Tevya Washburn started his professional career as a history grad turned web designer (a path I can personally relate to somewhat as a failed history major turned computer science diploma owner). He eventually found himself running an online reputation management plugin called Starfish Reviews that has proven to be quite successful. That story and more feature’s in Tevya’s interview below.
Let’s start by telling us a bit about yourself, your background and how you became involved in WordPress.
I grew up in rural Idaho riding horses, bicycles, and sleds (in the winter). When I wasn’t in school or playing outside, I was inside tinkering on my Tandy 1000 computer. It was old even back then. Later my parent’s bought me a “real” PC and I got into design and desktop publishing on it.
That led to web design. I’ve been building websites since before WordPress was born. Since I’m more of a designer, I jumped on any opportunities that allowed me to build visually, rather than hand-coding HTML and such. Even with a visual builder like FrontPage (don’t stone me), it was still super clunky and difficult to update designs across pages, then have to re-upload everything, etc.
In 2009, after getting a college degree in History (long story, but I love it), I was once again asked to build a website for a friend’s business. Like so many other people, I thought “there has to be a better way!” I tried a few open-source CMS’s and a couple of paid ones. I finally found WordPress and was near-instantly hooked. It changed everything for me. Now my team at WordXpress and I have built hundreds of websites on WordPress, and we manage and maintain many as well.
What’s the story behind how the idea for Starfish Reviews came about?
A guy contacted me after a networking meeting. We sat down and he explained the reputation management platform that he was a salesman for. It provided lots of Analytics, review monitoring, and such. But at its heart was a simple landing page that gauged the person’s likelihood to leave a positive review. The positive ones were encouraged to leave a public review while negative feedback was captured for internal improvement.
I immediately saw the value in that one little tool, and thought “I could do that,” even though I don’t code. Sometime later a client forwarded me one of those little landing pages (we call them “funnels”) and asked if I could add that to his website? Since I’d already thought it out, I quickly responded “sure” and set out to build one for him.
I built the prototype on Gravity Forms, only writing a little HTML and begging one kind developer to let me use her plugin to make the process a little smoother. We deployed it on his website and my client started sending it to his customers. The results exceeded my expectations! In only about 6 months he gained over 100 new reviews on Google! Plus it pulled his already-high overall rating up a few decimal points to make him look even better at a glance. It also seemed to impact his search ranking.
The implementation of Starfish Reviews is clever. Creating a funnel for users to leave reviews on the popular rating services seems so obvious. What are some of the technical challenges involved with developing the plugin?
Thank you. We thought so. But it wasn’t my idea, as I explained. The other review marketing companies were already doing it, but their SaaS often costs $300+ per month! So our cleverness was in doing it as a WordPress plugin that our users could deploy on their own (or their client’s) websites.
That idea came to me when I saw the results of the prototype and thought, “I should up-sell my other clients with this!” My next thought was that it would be kinda a pain to re-deploy the prototype each time. Then I realized: “I should just build a plugin!!” The next logical step was: “I should sell that plugin!!!”
Since I’m not a developer, I had two main challenges:
- Find a developer who would accept a percentage of sales, instead of hourly pay
- Setup a sales and licensing system.
I went to a developer I’d worked with a long time. It took some negotiating, but we came to a profit-sharing arrangement. That was ideal, since I’m bootstrapping this business and didn’t have the money to pay hourly.
We initially looked seriously at Easy Digital Downloads, but it was just so expensive especially when you’re just starting out. I looked at a platform called Freemius. It looked great, because it was specifically made for WP theme and plugin devs. But I misunderstood it’s pricing and thought it was way too expensive as well. We settled on WooCommerce API Manager.
After a few releases, I was fed up with it and started looking at our options again. This time I realized my mistaken understanding of Freemius’ pricing and we quickly switched to them. Their pricing is sales-based, so you don’t pay a lot if you’re not selling a lot. And once you hit a certain amount of total sales, it’s only about 10% and that includes merchant fees, plus they handle all the VAT taxes and GDPR compliance on users data! The Freemius team was great through the whole transition and helped us keep our users’ same WooCommerce license keys, on Freemius.
Your plugin is ideal for a lot of businesses but it seems especially useful for traditional brick-and-mortar stores and shops. Have you found that to be your typical customer and how are you reaching them through various marketing channels?
I think you’re right. It is perfect for small, local businesses. However, many of those business owners are smart enough to know they can’t be the expert in their field, and an incredible marketer. So they often have someone managing their WordPress website, and/or running their online marketing. It’s those webmasters and marketers that have proven to be our primary customers. They like to buy our “Marketer” (10 sites) or “Webmaster” (unlimited sites) plans and resell to their clients, who are the small, local business owners that you mentioned.
So we’ve found that just being a part of WordPress and marketing communities helps a lot. We do what we can to tell our story (like in this interview), write amazing content on our blog (more great stuff coming soon), and just help and answer people’s questions related to SEO, online marketing, reviews, WordPress, etc. We try to help wherever we can, not just with questions or issues that give us a good opportunity to plug Starfish Reviews. I run a small business myself and know how hard it is. So we make it priority to give back and help others as much as we can. That has a side-benefit of allowing us to sometimes point people to our plugin.
We also do our very best to provide amazing support. If you make people happy, they talk about you. And a direct recommendation from a friend goes a long ways. So we try to take care of everyone and treat each the way we would want to be treated. This has already resulted in referrals and new business. In one case, a person was just using the Lite (free) version of Starfish Reviews and then told their friends about us, after we helped them sort out a minor issue. They didn’t purchase a premium license but their friends did!
Starfish Reviews is sold through a tiered pricing plan with three options separated by the number of sites and funnels allowed. Your site notes a price increase is forthcoming. How has that notice impacted sales and how much experimentation have you done with pricing and what effect, if any, has it had on your business?
That’s a really insightful question. We actually just added a third pricing plan, and redesigned our pricing tables to make them simpler and easier to understand. We’re still letting people know that our price will increase as new features and functionality are added, but that they can lock in pricing now. I think that creates some urgency and has helped increase sales. But since we’re mostly a 2-person show right now, we haven’t done any A/B testing or anything to see how that impacts sales.
You can look at it as a pricing “gimmick,” but we’re actually pretty serious about it as part of the company culture. It’s not just there to create urgency. We want to give our early adopters a great deal and show our appreciation for them. At the same time, we will continue to add to and improve Starfish Reviews to the point that it’s value is many times greater than what it is now. So as we progress toward that, we’ll periodically increase our prices to match the new value that’s provided. But anyone who has already purchased, can keep their same pricing.
What is one piece of advice you would give to future WordPress plugin developers that you wish you had known before you started developing Starfish Reviews?
Use Freemius for your plugin sales and licensing! EDD is too expensive, and WooCommerce API Manager is just difficult to work with. Plus Freemius’ whole platform is built around WordPress plugins and themes. With EDD and WooCommerce the core plugin is designed to handle very different stuff. “Jack of all trades…” you know how it goes. Freemius is the master of WP plugin and theme licensing.
They regularly roll out new features, tools, and programs to help plugin developers all the time. Their business model means they’re deeply invested in your plugin’s success. Their blog is incredibly helpful for premium plugin developers as well. I read it regularly and have made many adjustments to increase our sales, based on data in their posts. Did I mention they handle all VAT and GDPR stuff for the sales and licensing as well?
Are there any exciting future features coming that you want to tell us about? Or anything else you are working on that we should check out?
There are some really big, awesome features in the pipeline. But they’re probably many months away, so I’m not ready to talk about them yet. We’re just laying the groundwork now. But they’re super exciting and our users will love them (and have been asking for them). They’ll put Starfish Reviews more on-par with some of the SaaS review marketing platforms, but without the cost. We’re also going to be publishing lots of great new content on our blog to help people with their review marketing. So lots of exciting stuff.
Thanks so much for interviewing me for The Plugin Economy! I love reading up here about other developer’s plugins, marketing, pricing theory, etc.