In my last article for Torque, I talked about marketing automation for Easy Digital Downloads. The idea for that article grew out of the work that I’m currently doing to scale my own business—which has been going pretty well so far, but has not yet reached enough people to have the kind of success that we are shooting for long term. Marketing automation is one of many tools to grow a business.
As the WordPress ecosystem matures, more and more developers are making the leap from freelancing or agency work to creating and selling products. These products range from WordPress plugins and themes, to services for WordPress users, to services and products that, while being powered by WordPress, are sold to both WordPress and non-WordPress users.
This is a great evolution to see in our rapidly changing ecosystem. As we become even more product-focused, many of us could benefit from thinking about our businesses like startups, according to the lean startup methodology. I’m not an expert on the lean startup method, but I love how its proponents stress validating ideas, pushing them to market, and scaling them intelligently.
To help put this into perspective within the WordPress ecosystem, I spoke with Matt Medeiros, co-founder of Slocum Studio, Slocum Themes, and Conductor plugin. He is also the host of The Matt Report, a WordPress podcast for digital businesses. In addition, to get the perspective of someone working with a more established brand, I spoke with Patrick Rauland, the Product Manager for WooCommerce.
Recognize That it is a Leap
As freelancers, we often hear that we need to create recurring revenue by productizing our services or making new products. It’s important to keep in mind that working on specific projects is very different from making and selling products.
Productized services are created when you package one of your skills as a complete “done-for-you” service. These types of business are great because they use the same skills, tools, and marketing channels as you would leverage as a freelancer. If you’re smart about how you do it, you can automate and/ or outsource your service. This means that over time the amount of time you put into each job decreases, which increases your overall earnings potential.
Not all of these types of productized services can scale like a software or software as a service (SaaS) product can, but they are a good place to start when you want to move into products—and can be very lucrative.
Jumping directly into selling software products isn’t easy. This isn’t just because of the technical difficulties, but because of the marketing challenges, as well. When you’re selling yourself as a freelancer, and you make a sale, it is usually in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. When selling a WordPress product, however, your individual sales are likely to be tens or hundreds of dollars.
Selling at a price point that is one or two orders of magnitude lower means that you have to make a lot more sales, and, most of the time, sell to different people. Personally, I’m transitioning from writing custom integrations for existing plugins to selling plugins. It’s a different way of selling, and requires establishing a new brand.
When I spoke to Matt about making this transition, he acknowledged how difficult it is given that the client work is already successful. While it is a revenue generator that helps fund product development. It is also time consuming. He feels that while “scaling that business isn’t easy, [it is a] lot more obtainable at a faster velocity” than scaling the product business.
Finding Ideas and Validating Ideas
Matt told me that the idea for Conductor—a WordPress layout editor—evolved out of a pain point that was identified in his agency’s client work.
“We built Conductor for our agency portfolio clients and over time made it a very big part of our development workflow.”
Since Conductor helps “with sales pitches, demonstrating WordPress, and developing sites faster” it was beneficial to build. This also means that even if it didn’t work out as a standalone product, they “knew that it was working for us and we would keep using it and improving it. There’s nothing else we would want to take its place.”
Conductor is a new product. Matt acknowledges that this makes it trickier to sell than their themes. He stressed the importance of just shipping it and learning from having it in the marketplace. Matt noted,
“Even if you’re embarrassed of your offering, [launching it] puts you so far ahead of others still waiting to launch. Even if their launch looks and feels better, you’ve got a tremendous amount of intel from the market they haven’t gathered yet.”
Patrick at WooCommerce, on the other hand, pointed out that they already have a very large base of users that they are creating new add-ons for. They use a public ideas board to gauge customer interest in new ideas that users can then vote on. He told me that currently “the ideas board has more than two thousand ideas for WooCommerce [and] a few of these float to the top.” This allows them to sort the list by demand. He pointed out that they are “currently working on eight out of the top ten ideas, in addition to many ideas that aren’t in the top ten.”
While this data is clearly not the sole determining factor for what they build, it is extremely valuable. It’s also important for telling them what not to build. The ideas board helps WooCommerce find out if an idea that sounds great to the team also sounds great to their users, before they build it.
Scaling and Brands
Scaling a product that works and gets a good initial reaction is a challenge. Matt told me that for this, time can be a major factor. He said that the best advice he got came from Garret Moon of CoSchedule on an episode of Matt’s Podcast: “He simply shifted the mindset of his team during weekly meetings.”
As a result “instead of kicking off with the client work, [they now] discuss the upcoming features of Conductor, talk about marketing strategies, and generally get pumped up about that space.”
The other challenge he mentioned is the expectation of free.
“Conductor is paid only at this point. This means it’s certainly more difficult to distribute and get more people using it than some of the perceived competition.”
They are attempting to counter this by offering the complementary plugin—Note—for free on WordPress.org. “With 4,000+ active downloads, it’s certainly become a respectable channel that I can build on top of,” Matt said.
For a new product like Conductor, or even my own products, it can be daunting to look at others with huge user numbers and well known brands. I asked Patrick for his perspective on this, as someone who has the strength of the WooCommerce and WooThemes (and since I spoke with him, Automattic) brand behind what he builds.
He told me that he wants a “product to stand up by its own merit. If a product isn’t good enough to succeed, I don’t want to keep it on life support with a brand name.”
He stressed that each product has to be its own thing and referenced the example of Bounty, which is successful as a product line, without anyone really knowing or caring it is made by Proctor and Gamble.
“Bottom line,” Patrick says, “if your product can’t stand up on its own, you either messed up the product or the marketing. Go back to the drawing board and try again. If you’re interested in learning more about the pitfalls of line extension read Positioning.”
OptinMonster—a tool for growing email lists—started as a WordPress plugin. Recently the product was relaunched as a SaaS product.
By turning OptinMonster into a SaaS product it can now be used by both WordPress and non-WordPress websites. This also gives them more control over the product architecture. They are not leaving WordPress behind, nor are they limiting it.
Moving from WordPress products to WordPress-powered products is a smart move for those of us with experience using WordPress. Another good path for this type of evolution is the site Story.am. It’s a service for writers to create immersive, multimedia stories. While the site doesn’t present itself as having anything to do with WordPress, it is powered by WordPress and relies on plugins that Story.am’s parent company Aesop Interactive makes—Lasso and Aesop Story Engine.
Just Ship It
The most important thing I hope you’ve learned from this is that while planning and validation are important, they can’t be an excuse not to ship something. Shipping a product is the ultimate way to validate it, improve it, and create something even better.
I encourage you to learn more about the lean startup method and how it can help you raise your chances of success. I’d like to leave you with this awesome video from LoopConf.
Syed Balkhi of WPBeginner talks about how his perfectionism almost prevented him from shipping OptinMonster, and how doing so allowed his team to iterate on the technology and the business model in a way they never would have without shipping something less than perfect:
Note: You can check out the full interview with Patrick and Matt here.
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