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#75 – Mark Westguard on Launching a Plugin Into an Already Competitive Market

[00:00:00] Nathan Wrigley: Welcome to the Jukebox podcast from WP Tavern. My name is Nathan Wrigley.

Jukebox is a podcast which is dedicated to all things WordPress. The people, the events, the plugins, the blocks, the themes, and in this case launching a plugin into an already competitive market.

If you’d like to subscribe to the podcast, you can do that by searching for WP Tavern in your podcast player of choice. Or by going to forward slash feed forward slash podcast. And you can copy that URL into most podcast players.

If you have a topic that you’d like us to feature on the podcast, I’m very keen to hear from you, and hopefully you get you or your idea featured on the show. Head to forward slash contact forward slash jukebox and use the form there.

So on the podcast today we have Mark Westguard. Mark is an agency owner and developer behind the WS Form plugin. And he’s on the podcast to chart his journey in the WordPress space, and the different ways he’s explored to grow the reach of the plugin.

First up, we talk about why mark started to use WordPress. As you’ll hear he already had a successful agency, but he could see that the path to profitability was becoming harder each year. WordPress plugins offered the chance of recurring revenue, which was appealing.

Users of WordPress will know that there are many form solutions. Both free and paid plugins are available, and can handle almost any scenario you might imagine.

We get into what made Mark pick this as an area to invest in. Surely it would have been easier to work on something brand new? Mark does not think so. He could see gaps in the market and built his solution to cater to those. This involved plenty of market research and analysis of where to put his development efforts.

We then move onto the subject of turning a well-developed plugin into a viable business. It’s one thing to build a product, but if you’re going to make it commercial, much of the work will revolve around ensuring that the world knows about it. Marketing is a relentless enterprise, and one that you should not ignore or underestimate.

This might mean getting yourself out into the community to meet with other WordPressers, appearing on podcasts, or sponsoring WordPress events. There’s no perfect answer. Just run with what works and try out new things all the time.

After that comes support. Mark’s pretty clear your product will succeed or fail based on how you handle support requests. He thinks that the development of a plugin inevitably leads to support tickets, and this needs to be factored in right from the start.

We also get into the subject of pricing, and what Mark feels was the right price to pitch his plugin. Is the WordPress ecosystem guilty of expecting a lot from plugins at prices which are realistic? How much of the functionality, if any, should be given away in a free version? And how did he decide which features to charge for?

Towards the end of the podcast we stray into the plugins use of AI, and how Mark was an early mover in this area. What can be done with forms and AI, and does he see AI as a technology which is going to grow in the future?

If you’re interested in finding out more, you can find all of the links in the show notes by heading to forward slash podcast, where you’ll find all the other episodes as well.

And so without further delay, I bring you Mark Westguard.

I am joined on the podcast today by Mark Westguard. Hello, Mark.

[00:04:34] Mark Westguard: Hey Nathan, how are you?

[00:04:35] Nathan Wrigley: Very good, thank you. Mark is joining us today. We’re going to have a chat all about, well, I guess building plugins in what is a competitive marketplace. Marketing, launching, creating, having an idea for what plugin you’re going to decide to create. But before we do that Mark, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind spending just a few minutes, give us a potted history of yourself. Who you are. How come you’ve ended up developing on top of WordPress. All of that good stuff.

[00:05:04] Mark Westguard: Yeah. About 26, 27 years ago out of university, I decided I was going to start a web agency. Back when we had to teach companies what the web was. Nowadays everybody knows what the internet is. Back then, we were trying to convince companies that they needed a website. And started an agency. We were quite successful. We were the UK’s second fastest growing web agency at the time. And went through the whole dot com boom and bust, and have been in the web industry ever since.

And about, I want to say about 14 years ago, I actually got into the licensing game. I was marrying my wife and, I’m not a US citizen, my wife is. So we had a bit of an international wedding and we needed to RSVP guests from both countries. So I built an RSVP system, and I thought, oh, other people may want to use this. And I actually licensed it and ended up licensing that to a company called Condé Nast, which people may be familiar with.

They produced Vanity Fair Magazine and also Brides Magazine. I White labeled it to them. And that was kind of my entry into the licensing world. And that company went on for about six, seven years. I had that company for about six, seven years. And then I got back into the web agency game again, and that’s when I started using WordPress.

So that was around about, I want to say, probably about 10 years ago now. We were back in the agency game, building websites and sat down one day with my wife and I said, look, I’m building all these wonderful things for people, great websites, but also software development and apps and things like that. And decided I want to get back into the licensing game and building a plugin seemed to be a good way of doing that.

And sat down with my team at the time and said, look, what do you not like about WordPress? What is, you know, a challenge for you when we’re building websites. And forms came up, and we thought, okay, let’s try and tackle the form problem. And that’s basically what started WS Form, and where I am now.

So really it came from a lot of experience in the web industry, just trying to tackle an issue that we come across personally as a company and wanted to improve on. And that’s where WS Form was born.

[00:07:15] Nathan Wrigley: Do you have a relationship with WordPress going back years and years? Or in your case, did you pick WordPress because you knew you wanted to create some sort of solution that you could sell into the market, and WordPress at the time was the dominant force, so that’s where you ended up? Or have you been building websites with it for many, many years?

[00:07:34] Mark Westguard: We had been building websites with it, yeah, for quite a long time. I was not the one that introduced my company to it. It was actually one of my employees who went to a WordCamp. Really liked the WordPress product, was very keen about it. It took me, I’ll be honest, it took me a while to warm up to it because we were originally building websites from scratch. Literally from scratch, and building the admin things for them.

So the idea of having a pre-built content management system was quite new to me at the time. So, it’s something that we’ve been using for at least 10 years. We’re not by any means like some other companies that have been there for the full 20 years. But yeah, 10 years of building websites, and then more recently getting very much more involved in the community and building plugins.

[00:08:17] Nathan Wrigley: So the desire was to build a plugin, to sell something into the marketplace, give away a free version as well. And you’re casting around and you’re thinking, okay, what thing could we build?

[00:08:29] Mark Westguard: Right.

[00:08:29] Nathan Wrigley: Why forms? Of all the things it feels that in the last 10 years even, or more, there have been some incumbent players. I mean, some players have come, some players have gone. But there’s been some solid competition, some rivals in that space. What on earth were you thinking there? Launching into a marketplace which you could have already described as possibly saturated.

[00:08:54] Mark Westguard: Partially madness I think. I think that we saw a genuine gap in the market there. There were some frustrations that we had and that other people had as well. You’re right, it was a very saturated area. It’s a very well established part of WordPress.

Every website needs a form. We don’t particularly like building them. Without a form, you’re not going to get any feedback from your customers or from potential customers or whoever’s using your website. We saw that there were better ways that we could do certain things that were lacking in some of these form plugins.

For example, mobile responsiveness, actually being able to build a fully responsive form with break points. We weren’t very happy with the number of plugins you had to add to get a form plugin to do what we wanted it to do. There were performance issues. There were styling issues. So all these things were things that we could improve upon. And so we embarked on that journey.

We thought it was going to take, five, six months and four years later we’re still here building more and more for it. So it’s certainly been a big challenge. So basically we just saw a genuine need there and thought we’d go ahead and tackle it.

[00:10:03] Nathan Wrigley: I wonder if you’d, if you had done any market research in the WordPress space, aside from forms? You know, whether you’d thought about building, oh, I don’t know, a page builder or a caching plugin. You know, all these other things where there’s lots of scope, there’s a lot of ways to differentiate yourself and so on.

So the question really is, what kind of market research did you do inside the WordPress space, if any, to figure actually forms is it? You mentioned that you found a need and you described all of the different things that you felt were lacking. I wondered if you’d ruled out other types of plugins?

[00:10:36] Mark Westguard: We did, we looked at other plugins in the space that we were using as well. I think the thing that attracted me to it personally is probably my programming background and my desire to integrate one thing with the other. Which has been a big part of WS Form. Before I had my agency, I was working for a company called Sequin, who are now owned by IBM and I worked in their communications team, and I worked on networking.

So we would integrate one machine with another. The challenge of making that integration process easy with WS Form was something that attracted me as well. One very simple example, a lot of form plugins you have to go off, get an API key or set an app up. It was a very long process just to get your website connected to a third party platform. And I saw that a lot of these platforms we’re now using OAuth, which is a very simple way for users to be able to connect their platform well from one platform to another.

And so I wanted to incorporate that into WS Form, which is one of the things that we’ve done. I think it was looking around at where we saw that there was a gap in the market. Granted, a small gap in the market because it was a saturated area. But also just a desire to build something that would interest me as well.

[00:11:46] Nathan Wrigley: I’m wondering if there were people listening to this podcast who have a desire to get into WordPress plugin development. Let’s stick with plugins, particularly. I know there’s a whole range of different marketplaces, themes and so on. But if we just stick with plugins, I wonder what your opinion is of the marketplace. Whether or not the growth of WordPress, which inexorably seems to go up.

It’s the low forties at the moment. I don’t know where it’ll be the next time we hear that figure. But it does seem to just sort of keep edging up. So the audience is growing, but equally the number of players getting in, developing plugins, it feels like there’s not just a plugin for that, but there’s often multiple plugins for that.

And so speaking to people who are considering this as a career, do you have any pearls of wisdom? Any advice for people in that space? Is WordPress still a land of bounty, or is it more, as you might imagine everywhere else, a story of hard work, trial and error, occasional failure and so on?

[00:12:55] Mark Westguard: I think that there are two distinct types of developers in the WordPress space. You’ve got people that just genuinely just want to build a bit of software that’s open source, and want to support the community that way. And they’re not necessarily interested in monetizing it. Those that do want to monetize it, you’ve really got to run that business like any other bricks and mortar business. Don’t think that you can just write a plugin, put it in the repo, and suddenly start making huge amounts of money from it, because it just doesn’t work that way.

You’ve really got to market it properly. You’ve got to be, in my opinion, if you want to be successful in the WordPress space, you’ve got to be part of the community. And that means giving back. If you want to be successful, but also respected in the industry, you’ve got to give back in the community and be part of it.

In terms of other advice I would give would be, and we can talk about this later, but marketing. And different things that I’ve tried with marketing that have worked and haven’t worked. It’s very easy to pump a lot of money into marketing and get nowhere with it.

I’ve found that the whole WordPress ecosystem is a very different way of marketing. There’s a lot of established brands there. Be it people like yourself, Nathan, with podcasts. Or people in the hosting industry that they’ve got a big customer base there and you need to be in with those people.

But you know, you don’t just approach them and say, hey, here’s my product. You’ve got to build genuine relationships with people. The WordPress community is just a wonderful group of people that all want to help each other and all want to respect each other. And you’ve got to be part of that. You’ve got to be respectful and you’ve got to be friendly and get on with these people and build genuine friendships and relationships with them in order to grow.

[00:14:33] Nathan Wrigley: Let me just rewind a little bit, but I will come back to marketing that we’ve just mentioned, but you mentioned the community and how you thought being involved in the community was a good way to figure out the path that you want to take, but also to get some, I’ll use the word credibility in the WordPress space.

What do you mean? What things have you done in the community which you feel have either given back, so that’s in one direction, but also have benefited you, so that’s other direction. What things have you undertaken? What events have you been to? Things have you sponsored, whatever it may be.

[00:15:08] Mark Westguard: Yeah, I think in terms of relationships with people, that can certainly help you get exposure of a product. So maybe contributing to a podcast or something. It’s only small amounts The thing that I’ve found is there’s no single channel in the WordPress space where you can say, hey, here’s my product, and expect thousands of people to learn about it.

It’s a very distributed community of lots of small channels. And you need to be involved with all those different channels to get a bigger voice. So, yeah, contributing to say podcasts. Just getting people using the product that enjoy using the product and those people can become almost brand advocates naturally because they like using the product.

I mean, obviously you’ve got to have a good product in the first place. And that’s someone we can talk about. What product do you decide that you want to build in the first place? I think that, going back and then I’ll come back to your point, is there’s a lot of plugins out there that can be done better. There’s plenty of scope out there for improvement. You don’t have to become the next big thing that no one’s thought about. So I think that’s an important thing to consider.

So, WordPress has like five for the future, for example. And I know that’s not very well defined at the moment. They’re still trying to work out other ways to say, hey, you know, you’ve done that. We’d like to recognize that as part of that five for the future. But doing WordCamps is one of the biggest things I spend money on.

Primarily it’s to meet new customers. Demo the product. But it’s also building genuine relationships at these events, which has been really great for me. So, meeting people in all walks of life form hosting companies to other plugin companies. I’ve met people at other plugin companies at WordPress events, like WordCamp, and we’ve built an integration between us and then you’ve got co-marketing going on there.

So anywhere where you can identify a business that has an existing customer base that you could potentially plug into by developing something that will genuinely help those customers is a good way of increasing your of sphere of influence.

And it’s also just doing things like giving back to things like Big Orange Heart, for example. And we’re also doing something right now with GiveWP where they’re going to be giving away three websites to three nonprofits. And we try to donate licenses wherever we can to help out with that. That in turn, WS Form will appear on something, and it may only be seen by a handful of people, but the more and more you do of that, the more brand awareness you get.

And I’m about doing that type of community work rather than trying to pump money into Google AdWords or a Facebook ad or you know, an Instagram ad or whatever it may be. Really you are pushing your product in people’s faces. I find that if people are recommending your product, you’ve got a much higher conversion rate, and really word of mouth business is the best business you can get.

[00:18:04] Nathan Wrigley: You mentioned that you’ve been in different lines of work in the past, and I don’t know if in those lines of work you were customer facing. In other words, if you were selling directly into that market. So you may able to answer this question. But, in the round, broadly speaking, how easy or difficult has it been, in your estimation, to get a product to the point where it’s self sustaining. It justifies itself.

It’s no longer a pet project. Something you do at the weekends and in the evenings. It’s now your actual core business. I wonder how easy that’s been or if it’s been surprisingly difficult. If there’s any challenges come your way and you’ve thrown your arms in the air and said, oh, wish I’d never got into this in the first place.

[00:18:45] Mark Westguard: Yeah, it’s been a big challenge. And it’s been very different from a business model that I’ve been used to. I used to be a web development agency where I would get in the car, go to a meeting, meet a company and sell a website to them. Or I would join an RFP process, you know, and pitch myself against two or three other companies and hopefully win the business.

With this, it’s been very, very difficult. I’m sure there are some plugins out there that come out that people have jumped on and have been very successful. But building a sustainable subscription-based business is a challenge. We are selling high volume, low price products. Our base price is $59, which doesn’t go a long way to pay the bills. So you need a lot of those in order to start building a sustainable business.

The nice thing about it is when you get to the point where you’ve got that critical mass and you’ve got enough people renewing their licenses, and fortunately we have a very good license renewal rate, it starts to become a sustainable business and it starts to, in effect, snowball.

But it’s taken us a good, I’d say three, four years to get to where I’d say that we’re in the clear, we’re profitable, we’re doing great. I actually went to a Post Status event, in Oklahoma a few years ago, and I met some other plugin developers there. It’s actually one of the first times I’d sat down and had the chance to have a beer with somebody about their WordPress business.

And it was really interesting sitting and talking to them. And gauging from them where they are in their business. They were saying after year two, three, if you’re starting to make good profit then, then you’re on the right path. So it certainly wasn’t an overnight success, and I wasn’t expecting that. I expected this to be a much more long slog to get to where we are.

And really, I guess it depends on your business model. There are other people in the industry, you know, take for example Newsletter Glue, a newsletter plugin for WordPress. They changed their business model from lots of small customers to much bigger customers and less of them. Which I think is really interesting and quite brave of them to do.

But that seems to be working well for them. I guess it just depends on what plugin you’re developing and what your price point is and as to how long it’s going to take. But it’s certainly taken a lot longer than I expected it to.

[00:20:57] Nathan Wrigley: But I guess you, having had those chats in the past, you were prepared for that. Let’s say two year slog. Where it wasn’t necessarily going to be a case of, okay, I’ll just toss this into the marketplace and by this time next year it’ll all be ticking over. There was hard work. Support to be done. We’ll get to that, but all of these things, continual development and so on.

A takeaway from that would be, yeah, don’t expect riches quickly. Address the problem of the next couple of years, and I guess in your case, you had other work, other lines of work which you could rely on and develop this at the same time?

[00:21:34] Mark Westguard: Yeah. This was very much a career change for me because I was in the agency space building websites. Which I love doing, but the web development space has changed significantly in the past five, six years. And that’s something I recognized early on. Another reason I wanted to get back into licensing.

We had the likes of Wix. We had the likes of Squarespace, and to an extent now even WordPress making websites so easy to build. I mean, I’ve actually built a website for a friend yesterday. I used Kadence and I had something whipped up in an hour. 10 years ago that would’ve taken us three weeks and a team of five people to do it.

So, my industry was dwindling in terms of the revenue that I could create from it, and that’s why I, you know, I moved to this space. But I think, going back to your point, there’s a lot of hurdles with building a plugin. You’ve got to find the good plugin that you want to build. You’ve got a development period to actually build that product, which can be a considerable investment.

Then you’ve got a period of time where you’ve got to build that customer base up. Where you’ve not got the income coming in. So for me, I was looking at three, four years before I was breaking even. And I was very fortunate that I had my agency to fall back on. So I was running those in parallel. For some people that may be a need to get some investment. A loan or whatever to get through that period, and actually build the product.

[00:22:53] Nathan Wrigley: Let’s get to the pricing piece before we return to the marketing, because I always think this is a curious conversation. On the one hand, you’ve got a really interesting crowd of people in the free open source software space. A large amount of things which are literally free as in beer. You don’t pay anything. You can use it how you like.

And, then you’ve got obviously people like yourself who are developers and need secure an income and so, there’s this tension, this conflict between price high to ensure that you can survive and you don’t need to go through thousands of users in a year. You can do it with a modest amount of sales.

And then there’s this constant pressure to drive down prices and make licensing as cheap as possible. A, because everybody likes things that are as cheap as possible, but also you’re in competition with other people and that slightly skewed marketplace, which free open source software, like WordPress, has. There’s definitely a little bit of tension in pricing created there.

How did you decide on the pricing? You know, did you have that pang of, okay, I’ve got to go in low because that’s what the market can take. I’ve got price against what all of these other plugins are doing. I’m curious about how you make those decisions.

[00:24:11] Mark Westguard: Looking at competitors in the space was a big part of that. Looking at what they were pricing themselves at. Because at the end of the day, somebody looking for a form plugin is maybe going to shop around at the, maybe the top four or five that they find online, right? And if my price was way over the others, they would’ve just chosen one of the other companies.

Back then, it was harder for me to differentiate myself against those other plugin companies. That’s changed over time. I’ve really found a niche more in the kind of enterprise, developer level, form development. That price sensitivity, I saw it in Facebook groups, in even tweets and things like that. People saying, well, this is, you know, even $10 more than the other customer.

So it’s a very price sensitive area, in all of the plugins that are out there. You’ll find that they’re very, they all have very similar prices. I am told constantly that I am too cheap, and that I should put my prices up. But I feel like I found a sweet spot and I’m happy with it right now. So I don’t really want to rock that boat and change things.

The other thing to consider is what is your pricing model? There’s a lot of talk around lifetime deals and annual subscriptions, and I have stuck adamantly with annual subscriptions because I wanted to build a sustainable business. And I’ve seen far too many plugins, some of them fail, because of offering lifetime deals.

They’ve got a critical mass of lifetime deal customers, and then there’s no additional income coming in. They’ve got to constantly find new customers to stay alive. Whereas having the annual subscription, that enables me to reinvest that money in the business. Enables me to continue providing good support to those customers on an ongoing basis. And it builds a firmer business. You’ve got that annual recurring payments coming in, which helps keep the business afloat.

So, yeah, it was a combination of getting the pricing right, and also getting the actual business model correct. And also the products that you offer. So we have three different versions. We have a personal, which is $59, all the way up to an agency, which gives you everything for 249 currently. And getting those prices right across those different product levels was important too. But I think we’ve got a pretty good sweet spot now, and I’ve got no plans to rock the boat.

[00:26:25] Nathan Wrigley: But it was a journey. You’ve arrived at this model over time.

[00:26:30] Mark Westguard: Yeah, even the naming of the product types was a challenge as well. You know, what do we called it? And we decided with agency in the end, that seemed to fit quite nicely with the customers that we were working with.

[00:26:42] Nathan Wrigley: Given the market that you’re selling into, and we talked about it just moments ago in terms of the pricing and, I don’t really know how to describe this, but the community that gathers around open source software, I think there is a slight difference to that community. And obviously WordPress is just dominated by that flavour

Coming from commercial, enterprise clients, that kind of thing. I’m just wondering if your marketing had to shift. If there’s any sort of subtle difference or advice that you would give to anybody? Do you go in for the hard sell? Do you go big on Black Friday? Do you modify your language in a certain way that seems to be appealing to the WordPress community? It’s hard to encapsulate what that question means, but I hope you’re getting a flavour of what I’m trying to say.

[00:27:24] Mark Westguard: It was interesting when we did our first WordCamp that in order to be at WordCamp, we weren’t allowed to say that we were the best form plugin out there, or that we were the ultimate form plugin out there. There’s always a tendency with businesses to say that isn’t there? To say, yeah, we’re the best.

And I usually, if I ever see that, I’m like, okay, well then you’re not the best. But, that was interesting to me. We actually changed our slogan to just say, build better forms, rather than the best form plugin out there. That started me on a journey with WordPress in terms of being very careful about what we said as a product.

And it also started me on the journey, obviously with WordCamps, about being very respectful of the WordPress industry. Being very respectful of the WordPress community, and finding out very soon on that they don’t like being told that you are the best product. They want to hear that from respected names in the industry.

They want to hear that from other users that are in the community, or people that they work with. So I found that the best way for us to grow was genuinely to do two things. Build a good product, that worked well and did better than other products. And secondly, offering exceptional support. And that’s something that we’ve really, really focused on.

So, support for us is our number one focus. And good support results in good word of mouth about your product. It results in good reviews. And it results in people wanting to talk about your product, and spreading the word about the product in the WordPress community.

That in itself has made the process of getting the name of WS Form out there, a much longer process. But I feel that at the end of it, we’ve got a stronger brand name out there and we’ve got a stronger product.

[00:29:14] Nathan Wrigley: You mentioned there good support, and obviously if I’m a purchaser of a plugin, nobody thinks that’s a bad idea. So on my side, customer, good support, great. On your side, supplier, good support, well, presumably that is a lot of hard work. It would be interesting to explore that message for people who may be wanting to launch a plugin.

Is support a question of, you know, occasionally logging into your email and dispatching a few emails once or twice a week. Or is it more than that? I’m guessing that support is essentially, well, I’m going to make up a figure. Half time might be spent on it?

[00:29:52] Mark Westguard: If you are building any type of plugin, any kind of significant plugin in WordPress. Know that in about two, three years, you’re going to be running a support business. That’s a very big primary function of what you’re doing. So I think you’re right. We’re probably about half the time developing the product, and probably half of the resources goes towards supporting the product.

If you are not providing good support, I personally believe we provide exceptional support. We bend over backwards for customers to really try and help them out. We very much steer our products based upon the support that we’ve received from people and feedback that we get from customers. It’s a critical part of the business and, yes, ongoing development is a very important part of that.

Every time you develop something else for your product, it’s something else you’ve got to support. So you’re constantly improving the product and causing more support for yourself.

I think it’s important as a plugin developer to ensure that you provide as much front end content as possible to cut down those support requests, and make it easier for the customer to find what they want. So, for example, we have an extensive knowledge base. We also analyze what people type in when they’re making a support request to us, and we will fire back suggested articles back to them, to help them get to the information they want without having to raise a support ticket and wait for us to reply.

So yeah, support is a critical part of the business, and will be a large part of what you do if you are in a similar space to what we are.

[00:31:21] Nathan Wrigley: I suppose in a sense, if you are running a subscription business, an annual subscription business, where you are hoping that people when the renewal for the license comes up, you’re hoping that they happily walk through that process and, sign up for another year. So the support in a sense is about just maintaining that, isn’t it?

If you secure the initial sale and then the support is lousy. You really are not giving yourself a fighting chance on next year’s set of scheduled payments.

[00:31:51] Mark Westguard: Yeah. I always remember when I was at university and I did a year out in industry, and they had something written on the wall, and it’s always stuck with me. And it just said, easy to do business with, was one of their terms that they’d like to use with their staff.

And that stuck with me. And I think if you are easy to do business with, which means providing good support, providing a good product. These people will renew, and they will continue to use you. I can say hand on heart, when we lose a customer, it is usually because, maybe an agency is no longer working with a customer anymore. Or they’ve had a website redesign or something like that.

We don’t have people saying, don’t like the product, don’t like your support. And that is testament to the hard work that we’ve put in to building the product. And, you know, having the passion to provide that good customer service. So I think yeah, you know, in answer to your point, having that good customer service will absolutely bring people back, and keep them using your product.

[00:32:44] Nathan Wrigley: Developing the plugin itself, that’s on your schedule, isn’t it? You can decide, right, I’m going to allocate this amount of time. But the support stuff, that just comes in when it comes in. You’ve got no control over that. I am genuinely curious what that does to your work-life balance.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve got a support team, or if you handle all of that yourself. But how that is for you. Because it sounds like a large part of this podcast is really trying to speak to people who may be wanting to go into this, and this seems like a good rabbit hole to go down. It sounds like that’s a big burden, right? And you’ve got to be available during holiday time, weekends, all sorts.

[00:33:21] Mark Westguard: Yeah, I think my personality doesn’t help either. If I see a support ticket, I want to help that person as quickly as I can. It’s weird, some days you can maybe get two support tickets. Other days there could be a huge flurry of 20, 30 tickets. There’s no average that happens every day.

And when you get that big flurry, I like to clear our support queue every day. And that can sometimes mean late nights to get that. And being a small business, that’s what you do. You’ll have those late nights of helping people out with stuff, particularly if something maybe is a bug in the software that you really want to get fixed and make sure that that doesn’t affect anybody else.

So, yeah, some days can be quiet. It’s funny because I have a lot of European customers. By the time I wake up in the US I can usually gauge how busy the day’s going to be, based upon the number of support tickets that I’ve got. But fortunately the vast majority of the tickets that we get are, how do I do this? And I can point them in the direction of a knowledge base article that we have. So those are easy to fix.

If I find that we are getting one or two of the same question, I will write a knowledge base article and refer them to that, in the hope that that will then cut down that particular question in the future as well.

So, support and building knowledge bases or help documentation is a massive undertaking. It’s taken a lot of time to get all that content put together and built. And that’s another thing that plugin developers should certainly take into account is, as well as building your product you’ve got to document it.

Even on the small plugin, you know, some of these. WS Forms are huge plugin. It is tens of thousands of lines of code. There are much simpler plugins out there. But even though smaller plugins need maybe a good page documentation to make sure people understand how to use it.

[00:35:05] Nathan Wrigley: You have got a lite version in the WordPress repository. So just to be clear, for anybody who’s listening to this podcast. There’s a paid version. You can go to Mark’s website, we’ll link in the show notes, but you can also go and download a free version. I’m always curious as to how you make the decision of what to, well, I’m going to say strip out. Maybe that’s completely the wrong way around.

Maybe it’s more, okay, this is what we’re going to build for the repository and then we’ll add on other things. But forgive my language there. How do you come to decide that, okay, this is free. This is not free. What is the process that’s going on there? Because obviously you want to, in some way entice people. But you don’t want to make free version utterly useless otherwise, well, nobody’s ever going to dream of heading in the pro direction.

[00:35:56] Mark Westguard: Yeah, and some plugin developers do make their plugins almost useless, so that you have to pay for the pro edition. We actually wanted to provide a lite edition that was fully usable. So for example, there are some plugins out there that won’t actually store the submissions so that you can view them in the WordPress admin.

And I thought, well, that’s a bit mean. It’s a form plugin. You need to be able to see your submissions and have them as a backup in the database. So we gave a little bit back. We gave back a little bit more than maybe some of the other form plugins do, really to contribute again to the community. To enable people to use the product for free.

And you can build a perfectly usable contact us form, or inquiry form, using our lite edition. And then it was really more of the technical, more advanced features, that we cut out. So things like conditional logic, e-commerce. Some of the field types that were a little bit more advanced, like Google address and things like that.

Obviously we want people to upgrade to the pro edition because that’s how we pay the bills. But we wanted the lite edition to be usable and useful to a lot of people that just want to use a free product. So, you know, that’s another contribution that we give back. We don’t throw up huge admin notices that say, hey, upgrade.

We’ve got very, very subtle things in the product that encourage people to upgrade. So we’ve tried not to be, you know, there’s a lot of plugins out there, a little bit over the top on the notifications on the admin panel. So we’ve tried to cut that down and be a bit more reasonable. We hope that people enjoy using the lite edition for that reason.

[00:37:27] Nathan Wrigley: Although this isn’t directly related to the plugin necessarily. AI at the minute is all the hotness. And I did notice that you had taken the time to build an integration with OpenAI for your form plugin. And I’m curious, what was the thinking there? Because when I approach a form, I’m always thinking, okay, there’s blank fields. I just them out and click return, and obviously wait for a response to come back and so on. What thing does OpenAI or AI in general bring to a form?

[00:37:59] Mark Westguard: Two things for us. So, first of all, from a purely commercial side of it, we like to integrate in with new systems because it opens up a new audience for us. And also OpenAI had a lot of marketing going on in the industry. People were very interested in it. I was as well, I was curious about it.

I researched OpenAI and I found out that they have a moderation endpoint in their API, which means I can send it some content and it will tell me whether or not that content has bad language in it or bad words, or is it violent content or whatever. And I thought, hey, wouldn’t that be great for WordPress spam protection?

So I looked into it more and I was able to integrate in that moderation piece, so that when a form is submitted, it analyzes what the person’s typed in. If there’s anything to do with violence or whatever in there, it will then reject that form submission. Then I looked at the other endpoints such as the image generator. So people may be familiar with that, with DALL-E. Where you can type in, you know, make a boat floating on the moon, or whatever crazy thing you want to create an image about.

And I was able to pull that into a file upload field, and I thought, well, that’ll be great for creating an avatar for a new user or an image for a blog. So that got incorporated. And then I thought, well look, all these other endpoints that OpenAI offer or actually have a use case, on a form. So we use the, what they call a completion, which is where you type in a question and it will then give you a response.

That has actually been very useful for our customers that have a supporting environment. You can actually tell OpenAI what your business is, where your support page is, et cetera, and it will actually respond almost as if they’re an employee of the company. And we’ve had some people using that application. So, after researching it, found it had quite a lot of application in the form industry.

So that’s why we had the OpenAI integration. And we’ve just launched it with GPT-4. Which at the time is the latest model that they’ve released. So, it’s actually been a very popular feature. And that add-on incidentally is free of charge whilst OpenAI is still effectively in beta. We’ve got that add-on free of charge.

[00:40:12] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, it’s really curious. I’m fascinated by the whole AI debate. This is not necessarily related to the whole AI debate, but ever since the web came around, essentially we’ve been presenting pictures and words to people, and the only way to really respond to that is through some kind of form interface. That’s what you’ve got.

But a few years ago, along come these devices which sit in the home, which you can talk to. And I just wondered what, it’s a really bizarre question. A bit of a random question. I wondered what your thoughts are about that kind of technology. Getting into the whole, speaking to the internet instead of filling out forms and, perhaps even putting on goggles and all of that kind of stuff. Whether or not you feel that this is something that you need to be mindful of. Do you have any sense that the world is moving more towards voice?

I feel that, certainly from my perspective, I found that to be an interesting technology for a period of time, and now the interest in that has completely waned and those voice devices in my home really only get used for starting and stopping songs, that kind of thing.

[00:41:19] Mark Westguard: It’s funny isn’t it? Because computers, as we know it, have been around for, what, 50, 60 years now. A keyboard and a computer. And I’ve still got a keyboard in front of me. I still like typing on a keyboard. I don’t like talking to computers.

My children are very different. They like talking to computers. I think it’s a generation thing to a certain degree. To your point about keeping up with this technology. That’s very much another reason why we had the OpenAI add-on. I wanted to be familiar with that technology. It is changing the way that we are doing things. People are writing code with it now.

They’re generating images with it. Like it or hate it, it’s changing the way that we’re doing things. It’s being incorporated into products. We are actually working on another AI integration into WS Form, which would almost enable you to develop a form based upon what you type in.

They have a code model for OpenAI, and we’ve been able to take a prompt and actually build a form from what you’ve typed in. So you can say, build me a form for a doctor’s office for booking an appointment, and it will build a form for you. So something that we’ve got to be on top of and we’ve got to adapt and work around it and take advantage of it.

[00:42:39] Nathan Wrigley: That’s so fascinating because in a way it doesn’t in any way cut out the need for a form solution. It merely creates that templating system. So I know that your form solution, for example, when you create a form, you’ve got loads of different templates for different scenarios, and you can click on a button and so that job’s done.

In this case, you would be able to fill that out by just writing in plain text. So, I would like a form with three fields. It’s for my kid’s birthday party. And it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have got a template for whatever scenario I can contrive. But this potentially purports to do that and create a custom form based upon what you tell it. That’s fascinating.

[00:43:19] Mark Westguard: At least a foundation for that. And then on the other side of it, the OpenAI add-on that we have can turn your form into an interactive component where they get an immediate response. And that’s done through prompt engineering with OpenAI. So prompt engineering is where behind the scenes you are giving OpenAI a little bit more context about the question, and then incorporating the question from the user into that particular prompt that you’re sending to them.

And that kind of comes back to that customer support aspect I was talking about earlier on. So I can configure it, and if they ask a question, it can be asked as if it’s your company. So just for an a very quick example, you could say, hey, I am hosting company X, and then the customer may ask, please tell me what your hosting packages are.

OpenAI will then use its knowledge of your business to respond to that and give you a list of the packages they have, directly in that form. Rather than them having to submit the form and wait for a response from a human. It can be used very much to compliment existing forms that you’ve got on your website, to make them more user friendly, and to give customers a quicker response. And if we didn’t have that OpenAI component, we would not be on that bandwagon. So I’m glad that we have that.

[00:44:34] Nathan Wrigley: So it’s almost like a chatbot creation. Whereas at the moment chatbots are very much the realms of SaaS, you are saying that some of this technology can be pulled in. So obviously there is a SaaS side if you like, and it’s OpenAI. But you can bind that to a form and the form can then become much more interactive than it currently could ever be.

[00:44:55] Mark Westguard: Correct. Yeah. It’s funny because people have said to us, can we use your form for a chat interface? This opens that up. This enables it to be a chat. Granted it’s an AI response, but tuned properly it can be very effective. It’s quite scary what you can get back from it.

[00:45:12] Nathan Wrigley: The future is either bright or scary, depending on which side of the fence you sit there. Mark, we’ve probably used up the time that we’ve got available, so just before we pass it over to the audience. I’d like you to, to tell us where you can be found. That could be a social media platform or your website address. Whatever you like. Just tell us where we can find you.

[00:45:32] Mark Westguard: Yeah, so the main website is You can find me on Twitter. I am at Westguard, that’s w e s t g u a r d. And for WS Form, it is w s _ f o r m.

[00:45:46] Nathan Wrigley: Somebody had WS Form. Did they?

[00:45:48] Mark Westguard: They did and they’ve done nothing with it.

[00:45:51] Nathan Wrigley: Well, Mark an absolute pleasure chatting to you. Thanks for talking to us about your plugin development journey, and growing your business, and forms in general. I really appreciate it.

[00:46:00] Mark Westguard: Yeah. Well, thank you for having me on the show. I appreciate it.

On the podcast today we have Mark Westguard.

Mark is an agency owner and the developer behind the WS Form plugin, and he’s on the podcast to chart his journey in the WordPress space and the different ways he’s explored to grow the reach of the plugin.

First up, we talk about why Mark started to use WordPress. As you’ll hear, he already had a successful agency, but he could see that the path to profitability was becoming harder each year. WordPress plugins offered the chance of recurring revenue, which was appealing.

Users of WordPress will know that there are many form solutions. Both free and paid plugins are available and can handle almost any scenario you might imagine. We get into what made Mark pick this as an area to invest in. Surely it would have been easier to work on something brand new? Mark does not think so. He could see gaps in the market, and built his solution to cater to those. This involved plenty of market research and analysis of where to put his development efforts.

We then move onto the subject of turning a well-developed plugin into a viable business. It’s one thing to build a product, but if you’re going to make it commercial, much of the work will revolve around ensuring that the world knows about it. Marketing is a relentless enterprise and one that you should not ignore or underestimate. This might mean getting yourself out into the community to meet with other WordPressers, appearing on podcasts, or sponsoring WordPress events. There’s no perfect answer. Just run with what works and try out new things all the time.

After that comes support. Mark’s pretty clear, your product will succeed or fail based upon how you handle support requests. He thinks that the development of a plugin inevitably leads to support tickets, and this needs to be factored in right from the start.

We also get into the subject of pricing, and what Mark felt was the right place to pitch his plugin. Is the WordPress ecosystem guilty of expecting a lot from plugins at prices which are realistic? How much of the functionality, if any, should be given away in a free version, and how did he decide which features to charge for?

Towards the end of the podcast, we stray into the plugin’s use of AI, and how Mark was an early mover in this area. What can be done with forms and AI, and does he see AI as a technology which is going to grow in the future?

Useful links.

WS Form LITE on the WordPress repo

WS Form website


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WS Form Twitter