Lessons learned from running a freemium WordPress plugin business


Last week our free WordPress plugin Ultimate Member passed the 20,00 active install mark, so I thought I’d share some of the things we have learnt and the challenges we have faced since we launched the plugin 10 months ago.

Plugin Support

Prior to launching Ultimate Member we made the decision that we would provide support to all users of the plugin, regardless of whether they were a free user or a paying customer. We made this decision to increase our conversion rate and reduce the likelihood of receiving 1 star reviews for lack of support which are so often seen in the plugin repo.

Whilst we believe this has been the right decision for us and helped us to quickly grow our revenue to over $20,000 a month it is not without its challenges.

For example, with a conversion rate of around 8.5% for Ultimate Member this means over 90% of the users of our plugin have not paid for any of our extensions. Assuming every active install of the plugin is a different user that means we are providing support to a free user base of over 18,000 people.

That’s a huge number of people to provide support for and the amount of time we spend on support would be greatly reduced were we to only provide support to paying customers.

The question of whether to provide support has also been covered here.

Forum vs Email Ticketing 

When we launched the plugin we decided to provide support via a forum using bbPress. Our thought process for using a forum was users would help other users out and people could find the answers to questions already answered so they would not need to create new topics. This would help to reduce the support burden and allow us to spend more time developing the plugin.

Unfortunately that was not the case and as our user base grew and the amount of topics being created each month increased it became harder and harder to provide support via the forum. Whilst we did have a few users who would be active on the forums and help other users out, the vast majority of the tickets were answered by us.

So for us the benefit of users helping on the forum was massively outweighed by the negatives that came with managing support via a forum. The main pain points for us were: multiple topics would be created for already answered topics; users posting issues on topics not related to their issue and not being able to track or assign topics.

We decided a couple of months ago to switch to an email ticketing system using HelpScout. Our decision to close the support forum and move to HelpScout whilst not universally popular with all of our users, has been the right decision.

It is now much easier for us to manage support as we can track open tickets, assign tickets to the right person and deliver better one-to-one support.

So if you are about to launch a new plugin/theme and are not sure on which method to use for support, I highly recommend opting for a dedicated helpdesk solution such as HelpScout over a forum based approach.

High Growth 

Ultimate Member has grown from 0 to 20,000 active installs in the 10 months since we launched the plugin. Whilst we are extremely happy that Ultimate Member has been so popular and is a now a viable full-time business with decent revenue, experiencing high growth is not without its challenges.

The main challenge we have experienced is the sheer quantity of support tickets created by users of the plugin. For example last month alone, we dealt with over 800 tickets not including the near 200 topics created on the WP forum over the last two months.

The increase in demand for support has been very difficult to manage between the two of us over the last few months which is why we made the decision recently to expand the team and bring someone in to help with support.


Hiring Staff  

The single biggest mistake we have made since we launched the plugin is not hiring soon enough. By not hiring someone sooner it has negatively effected the business in several ways:

  1. Support response/resolution times have been slower
  2. Taken time away from other important parts of the business e.g marketing, documentation writing
  3. Decreased productivity due to burnout
  4. Slowed down development of plugin & extensions
  5. Resulted in a drop in revenue

So in addition to effecting our revenue it has also resulted in users becoming worried about the long-term future of the plugin when they see development slow, no new blog posts and slower response times to support.

Whilst we did not hire soon enough, after witnessing the impacts on our business of being over-stretched we focused on growing the team and bringing someone in to help get us back on track for the future.

If you run a WordPress plugin/theme business I would recommend hiring someone to help with support as soon as your revenue levels allow for it. It will result in a better product, happier customers and a greater work-life balance for yourself.

Freemius has a useful guide on hiring support staff which you can read here.

Moving forward  

The last few months have been very demanding but we are hopeful the changes we have made in moving support to HelpScout and hiring staff will enable us to take Ultimate Member to the next level which will see more improvements to the core plugin/existing extensions, faster development of new extensions and improved support.

The will hopefully allow us to increase the user base of the plugin, grow revenue and expand the team further to ensure a proper work-life balance and happy customers.

Calum Allison

Founder of Ultimate Member - a free online community & user profile plugin for WordPress.


  1. Jeff Hester on 7th December 2015 at 7:05 pm

    Great post, Calum. I like the transparency, and look forward to seeing what the future brings for UM.

  2. Amir Emami on 8th December 2015 at 7:01 am

    One of the best wordpress plugins. Ofcourse, best in users profile management.

  3. michele Verley on 8th December 2015 at 3:11 pm

    Thanks for the update, Calum! I think you guys do a fantastic job with support via the ticketing system. In fact, that was the deciding factor for me when making the time and financial investment in your plugin and its extensions. Let’s face it, $200 is MORE than affordable for in comparison to having to hire a developer for the features that you offer. I’m thrilled to hear that by hiring a dedicated support person you’ll be able to focus on developing more extensions for Ultimate Member, blogging, documentation, etc. Good luck to you and your team!

  4. Yose Mirza on 8th December 2015 at 5:46 pm

    Congratulations for the growth!

    I am looking forward to seeing a speedy development, bug fixing and enhancement of UM. For the past 3 months I have been playing with UM. The advanced social activity extension is all I need!


  5. Alex Com on 8th December 2015 at 6:51 pm

    I feel your pain Calum. I’m going through the same thing at the moment. Keep up the good work and i’m happy that you expanded your team to reduce your workload. Sometime lowering our revenues for a moment to invest in staff I think is a wise choice in the long run. Long life to UM!

  6. Laurent Rozenfeld on 9th December 2015 at 2:02 pm

    Thanks for sharing all this and being transparent.

    I’ve become very fond of ultimate member and now use it on almost all my projects even if I don’t require extensive membership/social network. The way it handles login, menus and user profiles is that good that I don’t imagine not using it.

    It’s great to see the plugin’s growth and I know by experience that starting a new business is not a simple process. I wish you guys good luck and hope to see many new extensions very soon (starting with paid membership 🙂 )

  7. Julien E on 9th December 2015 at 4:23 pm

    Hi UM and Callum,

    GREAT post thanks, and it sheds light on some questions I had (why the ticket support, why are there still just 2 of you despite the growth, etc.).

    So how many people were hired?

    And congrats on the growth, and on your business savvy outlook.


    • Calum Allison on 11th December 2015 at 12:48 am

      We’ve hired 2 people recently. So we are now a team of 4.

  8. Kris Haamer on 9th December 2015 at 6:13 pm

    The problem with email-based support is that no public repository is created of the tickets. Often the problem has been solved for someone else already and I can find out via forum search. Now if I have a problem, can only ask support directly. In any case, good luck with your startup and hope to see the growth continue. As you rightly point out, blogging is a great way to keep users feeling safe about future.

  9. Grant Nelson on 19th December 2015 at 2:05 pm

    Love how open you guys are about your process, it’s very refreshing and I’d like to think that will be rewarded by a dedicated, supportive customer base. You’ve created a brilliant thing here, max props out to the entire UM team 🙂

  10. bang honey on 22nd December 2015 at 6:24 am

    I cheer for you! Also next year I’m your customer.
    Thank you so much! everybody happy new year! 🙂

  11. Ramesh P on 24th December 2015 at 7:14 am

    One of the best WP plugin I found in this planet is (y)our UltimateMember.

    Currently I am designing a spiritual website http://GodnMe.in/blg ( I am not a professional web designer).

    The requirement here is, there will be members registering in the site. (through DEFAULT Register, DEFAULT Login & DEFAULT Profile pages).

    I also like to USE UltimateMember for TEMPLE database TOO. Because I like to have single database and nice FRONT END PROFILE DISPLAY of UltimateMember for TEMPLE too.

    1) New requirement here is JUST…. there will be members registering their TEMPLES through “TEMPLE Register Page”…. by doing so UltimateMember should direct them to “TEMPLE Profile Page”. Similarly when those TEMPLE members are logging n through “TEMPLE Login Page”…. UltimateMember should take them to “TEMPLE Profile Page”.

    2) If the above is successful, UltimateMember can be used also for “BUSINESS DIRECTORY” in future by everybody.

    3) Is it possible for single person with ONE login to add many temple profiles?

  12. Aguilar Angelo on 9th January 2016 at 4:08 am

    Awosome plugin Callum. I thing and always have said that your plugin most have a paid vertion. You have a plugin that people can use for business. I thing its dificult to manage a plugin with a lot of features like yours and also to keep it fast. I thing will be greate also if you guys would have or develop a theme that runs fast with the plugin. Ofcourse for some price.. Any way. Your Job is amazing

  13. Scot MacDonald on 16th January 2016 at 2:09 pm

    Keep up the great work guys. Best plugin available to anyone building WordPress communities. I would gladly pay for a premium version with priority support and all extensions included.


    • Ultimate Member on 16th January 2016 at 6:10 pm

      Thanks Scot! Your words mean a lot to us.

  14. ejaejp on 17th January 2016 at 9:00 am

    “this means over 90% of the users of our plugin have not paid for any of our extensions” – why do you think this is?

    “Whilst we did have a few users who would be active on the forums and help other users out, the vast majority of the tickets were answered by us” I don’t think you gave the community enough time to develop into a community of helpers. Your plugin is new and takes time for your documentation etc to build up to a level that can help others that in turn can help more. A longer term view would see good results in having communal help.

    The hidden nature of your support has given way to a level of frustration and skepticism from some of your users. There’s no way for your users to see what the main issues are, if they have the same problem or if UM are appropriately dealing with issues from other members… being so hidden doesn’t instill confidence. To this day there is no public list of issues of the priority of those issues. All the users get is “We’ll discuss it as a team”. Only to find the issue frustratingly lost in the void. In my experience UM has a lot of work to do in managing this part of it’s business model and may account for the low conversion-uptake rate of paid extensions.

    The high number of support questions is amazing for a 5 star plugin. It’s obvious the documentation is very limited and needs a lot more attention over time.

    “By not hiring someone sooner it has negatively effected the business in several ways” – lack of user confidence and increase user frustration needs mentioning. aka “users becoming worried “

    • Ken Metheny on 29th February 2016 at 3:25 pm

      I disagree that the documentation is limited. What it could do is expand on the more technical points. Some aspects of UM are really needed by the mainstream, but the documentation assumes advanced development knowledge. Those making the leap from basic user to development-savvy face a large hurdle.
      I think reviewing the forum responses and tickets can give a good indication of where the documentation can go farther. But the documentation was clean, well-organized, and covered a lot of territory! Given the UM cost structure, it’s hard to complain about the documentation. It is, however, in UM’s best interest to note frequent issues and concerns and make certain the documentation covers those clearly.

  15. ejaejp on 17th January 2016 at 9:02 am

    My priority would be to implement an open and transparent issue/bug list with priorities. Show the users our frustrations and issues are being heard, documented, assessed and valued by making this plugin a user focused one.

    • Ultimate Member on 17th January 2016 at 5:41 pm

      Hi there,

      Your notes are most appreciated. Please see our changelog we’re always fixing bugs as we receive them in order and priority, if you feel there’s a “major” bug in UM core that is not fixed yet, please submit a support ticket and our staff will be most happy to assist you “Without we’ll discus it as a team” statement 🙂

  16. Ken Metheny on 29th February 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Having been in business in a support role, I can appreciate the difficulties! As a user, I tried to give something back when I opened a ticket. I did catch a bona fide problem, and provided a full copy of the website with the problem in place for your support to trial while fixing the problem. I also tried rebuilding the registration form from scratch and reported my findings. The problem was with a “not possible for security reasons” popping up on my old form, and when I created the remade version there was no issue. I presented both the old and new to UM support.
    I think those on the free side owe an “above and beyond” approach, and I’d encourage others to do similarly. The problem was completely fixed, even for the old form, in a subsequent UM update.

  17. Robert Zamida on 2nd April 2016 at 10:28 pm

    Thanks for the info, value the honesty

    I paid for all plugins assuming I would have been priority over free users. Definitely end support for anything free, that’s a waste of time. If they aren’t willing to pay, they don’t deserve service. Period.

    Only reason I didn’t pay for a support package is because I felt like it was completely pointless given the level of support offered.

  18. Desmond Hunter on 28th May 2016 at 8:50 pm

    Hi sorry if this is not the correct place to ask this question but am not so sure where to… as such , can someone help me please, the thing is i installed the Ultimate Member plugin and its seems to have installed successfully however, i am not getting it to work with my existing member/user account after installing plugin is there some forma of configuration needed except what was done by default when upon installing ?

  19. botcra on 29th January 2017 at 9:26 pm

    Excellent stuff – and thanks for relaying your insights and mistakes – helps us all!

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