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.

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