I had the pleasure of interviewing Danny Van Kooten, author of the MailChimp for WordPress plugin.
With over 900,000 active installs, and almost 8 million downloads, it’s one of the most popular plugins of all time.
Danny has built a very successful business selling a premium version of his free plugin, and I wanted to know what his experience has been like with the freemium model. Danny’s spoken English is not as good as he’d like it to be, so we conducted the interview by email.
Before we dive in, I’d like to give some context. It’s easy to read interviews like this and think it’s easy to build a plugin and have great success. Remember that MC4WP is an outlier, one of those products that does really well without a lot of marketing effort. We love to hear stories about unicorns, but it is very difficult to replicate this today.
Danny built this plugin in 2012, while WordPress plugins and MailChimp were both starting to have incredible growth. His timing was perfect, and he executed better than other products on the market. He mentions in the interview he still thinks there is room for success with WordPress plugins, and I agree. However, I think it’s much more difficult today.
In the interview, Danny gives some great tips on what has helped them succeed with a fremium model. Some key takeaways for me are: collect emails, add well-placed upgrade links, and provide great support. Danny was not dissuaded because there was an existing plugin that was already popular. Other plugins have been successful going up against a big competitor, including Ninja Forms, although it comes with a lot of challenges.
Here are the questions I sent Danny with his answers below.
With almost 1 million active installs, MailChimp for WordPress is one of the most popular free plugins on WordPress.org. What is the most challenging part of having such a popular free plugin?
If anything, I’d say it’s easier to have a popular plugin as you reach an incredible amount of people and a fair amount of them are willing to contribute back for your work. Sure, pushing out a plugin update can be daunting at first but you get used to that very quickly.
Since MailChimp for WordPress has a clear revenue model through its paid add-on, I don’t think we face some of the challenges that other free plugins are facing. I wouldn’t want to have such a popular free plugin if it wasn’t also sustaining us in some way.
What is one of the most important or surprising lessons you’ve learned building your business around WordPress?
It’s to build your own audience early on instead of relying on WordPress too much. Plugin authors on WordPress have little means to reach out to the sites using their plugin. We’ve been building our email list early on as we really wanted a way to reach out & build a relationship with our users. The day we added a simple sign-up form to our free plugin our list started growing with hundreds of emails a day.
MC4WP offers a premium version with extra features such as enhanced forms, reports, and eCommerce integration. When did you introduce the premium version, and how has it been received?
Sometime in 2012, I was traveling throughout Asia while building WordPress sites for some of my clients back in Europe to sustain myself. It was during this time that I open-sourced the first version of the free plugin. A few months later I was hospitalized in Vietnam because of acute appendicitis, which forced me to spend a few weeks in a hospital bed with nothing but a laptop and free wi-fi.
I had the idea of developing a paid add-on plugin for months by then, but never got around to actually doing it. This time, I went for it. A few weeks later I had a paid plugin ready and set-up a simple shop using Easy Digital Downloads.
After including an “upgrade to premium” link in the free plugin and pushing out an update that night, I went to catch up on some much needed sleep, not expecting any sales this soon.
The next morning I woke up to a handful of sales and couldn’t believe my eyes! I remember opening up my calculator app to see what my project monthly revenue would be. At this rate, I could spend all my time on the plugin without having to worry about sustaining myself through other work.
Eagerly, I reached out to my first few customers to ask if I could help them in any way. My first customer even donated an additional $50 because he was so happy with the service I provided. He’s still a paying customer today, 5 license renewals later.
Overall, the first few months were crazy (good). We pretty much doubled in revenue month over month and I had trouble keeping up with everything. I kept waking up in the middle of the night to answer new support queries because I wanted the best possible experience for everyone. Luckily, I settled on a healthier schedule later on but man… what a ride.
What is the #1 reason people purchase premium? A certain feature, support, or something else?
In the case of MailChimp for WordPress it’s almost definitely a certain feature, as we provide support to everyone, free users included. We do take care of our paying customers first, but sometimes we go the extra mile for our free users where they feel they ought to purchase a Premium license just to pay us for our efforts.
What percentage of your time do you spend on the free vs premium product, including both support and development?
We have no real statistics on this but the majority of our time is definitely spent on support. We’re a team of 3 people and 2 of us are working support full-time. That leaves me with time to spend on all the other stuff that needs to be taken care of, but I still work on support for at least an hour every day too.
Since our premium product is an add-on for the free plugin and there is a lot of overlap, it’s hard to come up with a percentage for actual time spent between the two. Sorry.
What is the most important thing you do to get users to purchase premium? (Make the free product better, interact on the .org forums, the upgrade link on the settings page, etc.?)
For us it has definitely been a combination of all of these things.
One month we’ll focus on getting more people to install the free plugin. The next we’ll focus on converting more of our users into paying customers.
One practical example that worked very well of us is the use of just-in-time reminders of certain Premium features. In the free product, we’ll advertise a premium feature in a relevant spot so that people are made aware of that feature when they might actually need it.
“Hey, want to create pretty styles for this form without writing a single line of CSS? Our Premium add-on does just that!”
If you started over from scratch, would you do anything different? (Such as go premium only)
Hah, yes, I would hire much sooner.
After those first few (crazy growth) months I was spending more than 5 hours each day on support and just trying to keep up with everything. That burned me out quickly and I started to dread the work more, getting less done.
I did not realise my mistake until after getting help and watching my motivation & energy levels return. In hindsight, I lost at least a year of real progress because I didn’t ask for help any sooner.
What is the next big move for Ibericode?
My girlfriend and I are expecting our first child in November, so that’s by far the biggest thing going on in my life right now.
With ibericode, we spent a huge part of 2016 and 2017 upgrading our plugins to the latest MailChimp API while maintaining backwards compatibility. We also moved away from EDD to a custom shop platform we built ourselves, finally introducing subscriptions instead of manual license renewals.
Right now, we’re enjoying a few relatively easy weeks of maintaining and improving our existing products before getting started on something new entirely, which we hope to announce in 2018. More on that later though…
What is something I missed that you feel is important to share?
The plugin repository hosts over 51.000 plugins right now, so it may be easy to think that every problem is solved. I think there’s still a lot of opportunity in simply improving one of the existing plugins though.
The official MailChimp plugin had about one hundred thousand active installations when we released ours back in 2012. Within a few years, we surpassed that number simply by taking better care of our users & listening to their actual needs. Up to this day, most of our growth has been organic.