Epic Plugins and Themes

Michael Stott explains how the learnings of a failed side project — coupled with creative marketing — have helped him grow his WordPress business to $5,000/mo.

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

I'm Mike, the CEO and founder of Epic Plugins and Epic Themes. Through these websites I sell premium WordPress plugins and themes.

Epic Plugins is for users who want to add extra functionality to their websites. It features over a dozen plugins, like Social Gallery Photo Viewer, which allows the site owners to make their images "social" (such that the images open in Facebook-style lightboxes when clicked and can be commented on, liked, and shared on other social networks).

Epic Themes, on the other hand, is for those who want a completely new design for their website through a new Wordpress theme. The themes we currently sell are quite niche and focus on content curation and content ranking (similar to how Reddit ranks the homepage, or how Product Hunt ranks their submitted products).

In fact, two of the most popular WordPress themes are designed to allow anyone to quickly use WordPress to create a website just like Product Hunt or Reddit. While not direct "clones", they're used by customers to offer niche websites with similar functionality. (The hottest hotels, for example, or the top productivity tips.)

Epic Themes

I didn't start off in WordPress. I began by teaching myself PHP, jQuery, and mySQL (through the WordPress Codex).

After starting this as a hobby, I've been able to single-handedly grow my online sales from $0 to around $5k per month.

What motivated you to get started with Epic Plugins and Themes?

I've always been into computer programming. In the graduate program I attained my masters degree from, I used high performance computing and mathematical algorithms to help decode "objects" inside a pipe using electrical currents. So I've always been interested in software, but until I started my own side business I had never ventured into web application development.

I got started with Epic Plugins and Epic Themes purely by accident. It was literally a side product of a side project, which is pretty nuts, considering it's now my main source of income online.

Do it on the side. Store up enough cash in reserve and give it a go before it's too late.

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My initial "side product" was a social eBookstore which I ran on WordPress. I spent a long time setting up a two-sided marketplace and getting authors to sign up with their eBooks and try, in turn, to attract readers not only to sign up and buy their books, but also to connect with the authors and discuss their books with them. (Just imagine chatting with Stephen King in a group chat about his latest horror novel!)

Through building the site I learned a lot about coding with the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) for WordPress. This allowed me to get a membership site up and running relatively easily. I worked on the project in the evenings after my 9-5 and a LOT over the weekends.

The eBookstore failed — customers weren't buying. It was hard for them to know how to get the books they bought from my site onto their Kindles. But on the back of failure I used what I had learned to enter into a market I didn't even know existed: WordPress plugin selling.

What went into building the initial "Epic Products"?

The decisions I made about the scope and features of the plugin website were directly linked to customer feedback from the authors who had signed up to the bookstore. I kept working on this using sweat equity, and didn't get outside funding. One of the feature requests was the ability to upload a gallery of book covers and have the community like, share, and comment on the cover they like the best.

This is how I created Social Gallery Photo Viewer, the plugin I mentioned earlier. (I launched it in 2012 and sold it through CodeCanyon.)

Social Gallery Photo Viewer

I built Social Gallery as a feature request and as a "plugin" to my website. I also built "BooksMash", a popular cover-ranking game which used the Elo algorithm to allow the community to vote on book covers (inspired by "Facemash", the app Mark Zuckerberg created at Harvard).

People loved it, so it became a series of WordPress plugins which I sold on CodeCanyon called PicsMash, VideoMash, and SoundMash.

So as I was building out my social eBookstore, I was also building WordPress plugins on the side, and marketing and selling them on CodeCanyon. That's when the business started to take off.

On the technical side, this required a growing understanding of the WordPress Codex (to build the features as plugins) and an ability to sell the products on CodeCanyon, the plugin marketplace.

How have you attracted users and grown Epic Plugins and Themes?

I grew Epic Plugins to where it is today over a long stint of building out new WordPress plugins and releasing them into CodeCanyon's ecosystem.

An important problem I faced was that, with each new sale, I stopped receiving customer information, which was kept by CodeCanyon. I only got updates when customers reached out for support.

Additionally, I lacked income diversity. So I built a theme over a weekend ("WPeddit" — Reddit for WordPress) which I initially tried to sell via ThemeForest. The theme was "too niche" for them to accept, so I sold it directly and started getting my first customers through direct theme sales.

I started gaining new WordPress theme customers following the launch of WPeddit. Here's a look at some of the work that went into launching:

  • I answered any Reddit threads asking if a WordPress theme existed
  • I answered any Quora questions asking if there was a Reddit theme
  • I wrote (and sold via CodeCanyon) a plugin which added up/down voting to WordPress themes
  • I used the WPeddit theme as a demo for the voting plugin
  • I offered WPeddit to plugin customers at a discount

This got some sales coming in and started my WordPress theme business.

At the time I was doing much better through WordPress plugins than through selling themes directly. At its peak the Social Gallery WordPress Photo viewer was selling 5 copies per day at $20 per copy (around $2,000 to $3,000 a month).

This put it up in the top few % of plugins on CodeCanyon, and helped me to reach "Elite Author" status. This in turn gave me more authority, and I funneled potential customers from my CodeCanyon page to my theme pages by using a given theme to demonstrate a plugin.

Mind speaking more on how you grew the Epic Themes side of the business?

Sure. The Reddit for WordPress theme was actually used as the theme for growthhackers.com back in 2013, but it was heavily customised on the front end with Bootstrap. They kept the same underlying functionality and scripts that I had written.

This got picked up by someone who had found out which theme Growth Hackers was using and asked me how they could customise the theme to "be like Growth Hackers."

This wasn't a straightforward modification, so I agreed to build it for them at a discounted freelance rate and keep the resell rights. This then became my second theme. I used the same marketing tactics I'd used for WPeddit and it started selling copies from there.

Finally, the most popular theme I sell is "Product Hunt for WordPress", which I created from a number of customer requests and also a mini hackathon weekend where I built the first version. I spent the same time posting up on Quora and Reddit and started getting sales.

I used it to "hunt" plugins from CodeCanyon (using their API), and I named it the Plugin Hunt Theme.

Plugin Hunt Theme

I then got it covered on PremiumWP, which helped to boost theme sales up to about $8,000 a month around the launch of the theme.

This continued for a few months into 2015, and the theme still continues to sell today. At its peak it was selling around 50 copies a month. I update it regularly, and now it sells between 10 and 20 copies a month.

What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

My payment system has primarily been PayPal, but more recently I've moved to Stripe since changing the payment model to an annual renewal subscription for future theme updates and support. I made this change back in October 2016.

Since then the Plugin Hunt Theme has surpassed 100 active subscriptions (automatically recurring at $79 each year), and the current data suggest that around 70% of customers keep their subscriptions active.

I've found that after moving to a recurring payment model I've actually gotten fewer refund requests.

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So if your business allows it, move to a recurring payment model. I was always wary that doing this would put people off purchasing, but as long as the model is explained to them (e.g. "You can still use the theme even if you cancel"), people will generally still make the purchase.

I've found that after moving to a recurring payment model I've actually gotten fewer refund requests than when it was a one-time purchase. People are more aware of what they're purchasing (support, the funding of future development) so they seem more comfortable with their purchase.

I'm lucky that in the world of WordPress plugins and themes there's a low marginal cost of sale, albiet a high initial development cost (my time). As long as I'm prepared to put the sweat equity into product development, the only expenses I currently incur are transaction expenses and domain and hosting fees (which I run via cloud hosting). These costs are currently less than $100 a month. (You can view my financial transparency reports here.)

What are your goals for the future?

As I mentioned before, I started Epic Plugins and Epic Themes back in 2012 as a side project on the back of a personal website project. I was still working a 9-5 at an insurance company, but that job got more demanding in the years that followed, leaving me with less time to build new products and help support them. So in May 2016 I quit the job to focus on running my WordPress businesses.

This decision was alien to my parents. They didn't know how I was making money online and therefore were worried whether I'd be able to pay the bills. Why wasn't I in the factory working a 16-hour shift, making sure the family was fed?

I quit my job because I knew my online business could grant me the following opportunities:

  • work from anywhere, as long as there was an internet connection
  • sell my products to a global customer base (in theory, with infinite sales)
  • potential to make way more than I ever could in a 9-5

This was after comparing my own business to other theme sellers and SaaS's (like ConvertKit). At the time, those guys were making $80k a month.

To do that at a 9-5 would, well, never happen for me. So my ultimate goal for the future is to be able to support my family and not have to worry about my financial situation. In reality, as long as I'm building cool products that people enjoy using (and I can pay the bills) that's enough for now.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?

Supporting the products is the biggest challenge. It distracts me from product development (and subsequently growing my business further). I'm still an army of one, but I've tried to outsource support in the past.

The pickle with this is that I end up being needed for any support which is "technical", as there are very few support requests that don't require at least some knowledge of the plugin. It's something I'm constantly trying to overcome in a number of ways:

  • updating product documentation as questions come in
  • making documentation easier for people to find
  • fixing bugs which might cause support questions
  • adding commonly-requested features

My other big challenge is marketing — talking about what I do and opening myself up for interviews and promotion about my journey. I used to be concerned that others would try and copy my methods or steal my concepts, so I was shy to talk about things. I'm hopefully getting past that roadblock by being more open.

That's what attracted me to Indie Hackers, and what you're doing with this site. It's great to read stories about other entrepreneurs and what they're working on. It's inspiring, and it gives reassurance that you don't have to be a SaaS business to earn enough on your own.

I'm currently making anywhere between $2k and $8k a month (averaging around $5k). I see these big players like ThemeIsle making 10x that, but in reality I'm an army of one, and even Ionut said to me, "Hey, don't envy us. We've got a team of 15."

If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

The main thing I'd do differently is start using a CRM system from day one. When I started growing customers I was simply growing an email list (which I thought was the same thing at the time). I was missing out not only on a lot of leads, but also:

  • people who had purchased from me (using PayPal) but didn't sign up to my email list
  • people who had emailed me and were in my Google Contacts (but weren't on my list or hadn't purchased)
  • people who had emailed my help desk for pre-sale questions but hadn't purchased yet

Since running my own CRM (in fact, since building my own CRM as a joint venture with a friend — Zero BS CRM) I've been able to fill in the gaps. I dread to think how many leads have gone cold because I didn't do this from day one.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I try and read a new book every now and again, and I try to keep them "self help" related. There's a lot I've read in this area, but I'd say almost everyone should at least read The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris.

I have a strong personal strength of focus. I'm able to focus on the task at hand and keep this focus even when things get tough.

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

My biggest piece of advice is just go out and do it.

A lot of friends ask me how I get to work from anywhere, and how I'm on holiday so often since I travel around a lot. These friends often have great ideas, or want to do their own thing online (even if it's just moving into freelancing).

But they don't do it. They don't give it the time it needs to get going. Starting a new business isn't easy (or everyone would do it). If you don't take the risk you can't expect to reap the rewards. Even freelancing is a risk in relation to a 9-5.

On the back of failure I used what I had learned to enter into a market I didn't even know existed.

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My advice here is to do it on the side. Store up enough cash in reserve and give it a go before it's too late. If it fails, what's the worst that can happen? You go back and try and find another 9-5.

The gap on your CV? I'm pretty sure any potential employer would love to employ someone who has spent a couple of years building their own businesses. (Trust me, you'll learn a lot along the way, even if you fail.)

I talk about my story in detail in my first official eBook called Growth, which goes into detail about all the ups and downs I faced along the way (much more than I could possibly cover in this interview).

Where can we go to learn more?

You can find out more about me by visiting my sites or following me on Twitter (@mikemayhem3030).

If you've got any thoughts or comments on my story, please do leave a comment and I'll be happy to reply.

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