Strattic CEO Miriam Schwab talks Acquisitions, Elementor, and the future of WordPress

Miriam Schwab sits down with MasterWP to talk about her acquisition by Elementor and the future of WordPress.

watercolor with Strattic by Elementor logo

Miriam Schwab began Strattic in 2018 to fill a much-needed niche in managed WordPress hosting: static websites. In June of 2022, Strattic announced that they were being acquired by Elementor, the fastest growing page builder and recent entrant into the managed hosting space. I met with Miriam over Zoom to discuss the acquisition, on gender barriers in tech, and to get her thoughts on the WordPress market as a whole. [Note: This conversation took place before the recent layoffs at Elementor.]

So, obviously, acquisitions are a big topic of conversation in WordPress. It ties into market share and that sort of thing. The thing that stuck out to me about this acquisition is that it’s the first big example of someone from the plugin ecosystem acquiring someone in what we would consider the hosting space, where it’s traditionally the other way around. 

What do you think it is, maybe about Elementor in general or something else? Because they seem to be the one plugin ecosystem that’s really gone a lot further than everybody else.

So, first of all, people are maybe less familiar or they less associate it with Elementor, but they do have their cloud offering. It’s a platform for Elementor users to be able to serve up their Elementor site from somewhere. So, they already do have that — they’re not just a plugin company. But definitely, the plugin is the most associated product with Elementor, and it’s incredibly popular. It powers over 11 million websites. So, like you’re saying, we have gone very far.

I think that they have been able to do that just because they created a product that really, really solves pain points and offers a lot of value to people. It just really comes down to that. It’s a super valuable product that people really love. I’ve become more familiar with that since we started talking to them and then joining them. 

I see just how their community just really loves them and is active and excited. So, they’ve built all of that up. And it really, in my opinion, is around a product that provides a lot of value to a lot of people. I mean, millions of people, right? So, I think that’s one of the reasons. I would say that they just are really focused on creating an amazing product that their users will love, and that probably contributed to their growth.

I guess in the end, if you think about it, or if I think about the plugins that I love, they’re the ones that were used by millions of users because they provided so much value.

They’re very much an ecosystem where there’s Elementor, and then there’s a whole group of plugin developers that sit on top of Elementor, and then they build this broader ecosystem, and I think that’s super helpful. 

In terms of acquisitions, you had recently acquired WP2Static this year. WP2Static, from what I understand, is the more open-source plugin version of what Strattic does in terms of turning WordPress content into a static site. They were more open source, going the traditional route through the plugin directory. And Strattic went from the ground up, providing the whole system, the hosting, and everything. How do you see what that acquisition did and then what that’s turning into now?

The developer of WP2Static, his name is Leon Stafford, and we connected a while back around our shared passion for static WordPress. He’s great. He’s an amazing guy and really smart. At a certain point, we started talking to him about joining our team, and so, he did.

He was working at Strattic for almost a year before we acquired his plugin. The thinking behind that was that we want to support there being an open-source option for people who want to use it, and maybe it can fulfill all their needs or at least test the waters around this concept. And he was part of our team, so might as well bring it under one umbrella.

WP2Static provides a lot of value to a lot of users, but it’s very, very complicated to use. So, we want that to be an option for people where that makes sense for them. Maybe free is more important to them than ease of use, or they themselves just love trying to struggle with a solution and make it work for them because that’s fun for them. That is a lot of developers, and I can totally relate to that.

And then for users who outgrow that, Strattic is a really good next step where that was fun or interesting, but the website’s needs changed or even the organization’s needs changed. They need to not be dealing with that type of infrastructure stuff. They need to use a solution that covers all the ground for them so that the marketers can just do their thing, click a button, and get the static output. They don’t have to figure out where the WordPress site is being hosted and secure it. And then where’s the static storage? And did the CDN validate properly once they published the content? 

And also on Strattic, we emulate a lot of dynamic functionality on the edge using Lambda functions and Lambda Edge. So, that can be mission-critical to some sites where they need, let’s say, 301 redirects or out-of-the-gate form support, which we have. So, at a certain point, a lot of organizations will outgrow that, and then the idea is that Strattic is a logical next step.

That makes sense. I feel that the big battle right now is between the open-source, “roll your own” solution to problems- those of us in WordPress, that’s where our attention and our heart maybe is- and then providing the all-encompassing, proprietary stack solution that’s already there. That acquisition is a good example of seeing both things happen. 

But going forward, how successful do you think we’re going to be with those patch-it-all-together, open-source solutions?

I know that Leon had written a little bit about having trouble with the plugin directory and people trying to just throw this thing on a site because they didn’t have the technical skills to understand it. And then you see things like Substack or Shopify where those are all things we could do on WordPress- if you want to glue forty things together- but they just made it very simple and made it a streamlined, proprietary option.

That’s what Strattic is, too. It’s like, you could do this, but we’re going to make it super simple for you. Do you still feel there’s a place for that open source, roll it all together approach, and do you see a priority in keeping that available in the future?

I do think there’s still a place for it for a number of reasons. One is, back to my days when I got started, the best way to learn something is through an open-source product because you can really analyze the guts of the thing, see how someone built it, how someone coded it. And I think it’s really important that these types of products are out there for people to be able to break them down and learn from them. 

And then also the process of patching something together and making it work for you is also a really valuable process for a developer. Getting through those challenges and then knowing how to do it better for the next time makes everything that you do down the line better, I think. It’s important to battle those technology challenges.

Having said that, it’s not for everyone, and it’s not for everyone at every given time. So, for organizations that are more budget-conscious or for individuals who really rolling their own thing, I hope there’s open source solutions for as long as possible, and I think there will be.

The other benefit is that one of the best ways to learn is to actually create an open-source product, bring it to market, and offer it to people and see how they use it and learn from that process. So, open-source is an amazing way to learn and become better, and learn how to tackle these types of challenges. 

But at a certain point, everything’s always cost-benefit. So, I did all that. I figured that all out. But now I’m at the next phase of my career or my business, and it just doesn’t make sense for me to be spending an hour a day on that. Right? It used to be fun and it used to be cool, and it was great because we were budgets strapped or whatever. But now it’s a different stage. I can’t justify that anymore. 

That’s when these products like you mentioned, Shopify or Strattic, come into play because at that point the cost-benefit is clear. We have customers who started with WP2Static. And at a certain point, they were like, this just does not make sense for us as the type of organization that we are. Why are we doing this?

Also just one example- and I’m not saying this is the case with everyone- for one of our customers, just publishing their pretty regular site would take eight hours! And of course, you can’t function that way. When you get to a certain position with an organization, that becomes worth investing in and taking off your load.

So, they all have a purpose and a goal, and I hope we continue to be in a world where you have both options.

I’ve been writing about how WordPress takes people who have that DIY mentality, and then five years later, they’re a developer and they’re working at a company. I think that flow is super important. I think that’s one of the best things about it.

My background was in client development, and building sites for clients. A graphic designer designs something, they give it to us, we code it, and we put it up there. But then Elementor comes along, and a lot of graphic designers are thinking, “Well, I don’t really need a developer, because if I can use Photoshop, I can definitely use Elementor to build a site.” So there’s definitely a threatening element, I think, to a lot of people who are saying, “Well, you do need a developer, or you want an expert at least.” You need somebody that’s going to be there to say, “Oh, don’t do it that way because of accessibility, because of SEO, because of these sorts of things.” 

Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you look at the growth of WordPress in general, it’s really Elementor. It’s probably a faster-growing piece of it. A lot of the growth we’re seeing is because of things like Elementor.

It’s like the developer’s job is always to code yourself out of a job because you’re trying to make solutions that are easier, but you also want people to rely on your expertise and not not need you anymore. How do you think about that in terms of giving powerful tools to people, and where does the expert come in and make sure that what’s done at the end of it is still the right type of website or the right type of thing?

I think there’s definitely a place for solutions that allow anyone to build a site and get it up and running. I remember this particular incident of someone complaining, “Oh, anyone can build a site, and then we have all these terrible sites on the web.” But I actually think that’s the beauty of the web. You should be able to build your terrible site, and the web should still function with your terrible site. And someone who’s building their own terrible site or not terrible site, that’s what they need to be doing at that time, and they should be able to get that site up and running on their own. 

There’s the motto of WordPress: Democratizing Publishing, right? So, I want a web where anyone, my neighbor, my sister, can put a site up online with their thoughts, and it shouldn’t be complicated. But there will always be room for experts. It ties into what I was saying about the platform, having a place versus the open-source. 

So, at a certain point, it doesn’t make sense for, let’s say, my sister, to continue managing the site and trying to be a web expert when her expertise is something else. That stops making sense. So, you still need an expert, and you probably need more experts than you would think. 

A lot of our customers are mid-level or larger size enterprise companies. They either have in-house development teams, they’re working with agencies, or both. Meaning the dependency on developers doesn’t end, it actually increases. Because the importance of the site increases as the organization grows, and therefore everything that they do matters more.

So, you can have a terrible site when you’re getting 10 visits a day. You cannot have a terrible site when you’re getting thousands or tens of thousands or hundred thousands and it’s playing an important role in your business.

This is anecdotal, but a lot of our customers are using Elementor including many large organizations. That’s amazing for their marketing teams because they can roll out initiatives really quickly, or at least manage the content on their site really quickly. But they never stop needing developers, even with Elementor in the picture, for different reasons. You start off and you’re like, I can do it myself. But at some point, that expert needs to come into the picture. It just makes sense. 

So, I think what technology does is it kicks the can of the expert down the road to a different place. It’s not even a different time. It’s a different part of the overall picture. So, it used to be we, I don’t know, were heavily involved in laying out the page, but now we need to be heavily involved in, let’s say, Google Tag manager, or SEO-related stuff, or just general analytics or analyzing or consulting or accessibility or whatever. That’s how I see it. I don’t know any organization where that is not the case.

Yeah, that’s a good way to frame it. Sometimes we’ll say if you are still looking to make money building websites, then build websites that are responsible for making people money, eCommerce, things like that…

eCommerce or even just the marketing. Not just. They can be quite complex. The marketing sites for companies and large organizations where the whole point of the website is to track traffic, get people to stick around, engage with content, and fill out forms. That’s really important to a lot of organizations. And so, if you can do that well, you’re bringing a lot of value to them.

It feels like with WordPress, the big push now obviously is the full site editing.

But it was maybe five years ago where Elementor, Beaver Builder, Divi, they all hit the part where it was like “now you can edit the header and footer of your site. Now you can edit everything.” They all hit that at the same time, and page building became a fully viable way to build a website. Full site editing is now this core project, but it’s so far behind where these companies have been just because it’s hard to make things open-source.

If you were to predict five years from now, do you think there are just always going to be different ways to do things? Do you think that pretty soon we’ll get to a place where an Elementor site won’t feel like a WordPress site in any meaningful way? It’ll just be so far abstracted that I won’t even be looking at the same thing even though it’s WordPress underneath? Do you see where full-site editing and Elementor are going to diverge or come together?

Because I’m new to Elementor, I can’t speak to their vision or how far they plan on going from that perspective. I guess I can just say generally that I think it’s good for an industry to have many options for how people do things. It makes all the options better. And it’s good for people to be able to choose what works best for them. 

So, is everything going to become fully abstracted with full-site editing? Here’s how I see it. I really, really hope that you can choose to go that way or not, and I’ll tell you why. I think there’s still a lot of value to having a really well-structured site in terms of the database architecture and the content architecture, and that in some ways it’s important that users can’t just do whatever they want on a site.

If you’re a large organization and you’ve got Elementor implemented, you really don’t want everyone being able to do everything to every page. That could be really disastrous. You really do need to lock down and be like, “This content area is for this content, and that is it. Don’t try to change the fonts or anything. It just needs to be that.” That’s what I think is one of the great strengths of WordPress so that you can really have well-structured content. 

But I tend to identify more with developers than, let’s say, implementers. That’s more how I’ve worked and how I think about things, so I’m only representing or identifying with a particular segment of people. I just think it’s cleaner and also more future-proof if we make sure that that is always an option in addition to full site editing, which definitely has its place and definitely serves a lot of people’s needs. 

It actually ties back to what you’re saying about the really good proprietary solution and the accessible open-source solution existing. People will probably hit a point in full site editing where they’ll say, “Now that I’m getting really good at this, I need a better tool, and I’ll move to pay a company Elementor or something like that.” I could see that lining up. 

My last question is on a different topic. You mentioned that gender played a significant role in fundraising and being a CEO. And part of me was surprised by it because it’s 2022, and then part of me was not surprised at all by it because this is the world we live in.

I read a post you had written about it. My question is, do you feel optimistic about just the industry in general? Because in some ways I feel things look really good. In some ways, it looks like we still need a lot of progress. Also, I’m just not the person who’s going to see what needs to be fixed, honestly. So, I want to just get your opinion on how optimistic you feel about it and how that struggle went.

So, in some ways, the position of female founders is better than it probably ever was. In other ways, over the course of COVID, for example, the number of female-founded companies took a dive.

Overall, female founders will always struggle more and have a harder time with investors. And I don’t think it’s because there’s some conscious bias. It’s not like they’re, “That’s a woman. I’m not investing.” It’s something subconscious. 

An investor sees founder after founder coming in to meet them and they’re always a man. An investor is investing in a vision and the belief that someone can achieve that vision at that point. So, they’ll be able to identify more or feel more confident with someone who looks like all the other founders than someone who doesn’t.

I definitely did experience some outright bias, which was upsetting, along the way. But I think just as a female founder, you’re just going to struggle more, and you have to be better than everyone else, by far, to succeed. It’s frustrating. I think that one of the answers to that is hopefully we’ll see more and more female founders who are successful who are investing in other female founders. 

I’m part of the Israeli tech community, so I know a lot of different founders. And I see these amazing women who found companies. So, I think more women investing in more women can hopefully change that. But so much of my career is me in a room, and I’m the only woman. That’s just how it is. So, I do hope that we’ll see more and more women. 

I do feel optimistic. I have daughters who are teens and older, and I see where they’re aiming for and what their friends are aiming for already from a young age. And they’re not afraid. They don’t feel there’s any reason that something should hold them back. And they’re just like, every opportunity is available to me, and I’m going to go for whatever I want to go for. I don’t sense that there’s any fear of gender bias so it even comes into play and to question. And I’m seeing young women accomplishing amazing things here in Israel, and it makes me so happy to see. 

So, I think if that trend continues also, in five, 10 years, we’ll see more and more women in positions of influence, and that can change the picture overall. So, it’s a hard topic for me, especially. But it is what it is, and we make the most of where we’re at. Just got to keep powering through.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Brian is the Technology Director at Understrap and Howard Development & Consulting. Located in Southern California, Brian is a former college instructor and full-stack developer who brings his unique academic perspective to Understrap Academy. Brian is a graduate of California State Polytechnic University Pomona and California State University Fullerton. His work has included projects for Harvard University, The World Bank, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

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