Ari Stathopoulos sold Kirki, his 6-year-old customizer framework, last week. The plugin is a widely-used tool for theme authors and currently has over 400,000 installations. It is also bundled as a drop-in package within an unknown number of themes, likely numbering in the hundreds. David Vongries, the owner of the Page Builder Framework theme, has taken over the project.
All of Kirki’s customizer controls, including those that were previously commercial/premium, are now open under the Kirki Framework GitHub organization.
Stathopoulos tweeted his decision to seek a buyer on April 8. “This is an announcement I never thought I’d make,” he wrote. “As much as it saddens me, I have decided to sell the Kirki #WordPress plugin. With 500,000+ installations and included in hundreds of themes I no longer have the ability – as an individual developer – to maintain it. And even though I had big dreams and wanted to facilitate things for the WordPress editor as well, the plugin has grown beyond me…It is no longer possible for a single person to maintain such a beast.”
Between his fulltime day job, a representative role for the theme review team, and maintaining other open-source projects, Stathopoulos was pulling 16-hour days of work. Not to mention, he had the usual life elements he needed to make time for in his routine. The Kirki project was not something he could devote any extra time to. Stathopoulos said he knew that spending too much time behind the screen was detrimental to his mental and physical health. He needed to make changes for his personal well-being. Still, it was tough to let go of a project he had invested years into.
“Letting go of a project like that feels extremely weird!” he said. “It’s a weird mix of sadness, stress, and relief. I feel sad because it’s out of my control. I feel stressed because it’s out of my control. And I feel relieved because it’s out of my control.”
While he suspects the sadness and stress of letting go of his project will subside, he said he already feels relieved to no longer have the responsibility of managing such a huge project alone. “I am no longer responsible for the hundreds of themes that use it; it’s liberating,” he said.
No Deal for the Highest Bidder
Stathopoulos did not want to let this passion project go to anyone. He wanted someone with the vision to see the project evolve. He had several offers for Kirki. Over 400,000 installations can make for a lucrative opportunity for someone with the right marketing skills. It would have been easy for him to take the highest bid and jump ship, but that is not his style.
“Kirki is a weird case,” he said. “It may have 400,000 installations and used by hundreds of themes both free and premium, but the actual ‘clients’ are the theme authors, not the end-users. That fact limits the potential for monetizing the plugin ethically. There were quite a few bids, some were high, some were low, but what surprised me is that a lot of them were not interested in helping the community in any way.”
Stathopoulos said the majority of the offers were from buyers with no interest in growing the plugin. Most of them seemed to be looking for a quick buck. He steered clear of them because he did not want to see end-users blasted with obtrusive ads, upsells, or spam.
“In the end, I didn’t go with the highest bid, which was 2.5 times the price I gave it for,” he said. “Though I admit I was seriously tempted to ‘take the money and run.’ I went with what I felt was an ethical choice, someone who actually uses the project on a daily basis, wants to evolve it, and I feel will honor the open-source spirit and the six years of sweat.”
Stathopoulos decided to sell to Vongries. The two had previously worked together on multiple occasions on the Kirki project and he felt it was the right move.
“Once I decided that he should get it, the process went pretty smooth, and there were no hiccups,” said Stathopoulos. “The hard part was deciding who should get it.”
Vongries was almost a natural choice as a new owner. He and his team had been using Kirki since its inception. “I think it’s an incredible framework and it makes working with the WordPress customizer so much easier,” he said.
He reached out to Stathopoulos immediately upon seeing it was for sale. The two had a conversation soon thereafter and shared similar visions for the plugin.
“I always looked at Kirki as something special and wanted to get involved,” said Vongries. “Until recently though, I wouldn’t have had the resources to do so, but since the team around MapSteps has grown it just all happened at the right time. Being a Kirki user myself, I looked at this from both perspectives — from a developer standpoint and as someone that has been using the plugin for years.”
The Future of Kirki
Over the past 18 months, Stathopoulos has rewritten the plugin and split it into around 50 Composer packages. The plan was to make these packages installable as individual components for plugin and theme authors. Instead of bundling the entire Kirki library, developers can use the pieces they need. At this point, these components should be stable, but they have not been widely tested by theme authors, who are accustomed to working with the full framework.
He was also excited about the potential move away from the customizer and working with full-site editing and global styles. Right now, it is unclear how the future of the Gutenberg project will impact the customizer. Many theme authors are now looking at it as a dying piece of the platform. Stathopoulos felt like there was still room to grow and transition into the new era.
“My vision for Kirki was to combine some things with full-site editing, and allow themes that were using Kirki to automatically get global styles when they land in WordPress core,” he said. “That would be truly amazing, and I’m sure it will be possible to do once there is an API for global styles. If [Vongries] goes in that direction, there’s definitely potential for monetization there, while at the same time he’ll help people build better things. Can you imagine a painless transition to global styles for themes that use Kirki? That would be a great thing to see!”
However, the project is out of the former owner’s hands now. It is Vongries’ vision that must lead the project moving forward.
“I respect Ari a lot and he has done an amazing job with Kirki,” said Vongries. “[Stathopoulos] said he would love to continue to contribute to the project, and he is more than welcome to do so.”
The immediate plan is to launch Kirki 4.0. It is nearly ready to roll out, awaiting some fine-tuning and final testing. Vongries and his team are also about to begin work on new extensions that bring more controls and functionality to the framework and, potentially, Gutenberg.
“We are going to explore how we can make the connection between the existing functionality in Kirki and the upcoming features in Gutenberg and Gutenberg in general,” he said. “At this point, we have some ideas about how we can adapt Kirki to the ever-changing WordPress platform. But for now, they are only ideas. We are certain that we will be able to provide a useful tool for developers, regardless of the direction WordPress and Gutenberg goes.”
The new team behind Kirki is still working on the long-term roadmap. It will be exciting to see where they take it. For now, it is still the go-to customizer framework for many theme authors. And, it is in the hands of someone who has been using the project for years.