Our First “Exit”: Selling WP Conference Schedule
Last week we announced on the Equalize Digital blog that we sold one of our WordPress plugins, WP Conference Schedule, to another company, The Events Calendar.
One of my favorite podcasters, Matt Medeiros, asked me to record a segment for The WP Minute about the sale and what it means for our company. I started writing my script and realized about 40 minutes in that the details I want to share around the business decision to sell would take up way more time than makes sense on The WP Minute. So, here I am, actually updating my blog and you can thank Matt for this blog post.
This post tells the story of how WP Conference Schedule came to be and why we ultimately ended up selling it before even launching the paid version of the plugin. If you’re interested in what the sales process was like, watch The WP Minute for that segment, coming soon.
The Story Behind WP Conference Schedule
In 2017, while at WordCamp Denver, I heard a speaker talking about their product business and making money while they slept – without having to deliver work. To my agency owner’s ears, that sounded like magic, and I decided right then and there that we needed to have a product of some sort.
Around that time, several of our largest clients were in the conference industry and one of their biggest pain points was having a good way to display the schedule for their events. We worked with those clients to iterate on initial versions of a plugin to solve that problem, which we called WP Conference Schedule. We released the free version of WP Conference Schedule on WordPress.org along with a very basic website in 2019, promoting a pro version “coming soon.”
We were lucky enough to have had client requests pay for the development of both the free and (what was intended to become) our first premium plugin, WP Conference Schedule Pro.
When 2020 hit and everything went into lockdown, many of our conference clients went on hiatus while trying to decide how or if to move forward with virtual events. As a result, we put WP Conference Schedule on the backburner and shifted gears to focus on another plugin idea I had. It just didn’t seem smart to try and launch a paid events calendar plugin right when all the events were being canceled and all our conference clients were dramatically dialing back (or ending) their marketing spend.
Accessibility Checker disrupts the narrative.
With WP Conference Schedule on hold, we shifted our attention to building Accessibility Checker.
Accessibility Checker is a passion project central to our organization’s mission. It’s a plugin that I’ve long felt is needed in the WordPress ecosystem, and when COVID presented us with the opportunity to build it, I was excited to be doing something that felt meaningful and like it had infinitely more potential than some of our previous focuses.
That plugin – both free and a paid version – were released in December of 2020, and since then, most of our attention (outside of the work that we do for clients) has been focused on Accessibility Checker marketing and development.
Accessibility Checker also motivated us to participate in a business accelerator last year, and we spent a lot of time refining our business model as a result of that accelerator. We changed our entity structure, our lead developer, Steve, came on as an equal partner, and we started exploring the possibility of bringing in investors to further accelerate product development.
Rethinking WP Conference Schedule
Since becoming available on WordPress.org, WP Conference Schedule organically grew to over 200 active installs, despite not being marketed or promoted. In the past year, as in-person events resumed, the plugin began seeing an uptick in installations and support requests – including inquiries into when the paid version would be available.
An install base of 200 sites isn’t especially big, but considering we didn’t do anything to attract users, that growth told us that we were onto something. At the end of 2021, when we set company goals for this year, we originally planned to finish the development of WP Conference Schedule Pro in March 2022 and begin selling it. We thought having a second commercial plugin would be a nice additional revenue stream to balance out revenue from clients.
This idea was good in theory, but when March rolled around, and we had time available to work on an internal initiative rather than client work, we realized that it just didn’t make sense to focus on WP Conference Schedule when we have a plugin that people are already paying for and that needed dev and marketing attention.
Open support and feature requests on Accessibility Checker couldn’t be ignored, so Steve focused on that plugin rather than putting time into making WP Conference Schedule sellable.
Work Still Needed to Make it Sellable
Selling a plugin isn’t as simple as just coding a plugin. In order to start selling WP Conference Schedule Pro to people other than the client for whom it was initially built, we needed to:
- clean up a few lingering tasks to improve the code base.
- set up a system to handle license keys and updates,
- edit the website to have new demo examples for all the new features,
- write documentation for all of the new functionality added in Pro,
- build a sales landing page, and
- edit the free plugin to reflect that pro is now available for purchase.
That would be the bare minimum to make WP Conference Schedule Pro sellable. We mapped out all of these tasks and thought it would take Steve and me a minimum of 60 hours (or about a week of dedicated work for the two of us) to complete them so we could start making sales.
But we all know, in the land of business, it’s not “If you build it, they will come.”
Doing the Math
Our free plugin has 288 active sites. We were planning to sell a single site license for $79.
Accessibility Checker currently has a conversion from free to paid users of approximately 15%.
If WP Conference Schedule had that same conversion rate and 15% of our free users converted immediately to paid when the pro plugin was released, we would have had around 40 buyers paying $3160.
However, it is likely that many of the active sites are for events that are in the past and our initial conversion rate would be much lower.
This means we would be taking a risk of investing 60 hours of our time into something that might only have an immediate return that was one-third what we would get if we charged a client for those same hours.
We would need to market the plugin to go beyond that and break even on our time or begin profiting on it. We would need to invest even more time (or money) into content creation, search engine optimization, building backlinks, community engagement, promoting the plugin on podcasts, and paying for ads.
No, it’s not “If you build it, they will come,” it’s “If you market it correctly, they will come.” (And “If the product is actually good, they will stick around.”)
Also, let’s not forget that marketing a product and converting someone into a customer is not the end of our time investment. Launching a product is only the beginning of an entrepreneur’s journey. With paying customers come support and new feature requests, obligations to maintain and improve the product over time – more work that only begins to pay off when you reach a critical mass of customers.
Being Realistic About Resources
We’re a boutique team. Chris handles operations and sales. Steve does all of our development with help from a part-time contract dev. I, with our content specialist, Paola, handle all of our marketing and content creation, as well as oversee client deliverables. Support floats between Steve and me with other team members occasionally jumping in when (or if) they are able.
All of our salaries are paid by client work which means that clients are number one when it comes to our time and attention.
Number two is Accessibility Checker. It’s a product we’ve been pouring ourselves into for two years and a product that we believe has immense potential, but it doesn’t yet fully pay the bills, so it doesn’t always get first priority on our to-do lists.
In March, when we finally had some dev time that was not booked for client work, it didn’t take long to realize that putting time into WP Conference Schedule was a waste of time. Trying to launch another product when we already have one that could use more attention than it’s currently getting would further divide our team’s time – not just in the moment but into the future as well.
Realizing this, we readjusted our priorities for March and put WP Conference Schedule on the back burner again.
Staying Mission Focused
I am constantly thinking about our company goals and the progress we’re making towards them, and Chris, Steve, and I have regular check-ins each month where we talk about immediate needs and longer-term strategy. As March drew to a close and the first quarter ended, I spent a lot of time reflecting on WP Conference Schedule and where it fits into our company, and at our April owner’s meeting, I told Chris and Steve that I thought we should sell it.
WP Conference Schedule Pro was nearly finished. It was tempting to finish it, but since this wasn’t our first paid plugin, I wasn’t under any delusions that it would be profitable in the first year if we finished it. Knowing that, I started to ask myself questions like:
- Does WP Conference Schedule meaningly contribute to our company’s mission, which is focused on accessibility? (No.)
- Will finishing WP Conference Schedule help us achieve our goals? (Possibly financial goals, but it’s also equally likely that it would take away from meeting other goals.)
- Does WP Conference Schedule complement our other offerings? (No.)
- If we have limited dev time available and I had to choose between our team working on Accessibility Checker or WP Conference Schedule, which would I rather they work on? (Accessibility Checker.)
- If we brought in an investor or were suddenly wildly successful and had a very large dev team, would I have them work on WP Conference Schedule then? (No, I’d rather put all of that into Accessibility Checker or another complimentary accessibility-related software.)
I realized more and more that WP Conference Schedule didn’t fit into our business plan or mission with every question I asked myself.
It doesn’t fit into our company goals or the resources we have available on our team right now, and for the foreseeable future, any work that we might put into it would just be taking energy and focus away from other areas where we should be focusing.
To put it simply, WP Conference Schedule was a distraction. Adding WP Conference Schedule Pro to our plates would only stretch our internal resources thinner without bringing us closer to achieving our goals or living up to our mission.
To Sell Or Not To Sell
When I first suggested selling the plugin to Chris and Steve, one question they asked was, “Why don’t we just sit on it and let it be?”
Why not keep the free plugin on WordPress.org but do nothing with it? Why not keep it and then release it later? You may be wondering this also and, in fact, several prospective buyers we talked to asked the same thing.
Two key factors played into our decision to sell:
- We were getting support and customization requests at least weekly. Responding to these requests took up our time and choosing not to respond to them would likely doom the plugin as people would stop using it or write negative reviews.
- Even free plugins need updates. We were using Freemius for tracking opt-ins, and around that time, a security vulnerability was discovered in Freemius that required us to release a patch. We might need to update our block if the block editor changes in WordPress core. As more people use it on different themes and with different plugins, code modifications might need to be made to support compatibility with those themes or plugins. At a minimum, we would need to bump the “tested up to” number. These are all examples of ongoing maintenance that would be needed.
With a plugin like this, it was never going to be possible to let it just sit on WordPress.org and not think about it. We have other plugins that we can do that with, but that won’t work for a conference schedule plugin; having it there was always going to require headspace – especially for me because I have a hard time ignoring requests for help.
Thus, if I didn’t want the distraction of managing the plugin, we either needed to get someone else to take it over, or we needed to remove it from WordPress.org completely.
I wasn’t necessarily opposed to removing it from the plugin repository and just maintaining it for our clients, but I did feel some nagging sense of guilt that choosing to remove it from WordPress.org might cause issues for all the anonymous users we didn’t know about.
And, of course, there’s the other major benefit of selling it: cash in our pocket, which we could put toward further development or marketing of Accessibility Checker.
Ultimately, we weighed all of the possible support or maintenance needs and the fact that it doesn’t fit into our business goals against the product’s future potential, and the future potential didn’t outweigh the rest of it.
So we decided to sell.
As I’ve devoured podcasts and content from business owners and have had the opportunity to pick the brains of successful people both in and out of our space, I’ve learned that success comes through laser focus in a defined niche, not “doing it all.” It’s better to be amazing at one thing than to do lots of things not very well. What do they say? Jack of all trades, master of none.
In my journey from freelancer to small agency owner to becoming the creator of a software product, it took me way longer to figure that out than I might like to admit. I still have moments when I feel myself being pulled into a “neat” or “fun” side project, but these days it’s a lot easier for me to stop myself and assess how that side project fits into my overall goals (whether business or life). Time is precious, and if something doesn’t bring you closer to your goals, it’s not worth doing.
Bonus points if you can get paid to stop doing it. 😉
More Details on the Sale
If you’re interested in more of the logistics of how the sale happened and what it means for my company, Equalize Digital, stay tuned for that information going out on The WP Minute.
I’ll come back here and update this post when that is available. I’m also happy to answer questions in the comments.