My favorite kinds of WordPress plugins are the ones that take the platform and turn it into an entire application for its users. UpStream, a project management tool, is one such plugin. You might recognize the name UpStream if you are a long time reader of The Plugin Economy since it was originally developed, and later sold, by WordPress developer Brant Calder.
Steve Burge, the eventual buyer of UpStream, was kind enough to answer my questions about his purchase of UpStream from Brant and what he’s done post-sale to help improve and grow the plugin’s feature set and customer base. This is a great interview for anyone interested in buying or selling WordPress plugins so I want to thank Steve for taking the time to do this interview.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background with WordPress?
Sure thing, Brian. If people have seen me around the WordPress world, it’s probably as a trainer. We’ve run OSTraining since 2010. We’ve been lucky to partner with a lot of great WordPress teachers over the years, including Topher DeRosia for 1,000’s of WordPress videos, Patrick Rauland for a WooCommerce book, Nick Croft for a Genesis book, and lately Zac Gordon for a React book.
But the training industry has plateaued in recent years. We have a really loyal membership who subscribe to our site for new videos and books. But most of the lucrative opportunities with large companies have vanished because they’ve cut or eliminated their training budgets.
To keep growing, we’ve transitioned towards plugins. UpStream was our first plugin release and we followed up with PublishPress, a fork of Edit Flow. We’ve been involved with WordPress for nearly a decade, but our involvement with the plugin economy is only a year old.
I’ve actually talked about UpStream before with the original developer, Brant Calder, back in August of last year. How did you come across UpStream originally and what was the purchasing process like?
We used to have a lot of travel sites. Perhaps the most famous was AppalachianTrail.com, which got really big around the time of the Bill Bryson movie about hiking the trail. But, as with training, we found that AdSense was plateauing as a revenue source. So we sold our travels sites and started looking for a WordPress plugin.
We started to experiment with developing our own plugins, but the learning curve was steep. We also develop software for Joomla (don’t laugh!) and have had a lot of success with acquiring products. Our Joomla site is Joomlashack and we’ve now acquired at least 8 products. In the WordPress world, we acquired Bylines from Daniel Bachhuber and integrated it into PublishPress.
Brant was offering UpStream for sale at a very reasonable price. The plugin was already approved on WordPress.org. The branding was in place. All the foundational work was done.
With the purchase process, we could tell that Brant had done this before. He designed the plugin for sale and had everything in place for a quick handover. That’s not been true with every acquisition we’ve done. Many developers never consider selling their products so they end up with a very messy business situation. It’s not unusual to see several completely different products sharing the same payment account, or for a developer to mix up their personal life with the business.
What were your immediate plans after the purchase of UpStream and how close did you come to meeting those development expectations after the sale?
To be honest, the first year of UpStream was a crash course in how to navigate the WordPress ecosystem. We’ve been selling Joomla software for 7 years now, but very little of that knowledge translated to WordPress. The first year of UpStream was a steep learning curve.
Our developers had to master all the quirks of WordPress.org, SVN, and Easy Digital Downloads. There are WordPress-specific problems. For example, is it better for a plugin to use serialized data, custom post types, or custom database tables?
Also, there are questions of solving a known problem inside WordPress. Project management is a familiar problem, but it took time to listen to the WordPress userbase and understand their specific needs.
Finally and logically, it’s taken a year for annual renewals to start kicking in. That was a great day when the first renewals started to roll in!
Unless you’re exceptionally good or lucky, it takes a long time to start ramping up plugin sales, especially if you’re doing it as a side-gig.
I always want to talk about marketing with WordPress plugin developers because I find it so difficult. You have a demo system in place for UpStream. How effective has that been at converting customers?
Good question. Let me give a shout out to Joe and the WP Sandbox team. We use their infrastructure for our demo sites and it works like a dream. Click here to get an UpStream demo and see how it works! A lot of plugins have shared demo sites where you can see other users testing. In contrast, WP Sandbox gives everyone their own private demo for 7 days.
I’m not 100% sure that it has converted more customers, but it absolutely has led to more happy customers. If you don’t have a good demo, potential customers often have to buy the whole product before they know if it’s a good fit for them. That can lead to disappointment and refunds. However, if you have a demo, your customers know exactly what they’re getting.
What other marketing strategies have you tried that have shown good results? Any that stand out as being particularly ineffective and wastes of time?
For a long time, we resisted getting on board with the ads and notifications inside the plugin admin area. So many of plugin notifications are obnoxious and spammy. Nothing seemed right until we came across a Freemius blog post that suggested using value-based notifications. That was a great idea! We created UpStream notifications only to show when users have created at least 5 products.
What sets UpStream apart from most plugins with additional extensions is you don’t charge for them individually but as part of a tiered, yearly price. Can you tell me why you went with that approach and the pros and cons of doing so?
That’s not an approach we’ve always taken. When we first took over UpStream, each extension was sold separately. But listening to some of the more experienced people in the plugin economy (Pippin Williamson and Syed Balkhi in particular) we moved towards bundled products. This makes the choice simpler for customers because they only need to choose from 3 or 4 choices, rather than navigating through a forest of extensions.
Plus, it makes optimization much easier because you’re tracking conversions on a single page. If you have 100 plugins for sale individually, it becomes very difficult to optimize your sales funnel.
Lastly, what should we look forward to in the future from UpStream?
Gutenberg! That seems like an obvious answer, but Gutenberg isn’t going to impact every plugin. PublishPress, our other plugin, already works smoothly with Gutenberg and requires very few modifications. However, UpStream is naturally block-based. UpStream already has blocks for Tasks, Bugs, Discussions, Project Details and more. So we plan to turn our key features into Gutenberg blocks.
Plus, we’re looking out for more acquisitions to build out an ecosystem around UpStream. We acquired UpStream when it was a brand new plugin. I’ve learned a lot from the first year of UpStream. In the future, we’ll try to skip that first year of a plugin’s life and acquire more mature plugins with an existing audience.