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Awesome Motive Acquires Sandhills Development

Awesome Motive, the company behind OptinMonster, WPForms, MonsterInsights, and other popular WordPress plugins, has acquired Sandhills Development. The deal includes … Continue reading Awesome Motive Acquires Sandhills Development →

Awesome Motive, the company behind OptinMonster, WPForms, MonsterInsights, and other popular WordPress plugins, has acquired Sandhills Development. The deal includes all of the company’s WordPress products and services: Easy Digital DownloadsAffiliateWPWP Simple PaySugar CalendarWP Simple Pay, and the Payouts Service. The majority of the development team will be joining Awesome Motive to continue supporting the products.

In a personal farewell to the WordPress community, Sandhills Development founder Pippin Williamson confesses he lost his passion for WordPress and the web:

In the last few years I discovered a truth about myself: I had lost my passion for the web and building software products. I used to absolutely adore WordPress and building plugins to extend it and power businesses. That passion helped create amazing platforms that have helped tens of thousands of businesses grow, succeed, and thrive on the web, and I am so immensely proud of that. But when the passion is gone, the drive and motivation to build great things leaks away as well. It has been several years since I last felt truly inspired and motivated to build something with WordPress.

Sandhills Development has created an iconic and beloved suite of products with more than 100,000 users. Its Payouts Service paid out over a million dollars to affiliates in May and is on track to pass $2M this year. The service has more than 6,500 individuals and businesses registered and able to receive deposits and more than 1,350 businesses setup to pay their affiliates.

The financial details of the deal were not disclosed but Williamson has always been transparent about Sandhills’ financials. In last year’s summary he disclosed that the company brought in $4,331,814.12 in revenue from plugin sales, affiliate agreements, services, real estate, and payout processing, with a net profit of $232,201 after heavily investing in new projects and payroll increases.

Many of Awesome Motive’s products use EDD, so the company has a vested interest in the product’s future, alongside others in the WordPress ecosystem who depend on it. Williamson explained in his announcement why he selected Awesome Motive as the new home for his products:

Awesome Motive has been an innovator in WordPress for more than a decade and during that time they have built infrastructures, processes, and a level of polish rarely seen in the WordPress industry. The learnings and strategies that have made Awesome Motive so successful will be applied to the whole suite of Sandhills products, making the products better than ever before and at a pace previously unseen by our customers.

Despite Williamson’s professed confidence in Awesome Motive, multiple sources inside Sandhills Development expressed reservations about the deal. The company was called to an all-hands meeting where employees were given the option to jump ship or continue on with Awesome Motive.

“Well the thing that made this the most frustrating was that there was little room for discussion, or choice,” one source said. “We were given a very short heads-up (2 weeks), and no opportunity to discuss employment terms. Basically it was ‘in two weeks, you’re working for Awesome Motive, or you are out of a job.'”

Awesome Motive currently employees more than 200 people across 36 countries. For years, the company has been known for its aggressive sales tactics and upsells in the WordPress admin. These concerns, along with the change in culture from Sandhills, gave some employees reason to pause when considering the change.

“Given AM’s questionable business practices, such as using screen recorders on many employees’ laptops, trigger happy firing tendencies, and incredibly aggressive non-competes, it felt like we were being coerced to work for a company that was so, so far from the fundamental values that brought us to Sandhills in the first place,” one source within the company said. Despite this criticism, the same source said they believe “every product acquired will become considerably better,” with Awesome Motive’s investment.

“Going into the meeting with Syed, I’d describe the prevailing sentiment as cautiously optimistic,” Sandhills’ former Director of Operations Kyle Maurer said. “Obviously none of us were involved in this decision; that was Pippin only. We didn’t ask for this and didn’t know what to expect. But our many questions have been answered and at this point everyone is wholly on board. Syed’s excitement and enthusiasm are infectious and, along with his team, he’s done a tremendous job welcoming and accommodating us. It feels like new energy has been injected into the organization and I’m personally very optimistic about the future.”

Awesome Motive Founder and CEO Syed Balkhi confirmed that in the past the company has used time tracking software on its employees but “shifted away from doing so as the vast majority of our employees are on full-time salary now.”

“Many people may think of AM as one large company, but I always see us as a collection of over a dozen small companies,” Balkhi said. “Each product team operates independently and will continue to do so.”

Balkhi confirmed that no pricing changes are planned for the products. He said Awesome Motive also plans to share several internal tools the company has built for EDD to help scale the business.

Acquisitions are ramping up in the WordPress space, with major players like Automattic and hosting companies scooping up smaller businesses and plugins to create a suite of products tailored to their users. Some question whether this is a healthy part of a maturing ecosystem or a trend that may stifle the unique range of diverse, smaller products that have always been available to WordPress users.

“I know that our goal is to help small businesses grow and compete with the big guys, and our growth is a result of us living true to our mission,” Balkhi said. “We never set out to become investors.

“As you can see the products that join AM — the founders have been around for a long time and they know of us already. Founders choose to join us because we are an independent bootstrapped business not some big PE /venture-backed corporation.”

Matt Medeiros, director at Castos and creator of the Matt Report business podcast, commented on how the deal reveals the current lifecycle of WordPress companies.

“It’s quite obvious that we’re in the buying season for WordPress product companies,” Medeiros said. “If you’re a company that has built a substantial business, with a solid product, strike while the ‘buying iron’ is hot! WP products reach a certain plateau point where they have to expand wider, creating a platform of their own. When you look up at Jetpack, Elementor, AwesomeMotive, Liquid Web you have to do some serious soul searching if that’s who you want to compete against. It doesn’t take 2x the effort, it takes 50x.”

In the end, it’s the users who unwittingly drive the success of these products through their responses to the engineering, support, and marketing. Awesome Motive is retaining much of the same team behind the Sandhills products but has its own packaging, vision, and leadership that will inevitably bring changes for users down the road.

“I think users can expect to remain supported and still have a great product, but should certainly expect to be part of a bigger platform or suite of services,” Medeiros said. “Ultimately, it probably means price changes, but in reality, WP solutions have been too cheap for a while. Folks like Syed at AwesomeMotive will be able to offer end-to-end solutions for WordPress site owners, particularly small businesses. While hosting companies like Liquid Web will give you a turnkey solutions _per site_ for non-profits, e-commerce, and now online educators. Ultimately, I think we will hear less about ‘WordPress the software’ and more about the complete solution + experience companies are delivering with WordPress at its core.”

StellarWP Acquires Learning Management System LearnDash

StellarWP announced today that it acquired LearnDash, a learning management system (LMS) for WordPress. The product allows educators to create … Continue reading StellarWP Acquires Learning Management System LearnDash →

StellarWP announced today that it acquired LearnDash, a learning management system (LMS) for WordPress. The product allows educators to create online courses, quizzes, and dynamic content. LearnDash will continue to operate autonomously, keeping its team intact.

In May, Liquid Web launched its new umbrella brand, StellarWP, alongside its acquisition of Impress.org and its flagship product, GiveWP. iThemes, The Events Calendar, Restrict Content Pro, and Kadence WP are included in this family. Each of the brands operates independently. Essentially, StellarWP functions as a “branded house” but is very much a “house of brands,” according to Chris Lema, who will be switching roles and taking the General Manager position for LearnDash.

The LearnDash acquisition is StellarWP’s largest to date, but the company did not provide a specific dollar amount.

The LMS market size grew to $10.84 billion in 2020. It is projected to increase to over $13 billion in 2021, according to Fortune Business Insights. However, when asked why the company was jumping into the space, Lema talked about the vision.

“The way I think about things is less about the bottom line and more about the larger vision,” he said. “At Liquid Web, we believe that things will continue to get more abstracted for customers. They will want, less and less, to deal with the complexities of hosting. They don’t really want ‘managed’ hosting or even ‘managed WordPress’ hosting. They want a hosted solution. In other words, they want a solution that works. If they need it hosted, great. If they already have a host, great. So we’ve been focused on building a solutions-orientation toward folks who are doing digital commerce or are building digital commerce solutions for their customers.”

He said that LearnDash fits perfectly into that vision for the company.

In some ways, the global COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020 may have hit the fast-forward button in many online sectors. The landscape shifted for small and large businesses. More people have had opportunities to take online courses or even create their own.

“Yes, we saw a dramatic increase in the take rate on online learning platforms across the entire space,” said Lema. “Last year saw a COVID dip for many, but for online learning, it was a bump. That said, I think we’re seeing the numbers drop back down a bit into a more normal but elevated range based on what happened last year. And most importantly, more people than ever have tried their hands at online learning, and I don’t think that’s going to stop.”

Now that Liquid Web and StellarWP have built a library of multiple products, one question is how the company might begin to tie them together. There are some easy wins with cross-product integration that would fit into the vision of selling solutions.

“Yes, we think so too,” said Lema. “RCP and LearnDash, GiveWP and LearnDash, LearnDash and Nexcess, and more. I think we’ll see a lot of collaborations across the StellarWP brands. But to be clear, each brand runs independently, so for LearnDash, we’re still focused on all sorts of other integrations, from chat to testimonials to CRM to better Zoom integration.”

While he did not offer any specifics, it is likely in the cards in some form. Each of these is robust a product that, when used together, can provide a powerful toolset for building commerce-based websites.

Lema wrote a more in-depth post on his personal blog about integrations being a vital strategy for business growth. He shared a riddle that he likened to the WordPress ecosystem.

“I thought about it because it’s a bit of a parable for how I see so many product owners in the WordPress ecosystem build their plugins – as if there’s no one else in the world, building anything else that a customer might use with their product,” he wrote.

We will have to wait to see what sort of integrations LearnDash might have in the future. For now, the team is working on the roadmap for its updated course grid and version 4.0 feature release. The update should include dynamic learning paths.

“The reality in online learning is that students don’t move in a linear fashion through material like the instructor always hopes,” said Lema. “Or maybe an instructor wants to support an almost choose-your-own-adventure approach. I know in my coaching, I don’t move everyone through the same lessons in the same order. So we’re excited to innovate in this space.”