The WP Mayor Podcast

The Business Behind WordPress Plugins with WPChill

In this episode, Gaby and Mark talk to Cristian Raiber, CEO of WPChill, a company that offers the Download Monitor, Strong Testimonials, and Modula plugins.   

Share this episode:

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter

What goes into the process of developing, acquiring, starting, and maintaining a WordPress plugin? 

In this episode, Gaby and Mark talk to Cristian Raiber, CEO of WPChill, a company that offers the Download Monitor, Strong Testimonials, and Modula plugins.   

WPChill is a WordPress development studio located in Romania. Currently, WPChill’s products power more than 600,000 online businesses and have been downloaded over 5.8 million times. 

Episode Highlights and Topics

  • 2020 Year in Review: Cristian shares numbers, graphs, and future plans for WPChill.
  • WPChill: Started with WP theme shop and switched back to agency work to survive.
  • Modula: WPChill saved up enough money in one year to buy and acquire first plugin.
  • What and Why: Build on products that help people, solve a need, and solve a problem.
  • Partnerships/Collaboration: As WordPress matures, there’s more money and players.
  • User Feedback: Customers tell companies not what they want, but how to fix a problem.
  • Freemium/Premium Models: Depends on financial support to build user base/feedback.
  • Plugins: Data need to be collected, analyzed to understand user experience, personas.
  • Platforms and Plugins: SaaS solutions moving into WordPress space for convenience.

About Cristian Raiber

Cristian Raiber

Cristian is a self-taught entrepreneur that works with WordPress on a daily basis. He’s continuously challenging to grow, learn more and expand his horizons. He currently manages the entire team + products at WPChillHQ on top of honing his product development and strategy skills. You can find him on Twitter – @CristianRaiber – or on his blog.

Resources/Links

Transcript

Gaby:
Hi, Cristian. Welcome to The WP Mayor podcast. It’s nice to have you on.

Cristian:
Thank you for having me. I’m super excited. This is actually my second podcast. The first one was with Chris Badgett from LifterLMS. It was awesome. Thank you for having me.

Gaby:
Today we’re joined by Mark Zahra, who’s the CEO of RebelCode. RebelCode incorporates WP Mayor, WP RSS Aggregator, and also Spotlight. Mark has a background in developing plugins which you have as well. I think we can discuss the process behind plugin development, acquiring plugins, and all that.

I started off by reading your 2020 year-in-review on your website. You emphasized that you want to speak about your mission more this year. To start off, maybe you can tell us who you are, what you do, and why you do what you do.

Cristian:
Sure. My name is Cristian. I’m the guy behind wpchill.com. That’s pretty much our umbrella corporation website where every one of our products lives under. We are the people behind plugins such as Modula Image Gallery, Strong Testimonials, and more recently, Download Monitor. I personally started with WordPress, I think 10 years ago. We started off with themes. Five years ago, I think we entered the theme market space.

It was right about the time when Zerif Lite was making huge waves in the industry and was changing the rules of how themes were being displayed on the themes repository. We built a competing product. This competing product was gaining huge popularity.

We ended up hiring a bunch of people to work with us because we were growing so fast. In about three or four months’ time, the themes team changed the way the algorithm works and ranks themes at the top. We went from here in terms of revenue to way down here overnight. It was super painful and super unexpected.

Basically, the way they’ve changed the algorithm, if you are not present on the market at that point, it was favoring older themes who had active installs, which we didn’t have, because our theme was barely five months old, even though it was making a ton of money at the time. I think we had to go back to what we were used to doing, which was agency work. We had done that previously for five years. That’s a total of 10 years I mentioned.

We did that for about two or three years just to survive, just to be able to keep our employees and not have to fire anyone. We’re not making any profit. I think at some point, we were making a very small profit and monthly profit. We saved all that money to acquire our first plugin, which is Modula. I remember to this day, we saved up our money for one year and we bought Modula for close to $10,000, which seemed at that time an insanely huge amount of money, a huge pile of cash.

Just imagine having those bills in a suitcase, handing it over. It was making about $300 or $400 a month. I think I acquired that plugin and just kept it there for about a year-and-a-half because I literally didn’t know what to do with it. All of our experiences, all of our background was in the themes. This sudden change into the plugins market space, which was led not only by the algorithm change on the themes repository but also by the fact that it was this constant race to the bottom.

Everyone was fighting to get the lowest possible price with the most features. It’s impossible to compete. We’re from Romania, which doesn’t have living expenses as high as the US, but it doesn’t have living expenses as low as other countries in the world who can get by with, I don’t know, way less than we do here. It was impossible to compete on that level, more features, less money. It was impossible for us.

That’s when I decided, okay, we’re going to switch plugins. We got a year and a half to actually figure out what we want to do with Modula. I think it happened almost 2½ years ago when we actually started going into plugins. In that time, we’ve acquired so many more plugins. We’ve built Modula from 4,000 active users to close to 100,000 right now.

Strong Testimonials as well is the leading testimonials plugin on the WordPress repository. We’ve recently acquired Download Manager but this hasn’t been announced yet. It’s been our biggest acquisition so far. I’m super excited about what the future holds for this plugin. We’ve acquired a bunch of other small plugins. Now that I think of it, it looks like we haven’t built any of our plugins. We’ve just been acquiring plugins left and right.

Gaby:
I was going to ask you that, in fact.

Cristian:
Yeah, I think there’s a point, especially when you have a team and you’re paying salaries, you’re paying developers. You have a decent-sized development team, like four or five people. Paying all salaries for five people for two months to develop a brand new plugin is pretty much close to acquiring the plugin in terms of financial value. It simply doesn’t make sense to me at this point to build it from the ground up, when I could acquire it for the same amount and just start using those initial blocks that the original developer built and start adding on top of it.

This is what we do. I don’t know actually about why we’re doing this. Most companies are driven by the CEO’s mission and values. This is true in most cases, 99% of the cases. If you get to know the CEO, you basically know where they’re going. I like building products that help people, that solve a need, that solve a problem. This is why we do what we do. I take great pleasure from receiving great reviews, or people seeing our products and going, oh my God, this fixes my problem, exactly, no one else does this, I love this. 

That is an encouragement to continue doing this. This is what I love to do. This is what I want to continue doing for the future, going forward. I want to keep doing this for as long as possible. It’s a learning journey. It’s the experimentation journey because you get to experiment with a lot of stuff. You have all these crazy ideas, your team has ideas as well. We try to implement those. We do A/B tests. It’s a lot of fun. It’s way more fun than having a job.

Gaby:
I’ve recently come into the WordPress community. It’s nice to see how everyone has this mentality of wanting to help everyone else. It’s nice to see.

Cristian:
I think it’s a requirement to actually be able to succeed in the WordPress space. If you’re just about business, you’re pretty much going to get singled out in a corner and everyone goes, well, they have a decent product, but you don’t care about your users. I see this, usually with reviews with the review system on wordpress.org.

Mark:
It’s good to hear you say this because it’s pretty much how we work as well on how we structure everything we focus on, essentially, especially putting a focus on the collaboration and partnership sides. The fact that you’re on this call with us today giving us an insight into your company, your products, and the way you run things. It’s exactly what the WordPress community is about, where it’s not every business for themselves, or the company for themselves, or every individual for themselves. Everyone collaborates together and we’re seeing it a lot from the acquisitions that are happening on a weekly basis right now.

Cristian:
I think the acquisition space right now is super hot. A lot of old shops, for example, last night, I think IconicWP got acquired. I was surprised to see they’ve been on the market for (I think) nine or eight years now. I can’t remember exactly, but it was somewhere in that time range. Wow! I can’t believe he held onto all these products for nine years and he’s pretty much been a super small team that develops this.

I’ve talked to James in the past. He’s great. It makes sense because going forward, we see a lot of hosting companies moving into this space. As WordPress matures and reaches even more websites in terms of percentage rate – right now it’s about close to 42% of all websites on the internet – we’re going to start seeing bigger and bigger players stepping into this space because right now, as Matt put it in one of his videos, WordPress is the operating system of the web. And that makes sense.

When you look at it this way, there’s so much more money to be made than we realize. People with newer teams, bigger financial interests are stepping into this space. I think we’re somewhat lucky that companies such as Liquid Web are acquiring most plugins because they have a sense of community and have been involved in the community for a very long time. 

For example, a guy who’s leading the acquisitions is actually Chris Lema. He’s been in this space for 25 years. He’s one of the most well-known and respected guys in this space. One of the reasons why I think people are selling to him is because he’s been so active in this space. He has been honest – open about why he does, what he thinks, how he wants to help other people. Without aligning yourself with WordPress core values, I don’t think there’s a way to succeed in this space. If you’re not genuinely aligned with these values, you’re not going to get anywhere with this, if you’re just in to make some quick money.

Mark:
You can make some quick money in the short term, but there’s no long-term play unless you’re involved.

Cristian:
You’re going to be destroyed by someone else who has a better-aligned system value with WordPress, and is going to step in, and offer what the users want. We see this all the time. For example, one space where I’ve seen this happen and is notoriously happening is the speed optimization space. You constantly see new players entering that space offering solutions that were once paid-only solutions. For example, image optimization, we now have a handful of image optimization solutions that are absolutely free. In the past users were paying by the image or by the size of the image to get it optimized. Now it’s free.

We’ve seen a lot of this movement where people are figuring out ways to add this for free and upsell maybe a service. In a way, it’s interesting what’s happening with also opening and a lot of new opportunities. For example – you guys – I think Mark actually runs Spotlight WP, which is sort of Instagram for WordPress. Could you fill this in for me just to make sure I get it right?

Mark:
Yeah, it’s an Instagram feed plugin. You can embed your Instagram feed on your websites, you can put tagged posts, put hashtag feeds – any images for a particular hashtag – on Instagram. We’re expanding it further now. For example, having it used as a link-in-bio solution instead of the likes of Linkin.bio or Linktree.

Cristian:
Similar to Linktree?

Mark:
Yeah. It’s expanding a bit. I think similar to what you’re saying is, there’s a lot of competition out there now with free plugins, especially the use of the freemium model as we do. Just offering basic options will not work. You need to go above and beyond that. I think we’re seeing that a lot in the WordPress space where it’s no longer enough to just have a basic solution or something which everyone else has done. You need to differentiate yourself somehow.

For example, I was looking at Modula recently, and I noticed something I hadn’t seen before (I haven’t used it in a while) where you can resize the images in the gallery, stretch them out onto a grid, which is really interesting. It’s something I hadn’t seen before, but it’s really cool because you can create your own custom layout entirely.

Cristian:
Yeah, it’s a cool feature. It’s one of those features that pretty much came out of user feedback. It’s funny how user feedback actually works because users don’t really tell you what they want. They tell you the problem and they tell you how they want to fix it themselves. Sometimes it’s a gold nugget because they tell you potentially an exact solution. Other times they tell, well, I went into this, and I clicked on this, and then I wanted to do this, and this, and this, and it has to work with this.

That’s not actually the problem. They’re describing their process. They’re not describing the actual problem. A few years ago, a user reached out to us on our support and said something along the lines of, well, I have these pictures, and I shot them in landscape and portrait because I think this showcases in the best way the subject, what I’m actually shooting. I want to display them in the gallery side by side.

Every algorithm out there uses the masonry layout, which basically crops down the image to one size and then shows them next to each other. I started looking into this and started thinking about how we could fix this. I was sure this is a problem for photographers. That’s how we invented the custom grid algorithm which is super loved by most of our users.

Don’t get me wrong. We were super naive into thinking that, well, we’re going to release this and it’s going to be adopted. We’re going to get famous for this and the users are going to love it. They do love it, but you can’t imagine how many problems it has created by being first in the space with a solution like this. You basically invented the wheel and then you’re going to have to figure out how to fix it yourself. Ever since everything is actually displaying images on a website, it’s as easy as it ever dealt with images.

Images on the web are probably one of the hardest things to get right. You have resizing on various mobile breakpoints. You have image optimization, which by the way, is something we offer on all of our paid plans. Anyone who uses Modula, with one-click follow – basically, it’s just an option you’re turning on. We’re getting ready to turn this on by default. All of the images inside the Modula gallery are optimized through a short pixels API and then pushed to a CDN. Basically in one click, you get the image optimization plus unlimited CDN for all your galleries. It’s an instant speed up. 

We went with this route because we could tweak the short pixels API to make it the best we could for all of our great solutions, especially custom grid, and users get lightweight images because photographers never upload small images. Photographers want to upload almost raw images. We constantly see people uploading 20-megabyte images, having a gallery of 300 images, and saying, well, my gallery is loading slow. Come on, you’re loading almost 6 gigs of images. What did you expect? I mean, we did something cool and magical, but it’s beyond our powers right now.

Mark:
I think that that ties in with what you said earlier that the users will come to you with a problem. Like you’re saying here where the images are too large, but actually, they’re loading too slow. It’s too hard to figure out why, what their intention is, how you can solve that, and have to read between the lines. It’s an interesting position to be in. I think it’s quite fun for us as the product owners of figuring these things out and having to analyze all the user feedback and prioritize different areas.

Cristian:
Yeah, it’s like a bit of detective work. You have to figure out what exactly they wanted to achieve with this. For anyone listening to this podcast and who might just be starting out with building WordPress solutions – plugins, or themes, it doesn’t really matter – figure out a way to de-anonymize your users for it. You could have an email opt-in in exchange for a getting started guide, or anything that allows you to figure out who your users are, and then ask as much as possible for feedback because they’ll tell you.

Most of the time, they’ll tell you what they would like the product to do on top of what it already does, that’s not always beneficial. If you have a clear vision for your product in the market you want to serve, then it’s easy to see how new solutions might open up new markets for your product.

Mark:
Definitely, and even potentially new products as well to spin out.

Cristian:
Yeah, to spin out potential products. Yeah, of course. I think Mark touched a bit on this previously, about the freemium model. I do have a question for you guys. What do you think about the freemium model? Where do you see it going?

Mark:
It’s a good question. In our case, we chose that model because we’re going into a crowded niche with the Instagram plugin. We knew that if we go premium only, it’s going to take significantly longer to gain that initial traction, and we would need to offer something special from the start. For us, going into a gallery plugin in a way is tricky. It takes some time to figure things out and to understand the users a bit better no matter how much research you do beforehand.

The freemium model for us was the obvious choice at that point, and building up our user base through wordpress.org. Having more feedback come in in the early stages within the first year – we’re about to be one year in now – has given us a lot of feedback. I think there’s a lot of merit to the power of that model. It is trickier because you have to be able to support that free user base.

If you’re in a position where you’re starting a new business, a new product, and you don’t have something to back you up financially, it’s probably difficult to get through that model, because you’re going to need something on the site to sustain you. If you’re able to support it, I definitely believe in the model. I see it sticking around for quite a while. It can really work if you use it the right way.

Cristian:
You’re pretty much using the freemium model. Not exactly the freemium model, but wordpress.org has a distribution channel because you want as much feedback as possible, as quickly as possible. You figured out a way to get it from the free user base of people who are basically searching on wordpress.org for a particular plugin. That’s interesting.

Mark:
SEO-wise, you’re going to struggle early on. You’re still new until you get listed in different blogs, till you get collaborations going, it’s going to take a while. That’s the freemium model. As long as you give importance to that free version, optimize your README on these kinds of things, and you work on the reviews, as you mentioned, those will get you ranking higher and higher. 

This is where I’ll mention Plugin Rank, which has been a great tool for us to analyze our README, to analyze the keywords we’re optimizing for, and so on. Freemius has been a great platform for us as well to collect user feedback and get those email addresses as soon as people start using the plugin so a lot of people are actually opting in. Then we have an email sequence that goes out to the new users, introducing the plugin, introducing the pro version, and then using different channels to try to get them to pro. 

Cristian:
Now you’ve opened up two more questions that I have. One, can I ping you about Plugin Rank and help me understand? I tried it in the past, and I couldn’t make much use of it. I know the tool is awesome. I know Ian. He’s great. The tool is amazing, I just couldn’t make sense of it. I personally couldn’t figure out how to improve that and how to make sure we rank number one. We seem to already rank mostly number one for most stuff. 

I come from an SEO background. What I figured is, you’d mostly want to rank number one for tech pages that already are receiving traffic from Google, because searches internally on wordpress.org are not that high. The number which was being thrown around when the plugin repo went through its redesign three or four years ago – can’t even remember exactly – was like half a million searches a month. 

When you start dividing that by the number of active plugins, which is cool, you can imagine that, well, you’re getting less than 100 searches per month per plugin. Obviously, the bigger players are at the top. Bigger spaces like SEO are going to get the most of those searches. How many searches can you assume you’re getting for something as an image gallery plugin? This is why I want to cross-reference any idea you might have with what I’ve tried in the past and see if we’re both doing the same thing? 

Another thing I wanted to ask since you touched on this is Freemius. How exactly has Freemius helped your business? We acquired two plugins that are on Freemius. Let’s just say I’m not the biggest fan of the platform.

Mark:
With regards to PluginRank, I can definitely follow up after the podcast and discuss a few things. I’d love to actually have Ian on. I’ll reach out to him and we can discuss a bit more. 

Cristian:
I was just talking to him actually about having me as a guest on one of his podcasts as well. That would be awesome.

Mark:
We’ll get him on as well and then discuss a few things of how PluginRank can help you rank higher and even grow your business. With regards to Freemius, we’ve used EDD for a number of years now, for the RSS Aggregator plugin. That’s performed well for us, but there is a lot more involvement and a lot more manual work involved in it from different perspectives. For Spotlight, we wanted a simple setup and we wanted as little involvement as possible in the management of billing taxes and so on.

Freemius came into play there. We have looked at other solutions, even SaaS solutions, but there was a lot of manual work to be done developing the integration, integrating licensing, and so on. Freemius gave us everything in-house. It’s not the perfect solution. There are things that need to be improved and I’ve discussed them with Vova we continue to bring up things here and there. 

Cristian:
We’re all in software development. We know there’s no perfect software at any point in time. It’s a constant work-in-progress. My question was actually aimed at the data Freemius provides and how you’re using that to act on it. We built our own tracking system, which is entirely different from what Freemius is doing. We did this in the last three years, but even more so, for example, what was most interesting to me to see with Modula was were site active gallery settings, number of galleries, number of images per galleries, average width of images per gallery, right settings they’ve tweaked, how long it took them to tweak between settings. These are updating in our database. 

Basically, if today you had a bunch of settings tomorrow you have another type of setting, we’re going to be able to map a history and see how the user went through a bunch of changes and what he landed on. This is more useful to me, at least in my opinion. This is more useful because you actually get to see how people are using your product, because we have a huge disadvantage over SaaS solutions.

With SaaS solutions, we have a bird’s eye view of what your users are doing, where they’re doing, and you can quickly roll out improvements based on the feedback. Basically, you can use heat maps.

Gaby:
That’s a good point here. 

Cristian:
Yeah, but with WordPress, we don’t have that. It’s impossible to build the best possible solution in the market space without figuring out what exactly you’re doing right and what exactly you’re doing wrong. This is where SaaSes have a huge advantage over us. The users, he can process. He doesn’t look at WordPress solutions as well. This is something else entirely and SaaS is something else entirely. In his mind, it’s, well I have to pick between these solutions. To them, it’s a solution to their problem. 

In the end, they’re going to compare on most pricing, user experience, features. When you’re on parity, let’s say with features right here – although it’s super hard to be on parity with SaaS platform solutions – and you’re on parity with pricing as well – you’ve aligned your prices – the decision comes down to how easy it is for me to use this. Big SaaS usually will beat us out in this corner every single day because they have this huge advantage. They constantly run tests they can improve on. We don’t have the luxury.

This is why I started looking more into this kind of data. We’re probably going to be open sourcing most of our findings. Expect the 2021 report at the end of the year, which will be more feature-rich. I write those and it takes me so long to get those out because I start off with two basic ideas and then I get into it. At the end, I have something like 25,000 words. I’m like, okay, this is too long, I need to break this up. Anytime I break it up, it feels like I have to have even more articles because I need to explain everything that’s going on in my head. 

Mark:
Freemius is lacking in that respect. I don’t know if Freemius specifically can help in that respect because every plugin might be different. You’re mentioning the data you’re collecting as very specific to your plugin. I really want to learn more about that, what data you’re collecting, and how you’re analyzing it.

Cristian:
I’m a super big fan of anonymous data collection. We don’t collect email addresses. 

Mark:
That’s the thing. When you go into this kind of usability, the user gets somewhat defensive, and they have every right to let you not analyze every single thing the individuals are doing. Anonymizing it is obviously very important.

We don’t do that enough right now. I admin with Spotlight it’s a little bit early on, but I would love to actually implement something like that because as you said you are competing with solutions like SaaS, which have a lot of this data somewhat by default when you’re using all these SaaS services.

Cristian:
Yeah, it’s not something you can opt-out of. You can’t say, well, I want to use your platform but I want to opt-out of trackinh. That’s impossible. It’s not even advertised as you being tracked, but you know you are. 

Gaby:
What sort of data did you manage to gather?

Cristian:
You’re asking me right now what data we’ve managed to gather so far, right? 

Gaby:
Yeah.

Cristian:
I’m going to keep using Modula as an example because it’s basically the one we’ve started with talking about and just raising this for consistency. For example, we added a new grid type, I think about, let’s say half a year ago. It’s the youngest type of grid. What we found is that about 30% of the people who accepted our tracking are actually using this grid. 

It’s surprising to see that, for example, the custom grid (which we found was our killer feature) is actually being used less than the new grid type we entered, which is the masonry grid, which is something super interesting to see. What we’re doing now is we’re figuring out a way of pulling all this data from a database and grouping it into buckets, and seeing 25% of our users – let’s say this is a totally made up example – are uninstalling our plugin after (I don’t know) one month, and the other 75% are uninstalling after 180 days. 

This is super interesting. We could focus on those 25% and figure out what exactly they’re missing from the plugin and why they’re uninstalling. I’m going to backtrack a second here and go a little history. When we entered the image gallery space, I think we didn’t know exactly what we’re getting into, not on the technical side, necessarily, but fighting the legacy of the bigger players in the space such as Envira and NextGEN who have been in the space. I think NextGEN is 10 years old by now. It’s like the de facto solution for image galleries. 

When you think of image galleries, most people say, oh, okay, NextGEN I’m going to use NextGEN. Even if it’s not necessarily the most up-to-date and necessarily the best user experience. They still have to carry all that technical debt they’ve accumulated into those 10 years. It’s hard for them to move as quickly as we can move with Modula. This is a huge advantage we have. 

Without a dealer and without figuring out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong, it’s impossible for us to thrive in this space. I mean it’s even harder because they’re going through a bunch of transitions. They have to catch up and bring their products into the space which we have. Now we have Gutenberg. They’ve been building an infrastructure behind shortcodes, which was pretty much basically wiped out overnight when Gutenberg was launched.

When Gutenberg launched, most people were, no, I’m still going to use shortcodes. One year forward, everyone’s like, what the heck are shortcodes? I don’t even know what those are. I use Gutenberg, Elementor, or any other page builder. The market space is moving so much faster than it used to do. If you’re not thinking ahead, if you’re not technically building on programming languages that are aligned with what WordPress is doing – so for example, React or any other JavaScript framework you want to use – you’re going to be in a tough spot going forward because you’re going to have to figure out a way on your own to adapt your solution to whatever WordPress decided to use.

This is one of the bigger reasons why we mostly use core WordPress UI components to build our UI. You see a lot of plugins with costing UIs reinventing the wheel. Every time you go into these plugins, it’s super confusing. I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I’ve looked at plugins that I frustratingly uninstalled in 15 minutes because I couldn’t figure it out with my life. 

I went reading docs. I went looking at videos. I was going like, why would you put a setting there? Why would you hide it there and why do I have to click this to be able to use this other setting here?

I think it all boils down to, if you’re not aligning yourself as much as possible with what WordPress is doing, you’re not going to be able to move in an agile way. You’re not going to be competitive in this space because it’s not only about features. It’s also the speed with how fast you can move and deliver updates, bug fixes, and new features.

Gaby:
I think we saw this main difference between WP RSS Aggregator and Spotlight, especially with the user interface, where we pushed a lot on Spotlight to get it to be very intuitive, super beginner-friendly. You can just go in and you don’t even have to think about it. There’s a skill behind it.

Cristian:
And it’s the first UI.

Mark:
Spotlight too was a big learning curve for us. Aggregator was established and there’s a certain way to use it, which is a bit more technical that might shift in the near future. But Spotlight over the past year has been very much a big learning experience for us, especially, and this ties to the analytics side of it, figuring out what the user wants to achieve and giving it to him as quickly as possible.

If they want to see an Instagram feed and obviously a gallery, you show it to them right away. They don’t have to go through five minutes of setup, setting things, uploading, and so on. Actually, it’s something we’re doing with Spotlight, which is releasing next week. It will be out by the time we release this podcast. 

Anyway, we’re putting out pre-made templates, where literally the onboarding experience is as soon as you install Spotlight, the first thing you do is pick a template. With that template, it takes you directly to the editor and the editor does a mock Instagram feed preview. Then you can connect to your account and it replaces the mock preview and it’s all done for you. I think similarly to the gallery side of things, where you analyze how people are using the plugin, what they want, giving it to them as quickly as possible. Once you have those, you tie them in and then you can expand from there, whatever you want.

Gaby:
I think you’re eliminating decision fatigue as well for those who just want to go in and do a quick feed.

Cristian:
You’ve actually zeroed in on why you will use or get that data and what we want to do with it. For anyone listening to this and getting started with plugin development, you mentioned at some point, Mark, that figuring out the balance between free and paid options is a difficult act to balance because you never know where to draw the line and say, well, this is going to be free and this is going to be paid.

Here’s another way of looking at it. You can offer for free most of the stuff, but have one-click solutions on the paid version so you can still do it for free, but you have to go in and click all those things and do it manually. Most people actually want to buy convenience. It boils down to what people usually buy. They want to make more money, so they’re buying solutions that help them make more money, or save time, which is in essence, the same thing. They’re saving money.

If you can help people save time with premade templates, premade layouts, whatever you want to call them, I think that’s a good way to differentiate your pro version from the live version and say, well, you can do everything you want in live version, but you have to go in and click all these things manually. Every time you want to build something, you have to click and start from the beginning. You can’t complain about that. You can still do whatever you want. With the paid version, you can save so much more time by using our premade templates.

We live in a super fast world today. I personally even get frustrated at times because it takes so much effort to get things done. I have to put so many things to get there. I will get it, I know what the process is going to be, and I’ll gladly pay just to have a shorter process, to have a pro version that I could buy, to do that faster, but it’s not always available. I think this is where we’re moving with a lot of stuff into the convenience space where people just want to get it done faster. That’s what we’re probably going to be doing with Modula as well. That’s why we’re gathering all this data to be able to offer an onboarding wizard.

It’s probably even more obvious with our testimonials plugin, which is a super feature-rich product that is shifting right now. We’re going into video testimonials, which I think are actually winning over text testimonials, which was the classical way of submitting testimonies. Videos testimonials are way more convincing than text. Text is easy to manipulate and write whatever you want there.

Videos are not harder to do. You can talk way more in 30 seconds than you can write in 30 seconds or read in 30 seconds. It’s just a more human way of connecting. We all need this feeling of community and doing that, people understand our needs, our problems. When I watch a video, at least one video and that guy or girl speaks to me, to my problems, I usually go, okay, take my money. I don’t even want to read. This is what I want, this is a solution I want.

This is something that anyone can use. Figure out the users’ problems and use their own language to write your landing page copy. This is the most powerful thing you can do and it is the easiest way to do it. Use their language to write your copy.

Mark:
This, again, ties in with the analytic side of things. This isn’t just looking at how people are using your plugin, and what features they’re using, and so on. It’s even saying, how they talk about it. Even there, if they’re talking to support, how are they referring to the feature? How are they referring to a certain aspect of what your plugin can do or what the theme can do? That’s kind of telling who you’re targeting and it’s going to fine-tune your user personas a lot more than what you would have done before you launched.

Cristian:
Since you touched on user personas, here’s another question. I have a lot of questions and a lot of ideas. Please stop me at some point if I ask too many questions. How do you define your user personas? Do you have a workflow for this? Do you use any specialized tools? What have you found from digging into user personas? How has it shaped your positioning?

Mark:
We took it a bit more seriously with Spotlight before we launched. We’re doing the research beforehand. We were looking into the existing competition on WordPress. We were looking into existing competition in SaaS. We were looking at, in our case, Instagram users in general.

So, seeing who the typical Instagram users are. There’s the person using it personally. For example, the personal blog, food blog, whatever it is. There are small businesses that have their galleries basically on Instagram, and there are eCommerce stores. I mentioned earlier the link-in-bio solutions that people tend to pay for, for SaaS services.

We started analyzing, basically, who’s using it for different reasons. From there, we broke it down a bit further. I actually created around 10 or 15 very simple user personas and then narrowed it down to three main ones. That’s when we essentially developed the profiles.

If you google this, you will find a bunch of different examples and questions to ask yourself, and what the person does and doesn’t do, and what they want to achieve, what problems they have. We figured out who our main user personas are going to be for Spotlight. Both at launch and one, two years in whether we’re adding a number of other features, because that helped us essentially develop a long-term roadmap from day one, before we even started developing the plugin.

Cristian:
Yeah, that’s amazing.

Mark:
Obviously, that changes over time. You can’t necessarily stick exactly to what you did 12 months ago, today. You need to alter it and see how the users are reacting to it.

Cristian:
I think markets are also changing super fast today. For example, since you’ve built a product on top of an existing community, you’ve built a product for Instagram, which has its own community, because they’re handling user acquisition. You just built a solution for those people who also have a website on WordPress. As quickly as Instagram moves, I think you have to or at least you’re going to be conditioned sometimes to move as quickly as Instagram does.

If they add a new feature and you want to stay ahead of your competition, you’re going to have to do the same and quickly move and implement that feature. Anytime they change something, you have to be super responsive to that. I think that has its own set of challenges when you build a solution on top of an existing platform.

Mark:
Yeah, that’s a risk we took. You essentially don’t own the platform you’re building on. You’re very much tied to whatever they do. There was one recently, a couple of months ago, where they added IGTV support to the Instagram API. It’s something you need to add instantly because people are requesting it before, and you have to explain that it’s not possible because of Instagram’s limitations. Once it’s available, it needs to be out there.

You have to constantly adapt and that’s why the user persona and the roadmap can’t be fixed long-term. In my opinion, at least. You have to be able to adapt, move things around, shift priorities, and see exactly what you can benefit from the most at that particular time. Right now, the link-in-bio stuff is being mentioned by a number of different people even within the WordPress world. People will need landing page solutions in WordPress, basically have a self-hosted version of it rather than using a hosted third-party service. 

We start to look at how Spotlight can fit into that area. We basically start speaking to as many people as possible. That’s where the community aspect comes full circle here, comes into play, because you have to be able to reach out to these other plugin owners, team owners, hosting companies to see exactly what they’re doing, what they’re after. Either collaborate in some way or get feedback in some way, and try to tie in your use case with their use case. Essentially, that’s going to help the WordPress users in general, and it’s going to help you grow faster a lot quicker because you’re able to adapt according to what the market is telling you.

Cristian:
This also adds an overhead to the entire development process.

Mark:
Yeah, it does get tricky. You would have something planned, and then you have to change the way you’re approaching it, or even changes to the UI. There’s that aspect to it, but I think if you look long-term again, it’s going to be beneficial to you. You can’t just think short-term.

Cristian:
I think Instagram, in general, and some other platforms as well – Pinterest, for example, is one that comes to mind – are maturing, are growing beyond just being a place where you can browse images and pick some ideas. They’re heading more into the eCommerce space and allowing creators and influencers – people who have big a follower count – to use the platforms to monetize their followers by integrating with eCommerce solutions. I know for a fact Pinterest is partnering with Shopify. I think Instagram has some plans like this as well.

Mark:
In terms of eCommerce?

Cristian:
Yeah, in terms of eCommerce.

Mark:
I’m not sure if the shop is open to everyone at this point – that you can shop on Instagram – I think it’s limited. They’re working on a lot of different features, even just product tagging, for example, to show you even rated products within Instagram itself. There’s a lot going on.

Gaby:
We’ve actually taken this and applied it to Spotlight as well. This whole concept has been translated into having Spotlight integrate well with WooCommerce, for example. You have to take what’s happening on the platform and translate it into yours.

Cristian:
In the eCommerce space, especially for individuals, I’m not talking about the eCommerce space for big brand companies such as Apple, it’s going to be shifting soon. It’s growing a lot. A lot of people during the pandemic figured out a way to make money online. Most of them figured they had maybe mostly two things to sell their services – it’s their time – or products.

They can either source the products or they can build them themselves. Today, what’s happening is more and more people are building their own products. They’re building all sorts of digital products – ebooks, courses, music. Whatever you want, people are building it. To me, it feels like not the beginning, but it’s a movement that’s gaining more and more adoption.

We’re still in the early days of this. It’s still a huge market. I think it’s only getting started right now and it’s going to get so much bigger. Then there’s also aligning your plugins with eCommerce. I think it’s the smartest possible move. The reason why I didn’t know Instagram already has a shop feature is because I don’t use any of those social networks.

I personally feel too old for them, I don’t know. I think I just feel old in this aspect. I’m not that old, but I don’t have time for the social media aspect. I don’t even have an Instagram account. I never go on Instagram. I’ve never seen it. My wife uses it. I don’t know what exactly it does. I know there are a bunch of pictures there and people like pictures and tag them. That’s the most I know about Instagram in general.

Mark:
I think this ties as well for anyone listening who’s maybe starting a new product or thinking of starting a new product. Aside from analyzing the market and seeing what’s happening, a lot of the stuff that you’re mentioning is new. The markets are shifting the ideas of how to do business online, how products are built, and so on. Everything is shifting in different directions.

One of the most important things is that when you look into a new feature idea to meet a specific need or to answer a specific problem, you need to test the waters in some way. I think you mentioned earlier a new plugin versus acquiring. You have two months for time development versus just spending money to acquire. Likewise, when you’re creating a new feature, or possibly reinventing the wheel in some areas and trying something new, start with a basic version of that feature before going all in, because it’s going to give you a lot more feedback on how to develop it long-term. 

If you start something now and then you, let’s say, make an Instagram feed shippable, for example. There’s a lot of different ways you can do it. Everyone’s going to have different ideas of how they want it to work and you have your own idea. If you just stick to your idea, it’s not going to work for the majority of your users, in most cases, unless you get lucky.

Putting it out there, just getting feedback and letting it grow somewhat organically over time, it’s going to give you a lot more value long-term, and is going to give your user a value long-term because they’re going to eventually get what they need, not necessarily what they think they want at this point, but it’s what they actually need to make it as simple as possible. Like I mentioned earlier, everyone’s looking for convenience now. It’s not just a case of offering a feature, it’s offering a feature that will take them a few seconds to set up or it’s completely automated. We’re moving more towards that direction.

Cristian:
I think we’re seeing more and more SaaS-like components moving into the worker space. I think we’re witnessing hybrid space right now, where users want the automation, ease of use, and convenience of SaaS platforms, but on WordPress. They want to have everything inside of WordPress. That’s why we see plugins that pull in your analytics and showing in your dashboard, or why we have newsletter plugins which live inside your WordPress backend, because most people use WordPress, again, as their operating system.

With any operating system, if you want to look at your computer, you have all these apps installed and you want to use them there. You don’t care what they’re going to interact with in the cloud. It’s this API and this other API. Users don’t care about that. 

While we’re on the subject of testing ideas, I think, right now this is a super hot space and a lot of opportunity to simply bring solutions which are popular as SaaS solutions onto the WordPress space.

It’s a one-man army, one-man development team. It’s super easy right now to figure out a few concepts. You can simply copy to get started. You can copy feature for feature and still could make a lot of money because as I mentioned, people are looking for solutions that live inside their WordPress site. They don’t necessarily want to hand over control, or feel like they should be paying on a monthly basis, which is pricing is another whole story for the WordPress space because even moving to the subscription model on a per-year basis for some users in the WordPress space is inconceivable.

Even if they go to compare any solution with a SaaS offering, which usually charges per month, they’re like, oh, yeah, take my money, it’s no problem. I can understand you have server costs. You have this and this, but when it comes to WordPress plugins, everyone goes, oh, heck, no, I’m not going to pay you on a yearly basis for a gallery plugin. Why would they pay that much? Then you start selling them out.

Well, you have image optimization, you have CDN. We released a bunch of features. We have new extensions. You get all of this plus support, and they’re like, yeah, I’m still not convinced. I mean, we used to be paying one time for WordPress plugins and now you’re asking me to pay every year. It doesn’t really make sense to me. We’re still fighting an uphill battle in this area, I think. 

A lot of people are super reluctant to have subscriptions active. To them, it feels like a plugin should be a one-and-done business type of thing. As many bigger companies are moving into the service space and everyone’s moving to the subscription model – for users as well – I’m hoping that this bigger movement is going to influence this more than once so it becomes more natural to people who have an active subscription.

Mark:
I think it is becoming a bit more normalized now to be with that model. A few years ago, it wasn’t. It was a period where everyone started switching over to the automatic renewals as well. I think it helps businesses a lot. It’s the reason most of these WordPress plugins that are doing well are going to be able to be maintained for the next 5–10 years because you have this recurring revenue coming in to support you. Even tying it to what you mentioned earlier on looking at SaaS services, seeing what they’re offering, and tying those into WordPress. A very good example, I’m seeing a lot on Twitter recently is Newsletter Glue.

Cristian:
Yeah, I know you’re going to mention that.

Mark:
Even yesterday, I was looking on Twitter, and someone mentioned a particular feature. They asked her to put it in Newsletter Glue, and she hadn’t thought about that as being a feature that they would want within that plugin. But like you’re saying, they want everything in WordPress. The user wants everything in WordPress and wants everything in a single solution, not having to install multiple plugins or having to use a forms plugin. For example, I think it was to collect email addresses or something like that. It’s not the intended use for it, but if it’s an email plugin, it’s an integration with MailChimp and then all you have to do is have a pop-up, for example, and it’s all tied into one.

Cristian:
This is actually a problem we’ve seen with this space. It’s probably one of the mistakes we’ve made ourselves as well, with Modula right now. I think I had someone count the total options we offer in Modula. It’s about more than 200 options, which is insane. That’s an insanely big amount of options. Users love it because they have control on almost everything.

The development process and ensuring backward compatibility, every time you change something is made very difficult because of all these decisions. What I would like to add is, if there’s a user asking for a feature that makes sense, try to see if you’re not moving away from your core offering and core value. The more options you add, you’re going to be polluting your plugin by loading your core value proposition. You’re going to say, well, we do emails, but then we do feedback forms and email collection forms. Then we maybe do follow-up emails, because well, it’s emails. This is what we do. 

That’s not what you do. You only do newsletters from WordPress on top of MailChimp, or whatever API is in the backend that handles sending of those emails. It feels like it makes sense, but in my opinion, and after the experience with, as mentioned, Modula has 200 plus options, I would never add this feature to the product. I would just bring out a new product that works together with this product, but is a product in itself.

As long as I can look at it and see, well, it’s this guy on Twitter, but there are a bunch of other guys over on this forum who are complaining about this exact same problem and there’s no solution for them, my new product would open up a new space entirely, a new market. Then I’ll go, yeah, let’s build a new product that makes sense.

Mark:
I think we’re seeing a lot as well lately, and it’s being discussed a lot as well within the WordPress space, the idea of niching down of finding a niche within a niche, and just addressing that specific use case, and not trying to do what multipurpose themes do, where you’re doing everything within one.

Cristian:
By the way, what’s your thought on multipurpose themes in Gutenberg?

Mark:
Separately or combined?

Cristian:
Combined. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on where you think the WordPress theme space is going.

Mark:
I’m not as involved in themes as I am and plugins, obviously. I think with multipurpose themes, there is still a use case for them, agencies and so on that develop different kinds of sites. I’ve seen a number of them even locally use them to simplify the process basically so they can address multiple use cases, multiple projects with the same theme. They’ve learned around that. Going forward, I don’t know if they have a future just because of Full Site Editing, but I think it’s a bit further down the line.

I don’t think Full Site Editing is going to be ready to enter the entire market right now, similar to how Gutenberg was where it took a year or two to get it established. I think that there is some time left, but hopefully, if Full Site Editing gets to that stage where it’s capable of handling all these things, be it block patterns and so on that they simplify the process. Similar to what you’re saying, rather than offering 200 options, you offer a single set of options, premade stuff, or stuff that you take decisions on as a developer based on user feedback.

Give that to the user. If they want to customize it, maybe give them that option still, but at first, at least simplify the process where it’s not you have to go look at 200 options and set all those up. You have two options, A or B, select which one, then if you want to customize it, go ahead and do that.

Cristian:
I see you’re pretty much offering them the option of having a wizard or manually configuring, which is the manual process of seeing them being more involved. I think what we’re picking up on is that the space has been getting more and more crowded, obviously, because WordPress is growing, there’s a lot more money in this space. More users, more money. The math is simple.

The more crowded it gets for smaller teams to compete in the space. I think that’s where the niching down actually makes sense. For example, WP Rocket, which was recently acquired by a hosting company, is not a simple plugin. It has a lot of options as well, but it makes sense to have all those options. It’s like a toolkit. It has all the possible settings you want that also tackles a lot of potential use cases in the speed optimization space, and allows you to make your site faster.

If you’re going to be niching down and you don’t have complimentary solutions, you’re going to have, well, I have Mark’s plugin which does image optimization, and I have Christian’s plugin which does CSS and JS minification. They have to stitch this together and make sure they work. This is another huge problem in this space because a lot of times – and we see this a lot with our support as well 0 we have this he-said-she-said–type of issue where a user comes to us with a problem and we go like, well, I’ll fix it but the theme or plugin you’re using is breaking all the possible rules, and we don’t have access to that plugin to fix it ourselves. You have to go and reach out to them.

Most users do and I’m super surprised to see this, but most of the time the response is, well, it’s not our problem, we’re not going to fix it. It’s how it works and we’ll just call it a day. A lot of times, we end up reinventing a way, a solution just for this particular user, because we don’t want to leave them hanging. 

If you’re going to be niching down, you don’t have a plan or at least you’re not piggybacking off of more popular solutions- pretty much like you did with Spotlight where you’re moving along with Instagram – anytime they add new features, you’re going to be also implementing them. If you’re not doing this, then stitching things together to make it work is going to be always a frustrating problem to have. 

On paper, multiple niched down plugins make sense as long as they cover the entire use case. Anytime you step out of that use case and go, well, now I need minification, and this plugin doesn’t do it. Which other plugin works perfectly with this one is lightweight and does what I need? That’s when you’re going to have another big problem.

Mark:
It’s a difficult balance to reach. It’s a difficult balance to understand when to split features into multiple niche plugins versus putting them into one and understanding how they work together. Potentially, there’s opportunity there for someone to find a particular niche, go even deeper into it, niche out from that even further, and then tie those together as multiple solutions at one shop or one developer.

Caching is one of them, most potentially. WP Rocket is huge, obviously, at this point. I think in other niches, there’s a lot of opportunity within the WordPress spaces. We’re still actually at an early stage (I think) in the WordPress industry in terms of potential growth, especially for plugins, and anything applied to blocks in the coming months and years. It’ll be interesting to see how things develop.

Cristian:
I think the WordPress space is maturing as well. It started off as not a hobby but something that people did out of passion. They could tinker with it and pick up the hood and see the code. As the market is growing bigger and bigger, and more users are coming into WordPress – they had previous experiences with SaaS solutions or in other platforms, any other tools they’ve used in the past – they expect the same thing from the WordPress space.

Their needs are easily going to be filled by bigger shops who have bigger teams, can invest more into marketing, and can invest more into product development. I think this is where the idea of niching down has to come in. As long as you figure out a smaller space on top of something that’s bigger that doesn’t want to cover this space, there’s always going to be a space left down market for solutions. Anytime there’s a big team behind a product, they don’t want to move downmarket because there’s not enough money for them there to actually be worth it.

That’s where solo dev teams can step in, niche down, and fix that. My thoughts are that you’re going to have to niche down and piggyback on existing solutions so you can enjoy that community. For example, this is what IconicWP have been doing. They used WooCommerce as a platform and built solutions for that platform, solutions that no one else was building or no one was building as good as Iconic did. This is what helps them the most.

Mark:
I think no matter what you’re going to niche into, there’s going to be a competition. I think given the size of WordPress, it’s not a bad thing. There needs to be competition, and you still have a big share of the market that you can reach and grow your business as well.

Cristian:
And a growing share can constantly grow and share because WordPress has grown tremendously in the past, even two years, if you look at it.

Gaby:
I think it’s a nice time to wrap things up because we’re reaching our one hour. It’s been great speaking with you, Cristian and obviously, Mark. We’ve looked into plugin development, plugin acquisition. It’s been really eye-opening and I think it would be very interesting for listeners. Hopefully, it will fuel some more ideas for them. Thank you for joining us. If you have anything else you want to add?

Cristian:
No, I’ve talked enough. I usually talk too much. I could talk about WordPress all day.

Gaby:
Where can our listeners maybe reach you? Do you have Twitter?

Cristian:
I have a Twitter account, @cristianraiber. I think if they can google my name, they can easily find me. If not, I think we should be getting a Twitter handle that’s easier to pronounce.

Mark:
We’ll put it in the show notes.

Cristian:
Yeah.

Mark:
All right. From my end, thank you for joining us on the call. Thank you Gaby for having me as well, discussing this and hopefully, we can continue the discussion with Cristian, even with Ian. We can expand a bit more on the different topics we’ve covered today.

Cristian:
You can bet and I’m going to follow up on that. I have a lot of questions.

Mark:
I look forward to it.

Cristian:
Okay, talk soon. Thank you for everything. Bye-bye.

Mark:
Bye, Cristian. Bye, Gaby.

Gaby:
Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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.

Follow us on
Social Media