Acquisition can be daunting for any small business owner, especially in the WordPress ecosystem.
When agility and transparency are crucial to your business, will acquisition erode your values? Will you be able to continue doing the work you love with the team you’ve built?
iThemes General Manager Matt Danner knows firsthand what it feels like to face this uncertainty. When iThemes was acquired by Liquid Web (now StellarWP) in 2018, he admits he felt moments of doubt. But he also knew in his gut that it was the right move for the company and his team.
We sat down with Matt to learn more about the acquisition and what life has been like for the iThemes team since joining the StellarWP family of brands.
Tell us about the history of iThemes. You’re a leader in security software with products like Backup Buddy, but the company got its start in themes, right?
The company was originally founded by Cory Miller in 2008. He realized there were not a lot of good themes in those days, so he built and released a couple of his own designs. Immediately, his flip phone blew up with people wanting custom work. He realized there was this untapped market, and the company officially started in 2008. I joined iThemes in 2009.
Fast forward a few years, and that’s when we had two major events that led to the creation of Backup Buddy. I was doing some cowboy coding for a client’s website, and I managed to erase an entire system. I burnt it to the ground… then realized we had no backups.
Two months later, we had a drive failure on the new system that we just moved to. We lost all of those same sites again. We started looking for the right backup system for WordPress and quickly learned there wasn’t a good solution. That inspired us to create Backup Buddy, which we released in 2010.
That was an immediate success for us, quickly dwarfing our theme sales. We started pouring a lot more into the utility side of WordPress and we developed a lot of skill in that area.
Over the years, did you receive offers from companies interested in acquiring iThemes?
It’s one of those things that we heard in the background. There were talks from other hosting companies and even other WordPress companies about merging or them acquiring us, but there was never one that ever got very serious.
We really liked the growth trajectory that we were on at iThemes. We never saw the value in joining another company until StellarWP, and that had a lot to do with our shared core values.
How did you end up in talks with StellarWP about the acquisition?
For about a year, we had been partnering with Liquid Web; they were licensing some of our technology. As we got to know them, we realized we could be a lot better together.
When the acquisition conversations with Liquid Web (now StellarWP) began, we were able to see how this could be good for us not just financially but also for our customers and our product team. That’s when it became, “We should have a real conversation about this.”
What was going through your head when the acquisition was about to happen?
Even up until the day of the acquisition, there were parts that terrified me.
Before acquisition, we had a sense of control after doing things our own way for so long. Even though we knew and understood the core values of StellarWP—they’re about the customer, the people, they value their employees— there’s no way to be 100 percent certain they value them the same way we do. Those are the kinds of things that you have to see for yourself. People loved working at iThemes because of the culture we were built—was that culture going to just go away?
Now, I can say none of my fears came true. Our retention rate speaks for itself: In the three years since we’ve been acquired, nothing has changed about the makeup of our team.
How has iThemes benefited from the acquisition?
We’ve gained resources that iThemes alone would have never had access to. Through Liquid Web and StellarWP, we have access to entire business intelligence team that provides actionable items from data, and they produce it quickly. We immediately got a better picture of the health and trajectory of our business. That’s one of my favorite things; the business intelligence team is some of my best friends.
We also have access to a wealth of knowledge at StellarWP. They aren’t dictating how we do things, but they’re providing support. Previously, we would have made all our business decisions in a vacuum. Now, for something like migrating our support system, our team can get on the phone with people at Liquid Web who have made the same transition at scale with hundreds of support technicians. There’s a lot of learning we get from the larger team. It’s like a safety net having Liquid Web share their experience and act as a sounding board.
We also have more access to resources than ever before. I was chief operating officer at iThemes before we were acquired, and I used to focus on every little way we could save money. Here, Chief Technology Officer Joe Oesterling told me to stop focusing on saving money and start focusing on making money. That was a huge lesson. Sometimes you have to spend some resources, whether it’s on advertising or speeding up development.
How has the iThemes team benefitted from the acquisition?
If you asked a developer or support person at iThemes, most would tell you very little has changed in their day-to-day job. But there have been some big changes, like new growth opportunities.
When we got acquired, we were 28 people and a very flat organization. If you wanted to move up into a leadership role at iThemes, you were basically praying for me to get hit by a bus. Now, there are growth opportunities where you don’t have to leave the company. If an opportunity at StellarWP opened up that matched an employee’s passion and goals, I’d be their biggest cheerleader.
There were also some other perks, like moving to Liquid Web’s hosting infrastructure. We were able to move completely away from Amazon, which means no waiting in a support queue anymore. If we need something, we have direct access to our peers on the hosting side.
Beyond that, we joked for a long time that the biggest change was who signed the paycheck.
“If you wanted to move up into a leadership role … you were basically waiting for me to get hit by a bus. Now, there are growth opportunities.”
What’s it like to work alongside other leaders in WordPress as more brands join the StellarWP family?
Having Zach Tirrell come on with The Events Calendar was amazing. I’ve never worked alongside someone who gets exactly what I’m going through and faces exactly the same problems.
Then we added Matt Cromwell and Devin Walker from GiveWP, Ben Ritner from KadenceWP, and James Kemp from Iconic, and now we all have a regular meeting of this braintrust that just keeps growing. We have Slack channels, weekly touchpoints and a monthly mastermind type meeting. We all have different strengths—some of us are more technically or operationally minded, some are very design or marketing oriented. We span the gamut.
One of the things that gets me most excited about StellarWP is the opportunity to keep building that braintrust. We’re also starting to see the collaboration extend throughout our teams: Each brand’s support leads are meeting regularly and talking, and our support teams are intermingling and getting tips from each other. The same is happening on the technical side and on the marketing side.