We had a pretty long chat back in September about Wholegrain and UK market for WordPress. This article is an edited and condensed version of our conversation then. Some of the details have been updated in February 2015.
Wholegrain Digital is a team of true WordPress specialists that has been doing WordPress projects for years. As an agency they are somewhat technically focused, but don’t do any custom software development for clients. Their yearly revenue number is around £320,000 (€400,000) and their typical projects range from £5,000 to £20,000 (from €6,300 to €27,500).
The team of Wholegrain Digital includes 11+ people either full-time or part-time. Currently they have a small core team working in the center of London.
As a digital agency Wholegrain can still be described as being somewhat ’boutique’, even though they employ project managers and management staff. The attitude and attention to detail still seems to be on a high level and their working methods are very similar to traditional, smaller digital agencies. Also, they are not only focused on making a profit, they also want to do good.
How do you describe your agency to clients?
“We are a WordPress agency founded in 2007, the first agency in London. In the beginning we tried being a full-service ad agency for our clients, but it didn’t really work out. In 2009 we dropped everything else and focused only on WordPress. We wanted to focus on one thing only—and do it really well. After that, our business has been multiplied by two every year.
Our name, Wholegrain, comes from our philosophy that we want to provide wholesome services to our clients. We want our team, our clients and the end-users to be healthy and happy.”
What is a typical project for you?
Our projects generally fall into two camps:
- “Custom website projects, where customers want a bigger website. These range from 12,000 pounds to 20,000 pounds (+VAT) including design and implementation.
- Smaller websites for smaller companies, those are 4,000–5,000-pound projects, sometimes even less.
Our junior project managers handle those smaller projects. The bigger custom website projects are usually handled by us directly (Tom and Vineeta).
We usually do the design phase first, and then continue to implementation when designs have been approved. In general, we do more development work than design. That is because some people just come to us because we are WordPress specialists. And many clients have in-house designers and design agencies.
The work we bill from our clients is 30% design, 60% development and 10% other stuff. Our projects are fixed-price projects 95%. Sometimes we do hourly billing, but it is not very common. For most clients hourly billing would make things cheaper, but they like having fixed prices—and we understand them.”
How do you handle hosting and support for your clients?
“We generally recommend some specialized hosting, like WPengine or Flywheel. Mostly, clients pay the monthly price for us, and our fee includes the maintenance of the site. Clients like that they can just call us. For some enterprise customers we also offer very custom setups, and those can end up being really pricey.
Our hourly rate is 90 pounds. For urgent rush jobs we charge 135 pounds per hour. Most of our work is fixed price so the hourly rate is not so relevant.
Typically we offer a support plan that is not hours based, but more of a complete maintenance service.
I’d say our prices are pretty much middle of the road here. Sometimes customers think we are expensive, sometimes we are seen as cheap. It depends.”
What do you see as your “special traits” or unique strengths?
“We do websites that are not just pretty, but also effective. For example, we use this tool called eyequant.com quite a lot. We even test our Photoshop design layouts with it. It gives great feedback about how effective the design is.”
Who are your most typical competitors? How do you differ from them?
“Moove Agency, Human Made, Pragmatic Web. The main difference compared to us is that Human Made and Pragmatic Web are outside of London. Moove is a very similar agency to us. We all know each other, and we also pass leads to each other. The WordPress community is a very friendly community.”
Which CMSs do you see competing with WordPress?
“Drupal, it is almost always just Drupal. A couple of years ago it used to be Drupal and Joomla, but nowadays no one talks about Joomla anymore. Also Squarespace is used here quite a bit. Then there are local players for smaller websites, for example Moonfruit. We have had several clients leaving Squarespace and moving to WordPress, but it is only because clients have hit the limitations of Squarespace. Squarespace is actually a really beautiful CMS. Those clients are not really unhappy about Squarespace, they just want more than Squarespace can offer.”
Why did you start using WordPress?
“In the beginning it was really important that the CMS chosen was easy for us. With WordPress, you could do a lot with very little knowledge—I know, it sounds terrible, but it’s true—and that is why a lot of people love WordPress. Why invent the wheel? There is so much already there.”
Is WordPress being open source a big factor for you?
“Yes, it is a factor. It is something that we believe in. It gives freedom for our clients. But I think the community is the big thing, and that is because of it being open source.
Open source has become a more positive thing in the UK lately. Clients usually understand it so that they have full control and ownership over their website, and they have a community that supports them.
It used to have a stigma, mainly that it being free meant that it couldn’t be any good. This is not a problem anymore.”
Have you participated in the WordPress community?
“We are pretty active with local conferences and meetups. We have also done a couple of plugins and some free themes in the past. We had some gap for a couple of years. Now we’ve got two new plugins that will be released on WordPress.org. But honestly, we are not doing enough. It is an important area, and we should participate more.”
How do you sell WordPress?
“It is very user-friendly for clients. Also its flexibility has really improved during the years.
One selling point is that you don’t have to “get your hands dirty” with WordPress. For example with Drupal you have to do so much more to make it work for you. With WordPress there are great plugins that can be used with very little work.
But to be honest, we don’t really sell WordPress. 80% of our clients have already decided that they want to do their website with WordPress. Also there are situations when WordPress is not a good fit. We don’t try to sell WordPress to people that shouldn’t use WordPress.”
How do you communicate with clients about the availability of plugins?
“We are very transparent about it. If there are plugins that can do what we need, we tell it to our clients, we install the plugins and let clients evaluate them also. And if it takes half an hour to configure it, we only charge that.
It helps a lot that most of our clients are already sold on the idea of WordPress. They know what to expect, working with plugins is not a problem for them.”
What are the top challenges you face with WordPress?
- “Security is still a discussion that we face often. We have even used a specialist consultant to prove for our clients that their sites are secure. This is becoming less of a problem nowadays because clients understand that being a target is a natural side effect of being popular. But the fear is still there, and we understand it.
- Sometimes customers have weird functionality requirements that can be hard to do with WordPress. And in those situations it helps to be a WordPress specialist. We have no problem in telling our clients when their requirements are not a very good fit for WordPress. Sometimes people even want to build apps on WordPress, or make a site that works a bit like Facebook. WordPress is not for that kind of purposes. WordPress is good for websites. If you are building something really special, you shouldn’t do it with WordPress.
- If a customer is really serious about eCommerce, then WordPress might not be a good choice. But eCommerce is at a tipping point right now. WooCommerce is becoming really good and I think we are going to see more and more very serious use of WooCommerce. There is a great community around WooCommerce already. For small and medium-sized businesses WooCommerce is really good. If you are Marks & Spencer you are not going to use WooCommerce.”
How do you see the future of WordPress—are there some things that make you worry?
“During the last few years there has been a change in what content editors are expecting of their CMS. It is not enough to be a good ‘typewriter’ anymore. Content editors want to add content areas, fancy widgets and buttons, like visual calls to action. They expect to be able to do really advanced content formatting. That kind of things are really hard to do with WordPress ‘out of the package’.
And people have sort of hacked WordPress around in doing those things. I think shortcodes are the most common way of doing it. But it is not a good way to do it. Custom fields are another way to do it, and many people have built different kinds of page build tools. But I still think we are a long way off from the dream. We need to see how the page looks when we are publishing it. We need drag&drop capabilities.
I think the next big thing with WordPress is how they are going to nail this visual content editor thing. If WordPress can nail it, I think it will secure the future of WordPress for years to come. If they drag their feet with it, it could make users run away from WordPress.”
Note: All prices in this article exclude VAT.