Customer relationship management products are some of the most popular software applications being built today. They are useful regardless of the size of your business as a means to manage your customers, leads and more.
Zero BS CRM is a unique product in this market as it is entirely built as a WordPress plugin. You can download Zero BS CRM for absolutely free, install it on your WordPress-powered site and be up and running with a functional custom relationship management tool in minutes without relying on a third-party software provider. A variety of paid extensions let you build on to the core feature set.
Mike Stott, one of the developers behind Zero BS CRM, answered my questions about the origins of the plugin, the decision behind the name and what it’s like building what is traditionally a SaaS application as a self-hosted solution. Mike was gracious enough to spend a lot of time on these answers and I wanted to thank him publicly for going the extra mile.
Can you start by telling me a little about yourself and how you got started working with WordPress?
Sure, I could write a long backstory here but I’ll keep it simple as there’s a lot to cover in this interview. I started off with a side project to offer Excel spreadsheet consulting and needed a website.
I wrote my own using pure HTML and CSS, but then got frustrated with adding a header and footer to the pages (I was very new to web technologies).
I researched ways to manage content online and WordPress was the number one solution. So I started using it for my sites. I then moved to developing my own website features and went from there. I’m now about 6 years into using WordPress and still love it.
How did the idea for Zero BS CRM come about?
It was a side project again at the time. Woody’s (my co-founder) father runs a construction business and wanted a CRM which was easy to use, not tied into “per month, per user” costs and did the basics well.
There wasn’t a good solution out there that didn’t try and do too much, so the idea of “Zero BS CRM” came from building an easy to use, modularised CRM running on WordPress.
What are some of the difficulties you have had developing the plugin that might be interesting to other WordPress developers?
The sheer amount of work it’s been. There’s a common misconception amongst our users about what CRM is, with people expecting it to be a full business management solution. We get queries like “how does it do HR tasks”, “What about accounts production”, “I can’t see where I can add project management information” etc.
So the challenge is balancing feature requests against the general direction of the product and keeping it doing CRM tasks really well but also have the option to have additional modules (via extensions) for people who want it to do more.
Balance requests vs the economics of the time (and cost) of developing additional extensions is a hard one to manage. We do this via a public “coming soon” page which collects votes for suggested features.
Alternatively, if it’s a must have for a user we offer to help on a part payment Freelance basis (if the extension makes sense from a product perspective)
I feel like I have to ask you about the name. How much back and forth did you have before going with it?
We spent so long researching other CRMs and a lot of them had a lot of bloat in there and were super confusing to use and understand. We’d install one, the plugin would activate and you’d be left on the “plugins” page with difficulty knowing where to go to setup, etc.
We chose the name to be bold, to be a talking point, but also it’s important to know that within the CRM the somewhat “offensive” name is not in the “CRM areas” (it’s in the plugin list, and various settings pages) as well as a small logo top left.
Generally we aim to use “Zero BS” rather than bullsh*t in the product.
This can easily be removed through our Re-brander tool which white labels the plugin and removes all references to Zero BS CRM and allows you to switch links away from Zero BS websites to your own sites.
This is perfect for agencies and resellers who want to offer a CRM to their customers, but brand it with their own name.
Do you think the name excludes you from being considered by certain customers? Or, on the flip side, does it attract another set of customer that normally wouldn’t consider CRM tools to begin with?
I do think that some people may be put off initially, especially if they need to “sell” the product to their boss for use in a larger business type situation. We have found that we attract a lot of solo-preneur’s who use the product for their own business and they’re generally comfortable with the name (given how it’s labelled in the plugin).
For those who must change it, then the white label service is for you.
You’re building a product that is traditionally offered as a hosted SaaS application. What are the upsides and downsides of offering such a product as a self-hosted solution running inside of a third-party CMS like WordPress?
Our customers love the fact that they can use this from their WordPress admin and not need to login to other website CRMs. They also love the fact it’s not a “per user, per month” pricing structure.
We price the extensions on an annual renewal for updates and support. The definite downsides of offering a traditionally SaaS type solution this way are:
- It’s not easy to offer trials with open source software. Once they’ve downloaded the extensions and activated them then they’ll always work in their current state.
- Pricing on a monthly basis has the same restrictions as above, the current versions will operate even if the subscription ends, so churn would be super high
- Pricing annually, feels better for customers, but then when the annual renewal comes around they sometimes forget that they were actually on a subscription
- So the initial conversion barriers for customers is a high perceived cost without being able to “try out” the extensions
- With a SaaS the software is always up to date, whereas WordPress plugins are left to the user to update (so users end up on older versions of the software, which isn’t ideal)
The positives of this type of solution are
- It’s a low barrier to entry for Entrepreneurs who want to use their own CRM and keep control of their data
- It’s easy to be modular through offering our extensions as additional plugins versus a SaaS which will have all the features available
- Users can use other plugins as they see fit with Zero BS CRM and really have a single solution to their needs (vs needing to login to lots of different services)
I’ve talked with a few other developers so far who are taking this same approach of building traditional SaaS apps as WordPress plugins. Do you see that becoming more common as WordPress grows?
I think it will become more common, but there’s the issue of controlling access to features and the open source / GPL nature of WordPress products which will mean using a SaaS is still an attractive option ($20 a month per user vs $199 a year, no user limits), even though it’s cheaper to use ZBS in the long run people will still “try” a SaaS based CRM because it’s a lower cost barrier.
Tying the operation of extensions/plugins to the subscription would be one way to go here (and hosting the code for the extensions externally) is something which may be a solution but generally most products I’ve seen like this will only block updates (and support) if a subscription isn’t active.
If there’s an elegant solution to this, then it would be much more attractive to develop SaaS type products using WordPress.
What marketing practices have you done for Zero BS CRM that have been the most successful?
We convert a lot of customers through our support channel – as people use the CRM they contact us and we work with them and generally they like our support, our product and are keen to purchase extensions.
We did a round of outreach for reviews of Zero BS CRM initially which helped us get some awareness as well as regular blogging on the site (mostly product updates right now) and I also cover Zero BS CRM in my own blog on Epic Plugins.
It’s difficult to tie down exactly what the most successful has been, since at the time of our launch of v2.0 we did a combination of activities all which helped sales
- We increased our extensions from 5 up to about 17 (adding more value)
- We reworked our home page making it a longer sales page
- We got covered in a lot of blogs about Zero BS CRM
- We sponsored some WordCamps and I attended various events
Reviews are good as they get awareness out there, not all were a success though (from our Google Analytics conversion data).
I think the biggest marketing “win” comes from having a product which you are passionate about, enjoy working on and talking about and which fits a need.
You are giving the core of Zero BS CRM away for free and then earning revenue through extensions. Which of your extensions has proven to be the most popular and why do you think that is?
It’s a tricky one to answer. Our most popular subscription is to the Entrepreneur’s bundle with around 80% of customers choosing that over purchasing individual extensions.
Before we had the CSV importer lite (import contacts via CSV) in the core, the CSV importer was popular (but it not being free also brought a lot of user complaints that it should be free).
Aside from that, currently WooSync (which gets your WooCommerce orders and customers into the CRM) is a popular choice.
What is your process like for deciding what extension to build next?
We have a “Coming Soon” page which has our common requests for extensions. As we receive support requests asking about features we keep track of them. Once they have a few votes they make the coming soon page.
We then manage from there and build what people are asking for (within reason).
If you could give someone a piece of advice you wish you would have been told before you started what would it be?
It depends what you class as my start point. 🙂
Before I started I wish I would have known about WordPress.
As for Zero BS CRM, we’ve both been in this game a while now so we have a good understanding of releasing a WordPress plugin and managing what comes with it. The one thing I’d do from the start is sell all my products on an annual auto-renew subscription.
While this brings with it other challenges (such as managing people who “forgot” they bought a subscription) I’d still recommend this model of pricing as it does help increase revenues over time.
What’s in store in 2018 for yourself and Zero BS CRM?
In November 2017 I started my extended honeymoon which means I’ve been traveling while still managing my online businesses.
2018 will continue these travels (returning to the UK in September 2018) so it’ll be a challenge to keep managing the businesses while being remote.
As for Zero BS CRM we’ve a stacked roadmap which includes a brand new user interface to make it even easier to get around (you can see a preview here) this is coming out early February.
We’ll continue to develop the CRM as well as market it more to increase awareness and grow the business at a comfortable pace (all going to plan)