Evan Herman talks about building high quality plugin solutions for WordPress

Evan Herman talks about building high quality plugin solutions for WordPress

We have a whole new piece for you guys, as part of our series of interviews with WordPress plugin developers, who agreed to share some of their stories, alongside growth plans and, of course, their vision of the WP ecosystem as a whole.

Recently, we talked with Evan Herman, the lead developer, and founder at Code Parrots, a company well known for offering high-quality solutions for WordPress sites. They are well known for Timeline Express, which allows users to create highly customizable Timeless within the WordPress platform. However, they have a few more aces up their sleeve, since new and exciting products are currently in development and should be released in the near future.

With a Bachelor of Science degree in Digital Communication and Multimedia, Evan has a strong background as a developer, while his story with WordPress started years ago when he was in college. Let’s see what stories he has for us today…

How big is your team?

It’s hard to say that we’re a big team, since, right now, it consists just of 3 people. Specifically, there’s me, another developer and somebody in charge of marketing, who is also in charge of managing our social media accounts, as well as email marketing and other campaigns. As for the second developer in the team, he helps out with plugin maintenance, alongside support requests and, of course, developing some of the new products which we should introduce soon.

How did you start with WordPress? Why WordPress?

There’s a long story, which began back in college when I was graduating. Actually, my senior thesis was closely working with a local business, based in Philadelphia, in order to relaunch their web presence. And the project included building a theme from scratch, as well as some highly customized plugins.

I was part of a team of 3 members, but the funny part was that none of us had any experience with this. And yes, you guessed it, I had no other choice but to learn a lot about this mysterious – at that time – content management system in just 6 months.

By the end, I was proud to have my very own YouTube plugin allowing the client to upload videos from their WordPress site directly into a YouTube account, then eventually assign it to a playlist which was supposed to appear on the home page.  Sure, the code wasn’t perfect, since it was my first real product, but I was very proud of it, not to mention that this got me instantly hooked on coding.

Can you please describe who’s your user/customer? Who’s using your plugin(s)?

What if I told you that we actually have a pretty wide customer base? People interested in our plugins are usually users who are in charge with a single site and want to display a timeline on it, showcasing the company’s history or milestones that occurred in their life.

On the other side, we have another category of users interested in our service, which we didn’t account for initially, consisting of non-profit, universities and government organizations. For example, a few police and fire departments, as well as colleges use our Timeline Express plugin and we’re very proud to provide such a great solution for them! We offer full support for everything they do and also offer a 30% discount to non-profits, schools, and fire or police departments.

How do you monetize?

We opted for the freemium model for our products, offering a free product on WordPress.org, then upsell to either a pro version or add-ons, which extend the functionality of the plugins. You can buy a license in a group of 1, 5 or 10, with the possibility of renewing it yearly. Also, all the licenses and products we’re offering come with a full year of updates and priority support.

Can you share a few numbers in terms of active users/downloads or website monthly traffic?

From this point of view, there’s nothing mind blowing, but we do have a solid and consistent growth rate since the launch.

Currently, we have 10,000+ users for Timeline Express, with an average rating of 4.5 stars, with a large number of them using the free version of the plugin, after coming across it on WordPress.org. Eventually, they opted for an upgrade, in order to get access to support and the additional features.

As for our other product, WP SVG Icons, it has 40,000 active installs and over 110 5 star reviews, being one of the first products we released 3 years ago. It has been a solid solution for a lot of users wanting to add this type of icons to their site, without the need of writing any code or uploading files.

How do you acquire visitors/users/customers?

Most of them come from WordPress.org. We also get a decent amount of organic traffic, but again, the main source remains the WordPress.org plugin repository.

What are your current struggles? How are you planning on overcoming them?

It’s pretty obvious that when you’re a member of such a small team, it’s pretty hard to scale and grow a product base. A big part of the day is dedicated to responding to support requests and answering issues on the WordPress.org forums for our products. For us, it’s easy to introduce a new add-on for the Timeline Express, but when it comes to building out new products, we really have to spend a lot of time for this, so we often find out that our support channels are pretty slow, compared to development. In a nutshell, building new products or feature, while supporting our current ones, has always been a hurdle for our team!

Can you share a tough moment in the course of your business? What were the takeaways from it?

About a year and a half ago, after releasing an update to Timeline Express, we began serving product ads through an RSS feed, the product website, https://www.wp-timelineexpress.com, and displaying them on the admin dashboard on the Timeline Express pages as well.

Shortly after, when things were going quite well, we had a huge spike in the number of users who updated to the latest version, so, instantly, we began receiving tons of support requests to our ticketing system, as well as on WordPress.org. Users were claiming that their sites were extremely slow, while some of them were even inaccessible.

After a bit of research, we found out that we were hitting an RSS feed without actually caching it, without a timeout value and without providing a fallback for then the RSS failed. Now imagine that with over 10,000 active users hitting the RSS endpoint on every page load we were actually getting hundreds of thousands of requests hitting the server. And yes, you guessed it: this took down the Timeline Express site, preventing users from submitting support requests and purchasing new products. Obviously, this would’ve cost us thousands in sales.

One release of our product directly affected our bottom line for around a month and a half, until we sorted all the issues. Eventually, we pulled the RSS feed ads and opted for serving them locally, something which we should’ve done from the very beginning. Lesson learned.

While developing Timeline Express, we had a lot of requests for features that the majority of users would never use. Automatically, this leads to the creation of our add-ons, that run alongside Timeline Express and are compatible with both the free and pro version of the plugin.

Basically, these allow users to keep using the free version, but also pick and choose exactly what they need from our add-ons, in order to develop the exact timeline they need. And instead of packing all these new features into one bloated plugin, we wanted to give them a bit of flexibility.

Our most successful plugin is definitely the Timeline Express – Toolbox bundle, including the Timeline Express Pro add-on at a $10 discount, when purchased together. ($39.99).

As for the pro version, it has some of the most requested features, while the toolbox add-on can be used for controlling things that most users never actually asked for. For example, using a UI in the dashboard, they can specify the timeline date format, as well as announcement image size and many other things.

To our surprise, this has been very well received by customers who want such functionalities, while those who don’t need it just don’t buy it. Practically, it’s a win-win situation for everybody!

What would you say are your biggest strengths?

There’s no doubt that one of our biggest pluses is the support. Actually, we like to believe that we go above and beyond the usual call of duty, providing solutions specific to what our customers need. This often includes CSS tweaks, depending on their theme, or even shifting or filtering functions based on the desire of our customers.

Overall, this is not very hard, but it’s definitely time-consuming. And providing a well thought out and great solution will always take time! If you take a quick look at our support forum reviews, you will see that a big number of them mention that they were delighted with the support we’re offering. And hey, this is something out of which we’ve always made a priority!

Can you tell us a few things about the development process you use? What about some of your favorite tools?

Well, it’s pretty streamlined, but this allows two developers to maintain all of our products. We couldn’t work that efficient with Grunt, a tool able to handle a large number of automated tasks, like minifying/uglifying CSS/JS files, bumping the versions when we have new releases or even tagging and deploying to the WordPress.org repository.

Besides this, we also rely on CI/CD pipelines for code quality checks and automated testing, using PHP Unit. We think that code should remain backward compatibility and should always be QA’d, right before releasing it. Using things such as Travis.CI allows us to test for breaking changes and code that doesn’t fit our standards.

What are your plans for 2017?

Our focus is on expanding our offerings at Code Parrots, by launching a couple of new products that we believe people will actually love. Also, we plan on expanding the product line for Timeline Express, by developing some new add-ons, which were actually suggested by her users. And we really believe that these will pair very well with our main product!

What do you think about the WP ecosystem in general? Where do you think the opportunity lies for the next years?

Oh, I’m one of the biggest WordPress fans ever, but I also strongly believe that there’s still room for improvement. The WordPress.org repo is somewhat of the wild west, as basically anyone can develop a plugin and make it available, but the problem is that there are no checks in place to make sure that the code is written both properly or efficiently, as well as safely.

There are a lot of outdated plugins, with deprecated functions and database queries that are improperly written or don’t pass any safety checks. Ironically, while this is one of WordPress’ strengths, it’s also a big minus!

There’s no way of observing which plugins are actually good, except checking the install and ratings, but these don’t tell everything about it! There is a huge opportunity here and some developers are already attempting to tackle it, but this should be done at a larger level. I don’t have an exact solution for this, but again, this is a big opportunity!

What would you recommend anybody that is looking to start their own WP business?

First of all, anybody who wants to start a WP business should be very passionate about it and care about the ecosystem. Of course, we shouldn’t forget about some long nights…

Be very flexible, listen to what your customers have to say and never be afraid to fail, it happened! Remember that ‘overnight success’ is just a myth. Slow and steady growth, as well as building a loyal user base are what you should be after.

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