You Don’t Need to Know Code to Build a Successful WP Plugin Business.

With all the consolidation happening in the WordPress plugin ecosystem, it’s easy to think that it’d be futile to start your own WP plugin business.  But the reality is that there are many small plugin developers making a living flying under the radar of the big dogs.

Laptop computer on a desk with a brick wall behind it. Dollar bills are laying around the laptop.
Photo by Kenny Eliason

As Valuable as 1 Big Project Per Year

Barbara Schendel-Kent didn’t start out looking to become a plugin developer, but she now runs a successful plugin business that supplements her WP consulting income. 

4 years ago, Schendel hired a freelance developer to code the initial iteration of her popular Beaver Builder Mega Menu plugin for a client site.  

“I needed a specific plugin, and it didn’t exist,” says Schendel-Kent of how she got into the plugin business. After activating the plugin on her client’s website, she asked the developer to round out the plugin’s functionality to get it ready to sell on her own website. Overall, it’s been a big win for Schendel-Kent.  

“Beaver Builder Mega Menu has continued to bring in one big project’s worth of revenue every year,” she says. That’s significant for a plugin that requires very little upkeep.

“It was an accident and very much an experiment,” added Schendel-Kent. “I was surprised by how few problems there were in the beginning.  Most of the support requests were feature requests, not bugs.”

Building ShopWP Into a Full-Time Job

It took 6 years of intensive work, but ShopWP developer, Andrew Robbins, is finally at a point where his WordPress-to-Shopify connector plugin is making enough money to support his family, including purchasing a home to live in.  Additionally, as his plugin’s success has grown, so have his ambitions.  

“I want ShopWP to be a direct competitor with WooCommerce, even though I’m nowhere near their market share yet,” says Robbins.  “I see ShopWP as empowering small business owners – giving them a beautiful and powerful online shop that rivals their larger competitors.”

Another successful plugin developer takes a more modest approach and points out some struggles small plugin businesses encounter. 

“It has become difficult to reach new clients who are overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of plugins available,” says Milan Petrovic, a developer who makes the bulk of his living selling his WP plugins on his website, Dev4Press.

“Big companies can pour a lot of money into advertising…It is almost impossible to find websites that have honest, not-paid-for reviews of premium plugins,” adds Petrovic. “The chance of ending up with a bad plugin [based on reviews on a website] is quite high.”

However, some plugin business owners see lots of opportunities for small businesses to promote their plugins.

“Having a free plugin in WP.org is a great place to start,” says Jesse Sutherland, an app and plugin developer who successfully sold 2 WP plugins in 2023. “For example, if you link back to your website from your wp.org page, that’s a valuable link.”

Not to say it’s easy, as you might need to stretch your marketing muscles to make it work for your specific business.

“Before embarking on writing the plugins I sold last year, I did do some keyword research to make sure this was a plugin people were looking for,” Sutherland says.  

Additionally, there are ways to outmaneuver the big players.

“Getting on some of the ‘Top 10 List’ sites is helpful, even if it’s a ‘You scratch my back, I scratch yours’ thing or maybe a thing where you trade links.”

Sometimes paying is the best way to get your brand out, but you don’t need to spend millions of dollars. 

“Paying to get listed on a ‘Top 10’ website or developing a partnership deal or affiliate program are great ways to get people interested in buying your plugin,” Sutherland adds. 

Stickers of WordPress from WordCamp Asia & WordCamp Sylhet
Photo by Mohammad Adil morshed

It’s never too late to start marketing your plugin. 

“I’ve worked on ShopWP for around 6 years, and I’m just now implementing some level of product marketing,” Robbins says. “It’s not even that I was unaware of the importance of doing it; it was pure procrastination.”

Robbins has also been able to increase revenue for his business through strategic price increases.

“I raised my prices in 2021 and, to my surprise, people didn’t bat an eye,” Robbins says. “Not only did this help me grow ShopWP, but it was a psychological relief to know that people were still willing to purchase my product, even at the elevated price.”

Sometimes you just get lucky when you create something good.  The aforementioned Beaver Builder Mega Menu plugin garnered some unexpected praise and a P.R. boost from the official Beaver Builder website.

“Beaver Builder created a special blog post on their site with a video walkthrough with how to use my plugin,” the plugin’s owner, Schendel-Kent says.  “This was such a compliment that they not only spent the time to write the article but also to create the video.  I didn’t even ask them to!  That was validating.”

You don’t need to know code to build a successful WP plugin business.

Surprisingly, Schendel didn’t write any of the initial code for Beaver Builder Mega Menu, and over the years, “99% of the code was written by other developers,” she says. 

“Maybe you write no code, but you’ve got a decent bedside manner and business sense,” Schendel says. “You don’t need to be a coder to write and sell a plugin.”

Alternatively, you could be the primary developer of a plugin and transition out of that role. Vova Feldman, who runs Freemius, a sass service that takes care of the e-commerce and licensing parts of selling WP plugins, started out writing the code for his nascent platform, however, as the years passed, he moved into a non-coding role. 

“Our team has grown to 20 passionate individuals, and my role has evolved dramatically,” Feldman says. “Coding has taken a backseat to facilitating communication, coaching our team, recruiting new talent, and engaging with partners.”

“It’s been a reminder that making oneself ‘redundant’ is not a step back but a leap towards a future where everyone shines brighter together,” Feldman says of his business’ journey. 

Making himself ‘redundant’ allowed Feldman to do something that many business owners dream of: taking personal time.  “Taking time off for a vacation or parental leave, which I did last March when I welcomed my baby boy into the world, is no longer a source of stress,” Feldman says.

Becoming a Successful Plugin Developer Is Not Without Its Challenges

“The first major difference I noticed early on was the uncertainty,” says Robbins of his ShopWP plugin business early on. “With consulting work, being paid was never really in question. My customers were largely business owners or larger companies, and the income was very predictable.”

For years Robbins continued earning the bulk of his revenue consulting while working on ShopWP on the side.  This was done simply because, at first, ShopWP didn’t earn living wage revenue.

“The early years of ShopWP were basically the opposite [of the consulting business]. ShopWP’s income was rare and unpredictable,” he says. “Even when a sale came through, I had to deal with the looming uncertainty of issuing refunds.”

“However, now that ShopWP has matured a bit, the income is both predictable and provides even more freedom than the consulting work,” adds Robbins. “So it’s definitely a long-term investment that (hopefully) continues to pay off.”

A laptop screen with lots of code on it.
Photo by Ilya Pavlov

Supporting and Maintaining WP Plugins Can Be Difficult 

“One of the biggest challenges with developing plugins for the WordPress community is that you have so little control over the server environments where your code will live,” says Natalie MacLees, COO and founder of N², which sells the Simply Schedule Appointments and Draw Attention WP plugins.  

“There are potentially multiple versions of PHP, different MySQL setups, all kinds of different server configurations, and thousands of different plugins and themes with which you need to make sure your code is compatible,” MacLees says. “It’s really challenging as a small company to have the bandwidth and budget to do extensive testing for all of these different variables.”

The potential problems grow as your plugin’s reach expands.  

“Early on, when our plugins had less than 100 active installs, the potential impact of releasing a bug or a poorly implemented feature was pretty small,” MacLees says. “But once our plugins became more popular and had tens of thousands of active installs, the potential impact of a bug became a lot greater and could easily overwhelm our support team and leave us with a lot of unhappy customers who are in need of urgent fixes.”

What happens when you are the only developer of a plugin and you need to take a sick day?

“If I get sick and can’t work for three days, I’ll usually lose about a week’s worth of time to getting caught up with customer support,” says Robbins. 

Also, adding to plugin developer workload, expectations around web accessibility seem to be increasing as the Americans with Disabilities Act and similar legislation is applied to websites – and as more and more lawyers get involved in suing businesses large and small. For example, both Target and Domino’s Pizza lost website-related ADA lawsuits recently.  

WordPress consultant, Matt Christenson, recently helped a business resolve some web accessibility issues related to an ADA compliance lawsuit.  He shares a recent story where, even with the best of intentions and efforts to bring a website into ADA compliance, a company was the target of an ADA compliance lawsuit.

“An ADA compliance lawsuit is a major headache,” Christenson says.  “One client of mine had to hire an attorney and another developer – hundreds of hours were invested – it was a bad situation all around.”  

But that doesn’t mean you should shy away from plugin development due to web accessibility concerns.  Christensen says web accessibility skills are learnable and will work their way into your workflow with some education and diligence.

“It takes a bit more research on the front end to educate yourself about the WCAG compliance criteria,” Christenson says while expressing that the bulk of web accessibility problems are common and correctable. “For example, font icons need a ‘role=’ tag on them,” he says.

Bringing your plugin into reasonable compliance with ADA guidelines doesn’t need to be overwhelming or break the bank.

Web accessibility consultant and member of the Make WordPress Accessible team, Joe Dolson, recently simplified web accessibility basics into 3 simple points that can fit on a 3×5 card: 

  1. Everything needs a name that describes what it does. If you have a link, the text should make it clear where that link goes. If you have a button, it should have text that clearly indicates what happens. Labels, alternative text, aria-label attributes – all methods of providing an accessible name.
  2. Use native elements for interaction. Buttons should be ‘button’ or ‘input’. Links should be ‘a href=”‘. Building an accordion? Put a button inside a heading; don’t just add a click event to the heading. 
  3. Use HTML to structure your documents. Headings are there for a reason: they provide an outline of your document and give context for the following content. Don’t just use a heading because you want large text.”

Don’t Forget the Exit

In addition to making money while you run a WP plugin business, there are potential earnings for you on the back end as well – the potential to sell your business.

Entrepreneur and app developer, Jesse Sutherland, successfully developed and sold 2 WP themes and 2 WP plugins over the last few years. 

“The process of selling the WP themes and plugins was pretty smooth,” Sutherland said.  “I think both parties were happy, and I would do it again.”

Computer key cap with a pixel-art heart on a wooden table.
Photo by Nilo Velez

You’ve Got This

WP plugin business owners mostly seem to find the experience of developing a WP plugin to be worthwhile and valuable.  

“My favorite part of running a WordPress business is being able to cultivate and grow something of my own,” says Robbins. “I get to work on a codebase that I enjoy every day, and the only people I have to answer to are my customers. That’s a very rewarding feeling.”

“I’m most proud that it took off, that it’s self-sustaining, that it didn’t start on fire and implode,” Schendel concluded, only a little bit tongue-in-cheek.

 

What Experiences Have You Had Selling WP Plugins? Let us know in the comments.

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