My experience in the WordPress products world has taught me a thing of two about the full stack of issues facing an entrepreneur. This post aims to share my thoughts on starting up in the WordPress economy as well as experience-based actions you can take to improve your chances of success.
Is there space for my next big idea?
As a serial entrepreneur, I can’t stop myself from considering every hobby from a business standpoint. It’s something I may need therapy for, but has done me a great service throughout my life. I see this same energy in our plugin users—largely new businesses entering the online marketplace to get paid for a broad range use cases, from premium content to communities, premium services and many verticals in between.
Today, our support customers lean toward the non-developer, roughly a 60/40 split. I understand that these are just the plugin users we interact with, certainly not the full 60k active sites using our plugin. This trend leads me to believe that there are more DIYers going it alone to create their online membership or subscription site presence. We strive to build a core plugin that can be configured without developer support because I believe:
- Projects don’t have a “one size fits all” budget.
- Developers of all levels should be able to charge a fair price for their services.
- An open web means that site owners should have access to the key tools they need at a price that’s comfortable.
Where my entrepreneurs at?
As it relates to the solopreneur or DIYer, there are some notable shifts to be aware of in today’s changing WordPress economy:
- There’s been an increase in managed web hosting, specifically services to monitor your site, perform updates and provide security.
- Page builders and the new Gutenberg Editor (which will be soon be part of core) are available to help you improve content layout and design.
- Coming changes to WordPress.com’s hosted platform now allow users to pay for premium services and unlock added features.
- A rise in retainer-like WordPress management services allow businesses with smaller budgets to leverage skilled developer support at scale.
- Let’s not forget changes outside the WordPress bubble, specifically the rising popularity of all-in-one website tools such as Squarespace and Wix.
Take a moment to reflect on how these factors will affect you. How will they impact the competitive landscape of the market you are hoping to enter? How will these shifts affect the ease at which you can launch and grow?
Let’s not forget the developers!
As it relates to a developer, you may be facing some interesting choices for how to stay competitive and profitable in today’s WordPress economy. Just like most businesses, be it a plugin product like Paid Memberships Pro or yourself as a freelancer, there are only four ways to get paid more:
- Work more.
- Raise prices.
- Acquire market share from your competitors.
- Grow the market by obtaining new entrants.
Each factor above has an appropriate time and place. At Paid Memberships Pro, we leverage all of these methods to grow. But, the most interesting piece I want to touch on relates to item 4: growing your market by obtaining new entrants.
I believe that leveraging new trends and technologies are the secret to helping you grow your market and obtain new entrants. In fact, this approach is how Paid Memberships Pro has grown into the solution it is today. When we started out, our plugin didn’t offer every payment gateway, email marketing integration, or a majority of the other third-party integrations now available to our users. By keeping an eye on new plugins and services that are growing in popularity, we are able to extend Paid Memberships Pro the right way: the way that the market is already responding to.
This same type of thinking applies to many other aspects of the WordPress economy, such as social marketing, SEO, security, e-learning and more. What are the trends in these markets and how can you become a go-to resource on these new technologies?
Is it too late to enter the WordPress economy?
Let’s go back in time and talk plugin products.
Circa 2008 the plugins repository was far less dense. Innovative plugins as well as “me too” plugins with stiff competition in the closed source market could launch as open source projects in the WordPress plugin repository and steadily grow their user base. Paid Memberships Pro launched around this time, and we chose to put our full plugin in the repository because we (1) believe in open source software and (2) saw it as an excellent path to create and grow our user base. We were the only membership plugin that included the Stripe and Authorize.net gateways for free, right out of the box, and available in the repository.
So today, just like in years past, there are many ways to attract and grow your user base, deal with competition, and have an advantage. And, if you’re entering an existing market, you must consider established competitors and develop a marketing/product development/pricing strategy that wins. So what are some techniques you can employ to get paid?
- Be the ONLY product that does something
Great – you’re innovative. But ask yourself, “Do I do something that people even want?” Usually you don’t want to enter a market with NO competitors. While it can mean you are truly new, it could also mean there is no demand for what you’re building.
- Be the CHEAPEST product among your competition
Great – you’re a discount. But is that your true value? Using price as a differentiator can be a component of a launch strategy, but I don’t recommend competing solely on price. Just take this as a warning that competing on price and price alone makes it difficult to raise prices down the road. But if you must, it’s best to qualify a lower price as a “launch discount” or sale, not the implied value of what you’re offering.
- Do the same things as your competition BETTER
Now we’re talking! It is perfectly acceptable to launch a product in a (somewhat) crowded marketplace if you are doing things “better”. Maybe your code leverages newer technologies and trends in development. Maybe your user interface is more intuitive and friendly for non-techies. Maybe you’re just friendly, nicer, and people like you. Maybe you offer more friendly integrations via third-party tools and open APIs. These are all differentiators that would allow a not-so-innovative idea to gain traction.
- Position yourself for ACQUISITION
While this is generally a long road, products (and maybe more specifically the teams that develop them) are actively being bought up by larger players. If this is a path you’d consider, it may be useful to think about as a “back of mind” motivator.
- Slow and steady can WIN the race
Scott Bollinger recently wrote about the differences in today’s WordPress products market. In his post, he writes about bringing products to market, stating, “It’s going to be a lot harder than it used to be, and it’s going to take longer.” I believe this was always the case to some degree — unless you laid a golden egg: being the ONLY product doing something with the funding to push hard and fast in terms of marketing and dev.
Paid Memberships Pro was built over many, many years of client services work. We sold just $2,300 worth of support memberships our first year. Now we sell that much every day. We transitioned from general WordPress site development, to WordPress Membership site development, to a WordPress Memberships Product company over the span of 8 years. Not a quick-win or “golden egg” by any stretch of the imagination.
In short: building a [website, product business, client-services team] may not be as easy as it once was. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying.
What broader or alternate economies must your consider?
A conversation about launching new businesses in the WordPress economy would be incomplete without noting that your [website, product business, client-services team] is part of many additional economies.
For example, we consider a few distinct markets as our own. We compete not only with other OSS membership plugins, but also with closed source and hosted membership SaaS companies. Separate from the membership software market, we also consider the market of our customers (membership-based websites), asking:
- What kinds of membership businesses are people launching online?
- What new or existing tools do membership site owners want to integrate with?
- How much of the “problem” should our plugin solve – just be a tool or offer a complete platform?
- What is the skill-level of most people starting up a business with Paid Memberships Pro?
- What services other than technology do these new membership-based businesses need support for? Who can provide that support?
Try to create a similar list of “questions” for your business. What broader economies are you part of? What changes are happening in your target customer’s economies? These questions are great talking points to launch a conversation on the bigger picture of your business’ market.
So should we all just quit now?
Depending on how your business does WordPress, you may be feeling more or less pain in this changing WordPress economy. There is more competition within every channel—be it more developers ready to discount their work or your former clients bringing web development in-house.
Then consider the WordPress plugins market: so saturated with offerings and increased difficulty getting noticed without a big name attached to your product.
And, while I can’t cover every flavor of web presence, I doubt the solopreneurs / DIY site owners reading this will have difficulty identifying some basic factors facing your unique web-based market.
In summary, I think the most important takeaways from this rambling post are:
- Stay on top of trends and leverage them as a differentiator
- Position yourself/your business as a specialist rather than a jack of all trades
- Launch your minimum viable product, then grow with control
- Cash out along the life of your business
Even in a competitive market, there’s a place for your business. Discard the nostalgia of how it once was and embrace the new landscape before you.