Before we get ahead of ourselves and start building and launching successful WordPress products and businesses, let’s lay down a foundational understanding of WordPress and what we can do with it. This might seem like basic knowledge, but you’d be surprised how many people are still confused about the world of WordPress even after they’ve managed to get it installed. Given how much WordPress has changed in the past few years, it may also be helpful to revisit the software with a fresh perspective to inspire new ideas and new ways of using WordPress in this new era.
A quick refresher
WordPress is a free content management system (CMS) that is widely used to power websites, blogs, and apps. WordPress provides you with a file system and web interface to manage blog posts, pages, media, users, comments, and other content associated with your website. Simply put, WordPress is an engine to launch a website.
WordPress is an open source software licensed under the General Public License (GPL), which guarantees end users (you and me!) the freedom to run, study, share, modify, and redistribute the software as they see fit. Development and maintenance of the software happens by a large community of people collaborating and contributing together to make fixes, release new features, determine the software’s direction, and more. Following a few core philosophies, the community can continue to shape the trajectory of the software with these principals in mind.
We believe in democratizing publishing and the freedoms that come with open source.
Part of WordPress’s motto
WordPress remains the world’s most popular and widely-used content management system and powers 35% of the top 10 million websites on the internet, an absolutely staggering achievement. Because of its massive popularity and the freedom of the GPL license, WordPress has gained a large ecosystem of free and paid products and services and continues to be an invaluable resource for launching your own business.
The WordPress product ecosystem consists largely of WordPress themes and plugins. Themes are templates that control how your site looks, and plugins provide features that extend the functionality and features of your site.
Self-Hosted versus hosted WordPress
The WordPress we’ve been describing is also sometimes referred to as “self-hosted” because you need your own website domain and host to install and run the software. Once installed, you’ll be responsible for managing all aspects of your site such as WordPress updates, theme and plugin updates, backups, etc. Depending on your web host, you may also be responsible for managing the server, database, and SSL certificate associated with your website.
Although self-hosted sites can be a little more work, you do gain complete control and ownership over your website and its content. You can make changes to any of your site’s files and customize and optimize everything to your needs.
With great power comes great responsibility.
The Peter Parker principle, also applicable to websites.
For users who want the power and flexibility of WordPress, but don’t want to manage all aspects of the install itself, there are also “hosted” or “managed” solutions available. We’ll stick with “hosted” terminology for the sake of consistency.
With a hosted solution, your web host will install and manage WordPress for you to ensure the software is up to date and remains safe and secure. You don’t have to worry about FTP credentials, server maintenance, or any of the technical details that come with hosting your own install of WordPress.
Another big difference with hosted WordPress installs is that, typically, you can’t modify the core WordPress files. These files are managed by the host to ensure they remain secure and up to date. For many users, this isn’t a problem since modifying WordPress core files is not recommended anyway. If you did make modifications, those changes would be overwritten whenever your install of WordPress was updated (unless specific precautions were taken). Only advanced developers with knowledge of WordPress core and how to safely modify these files should ever make changes like this.
You can, however, still upload, install, and modify WordPress themes and plugins as you see fit. In fact, virtually every other aspect of WordPress remains exactly the same as a self-hosted install. However, hosted WordPress installs often come with a lot of extra benefits that you might not get on self-hosted installs.
- Site templates – Looking to start a specific kind of website such as an eCommerce store? Some hosts will have a pre-defined “templates” or “blueprints” of themes, plugins, and starter content that helps you hit the ground running with your site.
- Automatic plugin updates – keeping your plugins up to date can be a tedious, but important task as they may develop security concerns over time. Some hosts offer secure, automatic plugin updates by checking your plugins for compatibility, running the update, and checking to make sure the update was successful before applying it to your site.
- Website staging area – A staging site is a clone of your website where you can test changes or new features before pushing those features live to your website. Testing on a staging site will help prevent unexpected errors and downtime on your live site. Note that a staging site is different from a local development site, where you do the majority of code development for your website.
- Backups – We all know how important backups are at this point. You do them on your computer, your phone, and your hard drives, and your website is no different. Many hosted WordPress providers offer nightly automatic website backups to ensure you have a fresh copy should something happen to your site.
- SSL – Security is paramount on your website. A Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate provides your site with a secure connection and safeguards any sensitive data that is being sent to and from your site. An SSL certificate lets users know their data is being transported securely and responsibly. SSL certificates can be notoriously finicky and hard to install manually. Luckily, many hosted WordPress solutions provide free SSL certificates with their plans and require little-to-no setup on your part. Hands-free security win!
All of these features added up can prove to be invaluable and give you back precious time to focus on your product, service, or clientele. As someone who has run multiple online businesses, I can confidently tell you that managing all the technical aspects of your site can be incredibly time consuming and just plain annoying some days.
After all, you aren’t starting a business to spend your time restoring backups and fiddling with SSL certificates (as thrilling as this may sound). These tasks can and will consume your day. Embrace the automation of these tools that web hosts provide and put your time back into your product and business, where it belongs.
Slow hosting will kill your business
We all have a tendency to shop around for the best deal, especially when starting a business where funds might be scarce or best used on other parts of the business. But if there’s one place you shouldn’t skimp on your online business, it’s on website hosting.
Your site’s health, uptime, and speed are all critical to keeping your business up and running for your visitors and customers. In fact, slower page load times can lead to a significant drop in revenue. Some estimates say up to 1% loss for every 100ms delay in page load time. To put it another way, if your site takes even 3 seconds to load, you could be seeing upwards of a 30% drop in revenue. There’s virtually no scenario where losing 30% of your revenue is acceptable, especially if it’s within your control to prevent it.
You will be losing in search engines as well. Google has given preferential treatment to fast-loading websites on desktops for some time now and recently they started this practice for mobile visitors as well. With the massive surge in mobile usage over the past decade, it’s no secret that mobile visits will make up a large portion of your traffic (about 53% in 2018).
When you consider all of these factors, you can see how detrimental a slow and unreliable website can be for your business. While a “less than a cup of coffee per month” hosting package sounds like a steal, just know that it usually comes at an incredible compromise to your customer experience and the success of your business.
Get up and running fast
There are hundreds of large and small WordPress hosts out there and I’ve used many of them over the years. These days, I only trust a handful of these companies with my business. Slow sites, downtime, and sitting in support queues eats up valuable time and money which few can afford when trying to launch a new product or service.
There are endless blog posts that review all the major WordPress hosts and compare their features, so we won’t dive in too deep here. However, I would like to highlight one to help you get started.
For the freelancers, creative teams, and independent product creators, Flywheel is an excellent choice. Flywheel is a hosted WordPress service that manages the installation and maintenance of your WordPress site. Aside from super fast load times, their user interface is very intuitive, with a dashboard that gives you quick access to your WordPress install settings. You can easily manage your domain name, free SSL certificate, backups, and SFTP access with a few clicks.
Flywheel also provides one-click setup for staging sites that let you safely deploy and test updates to your site before going live with them. No more pushing code into production and hoping for the best!
If you’re just testing the waters, you can start small on one of the $13/mo plans and scale up as needed. If you do client work, you might be interested in their whitelabel hosting service which lets you offer hosting to your clients and build recurring revenue in the process.
A unique benefit to Flywheel is that it integrates directly with the popular Local app, a WordPress development tool that lets you build websites locally on your computer before pushing them up to a live environment. Integrating your host into your development workflow and being able to deploy code and move sites around in a few clicks is a game changer that will save you a ton of time.
A quick disclosure
I work for WP Engine, who acquired Flywheel in 2019, but my recommendation comes independent from this fact. I was a happy customer at Flywheel long before I was an employee and continue to find their offering, reliability, and speed to be the best value for what I need in a host. Real talk.
Keep in mind, there are plenty of great hosts out there, so if you have one that you’re really happy with, that’s great! What’s best for your business and your product is what’s most important when choosing services like these.
While we’ve covered self-hosted and hosted installs of WordPress, we still need to explore one more important solution for launching your website in the world of WordPress, which is WordPress.com.
Not to be confused with WordPress.org, where you download WordPress software for free and install it on your own local machine or website host, WordPress.com is a for-profit, hosted WordPress solution by Automattic (makers of WooCommerce and Jetpack) that runs a simplified version of WordPress. While similar to other hosted solutions, there are also some key differences for WordPress.com sites.
Most notably is the limitation on what kind of themes and plugins you can use on your site. The base plans at WordPress.com, Personal and Premium, do not allow you to use your own custom plugins or themes, or allow you to install them from the WordPress.org repository. You must choose a theme from the WordPress.com theme collection and no custom plugins can be used (although WordPress.com does offer some built-in features offered by popular plugins). In order to install themes and plugins, you must subscribe to the Business plan, which, at the time of writing, costs $25 per month. Other hosted solutions typically do not limit the ability to upload custom themes or plugins.
[Image of Calypso interface]
WordPress.com is a popular option for many WordPress novices because it offers a free plan which lets you quickly launch a site with a few clicks by using one of the free WordPress.com themes. This is a great entry point for anyone curious about WordPress because it introduces you to many aspects of the WordPress content management model (posts, pages, users, etc.) at no cost or excessive investments of time. From there, users can decide if it makes sense to upgrade within the WordPress.com system or seek out a self-hosted setup for more flexibility. Users can export their WordPress.com content at any time and take it with them to a WordPress install on any other host.