Are we Seeing the End of Solo Plugin Developers?

Episode 23 August 12, 2021 00:35:57
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WP Review
Are we Seeing the End of Solo Plugin Developers?
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Hosted By

Joe Casabona

Show Notes

With all of the news on plugins, like downloads being down, solo projects being acquired by bigger companies, etc. I'm curious to know: is this signalling the end of the solo WordPress plugin developer? Has the ecosystem gotten too complex for solo devs to support themselves? Here's what I think, plus the news of the week. 

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Episode Transcript

Hello. And welcome to WP Review, a show that provides analysis on what's happening in WordPress and what it means for users and business owners in the ecosystem. I also tell you about helpful tools to build better WordPress websites. This podcast is brought to you by GoDaddy Pro. My name is Joe Casabona, and let's get into the review. Now, before we start on the news, I do want to let you know, I have a brand new course that I think you'll be interested in. It's called Master Full Site Editing. And you can head over to [masterfse.com] to enroll. This course tells you everything that you need to know about full site editing as it stands in WordPress today. And as things evolve, the course will continuously get updated. So it should be a great way for you to get ahead of the curve, learn full site editing and how it could affect your business or your users or your clients. So with Master Full Site Editing, you'll no longer grapple with Gutenberg or get beaten by the block editor. You will harness the power of WordPress editing to experience and create the best websites your clients and customers have ever seen with no code required. For a limited time, the course is on sale for 50% off. That sale ends on August 20th. So you have about a week as this episode comes out. And you get lifetime updates. So buy it today at a very low price, and as the course evolves, you'll get those updates. You'll also get access to using the block editor course. It's a one-two punch where you learn how to use the block editor and then full site editing. So check it out [masterfsc.com]. And start learning full site editing today. Okay. Now let's get on to the rest of the news. Probably the biggest news in the last week is Automatic invests $30 million in Titan, a business email startup. Now, this has been covered all over the place. WP Tavern, the WP Minute has covered it. This was the big news for, what is generally a slow news cycle, right? It's summer and people are on vacation. So I'll just get a couple of excerpts from the WPTavern that I think we're interesting. So it's a $30 million investment. It’s the biggest investment Automatic has ever made and it will be a big part of how [wordpress.com] offers email going forward. So it's a series and investment. I guess it is about 10% of the company, right? It values the company at 30 million, or 300 million, I'm sorry. And Matt said I'm sorry, not Matt. But the investment will be used to expand their product offerings. And so, we need, Matt said, “We need an alternative to Google and Microsoft, which have started to monopolize email about 6 billion email accounts in the world.” Only a fraction are small business email accounts, and they need a product that's focused on their needs. So this is, I mean, we've seen this more, lately, right? We have HEY by Basecamp focusing on email. ProtonMail and Fastmail are a couple that is positioning themselves as alternatives to Gmail and Outlook, right? Google and Microsoft. So I think this is pretty interesting. I think it's important because I think a lot of small business owners believe that they just need to sign up for whatever their server's email offering is. And that's not good for a bunch of reasons. It impacts deliverability and performance. And, you know, I think it's just, it's better to have a dedicated email service. So it's interesting to see Automatic investing in this startup. And we'll see what happens with [wordpress.com]. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a Jetpack integration in the near future. But, you know, I think Automatic has made a very sizable investment here and we'll see what the plans are. Right. That's…I don't have much other analysis on this besides this is something we've seen, you know, I think. So I guess I do have some analysis. I think that we saw for a while with the rise of social media, email is dead. Email is dead. Just communicate with Facebook. Just communicate with Twitter. Oh, now we have slack, so we don't need email. But in the last couple of years, we've seen a resurgence of email and people realizing, “Hey. I actually, my email list is the only thing out of all of these other options that I actually own. And so I should work on my email list. And people who sign up for email lists, are the people who are invested the most in what you have to offer and your product. I tell this to my podcast, students and people who are launching online courses, all the time, the number one objective should be to build your list especially with podcasting because podcasting can feel like a one-way street. So if you want to talk to your listeners, or if you want to monetize your podcast, you need to build your list because it's not just about being able to promote directly to your list, right? That's one reason that you want to build your list. But it also adds value if you do have sponsors, right? Because when I promote this show, for example, to my email list, I always mention it's sponsored by GoDaddy Pro. So now it's getting in front of people who aren't necessarily subscribed to this podcast, but it's still getting in front of them. So build your list. Building your list is super important. I think we've seen the importance of that over the last few years. And as a result, now we're seeing Gmail, Google suite, Google workspace, whatever they're called this week. We're seeing alternatives to that Pop-up. And so, like I said, we've seen a bunch. We've seen HEY, we see Titan, we see ProtonMail and I think Fastmail is another one. So we'll see what happens. it's good that we're seeing competition here because honestly, email apps kind of suck. And maybe a good email service that offers a good email app will, you know, a rising tide raises all boats or whatever. So maybe we'll see some innovation in this space. So that's what I have to say about it. Another piece of news from the Tavern, a really good article, I think by Justin Tadlock is WordPress development is really all that hard to get into today? And he talks about his experience. And a tweet from Chris Wegman. God, I just realized, I don't think I've ever said Chris's last name out loud. Anyway, Chris said “the deeper I get with Modern WP Dev, the more I understand why newer devs don't like to work on it. This is not the same project as it was in the past. The learning curve is now extremely high, regardless of past experience.” Justin offers an alternative point of view, which is to say would 20-year-old Justin have a harder time learning the workflow today than he did in a more strictly PHP-based WordPress? He doubts it. Both had huge learning curves for someone new. I think he's right about that. I think when you know something, it's easy to think the way I know it is easier. And now this new way is harder. It's also easy to forget how hard things are for beginners. I've talked about that, having empathy for your students and knowing, you know, knowing what you know, versus what other people know or don't know. But it's also, I mean, people get set in their ways, right. I haven't learned React yet because I haven't needed to learn React. I'm 35, I'll be 36 soon. I've got two kids and one on the way. I'm not just going to go learn brand new workflows because it seems like the fun thing to do. And I mean, to be honest, you know, I say like I'm 35 and I have a family. I was always like this when I was 24. And people were like, “Joe, you should learn this new JavaScript framework.” And I'm like, “Why? Do I need it? Does it provide a clear advantage over what I'm currently using versus the learning curve of actually learning it?” And generally, it's no. And generally, those frameworks disappear. So, you know, the last framework I really invested time in was Angular and then Angular stopped and Angular Two happened. And I don't even know if Angular Two is around anymore. And I was like, great. So what I got to learn, React or VIU or what. And learn, you know, learn Ionic or whatever. Well, I don't know if I want to learn that. But anyway, that's developers are set in, people are set in their ways. And so when someone who's been doing this for 10, 20 years like me, looks at the new workflow and you're like, “Oh, I got to compose or something and learn React yet it seems harder.“ That said, there was a time 15, 10, 15 years ago, where if you wanted to make a website, all you needed was HTML and CSS. And while that is still true today, I teach it in my book, HTML and CSS, Visual Quick-Start Guide, while that is true still today, modern workflows are just not like that. If I want to contribute to the WordPress open source project, I need to do a lot of things to set up an environment that has like integrated testing or whatever. Right. And grunting on LinkedIn or whatever. There's just a lot more complexity so I see it both ways. Carolina, I'm going to say Carolina Nymark. I was just on a call with her recently, too. And I'm sorry, I'm butchering everybody's name in this episode. She, you know, she tweeted, “I wish people would see that the theme development is heading in the opposite way. The entry barrier for designers and new developers will be lower.” This is absolutely true. Because if you look at the way theme development is going to work, if you work with the block editor, you'll have theme.json. So you'll need to learn some json syntax. And then you have essentially HTML templates. And that is a lot easier than having to learn hooks and WordPress. I was just talking to a friend who's an accomplished Java developer for, I mean, he used to work for the NSA. And he's like, WordPress is confusing and like, yes, that's true with anything where you're learning it for the first time. But, you know, he didn't…when you're working on a project and you need to do something quick, you're not necessarily going to take the time to scour through a [developer.wordpress], codex.wordpress, and figure out what hooks are and how I make modifications. Because you're not trying to learn a framework, you're just trying to make a customization somewhere. And I think that Carolina's comment, (I'm really sorry if it's Carolina, it's like really eating at me) is correct that, you know, when people…the entry will be lower when people get stuck saying. But I can't use my hooks in a block theme, it's because they are looking at what exists today. Not ahead. That's just a fantastic point. Just a fantastic point. You know, WordPress has been around for, what is it? 18,20? Is this, it's 20 years? No, it's 18 years this year, right? Yeah. So, the things that worked then things need to evolve. And there's a lot of technical debt. I mean, geez, look at the database. I think I talked about that in a previous episode. Look at the database. That's like the epitome of technical debt. But the themes team, the full site editing team, the block editor team, they are making big strides again to make it easier. So is WordPress development really all that hard to get into today? Maybe. There's a lot more resources than there were 15 years ago. There is a lot more complexity. I think that's just the nature of front end development in general though. You know, I think that, yes, you can just start with HTML and CSS. But quickly, you're probably gonna need to know SAS or a CSS post processor or something else. And, but there are also a lot of tools to help. CodePen is a God send I think if you're trying to learn HTML and CSS and JavaScript. So me, the old guy, I do think it's harder today than it was when I started. But when I started, there were no standards, there were no pages. I would just add PHP files to core, to add the static pages I wanted. So, you know, something to think about. The last thing, the last story I want to talk about is from the WP trends newsletter, Iain Paulson. And he kind of covers it's called rise and fall. And he covers plugins dropping numbers that David Bisset wrote about over on post status, recent acquisitions, plugin growth. And so, you know, some are slumped for e-commerce revenue is here. It's hitting the WordPress plugin businesses. I talked about this over on WP Tonic. You know, I think that Spencer might've made this point. Somebody ultimately, this point first, I think. But you know, it's probably just that a bunch of people was at home a year ago trying a bunch of different WordPress plugins. And so they were just trying a bunch of stuff. So I mean, this is certainly not scientific. Spencer also pointed out there that the changes were negligible. But that's one aspect of the newsletter. The other is the acquisitions. And I really like what Iain points out here, about Search WP going to Awesome Motive, and ACF going to Delicious Brains about how, you know, these are solo plugin developers going to bigger, more established companies. And that's that actually. So first of all, I'll have all of these links in the show notes over at [wpreview.io] or write in your podcast app of choice. But that's the main topic that I want to get into today. So that's over at [wptrends.io]. I'll link the other two stories over at [wpreview.io]. Let me double-check that that's the right link actually. I'm sorry. It's [wptrends.co]. So that's over at [wptrends.co] and then you can get all of the links over at [wpreview.io]. And the main segment I want to talk about is this: Are we seeing a downfall of the solo plugin developer? But before we get into that, I do want to tell you about my sponsor GoDaddy Pro. They're sponsoring the whole year. So thank you, GoDaddy Pro. I'd like you to know about them. GoDaddy Pro is an experience tailored specifically to the needs of web designers and developers and helps them more efficiently manage their work and deliver results for their clients. Combining website, client, and project management, GoDaddy Pro is an integrated solution made by the end for web professionals. Whether you're new to web design or looking to grow your business, you'll find the tools, products, guidance, and support to help you deliver results for clients. I think this is really important. I think we all kind of get into shiny object syndrome and look at new tools. And this project management tool will definitely make me more productive. But GoDaddy Pro built this with web professionals in mind. So I think this is a very important aspect of the hub. At the heart of GoDaddy Pro is the hub. From one intuitive dashboard, the hub seamlessly brings your sites, clients, and projects together, managing and monitoring all your clients' WordPress sites from a single place. No more juggling multiple client passwords. With one click, perform bulk updates, backups, and security checks no matter where your client's sites are hosted. You will save time and free up your day. So if you have a bunch of clients across a bunch of hosts, you have that one client who refuses to leave that one host that you don't like, no problem. You can connect it to the hub and update it with the rest of your sites. Integrated Project Management makes it easier to keep track of your client communications and deliver projects on time. Electronically signed, notarized, and store documents, and a very important tool. I feel like I'm switching services all the time with that. You can create a visual timeline to break down projects and the smaller tasks to stay on track and on time. And you can access all of your client accounts with a single sign-on through their tailored shopping experience. You can buy products that help clients grow their business like powerful e-commerce stores using WooCommerce. And you can always reach out to dedicated and knowledgeable customer service 24/7. On top of that, you'll find a thriving community of web designers and developers who share advice, insights, and learning opportunities. And the best part, GoDaddy Pro is free to join. Head over to [go.me/wpreview] to get started. That's [go.me/wpreview]. Thanks so much to GoDaddy Pro for their support of WP Review. Okay. So let's talk about this: The downfall of the solo plugin developer. This is mostly based on the WP trends newsletter that I just highlighted. But he talks about solo sales of search WP and ACF to bigger teams. And that coupled with Dave Bisset’s post status report on it being a down year for plugging themselves makes me wonder how viable the solo plugin developer market is. Back in the day, it used to be the case that most plugins came from scratching your own itch. Right. You hear a lot of origin stories in the WordPress space that we're like, “Oh, I needed this. And I didn't find a plugin. So I built it and then I started selling it” or “I wanted to make an improvement upon this plugin so I forked it, and improved it, and started selling it.” And that was 10, 15 in some cases, years ago. So, we had a lot of solo developers. But we also had myself included in this, we had a lot of people who were developers, who didn't know how to sell and market, and they didn't really need to. Right. I see a lot of parallels with the way Google started. Google was the best. And so people started using Google. It wasn't necessarily the only game in town. But it was definitely the best game in town. And so if you were the, and I guess if we go back further, right, people used let's say Yahoo or Ask Jeeves because it was the only game in town as far as search goes. But when it came to plugins, 10, 15 years ago, you had the only game in town or you built a product that was just markedly better. And you didn't really have to market it. People would just use it. Right. That's probably why we have this legacy developer plan for a lot of people where it's like unlimited sites for some amount of money. Because you had developers buying the plans and then using it on all their client's sites. Whereas I would generally recommend that your client buys the license to the product so they're not beholden to you. I don't always follow that. Sometimes I choose convenience over what's right. We all do. But if I'm starting a project from scratch and I usually build in a plugin, not that I do that that often anymore, but I usually build on a plugin budget. So I'm like, I'll have to get this. I'll have to get this. That way, you know, the client's site is there and then I don't have to pull my license if they decide to go to somebody else. Which I've had to do before. Anyway, so a lot of solo developers were able to grow because of the nature of WordPress at the time. The WordPress ecosystem. But in the last couple of years, we've seen a ton of acquisitions. These teams that seemed to be doing well, that were acquired, WooCommerce subscriptions is one of them. WooCommerce subscriptions are kind of the only game in town, definitely the best game in town. And they got bought by WooCommerce or Automatic. I guess they got bought by Automatic. The same thing with SkyVerge, and WooCommerce memberships. Probably the best membership plugin specifically for WooCommerce, and they got bought by GoDaddy. WP Simple Pay got bought by EDD. Intern Sandhills development sold off Restrict Content Pro to Liquid Web, or technically iThemes who's owned by Liquid Web. But again, we're seeing a lot of these people who started off as solo developers. Maybe they have a small team now. They're selling to bigger companies, a lot of hosting companies. And then we see ACF sell to Delicious Brains, which I think is great. I love Delicious Brains. I think they do great work. But ACF was like the industry standard for custom fields. And he just changed his pricing within the last year or so. And it was more or less met with a giant finally from everybody. Some people are going to be mad because some people are just ‘frankly’ bad business owners and get mad when their costs change. Even though if you bought the lifetime, if you bought the developer package pricing for ACF, it was like less than 100 U.S. dollars. A song. That was a song. So, you know. Again finally, and then search WP, which I think is the best search plugin for WordPress, just sold to Awesome Motive. A big company that owns a suite of plugins that I'm sure Search WP will slot in nicely with. So the question is, is this really a downfall for solo developers? And the headline of this episode is probably going to be that. And so I'm falling victim to, is it Betteridges? I think it's Betteridge law of headlines which is any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered with the word, No. So, is this the end of solo plugin developers? No. Is it the end of solo plugin developers who are just scratching their itch and then try to sell whatever they, whatever back scratcher they came up with? Yes. You need to be savvier today than you were 10 or 15 years ago. So to any of the solo plugin developers out there who want to build the next great WordPress plugin, there are a couple of things you need to keep in mind. And this is coming from admittedly, somebody who has not sold a premium plugin. So, you know, take this all with a grain of salt, but as someone who is selling other stuff online. You need to have a marketing plan in mind. You need to build your user base. Justin Ferriman on a previous episode of my podcast, How I Built it says to build your list before you build the product. That way you have people ready and willing to buy as soon as you launch. And that's what I did with Master Full Site Editing. You know, Master Full Site Editing is probably my most successful course launch to date because I had a list that was ready and willing. So build your list, have a marketing plan, highlight the solution. All right. Maybe this is an old stereotype now. But a lot of plugin developers are like, I used React and great. Only other developers care about that. What's the problem you're trying to solve for me? And have a growth plan in mind, I think is the other thing because I'm not saying assume you're going to sell like a million copies of your plugin in the first day, but you want to have at least a plan in place to offer good support. You want to have a pricing structure that makes sense for you so that you're compensated. And you want to probably have a couple of metrics to say, “Okay. Well,, here's my roadmap. If I get to this many users, I'll need to hire another developer. Or if I get to this many users, I'm going to need to hire another support person.” And I know that's a lot of future thinking. But, if you at least think about this now, you won't be completely shocked when it does happen. Cause I think that happens that I fall victim to that a lot. I think I'll just do this real quick. And then like people buy my course or people buy my membership and I'm surprised by it. And I'm like, “Oh. I didn't have this in place.” So, it's good to launch quickly. But, you know, think about it and then launch. You know, it's not one of these, you know, ready, fire, aim, sort of things. It's ready, aim, fire. So, again, I don't think this is the end of the solo WordPress developer, WordPress plugin developer. I do think it's the end of the field of dreams, ‘I've built it, so they'll come.’ Okay. Well, let's close things out with a couple of recommendations. The first is an event I want to mention called the WP MRR Virtual Summit. I'm a media partner with them and for good reason because it's hosted by my good friend, Joe Howard, the founder of WP Buffs. And it's produced by my very good friend, Brian Richards. I say very good because Brian and I have worked a lot closer together and I've known Brian longer. Both are excellent guys. It's being produced and guest-hosted by Brian Richards. So this is going to be a fantastic event. It is an online conference 100% focused on actively helping as many people as possible responsively achieve their MRR goals. Well, hotdog. I just talked about what plugin developers can do to better prepare for their business. If they want to be solo plugin developers. You know, who will actually be qualified to tell you about these things? The people speaking at WP MRR Virtual Summit. So it's free. You can register for free today. All you got to do is join the WPM MRR community over on Circle. So head over to [wpmrr.com] and check that out. The event is in 39 days. I need to do some math too, it's in September. I think, you know, maybe I'll let Joe know. Oh, September 21st, 22nd, and 23rd. So a little over a month, which I could have figured out when I said 39 days, I guess, but check it out. It's going to be a good event. So say hi in the community. It'll be great. The other thing I want to recommend is Kay is a plugin. I want to recommend this plugin because as I just insinuated, I launched my new course. And then I decided that I should probably test the onboarding process. Thanks to a great book by Ramli John, called Product Led Onboarding. And so I signed up. And I noticed that my students were getting at least five emails from WooCommerce and various other places. Which is not a great first impression. So I wanted to rectify this quickly. Two of them were for LearnDash. So I shut those off. One was a new account. I shut that off. One was for Circle. I shut that off. And then I used the plugin, Kadence, WooCommerce Email Designer, which is free to create an email for the new order Email that goes out, that has all of the important information in there where to access your account, and how to access the community, et cetera. So I was able to drop from a minimum of five emails to one email, which I'm really excited about. So that's Kadence, WooCommerce Email Designer. Check it out. It's free. I will have more advice on this later. Because multiple people have told me you shouldn't let WordPress and WooCommerce manage your emails at all. You should do that in an email management software like ConvertKit. So, this is an evolving process. But Kadence WooCommerce Email Designer, let me quickly rectify what was a very annoying problem for people who literally just gave me money for the first time, usually. So I love it. Thanks to the fine folks over at Kadence for making such a great plugin. And that is it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening. You can get even more WordPress insights and you can subscribe to this show or my mailing list over at [wpreview.io/subscribe]. You can find all of the show notes at [wpreview.io]. And if you liked this episode, share it with a friend. Say, “Hey, is this the end of solo WordPress plugin developers?” And there'll be like, “No. What is this guy saying?” And then they'll listen and be like, all right. Okay. so share it with a friend. Thanks to GoDaddy Pro for sponsoring this, and every episode of WP Review. And until next time. I'm Joe Casabona, and I'll see you out there.

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