Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Katie from Barn2 Plugins. We sell innovative software products which add extra features to websites that are built on the popular WordPress and WooCommerce platforms.
Our flagship products are called WooCommerce Product Table and Document Library Pro. Our WooCommerce Product Table users are people who own an e-commerce online shop and want a quicker and easier way for customers to find products and add them to their cart. Document Library Pro attracts organizations who need to publish resources online. Both products work by displaying information in a searchable online table, but they serve very different purposes.
We now have 16 products that generate over $100,000 in monthly revenue.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I founded the company back in 2009 with my husband Andy. We quit our jobs and set up a small web design shop, building websites for small local businesses and tradespeople. Over the next few years, we found a niche for ourselves - building sites for the WordPress platform. At the time, very few people specialized in WordPress so it was a good opportunity for us.
However, building websites and software for other people wasn’t our dream. We were pleased to be working for ourselves but wanted more flexibility to build the lifestyle we wanted. While working for clients, you have to make yourselves available at specific times, including in emergencies if there is a problem with someone’s website.
Like many people in the WordPress community, we wanted to transition into a product business, where we would build software to sell to multiple customers instead of writing bespoke code for individual clients. It felt like a much more scalable business model.
Since we were already in the industry, we had insiders’ knowledge of gaps in the market and the pain points that our clients were dealing with. This made it relatively easy to find our first product ideas - we simply needed to identify problems that could be solved by a product that we could develop relatively quickly and easily. We steered clear of more complex ideas that would require many months of development time because we didn’t have the resources (or attitude to risk!) to take those on.
To validate the ideas, we used our knowledge of the industry along with researching pain points that people were reporting online. In particular, the official WooCommerce Ideas forum was very helpful.
At the time, we had a ‘virtual team’ of freelance web designers and developers. This means that Andy could take a couple of months out to focus on building our first product. I could continue managing the client-facing business and ensure that money continued coming in while he worked on the new side project.
It was very important to me that we could bootstrap the product without needing outside financing. I have always hated the idea of spending large amounts of money before making a profit and being indebted to investors - it’s simply not a business model that I am interested in. By building small software products in-house, we could launch them on a shoestring. This significantly reduced the element of risk.
Take us through the process of designing your first product.
Our first product was called WooCommerce Password Protected Categories. It was the perfect starting point for our software business because it adds a very specific feature to websites that use the WooCommerce platform. In a nutshell, it simply adds an option to password protect a product category within your store so that only specific people can see it. For example, people might do this in order to create a members-only shopping club, a WooCommerce wholesale store, or to sell customer-specific products.
Think about what you already know, and how you can use that insight to create a successful product. You might be surprised at what you come up with!.
Since the product was built on the WordPress and WooCommerce platforms, we wanted it to integrate seamlessly with them. As WordPress web designers, we had seen many plugins that got this wrong and looked tacky and ‘bolted on’. We wanted to work with WordPress and WooCommerce rather than against them, so we designed our plugin settings pages in the same style as the rest of the WordPress admin. We felt that this would add credibility to the product.
To sell the product, we installed the free Easy Digital Downloads plugin on our existing company website. We had previously used it on websites for our clients and knew that it was a simple and effective way to start selling digital products online.
Fortunately, our startup costs were very low because Andy was the sole developer of the product, and I handled the marketing myself. We liked this model because while the potential rewards might be smaller, we had never been interested in starting the sort of business that required high investment and high risk. It fit with our comfort zone, while actively working towards the kind of lifestyle we were looking for.
Describe the process of launching the business.
After talking about launching a software product for years without doing anything about it, we were incredibly happy when the first product finally went live. We felt that even if we never got any sales, we had achieved something!
Since it was a very niche product that offered a unique solution to a problem, it was relatively easy to market. I already had SEO knowledge from my work on our clients’ websites, and simply started adding keyword-rich content about the product to our website. For example, I wrote tutorials about how to create password-protected categories in WooCommerce. This was a problem that people were actively researching solutions for, and our website ranked for the right keywords very quickly. We were amazed to start getting sales within the first few days!
Now the product is a few years old, a lot of copycat products have been launched and we have to work hard to keep our search engine position. However, at that time, we were the only company offering this solution which made a big difference.
Don’t worry if your first idea doesn’t work - it is still an important opportunity for you to learn and make sure your next idea is successful.
Of course, this method of launching a product is only suitable for very niche solutions with low competition. My advice to other startups would be to research your market carefully and think about the level of publicity that is necessary for that particular product. Most product launches will need other measures such as Pay Per Click, recommendations from high-profile influencers, and social media advertising.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Content marketing has always been our most effective sales strategy. We try to rank for as many keywords relating to our products as possible. As a result, most of our sales come from Google organic and our blog. For example, our tutorial “How to Create a WordPress Document Library” works incredibly well because it is so in-depth and provides keyword-rich content that is useful to potential customers as well as being attractive to search engines.
We also run profitable campaigns on Facebook Ads and Google AdWords, which bring in more sales than they cost us.
Recently, we have hired a video producer and are creating more YouTube videos about our products. This helps to bring in a different audience. For example, our video ‘Create a WooCommerce Online Food Ordering Website’ has over 120,000 views and teaches restaurants how to use one of our plugins to take food orders online. This was particularly helpful to people during the Covid-19 lockdown because restaurants all over the world were forced to shut their doors and switch to taking takeout orders online.
In the past, we haven’t been great at encouraging repeat sales and bringing customers back. We are now working hard to develop software products that will appeal to users of our existing products, and use various methods to cross-promote our plugins. For example, we display subtle ads for our other products on our plugin settings pages; and we send our customers discounts for buying additional plugins. We are also experimenting with plugin bundles and an All-Access Pass to all our software. The goal of all these measures is to increase the average purchase price of each customer.
Like most WordPress plugin companies these days, we sell our plugins with annual subscriptions. This means that customers pay for the software every year, with automatic annual renewals. This makes a huge difference to our revenue and profitability while ensuring that we can afford to continue supporting our customers long-term. About 40% of our revenue now comes from renewals, and this figure continues to increase all the time.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Everything is going brilliantly, so my goal for the future is to continue learning from what works, and to do more of the same!
Until a couple of months ago, all the software development work was done by Andy and a small team of freelancers with whom we worked regularly. We have recently hired two full-time developers for the first time, which is helping to increase capacity. This means that we will be able to continue improving our processes so that we can support a larger suite of products without increasing our overheads, and to release more and more plugins.
In addition to our development team, the Barn2 team currently consists of Andy and myself as Directors, four full-time support engineers, a personal assistant, and other freelancers who carry out specific tasks such as marketing, copywriting, SEO, design, and video production. Despite being 100% distributed, the team is very close-knit and keeps in touch throughout the day on Slack.
In terms of profitability, our costs are covered by the revenue from annual renewals. This makes the company’s finances feel very stable because we could continue running even if we saw a sudden drop in new sales.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Through starting the business, I have learned that the most important thing is to get out there and make it happen. I spent years fruitlessly talking about starting a product business, without doing anything about it. When I finally got round to it, I didn’t have a ‘killer idea’ and focussed on what I already knew. Simply getting a product to market was the important thing.
Once you have got a product to market, you have a chance of getting sales. At a minimum, you will receive feedback and can learn about what people want. This is an opportunity to get more insight into what types of products will sell, and how to market them. If you don’t do anything then this will never happen!
I am happy with my decision to grow the business in a small and manageable way. I have built a successful company without taking any huge financial risks, so it is possible. For example, we are 100% bootstrapped and I grew my team gradually and in a way that we could afford. I handled plugin support myself until we could easily afford to hire someone, and then grew the support team gradually in line with the amount of work available. Similarly, I started by hiring freelance software developers and only started hiring in-house staff when the company was very stable and well-established.
I was lucky to already be working in an industry where it was possible to launch products relatively quickly and easily. Online software is a fantastic market to be in because you don’t have to worry about manufacturing or distribution, other than installing an e-commerce plugin that can handle digital products on your website. It was easy for us to scale globally because all WordPress plugin companies are global, and people can buy from our website wherever they are in the world. While we have to deal with EU VAT (and we even built an EU VAT software product to help people with that!), we don’t have to worry about overseas shipping or customs. This allows us to reach a huge market without any major logistical challenges.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My favorite tools for running the business are:
- WordPress (of course!) - As well as building WordPress products, we use WordPress to power all our websites. This makes our company website incredibly flexible and easy to edit. I make changes to our website every day, including optimizing text, running A/B tests to increase conversion rates, adding blog posts and tutorials, updating the plugin documentation, and so on. I couldn’t do this without WordPress.
- Trello - I’m not a fan of complex project management tools where you spend more time feeding the system than doing the actual work. Trello is excellent because it is so simple. It has all the features that you need to manage your team members’ work and wider projects but is very quick and easy to use.
- Slack - As the owner of a 100% distributed company, Slack is essential for team communication. It’s easy to use and we have various channels relating to different parts of the company - for example, Support, Website, Plugins, Testimonials (for sharing good news from happy customers), and so on. My favorite channel is called ‘Daily Goals’ - each day, everyone lists the things that they hope to achieve that day and then updates it at the end of the day. As well as encouraging everyone to work in a planned and productive way, this is a really good way to know what everyone is working on when we’re not physically in the same office.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I was inspired by The 4 Hour Work Week which I read many years ago. Although I don’t particularly like Tim Ferris’ attitude to his customers and have a different attitude from him, I found it inspiring to read about the possibility of running a company without having to spend all your time on it.
While I haven’t achieved a 4-hour workweek for myself, that is my choice and I could easily do this if I wanted. I have a fabulous team that is perfectly capable of running the company for long periods without me, and I continue working every day because I enjoy it and want to see how far I can build the company.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My advice for other entrepreneurs who are just starting is to think about what you already know, and how you can use that insight to create a successful product. You might be surprised at what you come up with!
Build on your strengths and think about the sort of business that you would be good at running. For example, Andy and I are both introverts and will never be natural salespeople or networkers. While we have built a network and now know a lot of people in the WordPress community, this doesn’t come naturally to us and takes time. As a result, we built a business that could be successful despite our limitations. For example, we sell products online via our website which we market in impersonal ways, instead of needing to focus on direct sales. This keeps the business within our comfort zone, without compromising on its success.
The most important thing to remember is that you will never be successful if you sit around doing nothing. You must work hard and make it happen.
Don’t worry if your first idea doesn’t work - it is still an important opportunity for you to learn and make sure your next idea is successful. Everything we do in life can open other doors and possibilities, so we need to make things happen and keep our eyes open to new opportunities.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I am always interested in hearing from very experienced WordPress developers who have experience in bringing their plugins to market, and can always create a role for the right person. This could be full or part-time.
Long-term, I would also like to hire a Marketing and Business Development Manager who can take control over our future growth and allow me to take a step back from this area. Again, this could be full or part-time because if I found the right person then I could build a position around their skills and interests.
There is more information here.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Barn2 Plugins has provided an update on their business!
About 1 month ago, we followed up with Barn2 Plugins to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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