Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
Hi, my name is Ben Arellano and I am a co-founder of a WordPress plugin company called FlyPlugins.
After graduating college with a degree in IT, I spent 12 years working various jobs in the IT field. I did everything from building and troubleshooting computers to working on servers and networks, as well as automated software distribution. Needless to say, I’m a technology geek. I’ve been drawn to entrepreneurship ever since high school but never pursued anything seriously since I had no clue how to start a business.
I finally took the plunge in 2009 and jumped right into the deep end — I didn’t just start one business, I started several. Over the span of the next couple of years, I started a computer repair business and a business creating vinyl signs. I dabbled in web development and began building iPhone apps. Through various business ventures and failures, I finally found my niche with WordPress plugins.
Plugins were attractive because they’re built in PHP, which is a relatively easy programming language to learn. With WordPress essentially powering a third of the internet, we knew any business built around it would come with a very large target market and would probably be a pretty safe bet. There’s, of course, a bit more to the origin story than that, but in the end, we came up with WP Courseware, a plugin used to create and sell online courses with WordPress.
As predicted, we’ve got a large customer base including individuals, entrepreneurs, authors, coaches, organizations, educational institutions, colleges, and universities. We’ve even had government municipalities and various companies purchase the plugin for employee training. Most of our customers are teaching a skillset in a subject that they happen to be an expert in, like guitar lessons, Latin, math, diet and exercise, and even a course on how to create a business for proofreading transcriptions. Everyone is an expert at something, so why not trade your knowledge for dollars instead of your time?
We’ve grown our business significantly over the past seven years and currently average $24K monthly recurring revenue. Some months are better than others, but overall, our general trajectory has increased with each passing year.
What motivated you to get started with WP Courseware?
In 2011, Nate (my business partner and co-founder) and I were working on an online course, but there was a problem: there wasn’t a learning management system (LMS) plugin for WordPress. We went ahead and launched the course, hacking together some tags and categories within WordPress to make it seem legit, but it was clear that we had stumbled upon an opportunity to do something more.
To be honest, we dove in without too much more thought and zero validation, and decided to start an LMS plugin business for WP. In 2012, we launched the first LMS to market for WordPress! To this day, we joke about the dumb luck and perfect timing that came together to make it all happen.
When we launched WP Courseware, I was working a full-time job and thought this was just going to be a side hustle to supplement my income. The upside is that I was able to re-invest 100% of the profit back into making WP Courseware better.
What went into building the initial product?
To our great relief, the first invoice wasn’t too painful. And because I had a co-founder, we split the cost of everything, making it even less financially overwhelming on the individual level and totally feasible to bootstrap all the way. To this day, we’ve never taken on any business debt, which is nothing to scoff at and something we’re really grateful for.
We gave the developer a basic outline of what we were looking for, with the understanding that we were after an MVP to get to market and validate as quickly as possible. Fortunately for us, he took our outline and ran with it, and ultimately gave us something great. Further down the line, we learned how to create project scopes and mockups, but at that point we were absolute noobs and got really lucky with who we contracted.
As we went through the motions, three things became apparent:
- We had to find a way to provide and track licenses for the plugin — we needed to ensure that we were supporting our paying customers while also monitoring their usage and making sure no one was abusing their license. Like most businesses, we only support and provide updates to our paying customers.
- We had to engineer a way to distribute updates to the plugin.
- We had to find a platform to use for supporting our customers.
At that time, there were no out-of-the-box solutions for licensing or pushing updates to the plugin. Our developer agreed to set us up with a separate plugin solution he’d been working on that would meet our needs. We actually tried to encourage him to take his product to market since there was obviously a need, but he didn’t think it was worth it. In the end, we moved on to using Software Licensing, created by the folks at Easy Digital Downloads.
We started out with ZenDesk as our support platform and wrote tons of support articles and created some YouTube videos, but ended up migrating over to HelpScout as it had better integration with Software Licensing and Easy Digital Downloads.
We started building WP Courseware in June of 2012 and sold our first plugin in September of 2012. We spent a lot of time testing the plugin and the update process, as well as creating a website, securing and building out social media channels, and creating marketing materials. On the whole, I’d say that launching an MVP in under four months isn’t too bad for a couple of noobs.
Since I was juggling a full-time job, I tinkered on my weekends, evenings, and even lunch breaks to burn through pre-launch tasks. Nate and I basically divided and conquered all of our tasks. After launch, I spent many tireless nights working customer support, but it was well worth it.
How have you attracted users and grown WP Courseware?
We had never launched a premium plugin before so we decided to launch our product as a Warrior Special Offer on the Warrior Forum. We initially sold the plugin for $19.99, which included unlimited updates and support. Warrior Forum has a pretty big base and gave our initial traffic the boost we were looking for. In addition to Warrior Forum, we released our plugin through ClickBank as a way to quickly gain a team of internet marketers that would promote WP Courseware. It can’t go without mention that Nate worked tirelessly to produce blog content and guest post in the early days to build up our organic traffic, which was a huge help.
One huge thing that contributed to our success was that we got noticed by a major influencer in the WordPress space, Chris Lema. We also collaborated with other plugin developers to create plugin integrations that turned into cross promotions.
Our website traffic has increased substantially in the past year, jumping from around 8,600 per month on average in 2016 and 2017 to 14K currently. We think this can be attributed to a couple of key changes we made over the last year. We began paying more attention to our YouTube channel and producing lots of new content like tutorials and strategic learning videos. We also started cultivating a following on Instagram, which expanded our marketing channels. We are trying to stay consistent with producing blog content, video content, and staying on top of social media, and it seems to be paying off. Nate also created a lead magnet in 2018 that has brought us a ton of Facebook traffic and has significantly grown our email list.
Our marketing funnel is pretty straightforward: we have a single lead magnet that brings potential customers into a sequence of eight emails, with a call to action purchase on the last email. We incorporate a discount code in this email sequence and also try to send out a minimum of one promotional email a month.
We tried Google Ads but found the the conversion cost was much higher than ads on Facebook. This seems to be pretty standard for software companies in the LMS space. Facebook and Instagram are starting to get really saturated with ads in general, meaning that many people are being conditioned to ignore ads altogether, which isn’t ideal. We’d eventually like to get into YouTube ads but haven’t yet found the bandwidth.
One thing that has always been a challenge is SEO. SEO strategies and methods are ever changing because Google is always changing the rules. Trying to keep up with SEO is pretty difficult, but we’ve tried to fight the good fight and optimize our website to keep pace with the changes. Ultimately, the majority of our traffic is organic, which is always a good thing.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
Each plugin has three different price points based on the number of licenses. A license allows you to install the plugin on a single WordPress website, and each licensing model is billed annually by way of recurring subscription. We use Easy Digital Downloads Recurring and PayPal Pro plugins for our payment system. Basically, we are a full-on Easy Digital Downloads shop.
As already mentioned, our initial launch was done through the Warrior Forum and ClickBank. Our initial price was $20 for the plugin, which covered lifetime updates and lifetime support. Looking back, we charged way too little for what we were offering. I mean $20 for a full learning management system, lifetime updates, and lifetime support — are you kidding me?
We did eventually bump our prices to a more reasonable and sustainable point. However, about a year and a half into our journey, we were starting to notice a big problem. Sustaining all these customers with support features and investing in product development was quickly building up to more money that we saw coming in down the line. Supporting the plugin, developing new features, and fixing bugs is expensive. We thought about charging more, but figured that would only give us more money up front in the short term, and we were more concerned about sustaining our business long term.
In 2014, we decided to make our products subscription-based, which was the best thing we could have done. We implemented Easy Digital Downloads Recurring plugin into our line up and started signing people up for subscriptions. Though we didn’t see the fruit of this decision until about a year later, its impact on the sustainability of our business is now immeasurable.
Nate and I continued to invest money back into the business by contracting out our developer from the UK to improve the product. Each time we had a release lined up, we announced it to both current customers and potential customers. We’d give the non-customers an expiring discount code, and would run the campaign for several days, which resulted in some huge spikes in revenue during our major updates. Interestingly enough we’d also see overall revenue growth with each update. Over the past 5 years, we’ve averaged about 80% profit margin, which is great for an online software business.
In 2016, we reached a point where we had two solid plugins on the market and we had about $19K in recurring monthly revenue. We decided to begin the hunt for a full-time developer and brought on Cory as our Chief Technical Officer in 2017. Since then, our revenue has jumped to over $23K/mo, so I’d say it’s been a good investment.
That bump in revenue was no accident. In his first year onboard, Cory built Churnly to add to our plugin line up, re-built S3 Media Maestro from the ground up, added a ton of new features to WP Courseware, and updated several of our integration add-ons.
What are your goals for the future?
We do have future plans for other products and are actively working on one of these projects at the moment. We hope to launch the new product within a year, but for now, we are actively re-writing WP Courseware, adding features to our other two plugins, and creating more integration add-on plugins.
When it comes to roadblocks, I view them as growing pains as opposed to obstacles. I’d love to bring on a second full-time developer as well as a FaceBook ads manager, Google Ads manager, SEO specialist, and sales copy and content writer, but we can’t afford any of that right now. As time passes and revenues increase, we will slowly be adding to our team to gain greater momentum.
We’d love to double our revenue by the summer of 2020. As with any goal, we need to be consistent and continuously analyze our approach to make sure we’re being as efficient as possible without compromising the quality of our products and support. We are also trying to focus our efforts on marketing in order to gain more visibility for our products.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
I feel like we made two mistakes very early in our venture. The first mistake was in not bringing on a full-time developer earlier in the game. Contracting a developer worked out well because it helped us to generate immediate cash flow and we only paid for development on a per-project basis. However, that forced me to perform a ton of support and attempt many bug fixes in the early days, which took hours upon hours of time I could have been dedicating to something else. I can’t help but feel like this majorly stunted our growth, but sometimes you just do what you have to do.
Undoubtedly, a full-time developer would have gotten us from point A to present in about half the time. It would have allowed me to work on the business and not so much in it. Also, according to our data, each time a new version was released, our overall sales increased. Even the year we brought on Cory, we saw a huge jump in overall yearly revenue.
Another mistake was launching our product with lifetime support and updates. Development isn’t cheap, but it’s a necessary investment to ensure the continued growth and improvement of your product. The best way to mitigate that cash flow is to have a subscription-based service. Most, if not all, software companies use this revenue model because it just makes sense!
One thing that Nate and I have learned is that investing money back into the business is essential. We likely went a year or more without taking home a paycheck. It did help that we both had other means of income, but investing in your business is very important. Even to this day, we are continually investing money back into our business, whether it be for tools, education, or personal growth.
Three other brief tips that would be super useful is to invest as much as possible into marketing. Whether you are running Facebook ads or Google Ads or simply purchasing a sponsored segment on a podcast, you must invest in marketing and marketing strategies. If you don’t know how to run ads, there are services that can do it for you. Another tip is to network like crazy! Meet people in your industry and even in adjacent industries in order to create opportunities for cross-promotion, backlinks, or even guest posts.
Lastly, don’t do everything yourself. Nate and I have both tried to do everything in our business ourselves. We’ve realized relatively recently that this can only take you so far before you burn out. Part of investing in your business is investing other people that can help build your business so that you don’t burn out. We have always struggled with this because we built this business from the ground up, and relinquishing some of that control to by means of delegating various elements of the business to someone else has been scary. Giving up control of something you've put so much time and effort into isn’t easy, especially in the era of the solo founder, but it’s worth exploring if it preserves your sanity and helps your business.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
A huge part of our success was our complementary work styles. We don’t step on each other’s toes. Nate is the super smart, business-minded guy who takes care of our financials, financial analysis, pre-sales, and content marketing, while I work on the technical aspects, product design, and testing, as well as social media marketing and product documentation.
We meet twice a week via Zoom and talk about things we are working on and things we will be working on in the future. These meetings are super helpful for us to talk through some of our daily struggles and provide some much-needed motivation.
I've already eluded to this, but I really feel that being able to connect with other plugin companies in order to collaborate has been a huge benefit to us in terms of sales and growth. It can create some really nice synergy open the door to cross-promotion.
When I was working in the IT field, I got to see first hand how powerful automation can be and really took that to heart. I try to automate as much as possible and advise everyone to do the same. This means investing in software utilities like tools to automate our sales funnel, email marketing, and social media content. Even little things like having pre-canned responses ready to go in our support system, or having integration from a web form over to a Trello board to track customer feature requests is a real time saver. Automation can help you leverage your time so that you can work on the things that matter most.
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
It seems that stepping into online business is not as easy as it used to be. There are more people trying to spin up online businesses, inevitably making for greater competition. Social media is getting crowded and the internet is full of “experts." That’s all to say that there is a lot of noise and it’s difficult to be heard in the crowd, so my advice is pretty simple: be authentic, be truly helpful, be respectful and show that you really care.
People can spot a fast-talking sales shark a mile away. If you are in business to make a quick buck, you will never sustain that business long term. Listen and learn from your customers' feedback, even if it’s negative. Customer feedback is an essential component to making your products better.
As tempting as it might be to take that revenue and put it in your pocket, I’d recommend taking that profit and investing it right back in your business, whether it’s improving your product, marketing your product, purchasing tools, or investing in personal growth. Investing in your business is vital to the growth of your business. It’s hard to do this at first, especially if you don’t have another method for income, but it’s necessary for longevity.
Here is an extensive list of tools we use in our business. These are tools we actually use and, honestly, they have contributed to the success of our business.
Where can we go to learn more?
Every fourth Friday of every month we host a free office hours session where we answer questions about our plugins, WordPress in general, or online business on a live broadcast. Feel free to register, attend, and ask questions.
Links to our three Plugins:
If you have questions about WP Courseware, send us a question.
If anyone has any questions for us, please don't hesitate to ask in the comments. We'll try to answer anything and everything. Thank you for having us on Indie Hackers!
—, Founder of WP Courseware
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