As a human-type, I like things like food, clothing, shelter…and coding.
Although it would be nice to live in a cave, throwing pointy sticks at other members of the food chain, my family—and stomach—may grow impatient. So instead, I am a developer.
I do have my own little cave where I chip away at the code that is my livelihood, like my Neanderthal ancestors chipping away at an obsidian blade. He was a specialist too, cousin Og. Making blades, spear points and other hurty-type tools for his clan.
I wonder though, when someone came to him and said, “Hey, that knife you made me last month is blunt. Can you sharpen it?”
Do you think he said, “No worries, mate!”? Or would he might have more likely said “Yeah, but it’ll cost you. I want the wishbone from your next pterodactyl…”
Staying alive depends on making an ongoing living. Always has and always will.
Myself, I currently develop plugins for one of the premium WordPress frameworks, so a small corner of the WordPress market (although I do consider expanding beyond its boundaries) and have been doing so for nearly three years. I have five plugins, one of which will run on any theme, but the other four are restricted to the one I work in.
Although I admire the altruism of the GPL, of open source, of “free as in free speech, not free as in beer,” I simply don’t have the time or financial viability to not operate for a reliable and sustainable income.
And so it was with great interest I noted two recent events: the closure of 8BIT; and the move of WooThemes to a subscription model.
I know nothing about 8BIT, so won’t proffer any opinion on why they closed shop. However, I will speak from personal experience and say that anyone out there selling themes or plugins for a one off charge, as 8BIT was, is shooting themselves in the foot long term. They’re sharpening the obsidian blade for free.
On researching for this piece, I came across an interesting blog entry on August 7 by 8BIT, commenting on WooTheme’s move to a subscription pricing model, that:
It could have been us.
Just a fortnight later, 8BIT shocked many with the announcement they were shutting down completely, thus terminating the existence of their very popular Standard Theme. So it would seem 8BIT did seriously consider the subscription model.
WooThemes, in explaining why they changed to a subscription model, made the telling comment, that “free lifetime support” is kind of worthless if the business isn’t viable, and folds. Lifetime ends now.
This is exactly what 8BIT’s customers experienced and I hope WooTheme’s customers who griped about Woo’s changes, might have taken note, simmered down, and paid up for their subs. And certainly, Woo will be feeling very vindicated.
We need money, we need cash flow to stay in business. Sales aren’t enough and in fact, on their own, create the whole problem. Sales-driven income loses sight of the customer.
In an apparent contradiction, I don’t do this for the money. That is, what I can earn from this is not the be all and end all. What is most important is that I am able to continue to develop a product that is well received, and I can provide good support for it.
I do believe 8BIT and WooThemes hold the same philosophy. We all want to make great obsidian blades and look after those who use them.
At the crossroads, 8BIT and WooThemes took divergent paths. Both had been providing re-sharpening for free but found the demands of keeping up with that were impacting their very viability.
WooThemes decided to ask for a regular supply of meat; 8BIT decided to go out of the obsidian knife business.
Both undoubtedly upset their loyal customers.
It is the dilemma we all face in this business. Re-sharpening obsidian blades takes time, and the more you sell, the more time you spend re-sharpening, until, well there’s no time to make new blades, nor time to hunt and gather for yourself.
And thus you get a little peckish. By which I mean, you starve to death and then no one gets obsidian blades.
A funny thing happens in our business. Our customers get paid to support our software but we don’t!
Our customers are web designers who set up websites for clients, then charge for ongoing service and support, and sometimes that support is for our plugins or themes.
They are onselling our obsidian blades, then when they need sharpening, charge their clients for the re-sharpening we are doing for free! Make that two pterodactyl wishbones!
As a developer, there a several pricing models available—with the most common being:
1) Sell once, provide free lifetime support and upgrade
2) Sell once, free support, paid major upgrades
3) Sell once, subscriptions for ongoing support and upgrades
It doesn’t matter how you look at it, Option 1 becomes pretty daft with even a limited amount of success. As well, it becomes sales-centric, and loses customer focus.
Option 2 is not overly good for cash flow and still requires solid sales, so isn’t a lot better than Option 1.
I am currently following Option 1. That’s pretty common for anyone entering this business, but sooner or later, they reach a threshold.
For anyone entering this business, I would say it is okay to start with the “sell once, free support” model. However, do not guarantee that for life.
Although people can tend to be a bit cynical about the subscription model of support and upgrades, it’s actually a win-win for them.
Firstly, it ensures that if I want that income, I have to provide ongoing development and good support. Secondly, that income enables me put money back into support by hiring support staff, thus freeing me up to make the product even better.
I can use a part of the piece of pterodactyl payment I got to pay an apprentice to re-sharpen the blades, while I can concentrate on new and better blades.
Like WooThemes, this ensures long term viability and that you don’t shut up shop like 8BIT.
This is the path I will have to take. I have great plans for new plugins but simply don’t have the time.
When I move to a subscription model, it will help buy back time and enable my customers to be confident that I will still be here supporting them in years to come, no matter how often I re-sharpen their obsidian blades.
With the internet slowly gravitating away from the totally free ideology, charging for what was previously free is ruffling a few feathers. How we implement it is a hot topic at the moment…
• Is the subscription model right for the theme and plugin developers? And should they implement it from the outset?
• How should we explain the costs to our customers?
• Should it include the cost of support, upgrades or both?
• Should it be only to cover operating costs or is it okay to draw some profit from it too?
• Or is there a better pricing model we haven’t even considered?
Who’d have thought chipping obsidian blades for a living would get so complicated? I’m going back to my cave!
Chris Howard codes and sells plugins for WordPress and the Headway Framework as PizazzWP, with the purpose of doing the hard work so users don’t have to. Chris has worked with WordPress since 2005 and and one day hopes to code the next big thing in WordPress—if time ever permits.
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