Over the past fourteen years, the Pakistani-American online entrepreneur, Syed Balkhi, has quietly built a vast empire in the world of open-source software through his company, Awesome Motive. Today, his creations power more than 25 million websites across the globe, and the secret behind this digital domination lies in the realm of WordPress plugins and SaaS (Software as a Service) software.
WordPress: The Foundation of Digital Creativity
WordPress, a versatile content management system, is the driving force behind over 43% of websites on the internet. What makes it even more remarkable is that it’s open-source, meaning it’s not only free but also constantly enhanced and refined by a global community of volunteers.
Balkhi saw immense potential in WordPress and centered his company around WordPress apps, which are pieces of software enabling users to expand their websites’ functionalities. Among his standout successes are WPForms, facilitating the creation of contact forms, and OptinMonster, a versatile tool for generating lead-popups.
However, Balkhi’s entrepreneurial triumph wasn’t predestined. He embarked on his journey as a teenage immigrant to the United States, struggling with a limited command of English and facing economic hardships.
A Remarkable Beginning
Balkhi recalls his early days: “When I was 12, my family moved to the US. My father’s degrees weren’t recognized here, and so he had to work three jobs, 16 hours a day. I wanted to help out.” Determined to make a difference, he ventured into the online world, managing forums and building websites. “Online, it didn’t matter that I was a kid or that my English wasn’t great,” Balkhi shared. “I taught myself to code and soon grew my client base because I worked faster and far cheaper than most adults.”
By the time he graduated from high school and embarked on college with a full scholarship, Balkhi was running a flourishing consultancy business. But he realized he needed to let go of some of his smaller clients. Not wanting to disappoint them, he proposed migrating their websites to WordPress—an open-source content management system he had encountered during his quest to incorporate dynamic content into websites.
At that time, WordPress was an emerging platform for website development, but Balkhi recognized its potential. He began attending events organized by the open-source WordPress community, including numerous WordCamps and the inaugural WordPress Community summit in 2010.
A Wealth of Experience from the WordPress Community
Joining the WordPress community proved invaluable for Syed Balkhi. Reflecting on this experience, he said, “The Community Summit was the first event that the WordPress Foundation organized of its type. They invited a hundred of the most influential people in WordPress to get together at Tybee Island, Georgia. And we took over the tiny little island. I was 20 years old, and it was amazing, I just learned so much from this community.”
In 2009, Balkhi decided to share his WordPress expertise and launched a blog, WPBeginner, which rapidly became the largest freely accessible repository of WordPress knowledge. It also laid the groundwork for his future success with Awesome Motive.
Turning User Feedback into Opportunities
Operating WPBeginner provided Balkhi with a wealth of information about what functionalities his audience felt were missing from existing WordPress plugins. In his pursuit to grow his email list, he promptly coded a pop-up plugin for his blog, enabling readers to sign up. Not only did readers enthusiastically join the list, but they also expressed curiosity about the technology behind the pop-up.
Based on this feedback, Balkhi teamed up with fellow WordPress developer Thomas Griffin. Together, they refined the code of his plugin for public use. In September 2013, OptinMonster was introduced to WPBeginner’s audience, quickly achieving six-figure success.
Drawing from this experience, Balkhi and Griffin joined forces, merging several plugin ventures in 2014 to create Awesome Motive. Since then, the company has steadily expanded its portfolio of plugins, guided by the data gathered from surveys conducted among the WPBeginner audience. Balkhi asked them, “What else do you need? If you could have me build one thing, what would it be, and how much would you pay for it?”
This valuable data has enabled Awesome Motive to create, acquire, and enhance several successful plugins. Two notable highlights include MonsterInsights, summarizing Google Analytics data, acquired from Yoast in 2016, and All in One SEO, facilitating content optimization for search engines, which joined the portfolio in 2020.
The Power of Open Source and Giving Back
Syed Balkhi continues to rely on the strength of open-source software for his success. While premium versions of his software exist, the basic versions remain free, with their code accessible to anyone interested. This transparency has played a pivotal role in helping Awesome Motive create superior products.
Balkhi emphasizes the collaborative nature of his work: “99% of the features we’ve added to our plugins over the years came from our users and our community. Sometimes, developers might even send us a commit for a patch or a fix.”
In a spirit of giving back to the community, Balkhi has dedicated two team members full-time to work on improving WordPress. “I firmly believe in the democratizing potential of open-source software,” he says. “By helping make WordPress better, we contribute to its growth and indirectly expand our own user base.”
As Syed Balkhi looks back on his remarkable journey, he’s acutely aware of the opportunities he’s been afforded. Alongside his wife Amanda, he has sought opportunities to give back, including building schools in partnership with organizations like Pencils of Promise and the Cambodian Village Fund. They have also launched the Balkhi Foundation, offering college scholarships and embodying the idea that success should be shared and used to uplift others.