Using Zoho Subscriptions to Sell Our WordPress Plugin

If you are selling a WordPress product then you have some very good options available to you for e-commerce. Most often I see people sell with either WooCommerce and build their own licensing mechanism, or Easy Digital Downloads (and use their software licensing add-on).

Absolutely nothing wrong with these two options. They get the job done and people have built their entire businesses on them.

We don’t use either solution when selling LearnDash. We use a 3rd party hosted (off-WordPress) solution instead.

What we came from.

For a long time we used Digital Product Delivery (DPD). When we first started LearnDash I was working a full-time consulting career so DPD was a good option for quick, no hassle set-up.

We didn’t have a need for licenses back then so it didn’t matter that this wasn’t a feature.

Well, it didn’t matter until it did eventually matter.

We decided to build our own licensing mechanism for DPD. It has become quite elaborate over time but the two main things that it did for us:

  1. Created licenses with various domain permissions
  2. Created an account for the customer on our support site

And as is common place the customer loses access to support & updates when the license expired without renewing.

I really liked DPD. In fact, I still like it. Their team is small but the support is always very friendly and responsive.

Their development on the other hand lagged behind many of the other platforms out there. They do about one or two major updates a year, but in our nearly five years with that platform these updates never really benefited our use-case. Frustratingly, not a single update was for accepting subscription payments.

Selecting our new platform.

I knew we needed a subscription platform but preferred a non-WordPress option (perhaps a post for another time). So I began researching some of the popular platforms built specifically for subscriptions. This brought me to Recurly, Chargify, ChargeBee, FastSpring, Paddle, and Zoho Subscriptions.

The better part of 2017 was spent going over all these platforms, and Chargify was a front-runner mainly because the popular form building plugin Gravity Forms transitioned to it for their own billing. But something bothered me about these platforms. Mainly is that they are quite expensive for doing something that is rather simple.

By way of example, Paddle charges 5% +.50 cents per sale. When you consider that PayPal and Stripe start at 2.9% +.30 cents per transaction it makes it hard to justify cutting into the per-sale profit just to add subscriptions. At least it was hard for me to justify, so that eliminated Paddle (and FastSpring for similar reasons).

Chargify, ChargeBee, and Recurly were intriguing options. All three platforms are well-known for their service. However, when you consider what we were currently paying for selling digital products and compared it to the pricing of these companies then you can understand my hesitation.

We paid a whopping (wait for it)… $16/mo for DPD.

No transaction fees added to PayPal or Stripe. Just a flat $16. Predictable and (in my mind) under-priced. We would have paid more as it was quite reliable.

Knowing this, let’s consider Recurly.

Immediately we would be paying multiple-hundreds of dollars per month. Not a big deal. That’s the cost of doing business and using tech that aligns with business objectives. What kept us from pulling the trigger with Recurly (and the other platforms for that matter) was their expectation of getting a percentage of monthly revenue on top of the hundreds of monthly dollars.

Oh, and $0.10 fee per transaction, which literally makes me laugh… For real? Need that extra ten cents to get by, eh?

Truth told I could get over feeling trolled by the $0.10 per transaction, but I could not get over coughing up a percentage of our monthly revenue “just because”. The subscription billing industry is really configured like private health insurance it seems. You pay for the right to pay more and you start to wonder what exactly it is you get in the first place.

Landing on Zoho Subscriptions.

I’ll admit. I initially wasn’t sure about Zoho Subscriptions.

I actually came across them in January 2017 but sort of wrote them off. They seemed like a third-tier option and I was early in my research. However, after months of digging I ultimately came back to them because of their cost structure.

Instead of paying hundreds of dollars a month, Zoho Subscriptions is just $60/mo. No additional transaction fees. And most important, no random requirement that we fork-over a percentage of our monthly revenue. We did have to get a PayPal merchant account to offer that payment option so that brings us to $89/mo. Still a far cry from the other options.

So for $89 each month we get pretty much everything a platform like Recurly offers without the major fiscal downsides. We spent the last couple months of last year re-building our internal scripts to integrate with Zoho (which has a pretty solid API) and went live with it in 2018.

I would be lying if I said that Zoho Subscriptions was perfect. My biggest frustration is the support that they offer.

For some reason they don’t have a real ticketing system (despite selling a support desk solution…).

Instead, they have phone support but it’s not really that good for technical requests. If you call with technical issues, they raise an internal ticket. You don’t get a ticket number or anything. They just say that they will email you (eventually… and after you follow-up). This gets even more conveluted when you have multiple tickets with them. You don’t have a ticket number so you can’t reference it directly – so you end up having to describe the issue all over again when you call to check on a status.

Calling people for support takes me back to the Dell computer days. Seems antiquated to be honest and can be frustrating.

Another thing that I have noticed about Zoho Subscriptions is that there are so many dependencies that whenever you try to do any kind of “delete” action you are presented with an error message. Honestly, more than I have ever seen in any application… ever.

By way of example, we had to delete a customer record because they requested we remove all info we had because of GDPR. Okay, so we went to the profile and clicked ‘delete’.

Didn’t work.

First we had to remove all transactions. Okay, went to that section and deleted the transactions. Then clicked delete on the profile.

Didn’t work.

Oh, we had refund credit notes associated with the account, so had to go back and remove those. Clicked delete on the profile.

Didn’t work.

I think you get the point. This kind of time wasting makes me livid. We went through and deleted everything and still it didn’t work. So, we had to call into support. Wasn’t solved on the phone of course, they had to raise an internal ticket. Turns out we stumbled across a bug in their system so they eventually worked it out so the info could be purged. Still, we would have needed to go through all those delete steps all the same.

After some initial growing pains we finally got Zoho Subscriptions working with our internal systems. The interface isn’t going to win any awards, but we have no problem accepting payment and managing subscriptions. And well, that was the main objective in the end.

So if you’re in the market for an off-WordPress subscription solution then I’d recommend taking a look at Zoho Subscriptions. You can create a development environment for free without the need to provide a credit card. This is a nice bonus as you can build everything out first before needing to invest into the system.

My Rating: 7/10

+Great API and docs

+Easy to set-up

+Best pricing on the market for subscription services

-Support is frustrating, at best

-Odd UX (quirky) for certain tasks

Saying “GoodBye” to The Renewal Discount Era

Just like “lifetime support & updates”, renewal discounts are becoming a thing of the past.

When we first started LearnDash there were no renewal discounts because, well, there were no renewals.

It’s hard to believe but that was where the WordPress industry was at the time. You paid once for your products and you had lifetime support & updates.

Today you will be hard pressed to find any business running this kind of pyramid-scheme pricing.

Unless of course the business is a pyramid scheme.

Renewals are now common in the WordPress plugin & theme space, but for many years it was normal to provide a discount on the renewal purchase.

I will admit that I have never really questioned why this was the case. If I were to guess, I think that renewal discounts were implemented because the WordPress folks pioneering the renewal pricing structure weren’t sure how people would react to having to renew a license. So, they tried to “soften the blow” a bit by offering a discount.

But just as the WordPress industry needed to evolve away from “forever” pricing, it must also evolve to eliminate discounted renewals.

Discounting renewals unfairly devalues your offering.

When you really think about it, offering discounted renewals doesn’t make business sense.

What we realized is that the discount on our renewals was essentially devaluing our future work. That wasn’t fair to our team who worked so hard on creating and supporting the new functionality.

Now, one argument is that the support burden decreases in year two. I completely disagree with this sentiment for two reasons:

  1. New features elicit new support inquiries, no matter when someone purchases.
  2. There are people who will always ask for support whether it’s year one, two, or five.

I only speak from our experience but I suspect those of you with software products can attest to a similar trend. I think this trend is part of why WordPress oriented theme & plugin providers are shifting to standard annual renewals.

Full-priced renewals are necessary for WordPress products.

Today we see so many WordPress products shifting to the SaaS sector. I’ll admit that I too have been tempted.

Why?

Because support is far more difficult for WordPress plugins and themes than SaaS offerings.

The number of possible plugin and theme configurations coupled with hosting specifications means that troubleshooting can take a terribly long time for a support rep (and possibly developers should it require deeper investigation).

Just consider this (very common) scenario: you push out an update to your software. Person A updates and is super excited about the improvements. Person B updates and suddenly their theme’s CSS is no longer rendering properly on certain pages. They are mad.

Same update. Two different experiences. Two different reactions. This is common place for WordPress and a reminder of what life is like when you don’t control the technical environment.

To bypass this headache plugin and theme shops have decided that they want to control the environment by SaaS’ing their functionality. While this can be good for both the business and the consumer, it also takes away one of the most attractive things about WordPress in the first place: feature flexibility.

Plugins and themes need to remain non-hosted in order to preserve the core value proposition of WordPress. However, this means higher support costs to the business. The logical conclusion is that the renewals need to be full-priced to offset this burden.

This is a major reason why we retired the discounted renewal program.

Who is doing full-priced renewals?

Actually WordPress businesses of all sizes no longer offer renewal discounts. If anything we are late to the game…

Off the top of my head:

  • GravityForms
  • WooCommerce
  • WPForms
  • HeroThemes
  • ThriveThemes
  • WP SimplePay Pro
  • AffiliateWP
  • Restrict Content Pro
  • MemberPress

And many, many more.

If you are a plugin or theme provider then have a look around yourself and you may be surprised to see how many companies have shifted their policy. You won’t be alone. Quite the opposite. You will actually have some very visible company (see WooCommerce).

We experienced practically zero friction in this change. In our case the new policy doesn’t impact existing customers. We honor the contract they agreed to upon purchase as long as they remain with us. Should they end their business relationship, then their legacy pricing expires as well.

I can also put your mind at ease on one thing: removing renewal discounts has had zero negative impact on new customer acquisition.

Not so long from now I suspect that we will all look at renewal discounts in the same light as we look at lifetime support & updates, as an unsustainable policy that hurts both consumers and providers.

Another Productive WordCamp U.S.

After having three WordCamp U.S. experiences (two in Philadelphia and now this one in Nashville), I feel like I have a good grasp on what the event has to offer and how to get the most out of it.

If I am honest WordCamp U.S. is one of my favorite WordPress specific events (my favorite is probably Pressnomics, but that’s a post for another time). I definitely prefer WCUS over most other WordCamps.

It’s not like I don’t enjoy the other WordCamps – I like the smaller ones as well. I always get a chance to meet interesting people from a variety of backgrounds.

As a business owner the amount of productive networking opportunities available at the smaller events just doesn’t compare to WCUS. This event has resulted in more advanced conversations and some pretty lucrative business deals for us in the past.

What I really enjoyed…

Seeing the LearnDash team. Unfortunately not everyone could make it, but it was great seeing those that could. Sure we “see” each other every day in Slack, but you don’t make memories on Slack, you make them by attending events like this together.

Talking with “work” friends. Probably more accurate to just say “friends”, but these are friends I met through my work, so “work” friends it is 🙂 . Just like seeing the LearnDash team, it’s nice to talk with fellow entrepreneurs about their projects. It’s always nice catching up with Jason & Kim Coleman from PaidMembershipsPro, Matt Danner, Mike Hale, Adam Silver Joe Casabona, James Tryon, Shawn HeskethKyle Maurer, Chris LemaBrian Hogg, Alex VasquezSyed Balkhi, Cory Hammond, Andy Melichar, the entire Valet crew, and so many more!

Meeting new people. There are a lot of intelligent people in WordPress working on fascinating projects, such as Marcel from iThemes who is responsible for Sales Accelerator (seriously, go check it out), Taco Verdo from Yoast SEO, Joost de ValkPhilip Downer who has implemented a robust LearnDash powered learning program, Blair Williams, Jennifer Bourn, and a laundry list of ambitious entrepreneurs. It’s really great seeing others in WordPress doing well.

Hallway conversations. Don’t get me wrong, the sessions at WCUS are some of the best. I just love meeting new people and talking business – it’s why you will usually find me in the sponsorship area. The sponsorship hallway in Philly was great, but I think I prefer the format this year (one large room). It made it easy to meet people and seemed more spacious than the hallway space during the previous two years.

Matt’s “State of the Word” address. The annual recap / “what’s next” presentation by Matt is always an event highlight. It came as no surprise that Gutenberg dominated both the presentation and community questions. I particularly found the live demonstration of the Gutenberg features quite enjoyable. WordPress in the “Gutenberg” era will be fine. No one likes change and we have some things to sort out but I am confident that next year at this time the conversation will be a lot different. Less worry and more opportunity.

Nashville. My first time in the city and it was a good change of pace after having the last two in Philadelphia (which I really enjoyed as well, but change of scenery was welcomed).

Event food. Normally catered food is “so-so”, but it’s free (and you’re not required to eat it) so there isn’t any reason to complain. That said, no complaints at all with the lunches on both days. Very good variety and excellent preparation.

Using WordCamp U.S. as a springboard for next year.

First, the event was really well-run. Kudos to the organizers.

Secondly, after this weekend I am energized for 2018. I had really productive conversations over the past three days – some of which will result in pretty exciting developments for our business.

As the calendar year comes to a close I look forward to relaxing a bit and getting a break from the every day hustle-and-bustle of business ownership. I have a clear direction of our next progression as a company, the team is excited about our direction, and we are all motivated to continue making big changes in our industry for the coming year.

See you in Nashville next December!

Should You Use “WP” in Your Brand?

Many new WordPress businesses pigeon-hole themselves from Day 1. Don’t.

As the world’s most popular CMS WordPress has has incredible reach. It’s flexibility has made it an ideal platform to build upon for our learning management system (LearnDash), and certification automation software (SimplyCertify).

Given this immense popularity it’s no wonder why we see entrepreneurs and developers flocking to WordPress. Everything from SaaS offerings to themes and plugins. Developers around the world find in WordPress a platform for fulfilling their entrepreneurial aspirations.

But platform and code are one thing. Creating your business brand is another.

Since the first themes were created for WordPress the overwhelming temptation in the WordPress industry has been to slap “WP” or “Press” into the product or business name.

It’s almost like one or two people did it and then everyone followed.

But when you think about it a bit more, do you have a specific reason as to why it makes good business sense to use “WP” in your brand?

Most people use “WP” in their brand name because others before them have done so. And hey – the domain name is probably available so all the more reason! … right?

Well, not necessarily.

Using “WP” might in fact be a good business decision for you, but if your only reasoning for using it is because it’s a WordPress product then I think you might be limiting your product and brand before you even begin.

The question that forever changed our business…

Not many people know this but before LearnDash came to be LearnDash, it was called “WPLMS”.

Yes, it’s a mouthful.

I even had the domain name ‘wplms.org’ (still own it in fact).

In 2012 I made an aggressive push to build awareness for the brand. The WPLMS blog was growing and the interest was starting to build. I even began to see our brand mentioned in a couple websites after a few short months of content marketing.

But then I got some very candid feedback from someone showing interest. They weren’t rude, but just straight to the point…

“Why are you calling it “WPLMS”? It’s hard to remember… and I keep forgetting that it’s “.org” and not “.com”.

This individual highlighted some glaring problems that I didn’t consider initially.

First, I didn’t own the ‘.com’, but figured that the ‘.org’ version was just as good, or better given that WordPress and all of its plugins live on WordPress.org.

I was wrong. It’s worse.

I realized that people will always assume your domain is “.com” the first time they hear it.

Always.

Plus, even if they do remember the actual domain it’s likely that their “finger memory” will resort to typing “.com” anyway. It’s just what people have been accustomed to. It’s why Android smartphones have a quick “.com” button but nothing for “.net” or “.org”.

Not too long after receiving that feedback I found myself speaking to someone over the phone prior to our official release. The conversation is pretty forgettable, with exception that I clearly remember myself having to spell out the domain name very deliberately so they could understand it. When I was done, they asked me: “So what does WP stand for again?”

It’s at that point that I realized people might not be looking for a “WordPress” solution, they are just looking for a solution.

We scrapped WPLMS and switched the name of our LMS to “LearnDash”. I still consider this to be one of the best decisions we made for the business. It’s catchier, a helluva lot easier for people to remember, and it doesn’t pigeon-hole us to just the WordPress die-hard fans and users.

We aren’t the only ones to do something like this.

By way of example, the WPValet dropped “WP” back in 2016 and just become Valet. Valet’s founder Mason told me once that one of the reasons for this switch was because not all of the work they did was necessarily confined to WordPress and they felt like they were limiting their market potential.

It just goes to show that even if you’re using “WP” right now, it doesn’t mean you have to keep using it.

Well-known WordPress brands bypass using “WP”.

Ever hear of WooCommerce? Of course you have. Notice… no “WP”.

Same can be said for OptinMonster.

And GravityForms.

And Jetpack.

And EventEspresso.

And Easy Digital Downloads.

And Paid Memberships Pro.

I could go on but I’m sure you get the point. While most of these plugins require WordPress they decided to build their brand to be “WordPress agnostic”. My question to you is why not do the same for your WordPress business?

The advantage that these brands have by not using “WP” is it allows them to more easily enter markets that aren’t directly associated with WordPress.

WooCommerce can more easily go up against Shopify while OptinMonster is in a better position to take on LeadPages. We find that LearnDash is able to snap-up some of the target market of Teachable and Thinkific. If the name was still WPLMS, I know we’d have a more difficult time in that segment.

Just something to consider.

Using “WP” isn’t always a bad thing – it can be quite good as well.

I do want to make it clear that it is perfectly fine to use “WP” in your brand if you want to.

If based on your market research you feel like this gives you a competitive advantage or helps to clearly articulate your core value, then by all means you should make a point to use it.

WPEngine WordPress hosting is a great example of a business that has built an extremely successful brand by using “WP”. It works, and works well. You get an immediate sense about what it is they have to offer and who they serve.

Another great example is WP101, the popular site offering WordPress training. In this context using “WP” makes a ton of sense. In an instant you get an understanding that they offer WordPress based courses (and good ones at that). It’s recognizable and incredibly easy to remember.

Deciding what to choose for your brand.

So how do you know if you should make “WP” a part of your branding strategy?

There is no hard-set rule. It comes down to your primary industry and customer — which requires that you do ample market research (something that’s so often neglected by WordPress entrepreneurs).

But here’s an example.

Let’s say you have a WordPress plugin that is designed for design firms to manage projects. It’s sort of meant as a replacement for Basecamp, but is a little different.

Based on the target market information alone, do you think it would make sense to call your plugin “ProjectMangerWP”?

No, it doesn’t.

You could call it that, but design firms don’t necessarily care if the solution is on (or related to) WordPress. They just want to manage projects.

Okay, I cheated a little because this is an actual product from my friend Ross Johnson.

Ross didn’t use “WP” for his brand and came up with the catchy brand name in Project Panorama, which in my humble opinion gives his product a lot more reach.

As you build out your product (or better yet, before you build out your product) try to really identify who it is that will get the most value from it.

Take the time to create customer profiles and then based on those profiles you can make an educated decision as to whether “WP” actually adds value to your brand, or if it instead limits market and growth potential.