The WP Mayor Podcast

Lessons Learned in the WordPress Plugins Business with Adrian Tobey

In this episode, Gaby Galea talks to Adrian Tobey from Groundhogg about lessons he has learned in the WordPress plugins business.

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In this episode, Gaby Galea talks to Adrian Tobey from Groundhogg about lessons he has learned in the WordPress plugins business. Groundhogg offers marketing automation and CRM for agencies and small businesses using WordPress. Adrian has built hundreds, if not thousands of marketing campaigns, sales funnels, and email sequences on behalf of other companies to solve legitimate problems and generate results.

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Episode Highlights and Topics

  • Shoemaker’s Son Syndrome: Similar to digital marketing agencies focusing on others.
  • Same Issues, Different Day: How to migrate and integrate with WordPress?
  • FormLift: Adrian’s first freemium business in WordPress to integrate Infusionsoft forms
  • Dropout: Education through experience was better than education through classroom
  • Pain Points: The best products are the ones that solve problems.
  • Pricing Model: Pros and cons of choosing freemium or premium product plans.
  • Cost Perception Fallacy: Specific marketing/CRM problems are expected to cost money.
  • Buy it! Eliminate the possibility of someone not spending money on your product.
  • Adrian’s Marketing Strategy: Don’t market free, but market paid to set expectations.
  • Post Status: Who’s who of WordPress business network/community is real and works.
  • Reviews: How/when to ask for and get the social proof needed to sell and support the product.

About Adrian Tobey

Adrian and his team build WordPress plugins that help small businesses launch their funnel, grow their list, and scale their businesses.

Resources/Links

Transcript

Gaby:
This week’s episode is sponsored by Castos. Castos is a podcast hosting platform that helps you grow your audience through public podcasts and offer exclusive content through private ones. The WP Mayor Podcast is actually hosted on Castos, and the whole process has been great from the very start. Check them out at castos.com.

Hi, this is Gaby Galea, and welcome to WP Mayor Podcast. In this episode, I speak with Adrian Tobey from Groundhogg. We discuss the business part he and his team took to bring Groundhogg to where it is today. Hi, Adrian. Welcome to the show.

Adrian:
Hi, thanks for having me on. 

Gaby:
So today, Adrian, you’re from Groundhogg. We’ll be discussing mostly the business side of things. But before we get to that, can you please introduce yourself a bit, tell us a bit about your company, and just a bit of an introduction?

Adrian:
My name is Adrian. I founded Groundhogg, which is a WordPress plugin company. We build CRM and marketing automation tools for small businesses that use WordPress. I started Groundhogg back in 2018. Before that, I was actually in the WordPress space a lot already. I was working within a digital marketing agency here in Canada. I worked a lot with small businesses, at least hundreds of small businesses. I’ve built thousands of campaigns, funnels, email sequences, and sent probably in the millions of emails on behalf of other small businesses.

I did that for around three years during the time while I was going to university. While going to university and doing that job building marketing campaigns for other businesses, I thought to myself, it’d be really cool if eventually there was a business where we could do this for ourselves because we can see all of the results that we’re getting for clients. They’re doing gangbusters. 

We’re working with these incredible organizations that are solving legitimate problems for individuals and businesses. Are you familiar with the shoemaker’s son syndrome? The shoemaker’s son always has the worst shoes.

Gaby:
Yeah. 

Adrian:
Because they’re so focused on providing quality shoes for their customers that it’s the same thing as it is with most digital marketing agencies. It’s that most agencies have the worst marketing because they’re always focused on using 110% of their own marketing talent for customers to make sure that their customers get good results so that they get paid. 

While doing this and while thinking about that, we used to work a lot with a tool called Infusionsoft, which is a very popular CRM marketing automation tool for small businesses and also with tools like ActiveCampaign and HubSpot. All these are software services-based CRM and marketing automation platforms. We still do work a lot with WordPress. 

We kept running into fairly significant problems and roadblocks whenever we would onboard a new client and they’d want the whole suite. Then we’d have to spend days figuring out the best way to go and integrate the SaaS platform with their WordPress site. Was it the forms, the ecommerce site? There was a new tool every week, the integrations were always broken or something was breaking. It was just a nightmare trying to connect these two platforms together.

The website is where customers find your business. If there’s no way to collect information from them and move it to somewhere where you can communicate with them easily, then that’s a problem. It’s fairly difficult to conduct marketing in business that way. As a specific example, we work a lot with public speakers, and every time you wanted to set up a new marketing campaign, set up a speaker, or the website, the whole thing, you’d have to go through the same four-day lengthy process of getting them signed up for an account because we had to talk to a sales rep to get the account sign up.

Then you had to pay the onboarding fee. Then you had to migrate all of the campaigns, which was not simple because you had first published those campaigns to a marketplace and then they had to be approved by someone at the company. That could take days, and you had to go and you had to import them in the actual customer’s app. That was like a four-step process. You had to go tweak all the emails and the cost tends to replace all the images and stuff like that.

Then you actually have to figure now, how do we connect this to the WordPress website? What plugins do we use? What things are there, an ecommerce, or is it just a webform? At this point, I created a product called FormLift, which was specifically designed for integrating web forms on WordPress with web forms in Infusionsoft and that did okay.

Gaby:
Were you selling that as well?

Adrian:
Yeah, I was selling that. It was my first freemium business in WordPress. It was my first stab at actually selling a product and marketing that product as a product-focused individual, rather than service-focused one. I sold that through the agency. It was a nice way to create a little bit of recurring revenue with clients when they were done. It’s like, well, you still have to pay the license fee, so that was kind of nice. That only got so far into actually solving what were the critical problems, which was the time it took to get a person set up to get a client set up.

We identified all of these issues like okay, well, the migration of campaigns and emails is just way too difficult. The integration of interactions on the website to the CRM like if someone joins a group on BuddyBoss or buys a product at WooCommerce, how do we tell the CRM that and then send some sort of email or start a campaign or whatever, based on that interaction? All that is way too difficult.

So in 2018, I dropped out of university. I was going to U of T for Computer Science. I was doing it part-time because I was working at the agency full time. I did the math and I wouldn’t graduate until 2025, which was at that point, 2018 is eight years. In the future, I was like, I am not putting in the time for that. There’s no way I’m going to spend the next however many years of my life going to night school until 9:00 PM. 

And at this point, I was working on FormLift when I should have been studying for Math, which I failed in my final year, totally bombed that course. I think I got like a 49 and you needed a 51 to pass. I missed it by that much. At this point, I think we’re just going to cut our losses, so I left. Over the summer, I was like, okay, well, what do I do now? I left in the spring semester.

Gaby:
It’s quite courageous of you to do that.

Adrian:
I don’t know if it’s courageous, maybe I’m pathetic.

Gaby:
I think so. I mean, from personal experience, I’ve actually studied as an architect. So that was a really long course.

Adrian:
Oh my friend studied as an architect. He just got his master’s.

Gaby:
I’ve had those times when I thought about leaving. It’s a tough choice to make, I think.

Adrian:
Well, at this point, I was already about a year in FormLift. I built a product that people were actually willing to spend money on. It wasn’t cheap, it was like $40 a month. There’s a lot of SaaS services that are in that price range. People were used to spending that kind of money because they’re paying like $400 a month for Infusionsoft at that point. So the $40 a month to them was like, okay, and people were just willing to pay that. I’m like, that’s kind of cool. People are just willing to spend money on a couple of support tickets, then they leave, and then they’re gone. I don’t hear from them until next year when they have to renew or whatever. 

I thought that was really cool. Well, I could just spend the time that I was in school instead of marketing the product features, learning about customer acquisition, and all of those things. I decided that education through experience was better than education through the classroom. Over the summer, I learned that FormLift was not a winning product.

The problem with building products that are latched on to other products like FormLift, which was latched on to Infusionsoft, is that your maximum market penetration is only ever as large as theirs is. So if they only have 50,000 customers, my maximum capacity is 50,000 customers, which in actuality sounds pretty good. But you’re only actually getting the percentage of those customers that use WordPress, that are using web forms, or don’t have some other custom integration already. 

Your total market cap is then whittled down quite significantly to the point where I think the only real cap here is around maybe 2000–3000 people that would actually be able to consistently use the product and use it well.

The second problem of latching on to another service, and this problem exists for plugin companies who latched on to WordPress, it’s less of a problem than it is for SaaS services because they have such high churn, but you don’t own the customer. A customer for FormLift is not my customer, right? It’s actually Infusionsoft’s customer. 

If someone cancels Infusionsoft, what are they going to do with their FormLift subscription? Hit that cancel button and then you’re out of customers. If they screw up and they don’t provide a stellar customer experience, or they don’t get results for their customers, you’re on the hook and you’re providing refunds for someone else’s failure. That sucks.

WordPress doesn’t have this problem. I mean, it has this problem, but it’s not as apparent, simply because it’s so self-serve, it’s open source, and all that stuff. It doesn’t necessarily have a high churn rate as a SaaS product. It’s still something that we deal with occasionally. We’ll get cancellations for Groundhogg and we’ll ask why. We’re not using WordPress anymore. We transferred to Squarespace or something. At which point, we’re like, why would you do that? But I digress. We realized FormLift wasn’t leading products. Okay, well, what do we do now?

Gaby:
Was it just you at this point? Was it just you on the team or did you have anyone else with you?

Adrian:
Well, it’s my parents’ agency. My dad is like the marketing guy. We used to be a training company where we would go around the country, and we would train people on how to do digital marketing back when it was easy. Back when you just had to have a few block codes, throw some keywords in there and make sure it’s in the title, URL header description, and then you’d be on page one of Google. That’s as hard as it was 10–11 years ago. It’s a little bit harder. 

When the Google Panda came out, that totally killed the training company, basically. The knowledge cap was way too high for most business owners that would find themselves in our courses because they’re already doing so much. They’re taking care of clients, doing support, and actually providing the service in a lot of cases, lots of solopreneurs. They don’t have teams. They are everything. Adding marketing on top of all that was just a non-starter for most people.

In the early days of Panda, people would show up to these trainings, and we showed them everything that they needed to know. Then they’d come up to my dad at the end of these seminars. We did them live, this was pre-Zoom. We did it live. They would say, Paul, this is all great information and it sounds like it’s awesome. There is no way I’m going to be capable of doing all of it in order to actually get any results out of this. Will you do it for me? That’s where the agency started. That’s a little bit of background on that, but I’m kind of getting off-topic here so we’re going to reel that back. 

I work with my parents in a digital marketing agency. It’s me by myself doing the product stuff. It’s sort of me by myself who decided, okay, there are all these problems that exist for agencies trying to implement these marketing strategies. Let’s just fix them by creating a product, a CRM marketing automation product, that just connects or plugs into your WordPress site instantly, and then we’ll skip all the traditional problems that people have integrated. That sounded like a pretty good idea. 

In August, we built an MVP. We released the WordPress site. I took a loan from my grandfather, which I’m still paying back to cover those early expenses. I hired a developer to help out with pumping out features. Three years later, here we are still pumping out features.

Gaby:
It’s quite an interesting story. This makes perfect sense, the fact that you want to adjust the pain point that you’ve been noticing people having and yourself.

Adrian:
The best products are the ones that solve problems.

Gaby:
Yeah, exactly. We’ve seen so many products start off this way. Once you had the first version of Groundhogg, how did you decide what model to go for? Is it the freemium or the free product first?

Adrian:
Oh, this is so this is a whole other story in and of itself. I was a big believer in freemium in the early days. I’m not sure that today I would have gotten freemium. I think I would have spent a little bit more time debating whether I should just go full premium or freemium because I can tell you that going freemium in year one made it tough to actually make money. I’ll share a little bit about that story.

Number one, for FormLift, I used Easy Digital Downloads, which yesterday was announced they got acquired by Awesome Motive, which was awesome. Syed and Awesome Motive are really cool. I spent a lot of time in the Post Status Slack and I’m always complaining. Not necessarily complaining, but pointing out issues that exist with EDD and […] is in there answering me personally or getting someone to answer me. So thank you if you ever have questions, which I doubt he will but just awesome people all around. So congratulations, but I use EDD to sell everything, all my products. I used it for FormLift.

I’m looking at EDD and they look quite successful. They have like 6000 installs. They do their yearly revenue report or their yearly review report and all their revenue. They’re making money, so their model must be working. I’m just going to blatantly copy their model. I did exactly that. I blatantly copied their freemium model, do free plus add-ons, you can download the thing in the WordPress repository.

The problem that I ran into is everyone thinks when they first start a product business that if you undercut the competitor ridiculously—and when I say undercut I mean you just sell it for a fraction, fractions upon fractions of the cost of your competitor—that everyone is going to switch to you. Then you’ll get mass adoption and you can make money through something called the economy of scale. 

So I made all my stuff relatively inexpensive for our entire product suite. Everything that we had, it would only cost a business owner $199. Business owners are already paying $199 a month for the majority of the platforms that we’re competing against.

You could buy our individual extensions for $10 a year, $5, or just ridiculously low prices. It was very kind of ala carte and haphazard. I basically did that for almost a year right up until September I was doing it that way. I’m like, why the hell am I not making any money? I’m giving like $8000, $7000 a month at this point. It’s just me and another guy, but that’s even with all the hosting and everything, it’s not right. It’s just under spout breakeven, but I’m not in this business to break even. 

We want to be able to grow. We want to be able to scale and be able to add people to our show. We want to be able to help more people and pump out features faster and provide a viable service to the world.

I ended up going to CaboPress, which is Chris Lema’s event, if you’re familiar with him. I brought my problem with me. I’m like, all right, we have this great service and it works. People really love it. All of the reviews on our wordpress.org listing are five stars, but I’m not making any money, what gives?. We’re cheaper than everybody else and we provide an equal or better service than everybody else. 

I must have asked every single person of the 60 people that were there, what’s going on? Every single one of them said the same thing. It’s too cheap. There’s too much stuff in your free version. There are too many features in the free version that they don’t need to upgrade. When they do upgrade, you’re not charging enough. That’s it. Well, what do you mean, I’m not charging enough? Won’t people want to buy it because it’s not as expensive as the other people’s? 

Well, they might but that’s when you run into the cost perception fallacy. When something is cheap, it might be good, but it’s perceived as cheap. People expect that problems cost a certain amount of money. You’re not going to spend $500 to repair all your windows in your house because you know that person is going to do a bad job. You’re expecting a little bit bigger bill than that, right?

People expect that an expensive marketing problem or CRM problem is going to cost a certain amount of money. If you don’t meet that expectation in terms of cost, they’re not going to think that you can do it or that you’re going to be up to the task of solving that problem. We were actually pricing ourselves too low out of the market rather than too high out of the market, which some other organizations have that issue. We were totally just out of the gate, out of even the running because people looked at our pricing page and are like, there’s no way, it’s too good to be true.

After that event, I came back and I scaled back the level of premium features that we offered and the free version. Everyone that already had it got to keep it, but for new people signing up, I scaled back the amount that we give. I removed every single mention of free on our website. You will not see free on our pricing page and on our homepage. You will not see it anywhere. We have one web page called 4/free that mentions it. If you google groundhog free, it’ll show up. 

There are two ways that people sign up for WordPress plugins. They go to the WordPress repository, they find what they want, they test it out, they like it, then they invest if they do. That’s great and all, but that takes a certain amount of time, and that leaves a lot of opportunities for them to fall off the bandwagon in terms of the onboarding experience.

Stuff happens, life happens, priorities change, whatever. As a business owner, you want to eliminate the possibility of someone not being able to spend money on your product. You want to remove as many opportunities for that to happen. So if they go to your website first, you don’t mention the free, you don’t say you can go to the repository first. You say, buy it, and then decide.

There’s a 14-day money-back guarantee and your odds of getting a customer are significantly higher than going to the WordPress repository first. We have around 10% to 15% conversion rate from free to paid at the moment if they go to the repository first. But if they come to the website first, it’s a little bit higher. Actually, it’s a lot higher if they come to the website first.

Gaby:
Do you need the free plugin to then upgrade or you can just go ahead and purchase the paid versions?

Adrian:
Again, we do offer a freemium. Behind all of the pricing pages and everything in the marketing is, at the end of the day, a freemium product. They still need the version that’s from the repository installed on their website. But if they go and they buy the pricing, they get their onboarding email and they go to the onboarding screen, it’s like download this, this, this, this, this, install it, and you’re going to be good to go.

To someone signing up all through the website, you may not even ever realize that there is a free version. I like it that way because I think today, I would have gone premium only because while you do offer a freemium plugin, just the other day, I had this experience. We have a live chat on our website. Someone comes on the live chat. It’s like, I want this integration.

I’m like, great, it’s included in our pro plan or you can buy it separately. It’s like, but it says you’re open source. I’m like, yeah, but we’re also a business. We sell add-ons and extensions so that we can support the people that we employ, provide more features, and continue to operate.

He’s like, all right, well, I’m going to need a 60-day free trial to make sure that it’s going to work for me. I’m like, I’m sorry, but that’s just not something that we can do. We offer a 14-day demo, which is hosted on the site that we can provide for you, or we have a 14-day money-back guarantee. He’s like, well, this just isn’t the WordPress play. I’m like, okay.

If you were just a premium plugin, that’s not something that we would have to deal with. That’s just not something that we have had to deal with. I understand where he’s coming from. There are a lot of people in the WordPress community who believe in open source and free first. That’s fine, but more and more and more, we see that the economy of WordPress is moving towards pay-to-play. I think that’s a good thing. When people invest in products, the products that you get tend to be better than if you don’t.

Gaby:
And they stick around for much longer.

Adrian:
And they stick around for much longer because life happens. We’ve seen this happen to many plugins. If you’re the sole contributor, you don’t have a business model, it’s free, and it’s just a labor of love, that’s awesome. But if something happens to you, what happens to those things? They get brought on to the Automattic mothball fleet of plugins.

We’ve seen that happen with dozens of contributors over the years where plugin gets abandoned, but lots of people use them. Automattic says we’ll take care of it, it gets mothballed, casual security update. 

You build a user plugin as a business. If something happens to you, someone will buy it, your family’s taken care of, they get a nice check, it gets added to their plugin suite, which is all integrated together, business models, payments, and your customers, the people who are using it are then taken care of because they know that whoever has bought that service from you is going to continue to provide that service.

Just a few thoughts on that. Today, I think I would go full premium. I think going from a premium-first mindset of our business rather than a freemium-focused mindset, just going premium-first, it’s like, don’t even bother installing the free version. If someone gives us a hard time on our chat, it’d be like, if we want a free trial or whatever of this. I’m like, well, you can install the free version that’s available on wordpress.org, you can do that.

Most of the time, we don’t even mention it. It’s like, come on the pricing page, pick a plan that you want, get started, don’t goof around, don’t waste time. You want to invest and you want to get results, just go buy.

Gaby:
Yeah. I think this would be a bit daunting just going premium first for a new plugin, but I totally see your points.

Adrian:
A lot of people that we work with. We don’t usually work with Joe Blow WordPresser. He works with businesses that use WordPress as a means to an end. They don’t go to WordCamps, they don’t contribute. They don’t read the WP Tavern or WP Mayor. They don’t listen to these podcasts.

They have a WordPress site because the web designer that they hired to build the website used WordPress, and now they need a CRM and marketing automation plugin. They task their designer or whatever to go find one that works with WordPress, and then they ended up on our website. They don’t care about what’s in the repository and what’s not, they want a solution to their problem. The faster they get that solution, the more they’re willing to pay.

Speaking of which, after coming back from CaboPress, we looked at our pricing model. I told you that I scaled back free to provide the bare minimum of what something useful would be. It’s still useful and you can use it as a free user, and it does a lot. It’s got the full CRM in there. We didn’t scale anything back on the CRM side. It’s got the full thing in there.

It’s got most of the marketing automation features, it’s got the email builder. It’s got everything that you need like all the integrations, all of the add-ons for companies, sales pipelines, and all that stuff, we all took that back. We doubled the price of what you would need for the whole suite. The whole suite is now at $480.

Before, we had plans. We had four different plans, but the only differentiation between each plan was the number of sites that you could install all of the features on. We scaled that back and we made it so that our cheapest plan would start with $240, the same plan or even more than the cost of what our old plan was for everything. That plan, $240, has premium support and just a few of the more basic add-ons, just the basic brochure business that doesn’t need a whole lot. That’s the most basic stuff. 

Our plus plan, it’s all of our in-house built add-ons like our sales pipeline, booking calendar, payments, and all that stuff goes in plus. Then on our pro plan, which is like the pièce de résistance and it constitutes 90% of all sales. It has all of the integrations like WooCommerce, LearnDash, LifterLMS, BuddyBoss, Elementor, everything, plus some of the more complex add-ons that could be products in and of themselves, $480 for five sites in that category. Immediately after making that change, 300% revenue boost within three months. It was really crazy.

Gaby:
So you didn’t really receive any pushback from your clients when this change was put into place?

Adrian:
I got two emails from people who disagreed with this change. But the vast majority of the feedback that I received was like, hey, listen, whatever you got to do to stay in business because this product is awesome, you’re awesome, we want you to stay around because it’s a great product, and you need to run a viable business, we get that, so we support you. I also only did this with 500 users. It might be a little bit more difficult for a company with tens of thousands, but at that point, we were relatively new.

Gaby:
Do you ever see yourself going fully premium or are you tied to this freemium?

Adrian:
No. I believe in the freemium model when done right. I think the way that we’re doing it is doing freemium right. At least for a WordPress plugin, there are companies like Canva who are a freemium business. They have a $40 billion valuation or whatever it is right now. They do freemium quite well and it’s great. Being a freemium WordPress plugin is tough if you don’t know how to turn people using freemium customers.

Gaby:
That was my next question. It was one of the toughest things to do, right?

Adrian:
If you can’t convert free to paid, that’s a problem. Most developers are not marketers, and this is no fault of their own. There are just some different skill sets. But the problem is you can’t hire a marketer, you don’t have sales because you need the money to go hire the marketer. Developers are often too focused on their own projects, the features, bugs, and whatnot.

They can’t decide, all right, I have to go find money today. I’m guilty of this all the time, I often put off finding money for development. I do that all the time. But we have to realize like, oh, […], revenue is down this month, but I got to spend some time, I got to make some connections, I got to write some blog posts, I got to post videos, I got to do something to drum up a little business.

I did that this month. I’m like, all right, we need sales, we need to go find someone to promote this. So what can we do? We can build an integration with the company and we can access their list. I do this all the time. I did it with BuddyBoss, I did it with LifterLMS, I did it with […], I did it with a bunch of people.

I will build an integration with their products, and then I will go to them and say, hey, listen, we have this really cool thing. It does this, this, and this, and we built an integration. Would you share it with your people? No one has ever told me no, that they were unwilling to share. They’re like, yeah, we’ll share and we’ll write a blog post, we can do a webinar, we can have a great time, and that’d be awesome.

Gaby:
That’s a smart way of doing things.

Adrian:
Just this month, I did integration with MemberPress, which we didn’t have before. I contacted them and I was like, hey, we have this integration. They’re like, oh, that’s super awesome. If you write a blog post about it we’ll put it on our blog and we’ll send it to our list. I’m like, that’s great.

Gaby:
I guess you also get access to older affiliate partners writing about you. It’s like get to knowing.

Adrian:
Yeah, it trickles. I do podcasts. I come on shows like this. I share my story and my journey in the hopes of inspiring people in similar situations to change it up and do something to help themselves. I guess my marketing strategy for turning free people into paid is don’t market free.

If you market free, if you spend all your time letting people know that your product is free, you set the expectation on the user’s behalf because they’re not a customer because they haven’t spent any money, that what you are giving them ought to be free. 

If you spend all your time marketing free and then all of a sudden you’re like a paywall, the reaction from the users is going to be like, oh, I thought this is free. This is outrageous. I am not using your plugin anymore, sir, and I’m going to uninstall and I’m going to go find somebody else who’s going to give it to me for free. That’s what happens.

Gaby:
Apart from content marketing, what else did you find that works apart from podcasts? We’ve mentioned podcasts as well. Do you do video, for example?

Adrian:
I’ll just share my strategy quickly for getting on the podcast. In the early days, sometimes I get invited and that’s cool. Most of the time, we still do outreach though. For my first round of 10 podcasts that I did way back in 2019, I basically googled WordPress podcasts and agency podcasts because we also do a lot of work with agencies and not just people within the WordPress community.

I just clicked on every single search result. Anyone that had a contact form, I would just send my information like, hey, I have this cool product and I’d love to be able to share it with your audience. If you’re interested, let me know. I got maybe 15%, 10% response rate. I would do a show, then another podcaster would listen to that show, then I get invited on that show, then I’d end up on a forum, and then someone on the forum was a podcast and like, would you like to come on my show? Then it was just like the snowball effect.

I think the first podcast that started that was WP-Tonic with Jonathan Denwood, which I actually co-hosted for a bit after that. That’s how the podcast marketing strategy started which had this snowball effect. So if you got a great product and you know how to solve people’s problems, google WordPress podcasts, and anyone who has a contact form, just blatantly market yourself. Not everyone will respond, but you’ll get a 10% response back.

Gaby:
You might end up here on this podcast.

Adrian:
You might end up here and that’d be great. I reached out to you, I think, through Twitter. Someone told me to reach out, then I did, and here I am. Other than podcasting and content marketing, networking. The WordPress business network is real. It is very cliquey, it is very culty, and it exists. It’s in Post Status, which is now owned by Cory Miller, who’s a friend of mine now, which is awesome because Cory Miller is a great guy. He used to run iThemes before he sold it to the […]. Now he runs Post Status. Basically, the who’s who of WordPress is in Post Status.

Gaby:
Yeah, we’re also there too, both Mark and myself.

Adrian:
Exactly. The who’s who of WordPress is in Post Status. That’s where the acquisition news gets dropped first.

Gaby:
It’s very true, yeah.

Adrian:
That’s where decisions about marketing and business are made. So if you’re a business owner or WordPress business owner and you’re not in Post Status, you’re out of the loop, and that sucks. It’s like a $99 membership fee or something. Just go do that and start being part of the conversation.

One of the things that I did, as you see, I have this orange background behind me. I painted my wall groundhog orange so that it would match the profile picture that I use on social media and in Post Status, Slack, and things like that. My profile picture stands out because there’s a big orange square.

Everyone else has a moderate, blue sky color background. Then it’s just like me, it’s just orange, and it’s just in your face. So that when I participate, it’s like, oh, that’s Adrian. They don’t even see my face or my name, they see that orange square, and they know exactly who it is.

Gaby:
That’s very true.

Adrian:
So that when I participate in conversations, it’s like, oh, that’s a great answer, Adrian. I’m going to DM Adrian and see if we can make something happen, which has happened a few times. Those are just some of the ways that I use or leverage networking. Also, it’s not all about networking for the gains of monetary value, but I have genuine, good relationships with people like Chris Padgett from LifterLMS, Fernando who’s now at WishList, or Tracy from WishList, Jack Arturo from the WP Fusion, Jonathan Denwood, and Spencer Forman.

There are so many people that I’ve met throughout my WordPress tenure that if I need help, I can just go ask for it with no expectation of something in return. Then they’ll come to me and they’ll say, hey, I need some advice on this and I’ll be like, well, here’s what I think. Here’s my opinion on it, here’s some code, or some software to solve that problem for you.

Gaby:
Yeah, the community is real.

Adrian:
The business community. The product owner community is very real. It’s not catty like some of the WordPress forums can be toxic. It’s very scratch my back, I scratch yours kind of feel. You just have to join the Post Status Slack, and you have to participate. You have to add value.

Gaby:
That’s something that I, myself, need to work on, for example. I’ve been in WordPress now for one and a half years. The podcasts are one of the things that I’ve done to start communicating with the WordPress community. It’s been great so far. Definitely, you need to push yourself a bit, but you’ll find that so many people are ready to help. This is great.

Adrian:
Adding value is the one caveat to this whole thing. You can network great and you can be a part of the conversation, but if you don’t add value to the conversation, then you’re not helping and the law of reciprocity does not kick in. So if someone’s got a question, you have to go above and beyond to be like, all right, here’s my experience, here’s my case points or my case studies for that experience, and here’s what I would do in this situation.

You have to help. Without helping first, the law of reciprocity doesn’t kick in and you don’t receive. That’s the one caveat. If you’re going to network, you don’t network from expecting but of giving. Then you can expect to expect in return after that, but it’s chicken before the egg kind of thing.

For example, with this MemberPress thing, I’m like, I need more business. It’s like, what can I do? I can create an integration because I know that works. I created the integration first. I didn’t say, if you market this, I’ll build integration. That’s not what I did.

Now I built it first whether or not they decided they wanted to help out or whatever, but I knew it would add value to our members, and it would add value to their members. They were more than happy to say, no problem. We can stick your blog post in our thing and send it to our list. That’s great.

Gaby:
You have to change your mindset to the way you’re describing it, you’ll get so much in return.

Adrian:
Yeah, for sure. Definitely. Coming on this show, I have no expectations of getting anything out of the show other than hoping that people will learn from all of my failures, mistakes, and things that I did. I’m not saying that I am an expert in this or whatsoever. It took me probably a good year and a half before I really got into the swing of it, learning how to play the game as it were, and be a contributing member of the WordPress business community.

For the first year, I was just holed up in my office, typing away at the keyboard, banging out features, and hoping that someone would stumble across and buy it. That was my first year before I clued in. If that’s where you’re at, it’s no fault of your own. It’s like you don’t know, you don’t know. Hopefully, hearing this piqued interest and be like, oh, maybe there’s something I don’t know.

Gaby:
As I said, I’m quite new to the business side of things, but I have been involved in the Spotlight plugin that our company has built. It’s an Instagram feed plugin. I guess, once it was on wordpress.org, the number one thing we were looking for is those reviews coming in. Because the first thing, I guess, anyone really looks at nowadays is the social proof that you need to sell your product. Was it easy to get those reviews in? Did you work on it yourself? Did you reach out to your customers?

Adrian:
Out of, I think, 103 reviews, we have 99 five-star ones, which is pretty good. Our active install rate is between 2000 and 3000. That’s a fairly decent percentage of the user base to actually leave a five-star review. There are a couple of ways that we encourage that to happen. Number one is that we provide a good product and good service.

Gaby:
Of course.

Adrian:
Out of the 99 five-star reviews that we have, I think 99% of them mentioned support—the very high-quality level of support that we provide. We don’t do free support. We don’t provide support for free for our products. If you want to get access to our help desk, you have to have a license. I think most people will appreciate and understand.

The team’s time is valuable. We’re focused on providing excellent service. It’s hard to do that if we have a ton of free people jamming it up, for example. That’s why we can provide such a high-quality level of support because we only provide it to the customers. That’s mentioned in most of those five-star reviews. That’s step number one. If you’re not providing great service, it’s going to be hard.

Gaby:
Let me just stop you right there. These reviews that you’re getting on wordpress.org, you’re getting premium users going in and leaving a review. Is that correct?

Adrian:
Yeah.

Gaby:
Okay. Is that difficult to get?

Adrian:
It’s not if you ask for it. The key to getting a review is to ask for it. People generally only leave reviews unencouraged if they have something bad to say. If they don’t have something nice to say, people often leave a bad review. It happens. If you go to a restaurant and there’s a hair in your food, you can damn well be sure there’s going to be a review on Google Places. That’s just how it is.

But people who have good experiences are less likely to leave a review because they had a good experience. That’s what they expected. They expected to have a good experience. So it’s not uncommon for them, and then they just go about their day. You have to interrupt that process by explicitly saying, did you have a good experience? If you did, would you consider sharing your experience with others?

There’s a couple of ways that we do that. I mentioned that 99% of those five-star reviews happen because they had a great experience or they mentioned our great support. That’s because when we close a support ticket and they had a successful support experience, the first email that they get is, how would you rate your support experience, one to five stars? If they click on the five-star, it brings them right over the wordpress.org with the new review load saying, would you take five minutes and leave a five-star review?

They’re more than happy to do that because they just had a great experience. Great, that’s awesome. We send an email reminder seven days after they buy the plugin. It’s like, how are you enjoying Groundhogg? How would you rate your onboarding experience, one to five stars? They click on five stars and it brings them over to wordpress.org.

If they click four or five, it brings them to wordpress.org, to the reviews page. If they click one to three, we bring them to a page on our website that we call triage where it’s a booking link with our experts team, where they get the opportunities like, hey, listen, whatever it costs your bad experience to rate this poorly, we want to resolve it and we want to make sure that you get your sheet answered. Book a half-hour with our success team and we’ll make sure you get sorted out. Then we turn that three-star into a five-star.

Gaby:
Smart, yeah.

Adrian:
We call it our review generator funnel because it just generates five-star reviews. It generated 99 of them. We also have the really annoying pop-up in the WordPress admin that everybody hates. It works. The numbers don’t lie.

Gaby:
So it does work?

Adrian:
It works. The reason everybody has them is because they work. We have the metrics. The numbers don’t lie. Some of them are more annoying than others. Some of them, when you click dismiss, it doesn’t go away. Ours, if you dismiss it, goes away permanently. We also have the remind me later or whatever.

The reason that we have so many is because we know when to ask. That’s half the battle is when do you ask? You ask when they’re feeling good. They’re feeling good when they have their support ticket answered, when they’ve experienced something in your plugin that gets them positive results, like sending the first email broadcast, for example. If you send an email broadcast, guess what shows up in the plugin? That review bar.

That’s half the battle. If you’re trying to figure out, all right, when do we ask for a review? For your product, Spotlight, when do you ask for a review? You’ll probably ask for it after they put the Instagram feed shortcode on the WordPress page and they see their Instagram feed for the first time. That’d probably be a good start, or if they have a support ticket, they get the support ticket answered. Ask for a review. It’s like, hey, if you had a great experience, would you mind taking two minutes? 

That’s also important, specifying the amount of time that they have to invest. Because some people might think it might be like a G2 review, which takes like 10 minutes or Capterra review takes like 10 minutes to leave earlier. Oh my God, I wonder how many reviews are abandoned because their proces is so long. It’s like, we have to verify your identity and yada yada yada. 

I just send them to wordpress.org. That’s going to take you a minute if you already have wordpress.org. If you don’t, then that’s a bummer because it takes a little bit longer at that point. But I’ve had people, customers who actually were so emphatically impressed with our service that they spent the five minutes that it takes to create a wordpress.org account so that the first thing that they do with it would be to leave us a review.

Gaby:
Wow. Yeah, that’s great.

Adrian:
I’m not saying this to impress anybody. I’m just saying this to impress upon you that the method works. Whether you nail it when they’re happy, they’re enjoying, and they’re having a good time, and their problem is solved, if you just sneak in and it’s like, let’s just turn this into a positive energy moment. They’re more than happy to reciprocate. Again, it’s that law of reciprocation.

Gaby:
Timing is everything in this case. Very interesting. I think one final thing I want to discuss with you is you mentioned that you’re the developer of the plugin. You started off as the developer.

Adrian:
I am a developer of the plugin.

Gaby:
Okay. Now you’ve got others on the team. I understand that you recently shifted over to a React version of the plugin, am I right? How did that go? Why did you decide to go for it?

Adrian:
I wanted to share this experience because it was a painful one. One that we are recovering from, and one that I hope that this experience will spare other developers that make similar errors and judgment. We did well in 2020. We came away from 2020 with a bit of profit in year two, which for most tech companies, that’s pretty good.

I’m thinking to myself, we have to make some major improvements to our platform. We have new competitors on the market, it’s heating up. There are acquisitions happening left and right, we have to prepare. We have to prepare ourselves. We have to get some stuff with our products up to date. 

We see Gutenberg coming out and all of these other plugins with massive development teams. I don’t have a massive development team. I have a small one, which is fine. We get a lot of work done but just between ourselves. They have these massive elements with these experts, tons of equity, money coming from X-Hosting company, or whatever to make it happen, and everyone’s moving to React, which is just like the thing to do now. It’s like the hot topic.

I’m looking at our profit, I’m like, okay, we can afford to run a loss for a few months, bring on some top talents in the React field, and get this product switched over in a few months. So eight months later and $100,000 in, we had pretty much nothing usable. We were rebuilding. Our core feature is our email builder, our funnel editor, and the whole CRM in React.

There were a lot of factors that led to the total failure of this project. Number one, from me as a leader, was a lack of clear direction. Clear direction probably wasn’t established until the third month. We kept pivoting and the way that we want to do things. The plan from the beginning was not well thought out. I probably gave a little bit too much leeway to the developers that we did hire to come up with their own decisions—bad idea.

There are a lot of different management books out there that I’ll tell you to do one thing or the other. I subscribed to the ideal that I didn’t want to micromanage anybody. If you left them to their devices, they would figure it out. That’s not true. Clear direction is necessary, and then they can fill in the blanks. But giving them an end result without directions on how to get there will end up in this epically, curly path, spiral.

If you’ve ever seen the life diagram, everyone thinks life is a straight line, but no, it goes back and twists on yourself, doubles back, and everything. That’s what the development cycle looked like. So there were a lot of things that resulted in this project’s failure, lack of clear direction, the fact that the technology is just hard.

We had a lot of legacy stuff and a lot of backward compatibility stuff that needed to be taken into consideration. Moving to React, using the libraries, and all that stuff was just hard. There’s a lot of stuff to wrap your mind around. So at the eight-month mark, we probably invested around $100,000.

No, we did invest around $100,000 in at this point and have been operating at a loss for months trying to get this thing out, which we can afford to do. So it’s fine, but the company’s supposed to make money. I’m looking at the balance sheet and I’m like, this cannot go on. This is unsustainable. I let them go.

Gaby:
So the product wasn’t even finished. Is that what you mean?

Adrian:
No. It wasn’t even close. So I let one of them go and the other one left on their own devices because they just knew that they couldn’t cut it. Life gets in the way and you know how it is. HR is hard. At that point, the rest of the team and I, we pivot. We totally just scrap all the React stuff that we did and we go back. It’s like, all right, how can we get what we want without that and just using the tools and technology that we know?

We were able to develop based on just good old-fashioned jQuery, Vanilla JavaScript, and built-in the WordPress REST API, just stuff that already exists, and is relatively well-documented. People know what’s going on. It’s not going to be a total wake-up call for any third-party developers like integrating things with Groundhogg. They can just use the tools that we know and we are probably 95% of the way to where our finished product with React would have been without it. Just using stuff that we already knew.

So to anyone who’s currently in that position, thinking, oh my God, if I don’t migrate over to this, no one’s ever going to use my product and we’re going to fall behind or whatever. Maybe if you know React at the back of your hand, maybe it’s worthwhile. We’ve not and we spent a lot of money to learn that. Sometimes all you just need is just a rethinking of what you can do with your current tools at your disposal rather than just going on buying a whole set of tools.

Gaby:
I’m not sure. I’m not a developer, but maybe starting a new plugin with React is maybe easier than shifting to another.

Adrian:
I’m sure it is. I’m sure it is easier or a ground-up rebuild. That’s just not in the realm of possibility for us because we have thousands of businesses using our product. We can’t just start from scratch. We have to push backward compatibility, evolve custom code flying all over the place. It’s prolific.

Gaby:
Adrian, it was great chatting with you. I’ve learned a lot, personally. It’s been so insightful for new product owners or even product owners who are deciding on making some changes. It was a great chat. I also have something special for our listeners, which is I don’t know if you want to introduce this, a 15% off on Groundhogg. All you need to do is use the coupon code, WPMAYOR15OFF. We’ll put this in the show notes too. It’s been very eye-opening speaking with you.

Adrian:
I appreciate you having me on and I appreciate being able to share my story. I hope that someone listening to this finds some value in it and can maybe skip a few steps. I learned everything the hard way.

Gaby:
I guess we all do, but it’s great to hear other people’s experiences. I’m very happy that Groundhogg is doing so well. You seem to have a great team with you.

Adrian:
Yeah, I’m very proud of our team. Again, that code. If you are in need of your small business and in need of CRM and marketing automation, maybe you’re with ActiveCampaign, HubSpot, or MailChimp, as soon as you scale up, the problem is your bill also tends to scale up with you, and that can suck.

An alternative option, Groundhogg is a flat-rate fee. That means you pay one price no matter what the size of your business is. It’s a self-installed WordPress plugin. You can go to groundhogg.io/pricing to see the plans that we have there, probably do the pro plan, and use WPMAYOR15OFF to get 15% off the first year of any order.

Gaby:
Perfect. Thank you, Adrian, for being on the show.

Adrian:
Thank you for having me.

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About the Show

Join us as we introduce you to some of our friends in the WordPress community.

Learn all about their products and services and discover business techniques to help you enhance your WordPress business.

Meet your host

Meet your host

Gaby Galea

Gaby is the Content Manager at WP Mayor and your new host on the WP Mayor podcast! She is passionate about learning how to start, maintain and grow a WordPress business. Follow her on Twitter @GabriellaGalea.

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