Why we acquired UnderStrap

A preview of the exciting future of the world-renowned WordPress theme framework

We’re excited 🙂

umors of the demise of UnderStrap, the premiere WordPress custom theme framework used by tens of thousands of developers, were not greatly exaggerated. The project has indeed languished over the past year, and it went up for sale in early May.

My team and I use UnderStrap every day, on almost every one of our WordPress projects. So when we saw the announcement of the sale, we decided not to mourn the passing of an incredible open-source project. Instead, we acquired it so we could reinvigorate the project and inject new passion into an extraordinary developer community.

Today, I’m excited to announce that the UnderStrap project is now owned and managed by Howard Development & Consulting, my WordPress development firm. We’re headquartered in Denver and have a team of 15 experienced full-stack developers and account managers throughout the United States and Canada, and we’re thrilled go all-in with an investment in one of our favorite open-source projects. Our clients have included Harvard, MIT and The World Bank, and our work has been featured in Entrepreneur, Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, Wired and many more major publications. You can learn more about us at howarddc.com.

In the rest of this post, I’ll talk a bit about how we envision the future of UnderStrap, as well as the philosophy and rationale behind my decision to invest $50,000 in the acquisition of the project.

If you would like to keep up to date on the project, please subscribe to our new UnderStrap mailing list here.

What’s next for UnderStrap?

irst and foremost, we will be spending the coming weeks and months personally connecting with all the major contributors to the UnderStrap project and building a transparent, egalitarian system for roadmapping the next phases of the project. We hope to re-engage the people who’ve been actively contributing for years, as well as expand the community to include new developers who want to get involved in an exciting open-source project that benefits everyone in the WordPress ecosystem.

‘I plan to invest heavily to make UnderStrap the software of choice for building handcrafted WordPress sites — as opposed to relying on low-code, drag-and-drop page builders.’

I anticipate one of our first steps will be the addition of a Bootstrap 5 version (which has already been started as an offshoot project), since that’s been one of the most important roadmap items for a while now. Thinking big-picture, I want to make UnderStrap the go-to framework for custom, high-end WordPress development – the software of choice for building handcrafted WordPress sites, as opposed to relying on low-code, drag-and-drop page builders. One of the reasons I love UnderStrap is that it already largely accomplishes this, and I want to help it grow to its greatest potential.

One of the challenges of managing a great open-source project is that it requires a wide range of interdisciplinary skills. You need to be able to work with a large, diverse team, and ensure that everyone knows they’re valued as part of the community. You need to know how to develop and ship quality software quickly and efficiently. You need to manage internal disagreements with empathy and care. And you need to be able to invest actual resources — time, money, energy and expertise — and ensure that you have a plan to make sure the project never runs out of steam. I plan to invest heavily in all of these areas to make UnderStrap a world-class open-source community.

The business of UnderStrap

nderStrap will always be a free, open-source project. I believe this is a core requirement of everything we do moving forward, and as I mentioned above, we plan to invest heavily in growing a community of high-end WordPress developers who can contribute to and use the open-source framework on a regular basis. We’ll be working hard to set up a clear, simple, egalitarian system for future development.

‘Anybody can talk the talk, but very few project owners actually walk the walk when it really matters.’

At the same time, I want to develop the commercial side of UnderStrap — which is essentially what I acquired when I purchased the project — in a way that makes it self-sufficient and self-perpetuating. The commercial side of things is where I’ll recoup my initial financial investment and create a system for funneling more and more money, resources and paid employee time into the open-source project.

Until now, UnderStrap’s monetization has come mostly from the sale of the OverStrap child themes. While we plan to keep this in place, we also see lots of potential for other products and services that complement the open-source framework. This vast potential is one of the reasons why I felt it was worth paying about three times the project’s annual earnings for the acquisition. (More on that in a moment.) From my communication with the previous project owners, I know they felt they’d taken UnderStrap as far as they could; by contrast, my team and I believe that we are at the very early stages of the project’s potential, and we have the resources and initiative to help it grow.

Over the next few months we’ll be surveying the community and creating a number of cool new commercial products and services related to UnderStrap, as well as releasing a separate software-as-a-service tool for WordPress developers that was already in the works prior to this acquisition.

I know that the commercial side of open-source can seem sketchy at times, especially when there’s a lack of pre-existing trust and respect between the community and the team doing the commercial work. My philosophy here is that anybody can talk the talk, but very few project owners actually walk the walk when it really matters. Throughout my career, I always strive to lead by example and put my time, money and energy where my mouth is. This means I don’t assume that anybody will support these commercial projects or evangelize for them out of the gate. Instead, I will endeavor to earn the community’s support by being the type of open-source project owner that I would actually want to work with as a contributor. Someone who invests heavily and unconditionally in the project, someone with the experience and empathy to lead and manage a large and diverse team, and someone with the skills to do-it-yourself when the rubber meets the road (I’ve been a full-stack developer since 1999). Time will tell, but I hope that as we expand our commercial horizons and funnel money back into the project, the UnderStrap community will help us grow by spreading the word about the new, complementary products and services that support the open-source project.

The rationale behind the acquisition

ime to pull back the curtain a bit more about my financial mindset. I suspect that most business owners would keep this kind of calculus a closely guarded secret, but I try to run my company on the basis of financial transparency, and I think that’s even more important when dealing with an open-source community. For a bit of background on how I put this philosophy into practice, you can check out my previous articles on our company-wide equal-pay system and our company-wide profit-sharing system, both of which apply equally and transparently to my company’s 14 employees and contractors.

I’m the sole owner of my company and have no other shareholders or investors, which gives me a lot of freedom to apply these philosophies in real life. Much of this runs counter to the advice you’d get in business school, where you might learn that your fellow humans are a resource to be optimized and a cost to be minimized. Maybe that’s true, but I’ll take my chances. I believe the approach I’ve outlined is by far the healthiest and most productive way to run a company. The company of the future will be profitable while simultaneously creating a respectful and prosperous experience for its employees and providing a meaningful public service to everyone. My goal is to lead the tech industry, and eventually all companies, in that direction.

‘UnderStrap is an important public service that deserves a bright future.’

I mentioned above that I think UnderStrap, in and of itself, has a ton of potential beyond the sale of commercial child themes that were the main source of revenue for the previous project owner. This potential is one of the reasons that I decided it was worth investing a bit north of $50,000 to acquire the project — this was about 3x the company’s earnings over the last year, which is a higher multiple than I would have paid if I were planning on just continuing the current business model without significant changes. But since I believe there’s a lot more potential on the commercial side, I think the investment will pay for itself.

At the same time, there’s a huge amount of less-tangible value in preserving the UnderStrap project, regardless of future commercial sales. My team and I already use UnderStrap on projects worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. We know it is awesome software, and it’s hugely valuable for us to keep the project stable and secure — both in terms of direct monetary costs and intangible psychological costs. We could theoretically do this as open-source contributors, but the project owner is really the bottleneck that determines how useful and valuable an open-source project is to its end-users. Because of this, I didn’t want to see UnderStrap shut down, but I also didn’t want to see it languish under another owner who might not be willing or able to pursue the aggressive investments and egalitarian community goals that we’re aiming for.

In short, this is one way that I chose to put my money where my mouth is — by investing heavily in something I know is valuable as a public service, regardless of any future business opportunity. It will be a huge bonus if this results in business growth, but UnderStrap is also an important public service that deserves a bright future in and of itself. I’ve already made a lot of money building handcrafted WordPress sites on UnderStrap, and ensuring that everyone can continue to benefit from that public service is the least I can do in return.

Ask me anything

With that, I’m going to dive into the work of community-building and expanding the horizons of the UnderStrap project. I encourage you to post questions here in the comments, on GitHub, or via e-mail at understrap@howarddc.com. If you’re already involved in the community, you’ll also be hearing from me directly soon.

If you would like to keep up to date on the project, please subscribe to our new UnderStrap mailing list here.

Thanks for reading and for being part of the UnderStrap community!

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