The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, states that “for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.” The 80/20 rule is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, and was popularized as a business tool in the book Living the 80/20 Way, by Richard Koch.

This is one of the most useful principles for finding the most important things to focus on in business marketing and development. Identifying the 20% of your efforts that have the biggest impacts is a fundamental step in maximizing your efficiency in any pursuit.

Most people with a freelance web development practice have likely come to understand that 20% of their clients generate 80% of their income. This percentage also holds true when it comes to the satisfaction and enjoyment that comes from doing the work—where 20% of clients are responsible for 80% of the overall satisfaction that freelancers get from their work.

Those who apply the 80/20 rule to their lives, eliminate the 80% of work (or clients) that don’t generate a return on investment. This allows them to focus on serving the best clients better—leading to better, more fulfilling (and more profitable) work.

WordPress 80/20

The 80/20 rule also has several important corollaries. In web development, 20% of a project tends to take 80% of the effort and expense. This is especially true when it comes to WordPress. Our ecosystem is full of plugins, themes, and other services designed for building a site in any niche.

WordPress gets its reputation for being easy, in part, because of how quickly you can set up a WordPress site and install a plugin or theme. At that same time, WordPress also has a reputation for being difficult because of how challenging it can be to customize these “all-in-one” solutions.

No plugin or theme can be 100% of the solution. Instead, the 80/20 rule should be applied when thinking about these solutions, where any given plugin or theme may be 80% of the solution, and the other 20% is the customization necessary for getting the respective plugin or theme to deliver on its promise. How intuitive that last 20% is, defines how “easy” WordPress is perceived to be.

This can be difficult for knowledgeable developers to see. We see the hooks that are hopefully there to create the customizations users need. We see what CSS selectors to target to make necessary layout changes.

Most people facing the aforementioned WordPress 80/20 problem, however, don’t know what a hook or a CSS selector is.

The Squarespace issue

A lot of professional developers get upset when Matt Mullenweg (and others) frame the path to growing the WordPress marketshare in terms of taking on drag-and-drop website builders like Wix and Squarespace. However, the fact of the matter is that for many sites, they (Squarespace and its kin) can do everything people need, or at least think they need, at a low cost.

My wife actually made her website using Squarespace, and I’m perfectly happy with the monthly charge. It works, it’s beautiful, and I didn’t have to do anything for it.

Could it be better, faster, and more SEO-optimized? Yes, and when her career progresses, we’ll spend a few thousand dollars, and invest in hiring one of the many talented developers I know, to make something way shinier—but for now, it just works.

“Just works” is an important goal for WordPress plugins and themes, but it is an impossible goal for any one plugin or theme to achieve for every user. That doesn’t mean we can’t get there, but we have to get there moving as a complete system comprised of a number of parts.

Squarespace, Wix, and Shopify, just to name a few, have a closed system, whereas WordPress is an open world with a seemingly infinite number of pieces configured together to make the whole system.

Many people in the WordPress community blame this problem on pricing. And yes, that’s part of the problem. As Mario Peshev wrote in an excellent article on WordPress pricing, “our client claims that when a plugin costs $25, then the customization can’t cost more than that plugin, right?” That makes sense for the client, but isn’t realistic for developers, at any rate.

Talking about charging more (and actually doing it) is an important step, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

As someone who is both a freelance developer and a person who sells commercial plugins, I love the idea of charging more per hour or increasing the price of my plugins, but I have to be realistic. My hourly rate is not “cheap,” and neither are my plugins, but I think both deliver great value. Realistically there is a limit to what I can charge.

The fact of the matter is that regardless of how easily customizable and extendable we make our themes and plugins, there will always be a role for custom development. No $50 plugin is going to replace the demand for $10,000 or $50,000 projects.

It’s important to remember that WordPress’ reputation is what causes people to look for a developer (or agency) to hire when they do have a budget. That said, there are plenty of people with little-to-no budget (roughly 80% of WordPress-ers), and while it may be more difficult to invest time in helping them, it is equally, if not more important.

Instead or just getting rid of these users or handing them off to a less-experienced (and lower priced) developer, who may or may not be able to help them, we have to serve them to the best of our ability.

Although this may be more challenging, it nonetheless broadens our community and improves WordPress’ overall reputation. This means fewer Squarespace users, and more potential clients and customers for everyone.

But how?

I don’t have the silver bullet for these complex issues. I think we have to be careful about trying too hard to meet everyone’s needs with every single plugin and theme, as this creates options-overload and theme/plugin bloat, which creates more problems than it’s worth. That said, there are things that we can do to both earn a decent living and broaden the community, and it starts with be honest. 

By being honest, I mean not claiming something is going to deliver more than it can, or not explaining what it takes to really make something look like the demo, or to customize it to someone’s needs.

Being honest is difficult in marketing. It is much more challenging than dishonestly offering people a magic-bullet solution. Personally, I’d rather win business by being honest than by being deceitful. They both skew the 80/20 rule, but the honesty path leads to more quality customers, and fewer troubled ones. 

The magic-bullet approach to marketing works in the short-term, but doesn’t build long-term relationships with users. Long-term relationships breads forgiveness, which is important because none of us are perfect, and are bound to make a mistake. Furthermore, it increases the likelihood that a customer will consider a second purchase or custom development service. 

Leverage other, pre-built, easy-to-use solutions

If your plugin or theme relies on custom post types and/or custom fields (such as an event or portfolio tool), you can set it all up, along with the necessary meta boxes for editing them using custom code or a developer’s tool like CMB2. But what about non-technical users? How are they going to add a custom field and its meta box? 

When the container for storing data comes with your plugin or theme, then you’re creating user lock-in for non-technical users. Keeping users based on data lock-in instead of continued usefulness is even worse than leaving them with that last 20% of customization.

This is why I’m a fan of plugins and themes that leverage free custom content type and custom field plugins like Pods or Advanced Custom Field. The TGM Plugin Activation class makes installing these types of plugins easy for your end users. 

Now, extending your plugin or theme only requires a basic proficiency with the WordPress admin. Also, the data is stored in a way that is easy, both practically and conceptually, for users to take with them. 

Developers should love this because it offloads a huge amount of the development process to other teams. We live in an open-source ecosystem, and we really should act like it. When we do, everyone wins.

Don’t just show how it’s supposed to work

This advice builds on the no magic bullets recommendation, and it also goes hand-in-hand with the last recommendation about making extendibility easy. What I’m suggesting is that your documentation needs to show not only how your product is supposed to work, but how to take it further.

Your documentation should list ways you can customize your plugin and theme, with practical tutorials showing how to do this. This also invites opportunities for your users to submit their own examples of how to do cool stuff with your product. That could be in the form of tutorials, example code, demonstrations, or add-on plugins. Not only is this an effective way of building your documentation, it also helps further engage your user community, creating stronger long-term relationships.

What else?

That’s just a start to the terms of ideas and practical advice I can offer, and I am proud to say I’m trying to apply these recommendations to my own business. More importantly I hope this can be a part of the conversation on how to handle these issues.

Of course, to tackle these important topics we need to handle them collectively, in a way that constantly expands the definition of “we.” How we do that is up to us. Concentrating on the more difficult 20% of the process is where we will find the most gains towards solving these issues.

Josh is the owner and a developer for CalderaWP, where he sells WordPress plugins and training. He's also the community manager and contributing developer for Pods, a free WordPress development framework.

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