Intro: Hey, everybody. Welcome to episode 120 of How I Built It. Today my guest is James Kemp of Iconic. James has built a fantastic plugins business selling WooCommerce extensions, and he’s doing incredibly well. He offers us a ton of great advice in this episode. We talk about all sorts of things, like how he comes up with ideas, and he even gives us a fantastic tip on how to validate those ideas relatively easily. We looked at his research into choosing Freemius to sell his plugins, and we got pretty deep into some development territory for how he builds his plugins. He also has some great plans for the future. He talks about live chat and a whole bunch of other stuff that I don’t want to spoil, so I think we should get into the interview. Of course, that is after a word from our sponsors.
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Joe Casabona: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, “How did you build that?” Today my guest is James Kemp of Iconic WP. James, how are you?
James Kemp: I’m great. Thanks, Joe. How are you?
Joe: I am fantastic. Though it has been raining a lot here on the East Coast of the United States as we enter the fall, but that’s OK. At least it’s not oppressively hot.
James: It’s not much different here, to be honest. You’re not missing out.
Joe: Awesome. Before the show started, I asked if you’re based in the UK. What part specifically of the UK you based in?
James: I’m in the Midlands. Pretty much as far from any coast as you could be in the UK. Right in the middle.
Joe: Cool. I’m going to ask you one question that is totally unrelated to anything, but for my own edification I think, and I think it’s a fun thing that Americans mess up a whole lot. The United Kingdom is made up of Britain, Great Britain, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Is that right?
James: Yeah. I believe so.
Joe: Britain and Great Britain are two different things, right?
James: Yeah. I believe Britton is– No, I think you mean England in Great Britain.
Joe: England in Great Britain.
James: Yes, England is just England. Great Britain is England and Scotland, and then the UK is England, Scotland, and part of Ireland.
Joe: OK, gotcha. I always– I watched a seven minute long video on that a while ago that I will link in the show notes, that I–
James: You probably know more than me, though.
Joe: That’s good to know. For fairness. Like, I barely know about anything that’s like west of New York and Pennsylvania, because that’s where I’ve lived. Everything is just the Midwest to me here in the United States. But we’re not here to talk about geography, and we are here to talk about Iconic WP. So, just for some backstory, James and I were connected thanks to Vova Feldman and the Freemius Slack for people who use Freemius. He mentioned that I was looking for people for the show, James kindly reached out and volunteered. Why don’t you tell us, James, a little bit about who you are and what you do?
James: As we mentioned, I’m James Kemp, based in the UK. Currently, I build a lot of e-commerce plugins under the name of Iconic. I’ve got eleven or twelve premium e-commerce plugins that I sell on my website. As you mentioned, use Freemius to fulfill those payments, and also the licensing and subscriptions, and things like that. Currently, that’s what I do full time. Before that, I was working with clients building websites, building e-commerce sites using WooCommerce. That lured me down this path of using WordPress and building plugins and software for WordPress.
Joe: Nice, very nice. I feel like that’s maybe a good common path. People start doing freelance work and then try to move into the product space, and it sounds like you’ve done it successfully. Just looking at your website, you have a couple of really good testimonials from friend of the show and personal friend of mine Chris Lema, and it sounds like you dig in on specializing with WooCommerce. Are you a one man band, or do you have a team of people that you work with?
James: It varies depending on workload, but in terms of building the core plugins and releasing new plugins, that’s all me. I do have a couple of support people, I’ve got a guy who handles front line support, and I’ve recently started working with another Freemius user called Jose, who is in the Slack group as well. He’s helping out with a bit more of the technical support that I get through. But in terms of actually building the plugins, and coming up with the ideas, and releasing the plugins, that’s all on my shoulders.
Joe: Cool. Very cool. When we’re talking about some of the plugins that you have, I’ll mention some of the featured plugins on your website, WooCommerce, Show Single Variations, WooThumbs for WooCommerce, WooCommerce Delivery Slots. How did you come up with the ideas? Were these based on needs that you had for clients or customer requests, or just ideas that you had?
James: Yeah, that’s exactly it. It started– WooThumbs that you mentioned there was my first plugin for WooCommerce. It used to be under a different name, which was “Multiple Images per Variation,” which was a bit of a mouthful, so I decided to change it. It evolved from that initial concept, but the concept was that you could have the ability to add more than one image to a product variation, which you can’t do by default in WooCommerce. That came about as a request from a customer. I believe I was doing some web work for them, or at least freelancing at that time doing web work, and they approached me with this request. So that initial plugin came from that, and as well Delivery Slots that you mentioned was something that I built for one of our clients when we had a web agency. They’ve all evolved from client ideas, or the customer comes to me and says “We need a plugin that does this.” If I feel like it’s got legs, then it’s something that I would do.
Joe: Nice, very nice. That’s a great follow up question I had, was how do you determine if it has legs? Do you do some research to figure out if it’s something already out there, or something close, or is this something that other people need?
James: Yeah, exactly. I do some research, and there’s a few ways you can go about it. One great thing about WooCommerce is that they have an ideas board, so people will go there and post ideas of stuff that they’re looking for, and you can gauge how popular that idea is by how many votes it’s got. So, that’s a good initial way to validate an idea. Another thing is just based on the number of people to ask me for the same thing, and you get that quite a lot where people ask for the same thing in slightly different ways. You can build up this idea of a product from that. I have a massive list of stuff that I could build and don’t have the time to, and there’s plenty of stuff that I don’t build out. My next product is going to be a wish list, which obviously has quite a bit of competition. But through my experience I know the customers quite often like to have all of their software from the same company, and if they know that they can trust that company and they get good support from that company, then they’re going to come back and they’re going to want more products that might already exist.
Joe: Gotcha. Two great pieces of advice there. The WooCommerce ideas board, something I had no idea existed, I will make sure to link that in the show notes. Because as you said, James, that is a great way to validate an idea initially. People are probably posting there and asking for it, and it’s definitely not going to be in WooCommerce if it’s got some amount of votes.
James: Exactly. You can also see if the people at WooCommerce are planning to implement that into WooCommerce, to avoid wasting a load of time working on something that is then going to be added anyway.
Joe: Totally. We’ve all seen at least situations where there’s some market place plugin or app in the Apple App Store, for example. It basically gets implemented into iOS or into whatever the core version they’re working with. Jetpack maybe introduces features that were once a standalone plugin, or iOS has a new sharing feature that kills an app or something like that.
James: Exactly. It has happened to me a few times. I had a free plugin that added pagination to the WooCommerce short codes. So, if you display like five products, you can add pagination to that. WooCommerce recently actually added a pagination attribute for the short code, so you can turn it on now. Fortunately, that was a free plugin, so it’s not a massive deal breaker for me, but there has been some scares. Like WooThumbs for example. WooCommerce released, I think it was earlier this year, maybe late last year they released an updated image gallery which used a lot of the stuff that WooThumbs used. But it was still kind of restricted, so, fortunately, WooThumbs still has a pretty solid place in the market.
Joe: Nice. Have you thought about what you would do if one of your premium plugins just wholesale got built into native WooCommerce? Would you shut it down, or tell people “We’re not going to support this anymore because it’s native.” Or would you keep supporting it?
James: It depends. If I feel like it still adds some value to people, to the customers that use it, then I would continue to support it of course. If whatever WooCommerce implement is pretty much exactly the same or better than what I’m offering, then it feels right to stop working on that plugin and leave it at that. The customers that have used it will have got their use from it anyway, and you’d hope that they’d see the value in what they’ve already used. But you’d have to do it based on how they implement it, I guess. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen.
Joe: Absolutely. Last question around this topic is– I thought about this, and I should make clear that there’s no evidence that this happened. But there are features that get released into the core of open source projects that are strikingly similar to plugins. Do you ever worry about that? Since we live and work in an open source world, the core plugin or the core product– I won’t name names, to avoid drama, but it could just take that and put that code right into core.
James: It is a bit of a worry. It did feel like that when the WooThumbs update came out because I used exactly the same full screen galleries that I was using in WooThumbs and had been using for a while. They definitely didn’t take my code, but I feel like they might have got a bit of inspiration from it. Which is flattering, in a way. I don’t believe that they would take my code and drop it straight into core. I speak to Mike jolly sometimes, he runs the show, and I also contribute to core myself. I feel like if they did think this plugin would be great and cool, that they would approach me. I think they would.
Joe: Absolutely, and any–
James: [It’s probably a good start as a fork in something else, so you never know.]
Joe: Yeah, right. That is their track record. Again, this is just some deep seeded fear in the back of my mind, because I want to get into premium plugin land. But traditionally, with Automattic, WordPress, WooCommerce, when they’ve seen something they like they generally have gone out and bought– If there’s something that works exactly like it, they’ll buy it. They’ll try to buy that first.
James: Yeah. I think they would do that, and I think they would respect the open source nature of it all. I think the thing to worry about, or maybe not worry about, but to think about is because it’s a derivative product of WordPress that it also has to have the GPL license. So, someone could legally take the plugin and redistribute it, and they do. There is places where you can download it for free. But I think the value that I add and that my team adds is the level of support that you can receive, the continuous updates that you’re going to get. Just knowing how the product works and how it can benefit people from its inception. Give me the one up on those worries.
Break: This episode is brought to you by Pantheon. Starting a new project? Looking for a better hosting platform? Pantheon is an integrated set of tools to build, launch and run websites. Get high performance hosting for your WordPress sites, plus a comprehensive toolkit to supercharge your team and help you launch faster. On Pantheon, you get expert support from real developers, best in class security and the most innovative technology to host and manage your websites. You can sign up a new site in minutes with a free account, and you only pay when it goes live. That is my second favorite feature to Pantheon, only to the easy ability to create dev staging and live servers, and push to GitHub. It’s very easy to set those things up on Pantheon. You can head over to Pantheon.io today to set up a free account and pay only when it goes live. Thanks so much to Pantheon for their support of this episode and this season of How I Built It.
Joe: You mentioned that specifically with your new product that you’re working on, customers like to have software from a company that they trust, so they try to buy software from the same company. I thought that was great insight. I sell online courses, and I think, “Why should I make this course if somebody else has already made it? If it exists on Udemy or on [Linda.com]?” Or whatever. But if people like my teaching style they’re going to want to get that course from me, because of the way I approach and present the topic.
James: Exactly. That’s one thing that you have that no one else has, is that you’re you.
Joe: Absolutely. We’re halfway through the show and already two fantastic pieces of advice, and because we’re halfway through the show, I need to ask the title question. So, you have a shop full of plugins. Maybe we can focus in on WooThumbs or some other plugin that you’re working on right now as I ask, how did you build it? And, what’s your developer workflow like? Stuff like that.
James: We can talk about them as a whole. Because I’ve built it in a way, especially recently within the last week, I’ve built out libraries that I can implement into all of the plugins. To start with I would build them one by one, and over time I’ve realized that in order to optimize my processes I need to have a process in place. So, all of my plugins are heavily reliant on package managers, they all use Composer which is a PHP package manager. That pulls in– For example, it pulls in the Freemius code that I need to install in the plugin, and I’ve just built out what I call “Core classes.” So I’ve got classes in all of my plugins that handle the settings pages, the license activation, just some helper methods that all of the plugins use like checking if a plugin is active or not, that kind of thing. So I’ve got this Composer task that pulls in those libraries from my GitHub account, or my BitBucket account I should say. Because you can host private BitBucket repos on BitBucket, whereas I think you have to pay on GitHub.
Joe: Yeah. I think it’s a prohibitively expensive amount now for private repos on GitHub.
James: Yeah, I can imagine. I have always tried to reduce costs where I can. So, BitBucket is good. Although I do pay for BitBucket as well, for the pipelines.
Joe: Absolutely. Because even renaming the classes for each plugin, like generally when I start a plugin I get the WordPress plugin boilerplate that Tom McFarlane originally released. Part of that is making sure that everything is renamed properly, not having to do a find and replace to do that and then essentially waiting for it to error out in case you have a collision. Even creating the final zip and pushing it to Freemius automatically, like a big step in my podcast process is exporting from Audacity and then having to manually upload it to Lipson, which is my audio host. That takes– It’s like a couple of minutes, but it’s a couple of minutes here and there to do this and a couple of minutes here and there to do that. It sounds like you’re saving a huge amount of time by using just Gulp.
James: Yeah, 100%. Also something for your show notes, that Freemius deployment via Gulp is on the MPM repository so anyone can use it.
James: But that saves a ridiculous amount of time.
Joe: Awesome. We didn’t touch on Freemius, which I would have liked to ask in the research phase. What made you use Freemius? Did you look at other options? You’re a WooCommerce developer, so naturally, I would imagine you looked at WooCommerce, but–?
James: I did. I looked at a few options. Like you say, WooCommerce, Easy Digital Downloads, Paddle. I think I looked at [Fospring] for a little while and Freemius. The issue I was facing is being in the EU, basically. I don’t know what it’s like over there, but if we sell a digital product to a European country we have to pay their tax or charge their tax, and then pay it to that country using a system called [VAT] [inaudible], which is a massive headache to manage. Primarily I was looking for a system that would handle that [VAT] stuff for me, even down to just charging [VAT]. I’m not [VAT] registered, so at the time when I was looking, I was making $4,000 dollars a month which isn’t enough to be registered for [VAT] anyway. So it wasn’t worth me doing that, and going through the hassle of doing that. I was looking for a system that would do that for me, which WooCommerce and Easy Digital Downloads don’t, which is why they were rolled out. If I went with them, I would have to basically have a good accountant, because I don’t want to be doing that stuff myself. So, I looked to Freemius and Paddle my last two options, and Freemius just seemed to make sense because of how intertwined with WordPress it is. On top of handling the [VAT] stuff for me, they would offer me subscription payments and actual deployment processes, managing customer licenses and things like that. It was all contained within this one package that I wouldn’t have had if I used Paddle, for example.
Joe: Gotcha. So, with Freemius, basically you sign up for Freemius, and they take a cut of your sales, that’s on essentially a degrading scale. The more sales you make, the smaller percentage they end up taking. You deploy to Freemius, and they handle the software licenses. If you upload an updated version of the plugin, do they push it out automatically as well?
James: My deployment process, when you run it will upload it to them and then it gives you a link in the terminal that you click, and it takes you to the Freemius dashboard where you can then publish it. When you publish, it pushes it through to the WordPress update mechanism, so it’d just be the same as updating any plugin in WordPress.
Joe: Awesome. So you don’t have to be like, “Plugin’s updated. Come download the new version here,” or whatever. It just gets pushed out.
James: Which I was using Code Canyon before this, and that was the mechanism for Code Canyon. Where they send out an email saying “There’s an update available.”
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. That’s fantastic. Freemius is probably the lead contender for me as I get into this, because there are certain things I want to focus on, and building the infrastructure to sell premium plugins is not part of that.
Joe: As well as, I’m not an accountant. I sell online courses, and I’ve definitely sold to countries that require a [VAT], and I don’t know. I haven’t charged extra for it so I might get– I don’t know if I’m going to get hit. I have to talk to my accountant about that. But something that handles all of that for me sounds fantastic.
James: Exactly. You’ve got the Freemius team behind you as well. If you feel there’s something missing, drop them a message, and if they feel like it’s a good idea, they’ll implement it. They’re very responsive as well.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. In a previous episode, I talked to Vova Feldman who is the founder of Freemius, so I will link to that episode in the show notes as well. You can hear all about how Freemius was built.
Joe: Cool. So, as we approach time here, I know that you mentioned that you’re working on a few things. What are your plans for the future as far as Iconic WP goes?
James: What I’d like to do is expand the plugin collection. Like I said, I’m building out a wish list plugin, and I’ve got– Like I said before as well, a big list of plugins that I want to build. I want to expand the collection, I want to keep bringing value to the customers that use me currently, and that might use me in the future, and then on top of that I want to have another developer or two that work with me on the plugins. More outside of a support role, but as part of the core team that build out these plugins and comes up with ideas and releases them. So that eventually as a WooCommerce store and you could cover off most bases by just using Iconic.
Joe: Nice. That sounds awesome. I have a couple of follow up questions on that because again, these are things that I think about. They’re these mental hurdles for me because I am a developer, I have a bunch of plugins, and I could probably make premium. But as you expand your plugin collection, what does support look like? Do you find that there’s like, “If I add X plugin support, requests will increase by Y,” or something like that?
James: I don’t have any particular equation that works out how much support I’m going to get, but yet it will naturally increase as the plugins increase. But so will sales, which gives me more money to pay a technical support person. Up until a few weeks ago, I was doing all of the technical support, and it was taking up pretty much all of my time, which was good and bad. It was good because I was able to see which bugs were there and you could constantly be fixing these bugs in the plugins and pushing out updates. But you do start to focus on the top selling plugins, and the ones that aren’t selling as much or don’t have as many support requests fall behind. I had some that hadn’t been updated for ten month that I’ve just updated now. So, it was– It came to the point where I needed to have someone else on technical support in order for me to make sure that everything’s working as well as it should be. That the company is running as well as it should be, and that I’ve got time to push out more plugins. I think it is something that’s going to come naturally as I release more plugins, I’ll need more technical support, and over time I should hopefully need another developer on it full time rather than just support. At the moment it’s just a “Do it and see.”
Joe: Cool. I wish you a lot of luck with that. Do you use some tool, like Help Scout, to manage support requests?
James: Yes. Help Scout.
Joe: Nice. Help Scout was top of mind because that’s the one that– It’s very popular in the WordPress community, I think.
James: Yeah, it is.
Joe: It’s the one I hear about the most.
James: Help Scout is great. Also, Freemius integrates with it, so you can see the status of the license in the sidebar.
James: I also use Drift for live chat on my product pages, which is pretty good as a pre-sales tool. You do get people that come on asking for support, which is OK, but it’s just me on Drift at the moment. So it can be quite distracting, I find.
James: I also use Help Scout Docs for all of my documentation.
Joe: Awesome. Cool. So, last question on here before I get to my favorite question. I’ve been hearing a lot that live chat can help increase sales. Have you found that to be– Have you found Drift to be a good–? You mentioned it’s good for pre-sale, but have you noticed an uptick in sales because of it?
James: Yeah, 100%. I don’t have any stats to back it up, but I know from the conversations I’ve had, if there wasn’t a live chat there I think a lot of the people I speak to would think “This plugin doesn’t do what I need. I’ll go find another one.” Whereas if you’ve got live chat there they can ask the question and you can give them an answer straight away, and a lot of the time the plugin might do something that they didn’t realize that it did based on your landing page. That gives you actionable things to do based on that because you can you can convince them that it does do what they need, and then you also know that you maybe need to update your landing page to include that information.
Joe: That’s another great tip. I think right after this I’m going to go install Drift on my website. Awesome. You’ve given us tons of great advice already, but I do want to ask, do you have any trade secrets for us?
James: Any trade secrets. For me, it’s all about persistence. I started my first ecommerce plugin, WooThumbs was built in 2011. So, it’s been around a long time. It’s the first of its kind, and in my opinion, still the best. But it’s taken a while to get to where I am now. Now I’m running this business full time, my wife is on maternity, so it’s our only income, and it’s good. It gives me the freedom to do what I want, to work when I want, to not work when I want. It’s all been about persistence. We’ve been– Those years I’ve had other jobs, I’ve run a web agency, and this has always been a side project for me until the beginning of 2016 where I started to focus on it full time. I think if you can get to the stage where you can focus on it full time, keep pushing, keep iterating and trying different things. Using Google optimized to run A/B tests and things like that, really push what you’re doing with the product and try and increase conversions. I think most importantly, listen to your customers, speak to customers and communicate with customers, and find out what they need and how they found you, and what you can do to make your offerings better for them. That’s probably quite a lot of stuff.
Joe: Yeah, but lots of really great advice. Definitely, everybody heed that advice. Keep pushing. I think a lot of people feel like, “I’ll start my own business. It’s online, so it’s easier,” But it’s not easy by any stretch. Listening to your customers, what they need and how they found you, that’s something I’ve been hearing a lot lately. Talk to your customers. Maybe even have real phone conversations, or person to person conversations with them when you can, because it will unlock a goldmine of information for you to help you with your business.
James: Definitely. If you can get on the phone, you can get a lot more information than you can via e-mail, so that is that is a great way to do it.
Joe: That’s great.
James: I think another thing is as well, I think you’re never going to feel like you’re finished. There’s always more to do, and I think you’re always going to think “I should be doing better than I’m doing now.” There’s always going to be people that– One offs in the industry that are just doing amazingly, and you don’t have to be them. You have to be as good as you can be and know that what you’re doing is working.
Joe: Those are words to live by. I don’t think they need– I think you said it the best way possible. So, James, thanks so much for joining me today. Where can people find you?
James: You can find my website at IconicWP.com. I’ve also got Twitter, @iconicwp or my personal one is @jamesckemp. Just Google my name, and there should be some stuff.
Joe: Nice. I will include all of that in the show notes. James, thanks so much for joining me today. I appreciate your time.
James: Thanks, Joe. It was great.
Outro: Thanks so much to James for joining me today. I loved his advice about using the WooCommerce ideas board as a great way to initially validate your idea. He talked a bit about Drift and how he saw an uptick in sales after integrating live chat. This is something that I’ve thought about doing for a while, and I just– For whatever reason, either I wasn’t convinced, or I’m suspect of the performance hit my website will take, I just haven’t done it yet. Perhaps I will do it now with James’ advice. I also love that he has a bunch of trade secrets from persistence to A/B testing, but I like what he said about how you’re never going to feel like you’ve finished. I think that is great advice for you to go and launch because if you wait until you feel like you’re finished, you’re never going to launch. My question of the week for you is, do you use live chat on your website? Or, did this episode convince you to use live chat on your website? Let me know by sending me an email, Joe@HowIBuilt.it or on Twitter, @jcasabona.
Miniseries: Now, I want to continue my story my little miniseries on how I built my podcasting course. Over the last two weeks we talked about research, and the research I did or didn’t do, and how I evolved the process and how I’m evolving the course. Over the next few weeks, I want to tell you about how I built it. I want to answer the title question, “How did I build this course?” I’m breaking it up into how I built the course itself, and how I built the tech stack on top of which the course is made. So, let’s start with how I built the course. As you know from listening in previous episodes, the first iteration of the course I made a very cognizant decision to only focus on building the podcast website. Because of that, and how that shaped my outline, I created an outline for the course, and I decided to build out a full website step by step. All of my courses are learn by doing, so in that first iteration of the course, we don’t go over things like recording or choosing gear. I’ve assumed that you’ve done those things already and now you’re ready to put your website online. We start with things like choosing a domain and choosing website hosting, installing WordPress. Each section of the course has a specific goal in mind that builds towards the overall goal of the course, which is to launch a website and submit your podcast to iTunes. My general course building process is to write an outline, refine that outline, and then come up with a goal for each lesson that builds towards the overall goal of the course. I wanted to do some value-adds in this course. Anybody– I shouldn’t say anybody can figure out, but there’s a lot of resources out there on how to set up just a simple WordPress website. I wanted to deliver a bunch of value in this course, like “Why do we need a separate website for our podcast?” I answer that question. “How do I evaluate audio hosts? How do I know what plugin to use for podcasts? What theme should I use, and how do I submit my podcast to Apple Podcasts?” That’s a that’s a common question, and I want to show you exactly how we do it with the website we just built. I also show people who take the course how to submit it to other directories as well. Apple Podcasts gets the lion’s share of the publicity, but there are several other directories out there that are worth submitting to, and in this course, we submit to all of them. So, that’s where I want to leave this conversation. But I will say that in my research and feedback I made a pretty bad decision in not showing the entire podcast process, so next week we’ll talk about how I’m revamping the course and how I’m rebuilding the course to build around the website but give users or students a more full picture of starting a new podcast from scratch. So, that’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, please give me a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps people discover the show. If you have any questions, feel free to write in, Joe@HowIBuilt.it or @jcasabona. Until next time, get out there and build something.