I just returned from WordCamp Orlando 2014, and I was asked numerous times over the course of the weekend on how to build a successful WordPress product.
That is an excellent question. Most people struggle to make the transition from one type of business (typically freelance or consulting) to the product business and never realize their dream of running a successful product business. While I’m not sure there is one surefire formula to success, I do believe that I have learned a few key things from creating multiple successful products in the WordPress ecosystem.
This is not an exhaustive list. I’m confident there are hundreds of more things that could be added to it, but nevertheless, I have found these few items to be critical to building successful WordPress products.
Defining “Successful WordPress Product”
Before I give some insight on how to build a successful WordPress product, we need to come to terms with the word “successful”. Everyone has a different definition of success, and I’m positive that I am no different. In terms of this post, when I mention a “successful WordPress product”, I am talking about a product that generates at least 6 figures a year in revenue. Products that generate less than that can certainly be successful, but products that generate more than 6 figures in revenue typically will shape how someone conducts business. At that point, the product is no longer just a hobby on the side but something worth investing in for the foreseeable future.
Now that I have defined successful, here are some key points that I believe ring true for anyone trying to build a successful product in the WordPress ecosystem.
Build a Strong Network
It’s hard to go far without the help of other people. I never would have released TGM Plugin Activation and Soliloquy without the help of my friend and developer Gary Jones. His refreshingly honest assessment of my skills and willingness to help me improve allowed me to build something that I never could have done on my own. Indeed, this crucial step allowed me to learn the skills necessary to build a distributable product.
Although Soliloquy is by itself a successful product, I never would have created or seen the success of OptinMonster without the help of Syed from WPBeginner. Partnering with him was one of the best business decisions I could have made, and this partnership has catapulted the products that I have built to a level far beyond what I could have achieved on my own.
And through all of this, I’ve been blessed by Jesus with the support of family and friends. Even when times were tough and I wasn’t sure to continue or not, I was supplied the necessary strength and courage to persevere and push through the financial and emotional hardships that can come with transitioning your avenue of business. I can attribute these things only to Jesus and His grace on my life.
Build relationships. Cultivate a true, selfless interest in the benefit of the other person, and you might just be surprised at what it returns you in the future.
Build an Incredible Reputation
Your reputation is infinitely more important than any amount of success you could possibly fathom. A good reputation is worth much more than any amount of money you could ever make with your product. Focus on building a solid reputation for yourself in the community by contributing back, attending WordCamps, releasing things for free and finding other ways to build and foster the WordPress community on the whole. Create something of value and start building an audience that trusts the work that you do. You might release a free plugin on the WordPress Plugin Repository or volunteer at your local WordPress meetup to talk on whatever subject you are knowledgeable in. Head over to the WordPress Stack Exchange platform and answer some questions from other WordPress users. Get active on social media and try to create value for those who are using those platforms.
By building a reputation, you create a sense of trust and authority around your own personal brand. Whether you know it or not, you are always cultivating a brand and identity around yourself. The issue isn’t whether you have one or not; the issue is whether it is good or bad.
Use “Free” to Build Authority
My friend and business partner Syed Balkhi gave a keynote speech at WordCamp Atlanta this past year about how he has used “free” in his business in order to establish authority and trust with his users. It was a powerful testimony to show how free can allow you to build authority in your niche, and how you can use that authority to then recommend paid products in the future (like we have done with OptinMonster).
Take the time to give back for free in some way that will help you build authority in the WordPress community. I was able to create the popular TGM Plugin Activation class that allows plugin and theme authors to create dependencies for said themes and plugins and allows users to install them in an easy and familiar manner. I saw a need and wanted to give back in this way, and that project not only gave me a ton of experience developing for widely varying scenarios but also gave my voice a sense of weight and credibility when I spoke on the subject at WordCamp Atlanta in 2012.
By releasing that project for free, it allowed me to create a platform for having authority in building and selling products in the future.
Cultivate Trust Around Your Brand
Nobody likes getting ripped off, and if you can’t find a way to make your first 10 customers happy, what makes you think you are going to do it when you have 1,000?
Those first few months of sales and customers can make or break the brand you are trying to build. The last thing you want to do is to create a poor reputation or experience around your product. Bend over backwards to make things happen at the start so that it is easy to replicate in the future when you start having to bring on more people to help support and sell your product. Be proactive in cultivating trust with your customers from the very beginning – make it foundation to the way you do business.
Those customers are going to be your biggest fans moving forward, and they will help sell your product for you without you ever having to spend a dime.
Focus on Your Strengths
C.S. Lewis has wisely written that everyone has a “fatal flaw” that plagues their character and ambitions. I can’t help but share it below and reflect that this sentiment is true in business, too.
And you see, looking back, how all the plans you have ever made always have shipwrecked on that fatal flaw–on X’s incurable jealousy, or laziness, or touchiness, or muddle-headedness, or bossiness, or ill temper, or changeableness… That is the next great step in wisdom–to realize that you also are just that sort of person. You also have a fatal flaw in your character. All the hopes and plans of others have again and again shipwrecked on your character just as your hopes and plans have shipwrecked on theirs.
It is no good passing this over with some vague, general admission such as “Of course, I know I have my faults.” It is important to realize that there is some really fatal flaw in you: something which gives others the same feeling of despair which their flaws give you. And it is almost certainly something you don’t know about–like what the advertisements call “halitosis”, which everyone notices except the person who has it. But why, you ask, don’t the others tell me? Believe me, they have tried to tell you over and over and over again. And you just couldn’t “take it”. Perhaps a good deal of what you call their “nagging” or “bad temper”… are just their attempts to make you see the truth.
We all have a fatal flaw in our character and in our business acumen, so the sooner you learn this, the better. And like C.S. Lewis says, not just to realize it but really come to grips that there is a fatal flaw in you somewhere.
You are likely really good at one aspect of the product business. You might be able to build incredible things but absolutely stink at selling them to people (like me). It could the be the exact opposite. Don’t let your weaknesses prevent you from trying to find success in the WordPress product space, but be acutely aware of them so that they don’t work against you.
Put this knowledge to good use. If you stink at selling stuff, it might make sense to partner with someone who can sell the lights out of anything given to them. I certainly wasn’t the best at selling my products, but partnering with Syed took my products infinitely farther along than I could have ever done on my own. At the very worst, be real with yourself about where you lack skills and make the necessary steps to mitigate those weak points in your business.
Be Prepared to Work Insanely Hard
Sometimes people like to see successful WordPress products through rose-colored glasses. Everything looks so awesome from the outside, but hardly anyone truly knows the amount of work, sweat and tears it takes to create something that achieves “overnight” success. By all accounts, OptinMonster is a successful WordPress product NOW, but not many people know about the 10 months of “overnight success”, erhm, repeated failures that happened before we released something that would be successful.
Let that sink in – 10 months. 10 months is a long time to work on something and not get any returns from it. Zero returns. Actually, worse than zero returns – we had lost money on it up until that point.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that building your next successful WordPress product will be a walk in the park. Seriously consider the risks and potential hardships you may have to endure while you work on your “overnight success”. You, like me, may have to endure real financial and emotional stress while you build your product. Prepare yourself to work really hard days and long hours. And then once you have released your product, plan to make that habit for the next year, or two, or three!
Plan, Prepare, Execute
No (smart) architect builds a house without having ascertained the blueprints to the house, the funds for the materials and the labor to build. Because I know you are smart, you won’t make this same silly mistake! 🙂
Create a plan of how you are going to approach building your product. It may be that you can only focus on building your product one day out of the week or maybe only at nights after your regular, paying work. Your situation will be different, but what is important is that you create a plan and stick with it. Set goals and milestones and work to achieve them. If you find you are not achieving them, ask yourself the tough questions:
Do I have the passion for this product or is this just something to get me more _______?
If I am struggling with this now, will I be able to persevere when I have to manage projects, selling this product AND supporting my newly found customers?
Do I really believe the market for my product is there and can make enough money to warrant continued support for it?
These are tough but necessary questions that you must ask if you find yourself struggling to stick with your plan of building a successful WordPress product.
It is also incredibly important that you prepare yourself for the work ahead. Part of this preparation for me was to get at least 3 months expenses saved up in my bank account. You should already have at least this anyways because it is a feast or famine type of game. You need to have that money put aside so that you can have one less thing to worry about while you (potentially) take on less work to build out your product. You don’t want to make this process tougher than it already is by having to worry about your financial situation, so get your financial house in order if at all possible.
I personally have 6+ months of expenses in liquid savings in case the hard times come. Even with a few successful WordPress products, this is still a good buffer to have between you and life. Life will happen – and inevitably it will happen while you work on your product, so be prepared for it. 🙂
Finally, you need to execute. None of the advice I have given up to this point is worthy anything if you can’t execute – doing what you say you are going to do.
Henry Ford summed this up beautifully nearly a century ago.
You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.
You will never create a successful WordPress product if you don’t actually put the work in and just do it. It’s easy to find an idea. It’s easy to get started on the idea. It’s incredibly difficult to execute on that idea until completion. Find ways to consistently execute on your goals, and I guarantee you will find success in the WordPress product space.
A Few Closing Remarks
I’ve been extremely upfront and forthcoming about what I believe it takes to build a successful WordPress product. I don’t mean this to discourage or scare you away from your hopes and dreams, but I do want it to serve as a reality check for those that are disillusioned with the amount of work it takes to create a successful anything.
I also want to encourage you to use me as a resource in your journey. I’ve been through the product development process multiple times, and I’ve lived through some of the joys and pitfalls in all stages of the product lifecycle. You can get in touch on my contact page or even schedule a call with me on Clarity.fm.
What has your journey been thus far? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!