How to Make Recurring Revenue Managing WordPress Sites

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

Howdy! Joe Howard here. I'm the Head Buff at WP Buffs.

As you can probably tell by the "WP" in the company name, we work and specialize in the content management system WordPress. We want to be the very best technical support partner for any individual, business, or organization with a WordPress website. Most entrepreneurs or business owners either try to manage their own website or hire a host of freelancers to support them. Most of the time, this means more time spend on technical issues or people management when their valuable time should be spent growing their business.

And that's the exact problem we want to solve. One WordPress technical partner who will fully manage, secure, and speed up your WordPress site for a monthly subscription.

WP Buffs website

Financially, we're growing! In Q4 of 2017, we earned $33,099.36. That figure is actually probably ~$1,000 higher since we have a few customers who pay us via PayPal, but it's about right.

While fully managing websites for freelancers, larger agencies and WordPress businesses, we found that a significant segment of our audience weren't interested in bringing us on as a partner because they actually wanted to implement ongoing care plans internally. Having successfully built a business around making predictable revenue through ongoing maintenance, we were in the perfect position to launch WPMRR.

This robust video course teaches WordPress professionals how to implement, sell and execute ongoing care plans for their WordPress clients and increase their revenue every single month. It's basically the blueprint of how we built and scaled WP Buffs and packaged so that anybody in the WordPress space can do the same. We like to think of it as open-sourcing our entire company!

It also allowed us to launch The WPMRR WordPress Podcast alongside the video course. If you’ve been looking for a WP podcast that’s entirely focused on growing successful WordPress businesses and monthly recurring revenue without taking itself too seriously, we’ve got your back.

What motivated you to get started with WP Buffs?

Like a lot of people in the world of WordPress, I came to it after jumping around a few different jobs. I studied mathematics and education as an undergraduate, so I went on to teach high school math for a couple years in the public school system of Washington, DC.

When I decided to transition away from that, I got involved with an early-stage SEO agency. I was brought on as the director of operations. While the title sounds impressive, when you're the first employee of the company, it really just means you run around with your hair on fire doing pretty much everything.

This was a blessing in disguise though! Yes; work was pretty hectic. But I learned a ton about WordPress and building websites! We decided to use WordPress as our content management system of choice for a couple main reasons: it was simple enough for non-technical people (like me) to host, launch and build websites and the open-source component meant a vibrant community to get help when we got stuck.

The startup only lasted a couple years and I found full-time work as a government consultant for the Department of Defense. But I was still doing a ton of WordPress freelancing on the side. Like most people, I was building websites for clients, but I couldn't quite figure out how to scale it. Building websites was such a personalized experience for every client, and freelancing was too time-consuming. It felt like I was getting a lot done but not really moving anywhere.

That's when the idea for WP Buffs was born. I wanted to get out of the game of building WordPress websites and find a business model that allowed me to 1) make recurring revenue every month and have predictable income, and 2) scale into a business that was self-sufficient. So instead of charging a few clients a lot of money to build a website, I went in the direction of charging a lot of clients a little money to manage their website. I decided to run my pricing structure like a SaaS company; one payment every month gets you a technical WordPress partner — easy.

Initially, I was working 9-5 as a consultant and on WP Buffs as a side-hustle. This allowed me to fund the company's initial investments with my paycheck, so it seemed like a no-brainer.

Validating the idea was as easy as a simple Google search. I saw a lot of other companies out there were trying to do the same thing, which was actually good news because it meant there was a market for this. Even better, there were only 2-3 other companies that seemed serious about it; most seemed like they'd be easy to overtake in search, overall visibility and quality of service.

Once the time came, I made the move to WP Buffs full-time.

What went into building the initial product?

Building the initial website was easy since I'd had a lot of experience with that over the years. I put together a quick and dirty MVP and pushed it online within a few days. The website you see now at wpbuffs.com is our second iteration since we had to refine a few things as we've grown.

From initial idea to launch probably took a few days. I'm a big proponent of the lean methodology and shipping before we have a perfect product, so this seemed like the right move in my eyes.

As I was building the initial site, I was also putting together our internal systems. Managing a website well is far more complex than it seems — it involves updating plugins, themes, and core files regularly, security, performance, backups, uptime monitoring, and much more. On top of that, I wanted to provide real-time 24/7 support, so putting an initial remote team together for that wasn't easy. I ended up working with a couple developers, AZ and Rifa, who I'd worked with on previous projects who agreed to get started with me, even though we didn't have any customers yet. I owe those guys a lot!

How have you attracted users and grown WP Buffs?

Our launch was actually pretty uneventful. I didn't make any announcements or do much prep for it; I just launched the website and focused on the marketing areas where I have experience — inbound.

I got our very first paying customer 3 days after launch. They reached out through our contact form and signed up that same day. Having not really done much marketing for the business yet, I took this as a good sign.

Whatever industry you're in, make friends and find people trying to do the same things you are.

Tweet
Share

Since launching WP Buffs, I've stuck to inbound marketing as our main customer acquisition channel. Here's what it looks like:

  1. We write useful content that people find via Google searches.
  2. Once they've landed on our website, some sign up for our email list or ask us to email them a free eBook to help them secure or speed up their website. Others chat with us and ask for additional help with a WordPress problem they're having.
  3. Those people are added to an automated email series. We provide a ton of value and education here to help people manage their websites more efficiently.
  4. We segment this email list so the more engaged subscribers get sent additional emails about our services and care plans.
  5. Willing subscribers continue to get emails from us that includes new content we publish on the blog as well as valuable WP articles from across the web.

This strategy of marketing worked extremely well since almost all of the traffic we got on the website were people who had a WordPress problem and were searching for a solution. If we could position ourselves to answer that question and find them a solution, great. If in addition to that, we became their go-to for WordPress questions and eventually a technical partner — even better.

We've also marketed ourselves to the WordPress community. I've given a few talks at WordCamps and sponsored/attended our fair share in order to be part of the open-source environment and help WP Buffs gain some visibility. Many companies live and die by their reputation in the WordPress space, so I wanted to make sure we were on the right side of things there.

Here's what traffic looked like in Q4 of 2017. Not too shabby!

WP Buffs traffic

Over the time, we've acquired 54 new customers. Score!

Month Users
Apr '17 5008
Jun '17 8517
Aug '17 14646
Sep '17 20573
Nov '17 29749

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

Our care plans were motivated by a SaaS pricing structure — one flat monthly price for a technical WordPress partner.

The biggest mistake I made as part of our pricing was to go too far into SAAS-land; initially, we were offering a 30-day free trial of our maintenance plans. This turned out to be a bad idea because it attracted the kinds of people who would sign up for our free trial, ask for website edits, and then leave on day 29.

Not good. Our churn rate was something like 65%.

So I switched things up. My wife actually first suggested the idea that we give people a 50% discount for the first month instead of a free trial.

I should listen to my wife more often. We made the change, saw no drop in customer acquisition, and started attracting a much higher quality customer. Our churn rate dropped to single digits!

We also offer unlimited edits as part of our mid- and top-tier plans.

Growth is hard, but I think I understand now what it means when people say you have to spend money to make money.

Tweet
Share

If all our customers asked for 10 website edits every day, this business model probably wouldn't work. But we've found that most people ask for more edits the first month and then far fewer the months following. This means for somebody on our Perform Plan Pro ($120/mo), we often spend $150-$200 to service that account in their first month. But it turns out that they're so happy with our care plan it increases their "customer lifetime value" and we're able to increase our margins and become more financially stable with that customer over the long term.

Plus, not charging people for every website edit cuts down on a ton of costs around invoicing, customer communication, etc., so in my mind it's definitely a scalable business model that we'll be using going forward.

When we were just starting out and I was still in "proof of concept" mode, I simply added PayPal buttons to the site so that people could pay us that way. Once we had ~25 customers and I realized how terrible that checkout system was (taking people off the site and then back on, PayPal just being tough to work with, etc) I switched over to Stripe. That was a great decision as Stripe has been much easier once we got things up and running.

We're actually planning to upgrade our checkout process again to accept both credit cards via Stripe and PayPal, so check back with us soon!

Month Revenue
Apr '17 3220
Jun '17 3970
Aug '17 8183
Sep '17 7719
Nov '17 14819

What are your goals for the future?

I've got 3 goals for 2018.

600 websites managed

That's right. I want to hit 600 websites managed by the end of 2018.

This may seem like an ambitious number, but I think it's pretty reasonable.

  1. Our traffic has grown every month since I started WP Buffs, so that means exponentially more customers moving forward as we refine our sales and conversion processes.
  2. Our white-label partnership program has become central to our growth. We help 25+ marketing agencies, design firms, and WordPress freelancers provide maintenance plans to their clients. I'm confident that in 2018 we'll continue to bring in more, including some larger partners.

That's why I think this is an ideal goal. High enough to be pretty ambitious, yet achievable according to our trajectory.

If we hit these milestones in 2018, we'll be at or above >$250,000 ARR and >$20,000 MRR. That's a milestone I would be damn proud of.

96 overall happiness rating

Customer happiness is extremely important to me. And it's not just because happy customers have a higher lifetime value to WP Buffs and are good for us financially. I built this company to help as many people with their WordPress sites as possible and make it easy for them to make bold decisions when it came to their websites without hesitating due to technical restraints.

If we can push customer happiness from 92/100 to 96/100, that will mean halving the number of customers who have given us a "bad" or "okay" rating even once.

Speak at 10 WordCamps

Running a WordPress company means giving back to the community. I spoke at two WordCamps in 2017, and I'd like to go for more this year.

Doing so will let me get to know what the WordPress community is like in different areas as well as help WP Buffs gain some visibility with some more face time.

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

I've made a ton of mistakes along the way, but some of the biggest ones do stand out.

I've had to fire three developers

We had a few developers who just didn't work out for us. The main reasons were one or a combination of the following:

  1. They wanted to fly solo and not be part of the team.
  2. They made too many mistakes.
  3. They weren't efficient enough with their time.

What I learned: I needed to vet our new hires a bit better. This includes how efficient and effective they can be when it comes to WordPress, but also how well they can fit into our remote team culture of collaboration. Bringing on more people who fit this mold will be a big focus this year.

WP Buffs team

I waited too long to get our financials in order

Don't get me wrong. I've always kept serious tabs on how we were doing financially. Revenue. Profit margins. Payroll. All of that.

But I made two big mistakes that I think have cost me:

  1. I didn't do financial projections. To be honest, I've been doing the bare minimum when it comes to measuring how WP Buffs is doing financially. But looking at our bank account and guessing how much financial bandwidth we have just won't cut it anymore.
  2. I didn't hire for bookkeeping and accounting early enough. Time to let the professionals take over and give me some data-driven projects based on recent performance, churn rate, and potential new customers that can tell me what kind of investments we can comfortably make. I just did this about a week ago; although it's tough to pay big money to non-billable personnel, it will be worth it in the long run.

I thought about spending money instead of investing it

Looking back, I think for too long I thought about the money we were spending instead of what that investment really looked like. When we were first starting out, I would have seen the $1,000 price tag on a new checkout system and thought we just couldn't afford it.

Now that's simply an investment that if it attracts one new customer who wouldn't have checked out before, it's paid for itself.

Growth is hard, but I think I understand now what it means when people say you have to spend money to make money.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Man, there are too many helpful things that supported me in getting where I am today. I'm a big fan of the 80/20 rule, so let me list the 20% of things that had 80% of the impact on our growth.

Inbox Pause: only allowing emails to populate in my inbox 2x per day has done wonders for my productivity. Now instead of checking email 50x per day, I'm actually doing deep work and getting things done that move my business forward.

Pomodoro Productivity Journal: working in 25-minute sprints and 5-minute breaks has done wonders for my mental focus. I don't really believe in productivity hacks, but this allows me to forget everything else happening and focus on a single task at a time. Finally I'm moving things forward effectively.

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future: This biography taught me a lot about what makes Elon tick and how he unapologetically willed his companies into existence and massive success. I don't think we have quite the same DNA, but it's crazy to know how hard work and keeping expectations high can move things forward.

Startups for the rest of us: This podcast is focused on helping people grow their SaaS businesses; not exactly what WP Buffs is, but because of our pricing structure, listening in here has been extremely beneficial. They go over just about every aspect of running a SaaS company at any stage, so this is a must-listen.

Entreleadership: This has been much more applicable to me in the last year than when WP Buffs was starting out. Now that most of my day is managing people instead of execution, personal development has been where I spent a lot of my time. This podcast is one I listen to during my afternoon walks with my dog, Marvin.

The WordPress community: My friends in the WordPress space have been instrumental in helping me grow WP Buffs. The number of referrals, shout outs, links to my website that I've received has been essential to our growth. The community is one of the reasons I got so involved in WordPress in the first place, and I couldn't be happier working alongside these great people every day.

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

The one thing that's had the biggest positive effect on growing WP Buffs has been building relationships with people in the WordPress space. The people who make up the space are simply wonderful, which makes it easy. Whatever industry you're in, make friends and find people trying to do the same things you are; there's nothing that can push you forward faster than surrounding yourself with other people striving for success like you.

Where can we go to learn more?

Have a question? Go ahead and ask it in the comments below and I'll get you an answer soon :)

Joe Howard , Head Buff of WP Buffs

Want to build your own business like WP Buffs?

You should join the Indie Hackers community! 🤗

We're a few thousand founders helping each other build profitable businesses and side projects. Come share what you're working on and get feedback from your peers.

Not ready to get started on your product yet? No problem. The community is a great place to meet people, learn, and get your feet wet. Feel free to just browse!

Courtland Allen , Indie Hackers founder

Loading comments...