Hosts and the Free Rider Problem

Hey! This piece is a work in progress and was last updated on August 4, 2022. Have questions or suggestions? Leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter.

I recently learned about the free rider problem in open source, which occurs under the following conditions:

  1. When everyone can use a resource, with no limits on their usage.
  2. When the resource itself requires resources to produce.

WordPress itself, both as a project and an ecosystem, is affected by the free rider problem. WordPress itself is free to use, and it’s four freedoms guarantee no restrictions on its usage. The project is maintained by volunteers, though, and those volunteers work in increasing disproportion to the number of folks who benefit.

Now, on the one hand we love free riders. Their confidence in WordPress has lead to its adoption and has, overall, lead to an increase in investment in the project, to which we all benefit.

Where it gets tricky, though, are the product businesses that extend WordPress.

Ecosystem Plugins: WordPress in Miniature

An ecosystem plugin is an extension of WordPress that:

  • Introduces a suite of functionality for a specific audience
  • Provides an integration layer for additional extensions
  • Influences and shapes its own ecosystem over time

These types of plugins, in contrast to feature plugins or integration plugins, are often miniatures of the broader WordPress ecosystem and, to my recent observation, are hit particularly hard by the free rider problem.

Take Pods, as an example. Pods introduces a significant suite of functionality and provides that integration layer for going further. With over 100,000 active installs, it has an ecosystem of its own. It’s revenue, though, is driven primarily through donations and is in significant disproportion to the value it provides.

Why is this a problem? Scott and the Pods team have done fantastic work, particularly given their resources, and it holds up well against all the other options, including Advanced Custom Fields, which was recently acquired by WP Engine. Pods could do so much better, though, given the resources.

And why does that matter? I like WP Engine and on the one hand I’m happy for them and for ACF customers that the product has a home. What about all the other hosting companies, though? I can’t imagine (and have heard to the contrary) that they’re excited to recommend ACF, given it’s new home. The same goes for the feature products and ecosystem plugins that have found a home with Stellar WP. While I’m happy for them and Liquid Web, I worry that their growth ends up being stunted, if for no other reason than other hosts rational desire to not recommend them.

Hosting Providers in WordPress

First, let me call out my bias. I love hosting providers. I think they’re an essential part of a vibrant, Open Web ecosystem. You can host WordPress yourself and for many folks their best move is to trust a hosting provider to do it for them. And if one isn’t working out? They can move to another. Hosting providers bring resiliency and diversity to the WordPress ecosystem and, all considered, I’d rather see more than less succeed in our space.

My argument is that all hosting providers are free riders of various sizes and that’s a good thing. They enjoy the benefits of WordPress, build businesses around it and we’re happy that they do so. What differentiates them positively is the degree to which they reinvest into the WordPress ecosystem.

And while I think it’s valuable to focus on the WordPress project, I suggest that we may be more productive by focusing on ecosystem plugins.

My core concept is this:

Hosting providers are the free riders that benefit the most from the existence and success of ecosystem plugins. The challenge and the opportunity is to figure out a way to incentivize win-win investment on their part into the success of these plugins.

Initial Recommendations

I’m still thinking this through. My conclusions so far, though, are as follows:

  • Hosting companies are the primary free riders in our ecosystem and that’s great. For the free ride to continue, though, we’d all benefit from more fuel being put into the proverbial engine (particularly with the prices of gas these days).
  • Ecosystem plugins are those hit especially hard by the free rider problem and end up falling far short of their potential, both in terms of available resources to grow the ecosystem and distribution.

My recommendations so far are as follows:

  1. Hosting companies should invest in ecosystem plugins and extend their distribution by putting them in front of their customers. Don’t acquire them.
  2. Product creators, particularly those making ecosystem plugins, should work hard to build partnerships with as many hosts as possible. Don’t be exclusive.


Additional questions / thoughts I’m exploring based on feedback so far:

  • What about entrepreneurs who build a product company and want to sell it? If you don’t sell to a host, who can you sell to?
    • My initial thought here is that we need more neutral players who can provide founders with liquidity that aren’t also going into the hosting space themselves. There are options out there, we need to help them get connected to founders.
  • What would it look like for a host to acquire a company and sustainably act in the best interest of the broader ecosystem?
    • I’m operating from a basis of presuming that if host A acquires a plugin, host B will see that acquisition as a threat. I’ve seen that behavior demonstrated yet perhaps there are principles and practices that could be applied that’d inspire confidence.

Special thanks to Luke Carbis, Nate Stewart, and Andrea Middleton for feedback.