2019 year in review
Wow, what a year! It has been our best year in terms of plugin sales. We’ve had some fantastic achievements and taken the company in exciting new directions.
We have worked to build a fantastic team, rebrand and launch our new website, and release 4 new plugins. We’ve successfully managed a 75% increase in customer support, and achieved record sales and revenue levels.
As Co-Founder at Barn2, this is my first annual review. I always read other WordPress companies’ transparency reports with interest. 2019 feels like the perfect time to start sharing our own highs and lows with the wider community.
Before we start, here’s a quick summary of our 2019 by the numbers.
2019 in numbers
- 4,032 new plugin sales (compared to 3,666 in 2018)
- 2,288 plugin renewals (compared to 1,066 in 2018)
- 49% renewal rate after Year 1; of which 50% renew after Year 2
- 821 refunds – refund rate 12.9% (compared to 13.5% in 2018)
- 4 new plugins and 33 plugin updates released
- 117 knowledge base articles and 91 blog posts/tutorials published
- 5,298 support tickets, from customers in 111 countries
- $21,857 paid to our 272 affiliates (sign up here!)
We also reached some incredible lifetime milestones this year. Our total plugin sales passed the 1 million dollar mark, and we now have over 10,000 customers.
Barn2 reached some incredible milestones in 2019. Total lifetime plugin sales passed the 1 million dollar mark, and they now have over 10,000 customers.
Note: These figures just include plugin sales. There are also other elements of the business such as commission from other WordPress theme and plugin companies that we recommend; ongoing income from clients whose websites we designed before we switched to selling plugins; and a couple of other side projects. However, Barn2 is first and foremost a plugin company.
We built a fantastic team
One of the biggest changes of 2019 has been the growth of the Barn2 team.
While we had a ‘virtual team’ pre-2016 when we were a web design company, until recently Andy and I had largely run the plugin business by ourselves. Before 2019, we had involved other people to a limited extent, such as hiring freelancers to work on the Barn2 website (with mixed results), working with a marketing company and copywriters, and hiring a WordPress plugin support company to assist customers part-time.
While the support was useful for basic queries such as account enquiries and refunds, the original company didn’t have a good understanding of our plugins. As a result, I continued handling all the product-specific support – i.e. most of it!
We built a successful plugin business while doing most of the work ourselves, but we needed a proper team in order to grow it even further.
Analyzing our roles
This year, Andy and I spent some time making a record of all our roles within the company. It was shocking to see it written down. Clearly, we were spending too much time on low level tasks, at the expense of strategic planning and business development.
Having a list of our current responsibilities made it easy to rationalise our positions and consider which tasks could be done by someone else. We made a lot of changes, such as expanding the role of the support team to include other forms of support (i.e. wordpresss.org forums, YouTube and blog comments); and hiring a Personal Assistant to take care of general tasks and finance. We will continue this process in 2020.
A change of attitude
All of this has completely changed in 2019 and we have transformed Barn2 by recruiting a fabulous team. While we’ve kept the team ‘virtual’ and still don’t have any employees, the Barn2 team now has the equivalent of about 6 full-time members.
There’s nothing better than getting back from lunch, checking Slack and discovering that the team has worked together to fix a problem in my absence!
It has been incredibly satisfying to see our new team members’ commitment to Barn2. Before 2019, we didn’t have an established enough team to benefit from a live chat system such as Slack. Now, it’s an indispensable part of company communication and I can’t imagine life without it! There’s nothing better than getting back from lunch, checking Slack and discovering that our team members have worked together to fix a problem in Andy’s and my absence!
I’ll talk more about our new colleagues when I cover the different elements of the business in more detail.
We rebranded and launched a new website
Having put off rebranding and redesigning our website for years, we finally took the plunge in 2019. While we’re happy with the results, we knew we wouldn’t enjoy the project. It turned out to be just as frustrating as we’d feared.
For a deep dive, check out my post on the Story Behind Barn2’s Rebrand and New Website. Otherwise, just check out these before-and-after screenshots:
And even better than having a professional new website is that we’ve found a fantastic developer, who we’re now working with on an ongoing retainer.
It’s lovely to have someone taking care of the Barn2 website. We no longer get dragged into fixing problems with the site, and can focus more on other things.
We launched 4 new WordPress plugins
Before 2019 we released new plugins quite slowly. We launched 4 plugins in 2016, 1 in 2017, and none in 2018. This is partly because our original plugins were so successful that we made a strategic decision to focus our energies on continuing to develop them, instead of developing new plugins that may or may not be successful. It was also because as sole developer, it was more realistic for Andy to manage a smaller portfolio of plugins.
However, by the start of 2019, all of our plugins were mature and stable. We had capacity to start releasing additional plugins. We also started working with other developers to increase capacity even further.
WooCommerce Quick View Pro
In early 2019, we launched WooCommerce Quick View Pro. A huge number of our WooCommerce Product Table customers had requested quick view buttons for their product tables. We decided to release this feature as a standalone plugin because quick view is useful for stores with or without product tables, bringing it to a wider audience.
WooCommerce Default Quantity and WooCommerce Lead Time
To continue growing the business, we knew we needed to start working with other developers.
After struggling to find good developers during our web design days, it felt like an impossible challenge. Barn2’s plugins have a reputation for being robustly coded, technically sound and well tested. We didn’t want to risk compromising this.
Despite our fears, in 2019, we made huge steps towards overcoming increasing our development capacity. While Andy still handles the vast majority of plugin development, we have successfully experimented with other developers and achieved excellent results which we will continue building on in 2020.
To minimize the risk, we started by carefully hand-picking some of Codeable‘s most experienced plugin developers. We thoroughly vetted them and made sure they had the skills we were looking for. We asked them to build two relatively straightforward WooCommerce plugins: WooCommerce Lead Time and WooCommerce Default Quantity.
These were excellent plugins to start with because they both added specific features that were missing from WooCommerce itself, without being too complex. We provided a detailed specification describing exactly how each plugin should work, and were delighted with the results. Both plugins were launched in September 2019.
Building Easy Digital Downloads EU VAT
We weren’t planning to build any more plugins in 2019. However, in September the new SCA rules for credit card payments came into force. Easy Digital Downloads (which we use to sell our plugins) released new versions of their Stripe and Recurring Payments extensions. These unfortunately broke the customized solution that we were using to make our website compatible with European VAT rules. Major redevelopment work was required in order to meet both SCA and EU VAT law.
We researched the available Easy Digital Downloads EU VAT plugins, and discovered that they were all terrible (sorry, there’s no nice way of putting it!). As a result, we ended up building our own. Since it was clearly a gap in the market, we decided to do the extra work to make it the best EU VAT plugin on the market so that other EDD sites can benefit too.
Our Easy Digital Downloads EU VAT WordPress plugin was released in November 2019. Building it was an interesting experience because for the first time, it was a collaborative project between Andy and another developer. It was nice to see our version control system working, and the whole process went surprisingly smoothly.
We improved our existing plugins
While it’s exciting to release new plugins, our earlier plugins remained the lifeline of the business throughout 2019.
We’ve always been in the happy position that all our early plugins have been successful, and continued selling long beyond the original honeymoon period. Our 5 existing plugins – WooCommerce Product Table in particular – accounted for 95% of new sales revenue in 2019. This, combined with high renewal rates from our loyal customers, made it very important to continue improving and maintaining these plugins.
In 2019 we improved our existing plugins as follows:
- Released 33 plugin updates, adding new features and ensuring compatibility with new versions of WordPress and WooCommerce. For example, WooCommerce Product Table has a new feature allowing you to display products previously purchased by the current user. This was at the top of our feature request list, giving us firm evidence that it was worth building.
- Tested our plugins with other third party plugins, and published compatibility lists to help our customers.
- Worked with other plugin companies wishing to integrate our plugins with theirs.
- Continued improving the documentation in response to customer feedback and search analytics – publishing FAQ’s, clarifying areas of confusion, and adding code snippets for popular customizations.
- Surveyed how people use each of our plugins and published tutorials about popular use cases.
- Introduced an automated email series for each plugin, designed to help customers get the most out of their plugin on an ongoing basis.
In 2020, we plan to improve our codebase and plugin libraries to centralize common code and make it easier for other developers to add new features to our existing plugins. This will help to speed up the development of new features, allowing us to continue adding value to our fabulously loyal customer base.
Customer support grew by 75%
In March 2019, our original support company ceased trading. I was frustrated at the time wasted in training the support engineers, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Following a recommendation from James Kemp from IconicWP, we switched to LevelUp, a specialist WordPress theme and plugin support company.
Managed from the UK, LevelUp’s support team are in the Philippines. I was sceptical at first, and vetted the proposed support engineers carefully to check their English fluency, customer support skills and WordPress knowledge. After rejecting a couple, I found EJ who I immediately realised that I would be proud to have supporting our customers. He has been working full-time on Barn2’s support ever since!
EJ hit the ground running and I was amazed by his positive attitude, dedication and ability to learn all the complexities and intricacies of our plugins. Before working with him, I was convinced that no one apart from myself would ever be able to provide that level of advanced product support. Now he has been with us 10 months, he rarely has any queries and handles almost everything by himself.
More recently, we have been joined by Jae from LevelUp – initially part-time, and now full-time. She is also excellent and is quickly learning about our plugins and taking on more complex support queries.
Reducing my own support workload
At the start of 2019, I personally spent 22 hours/month on plugin support and handled 73% of all tickets. This doesn’t include blog and YouTube comments, both of which LevelUp are now responsible for too.
At the end of 2019, I spent 8 hours per month on support and handled 34% of all tickets. That’s a HUGE reduction, especially when you consider that during 2019, the volume of support has increased from about 400 to 700 tickets per month.
Without LevelUp, I would now be spending nearly 40 hours per month on support. Of course, this wouldn’t be appropriate for a company director. I like providing some customer support because I love our customers. It helps me maintain a good understanding of how they use our plugins and which improvements they would benefit from. It’s my choice to do some support each day, and I could reduce this further if I wanted.
However, I’m pleased that I now have the correct balance. I still have an oversight of support, and regularly read through LevelUp’s tickets to provide feedback and ensure customers are happy. The average response time is 3.75 hours, and we offer guaranteed timescales for customers on our Business and Agency plugin licenses. We’ve even started offering live chat for pre-sales enquiries, which wasn’t possible when it was just me.
WordCamps and community
The WordPress industry is what you make of it. It’s incredibly remote, with a big proportion of plugin company owners working independently and rarely coming into contact with their team members or fellow WordPress professionals. As a result, it’s easy to become isolated – but this doesn’t have to be the case.
I’ve tried to be part of the global WordPress community ever since we started selling plugins in 2016. As well as sharing my experiences on high profile blogs such as WPTavern and IndieHackers, I’ve continued publishing guest posts and tutorials to help people learn more about WordPress. In September, I was proud to be interviewed for the BobWP podcast.
It’s not always easy to attend WordCamps because Andy and I run the business as a husband and wife team and have an 8-year-old daughter. In 2019, we managed to attend both WordCamp London and WordCamp Europe in Berlin. We met some amazing people. For the first time, I planned a lot of meetups beforehand, allowing me to network in a more targeted way. It was lovely to finally meet so many people face-to-face who I already knew from email, Facebook etc. This includes fellow WordPress business owners and developers who we had worked with.
More remotely, in October I joined a WP Business Mastermind group. This consists of people around the world who own similarly sized plugin businesses. We have online ‘meetings’ every 2 weeks and chat on Slack constantly. It’s been really useful, and we’ve all implemented lots of each other’s ideas to help build each other’s businesses.
What’s in store for 2020?
- Continue working with other developers who meet our quality standards in order to speed up the pace of development. This will improve our capacity to build new plugins and continue improving our existing plugins.
- Find ways to scale up and improve efficiency. For example, we would like to find a suitable tool to automate testing of our website and plugins. If you have any recommendations, please leave a comment below! We will also make some structural changes to our plugin codebase to make it easier for multiple developers to contribute.
- Launch our new licensing system, plus free trials. We’ve been overhauling our plugin licensing system for a while now, overcoming the limitations of the Easy Digital Downloads Software Licensing extension. One benefit is that we’ll be able to offer free trials – something that a lot of customers have asked for. In the past, we couldn’t do this because we had no way of revoking access for people who cancelled after the free trial. I’m excited that this will go live in early 2020.
- Look for new ways to build the business, such as packaging and licensing our plugins alongside other WordPress products instead of just selling directly to the public.
- Improve user experience on the Barn2 website. We have already started using Google Optimize to improve conversions and will continue this. In 2020, we plan to use tools such as heat mapping to analyze user behavior and make ongoing improvements.
- Become more involved in the WordPress community. I look forward to meeting people at WordCamp London and WCEU 2020 in Porto. If possible, I’d love to attend WordCamp US too. I will also continue building links with other WordPress product companies – feel free to get in touch!
2019 has been a fantastic year at Barn2. I’ve seen real changes in the structure and nature of our company. We now have a proper team, thousands of loyal customers, and a network of fellow WordPress plugin company owners to learn from.
I’d like to thank our amazing customers, the Barn2 team, and everyone in the WordPress community for making 2019 a year to remember.
As a result of the changes we have made in 2019, I feel that we’re ending the year poised for future growth. I look forward to an exciting 2020!