With the growth of WordPress in the Internet ecosystem, we have also seen a variety of business models grow up around it. Some work, some don’t. I want to share with you my current business model, why I chose this direction, and how it works.
A Necessary Change
When my most popular plugin, WP-Members, was launched, the WordPress world was much different than it is today. There were no other membership plugins, and there certainly was not a broad use of the plugin repository. In fact, the WordPress Plugin API was brand new and there was no repository hosted on wordpress.org – a repo that today hosts more than 45,000 plugins.
In those days, I was able to adopt the “donationware” model for the plugin. It was available free and if you liked it and wanted to support it, you could donate to its further development.
Because I often received requests for custom work through the popularity of the plugin, this combination of contract work plus donations was a good fit for everyone. Users benefited and I benefited. The amount received made further work on the plugin and time committed to supporting users (even for free) equal out.
But as the plugin grew in popularity, the time required just to handle basic support inverted the monetary relationship. While it is great to be able to have many great plugins available for free, at the end of the day, quality development must be able to have a monetization strategy in order to continue – especially if the plugin becomes popular.
In the end, the catalyst for change was a string of users from whom I received the “help me fix this and I will donate” support request, only to spend significant time helping them and never receive compensation.
It was at this time of inversion that I knew I needed to change the model. But I was also committed to being able to continue to provide a completely free product. There were definitely options available to shift to a completely for-pay model, or others such as “crippleware,” trialware, etc. None of those were palatable to me.
That is when I decided on the premium support model as a “freemium” product.
Enter the Freemium Model
This business model is often referred to as the “Freemium” model. The primary product is completely free. There is no cost to the user to receive it and the product is the product – not a stripped down version.
When the user pays, they receive a “premium.” The “premium” in this model is support. If the user needs help, that comes at a cost to the user.
With a solid, quality product this model works well for both the developer and the user. Only the user who needs help needs to pay and that supports the entire project financially.
It’s the 80/20 rule in action – 80% of the users will never need the premium service and will benefit from the other 20% of the users who do pay. This model is very successful throughout the modern Internet and probably everyone reading this has experienced it in some way. It is used by mega giants like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to create multi-billion dollar industries.
Shifting the Business
At the point of this needed change, the plugin was already very stable, and very extensible. I had begun adding action and filter hooks throughout the plugin in order to ease the ability to customize it. This was actually driven by my own personal needs as I was doing a lot of contract work using the plugin at the time. Having hooks throughout the plugin allowed me to do custom projects quickly and easily.
This led to putting together a number of common customizations in the form of tutorials. I found a lot of the common customizations requested could be implemented simply by a wide range of users if they were given the step-by-step instructions. That led to the launch of the rocketgeek.com site.
When initially launched, the site offered full documentation of the plugin for all users completely free. For support subscribers, there was a forum, priority email support, and a library of custom code snippets for common custom projects.
This resulted in a win-win opportunity for all. Users continued to have access to the plugin for free. The revenue from support subscribers economically justified the continuation of the project.
Addressing the Negative
In the minds of some, everything should be free – including support. I understand that sentiment. I look for free and low cost options as well. As a result of shifting the business model, I have received some negative feedback.
Let me point out that the vast majority of the feedback remains positive. While the negative remains a very small percentage, I want to address it in the hopes that some of the reasonable people are swayed to understand why things are the way they are.
“I can’t get things to work and I won’t pay if things don’t work.”
This is understandable from the user point of view. However, understand things from my perspective.
- The plugin has been downloaded more than one million times and has over 70,000 active installs – the vast majority of those are free users, more than 97%. There is no possible way for me to support the needs of every one of those users (unless of course I higher a support staff – which requires a revenue model).
- There would not be 70,000+ active installs if the plugin did not work — and work well. It is highly unlikely that any issue you are experiencing is actually a bug. Only a very small percentage of issues reported on the wordpress.org forums actually turn out to be bugs. 99% turn out to be users either not following directions, not understanding the intended use of the plugin, or configuration/compatibility issues.
- It takes my personal time to address your issue directly. Keep in mind that support and development of this plugin is my sole source of income to support a family (that also requires my time) AND I am the only employee. In other words, addressing your issue takes time away from future plugin development, supporting paying subscribers, and my family. I’m not whining about it – I’m quite grateful that I am in a position of having this business. But there is also an economic reality that has to be noted.
- In 99% of cases, your issue is addressed somewhere in the free documentation.
Understand that if you fall into this category, we’re kind of at an impasse of your own making. Paid support will give you direct support in which I will help you fix your problem – guaranteed. But telling me you won’t pay for support if you can’t get basic functionality to work is the same as what happened when the plugin was under the donation-ware model – “help me solve my problem and I’ll donate.” And if you remember what I said about that – 99% of people who said that never held up their end.
The plugin works – and it works well. If you can’t get it working after following directions in the documentation, helping you with that is part of what paid support is for. And consider that my annual charge for support is not only reasonable when compared to similar products, the price (currently $59) does not actually cover the cost of supporting you. The cost of direct support is underwritten by users who pay for access to premium extensions and the codes snippet library on the site.
“Your product should be free and so should your support.”
I’ve had all kinds of variations on this theme. Most people understand that economics dictate money has to come into play somewhere, but feel that selling premium products should be just that; and that supporting the free product should remain free for all.
I can understand that. But in reality that doesn’t work when a plugin becomes popular. Based on real world experience there is a point at which there is no way support can be completely free, unless the plugin itself is very simple (which most membership plugins are not). Free support can be balanced (I do it, and I know others do, too); but it can’t be the only support.
I have been heavily active in the WordPress world for more than a decade and I can tell you I have seen some great plugins completely abandoned because the developer simply could not find the time to help the people that demanded support. They got fed up, felt taken advantage of, and moved on. Who suffered? The entire community suffers when developers leave.
At one time, I actually had a user scold me when I explained how I could not possibly help all the people that wanted free support. This person boldly told me in the wordpress.org forums that if I could not offer free support to the people who needed it that I shouldn’t offer a product at all. I’ve also had people tell me that the tutorials on the site should be free – one person going so far as to give me a 1 star review because of this.
Again, I understand where these people are coming from – I do get it. But in the real world, it simply does not work that way. People build their business on plugins like mine. And when you build a business on a plugin, you need that plugin to be there in the future. The only way to guarantee that happens – that the plugin continues being developed and supported, adding new features, and staying current with WordPress’ active development – is for the developer to get paid.
Wrapping It Up
At the end of the day, I’m grateful for what I have. This plugin is very popular – something that is hard to achieve in such a vast universe of competing products. And I’ve tried to strike a balance so that the product can continue to be offered for free.
Keep in mind that I handle as many questions as I can in the wordpress.org forum and through the contact form on the support site. The plugin is there – free for you to use. If you need more help than is already provided through the freely available documentation, a premium support subscription is a valuable investment.
Look at it this way: what is your time worth? If a simple question asked via premium support saves you an hour or two of your time, is that worth the cost of a subscription? And at the same time, you’ve contributed to maintaining and advancing the plugin, keeping it alive for you and all users.
If you’re angry about this, please don’t be. And please don’t give the plugin a 1 star review because you’re mad that I can’t support you for free. I am passionate about this project – I put my heart and soul into it for more than 10 years. Realize the reality of what I outlined above and rate the plugin based on the plugin, not your own personal gripe about me. And if that’s not good enough for you, please find another plugin. I’m not mean to you. Kindly move on without being mean to me.
It’s funny because I’ve had people contact me that only want free support and in their message they say “I love the plugin – I’d hate to have to use something else, but that’s what we’ll have to do if you can’t help us.” No offense, and don’t take this the wrong way, but if you’re not a paid support subscriber and you don’t use the plugin, that changes nothing for me but everything for you. It’s an economic decision for you – not for me. If I can’t convince you of the benefits of a support subscription, then moving on to another plugin doesn’t really affect me. I don’t get paid for the one million downloads the plugin has had. If I did, I would invest that capital in employees to help you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
And if you’re on the fence about premium support, take a look at the people who have posted reviews. Read the reviews and decide for yourself. There is not a single 1 star review that is a person who was a support customer. There are plenty of 5 star reviews of users who are also not support customers. Personally, I prefer the plugin be judged solely on the plugin itself. But I have had people who are support customers give reviews based on the support they received. So if you’re wondering if the support is worth it, take a look at those.