How To Run A Highly Successfully WordPress Plugin Company Remotely As Semi Digital Nomads
Katie Keith Joint Founder of Barn 2 a Leading WordPress Plugin Shop
‘m Katie Keith – Director and Co-Founder at Barn2 Plugins. I started the company back in 2010 with my husband Andy, and we now have a team of about 12 people and sell WordPress and WooCommerce plugins to website owners and agencies in over 140 counties worldwide. Our bestselling plugins are WooCommerce Product Table (https://barn2.com/wordpress- plugins/woocommerce-product-table) and Document Library Pro (https://barn2.com/wordpress- plugins/document-library-pro).
I’m from the UK and am currently living on the sunny island of Mallorca for a year, enjoying the flexibility of running a WordPress company that I can operate from anywhere in the world.
I have a 10-year-old daughter called Sophia and enjoy hiking, yoga, and eating out
Main Questions of this Interview
#1 – Katie can you give the WP-Tonic tribe your’s and Barn 2 background history?
#2 – I’m right in saying that you and your husband are digital nomads and if yes how has this directly affected how you run Barn 2?
#3 – Like a lot of founders of successful WordPress plugin shops your origins seem to be serving clients as a traditional digital agency if this is correct and can you give some key tips, connected to successfully moving into the plugin shop space?
#4 – Can you give the tribe one or two key lessons you have personally learned connected to building up Barn-2?
#5 – I get the impression from a lot of theme and plugin shops have had a difficult couple of years connected to dealing with a large increase of support tickets linked to the fragmentation of the WordPress market linked to the number of page builders out on there and also dealing the constant changes linked to Gutenberg, would you agree with this statement?
#6 – What do you see as some of the key opportunities in the WordPress ecosystem at the present moment?
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in the same space, for example; it’s always good to meet people and say, oh, actually, yeah, I could publish a blog post about how to use my plugin with yours and you could do the same and it’s a good way to find collaboration opportunities.
Andrew Palmer: And what do you think you can advise the tribe that is listening later down about what are the hard lessons that you’ve learned in developing Barn 2 Plugins, maybe from a support or a customer service or a bug, I’m a product maker as well, and there are bound to be bugs in anything and there might be a cross-plugin problem or whatever? What are the hard lessons that you’ve learned really about building up Barn 2 Plugins from agency to plugins, to the developer, to product marketer? What are those hard lessons?
Katie Keith: Ooh, there are so many, which to choose from.
Andrew Palmer: Just two.
Jonathan Denwood: Just give us a couple.
Andrew Palmer: The two hardest ones, the ones that made you want to rip your hair out and go, Andy; I don’t want to do this anymore. Any of those.
Katie Keith: I think because of our emphasis on the lifestyle side of things, and we’ve never wanted to be a massive company, we need to think very carefully about each decision and each product, is it realistic for where we want to go? For example, I would not want to launch an eCommerce solution that would compete with WooCommerce or E.D.D or something because it’s just so huge; you couldn’t do that without having a massive team, very high overheads, things like that. I had a conversation with Yost once about why he sold and he was saying just the size of the company is overwhelming, it becomes something else and that isn’t what I want.
So, when we think about new plugin ideas, we think is it realistic? Is the potential profit there in relation to the time that it’s likely to take and we have made some mistakes and it’s very easy to have randomness in what you do? So, as you say, launching without good market evidence that it’s worth doing, and we’ve done a lot of just launching things just based on, we know there’s a gap, we don’t know what the demand is, and we need to improve on that and we’re trying to develop a formula at the moment to evaluate new plugin ideas.
So, we have various things to plug into that about things like the number of people searching for the main keywords, how difficult it is to develop, and various factors like that, but we’ve got that wrong.
Jonathan Denwood: So, for example, you mentioned a minute ago, our E.D.D. VAT plugin, which makes an EDD store compliant with European VAT law, we built because we needed it on our own website, the existing solutions didn’t actually satisfy the law and they weren’t supported properly, and so on. So, we built it for ourselves and we released it as a plugin, but because it’s E.D.D. and not WooCommon, unfortunately, the market is a bit small for it to be as successful as our other plugins.
So, it does okay, and we keep it because it’s on our site, so we need to keep maintaining it, but actually, it’s not as profitable as some of our, particularly WooCommerce plugins which have just ordered a magnitude higher sales. So, interesting learning, we scratched our own itch and you’d think that’s a great thing, but actually, it is not particularly, there’s not a big enough market.
Jonathan Denwood: So, have any of the plugins, I don’t know which one of your plugins is the biggest seller, but has it turned out to be a surprise which one has ended up or the top two or has that gone the direction that you thought it would’ve gone?
Katie Keith: Yeah, both of our top twos were a surprise actually. So, until last year, our top one has always been the WooCommerce product table, which takes your products and lists them in a kind of one-page order form, so you can buy more quickly. And we never planned to build that., I mentioned one of our first plugins, Post Table Pro, which evolved from a client idea, they wanted to do this blog post, we created a plugin Post Table Pro which lists any post type, and suddenly we were getting loads of feature requests for WooCommerce functionality. Can I have WooCommerce add to cart buttons in my table because I’m listing products?
Can I select variations? Can I have the price formatted correctly? So, all WooCommerce stuff. So, we realized at that point that this is a separate plugin that people are describing and there’s a market for it, but we didn’t come up with the idea, it was our customers from a non-related plugin, so that was interesting. And similarly, another offshoot of Post Table Pro is our document library pro plugin which we released a year or so ago, I think because the biggest use case of Post Table Pro once we got rid of the WooCommerce people and gave them their own plugin was document libraries.
So, people were creating a document’s post type and listing it with our plugin, and of course, they wanted document specific features like download buttons, file type icons, all that kind of thing, easier ways to upload the documents, so that’s now our other best-selling plugin. And again, we didn’t plan that, it just evolved from a different plugin, so we sort of take the biggest use case and then create a new plugin.
Andrew Palmer: But there are similar plugins, but I’m going to stop there because we’re at the halfway stage and we do need to visit our sponsors again, so we’re just going to take a quick break to visit our lovely sponsors. We’ll be back in a second.
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Andrew Palmer: And we are back. So, in the meantime before I get Katie talking again, she’s doing a great job, I want you to sign up for the WP-Tonic newsletter, which is wp-tonic.com/newsletter, where you’ll find panel recommendations and a raft of comments from our very own podcast founder, Jonathan Denwood, on what’s going on in the world and in the world of WordPress and tech. So, Katie, the next thing I want to ask you is because it’s interesting to hear your perspective on how you don’t want to grow too big, but actually, are you actually in control of that?
It’s basically, so over the past couple of years, we’ve had Covid, traveling problems, you were based in Devon in the UK, I think, for a while, which is very close to my heart. I went to school in Okehampton, so I know that place very well. How has business been over the COVID period and how have you addressed any kind of growth or shrinkage within your own business? You tell me you have four or five developers, I know that you’re advertising for a content marketer at the moment with very generous salaries there as well on your careers page.
So, you’re still looking to grow, but how are you going to control that growth if all of a sudden you get a hundred thousand buyers for a particular product? What do you do, just put it into a draft and say, we’re not selling any more of that because we can’t cope in our knowledge base who has to grow and all that kind of stuff? How are you addressing those designs that you don’t want to grow too big, but you want to be big enough to be able to support the crew that you have and maybe employ a couple of other people?
Katie Keith: Well, I suppose that’s a good problem to have firstly if that happens. But we’ve been very lucky through COVID, obviously, everything went digital at that point, and so we are all in the right business compared to a lot of other industries where it’s been horrendous for them. In particular, at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 our product table plugin started selling loads more, it was already doing really well, but those sales went through the roof and our revenue overall went up by something like a third as soon as the pandemic hit.
And we discovered that was because people were using our product table to create a restaurant ordering system because restaurants needed suddenly to close and start selling online because they weren’t allowed to see the customer anymore. And so, it was a difficult time professionally because we were delighted obviously with the increase, horrified at the pandemic, and school was closed at that point for six months, and back then there were no support bubbles. I have willing and able parents to help; well, not now I’m Mallorca, but when I was in England, I did have help available, which I couldn’t use because it wasn’t allowed, so we had this massive opportunity and less time than usual.
But Andy worked really hard and in July 2020, he managed to launch a restaurant plugin, which you mentioned that you’ve used, Andrew, and so again, we took our most popular use case, which was restaurant, and created a dedicated solution to capitalize on that opportunity even more. And by then we did have a support team, which is great, so when you have other people doing your customer support, you can cope a bit more with sudden increases in volume. And we did have to increase the support team and I temporarily found someone on Upwork, for example, to help out and things and train them up.
Normally we use LevelUp which is our most dedicated work company, a lot of plugging companies use them and they do really good training and everything. And so, we were already using them, but when they couldn’t recruit quickly enough for the demand, I also recruited people myself. So, we managed it, but it was a difficult time because we wanted to put everything into this growth and we were a bit restrained.
Jonathan Denwood: So the move to Mallorca as I said in the title, I put semi-digital nomads because there seems to be those that move around every month, and then there are people that kind of spend six months, a year plus, and then move somewhere else. So, you’re going through all this, what drove you to the decision to move to Mallorca, and can you give some insights of some things that you didn’t anticipate when you made that move connected to also running your business, Katie?
Katie Keith: Well, the business stuff has been the easy part, to be honest. The moving, our tax situation, getting visas because of Brexit; Brexit meant we couldn’t just move to Spain, we needed to get visas, and that was a nightmare and very, very stressful, there’s more about that in my year in review post on my blog, if anyone wants to know all of the problems we had with that side of the move. But the business was dead easy because our team is already remote, we already communicate on Slack and things like that, and it doesn’t really make any difference where we are, so it’s great that we were in a position where we could just move our works; it was the other elements of life that made it more difficult, like getting permission.
Jonathan Denwood: But what was the driver to actually move though, Katie?
Katie Keith: We’ve always talked about wanting to travel more and ideally do exactly what you described, living in lots of different places, and we still plan to become full-on digital Nomads in the future, but for now having a school-aged child, you need to be in one place. So, we used to talk sort of sadly to each other about, in another eight years we’ll do this and that’s not how to live is it?
Andrew Palmer: No, it’s not, it’s definitely not, that’s not the way. I’ve recently moved house in the UK and moved, I moved eight miles up the road and it’s a nightmare I’ve been in the new house just over a month. And I’m traveling to, well, Germany at the end of this month, and then an extended trip to the US, all on business I have to say, so it’s tough knowing where you are going to be and what you’re going to carry, I’m definitely going to be a digital nomad from the end March for a whole month.
And it’s hard to do, and I did it last November as well, where I went to the states for five days and ended up staying 17 because it’s just, you see opportunities and you can go and see people and meet people and chat with them. But yours is more lifestyle-oriented, I think, on the side that you and Andy want to actually see the world and want to explore the opportunities that a profitable business gives you because you’re actually getting the cash flow to be able to finance this kind of thing.
And that’s what a lot of freelancers who are running around in RVs and just traveling and making sure that they’re happy, they can do their four or five hours of work, and then they can do their eight hours of exploration and they can sleep for however long they like. Now, on that note, I’m going to just finish the question that I started. How are you dealing with Gutenberg and WordPress and WooCommerce updating? Ironically, you’re selling via E.D.D. because it’s an easier licensing system, I sell by E.D.D. as well, or it’s my preferred licensing system, but WooCommerce, they do the licensing system as well.
But how are you dealing with Gutenberg, are you focused on that, or is your stuff more or less short-code driven? Because WooCommerce is still in the classic editor if you like you can throw things in there; WooCommerce is not Guttenberg friendly currently unless you’re using something by Jamie Marsland and Pootlepress, who got some Guttenberg blocks for WooCommerce. Are you going to be developing anything for Gutenberg or other page builders, how are you focused on that?
Katie Keith: Our heads are firmly in the sand at the moment, most of our plugins use shortcodes, but for example, our table plugins, we’re aware that it needs to be easier to create a table. Currently, you set them up on the settings page, and then you just add a short-code and everything comes from the settings page, but if you want each table to be different, you have to use short-code options, and not everybody is comfortable using complex, not complex, but multiple parameters within a short-code. So, we know we need to create short-code generators, but what, the market is so fragmented we kind of hate Gutenberg, we don’t even have it on our sites.
Andrew Palmer: Hang on a second there, Ms. Keith, we hate Gutenberg. Do you hate Guttenberg because you’re part developer?
Jonathan Denwood: She’s coming back as a regular guest, actually, Andrew. I’ve invited her on to the panel show.
Andrew Palmer: We’ve got Guttenberg, hey. But I just want to call you out on this one I’m afraid, even though you’re our guest. Do you hate Guttenberg because you’re product developers that utilize short-code and you’re used to classic editor shortcodes and because you see a long steep learning curve for you and your customers to go into Gutenberg, or do you just hate Gutenberg because you hate Gutenberg?
Katie Keith: I hate the usability of it, it’s not as good as any really of the popular page builders, and it should be. I wish that Gutenberg took the best of the page builders and put them into WordPress itself, thus convincing everybody to move to it and defragmenting the market, I get what that does for the page builder’s business, and that’s an unfortunate side effect, but in terms of WordPress, it needs to be the best of those and not the worst.
And that’s why I don’t like it, and I don’t currently have it on our own site because if it was that really great intuitive way of creating content in WordPress, then we would happily build blocks for it more and the customers would happily use it rather than going for Divvy and Elementor being the main two competitors at the moment. But, yeah, as a product developer, our dilemma is where to put our resources because it’s so fragmented, do we stick with short-codes, which are not that user-friendly, but are universally compatible with everything, or do we use Divvy blocks, Elementor, Gutenberg? Well, that’s three different things to support plus short-codes, isn’t it? So at the moment.
Andrew Palmer: Yeah, it’s tough because as you know, we have a plugin and it has to work with every page builder, it’s a nightmare, and sometimes there are conflicts, which we fixed by the way, so let me know if you want to use it again. But the point is that that is the issue, Gutenberg is not, and has never been ready, and in my view, even though I like it and I can use it, and there are people like Cadence Blocks and Crocker Blocks and all of these people that are building phenomenal blocks and even me, I have a blocks plugin as well.
It’s not that hard, but I think because of Matt’s view of Guttenberg being bigger than WordPress, which he recently commented, is that because it’s React-based, it can go into anything, and I think that’s the plan, I don’t think he’s going to drop WordPress per se, but that’s my opinion. And it’s an educated opinion, Jonathan, you can laugh as much as you like, but the whole point is Guttenberg will be.
Jonathan Denwood: I don’t think Matt even knows what’s going on in his own mind, let alone telling anybody else what’s going on.
Andrew Palmer: He’s quite aware. We’re running short of time on the 30 minutes that we try and keep this too, and we have a couple of minutes or a minute or so, Katie, you’ve been brilliant on answering these drive-by shooting questions. So, what do you see as some of the key opportunities in the WordPress ecosystem at the present moment, either for you or somebody that you know?
Katie Keith: I think there are lots of opportunities because there are still gaps in the market despite the number of companies, so if you are in there and you know what’s going on, you might be building sites for clients, building products, you keep your ear to the ground, you can find opportunities and gaps still without any major competition. I think it’s a really great business model because it’s such a low barrier to entry, you don’t need particular qualifications, you, obviously, need to produce a quality product and figure out how to market it, but it’s a much easier way in than lots of industries.
And so, there’s an opportunity to build a successful company for yourself which will keep you going as well as your team, or some people build with an acquisition in mind, and, obviously, that’s huge at the moment as well for people wanting to go in that direction; so there are definitely opportunities to build a successful business and then take it where you want.
Andrew Palmer: Sure. And have you ever thought about building this to sell it?
Katie Keith: Not in the short or medium.
Andrew Palmer: Have you got an exit plan? You haven’t got an exit plan then?
Katie Keith: Well, I would be lost without it, to be honest, so at the moment I’ve got my daughter in school for the next eight years, I can’t go traveling the world, but even when I am, I probably would still want to work. So, at the moment I can’t see wanting to exit and, obviously, some people exit and then build another company, but I kind of feel I’ve done that now, so I’m not that interested in starting again; I’d rather see how big I can take what I’ve already done. So, I’m not saying, but I’m not in the foreseeable future looking at that either.
Andrew Palmer: Brilliant. So, we’re at the end of this particular presentation, this podcast with you, Katie Keith and myself, Andrew Palmer, and Jonathan Denwood. If you are interested as the tribe listening now, speaking to the tribe, of getting some extra content, Katie’s agreed to stay on with us and we can ask her random questions because we’ve run out of the ones we had, you can go to our YouTube channel, so just WP-Tonic YouTube, so sign up, subscribe and click the like button, if you like. So, Jonathan, do you have any extra questions for Katie, I’ve got a few in my head, but I want you to?
Jonathan Denwood: You need to wrap up the podcast and ask Katie how people, and then we’ll close the podcast and we’ll go on to the.
Andrew Palmer: He’s always educating me this man, he’s just always educating me on how to run a podcast, one day I’ll learn. So, what I want you to do, tribe, is sign up for our newsletter, so I’ve already done that, and we’ll wrap up the podcast it’s all over. I’ve said about the YouTube channel, go to wp-tonic.com/newsletter and or recommendations and find out all about WP-Tonic podcast. Thanks for listening.
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