In the Spotlight: Zero to 10,000 Users In 9 Months

A quick look at our journey from zero to 10,000 users in 9 months with Spotlight Instagram Feeds and what it took to get here. From finding a new niche to expanding our user-base, it's been a lot of hard work, but the results are starting to show through.

I sat down to write this post a couple of weeks after our Spotlight Instagram Feeds plugin hit the 10,000 active installations milestone on wordpress.org. That’s big, especially when considering that we only launched it in June of 2020!

Yep, we launched a new product in the middle of a pandemic, but that’s as much as I’d be saying about that. We’re lucky to work remotely so we made the most of our time at home by putting our energy into this new adventure.

In late February I read this tweet from Justin Ferriman of LearnDash and it inspired me to write this post.

This post is my way of celebrating a small win while we continue the journey to our larger goals.

We’re a small team behind all this – Miguel (the tech genius), Gaby (the design queen), and myself (the “everything else”) – collectively forming RebelCode. Miguel and I worked on the plugin from day one while Gaby designed most of our website, branding, and even helped with parts of the plugin during the design process

This is a quick look at how we got to 10,000+ active installations in 9 months.

What’s Spotlight Instagram Feeds?

Spotlight enables you to embed your Instagram feed, or that of your client, on any WordPress site in under 2 minutes. That claim on time isn’t just random either. Here’s a video of the setup process.

Instagram feeds aren’t just about photo or video galleries though, they can actually be much more than that. This is why we created Spotlight and continue to evolve it further.

This post isn’t about features though. It’s about what it took to get here.

Day 0: The Decision

Looking back at January 2020, we were looking into new product markets without any concrete idea of what we were after. As I researched and discussed possibilities with the team, we looked back at the feedback we received in WP RSS Aggregator’s support channels.

One niche stood out – social media feeds. Customers wanted to add their Instagram posts to their website, but Instagram had no RSS feeds. There are 3rd-party services that can create them for you, but it’s just not the same.

That’s when I decided it was time to look into the social media feeds market, both inside and outside of WordPress.

Documenting our market research on Notion.
Documenting our market research on Notion.

One thing was clear – although SaaS solutions had been innovating for a while and coming up with some new ideas, things were very stale in WordPress. There were plenty of plugins to embed Instagram feeds, but while we tested them all out, we just weren’t impressed.

I did the market research, discussed ideas with the team, and put together our sales letter. Essentially, it’s the sales pitch I would use if I were to market Spotlight to people at that time. That became the basis of all future plans.

Entering a Crowded Market

The market research had shown that there were plenty of plugins in this niche. I spent a lot of time thinking about this and wondering whether it would even make financial sense for us to invest in it.

Aside from a handful of plugins that had anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 active installations, there was one plugin with 1 million active installations which was the clear leader. Despite the large numbers, the solution it provided was far from ideal.

That’s when I started to validate the idea.

  • We wouldn’t be the first to market, but we’d be offering something different.
  • We wouldn’t instantly become the recommended solution, but we’d offer the best alternative.
  • We wouldn’t be the instantly recognisable name in this niche, but we’d build our own name, on our own terms.

Some might have said, “But this product idea is already taken, why try to compete?” Well, as Chris Lema stated in one of his latest blog posts…

… the good product ideas aren’t all taken. There’s tons of room to innovate.

From “3 second-mover advantages: benefits of late market entry

This is what we’re doing with Spotlight. Innovating. Experimenting. Developing new ideas. In the end, we hope to inspire our own competitors to be better which, in turn, will push us to do more and be more creative.

Being Similar

Although Spotlight’s goal is to be innovative, that doesn’t mean that we had to do everything differently. Some of our competitors were doing a lot of things right. Why would we try to reinvent the wheel there?

For Spotlight, we took inspiration from other Instagram feed plugins and SaaS services from outside the WordPress space. Some of the ideas being implemented were too good to leave out and we knew our customers would want them, so they were a no-brainer.

The 3x3 Instagram grid gallery is a must-have.
The 3×3 Instagram grid gallery is a must-have.

In other cases, as we analyzed feature lists and benefits across multiple products, we put together a list of what we thought were the essentials for an Instagram feed plugin. These became the base of Spotlight as we started the design process.

One area that I wanted to match our main competitors in was support. What I mean by this is that a number of our competitors are known for providing top-notch support. We’ve been offering quality support for our WP RSS Aggregator plugin for years, so I knew that Spotlight had to be even better. It was a good opportunity to evaluate our support practices and test out new ideas.

Being Different

Once we had settled on all that, it was time to look at how we would differentiate ourselves from the rest.

This is where I asked myself one question: “How would I want an Instagram feed plugin to work if I were using it today?”

Tying this together with all the frustrations we encountered while testing the other plugins gave light to the single idea that would form the basis of the entire Spotlight plugin.

We would build everything around a live preview. Why? Because Instagram feeds are visual. People want to see the result, not a bunch of shortcodes or text. Give the people what they want.

At this stage, we decided on what our 3 main areas of focus will be and got to work.

1.User Interface

Many WordPress plugins nowadays are either an out-dated list of settings or a completely different SaaS-app-style user interface that doesn’t blend into the WordPress dashboard at all.

How can we avoid both these problems?

Our answer: Gutenberg, the block editor.

The Spotlight Instagram Feeds block with a live preview.
The Spotlight Instagram Feeds block including a live preview.

Despite not being a massive fan of the block editor at the time, or Gutenberg as it’s sometimes known, I could see that the idea had potential. WordPress’ direction with post and page editing was clear (at least I hope it is) so we would do our best to tie in with that approach.

Our first wireframe designs had some different approaches where we tested out ideas such as sidebars on different sides. The left-aligned one looks like most SaaS apps, but the right-aligned version fits better within the WordPress dashboard, so we went with that.

Part of the evolution of Spotlight's UI, including initial name and logo ideas.
Part of the evolution of Spotlight’s UI design in Figma.

We could use our brand colours to try and stand out, but using WordPress’ styles will make the entire plugin feel more familiar, so we stuck with those. After all, offering a native experience rather than focusing entirely on our own selfish needs helps WordPress as a whole.

The designs were shared with our team and a few trusted friends, eventually even being mocked up in code within the dashboard itself to see what it’s really like to use them within WordPress. This exercise helped us greatly to fine-tune the experience – our next area of focus.

2. User Experience

The block editor was the basis for the interface and we took some more inspiration from it for our user experience too, but we optimised it to meet our user’s needs.

One thing was vital – we wanted the person using Spotlight to feel like they could do anything they wanted, whether they were seasoned WordPress pros or brand new to websites in general.

How did we want the Spotlight experience to be?

  1. Upon installation – I want to know what to do next, which is connecting my Instagram account.
  2. After connecting my Instagram account – I want to see the result.
  3. When I see the initial result – I want to customise it.
  4. Once I’m happy with the Instagram feed – I want to embed it on my site.
  5. After it’s embedded on my site – I want to sit back and enjoy the fruits of my (2 minutes of) labour.

That two-minute marker was something I wanted to hit early on and I kept coming back to it every time we added something new. I wanted to make sure that we weren’t over-complicating the simple stuff, even if it’s just the wording used in our on-boarding.

3. The On-Boarding

This is something more plugin developers are taking seriously and so they should. In most cases, there would be a wizard that walks you through the basics or even has you set up some of the default options.

It’s a good method for most plugins, but did Spotlight need it? I designed a few wizards but it didn’t take long to come to a realisation that would simplify everything.

Spotlight’s user interface is the on-boarding process.

The entire Spotlight experience has on-boarding built into it.

From the moment you install the plugin, you’re instructed on how to get started within the Instagram feed editor itself. The result of that first step is instant in the editor’s preview area and it’s interactive – your Instagram feed. The customisation options are in the next step, and so on and so forth.

By focusing on Spotlight’s UI and UX, the on-boarding had taken care of itself.

Our Biggest Challenges

Staying On Time and On Budget

The temptation to do more is always there, but at the end of the day, any new product is a risk. No matter how confident you are in your product, how the world will react to it is not something you can guarantee.

This is why staying on time and on budget was always important to us. We monitored our investment and expenses on a monthly basis, adjusting our plans as needed. There were times when certain things happened that were out of our control, but you take those moments to be lessons learnt and move on.

Does that mean you should sacrifice quality or valuable ideas because of time or money? That’s each product owner’s call to make based on their own circumstances. In our case, we did stretch things a bit in order to deliver a better product from day one. Looking back, it was definitely worthwhile as it gave us a better foothold from which to develop further.

Getting Facebook’s Approval

Since Instagram is now owned by Facebook, any app (in this case, Facebook considers Spotlight an app) that uses the Instagram API needs approval and certification by the Facebook team. That’s both for our company, RebelCode, and for our product, Spotlight.

The company verification process should have taken a few days, so we submitted all the required documentation and got rejected. Do you want to know the fun part? Facebook doesn’t tell you why you were rejected!

At this point, it was a guessing game. With no way of contacting Facebook or knowing what’s wrong, we simply kept sending our documents for approval. Something which should have taken a few days actually took over 4 weeks.

Likewise, our app had been rejected a few times and we had to wait anywhere from 10 to 20 days for feedback on each submission. Thankfully, the Facebook developers do actually tell you what’s wrong so we just made the necessary adjustments and eventually got approved. Once again, something which should have taken around 14 days in total lasted over 6 weeks.

In the end, Spotlight was approved and we were finally in a position to officially release the plugin to the world.

The World’s Response

Okay, so “the world” may sound like I’m tooting my own horn here, but having helped Spotlight users from the four corners of the globe in the past few months, I’ll keep it in.

Overall, the response has been fantastic. I’m really proud of what our team has achieved so far and I know there’s more to come.

It took us a few months to really get a foothold in the space, but we worked hard at getting Spotlight out there and the results started coming in. We got to 1,000 active installations by the end of August, just 10 weeks after launching.

Considering our ranking in the plugin repo wasn’t great at that time, we were still optimistic for the future. We kept growing by around 1000 active installations per month, until in February 2021 we hit the wonderful milestone of 10,000 active installations!

At this point, I want to give a quick shout out to Plugin Rank by Iain Poulson. It’s been a great tool to constantly analyse and optimise our plugin’s readme description, even helping to out-rank those who still infringe on the trademark guidelines to this day.

Spotlight currently ranking in second spot for the "Instagram feeds" keyword.
Spotlight sitting up top for the “Instagram feeds” search term.

Spotlight is now a clear competitor in this niche and for good reason. Our customers love what we’re doing and are constantly providing feedback. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though. We’ve had issues come up, some of which we’re still dealing with today, but that’s the nature of product development.

We consider any challenge to be an advantage to us. It means that we constantly have to find ways of innovating and improving despite our limitations, not because of them.

Do we have an advantage since we launched a new product with a platform like WP Mayor at our fingertips? Sure, I’d be lying if I said we didn’t. Does that mean it was a guaranteed success? Not at all. No amount of marketing prowess can ever take bad software and make it a lasting success, but we still do our best to remain impartial on here.

Spotlight is succeeding because it’s a great product. Check out our perfect 5-star user rating and the many 3rd-party recommendations, including an official Elementor integration, for some social proof of our own.

Spotlight Instagram Feeds' latest reviews on WordPress.org, all 5-stars.
Spotlight Instagram Feeds’ perfect 5-star rating.

The Future: What’s Next?

What does the future hold for Spotlight?

We’ve had a long-term roadmap planned from day one. Now it’s just a case of executing, adjusting, and executing again.

I believe Spotlight is only the start of the innovation to be seen in this niche (and hopefully, beyond it) so I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.

Any niche within WordPress is big enough for more than one great plugin. In fact, a lack of competition would be a much bigger worry. Now it’s all about learning from each other and building on the community aspect of the WordPress ecosystem to become better.

If you’re wondering what exactly we have in store for Spotlight, well, that’s as far as this story goes for now. Some things are best kept a secret, but I will say this – innovation remains our number one priority.

This was my way of putting the spotlight on our 9-month journey so far (pun intended, I had to get one in). If you’d like to know more about any part of it, ask your questions in the comments below. I’m happy to continue adding more insights as time goes by.

On to 100,000! 🚀

Mark Zahra
Mark Zahra
CEO at RebelCode, the team behind WP Mayor, Spotlight, WP RSS Aggregator, and the Mastermind.fm podcast. Follow me on Twitter @markzahra.

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