Transitioning from Design Shop to Subscription-Based Plugin Business

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

Hi, I'm Katie Keith. I co-founded Barn2 Media back in 2009 with my husband Andy.

Andy's a web developer by trade, but my web knowledge is all self-taught. My background is actually in marketing and project management — and my degree is in English and Philosophy!

Before founding Barn2 Media, I spent seven years in a marketing job for local government, encouraging people to foster or adopt a child. This did involve some online marketing and web design, but that wasn't the main focus.

Andy and I had always wanted to work from home and start a business together. We talked about this for most of our 20s, but felt that we didn't have a killer idea that would be a success. As a result, we stayed in our jobs for far longer than we should have.

I spent most of my 20s talking about starting a business without really doing anything. It's easy to do that when you're getting a regular salary!

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Eventually, Andy quit his job as a senior software developer and started Barn2 Media, while I supported the business alongside my full-time job. I went full time at Barn2 Media after having a baby in 2011.

We started by designing WordPress websites for small and medium businesses, and never had any trouble getting work. Instead of recruiting staff (which neither of us were keen on doing), we grew the business by recruiting a team of freelancers. At its height, we had a distributed team of about 10 freelancers working together on a regular basis.

However, we always felt that selling WordPress-related products would be a better way to get the work-life balance we were looking for. In 2016 we took the plunge and put most of our time into developing and selling WordPress product plugins, which add extra features to people's websites.

Fast forward two years and we now sell over $24k/month of plugins, on top of the income from the web design business.

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What motivated you to get started with selling WordPress plugins?

I'd wanted to sell web-related products since the early days of Barn2 Media, as I felt that it was a more scalable business model. I loved the idea of creating a product that would sell many times, without having to work for each sale.

We got the idea for our first plugin from an ideas forum where people requested new features for WooCommerce. WooCommerce is the world's biggest WordPress e-commerce plugin, and powers over 42% of all online stores worldwide. Quite a few people had asked for a way to password protect specific categories within their WooCommerce stores, and no one else had developed this yet. As a result, we developed our first plugin — WooCommerce Password Protected Categories.

We didn't do any formal validation of the idea, and had no idea if it would be successful. It felt like a very small niche to target! However, it didn't require a huge amount of development time, so we decided to take a risk.

Stop waiting for the perfect "big idea". Read forums and look on Quora for ideas and gaps in the market, and build a few products that won't take too long to develop.

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Launching a WooCommerce plugin was a good combination of our skills. We were very experienced in developing WooCommerce websites and writing custom plugins for clients built on WooCommerce. This felt like a good niche to target within the wider WordPress arena.

At the same time, we also launched two free plugins to help grow awareness of Barn2 Media as a plugin company — Better Recent Comments and Posts Table with Search + Sort. These were enhanced versions of plugins that we had already built for our web design clients.

What went into building the initial product?

The perfect thing about selling WordPress products is that you can develop them and get them to market with no significant financial outlay. You just need to be able to afford the drop in income that comes from spending time building products that may never make any money.

We were already making a good living from designing websites for clients. With an established process and a team of freelancers, I could continue running the client business while Andy dedicated himself to building WordPress plugins.

In the early days, I probably spent a quarter of my time marketing the plugins and providing customer support. This increased to 90% of my time once the products became successful and I could afford to stop taking on new web design projects. This meant that we were very fortunate and could structure the existing business in a way that would allow us to start selling plugins without any big financial risks.

Once Andy was spending all his time on product development, we were able to launch two free plugins within a few weeks, and our first premium plugin a month or so later.

We achieved this by thinking carefully about the scope and complexity of each plugin. I'm quite risk-averse, and didn't want to spend too long working on a product that may not be successful. The strategy was to launch several small- to medium-sized plugins, each fulfilling a specific need that wasn't available elsewhere. We could then evaluate the success of each product, learn from our mistakes, and plan how to continue growing the business.

Barn2 Media product

How have you attracted users and grown Barn2 Media's product sales?

When we launched our first plugin — WooCommerce Password Protected Categories — we started getting sales within a few days. There were only eight sales in month one, but those first sales felt so good!

I didn't do any paid advertising, pre-launch marketing, build a mailing list, generate a buzz on social media, or any of the things you're meant to do to promote a new product! All I did was to publish some articles on our blog. Since it was a niche area, that was enough for people to find us in Google. People were willing to buy from us because our website looked professional and there were no other products offering the same solution.

We grew the product sales by listening to our users. Once we'd released WooCommerce Password Protected Categories and the two free plugins, feature requests started flooding in. This gave us some excellent ideas for new products that would sell. For example:

  • Unexpectedly, lots of people were using WooCommerce Password Protected Categories to create a completely hidden store. The plugin wasn't really designed for this, so we developed a new product: WooCommerce Private Store. This now gets more sales than the original product.
  • Users of our Posts Table with Search + Sort plugin soon started asking to list other post types and custom data in a table. The free plugin only lists blog posts in a table, so we developed the Posts Table Pro WordPress table plugin to meet this need.
  • A lot of Posts Table Pro users were using it to list WooCommerce products in a table, which we hadn't expected. They wanted extra features such as add to cart buttons, so we created a dedicated table plugin for WooCommerce — WooCommerce Product Table. This plugin had huge demand and has skyrocketed our sales — it has sold more than all our other plugins combined.

My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to stop waiting for the perfect "big idea". Read forums and look on Quora for ideas and gaps in the market, and build a few products that won't take too long to develop. It's important to find products that don't already exist elsewhere, as that makes it much easier to conquer your niche and drive traffic to your website.

Evaluate the results, listen to feedback, and use the results to come up with more unique ideas that will sell even better.

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

The business model for the plugin business is to continue promoting our existing products; add new features where we have evidence that these will increase sales; and develop new plugins to fill further gaps in the WordPress and WooCommerce market.

We have grown our revenue through a combination of:

  • Experimenting with pricing to find the most profitable cost for each product.
  • Launching new products and adding new features to existing products.
  • Ongoing marketing to raise awareness and show how our products offer solutions for many different use cases.
  • Annual pricing with subscription model.

Having read about the success of other WordPress product companies such as Pippin Williamson's company Sandills Development, we decided to use a subscription model for our products. When someone buys one of our plugins, they are automatically signed up for an annual subscription. They are billed once a year for continued access to new versions of the plugin and support.

This makes the business more sustainable and will grow our revenue over time. We currently receive a couple thousand dollars from plugin renewals each month, which gives a nice boost to the income from new sales.

Create niche products where you have a reasonable chance of success by selling direct. It's better to have a big slice of a small pie than a 0% slice of a big pie.

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We offer two payment methods: PayPal and Stripe. I think this is important because we're a UK company and 89% of our customers are overseas. They need payment methods that they know and trust. PayPal is great because it's so easy and people don't have to enter their credit card details. I think it's good to add a credit/debit card option too, as this has slightly lower fees for us and some people (especially larger companies) don't like to use PayPal. Stripe is our default payment method because of the lower fees, and 60% of our customers pay via Stripe.

We sold $24,000 in plugins last month, and this figure is growing each month. This is on top of revenue from other sources such as supporting websites that we previously designed.

My tip for aspiring entrepreneurs is to create niche products where you have a reasonable chance of success by selling direct. It's better to have a big slice of a small pie than a 0% slice of a big pie — especially if you can choose your own pricing and sell subscriptions, which isn't an option on most marketplaces. Selling directly on your own website brings more potential for higher revenues than selling on a third-party marketplace where you'll lose 30-50% of your income in fees.

Month Sales
Mar 16 8
Jun 16 13
Sep 16 48
Dec 16 59
Mar 17 153
Jun 17 177
Sep 17 203
Dec 17 211

What are your goals for the future?

I'm not keen on making formal revenue goals and projections. Instead, I plan to continue doing what we're doing — that's the best way I know to build on our existing success.

This means:

  • Using our feature request list to improve our products in a way that will increase sales. 
- Continuing to experiment with new ways to promote and raise awareness of the products.
  • Launching more WordPress plugins — both free and paid. Each one will be aimed at meeting a specific need in WordPress or WooCommerce, based on gaps in the market that we discover.

Personally, my goals are to be less busy and make more time for leisure and family life. I'm naturally a highly motivated person, and enjoy working hard! This means that I'm always looking to continue growing the business, even though I could drastically reduce my hours while still earning enough to live on. I need to find the right balance between building enough income to make the family financially secure into the future, while remembering to live life and take some time off in the short-term.

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 love selling products because while our customers need a lot of support, it's far less demanding or time-intensive than designing websites for clients. I also love working for myself, as I have much more freedom and can choose my working hours.

My biggest regret is not doing it sooner. I graduated from university in 2002, and didn't start selling WordPress plugins until 2016. I spent most of my 20s talking about starting a business without really doing anything. It's easy to do that when you're getting a regular salary!

Once I started Barn2 Media and built a successful web design business (which I'm really proud of), I spent years talking about selling WordPress products without really doing anything. It's easy to do that when you've got plenty of projects on the go!

There's no point in working for yourself if you hate your work. Choose work that you will actively enjoy, which makes good use of your skills and experiences.

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The biggest obstacle to selling WordPress products has been time. I used to be busy with full-time employment, and then I was busy having a baby and managing web design projects. During those years, I played around with several side projects, but none of them went anywhere because I didn't dedicate enough time.

I've learned that sometimes you have to create time in order to do what you really want. There are lots of distractions along the way, and you need to be strong and focused.

For example, by September 2016 (six months after launching our first plugins), it was clear that the plugin business had the potential to be successful. This gave me the confidence to stop taking on new web design projects and focus most of my time on selling plugins. I continued supporting existing clients, and this provided a financial safety net. However, putting the bulk of my time into the products made a huge difference, and I should have done it sooner.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I've found it really helpful to build products in an industry that I'm already familiar with. While I've been selling products for less than two years, I've been in the WordPress industry for over eight years.

During this time, I'd used hundreds of plugins from other companies. I knew what made a good plugin, and what other companies got wrong. I'd received outstanding support and poor support. I knew who the big players were, and who to learn from. I'd spoken with hundreds of WordPress website owners and knew their priorities and pain points.

I've put all this knowledge directly into selling our own plugins, which I think has helped us to become successful more quickly. It has also helped me to avoid a lot of the mistakes that other companies make.

For example, I've seen lots of WordPress products that come with free support with customizations and third party integrations. I've always wondered how they can afford to do this, because it means there are no limits to the support they will provide. As a result, I knew from the outset that our plugin business would have a clearly defined support policy with set limits. This is more sustainable, and our customers are still happy because even if we can't help them, we will always point them in the right direction.

Since starting the plugin business, I've also found it invaluable to speak with other plugin companies. WordPress conferences such as WordCamps are fantastic for this, and I'm a member of a Facebook group for people selling WordPress products.

Barn2 Media founders

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

Make it happen. You can talk about something for years, but it will only happen if you take action and launch a product. It doesn't matter if your first attempt isn't successful. By getting out there in the first place, one idea can evolve into another and your chances of success are infinitely higher.

Commit. You'll find greater success if your products are your main focus. You can find success with side projects, but this is harder as there are so many distractions.

Make it repeatable. Business gurus often say that it's easier to retain existing customers than to recruit new ones. Build a subscription-based revenue model and avoid products that involve one-off payments.

Listen and learn. Starting a successful business is a journey, not a destination. Be willing to change your plans based on your experiences, customer feedback and other new information.

Enjoy. There's no point in working for yourself if you hate your work. Choose work that you will actively enjoy, which makes good use of your skills and experiences. It's your business, and you can make it whatever you want it to be.

Where can we go to learn more?

Our company website is barn2.co.uk. You can also follow us on Twitter @barn2media.

If you'd like to leave a comment or question below then I'd love to hear from you.

Katie Keith , Founder of Barn2 Media

Want to build your own business like Barn2 Media?

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  1. 5

    Thanks for sharing.

    Please give us more information about the marketing, how you get new customers? you are doing paid advertising or customers are coming free plugins? a detailed answer will be apricated and help us a lot.

    1. 2

      Hi, I have tried Google AdWords and Facebook Ads and ended up breaking even - i.e. the revenue from the sales was about the same as the adverts were costing me. So I stopped that as the ROI wasn't there.

      If you sell niche themes or plugins then you can be found fairly easily without spending a lot on advertising. Paid reviews can make a difference. I find that sponsored reviews on high authority sites like WPLift are more expensive, but the ROI is far better than paying for cheaper reviews on low authority sites.

  2. 3

    Exciting and inspiring stuff, @barn2media !

    I'm particularly interested in your decision to sell a SaaS product to Woocommerce/Wordpress users. It's been 5+ years since I worked in that area but my impression was that Woocommerce customers are much less willing to pay significant prices (or recurring prices) than Shopify users are.

    I'll hopefully be jumping back into the market with a Shopify/Woocommerce SaaS app soon, so I'd love to hear your thoughts on price sensitivity there...

    Thanks and keep up the great work!

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      I must admit that my experience is with WooCommerce rather than Shopify. However, I would say that it's easier to monetize WooCommerce plugins than general WordPress plugins because a WooCommerce store generates actual revenue, so it's worth investing in paid software.

      It's nice that companies such as Easy Digital Downloads and WooCommerce/Automattic are taking the lead in increasing prices of the official extensions and adopting subscription-based models. This helps to counter the unsustainable culture that sites like CodeCanyon have built up by offering plugins too cheaply and for one-off prices that make it difficult to provide an ongoing quality service.

      1. 1

        Thanks - that echoes my thoughts/experience so far.

  3. 2

    Great work!
    I want to know how to genrate and bring up more wordpress plugin ideas?
    And also would people really pay for it?
    And also I am not a developer so how one can begin ?
    Thanks!

    1. 3

      People will pay for plugins that offer something that adds value for them. That's why WooCommerce is a good area to focus, as the purpose of a WooCommerce plugin is to generate revenue for the website owner. Our WordPress plugins sell too, but not as much.

      Of course, you need to find a niche where there isn't already a free plugin available to do the same thing. But you can sell premium plugins where your plugin is better than any of the free alternatives.

      When I think about this issue, I often think about my own experience of choosing a knowledge base plugin for our website. I did the usual and Googled 'WordPress knowledge base plugins', which I think is how lots of people find plugins. I found some free ones and tested them, but they were quite basic and didn't have the features I needed. I also found the Heroic Knowledge Base plugin by HeroThemes which was $129. I obviously would have preferred to pay $0 than $129, but their website was so professional that I felt it would increase our own success and was worth the investment, and the plugin had the features that the free ones were missing. A year later, I'm still happy that I went with the paid plugin.

  4. 2

    Great article i will like to know more about the transition from web design to the Saas applications. and how long did the transition took .

    1. 1

      We launched our first WordPress plugins in early 2016, and the sales grew slowly but steadily as you can see in the table above. By summer 2016, we could afford to stop taking on new web design projects but continued supporting our existing clients (which we still do now). We had to complete all the projects we had already committed to, so this took us into early 2017. I guess that's a year, although there was no clear cut-off point.

  5. 2

    Thanks for sharing, @barn2media. Could you tell us a bit about how you went about to find the freelancers you eventually worked with? Which platforms did you use to find people? Did you have any "hiring" process? Were you happy with the quality of work, or did you encounter any bad apples?

    1. 2

      In my experience, it doesn't matter how you find the freelancers. What matters is that you try out different people and vet them properly.

      I tried pretty much everything to find good freelancers, it was very much a process of trial and error! The good thing about freelancers is that you can try them out on a small process, and if you're not happy then you don't have to use them again.

      I found some of my best (and worst) freelancers on sites such as People Per Hour and Elance (which is now called Upwork). These sites have plenty of good people as well as not-so-good ones. I was also contacted direct by quite a few freelancers and worked with the ones that were best.

      Others I contacted directly from Googling for people with their skills.

      We did a few things to improve the process and reduce the risk:

      1. For freelance developers, Andy would ask to see a bespoke theme or plugin they had coded and quality-checked their work. This was the best way to check their work was of the right standard. After doing this, there were some people who he said we definitely shouldn't work with, and some people who he was incredibly impressed with. For SEO specialists, I looked at sites they had optimized to make sure they didn't look spammy and shared my approach to white hat SEO.

      2. We produced a quality standards document which was shared with all the freelancers.

      3. Each project had a clear specification document which described the required standards.

      1. 1

        Thanks Katie, I guess I'll take the plunge soon and get a freelancer involved, with your advice in mind.

  6. 1

    Really inspiring, thanks for sharing your story!

    What I'd really like to hear is about your target group. Is it WP developers or website owners? Digital marketing experts?

    1. 1

      I haven't done the stats, but my impression that about half our plugin customers are WP developers building sites for clients, and about half are website owners. There aren't so many digital marketing experts.

      This means that we need to tailor our sales pages and documentation to technical and non-technical people, so that they're accessible and useful for everyone.

  7. 1

    Great post and thank you for sharing! Really enjoyed reading through this! I never would have thought of how popular (and profitable) WordPress plugins could be.

  8. 1

    Inspiring. I have just heard about IH from a blog post. I read through a few cool posts and comments which piqued my interest, but this one aligns so well with my own personal dream of a modest sustainable business that I am totally hooked now.

  9. 1

    Really inspiring story.You mentioned that you got idea for a plugin from a forum.Can u pls mention which forum it is ?

    1. 2

      It was the official WooCommerce Ideas forum - http://ideas.woocommerce.com/forums/133476-woocommerce.

  10. 1

    Fantastic article and thanks for demystifying a lot of the process for us. It was interesting to read that 60% of sales are collected through Stripe and I was wondering do you just create subscriptions on stripe and then embeds this to your plugin purchase page or do you use a third party subscription service that links with Stripe.

    1. 1

      We use Easy Digital Downloads to sell our plugins, with its Stripe extension (as well as Recurring Payments for the subscriptions). This integrates fully and saves time, for example if we do a refund in EDD then it automatically refunds the money via Stripe.

  11. 1

    What caused the big jump in sales in Q1 2017? Also, can you please flesh out the part about how you attracted customers? Are they coming from freemium plugins in the wordpress repo, SEO to your blog posts, purely word of mouth...or something else?

    Thanks,

    Ben

    1. 2

      I think there were 2 main reasons for the jump in sales in Q1 2017. One is that our most successful plugin, WooCommerce Product Table, was launched in October 2016 and it took a few months for this to take off. The other is that we stopped taking on new client projects in late Summer 2016 but had to complete these projects, so it was probably early 2017 before I had more time to commit to building and marketing the plugins.

      Because they're niche plugins, most of our sales come from general SEO and people coming direct to our own website. Our free plugins generate some sales for the paid ones, but I don't think this is the main source. Word of mouth isn't a huge factor because the plugins are so niche.

  12. 1

    Great interview thank you! Other than through organic search, how did you get your first plugin in front of customers?

    1. 1

      That's literally all we did! Our first plugin was WooCommerce Password Protected Categories and because this is so specific and nothing else was offering a solution to this problem, we were quickly able to rank for keywords such as 'woocommerce password protected categories'. That made it easy to get the plugin in front of customers.

  13. 1

    Great post !! thanks a lot for sharing !

  14. 1

    This is exactly what I needed to hear, @barn2media ! Also, these types of posts are my favorite part of Indie Hacker @csallen , keep them coming!

    I'm interested in hearing more about the transition from your web design business to Saas applications. What services do/did you offer design clients, and how did running the design business help you when you decided to push Saas products full time?

    Wish you the best, and great post!

    1. 1

      Running the web design business was a good safety net as it meant that we already had a regular income (from hosting, support and maintenance) and could afford to put time into building the plugins before they started making money.

      We used to offer a full WordPress design and development services as well as SEO. We stopped this as soon as we could afford to because each project took up a lot of time, and meant that I wasn't spending as much time as I wanted on the plugins.

      Nowadays, we continue supporting our previous clients, but the only new websites we build are much simpler. We just design new sites under our affordable MySimpleSite service (https://barn2.co.uk/wordpress-web-design), which is a theme-based web design service where the websites are largely pre-built. MySimpleSite is much more 'productized' than the type of web design we did before, so it fits with our new business model of selling WordPress products rather than services.

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