Should we be selling support instead of products?

When you sell products, you do a lot of customer support.
It takes up a lot of time, and some would say product companies are really selling support, not the product. Is support for sale, or is it the product?
If support is really what we are selling, should we tell the customer that?
There is an important distinction to be made here. What we think we are selling, and what the customer actually wants to buy.

What you’re selling vs. what they are buying

Even if you are selling support, the customer doesn’t want to buy support. The customer wants to buy a shiny new product that makes them look and feel like a rockstar, and they assume they will get any help they need after purchasing.
This is important because if you want a successful business you have to sell what people want to buy. You can’t sell them what they don’t know they need, or else you won’t be in business for long.
In the case of products, you sell them a shiny new product and you give them awesome support along with it. If you give them the product free and then ask them to pay you a premium for support, your sales will suffer.

Free Premium Products

Recently a developer name Tom McFarlin announced that he will be moving towards selling support. He has started by open-sourcing his premium theme Mayer, which previously cost $79.
Here’s a quote from his post.

Personally, I think that if you’re in the business of WordPress products (versus services), you’re in the support business whether you intend to be or not. Everything that you release – regardless of where the transaction actually happens – is going to yield support from some of the customers, so in order to gain access to said support, the transaction just moves back one step from after accessing the source code rather than before accessing the source code.

Is this a good move?
I’m a fan of Tom’s and I support his reasoning for this decision. I actually think he may be successful doing this, but I don’t think anyone should follow his lead.
I agree we are largely in the support business, but it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean we should start making people buy support instead of products. Like I said before, nobody wants to buy support.
This isn’t the first time someone has sold support and given away free products, Justin Tadlock has been doing this for years with Theme Hybrid. His themes are free, and he charges $25/year for access to his theme club, which is essentially a support forum. Justin is an incredible developer, and his products are worth way more than $25/year.
He was around when people like StudioPress and WooThemes were just getting started, and they have built multi-million dollar empires, while he has not. They sold shiny products, not support.
Please note I am not criticizing Justin, or saying he needs to make millions, I don’t think he wants to do that. I am saying that between selling support vs. selling products, there is a clear monetary winner.
A comment left on the recent article at WP Tavern about this same issue reveals the same conclusion:

I tried a similar model long ago with a theme site I had before, and found it works to a certain point but not as well as I had hoped. Long story short, I went out of business. If one tries this, I would recommend they have a good savings account at the bank….or at least have a well known name such as Justin Tadlock or even Tom McFarlin.

Well known developers may be able to make this work, but I don’t think anyone else will.

What about WordPress support businesses?

Yes, businesses like WP Site Care and Maintainn are selling support, which seems to be a contradiction. They are both doing very well, and all they sell is support.
This is different because they aren’t writing and maintaining code. Product businesses have code debt, that takes time to build and maintain, while support businesses don’t.

What’s best for business isn’t always right

In Justin’s case, and I think in Tom’s case as well, they probably don’t care that selling support is not the best for their bottom line. They both strike me as very passionate about open-source, and they are more interested in helping people than making money.
Tom left a short reply to me in his blog comments explaining his position further:

There are a number of things happening with the WordPress theme economy that I’m not particularly thrilled with (which I digress for now :), and so taking the time to explore a couple of different models is something I’m interested in doing if for no other reason than to say “Yes, this works,” or even “Nope, that was a bad move.”

I applaud Tom for taking a leap with this model, and I actually hope he proves me wrong by succeeding with it.






9 responses to “Should we be selling support instead of products?”

  1. Ryan Sullivan Avatar

    I have oh so many thoughts on this 🙂
    It seems kind of like semantics to me. You and Tom are both right. People are paying for an experience. They have to be drawn in by your product before they’re going to give you a dime, and if getting help installing, debugging, customizing, extending said product requires that they pay you then they’re going to do that too.
    You can’t really have one without the other. They have to coexist. And while giving away themes or plugins or whatever might work, it doesn’t seem like an advantageous model for someone trying to grow a business. If I were even going to explore that model, I’d do it on a platform that at least gave me a whole lot of distribution possibility like, not on github.
    AffiliateWP is free on github, but they also have an entire extension model built around it to upsell extensions. That extension model doesn’t really exist with themes (that I know of). I’m guessing their extension sales would increase even more if they released it on (I’m sure they’ve considered it and haven’t pulled the trigger for various reasons. They know their business better than I do. Just outside speculation).
    So it all depends on your product, how you plan to distribute, and how you plan to maximize your revenue potential. Support is a necessary evil regardless of how you go about things, and whether or not you choose to charge for it is a business decision.
    El Fin.

    1. Scott Avatar

      The question to me is not whether or not we are charging for support, but what we are telling the customer. It may seem like a small thing, but a small difference in your business model can mean life or death for a small biz. I would wager that a business that gives away free code and offers support for $XX would make less than 50% of the revenue of a more standard model.
      WP Site Care is something totally different to me, I’m really just talking about product businesses here.

      1. Ryan Sullivan Avatar

        Yep, I don’t disagree with any of that so I probably wasn’t clear with my first comment.
        I’m a big advocate for charging for the product and the support separately. All I was saying is that if I ever did explore a “freemium” model with a WP plugin or theme, it’d be somewhere that I could get mass distribution, like

  2. Brian Avatar

    Hi Scott,
    This is a very interesting piece, from the title I thought you was going to say we should all be selling support. You are that model works for some business but not for all. You made an important distinction between a strictly service business like wpcurve and of developers providing support but also having to maintain codes.

    1. Scott Avatar

      Hey Brian, ya I believe that’s a really important distinction, a small change like that can mean life or death for a small biz.

  3. Peter Cralen Avatar
    Peter Cralen

    Interesting model is what The Theme Foundry did with Make. Powerful free theme and paid plugin which extend functionality that theme. However in my view the theme is too powerful for that model agains plugin which is just “cosmetics”. It would be better to do it opposite.
    Ryan you mentioned good point, personally (as buyer) I like to pay extra for “premium” support, if its for “premium” theme/plugin. I think this model has potential to grow with win-win result.

    1. Scott Avatar

      Hey Peter, that’s a good point, I’m curious how they’ve done with Make versus their other themes. I know it’s a really popular theme, but does it sell better as a free theme + paid plugin?

      1. Melissa Avatar

        Hi! First of all, it’s not really fair to say that Make Plus is just cosmetic upgrades to Make. We have a comprehensive features list up now if you want to compare the two… And I’ll also say that we do offer support for our free Make theme on as well.
        As far as whether we are selling support or not, the support/community aspect of our themes are so intrinsically tied to them — and customers who interact with us seem to *get* that. We’re a small shop and want to give our customers the best experience possible. To offer the products without support or to only offer support at a premium would seem out of alignment with the kind of business we are. We’re pretty proud of our catalog and want to help people make awesome sites with our stuff, and ultimately I think that’s what we’re offering.

  4. Peter Cralen Avatar

    Just notice, that if somebody would like to know what great support is, check how FormidablePro do it on their support forum. They do much more than just support, they are helping with any kind of questions far behind regular support.
    I think this kind of support many users need and I hope many are able to pay for “premium” support …
    If I purchase some product and need some help with it, I don’t feel to search and choose one from hundreds of developers who know something about php or WordPress. I prefer to pay directly to developer of this product (or someone specialized to this product), bc. he knows that the best, so his help is accurate and well pointed.
    So I look forward for this business model and how it will grows.