How it all started
The first version of the WP Activity Log plugin was released on the 24th May 2013. Like many other businesses it all started because of a need – when I used to do security audits of WordPress websites I noticed that the majority of admins took care of hardening (like installing a security or firewall plugin) but very few thought of auditing; keeping a WordPress activity log (record) of everything that is happening on WordPress. A WordPress activity log is a must have for better management and control of a website, and also for forensics. Trying to troubleshoot a problem or find out what happened without a log is just guess work.
Going Premium and Selling the Add-Ons
Little did I know back then that within a few years the plugin would be installed on tens of thousands of WordPress website, and that in 2015 we would be selling premium add-ons.
I started selling the plugin through the plugin’s website using a Easy Digital Downloads (EDD), a self-hosted e-commerce solution. In the beginning all worked well, but I quickly realized that if I wanted to grow I needed to invest much more time and resources on the e-commerce solution. And so I did, but by 2017, things were getting a bit out of hand: I had more than 1,000 paying customers and a lot of problems with managing the e-commerce solution, as I’ll explain in this article.
Introduction to Freemius
Vova, Freemius’ CEO and co-founder, got in touch with me in 2015. We got on a phone call, during which both me and Vova learnt a lot on each others’ businesses and views. We kept in touch and Vova never pushed Freemius on me, we just became genuinely interested in each others’ projects. In January 2018 we switched to Freemius – here are the reasons why we did the switch.
Why we switched from EDD to Freemius?
Please note that this is not a sponsored article and we are not endorsed by Freemius. This is an account of our experience with selling the plugin via different e-commerce solution.
- Taxes, bookkeeping & accounts
- Adding Functionality & Scaling Up the e-Commerce Solution
- Managing the e-Commerce Solution and the Website
- E-Commerce Solution Support & Add-Ons
- Customer Experience (Checkout and Upgrading to Premium)
- Extra Value from Freemius
Taxes, Bookkeeping & Accounts
Self-hosted e-Commerce (EDD)
It took me quite a while to figure taxes out. To get started I had to buy, setup and test several additional third party add-ons to automate the tax and VAT calculations for the checkout process.
And even though I automated the process I couldn’t sell to EU based customers without VAT numbers because the process of doing so was very complex. In most cases I ended up giving them the plugin for free (lost sales!).
Once I started selling the plugin I still had to deal with a handful of payment and tax related problems on a monthly basis – sometimes the solution charged VAT when it shouldn’t have, sometimes it didn’t charge when it should have etc. In some cases users were being asked for a VAT number when they were not from the EU, so they couldn’t complete the purchase. For every case I had to deal with refunds and find out what was happening, which means opening a support ticket and do a lot troubleshooting.
Bookkeeping was also becoming a time consuming process. By 2017 the plugin was averaging 70 sales per month. EDD had an integration with Xero accounting system, though I still had to manually amend every imported invoice because things such as the invoice numbers were not getting imported correctly, because they were being set by a plugin developed by a third party approved vendor.
Freemius handles everything for me, including the VAT!
Adding Functionality & Scaling Up the e-Commerce Solution
Self-hosted e-Commerce (EDD)
There is no one-stop e-commerce solution for plugin developers. For example with Easy Digital Downloads you download the basic e-commerce solution and then buy individual add-ons to add functionality. The issue here is not the cost involved, but the effort required to learn about every individual add-on, configuring it, running some tests and then launching it.
So by 2017 I was running add-ons for:
- Plugin software licensing
- Affiliate network
- Auto calculation of VAT
- Support for VAT MOSS / EU VAT Directive
- Generate Invoices
- Export PDF Invoices
- Recurring Payments (auto renewals)
- MailChimp Integration
- Stripe Payment Gateway Support
- Xero Integration
- Sales Recovery (to handle shopping cart abandonment)
I invested a lot of hours to get all these add-ons working together, and once ready all works like “clockwork”, but if there is one problem with one of them it might affect the whole solution because they all depend on each other. And sometimes support issues can take days to solve especially if you are dealing with a third party vendor.
Freemius includes all of the above and much more out of the box. For example it has some default email drip campaigns and shopping cart abandonment emails so you do not have to configure them manually or even think about them:
Also, whenever they launch a new feature there are no additional charges or configuration required, and you know it is well supported. You can refer to this WordPress e-commerce feature comparison sheet for more information on what features Freemius has when compared to other solutions.
Managing the e-Commerce Solution and the Website
Self-hosted e-Commerce (EDD)
With a self-hosted e-Commerce solution such as Easy Digital Downloads the plugin website became part of the e-commerce solution. I needed a plugin customer portal, affiliates portal and setup auto-renewals. I had to set them up and for all of this to work the customers and affiliates had to be users on the website.
On top of that, I also had the licensing mechanism. So whenever someone activated a license key, whenever there was a check for updates or an update was downloaded, those were all handled by my website.
So by 2017 I had a monster of a WordPress website with thousands of users that required a lot of bandwidth. So the overheads of running the website, both in terms of costs and other resources became a big overhead.
With Freemius the plugin website and the e-commerce / licensing / renewals / customer management solutions are two different things. Today the plugin’s website is a very simple WordPress installation with some pages and posts. The rest is hosted and handled by Freemius.
E-Commerce Solution Support & Add-Ons
Self-hosted e-Commerce (EDD)
When you have a growing customer base you are bound to encounter problems, and that is ok. Below are just a few of the problems that I encountered on a monthly basis when running Easy Digital Downloads as my e-commerce solution:
- Payment issues (mentioned in the above section),
- Licensing key issues (e.g. user cannot activate license, gets an error during activation etc),
- Software issues (e.g. user not getting notified of updates or failing to retrieve updates or getting an error when trying to retrieve the update).
These types of issues were the biggest pain point I had. The customer is frustrated, and you are left alone dealing with the problem. Whenever I contacted support I was given directions on what I need to troubleshoot, or pointed to a FAQ and that was it, unless it was an obvious bug. Sometimes I had to act as a proxy between the customer and EDD or the third-party developer.
So I’ve had a lot of back and forth with support, and with a fast growing user base I didn’t have the time (and energy) to deal with them, especially when you consider some issues can take days to solve.
Whenever there is a checkout / payment / licensing issue I report it to Freemius and they look into it, troubleshoot it and issue a fix. If need be they get in touch directly with the customer and get it sorted within a few days.
Customer Experience (Checkout and Upgrading to Premium)
Self-hosted e-Commerce (EDD)
The checkout and upgrading process with the self-hosted e-commerce solution were not bad, but they were not frictionless experiences either. In fact, I had more customer support related to purchasing the plugin and upgrades rather than with the plugin itself.
The checkout forms were too long, especially for EU based users, and the users had to go through quite a few steps to complete the purchase: select the product, proceed to checkout, fill in the contact details or login and then proceed to payment details.
The upgrade process was the simplest it can be for experienced users. Once the users purchase the premium add-ons they download the add-ons, install them and activate the licenses keys.
Freemius has a superior customer experience. Users can purchase the plugin from the plugin’s website and also from their WordPress Admin dashboard, and the checkout process is just a single step, as seen in the below screenshot.
Once the purchase is complete the premium edition of the plugin is automatically downloaded, installed and activated if the purchase is done via the WordPress admin pages. There are several advantages to allow in-plugin purchases, one of them is more sales!
Extra Value from Freemius
I think by now one can easily conclude that Freemius has all the bells and whistles one needs to start running a complete sales and marketing operation for a WordPress plugin business, in just a few minutes. I do not think there is any other solution at the moment that provides this.
By the end of 2017 I had a lot of pressing problems with the Easy Digital Downloads setup, and it required a lot of managing, so I needed to do something. It is almost a call between hiring someone solely to handle such issues, and continue building a “custom solution” or switching to Freemius. I also wanted to switch the plugin’s model from individual premium add-ons to a free VS premium plugin. So this was the perfect opportunity to do one final comparison test: support responsiveness. To me, this is where Freemius really excels.
A helping hand from Freemius
When I contacted Easy Digital Downloads to tell them about my plan to switch the plugin business model, their response just had a few lines with pointers to what other add-ons I should buy, and with recommendations such as:
But it could be done with some custom code development. We have a list of approved consultants if you’d like to hire someone to build that functionality for you.
This was a make or break decision for the plugin business so I needed a bit more than a few recommendations. I was already pressed for time and resources because of the existing problems, so I needed a helping hand. I contacted Vova to pick his brains on this. We had a phone call, and after a few days Vova devised a detailed plan of how we can migrate to Freemius and the plugin business model simultaneously, even though they did not support my setup at the time.
Freemius modified their migration solution, did the majority of the work and testing, and then we migrated. During the migration Freemius were hands-on involved in both the switching to Freemius and also switching the business model processes. They also helped the customers who had problems with the migration directly.
A Very Flexible & Adaptive Solution
The WP Activity Log plugin setup, customer base and requirements are a bit different from those of the “typical” plugin developer Freemius deals with. Though they did not close the door on me. Vova and the team listened to all my requirements (and still do), sometimes we discuss issues at length, and where need be they are more than happy to adapt the service (and their SDK) so the WP Activity Log plugin can fit in and work properly with Freemius.
A business Partner
What I really like about Freemius is that they are more than just another vendor you have no option to deal with – they are a business partner. Vova and the team have got decades of experience in this business and have been of great help to me. They have not just helped me with the migration, and with setting up a checkout solution for my plugin.
They are business partners: I had countless brainstorming chats with Vova on how I should implement a specific feature, or change the website. Since Freemius’ business model is based on revenue-share, they always keep looking for ways to help us increase the business’ bottom line. For example Vova himself gives me feedback on the website and on the product, without me asking for it. That to me is priceless!
The End Result – More Revenue
We are developing the WP Activity Log plugin because we like what we do, and are passionate about the subject. As a matter of fact WP Activity Log plugin is by far the most complete WordPress activity log solution with the most comprehensive activity log and broadest coverage. Money is only a by-product of what we do, but it is also necessary because the more revenue we have, the more resources we have to invest in product research and development, and the more stable the business is. So naturally, the more revenue the better.
The WP Activity Log plugin sales have been growing year by year, though since we’ve started using Freemius we’ve experienced a more aggressive growth. The optimized checkout process, automated email follow-ups and the in-plugin purchasing functionality definitely helped us sell more. I also have more free time now so I can focus more on the plugin!