I was on a recent episode of the Mastermind.fm podcast where host Mark Zahra and I discussed selling WordPress plugins. We talked a lot about what I’ve learned from all of the interviews I’ve posted here at The Plugin Economy and, eventually, Mark turned the tables on me and asked me about my own plugin: WP Word Count.
For a quick overview, WP Word Count is a plugin that tells you how many words you’ve written on your site. It gives you statistics based on post types, calendar months and the authors who have contributed to your site.
One of my plans when I started The Plugin Economy was to eventually sit down and document all of the dumb things I’ve done in my journey to develop and sell a premium plugin on my own. Now that that the podcast has been posted I thought I would go ahead and take this opportunity to go into more detail here.
The Biggest Mistake: Too Much for Free
WP Word Count was never intended to be a freemium plugin.
I initially released the free version of WP Word Count because, after building the plugin for my own internal use, I figured some other people would find it useful and the “competing” plugins on the repo were pretty underwhelming. The initial version of the plugin showed you word counts by post type and month already so all I really did was add the ability to see stats by author. Then I released it and, honestly, never thought about it much for years.
Eventually I decided, during a short down time in client work, that I wanted to build some kind of product and a premium version of WP Word Count seemed like a good idea. By then the free version had several thousand active installs so I thought maybe there was a market for a version that had extra features. What I have learned since, from talking to users I should have spoken to before I got too far ahead of myself, was that the free version was useful enough for most people.
When I sat down to work on WP Word Count Pro I had a few ideas to expand the feature set beyond what was available for free but it probably wasn’t enough. As time has gone by I think the Pro version is distinguished enough from what you can get for free but it’s been an uphill battle to convince current free users that this is the case.
This is a hard problem to solve. I can’t take features away from the free version or I will have a miniature riot on my hands. The only thing I can do is keep adding more and more to the Pro version until I reach a tipping point that impresses enough free users so more of them consider upgrading. Then it’s a matter of educating users about what Pro has to offer them through good marketing.
This leads nicely into my other biggest screw up…
The Second Mistake: Outsourced Marketing
I mentioned this on the podcast with Mark: I am terrible at marketing. My problem is mostly related to a lack of time and effort. I run a business with clients that require daily attention so it’s hard to find the time and energy to do what I know is required to help get people aware of WP Word Count.
In my defense, the initial launch of Pro was pretty successful. I had built a small newsletter list in advance, a minor miracle considering how inept I am at this stuff, and it converted very well over the course of the Pro plugin’s first month of release. Then sales began to decline a bit and instead of buckling down to fix the situation myself I decided to throw a little money at the problem and get some help from a third party.
The firm I hired to help me grow sales for WP Word Count Pro did not do a particularly good job. I thought a lot of their ideas were solid (and probably obvious to someone smarter than I am) but their execution was very poor. Sales actually declined dramatically after I implemented many of their recommended design and copy changes.
The first month was so bad I thought it was maybe just a fluke, which in hindsight it was not, so I let their work run for a second month and things were just as bad. I ended up totally replacing 90% of what they had come up with myself in the form of new copy, a new landing page and adjustments to my email sales funnel. Sales recovered somewhat but it’s been an uphill climb at times.
The lesson here is to either educate yourself better so you can both spot bad ideas or just implement good ones on your own. I also should have picked a better marketing firm that had more experience in software sales and WordPress. Again, this is all obvious looking back on it now.
The Third Mistake: Multiple Codebases
I won’t get too in-depth here because everyone has their own way of building software and a lot of times learning how the sausage is made isn’t too interesting. I will just say that WP Word Count and WP Word Count Pro are two separate codebases and that is dumb. There are a ton of ways I could have done this better, and maybe I will fix it in the future, but for now maintaining the two versions of the plugin is annoying.
Related to this, and I mentioned it to Mark on Mastermind.fm, but I wish I had gone with the popular extensions/add-on model for WP Word Count. I think that would have been easier for myself, and my users, to deal with instead of the current situation with two separate plugins. I could have offered expanded features piece-meal so that, for example, if you didn’t care about author stats on your personal blog you could get other features you do care about without having the extra cruft of stats that will never apply to your site.
It’s Not All Bad Though
That’s the end of the doom and gloom really. A lot of good things have come from my experience creating my first premium WordPress plugin and it is generating enough revenue for me to want to continue to develop features as I can find the time.
I’ve very much enjoyed the process of developing and selling WP Word Count and I’ve learned so much along the way. If I ever decide to try building another product to sell I’ll have a lot to look back on to help me get started correctly.
One of the biggest positives of the whole thing is actually The Plugin Economy itself. The failures and mistakes I encountered with my own plugin are what inspired me to reach out to other WordPress developers and start posting their answers to my questions about plugin development. At this point I’ve interviewed over 40 WordPress developers about how they build and sell their products.