Is a WordPress Plugin a Startup?

petersuhmThis post was contributed by guest author Peter Suhm. Peter is a web developer from the Land of the Danes. He is the creator of WP Pusher and a huge travel addict, bringing his work along with him as he goes.
 


About two months ago, I released my first commercial WordPress product, WP Pusher, a plugin that makes deploying themes and plugins really easy. WP Pusher was not meant to be “just a plugin”. It was supposed to be a SaaS product, and throughout it all, when I was building it, I always thought of it as a startup I was creating.

For “just a WordPress plugin”, I think it has been quite successful so far, and to a large extent, I believe that to be a result of my own perception of the whole thing. I think it was more successful because, even after I realized it was just going to be a plugin, I still treated it as a startup.

What Is a Startup?

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In the fall of 2014, I was traveling around Southeast Asia, enjoying the digital nomad lifestyle, while making WP Pusher. I spent quite a bit of time in Chiang Mai, the capital of digital nomads, and everyone was talking about a guy named Pieter Levels, who did all kinds of cool things, all related to digital nomadism. One of these things was to take up the challenge of building a new startup every month for 12 months.

Hearing people talk about Pieter’s startup quest got me thinking about the term “startup”. Honestly, when I first heard about it, I did not think of the 12 startups as real startups – which Pieter obviously did. To me, creating a portfolio of 12 startups in such a short time seemed a bit silly. In my head, a real startup required more dedication and commitment than that.

In the meantime, some of Pieter’s startups have been really successful and the whole process has been really inspiring to follow. I now understand that my idea of a startup was missing some pieces. All of the 12 projects that Pieter created qualified as startups. Some of them were more successful than others, but he validated 12 ideas in a short time and the result is really impressive. And one thing, which is very important, is that Pieter treated all of the 12 projects as startups instead of just another side project (which is how many developers talk about their projects). Calling something a side project is an easy way of protecting yourself against your fear of failure.

If you ask Steve Blank about his definition of a startup, he will tell you that “a startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model”. If we break that up, “an organization” can mean anything. It can be you alone or it can be a team. “Repeatable” and “scalable” are two sides of the same coin.

Building a WordPress plugin and calling it a day is not enough. That is not a startup. Honestly, to me, “repeatable“ is the main factor. I am in it for the freedom – not the empire building. I want a business to be repeatable in the sense that I can teach someone else how to run it for me – hence, freedom. It does not have to be scalable in order to put food on my table or allow me to travel around the world – it just has to be profitable.

WordPress offers a giant market full of small niches and potential customers. There is no reason why something you are building for WordPress could not be as huge as any other software startup. The market share of the WordPress platform is large enough.

In relation to the Steve Blank quote, what could you do to make your WordPress plugin a startup instead of a side project? First of all, you need to think about the “organization”. Most likely, you are the programmer or the engineer behind your product. But do you know how to design a shiny, high-converting landing page? Do you have any clue about how to approach marketing or customer relations? What about the legal and financial aspects? Maybe you do. If you do not, you need to either be willing to learn or team up with someone who does. At the very minimum, you need to at least consider it.

How can you build a business around a WordPress plugin that is more “repeatable” and “scalable”? Well, you could do most of the things that other startups do. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • Could you charge more or offer more expensive options?
  • Could you turn your plugin into a SaaS or find something that you could charge for on a recurring basis?
  • Could you sell additional add-ons or extensions for your plugin?
  • Could you offer a service in addition to your plugin?
  • Given you solve some kind of pain for your customers, could you copy your idea to other niches or customer segments?
  • Could you come up with ways to attract more customers on a recurring basis? (SEO, content marketing, advertising etc.)
  • Could you have someone else help you find new customers? (copywriters, affiliate partners etc.)

You get it.

Solving Your Own Problems vs. Solving Other People’s Problems

A very important point I want to make relates to the business idea of your WordPress plugin. In a market like WordPress, programmers tend to be tempted to find solutions to their own problems – not necessarily other people’s problems. Finding a solution for a problem you have yourself is a good place to start and great for motivation, domain knowledge and so on, but it is not enough.

If you want it to be a business, you need to make sure that other people have the same problem and are willing to pay for it. Startups are not made to solve their own problems. The original business idea behind the startup might have been to solve a problem the founder had, but if the only customer in the startup is going to be the founder alone, it is not a very good business model. You need to figure out how you can make your product relevant to more people – not everyone of course, but more people than yourself.

As an example, WP Pusher solves a problem I had with clients. There were already solutions to this problem – both free and paid. Most of them required either Git installed or that I granted them access to my clients’ servers. Given I am actually in control of, or at least have an influence over, most of the server environments of my clients, I could in theory have used one of these existing solutions.

However, I knew that was not the case for a lot of WordPress developers. I saw the possibility of solving my own problem as well as solving a problem I knew a lot of other developers had. Reading about Pieter’s 12 startups inspires me to build more products for WordPress. Solve more problems. Build more startups.

Say It Out Loud

When I thought WP Pusher was going to be a SaaS business, I thought of it as a startup. When I decided to change the business model and rebuild it all as a single plugin, it felt weird calling it a business – or even a startup. For a short time I think I phrased it as “just a project for WordPress”, when telling people about it.

Personally, I still like to think of it as a startup. I kept the landing page I built for the SaaS and I kept the blog I set up. I kept everything that I initially made when it was a “startup” I was working on. Today, I have made a conscious decision that it is in fact a startup – no matter how big or small it is.

WP Pusher has many characteristics of a startup. It solves a very obvious pain point that is easy to communicate. It has a simple business model in a very large market. And finally, it has a logo and it has a nice landing page. That is a startup right there.

What are you missing before you can confidently call your WordPress plugin a startup?

12 Comments


  1. Great article! There’s been a lot of discussion in the community recently about the general expectation that everything in WordPress will be free or cheap, from theme and plugin pricing to developer rates. The sheepish “Am I really a business?” feeling seems closely related.

    In my opinion the more we’re able to stick our chest out and say, “I built this, it solves a pain point for a large audience, and it costs money: It’s a business” (or a startup), the more we can shake off the sheepish/cheapish attitude and aura that get in the way of our work as WordPress professionals.

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    1. The main issue is the over-inflated egos of many members of the WordPress community who think their first plugin/theme/etc…will be $1,000 and think HE/SHE/IT will dictate what the price is. If no one buys things from you then your price is useless.

      Please note that my comment is not directed at anyone specific.

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    2. Very true. The fact that it is WordPress is not the most important point. Sell it as a solution to a pain point, not a “plugin for WordPress”.

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  2. Building a repeatable and scalable business model around a plugin is very possible. As with any start-up that hopes to see it past three birthdays, a strong initial ( almost manic ) focus on a building a good MVP to share for validation by users is a great starting point, something that’s very possible with plugins.
    I agree with Jeff, thinking like a business (and by extension owning the “We are a business” label ) is critical. I disagree slightly with Miroslav – the issue might not be egos; it just might be that, like all start-ups (even outside WordPress), finding a good pricing model is a very sticky issue.

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    1. Kakoma,

      If you overprice a plugin/theme, I can go somewhere else…whatever functionality your p/t has, I can get the same from other p/t.

      Just like there is Akismet for spam fighting, there is AntiSpam Bee and others. The average person is not going to pay $30 a month for support, or even $100 a year.

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      1. The average person uses shared hosting.
        The average person thinks “just a few clicks” will get anything done.
        The average person complaints the loudest when free software doesn’t work like they want it to.
        The average person takes most of the support time.
        The average person doesn’t have a clue about the value of a particular solution.
        The average person doesn’t care how awesome the code is.
        The average person doesn’t care about WordPress or GPL.

        The average person is not who you want to target, in any business.

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      2. No truer words said. You not only hit it on the head, you crushed the wall :-)

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  3. Thank you for this article. I believe that many WordPress business already consider themselves as startups or at least use tools and best practices of the startup world (like MVP). What I like in your article is that you set a focus on the fact that plugins and themes mechanisms were found to be a very good soil for startups. WordPress has democratized publishing and we may say it has helped doing the same thing for many people regarding startups. This is why WordPress startups can be side projects (in their form) even they have to be startups in their goals and practices (and you’re right to highlight that).

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  4. I usually get goose bumps once I hear “startup”. The term has gotten so trendy now that students and lazy people spending too much time online define themselves as “startup owners” or “in the startup R&D phase of the next big thing”. While there are plenty of incredible startups out there, the lack of too formal definition allows everyone to label themselves as a startup founder once they decide to do something.

    It actually reminds me of the early years of blogging when lots of university students I knew were “Founder/Owner at {myblog.com}”, since that was their huge accomplishment. Or novelists who spend years getting inspiration for their second best-seller.

    Another part of the startup definition (according to Wikipedia) is:

    “The latter implements a well-known existing business strategy whereas a start-up explores an unknown or innovative business model in order to disrupt existing markets, as in the case of Amazon, Uber or Google. ”

    While this is also vague to some extent, it’s more structured compared to “a company, a partnership or temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model”. My definition of startup is a person or a small team focused on growing fast and accomplishing great results in a shorter amount of time. The most important part though is that a startup has a unique selling proposition – a key thing that is truly innovative and groundbreaking, and could affect a large group of people or businesses in one way or another.

    Creating yet another design or web development agency is not a startup if you offer the most generic services in the world.

    That said, a plugin development process is not a startup per se. It’s just building a plugin. On the other hand, if the plugin is truly innovative and has serious impact on a given niche, the founder/team focus on growth hacking, reaching out to the masses, partnering with other teams and integrating various services etc., it is a potential startup that could get traction and gain a massive user base.

    That’s at least my point of view.

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    1. Exactly. Building a plugin != building a startup. But treating the process of building the plugin like you would have treated building a startup can make things take off for you!

      I agree with you on most of this. However, I get goose bumps when I hear “growth hacking”! ;-)

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      1. That too, but at least it’s a profession that has certain requirements :) Other than that all of the new trendy terms get picked up fast by people with no experience, or ones who just try to oversell themselves.

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  5. If someone can create good value for the end user and he/she can capture a portion of that value. It’s all that matters. Create value, capture a portion of it.

    Doesn’t matter if its WordPress or SpaceX.

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