So You Want to Make a Commercial WordPress Plugin?

In the end of 2014 I decided to start a commercial WordPress plugin company. In March 2015 David Cramer and I launched CalderaWP. We went to market with an add-on for Pods and add-ons for Caldera Forms.

David and I met when he started contributing to Pods, where I worked at the time, and I was super-impressed by the UI in Caldera Forms. It worked the way I wanted my plugins to work.

A little over a year later I’ve started to look back at how it’s gone and how we could have done better. I want to share this in hopes you can learn something from my experience. This article is based on a tweet storm I sent recently.

To be honest, I was hesitant to write this post beacuse we’re doing OK, but we’re not having the kind of success that I see in the transparency reports from plugin companies that are killing it. But, I want to offer an honest and realistic vision of what it’s like to be a year out, and well positioned for success.

Speaking Of Imposer Syndrome

I just shared a bit of my self-doubt about sharing business advice. As a developer, it has been at time hard for many to get past “I’m not good enough for this.”

Do you know what? Fuck that. One of the best things about WordPress is it empowers us to try new things and learn as we go. That’s been the best part for me.

There are plenty of WordPress developers that are less skilled than me whose plugins sell better than mine, and plenty of developers who are better than me who I do better than business-wise.

Just make stuff and learn. Your version one is going to embarrass you later no matter what. Just don’t skip out on basic security and think you will fix it later. Sanitize and validate every user input and make sure every action has a nonce and authorization check.

If you don’t know what the last sentence means, start with the WordPress plugin developer’s handbook and Chris Wiegman’s presentation on application security for WordPress developers. If you have questions, its the kind of question advanced developers love to answer. Open a thread in the AdvancedWP Facebook and tag me if you need to.

Choosing The Right Product

caldera-forms-bannerLike the developers we are, we chose to work with the plugins we knew the best. On one hand this makes sense: you have to take advantage of your expertise. That said, Pods isn’t the most popular custom fields and content types plugin and Caldera Forms was virtually unknown when we started.

I don’t think that is a fatal mistake, and I believe very strongly in Caldera Forms. But, it did set us up for an uphill battle that should have been obvious to me, but wasn’t.

It’s hard, as a developer, to get passed what you think is cool and evaluate a project as a business.

More importantly, I’ve realized that I can’t prevent myself from thinking like a developer, and that’s OK. This is why we build teams with diverse sets of skills. When I started Ingot, I didn’t partner with any developers.

So You Want To Make Commercial Plugin?Photo by: Kamesh Vedula

Is It A Good Idea?

So do you want to make a commercial WordPress plugin? I think that is awesome, it’s a fun thing to do. But, if you want it to be a business you need to know if it a good business move?

What’s your timeframe to evaluate success? If it’s a year. Then the answer is almost always a big “NO” It takes a lot of time to grow. Think about it, if you only spend 500 hours coding version one, at $100/hr, that’s $50k in lost productivity. That’s a low estimate.

The point is that’s your investment in just getting the product built. You might think it’s free to build since you don’t have to pay yourself, but you still need to survive while you build it and get started and while you’re working on your product you’re probably not getting paid

You don’t have a website, logo, docs or two t-shirts for WordCamps yet. You or any marketting. You need all that. Seriously two shirts of different colors, that way you can wear a branded shirt both days and not have people think you didn’t change your shirt.

Do you have a plan to offset your lost productivity while you develop the product? How long can that last? Hopefully it’s as long as it takes to get the product to be self-sustaining.

How Are You Going To Support It?

So you released your product and some people started buying it. Congrats. Also, welcome to your new job in tech support!

Support is only one of the many costs that having a product.

When you read all of those transparency reports from successful plugin business you need to ask yourself: How long did it take? What are their expenses? How did they get there?

Can You Scale It?

Photo by: Andrew CoelhoIf all goes well you’ll get a bunch of users in your first year who can tell you what’s wrong with your plugin. Then it gets interesting. No matter how careful you are, at every stage of growth, your going to find new problems.

Technical debt is unavoidable and it is painful to pay back.

Now you need to support your users, fix the bugs, figure out what features to add, which feature requests to ignore. You need to find time to actually add those new features and keep doing whatever you’re doing to pay the bills without losing your mind.

While you’re adding those new features and fixing those bugs, you can’t break the stuff that works. Also, your competitors are going to add shiny new features you want and your users want.

At some point someone will tell you that you have to add a feature that your competitors has or they will use your competitor. If its a feature you want to add and can add, do it, but don’t feel like you have to do everything your competitor does.

It is better to let a customer who you can’t make happy go than to make promises you can’t keep to land the sale.

So, Should You?

So should you do it? If you’re passionate about your idea & 💖 building plugins & 💗 building a business, fuck yah. Have fun!

Just don’t think it’s quick money or fall into the “if you code it, they will come” trap. Price it high & fuck those who say lower the price.

If you’re in and need help with development, my company CalderaWP can help.

Just don’t forget that development is only part of what it takes to be successful. Right now we’re at the “Ok going well, but we need to scale it” stage. I have some theories on how to accelerate my growth, I’ll let you know which ones worked & which ones failed.

One thing I know for certain, you must invest in an awesome team and work hard on making that team work together well.

In fact stay tuned soon for a big announcements soon on how we are changing our team and how we do business in order to take our business to the next level.

But to the original question “So you want to make a commercial WordPress plugin?” I can’t really answer that for you, overall but I 💝 it 🙂

6 Replies to “So You Want to Make a Commercial WordPress Plugin?”

  1. Hi Josh,

    Nice article.

    Nowadays almost everything is available for free, so a plugin developer should offer an excellent product if he’s gonna ask money for it. And offer excellent support. Users deserve this because they’re willing to pay for it. Or extend a free plugin with paid addons or paid support, like many developers do. I admire developers who still make a decent living in 2016 with developing plugins / themes.

    Keep up the good work!

    Guido

  2. Thank you Josh for this article. We’re in a very very similar business, except that my team makes themes. This made me think I could publish similar article, but for themes and my experiences (I’ve started at the same time).

    I wonder how skilled is your most common client? Are they WP/PHP/web developers or business/website owners who want to save some money and they create websites themselves? Or even agencies who buy licenses in bulk or subscription once they get used to using your plugin and love how it works?

    Thank you for your time,
    Primoz

    1. Primoz – Thanks for reading. You should write that post. I’m sure there would be similarities for a theme company, but plenty of differences both beacuse themes and a different company.
      I don’t really have the data to say with precision what the breakdown is in our users, but I’d say its pretty split between DIYers and professional site builders.

      1. I’ll come back here and post a link when I publish it, ok?

        Thank you for your thought about the market. We know about the same too, but we struggle to find out the ratio of the these two, so we can address them better.

  3. Great article, Josh. Lots of this advice and experience hits close to home. Building _something_ is a great way to learn. I’d argue that time invested building something isn’t a 1:1 loss of productivity based on your hourly rate. Even simple and mundane projects can be great opportunities to experiment with new techniques or technologies.

    Really loved this one. Thanks for writing/sharing! <3

    1. Robby – Thanks for reading. Yes, it’s not a loss of productivity, but it’s a loss of time that you might be doing billable work on. Building new stuff is a great learning experience and can pay off later, but in the short term, it’s time your not spending on bringing home the veggie bacon.

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