won’t even be available, nor shown in the dashboard.

Again, this is not something that is likely to happen tomorrow. We’re working on it. The starting point is perfecting the structure so that it works with our own themes flawlessly, and then slowly expanding.

Community and the Theme Review team (TRT)

You might have noticed that the report is a bit late this month. Two reasons for that. First, the whole team was away for WordCamp Europe, and apart of that, I also attended the WordPress Community Summit that happened a couple of days before WCEU.

Overall, I’m really happy I had this opportunity, I have to say, and I appreciate the time I spent with Ulrich, Carolyna and Sakin from the TRT, as well as Mika, and also Otto who works on the WordPress.org repo + as part of the plugins team.

Long story short, just to summarize my overall conclusions, I feel there’s a huge communication gap between theme authors, the TRT, and even the other teams working on other aspects of the overall WordPress.org experience.

Some observations:

As far as I can tell, the TRT actually cannot really do much in terms of what we see when we go to the themes page on WordPress.org. While the TRT is responsible for what makes it in, gives feedback, listens to users and so on, the team that’s actually in charge of what gets shown on the WordPress.org pages is the Meta team.

Honestly, this for me doesn’t make much sense. It introduces whole another level of complexity into the picture. I mean, there are two teams and multiple people that collaboratively influence the way that the WordPress.org themes directory works. It’s tough to encourage any sort of leadership in a scenario like that, and this might be the biggest problem, actually.

Had there been just one person in charge of the “complete themes experience” then a lot of difficult times or unpopular developments could have been avoided. The lack of anyone who’s able to decide, “okay, this is what we’re doing” can have a huge impact, and especially in an environment where we have hundreds of people trying to contribute, all chasing their individual goals.

Most of the teams, along with the TRT, lack leadership in general – a person truly in charge. At the same time, though, electing a person like that might be challenging. First off, from my point of view, that person cannot be a volunteer. Leading a team or a company isn’t easy and it requires a lot of time. For that, it would probably need to be a paid position.

However, now we get into the fuzzy part. Some people in charge of different areas of WordPress.org are Automattic employees, some work for different companies that sponsor them, and then some are actually volunteering their spare time.

Personally, I would find it useful to know if a person is a full-time contributor or a volunteer just so I can align my expectations. I mean, I don’t expect volunteers to even answer tickets or respond to messages. After all, it’s their spare time.

Sponsoring a contributor is also an interesting concept, and also something that would be cool to see somewhere in the person’s profile. It certainly makes sense for commercial companies that want to give back to the community to sponsor a contributor – either delegate one of their employees to work with WordPress or make a new hire. However, even though I know that there are contributors like that in the community, right now, it all happens basically behind the curtains, and you can never know who’s who.

So that’s all in terms of leadership, but let’s go back to the WordPress.org theme directory for a moment.

As I mentioned, the Meta team is where you need to direct yourself if you want to change anything about how things appear in the directory. But … it’s rather hard to get into, or maybe I just couldn’t find a way in…

I initially thought that the Slack #meta channel is where things have been happening for the Meta team. Doesn’t seem like so. Apparently, it’s just a place for all unrelated (aka. “meta”) issues that don’t fit anywhere else.

Here’s my initial outreach from around two years ago:

#meta channel on Slack

As you can see, no answer. Clearly not the right place. And the handbook is not helpful either. The only useful pieces of information that I could find is the team page, and the list of the current projects (interesting read).

Eventually, I got a chance to talk with Otto about this during WCEU. He pointed me in a direction that can work + encouraged me to start working on the issues that I think are the most important. However, I suppose not everybody can go to events and talk with members of different WordPress teams in person, so having a page/resource on how to contribute and actually encourage people to do so should help a lot.

Overall, I think that the TRT does a really good job considering the environment they’re in. They bring people in and then help them understand how everything works with themes in the WordPress ecosystem.

Listen less, care less, but do more

This may sound odd, but hear me out, please.

With the rise of Slack, and direct communication tools in the web dev world in general, everybody can express whatever’s bothering them this very second.

  • Your theme got suspended? Go to Slack and complain.
  • Somebody copied your otherwise GPL(!) plugin? Go ahead and shame them.
  • Your theme remains in the queue for too long? Go to Slack and make sure that everybody knows.
  • Theme rejected? Same thing.
  • I could go on. 🙂

What I’m getting at is that there’s a lot of noise out there. Maybe that noise is valid in certain scenarios, but probably not in 100% of them. I am not saying that authors shouldn’t express their voice and especially if they feel that they’re being taken advantage of. However, at the same time, the main collaborative goal for all of us in the WordPress ecosystem is (1) to make sure that only the best themes get accepted, and only then (2) that every member of the community involved is 100% happy with that outcome.

What I’m trying to say is that when you’re working on something, you perhaps shouldn’t take every opinion into account, just because it’s loud. Just “do.” At the end of the day, we will still have nothing if all everybody is doing is “listening” and “caring” about what other people have told them. The no.1 thing is to always “do.” No amount of listening is going to make your life (or company or products) better if you don’t actually “do” anything about it.

As theme authors, too often we see reviewers only as someone who’s actively stopping us from getting our theme online. Us vs them. Right? While, in fact, it’s not at all like that. Theme reviewers do just as important of a job as theme authors do.

But that goes the other way around too. Just speaking from my own personal experience, when Zerif Lite got suspended, I felt that theme authors were often perceived as not good people overall – people who want to just game the system for profit.

This is a prime example of lack of communication and transparency. At the end of the day, both sides of the equation have important jobs and no one has any bad intentions. A middle ground needs to be found here. For that to happen, however, I believe that we need commercial businesses invited into the community and represented more. For example, at the Community Summit, besides Yoast, I haven’t met any other big plugin author.

This whole thing goes back to the ideas of the code of conduct and inclusivity that the WordPress community wants to be known for. Right now, though, it just doesn’t seem to work everywhere.

I mean, the WordPress world is vast, and every member of the community is different. However, those differences don’t just come down to your skin color, sexual orientation, cultural differences, and so on. This goes way deeper. More or less, each one of us does everything differently. And those differences absolutely need to be respected.

For instance, Matt Mullenweg has his unique way of answering tough questions, usually by going around the subject while still relating things back to the core aspect. Some people don’t like that. I’m one of them. I like to tell things like they are and in a straightforward way, even if some people might not like that.

But at the end of the day, this doesn’t mean that I’m in the right and they’re in the wrong. No, we’re just different. That’s the diversity thing. Yet, we’re all pursuing the same goal – to make the WordPress ecosystem better, and truly – truly! – more inclusive. So let’s embrace that.

Okay, that’s all I have for you this month. As always, thanks for reading and for supporting us! Stay updated and get new reports delivered to you by subscribing here:

All edits and witty rewrites by Karol K.

Ionut Neagu

Love to travel, share and help others, I am working with WordPress at ThemeIsle.com. Passionated by Growth Hacking and the big things around me (trying to understand people, society, economy and our world ).
  • Hi,
    Thanks for another Transparency Report , i want to know that is there is change for single author to join theme partnership program .

    Thanks

    • Yes it is, however is not an ideal scenario due to the single point of failure, so the themes should be really good 🙂

  • Asphalt Themes

    Hi there, Regarding third-party themes in the ThemeIsle directory. Where Do I contact for submission/more information ?

  • Ionut, really loved your detailed writeup. I have somewhat same and more direct finding about how thing works and whats wrong with it. I wish we could have spoken more. And as of Meta team, its Otto alone for any things. Worked so hard for so long, and still doing. He keeps everything together. And Mika is for Plugin alone. But I also feel a super huge disconnect.

    • Hey @Asif2BD:disqus,

      I have tried to don’t write much about to things that doesn’t work, is something that is really easy to find, including in our businesses, rather to bring a new perspective, set expectations and see how we can do better and communicate more.

  • The alternative of the Jetpack is a good idea. It would be nice some step by step to facilitate the initial setup of WordPress for beginners users. Something similar to the Mojo plugin and the WooCommerce installation tutorial.