A lot of you know Brad Touesnard, the founder of WP Migrate DB Pro and the WP AppStore. Brad is a WordPress entrepreneur and developer who makes his living selling his premium plugins through his company Delicious Brains. Brad has built a successful business selling premium WordPress plugins based on his experience as a developer, a marketer, and as an entrepreneur since high school.
WordPress makes it possible for anyone with a computer to solve problems for other developers, for marketers using WordPress, and on. A lot of attention has been given lately to the rapid growth of amazing WordPress agencies like 10up and WebDev Studios, but I’d also like to shine some light on the WordPress product companies, like Delicious Brains.
In the interview, Brad sheds some light on his thought process developing WP DB Migrate so you can understand his philosophy and values when it comes to building a business around the code he writes, and the plugins that he’s developed. He covers the importance of interviewing your customers to validate a product idea, the importance of email marketing for building a successful online business, and even the would-be entrepreneurial lament of “I just want my code to speak for itself.”
We talked for a while, so the interview is long, and full of insight into how this successful WordPress entrepreneur mixes his love for code, business, and marketing into a successful recipe for a WordPress business.
Brad starts out answering my question,
“would you describe yourself as a developer or an entrepreneur…?”
I’d say I’m both an entrepreneur and developer. And I have a passion for both, but I think as I get older, I get more business-minded, which is probably a good thing, because sometimes you hear entrepreneurs say they miss the coding and could do more of it. And I do miss playing with code. But I’m getting to the point where I can be with a little bit less coding, and I don’t mind. Right now, I probably review code as much as I write it, because I have an employee in Australia. I review a lot of his commits and stuff, that’s a lot of what I do right now.
At this point, I almost always tell people that I sell software online. Because, unless you’re at a WordPress conference, if you say “WordPress,” people just stare at you blankly. So I tell most people that I sell software. If I’m at a WordCamp, I say I sell a WordPress plugin that migrates from one website to another. So it depends on the content.
So when you were younger in your career, were you more interested in development side of things?
Oh, yeah. It’s funny because I’ve always been entrepreneurially-minded. I think that was my motivation for teaching myself to program early on. But with entrepreneurship, I’m not motivated by money, I’m more eager to solve problems.
I remember I had teacher in 1997, take us on a field trip to a computer lab. Because there was no computer lab at my school, and they taught us how to hand code HTML and put a website on GeoCities.
So what was it you remember about learning how to hand code a site and put it on geocities?
I remember when they first showed us that you could view the source of the site, any site. And just start playing with the code, I was like holy shit man, that’s amazing. You could use trial and error to do pretty much anything. There was no manual, other people were doing cool stuff and if you wanted to do the same thing, you just had to look at the source code and find the webpage, which was completely available.
I remember when I was taking a floppy disk home with me, and I could still do development at home even without internet. Because I could just save the file and open it in a web browser, you know? So I was playing with it at home. It was a bit harder, because I couldn’t browse the net and steal sample code. I’d go back to school and upload it to GeoCities and update our sites.
There were lots of animated gifs, I remember that. A ton of animated gifs.
How did your parents respond to you coming home with a floppy disk and hand coding HTML?
I don’t remember them responding to that. I do remember them responding to me when I got my first check in the mail for like running an mp3 website in Grade 10, making money from ads. The check was $600 bucks, $US. I got the check in the mail, and they were like, “That can’t be real!” They changed their tone when I cashed it.
That’s hella dough, dude. Especially for 10th grade.
Right? $600 bucks in 10th grade, that’s a lot of money.
So you just said a minute ago you’re not super motivated by money, but you got amped up with that story of the check. How did that money impact you or change your destiny?
I loved what I was doing with websites, and I was spending a ridiculous amount of time on it, and suddenly getting paid to do it. I thought, “Damn, I can make a living with computers.”
I mean, before that I was mowing lawns for money. Mowing lawns was hard – a lot of labor and wasn’t super stimulating. So to make money for something I was spending all my spare time doing was huge right? So it’s funny though, because that first mp3 site wasn’t sustainable. Once the government caught on, running the site got a little dicey.
Did you get busted?
No, actually. I sold the site to someone else, and he got in trouble. I did get a couple letters in the mail from the Canadian Recording Industry.
But by that point, you had your first taste of getting paid to create the things you wanted to create. You had your first taste of being an entrepreneur.
Yeah, exactly. Like I would whip out a new design for the mp3 site, for fun. It wasn’t because I wanted more money or anything, I was just making up a new design and rolling it out at 3am for fun. I can’t live that way anymore – people do business during the day.
That’s the entrepreneur in you talking, that’s not the developer. If the developer in you were running the show, you’d probably be on vampire time.
Yeah, probably. But I have a wife and kids and they live during the day.
So, let’s talk about how successful your business is. Is your entire income off of selling software? Or do you have to augment that a little bit with side projects?
I do side projects but I don’t need to, I could just sell software at this point. It’s doing that well. And that includes paying my mortgage too. But, I still do the side projects for inspiration at this point. I feel that’s pretty common for entrepreneurs that are in a similar place. A lot of them still do side projects or client projects, either to keep on top of things, to keep on top of technology.
So selling software covers your income needs. At what point were you able to fully support you and your family with the software sales of WordPress plugins through Delicious Brains.
Pretty much right away. I wasn’t expecting it, to be honest. I was crossing my fingers for it to be successful at first and then I expected it to kind of drop off. You have to do a lot of marketing for it to be sustainable. At the moment though, its all word of mouth.
So you’re saying that as soon as you started Delicious Brains, it immediately started paying your bills.
Yeah, I invested a lot upfront developing WP Migrate DB Pro, though. It was like 40-50k of my time and the developer’s time invested.
That’s your time, plus another developer whose time you paid for.
Yeah, exactly. It’s my estimated time, but I’m not paying myself. That was an estimate of my costs. But I made that back, in the first three, four months.
When did you launch it?
April 16th, this year. I started working on it, December 1st, 2012. So that’s about five months of dev time.
You’ve said to me, entrepreneurship is not about ‘forget everything else in my life, I’m going to eat Ramen and live on a futon.’ Entrepreneurship is about something else that doesn’t involve sacrificing those things for you and your family.
What does entrepreneurship and selling software mean to you? You’ve got this plugin that’s taking off and making money, but what’s the meaning behind it that has driven your success as an entrepreneur?
What does it mean to me? That’s a good question. I feel like I kind of stumbled into it. I think what selling software to me is saving time. Saving people time with your software, you know? If you’re not saving time, what the hell are you doing? You can argue that you’re solving problems, but what does that do?
If someone says, “I solve problems,” that doesn’t tell me anything. Because the world is full of problems. Did you just solve world hunger? Because that’s very impressive. But that’s clearly not what you did.
When we talked last you said “I like solving developer’s problems because I am a developer, right?” You could say, “I save other developers time right?” That’s part of your entrepreneurial thesis as you come across products you want to build right? You find something that’s taking too much time for you as a developer, and you want to develop a product around it.
Right. I think developers share code to save one another time. You thank another developer for their code because you don’t have to dig to solve the problem because someone already did the work, and they’re sharing it with you.
I think a lot of selling software is that as well: saving people time. Of course you have to do it in an elegant way. If it looks like shit, than maybe you’re not saving them time. Maybe you’re causing them more headaches. I think what it boils down to is people want software to save them time.
Let’s dig in on this a little bit more with WD Migrate Pro. Migrations are a pain, there’s a need there. What was the moment where you were migrating a site, I’m assuming you were probably migrating and working on a site and a light went off that said ‘this is clearly a painful thing,’ I need to put together a solution for this. Do you remember that moment?
I remember when I was working at an agency and I was developing a WordPress site and I needed to put the site on the server. Once I did, the URL changed and the file paths changed. I lost all the widgets, and it just became a snowball of pain. That’s when I realized that migrations shouldn’t be this hard. So I took a backup plugin from the repository, and started hacking away at it. My hacky version solved my problem, and I chucked it up on the .org plugin repo. It eventually started solving other people’s problems.
The initial response was sort of a slow trickle. It wasn’t like I put it up and people went nuts. It went up, and at first like a couple people downloaded it, and then a few months later, a few more. It was really slow. The funny thing is people didn’t download the free version much until the pro version launched, and then free downloads went through the roof. I think it tripled, if you look at the download stats.
So the free downloads tripled when the pro version launched?
Yeah, something like that. (source)
Let’s talk about the launch here. You solved the initial problem for yourself where you put the code together. But that obviously was not productized code to let out into the wild yet. But you thought there was something potential and you put it up on WordPress.org. Did you think when you first built it did you think it was a product that could become profitable?
No, no. Like when I put it on .org, I was like here you go world. In 1998-99, that’s how I learned. I find that now, it does take time to put quality code out. You gotta polish your work before you share it, otherwise I’d be putting out code everyday right? It didn’t solve a lot of people’s problems at first because if you look at the stats there, it didn’t get a lot of use.
With something like WD Migrate DB, developers love it. It’s a developer’s solution for developers. You took this plugin as a product, put it up and kept perfecting it because you are an engineer, right? At what point did you start to think, you know what? Maybe I should start polishing it into a product?
Yeah, I released it in March 2009, the original. It only occurred to me, sometime mid-2012 that maybe people that are using that plugin would be willing to pay for a pro version of that making it even easier. So I dreamed up some pro features to add.
In August 2012, I put out a big update. I didn’t really change it or update maybe once a year or twice a year, including a big one where it was four times faster. I noticed right around that release it was pretty popular, around 100 downloads a day.
To test out whether people would buy, I added this thing to the site that was a pro version question mark? I asked my users a simple question: How much would you pay? I also added a comment box for whatever they wanted to add. The field sent me an email for every response. I collected 300 email addresses, which is a pretty good list to launch with. My only mistake was believing that they would all buy on day one – 300 people times this many dollars. People say they’re going to buy, but they hem and haw, and then finally buy a few months later.
You were asking people from .org?
Yeah, they could submit the form, with their email addresses: 289 said yes they would buy, and 69 submitted and said no.
Did you get any more information from the no’s?
Um, no. The could enter comments, but that’s it. There’s a few people saying they couldn’t afford it or not enough money. On average people said they’d pay $28. The minimum someone said was $2 and the maximum was $200.
We hear a lot of talk from entrepreneurs saying ask your customers what they would pay? Was this the first time you had done something like this to potential customers?
Yes, exactly. This is huge, this was before the reviews launched on .org. I had very little feedback before besides complaints about bugs. I’m getting all kinds of thing now that they launched the reviews. The survey is where I got that. It really cheered me on to build this thing. It made it a lot easier.
So the WordPress.org plugin repo has been a great place for you to get customer feedback?
Yeah and I had just validated my product. I put my survey in just a month before. Now, it’s super easy for people to get that feedback and going forward with a pro version.
For the next time around, how would you begin to determine whether a plugin is an actual business opportunity?
I really think you have to approach people individually in the beginning. You have to ask developers to use your code. It’s very hard if you’re not known, because people are not going to take you seriously if they don’t know who you are yet.
I was really lucky in this case again, I was already familiar because a lot of people using my products. One of my biggest promotions came from Tom McFarland. He ran a giveaway on his blog that was huge. Brought in a lot of sales. Those kinds of things are huge. Those one-to-one connections can make a huge difference. Especially with the WordPress market being so young. It’s hard to market because the market is so small, and they feel like they already know it or they’ve searched Google for a plugin already.
I also put up a landing page for the plugin and marketed it through Twitter. I used a hashtag and said “Hey Developers! Check out this plugin I’m developing.” I got 23 emails addresses from that. 23 potential sales from Twitter, is pretty good. It’s so low cost, and still engages with the community.
That’s perfect. That’s actionable. Even if someone is starting from scratch, they can go to a WordCamp to network and sit in on sessions. There’s not a way to shortcut this, you kind of have to be diligent. You have to build up your credibility over time.
One thing I get at launch that I mention to other entrepreneurs is using everyone’s first names in your email marketing. When I initially got the email addresses from the form, I didn’t get their first name. So my emails couldn’t say “Hi Austin!”, it would say “Hi!” which in email marketing is a huge no-no. So I went through each email address individually and used Rapportive to try to figure out their names, or I just searched the web for emails. I think that’s important.
How important is knowing some email marketing to being a successful entrepreneur these days?
It’s huge. Everyone uses their email as their central hub. Facebook wanted to co-op email but it’s never going to happen. Email just seems to win, it’s the age-old dependable technology. It’s the central hub. Social media is too, but it’s still just a channel like the web. It’s the difference of pushing it out to everyone and just pushing it out to someone. That’s the difference. It seems everyone is catching on to that, so I’m afraid of losing my advantage.
I think theres always going to be room. There’s no way to hack building a real relationship. And that’s what an email represents at the end of the day. One of the rejections I hear developers say is I don’t want to do the marketing, I don’t want to be salesy, I want my code to speak for itself.
You don’t think developing and a relationship is important with customer? Are you selling a product to support yourself and other people and make a living or not? What is your goal? Why are you selling software? If you’re not willing to make connections with customers, what’s your motive? What the hell?
What if someone says I just want my code to speak for itself?
Then that’s a hobby. And that’s fine, but maybe you shouldn’t sell software. At this point, I’m super excited to grow a team, hire people, I just love everything I’m doing.
Any final thoughts? What should we look for to come from you soon?
Well, look for a new version of WP DB Pro, a lot more add-ons. We have a road map on our blog about what’s next. I’m still bouncing around other ideas. From a business perspective, I’d like to diversify. I had this conversation with a couple other entrepreneurs, they had some sleepless nights. What happens if this thing blows up and I’ve got nothing else? It could be a non-issue.
Never a bad idea to diversify your income streams.
You could argue that it detracts from your focus. You’re taking time away from a product that works. But I am looking for the next income stream.
No problem man. If you need anything else, just gimme a holler.