Katie Keith (@Barn2Media) sees small ideas as big opportunities. In this episode, she explains how she and her husband left their full-time jobs to go into business on their own, how they found an endless stream of client work, and how they transitioned into building WordPress plugins that generate a sustainable stream of income and allow them to live their lives more freely.
What's up, everyone? This is Courtland I'm from IndieHackers.com and you're listening to the IndieHackers podcast.
On this show I talk to the founders of profitable Internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it's like to be in their shoes.
How did they get to where they are today? How do they make decisions, both at their companies and in their personal lives and what makes their businesses tick?
Today I'm talking to Katie Keith, one half of the husband-and-wife duo behind a company called Barn2 Media.
Katie, welcome to the show and thanks for joining me.
Hi everyone and thanks for having me.
So today I have the pleasure of having you on the podcast but earlier this year. we actually published a written interview about you and your company on the IndieHackers website.
I'm going to assume that most people listening have not read that interview. So can you explain a little bit about what Barn2 Media is and how exactly your company works.
We are a WordPress company founded by my husband and myself back in late 2009. We started off designing websites for clients, having previously quit our more traditional jobs to start our own company together.
Then in 2016, we switched from designing WordPress websites for other people to building WordPress plugins and selling them via our own website. So we've had a big switch, in the article earlier this year on IndieHackers was about how we transitioned from one to the other.
Great and later on we'll dive into a little bit about what WordPress is and about what WordPress plugins are, for people who don't know.
First let me say that yours is one of my favorite interviews on the site and the reason why is that you're almost a perfect example of an IndieHacker.
You guys didn't take any outside funding from investors. You're a tiny team and you want to keep it that way instead of aiming to grow to some massive size just because. And you're doing all of this with the goal, I think, of being financially independent.
So you have more time to live your life the way that you want to and of course, you're happy talking about all of this in public and sharing your revenue numbers as well. So you're pretty much the most IndieHacker person that I've talked to you on IndieHackers.
Okay, excellent. Yeah, I've always got an issue with the traditional startup culture which seems to assume that you need outside funding and staff and all of that.
If that's the lifestyle you want then fine, but it feels kind of stressful to me. So my husband and I built our business in the way we were comfortable with, that fit with the lifestyles we wanted.
Which involved getting as successful as we could but within certain parameters. We wanted to work from home, we don't want to be managers managing staff. We didn't feel we'd enjoy that or be good managers particularly and we wanted to sell the products that we want to and not be reliant on outside investment.
So we've kind of built all of our success within those parameters which has been interesting.
Yeah, that's exactly it. It's not necessarily that the other way of doing things is bad, but it's that it might not be the fit for the kind of lifestyle that you want to live.
A lot of people don't realize that there's another way to build an online business that is more of a fit with living a more relaxed lifestyle, not being stressed and getting to do the things that you want to do.
Can I ask you how much revenue you guys are bringing in nowadays with Barn2 Media?
On the plugin side of things, we're currently turning over $34,000, $35,000 a month. So that's in plugin sales and then there's some amount, nothing like that amount, for the previous projects that we did.
So we also built 100 websites for clients in the past which we continue to host and support but we don't build new websites anymore. So that element of the revenue has dropped off.
Yeah, that's amazing because when I interviewed you, I think four months ago, you were doing $24,000 a month in revenue.
Now, you're up to 35 already. So that's pretty rapid growth. Is it just you and your husband working on this still?
It is yeah, we are the in-house team. We do bring in outsourced expertise for specific tasks. Not on the plugins or the plugin support, that's still entirely in-house but we've hired a developer for 20 hours a month to help with our own website.
Keep it running smoothly because of course if our website is not running smoothly we don't get any sales, it being an e-commerce site. And also I hire some help with marketing and copywriting and things like that but the actual core work to develop and support our plugins is just Andy and myself.
Cool, I want to get into exactly what it means to make plugins. How you're hiring all these people, how you decide who to hire. But first I have to ask right off the bat, what's it like starting a business with your husband?
Because pretty much everything that's ever been written on the subject says to avoid going into business with your close friends and family.
It works surprisingly well and we've always wanted to. Throughout our 20s we talked about working together from home instead of having our separate jobs, and actually we haven't fallen out over it. I guess we spend more time together as a result.
I think it's very helpful that we have different skills. I'm not a developer. He is a developer. So it means we're often working quite separately. I'll be focusing on marketing and things like that and he might not even know what I'm doing but I've launched a new scheme to help promote the plugins or something.
Similarly I don't know the detail of the technical work that he's doing. So I think having that space probably helps to make it less intense. We're not actually in each other's pockets the whole time while we're working.
Yeah, I think that also dividing up your team like that is one of the reasons why small businesses can be much more effective on a per person basis than large ones because you've got your area of expertise, he's got his. You don't necessarily need to meet all the time to discuss what you're doing.
One of you is not really blocking the other from getting your tasks done. So it's almost like you have to separate startups going at the same time. In a big company it's a lot of meetings, a lot of people blocking each other and a lot more friction.
Yeah, we've both learned from the organization's we used to work for. We're both from public sector backgrounds, which had lots of meetings, inefficiency, not using the latest technologies.
All of that kind of thing. So we've largely quit and built a business that's the opposite of that where if we have an idea we can just do it. We have that freedom, which is great.
Yeah, so let's dive into your background a little bit because you have to be pretty awesome to grow your business to $35,000 a month in revenue.
What kind of experience did you have working on Internet-based companies before you guys started Barn2 Media?
Well Andy was a web developer, but it was more sort of enterprise level developer within the Civil Service. So he did like Java development and that kind of thing for more large enterprise systems, although they were web-based.
So his WordPress and web development knowledge, the way we do it now, is self taught. But the good thing about developers is that once they've got those skills and that background they can re-skill in that way, often self-taught. Particularly with something quite accessible like WordPress.
My background is project management and marketing in terms of my previous jobs. But all of my jobs had involved some sort of web design work. Which might have been maintaining the company website, writing help systems, that kind of thing. So I'd always worked on websites but not on the small-scale individual websites that we ended up doing when we started the business.
When did you first start to see yourself as someone who might eventually become an entrepreneur rather than working for somebody else?
Well we always talked about it, probably within a few years of graduating from University and we came up with all of these harebrained ideas. Really small ideas that were never going to go anywhere. But when you've got the comfort blanket of a regular salary it's easy to talk about what you're going to do and not actually do it.
So we were guilty of that for a long time and I know that lots of people and probably people listening today are working in a salaried job while wanting to work for themselves. We were in that situation for ages. We wanted to be entrepreneurs but we weren't actually doing anything real to move in that direction.
I talked to a lot of people who really want to start a business and they talk about it for years and it really is a serious dream of theirs, but they never actually get around to it for the reasons that you just stated. You guys actually did get around to it.
So I'm curious, what got you over that hump? And why couldn't you just done that immediately?
Lack of ideas I think. I certainly had the belief that you needed a big killer idea to make it a success and in the end, we took the plunge because Andy particularly was getting very frustrated with the job that he had in the Civil Service. Feeling he couldn't really thrive as a developer, he couldn't embrace the latest technologies.
You know it's the whole public sector background, certainly in the UK. It sometimes isn't the most inspirational way to develop as a professional. So he particularly, more than me, was getting really frustrated and so it got to a point where he at least needs to quit his job and let's just try and do something.
So we thought about the different skills that a developer can use and we decided that small-scale web design was just a good way to start off working for yourself. So at that time we decided, let's just start offering web design services for small local businesses. Like plumbers and electricians and cafes, that sort of level. And that felt like an easy route to market given that we had no experience of running a business at that point.
It's funny, I hear similar stories often about people who want to start a business, but they can't quite get there on motivation alone. Instead their hand ends up getting forced by the alternative being so bad that they just can't bear it anymore.
They have to quit their job because they hate it. When you guys got started did you ever consider any alternatives to starting a design shop? Was that the only idea you had in mind?
Not that I remember strangely, I suppose the other idea was, given that he was a Java developer at the time, he thought about doing contract work. But we live in the south-west of England which is not near any major cities where there's a lot of call for that sort of work. So lifestyle-wise he felt that it wouldn't fit with his desire for the lifestyle he wanted.
For example, he probably would have had to drive at least two hours to the next city that has that sort of contract work available and that wasn't what he wanted. And we also had always talked about starting a business together and that didn't involve my skills.
Whereas selling websites to local companies used my skills in quite a lot of different ways. For example, the marketing side of things and also copyrighting and providing the content side of the website, which was more of my skill set. So we considered the contract work but it just didn't feel right at the time.
Yeah, let's talk about your contribution to the business. Your husband quit his job, were you still working full-time at your job? Or did you quit at the same time as him?
I continued working full-time for financial reasons. We'd lost one salary, we couldn't lose two with nothing to take its place. Obviously it takes a while for a new business to start bringing in income normally. So I kept working in my job for, probably two and a bit years.
Fortunately, it was a flexible job. So I was able to work around supporting the business and I did quite a lot of hours on the business during that period as well as my job. And then in 2011 I had a baby. During maternity leave I did a lot more hours on the business and then subsequently didn't return to my old job.
So that was our transition strangely, that in having a baby it got us used to the drop in income and allowed us to build up the business income more to make up for what I was earning before.
There it is again. It's the same pattern where your hand is sort of forced by this external reality that gets you to start your business earlier than you would have been comfortable doing it otherwise.
Yeah, there's a lot of people who feel that having a child puts back any business dreams and things like that. It certainly takes a lot of time and commitment, but for me, it helped my circumstance because as much as anything I'm not sure I would have had the confidence to quit my job.
But being on maternity leave for all that time, it forced me to get used to working from home and it was less of a reason to go back then, so it worked out quite well business-wise.
You mentioned that your business had a very local focus and that you're doing this web design work for customers who live nearby you in the same town, which is interesting and unique.
I think because people tend to see one of the chief advantages to doing business on the Internet to be that you could sell to any customer, all over the world. Why did you choose to limit yourself to local companies? And what was your process like for finding these first customers?
Well this was a long time ago that we had a local focus, which was when we first started. To be honest it just felt easy. We weren't thinking of ourselves as entrepreneurs. We were just trying to build a business. Didn't have much of a vision beyond that really, so when we started doing web design work we thought the easiest way to get work is local.
I'm not sure why we thought that but that's what we did. And then when we discovered WordPress, we didn't think of ourselves as WordPress specialists but the interesting thing was that after a few months we got better and better at the specific WordPress platform. And after a while I thought well, why don't I just put a few adverts on Google AdWords saying things like WordPress developers, WordPress web design and just see if anyone is looking specifically for WordPress people.
Not locally but more generally and we had an amazing response. I think that was 2010 and back then there was a lot more gaps in the market for WordPress experts so that catapulted the business outside of the local focus. And so we were designing websites with people certainly all over the UK and often other countries as well. And now we sell WordPress plugins that is definitely to a global market.
We've sold in more than 75 countries and the majority of our customers are in the U.S even though we're in the UK. So we're not local anymore.
I like what you said about choosing to start with local customers because you felt it would be easier to reach them. I think having those kind of constraints that make your job easier early on, especially when you're an experienced founder, is really smart and you can always expand and have bigger and better ambitions in the future.
Can you explain to listeners a little bit about what WordPress is and what it means for you to be targeting the WordPress Community.
WordPress is a platform that you can use to build websites. It's a Content Management System, which means that anybody can edit the content on their website. Like adding pages and blog posts and editing content and things like that without needing to write any code.
When we started it wasn't so big but now WordPress is the biggest web building platform in the world and it powers well over a quarter of all websites worldwide these days so it's huge. So I'm pleased that we fell into WordPress back in 2010 because it was the right horse to back in that sense.
That's great that you're building your design business at the same time you're riding the massive wave known as WordPress. Tell me a little bit about your first customers. I assumed they are non-technical.
Are you designing websites for them from scratch? Do they already have websites up? Do they perhaps have WordPress sites?
Our very first clients were small local people who didn't have a website yet. So it was a washing machine repair shop, an electrician, a GP surgery, those kind of local businesses or organizations.
And then once we started advertising ourselves as WordPress specialists, which was probably about nine months after we launched the business, we were attracting small to medium companies all over the UK and so they were naturally slightly bigger than the one-man-bands that we've done websites for at the beginning.
So a lot of people listening in are developers and they're confident in their skills with programming.
They're confident they can build pretty much whatever they imagine. But they don't necessarily have experience with sales and marketing and branding and in general convincing people to buy what it is that they're making.
Can you walk me through the process of how you found your first customers. I know you mentioned Google Ads. Were you doing other things in addition to that like knocking on doors?
At the very beginning I did very local advertising, I was just stabbing around in the dark to be honest trying to find ways to get customers and I had no experience. So we printed off flyers and put them under the windscreen wipers of say a van of a local tradesperson. It had their phone number on the van but no website address.
Well that's a clue that they need a website. So even random things like that we did at the beginning. We did quite a lot of email marketing which I did all manually, just finding local companies that didn't have a website and emailing them. And we did get work that way as well so that was a good springboard.
But once we found our niche, which was WordPress, then we didn't need to do any of that anymore. We did it through SEO, writing articles about particular web design questions on our blog and Google AdWords and that kind of thing so it changed. And I think became a more sophisticated digital marketing strategy once we got into the WordPress arena.
I like this scattershot approach of just trying anything and everything to see what sticks. It's so much better and I think a lot of people will just try one or two things and get frustrated when it doesn't work and then give up and conclude that they can't grow their business.
Yeah and then you find out what works if you monitor it properly. If you ask people where they heard about you, then you can learn from that and put your resources into the things that do work. So I think the important thing is just trying things, anything and that's how you learn.
Did you ever get frustrated or worry that it wasn't going to work out? That you weren't going to find a niche or marketing channel that would make your business enjoyable to run.
I don't think we did because we started getting work very early on. So it was just a few websites in the first year which we charged a fairly low-budget for. I think the business turnover was £10,000. So that's British pounds, a bit more in dollars, in the first year.
Which isn't enough to live on but I had my salary. But we always had a steady trickle of work and then it grew and grew gradually. We never had a period where there was no work for several months. And of course with web design work you can focus on ongoing revenue from each client where possible.
So that's selling hosting, selling email services and also ongoing support and maintenance for the websites that you've built. So once you've got a few under your belt your ongoing revenue is growing as well.
So let me ask you, you said that early on you've never really run a business before. You weren't sure what you were doing. What was your goal? Why did you guys want to run a business in the first place?
I think to be honest, it was largely lifestyle reasons. I'm sure there was some drive there to achieve professionally and make a success of something but it was largely that we wanted the flexibility of the lifestyle to be able to work from home, choose our hours that kind of thing.
We've always had a desire to build a scalable business where each hour you work you can make more than your normal hourly rate would be. So selling services isn't ideal in most ways because you're just charging for your time. But if you can productize that in some way then you can get more for the same amount of work, if that makes sense.
So I know web design business isn't initially scalable in that way and it took us a while to find ways to do that. But at least you get extra revenue from things like hosting so it starts to scale once you get a few projects under your belts.
Then of course since then we've gone in a product direction, which is our ultimate goal to sell products rather than services, but we just didn't have an idea of a product to build at the beginning.
Yeah, that's exactly what I wanted to get into because most people who want to be IndieHackers know right off the bat that they don't want to be trading away their hours for dollars.
They don't want to have to do more work every time they get a new customer. Instead what they want is to build some sort of scalable online product that they can sell to as many people as possible. And so that's how most people get started. Whereas you guys had this sort of two-faced approach where you first started off doing agency work.
You're doing web design work, every time you have a new client you have to do another website. And you said that the reason you started that way is because you didn't have a good idea for a product. How did you guys eventually hit on a good idea?
Through our clients. So through providing services you could say. One client in particular had commissioned us to develop a plugin, which basically lists his blog posts in a table and that's still online now. So he had lots of blog posts on his website and they were a bit disorganized and the standard ways of organizing posts in WordPress such as tags and data archives weren't really cutting it. He wanted people to be able to search by topic and keywords and to sort by different options.
So he wanted a table which lists all the blog posts with columns for things like name, date, author, topics. So he commissioned us to write that plugin and we basically released a free version of that plugin with a few extra features on the WordPress plugin repository, which is where you can find thousands of free plugins for a WordPress site.
We only did that to just dip a toe in the water with the whole plugin thing really and see if we can launch a plugin and make it successful. Even though it's free people very quickly started asking for extra features. So people said they don't want to display blog posts in a table. I want to display other types of content from my website in a table, such as documents. I want to create a document library listing documents. I went to create a member directory listing members or an events list of upcoming events. Or an e-ommerce product table, which lists product from an e-commerce site in that same table layout.
So people kept asking us, how can we list other types of information from a website in a table? Not just the blog posts you could do with the free plugin. So naturally that was obviously an opportunity for us to build a paid plugin, which lists WordPress content in a table. So we launched our Posts Table Pro plugin. So it's not an idea we ever had. It was the evolution of an idea one of our clients gave us, coupled with feedback from users of a free plugin.
There's so much good stuff there that I want to talk about. I mean you've got your customers who are giving you, really the ideas of what to build.
You've got all of this WordPress knowledge that you built up pretty much from nothing because of your agency business, that told you where WordPress customers hang out, that told you that these marketplaces exist where you can put up a WordPress plugin and people will be able to find it etc. But I want to go back to even before that.
How much time during your agency work were you searching for an idea? Did you have any other products that you tried to build and tried to get out the door that maybe didn't work out or was this the first one?
We spent a year building a WordPress theme and it didn't work. So a theme is like a design or a skin for your website. So we spent a year designing what we thought was the perfect theme having seen how successful a lot of other themes were.
This was between 2012 and 2013 and because we were so slow in building our product by the time we submitted it to the marketplace that we wanted to sell it on, which was called Themeforest, the market had moved on and by then the were not what they used to be.
Modern themes on websites like Themeforest have hundreds and hundreds of features that they take years to develop if you're just a single developer and they're not the sort of thing that we could realistically compete with. So the market had moved on, we couldn't compete and our theme was never launched. So that was not a success.
How did that not demoralize you guys or did it? And were there any lessons you took away from that, that helps you in the future?
I think it did demoralize us and we went back to the drawing board for quite a long time because we hadn't had an idea of something else to do. The thing about a theme is that it can be quite multi-purpose. It wasn't a niche theme that we were building.
It was a generic theme and I think that was its downfall really because multi-purpose themes became something very very big. Offers all things to all people, all singing and dancing themes and we weren't able to build something that competed with those big ones.
If we had had an idea for a specific plugin or maybe even a niche theme, we probably would have done it quicker, but we didn't. Maybe we weren't listening to our clients hard enough or something like that. So we did go back to the drawing board and just carried on building the client business for a while.
Let's talk about niches for a little bit. I was just in LA this past weekend. I was talking to a friend about his company and I asked him who his target customer was and he said "everybody". Then I asked him how many people were paying for it, he said "nobody".
I know that's not the case with you guys. You guys picked a niche, you're not trying to sell your product to everybody on Earth and as a result, you now have lots of paying customers. Can you explain how that's working for you and what the advantages of picking a niche are?
Well yeah, I think building a niche is really important if you're a small company trying to build a successful product because these days nearly all big ideas have been taken. I mean good luck if you find one, that would be brilliant, but I certainly haven't found any big ideas that haven't already been done. But with a niche if you know your market, if you've got a specific industry that you're already an expert in, as we were in WordPress through designing websites for clients, then little ideas can come to you. And small ideas can be successful.
Particularly I've found in the WordPress niche because it has so many users. So our first paid plugin wasn't the post table Pro one I mentioned a minute ago. It was another one called WooCommerce Protected Categories and that plugin, we found the idea for it on an ideas forum for WooCommerce sites.
So these are people who are using WooCommerce to sell products on their WordPress website and they were posting ideas on the forums saying, I want this feature with WooCommerce doesn't have it, I want this feature. So we just found the most popular features that hasn't been developed and built it into a plugin which was WooCommerce Password Protected Categories.
And as you can probably gather that's quite a specific niche. So WooCommerce is already a niche because that's just one plugin that allows you to sell using e-commerce on a WordPress site. And so not a very big proportion of WooCommerce users want to password protect product categories on their site. But because WooCommerce is so huge and it powers something like 42 percent of all eCommerce stores worldwide surprisingly a lot of people actually want to password protect their product categories.
So we built the plugin in a very very targeted niche, published a few articles about it just on our own blog and we started getting sales after about six days, I think it was.
Wow, that's way faster than most people start getting their first sales. So you're really targeting almost a niche within a niche. It's not that you're making plugins for all websites, it's for WordPress websites.
And it's not just WordPress websites, but it's WordPress websites using the WooCommerce plugin. And it's not just people with the WooCommerce plugin but it's people who need a certain part of their site to be password protected.
You just went down and down on something super specific that a relatively small number of people needed, but they really needed it. You didn't have very much competition with other people building the same thing.
Exactly, yes, it's a niche within a niche within a niche but it's actually still quite a large market surprisingly because so many people use WordPress and WooCommerce. So that was a really good opportunity. And I think there's still quite a lot of ideas out there in WordPress and also WooCommerce.
So if you're in that industry, if you're for example, building websites for clients or maybe you've got your own WordPress website where there's something that you just cannot find a suitable plugin to do what you want to do, well you've found a niche that you can exploit there.
And ideally I would say, if you want a fairly small self-contained plugin that you can develop quite quickly, then you don't want something too huge. You just want to find a specific feature that isn't available elsewhere and build that into your own plugin like we did.
Yeah and I think there's some other things that make your niche great in addition to that. A lot of people hear this advice to pick a niche, pick a small target audience but I think there's a lot of variables that can go into that. They can make your choice of niche either good or bad.
So for example, I would say that it's important to pick a niche where people actually talk to each other and hang out with each other. If you pick a niche, let's say you pick productivity tools and people who like productivity tools aren't part of some online forum. They don't listen to the same podcasts.
They don't read the same article. They don't have any marketplace where they buy apps from, then it's going to be very hard for you to find these people. You're going to have to find them one-on-one individually and that's tough.
Whereas if you pick a niche like WordPress and they do all of the aforementioned things then it's easy to find them as a group and you can sort of eavesdrop on their conversations, find out what they like, build the right things.
You can easily market to them because you just go to one of these channels they're all paying attention to and it's easy to blast out a message to them and get your app in front of them.
Most of our sales are from Google though, so everybody uses that.
So you're right, there are additional forums that you can post on related to our specific niche but everybody just goes to Google first, don't they? And they type in, how do I do this? And so whether it's productivity tools or how do I password a WooCommerce category, people go to Google.
Yeah, that's a great point. If you can get to the top of Google for what you're doing and the keywords get enough searches that's a permanent source of inbound traffic and it really doesn't matter what niche you're targeting at that point. But for some niches like IndieHackers for example, there's not that much search traffic and most of the people that we get have to come from other channels.
The other thing that I like about your choice of target audience is that you're targeting people who use WooCommerce and people who use WooCommerce are people who have online stores. So these people are buying your plugins because they see directly how your plugins are going to help them save money or make them money.
Which means you don't have to go through this existential crisis that a lot of founders go through, where you're not sure if people even find it valuable. You know right off the bat that you're selling to businesses and that therefore you could charge money for what you're building.
Yeah, I think that's a really important point and it's illustrated by the fact that we have two password protected categories plugins. We have the WooCommerce Password Protected Categories plugin and we also have a general WordPress Password Protected Categories plugin, which lets you password protect other content types.
Such as, blog post categories, event categories, document categories, that kind of thing. And our WooCommerce password protection plugin has had like 10 times more sales than the generic WordPress one and it's more expensive as well. And I think that is because people are willing to pay for something that earns them money, which makes sense.
Whereas a lot of people wanting to password protect a category just on their WordPress blog or something, it might not even be monetized, so they're not willing to pay for a premium product to do that.
Perfect example of why it makes sense to sell to other businesses. I want to rewind for a second and talk about something that you briefly mentioned earlier, which is that the idea for one of your plugins came from what you called, an ideas forum.
How did you find that? What was that process like and how did that fit into your overall search for ideas to work on?
Well on WooCommerce.com they have their own forum where people can post ideas. So because we were already in the industry we were aware of that, which is useful. So again it underlines the importance of being part of the industry that you're trying to get into already, do what you know basically. We found the idea there, we just look through them and you can see how many votes they've got and what's already been built.
That one haven't been so we went for that one. So I expect that forum is still there if anyone wants to see what the ideas are now that hasn't been done yet. So that's a good starting point. All of our other plugins have come from the two ideas I've mentioned, so there's our table plugins which come from that original client wanting a table of blog posts and that led to our most successful product which is called WooCommerce Product Table.
Which is basically like the table plugins I mentioned earlier, where you can list blog post a table but this plugin is dedicated to WooCommerce and has sold many times more than the generic table plugin. So just like the other example I gave you a minutes ago the WooCommerce version has been far more successful. And we never had an idea for that.
The reason we built it is because a client asked us to build a plugin to list their blog posts in a table. We released it, customers asked for other content types and then they started asking to list WooCommerce products in a table. So it was never an idea that we had. We didn't even do any research. It was just people were demanding it because it wasn't available.
So we filled that gap, it's just by being in there, getting things to market and listening that we found opportunities. And I think a lot of people can find opportunities that way by getting into something and then just listening and learning. And our other plugins are all to do with password protection.
So they all came from that one forum that I mentioned, the WooCommerce ideas forum. So we haven't even done any other plugins with other ideas because we haven't needed to.
Katie you're making a really strong case for why IndieHackers might want to consider starting with an agency or design shop or doing consulting work rather than immediately trying to launch some sort of scalable product. And the reason is, as your story illustrates, inspiration is not going to strike if you don't really have very many sources of inspiration.
If you're going to work every day and then coming home and hoping that an idea pops into your head, chances are it won't. If you're dealing with clients who are actually running businesses and telling you about their very real problems and complaints and annoyances and showing you what they value and where they spend money, then you're going to have much better ideas occurring at a much higher frequency. So often times I think it's better to just start with something that doesn't necessarily look like your end goal.
Yeah, so even though we ultimately wanted a scalable business selling products we couldn't have got there without doing the service business, even though that wasn't our ultimate goal.
And I suppose some people could find a shortcut and bypass the service phase of the business because if they were already in a traditional job, in a particular industry, they might be able to find gaps because they're already in there, aren't they, in a salaried job. So it might be that even as a side project they could build something and get that to market just on their own website.
If it was a good enough niche then you can write about it and hopefully people will find you on Google. So if you want to start a business within the industry you're already in then, you're already in there, aren't you? You've already got that insider knowledge. But because we were changing Industries, we had to go through a different route.
So we've talked about how you found your first customers for your design shop, but I want to dive into a little bit more detail about how you found these first customers for your plugins. You mentioned that within 6 days people were finding you're plugin on Google and buying it.
How are you confident that people would find any via this channel? And what was that process like?
We weren't confident. We had no idea our plugins would sell at the beginning, it was a pleasant surprise. I think it was on Andy's birthday we got our first sale. We were like, oh someone bought our plugin. It's amazing. It was just a gamble because we wanted to do products.
So I'm afraid I can't say that we had a very clear business plan and projections and market research. We built a plugin that wasn't going to be a huge amount of work and just got it out there and it sold.
So I think it's just about just doing things. If you do something it can be successful. If you don't do it, it can't be. If you do more than one thing you can see what works best and then put more resources into that and so on.
What kind of page would I have found if I did a Google search and I put in just the right keywords to match up with your plugin?
With the first plugin, WooCommerce Protected Categories, you'd probably have found the sales page because it was the only thing at that time targeted to that keyword.
And probably some of our posts as well, like new plugin launch blog post or something like that. But because that was such a specific keyword we didn't really need to go any further than that in many ways. That very quickly filled up that niche because that was what people were searching for.
So the real key here is you built something that there was already a demand for, people knew they had this problem. They were searching for it on Google and you had the only real solution.
So you don't have any competitors and so of course people would land on your landing page and buy your plugin.
Exactly, yeah. That's why it was such a fortunate niche to come across. Whereas if you do something with more competition then you're going to, not struggle, but you need to put a lot more resources in.
Maybe have more of a marketing team around you. If you find something that people are actually searching for that doesn't exist yet then that's hopefully a gold mine, if there's enough people searching. And obviously you can't just come across these ideas.
You have to find them, but that's why it's so important to stick within your industry and do what you know, because that's the secret way to get to ideas.
Zoom out and look at the entire timeline of your business. You and your husband quit your jobs. You started a design shop and worked on that for five or six years.
Then you started working on plugins at the same time and eventually your plugins became your primary source of revenue. How did you navigate that transition from one business to the next and how long did it take?
Because we chose small plugins it was quick. So I think we launched a couple of free plugins in January including the table one I mentioned earlier.
Then in March we launched with WooCommerce Protected Categories and that was the first premium plugin. And so what we did was, we took Andy off the development on client businesses, as we were working with freelance developers as well for the client projects.
So we were able to take him off that development-wise so that he could spend all of his time building plugins. And we specifically chose small plugins that were realistic for one developer to do. So it didn't take very long and of course we still have the client income coming in through the freelancers, through me project managing it and the ongoing income from hosting and support and maintenance and stuff like that.
So we were able to put these resources into the plugins and get them going quite quickly, which was partly learning from our previous mistake of where we built a theme and it took a year.
Yeah, you've got to learn the hard way. I did the same thing with IndieHackers where my previous project I had worked on for, I think like a year, year and half and I didn't want to release it. It wasn't where I felt proud of it.
And so when I sat down to work on a new idea, I picked IndieHackers because I knew I could get something out the door in just a matter of weeks. And you guys did the same thing. Within three months you'd launched two free plugins and a paid one that was doing fairly well.
And a lot of people that I've talked to have done the exact opposite route. They spent months or years working on a product. They're not sure it's going to work and it's not ready to be released yet. So I think you guys learn from your mistakes pretty well and did it the right way the second time around.
I mean, I think if you were going to do something bigger, if you have a big idea, that's fine. But you need to do a lot more market research than we did before you launch it because for example, we didn't know that enough people would buy WooCommerce Password Protected Categories to justify the work.
But it felt like a small gamble because we had other income coming in and it wasn't a huge plugin to develop it in that sense. Whereas if we had a massive idea that took years and a whole team of developers and investments and everything to build, then you need a lot more evidence that it's going to work first.
One of the things that you've said previously is that within a year of deciding to work on plugins, you guys had launched five premium plugins and the revenue from your plugin business eclipsed the revenue from your design work.
What are some of the lessons you learned about which products to build, which products probably wouldn't succeed and did you ever build any plugins that ended up not taking off?
Well most, four of our five plugins do really well. The one that doesn't is the more generic password protection one. That lets you password protect any type of content and it gets 15 sales a month, something like that, but that's not enough to live on.
Whereas the others we could do. So that one hasn't taken off and it's kind of my fault. I asked Andy to build it on a whim because the WooCommerce one had done well I thought, surely people want to password protect other types of content on their website. And some do, people use it to create password protected areas within their portfolio.
For example, so that only potential clients that they've given a password to can view those portfolio projects. And there are various use cases people use it for but my instinct told me that more people would use it and they haven't. But it's not a huge plugin and we keep it running and we keep supporting it because it's not a lot of work.
It does make sales regularly and it's also very similar technically to our WooCommerce password protection plugin which obviously brings in more revenue. So it's not a big overhead for us to maintain the one that only brings in trickle of sales.
Most of the people that I talk to have exactly one product. They spend all of their time working on that one product forever. They're adding new features or trying to get to new users.
You guys on the other hand have at least five premium plugins now and multiple free plugins. What's the thinking behind this approach? And how do you balance your time between working on new plugins and going back to improve and grow your older plugins?
Well it's nice that you talk as though it's a lot because I kind of feel that we should have more. You see a lot of plugin shops that have a lot more plugins than us. But because we want to keep it small and in-house and not employ other developers for the plugins and things like that.
We've felt that maintaining and improving our five existing plugins plus the free ones is enough. And at the moment we're not actively building new plugins because that's significantly more work to build an additional one than to add new features to an existing one. And when you add new features to an existing product, you can get more sales if it's things people are looking for, just like if it was a new plugin.
So at the moment we've decided it's good to have more than one because of what you just said. It's good to have the risk spread across more than one and by having more than one plugin you can see which is successful and put more into that. So for example, we put far more development time into WooCommerce Products Table than Password Protected Categories because it's got so many more users and we know that that's going to be more profitable.
So we add more features to that more regularly than our less successful plugin but I wouldn't want to have dozens because I don't think we could keep that all in-house as we are at the moment.
Yeah that reminds me of this guy, Pieter Levels, we had on the podcast I think 10 or 20 episodes ago. He got his start by doing what he called 12 startups in 12 months, which is a promise to him and the readers of his blog that every month that he would launch a new startup.
I think it took five or six months for him to hit on his ultimate idea. But without having done all those other products, he wouldn't have had as good of a perspective. He wouldn't have really known what a promising response to look like.
He wouldn't have known which products are worth doubling down on and which products were not going to be as successful.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
So let me ask you about how things have changed over time. Earlier you talked about how your first customers came from Google searches, they landed on the page for your plugin.
Is that still your primary way of getting traffic nowadays and finding customers or have things changed and have you experimented with new approaches?
I think that probably is the number one way. We've branched out since then and we do things like guest posting on other sites such as IndieHackers.
And also we have an affiliate scheme which isn't brilliant, but we have two very successful affiliates and some up-and-coming affiliates who are growing their sales. So we're hoping that that will help more. Obviously getting other people to promote our products for us is a good thing if we can make it work.
How is your work life balance nowadays? The reason you got into business in the first place. The reason you quit your job and especially the reason that you stopped doing design work and switched over to a plugin business is that you wanted more freedom.
You wanted more free time in your life. Now that you have the successful scalable plugin business has that actually panned out?
Yeah, it's a lot more flexible. I like working and I like building a business and seeing how successful it can be. So I choose to do more work than I strictly have to. So I might spend a lot of time on marketing and of course marketing is optional.
If I stop marketing we could still pay the bills but I want to keep doing it. So I choose to work more than I'm forced to. Because we keep plugin support in-house I have to do, maybe 45 minutes of plugin support every day, even on holiday because we keep it in-house. But that's not a lot of essential work, is it. 45 minutes a day and the rest is kind of optional.
To give an example, on Monday morning Andy and I went for a stand-up paddle-boarding lesson on a local river because it's something we'd wanted to try and we sort of said to each other, I'm not sure this is something people are meant to do on a Monday morning. Aren't you meant to be working? But we could!
We have that flexibility so I choose to work quite a lot but there's also times I choose not to.
How does that differ from when you were a design shop taking on new work for every new client that you got?
That was really annoying to be honest because I felt a lot more pressure to be there for clients. We used to take time off and go, we like hiking so we'd often go walking in the national park that we lived in at the time and when I got back, I'd just feel so stressed because there was 35 emails from clients wanting stuff done immediately.
And when it's a website you've designed for somebody you feel very responsible, particularly if it's an e-commerce store or something that their revenue is dependent on. If there's a problem with it that's a lot of pressure on the web designer. And because although we had freelancers, I was the point of contact for all of our projects. So that all went to me and that was really hard.
Where as in contrast when supporting plugins, I like to reply to people very very quickly and provide good support, but the pressure is a lot smaller because it's just a small standalone task. So I found it a lot harder to have a good work-life balance with client projects.
The other thing with the plugins is that if you get a support request and you end up fixing a bug or improving something, you didn't just fix it for that one customer. You fixed it for everybody because it's the same product for everybody.
That's right. Yeah,
Unfortunately not the case when you're doing client work.
Yeah and as well as fixing bugs, we keep a very long feature request list where we prioritize new features.
So as well as that being an opportunity to keep improving our plugins, it's an opportunity to reduce future support because if people are asking for the same thing, then we can either write a tutorial on how to do it or add that feature.
All based on the amount of demand. So we've done a lot of work to reduce the need for customer support so that people can either help themselves or they don't need it in the first place.
Yeah, let's dive into that because a lot of people end up launching these scalable product based businesses where they can theoretically get away from trading away their hours for money. But they end up with a nightmare situation where there's customer support emails at all times of day and night and they're always putting out fires and they're working longer hours than they were beforehand.
How did you guys avoid that? What are some of the techniques that you guys use? I know you've hired a little bit. You mentioned some unique customer support strategies. How do you ensure that your business is always something that you want to run and that it lets you live your life the way that you want to live?
I think we plan every aspect of the business with that in mind. Which in some ways is a little bit cynical, like we're not going to develop that product because it doesn't bring the lifestyle benefits we want but nonetheless that is how we have approached it.
So one reason for choosing small self-contained plugins is because it makes the support less pressured in that way and smaller and easier to handle. I know we tried to launch a theme but looking back I think launching a multi-purpose theme is a really bad idea if you want to keep small because that basically affects every part of somebody's website.
You could have anything go wrong with your site and blame the theme. Even if it's actually not the theme's fault at all. So as a theme author I would expect that you get a lot of support requests that are not even anything to do with you and are very difficult to narrow down the problem and all of that.
Whereas if you offer a plugin that does a very specific task, then you can very easily keep the support within that remit. And so I think it's important to choose the right products initially and then that is a way to reduce support.
Yeah that makes a ton of sense. How much do you charge for your plugins? Because I know pricing is another thing that affects pretty much every part of your business.
If you charge too little then you're probably going to need tens of thousands of customers to support your lifestyle, which means tens of thousands of support requests.
How much do you guys think about pricing and what sort of things influence your decision-making there?
In the past a lot of WordPress businesses have not been sustainable because of pricing. And market places such as CodeCanyon and ThemeForest have really not helped because they would set the price very low for a theme or a plugin and they would sell that for a one-off price with no recurring revenue.
Even though the developer was expected to support and continue developing it forever after that small purchase of $30 or something like that. So I like to consider myself as part of the growing movement of WordPress businesses that are trying to charge fairly for their products and become more sustainable.
Which ultimately is going to be better for the customers in the long term because you're not just going to give up on your products and disappear, which happened a lot in the past because there was just no incentive to keep supporting a product once the initial sales had dropped.
So we do quite a lot of trial and error pricing to get the right balance with our new plugins and to find the right sort of point between the amount of support required and the revenue that it would generate. So I'm a firm believer that it's okay to lose customers because the price is too high.
You are better off having, let's say, 100 customers for a $100 plugin than 200 customers for a $50 plugin. Does that make sense?
Yeah, I totally agree.
Yeah, so the revenue is the same in that example, but you're providing support to half the number of customers. That obviously either makes your lifestyle better or your business more profitable because you're supporting half the number of customers.
So we have experimented with pricing and we know we've lost customers as a result and it is the number one comment that people make in our feedback emails, that they feel that the price is a bit high, but we think it's worth it because we do provide really good support. And we also continue developing our plugins and adding features and we need to be able to afford to do that.
Otherwise, it's not sustainable. So we've worked quite hard on that and in addition to that like a lot of plugin companies now but not in the past, we charge every year for the plugin and so that your license key will renew. So in order to continue receiving that support and plugin updates to new versions, you have to pay each year.
And again, that's about keeping it sustainable so that we don't have to let people down if new sales drop off.
That's all good stuff and I hope people listening really take that to heart. Especially people who are starting businesses and especially the stuff about raising your prices. It's almost never a bad decision and not only can it make your life better by easing your customer support load but I think it also makes it easier to find your initial customers.
I see a lot of IndieHackers on the forum and they're starting these companies that are building products that they charge crazy amounts. Where they charge like two or three dollars a month for something and they come back and say "Hey nobody really cares about what I'm building. Nobody will talk to me about it. No one wants to use it."
Well, if you're only charging two dollars a month for what you've built, even you don't think it's that valuable. I mean you're announcing to the world that it's not that important. I think if you charge $500 a month or $5,000 a month, if you have that kind of price range in your head, then you're forced to build a business that tackles a valuable problem.
Otherwise, no one's going to pay that much and I think in turn you end up talking to customers who are a lot more serious and you care a lot more about what you're doing.
Yeah and you can get the evidence to support that through trial and error.
We've started off without very much confidence in our plugins for $29, I think when we started and then we experimented with raising them. And our WooCommerce Product Table plugin now does have a premium price tag of $99, but I feel that we justify that because it is the most advanced plugin in that space on the market and it has more features than anything else and we're continually improving it.
We get the sales that we need at that price point but it is obviously a lot more expensive than where we started.
That's crazy that you can have the most advanced product in your market with the most features, even though you only have one developer because you chose a sufficiently small niche so you don't really have much competition.
Let's talk about hiring for a little bit. You've said that you've hired some people to help you guys run your business.
Is that motivated primarily because you guys want to grow faster? Or is that to help take some responsibility off of your shoulders, so you have more free time?
I think it's all with the lifestyle in mind ike I said, but it's to bring in extra skills and ultimately increase sales. We don't hire staff. We don't have any employees at all. We just hire freelancers and that is for specific tasks.
So for example, a month or two ago, we identified that Andy in particular was spending a lot of time maintaining our own website where we sell our plugins and that that wasn't the best use of his time because he wants to be building our plugins and adding new features.
He doesn't want to involve another developer in that at the moment and he wants that to still be his project in his happy with that. And so we decided well, let's hire a developer to help maintain our own website then. So it's about bringing in extra skills and finding people that way.
And similarly there are some gaps in my marketing expertise and so I've hired a marketing expert to help with those things. Like I'm not very good at networking for example and that kind of marketing.
Well you know what, you're great at coming on podcasts and answering questions.
What are some lessons that you've learned about hiring well for your business?
I like to try people without committing to deeply. Most of my experience of hiring has come from when we did the web design business a few years ago because we built a virtual team of freelancers with different expertise. So we had WordPress developers, graphic designers, SEO experts, that kind of thing. So we had about 10 different people all working together on a freelance basis to build websites for our clients.
And so I've learned a lot about trying different people and we did things like creating development standards that people had to follow and agree to, in order to work with us and things like that to standardize the content. We always had Andy look over people's code before we would work with them. And we actually did that recently with that new developer as well.
So in terms of hiring freelancers, I'd say to get as much actual examples of people's work. Whether that's the code they've done if they're a developer or copy they've written if they're a copywriter or something like that. And so that you can actually see their work.
I think interviews as everybody knows aren't necessarily the best way to gauge somebody's abilities and references are not as balanced as they may seem as well. So if you can actually see someone's work and then try them out maybe just on one project before you commit any further then that all helps to minimize the risk.
There's this book that I read called the E-myth Revisited and it was written by this consultant who worked with thousands of small business owners over the years and came to the conclusion that the biggest problem that they had was that they treated their companies like they were jobs.
So instead of working on their business and making the business itself more efficient, they're working in their business and spending their time doing things like customer support and working on the product and filling out paperwork and things that didn't really push the business for they just kept it running.
What he advised doing instead was to imagine that your business is McDonald's and you need to franchise it and in that situation you need to turn your business into this finely tuned repeatable process, this system that you can hand off to anybody. And as long as they're mildly competent, they could run your business and it would work. And the goal here isn't so that you, actually franchise your business.
Even if you don't franchise your business, turning it into this kind of system makes it much more efficient to run, much less time consuming and you could potentially hand it off to somebody else. Have you guys ever thought about doing the same thing with your plug in business and getting it to a point where you don't have to run it yourselves anymore?
I don't know, it's the dream but it's hard to imagine. There are some areas where we've automated and outsourced such as accounting. I'm doing less and less copywriting myself now, maintaining our own website, where as there's other elements like supporting our plugins and developing and maintaining them that at the moment it's hard to imagine getting somebody to do.
I feel as a business owner that we shouldn't be keeping all those things. So that's definitely something that we would think about the best way to do in the future. But of course without sacrificing the quality and undermining the integrity that we've built up as a quality plugin company that stands behind our plugins.
When people get customer support from us, they often comment about the quality of that support and the knowledge that we bring and the passion about the plugins. That's because they are our plugins. So it's hard to think about how I would outsource that in a way that would maintain that.
So let me ask what your goal is with Barn2 Media?You guys are generating $35,000 a month in recurring revenue.
Is there a magic number that you want to hit and things might change? Or do you think things should always be bigger and always be better?
Not really, it's the whole thing in life. Have you heard of hedonic adaptation? Where as soon as you're happy with something you want more.
So I see the monthly figures and I think that's good. Then the next month I'm disappointed if it's the same.
Which is a shame, isn't it? You can't just think oh great it's successful, you keep wanting more. We've talked a lot about the concept of financial independence.
Both Andy and I have been fans of blogs such as Mr Money Mustache that talk about sort of early retirement but where you can choose what you work on and when.
Just having the financial situation where that is a choice for you, we've talked a lot about that and although we're nowhere near that, it's a long-term goal really.
Do you think your confidence as a founder has improved since the beginning? And if so, do you think having more confidence has made you better at running your business?
I think so because I can make the decisions myself and I don't have to refer to anybody else. So for example a previous job if there had been a customer that wasn't happy with something then I didn't have that authority to make a final decision.
You always have to refer to somebody else. When it's my plugin, my product, I could make a decision. I could say we'll fix that for you or we won't, that kind of thing. And so it does give you the confidence to take ownership and similarly to go the extra mile when somebody wants something because you know you can, it's your choice.
You're not wasting somebody else's money if you spend a long time supporting one person. So it allows me to make decisions and having the confidence to stand behind them.
Yeah, it's great for your motivation to actually be the owner of what you're working on and that's not to say that if you work for somebody else, you won't be motivated.
But when you know that the buck stops with you, that every decision ends on your desk and that you can generate more revenue by being better at your job. I think it makes it a lot easier to justify working harder and caring more.
Yeah, I honestly cannot imagine being able to work for anybody else now.
I hope I never have to because in the past you get paid a set salary, you're expected to do the hours that you do and you might get promoted at some time in the future but you don't know that the harder you work the more successful you'll be.
So some jobs have intrinsic rewards such as helping others or the environment or something like that so I can see why a job like that you would be motivated to do as well as you could.
But any other sort of job where it's not making the world a better place I don't know how I would motivate myself if I wasn't getting the rewards directly and building something for myself.
I think with a small handful of exceptions if you work at a company, there's almost no way you're going to be rewarded in a way that's commensurate with what you're contributing.
There's going to be some and inefficiency there. If you're a developer, for example, when you spend two weeks building this widget that your company uses forever and that makes them millions of dollars in revenue, your compensation for that is going to be two weeks worth of salary.
Yeah, that's true. Yeah, and of course you may end up making less per hour with your own business and certainly in the early days. And you may never make as much as when you had a salary.
So it's about risk versus potential, isn't it? The potential is limitless in some ways but the risk is greater and you might end up doing worse for more hours.
That's the gamble.
What lessons do you think aspiring founders and entrepreneurs should take away from the journey that you've had with your company Barn2 Media?
I think my journey shows that you don't need to have a killer idea and in some ways it doesn't matter what the idea is. What matters is that you do something, based on what you know. Keep your eyes and ears open and just get something out there.
Whether it's a service that you're offering or a product that you're selling. If you don't do anything then nothing's ever going to happen. If you do something that may not be the ultimate goal that you're going to get to but it will evolve into other things. By getting yourself out there other ideas and opportunities come to you.
Like customers will ask about something and then that becomes the new big thing that you'd never have thought of on your own. So just in doing something and getting something out there that is the path to success I would say.
I love that advice. Get out there and start something and don't be deterred by the possibility that you're going to start off on the wrong foot because the chances are that you're going to learn as you go and your path will be a winding one. Thanks so much Katie for coming on the show.
For taking the time to share your story and your wisdom with us. Can you tell listeners where they can go to learn more about you? And what's going on with your company Barn2 Media?
You can find us on our website barn2.co.uk. So that's barn and then the number 2.
And probably go on to IndieHackers and look up my interview from a few months ago to learn more about our journey because that's got more information about the transition to selling plugins than you'll find on our own website.
So those are two sources of further information.
Awesome, thanks so much Katie.
Okay. Well, thank you for having me.
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In addition if you are running your own Internet business or if that's something you hope to do someday you should join me and a whole bunch of other founders on the IndieHackers.com website. It's a great place to get feedback on pretty much any problem or question that you might have while running your business.
If you listen to the show, you know that I am a huge proponent of getting help from other founders rather than trying to build your business all by yourself. So you'll see me on the forum for sure as well as more than a handful of some of the guests that I've had on the podcast.
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