We spoke to four top plugin developers to understand what it takes to build a chart-topping plugin

Life as a WordPress plugin developer
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„It was sort of a natural evolution“

Duane Storey and Dale Mugford run BraveNewCode, the development studio behind mobile site plugin WPtouch. The free version has been downloaded over four million times from the WordPress plugin repository, and BraveNewCode now has five people working full-time on development and support of WPtouch Pro.

W&P: How long have you been working with WordPress?

Duane Storey: It’s actually interesting – I was in the Vancouver area. I’m an engineer by education, in the VoIP field, and I actually had a bit of an accident and was injured. And as part of the cathartic, sort of, process, I set up a WordPress blog, and I started writing. It was almost like an online diary or whatever, just to sort of talk to people and let people know how I was feeling, and I went through some surgeries and recovery. But because I’m an engineer and I have sort of a software background, I started immediately tinkering around with WordPress and eventually started writing my own plugins and whatnot. So that sort of naturally snowballed into where I am today, with full-time working on WordPress plugins.

W&P: Why did you start developing WPtouch?

DS: It was actually a proof-of-concept we did a long time ago for a famous Canadian musician called Matthew Good. At the time, we were working on his website, doing client work, and Dale and myself thought it would be kind of cool to try and make an iPhone version of the site, so you could access it from all of the sites. Because, y’know, it would be cool to see tour dates and stuff like that, all the sort of musician content on his site.

So we hacked that out in about a week, and we launched it on his site, and it became really popular with people – because the iPhone was really new at the time, this was like five years ago. People really took off with it and what we were doing, so we decided to change it a bit, make it less musician-centric, and then we put a version of that in the WordPress repository. Since then, I think we’re up to 3 million downloads on that one. [laughs]

W&P: When did you decide to create WPtouch Pro?

DS: It’s funny, because it was sort of a natural evolution. I was telling someone else about this the other day – it became so popular, it became unsustainable, and we had people emailing us all the time. And we were just moonlighting, doing WordPress stuff – y’know, Dale and I both had day jobs. And I’d get phone calls on phone, people asking for my support… so we really did hit a point where we really did have to make some money on it, or give it up. And we didn’t really want to give up on our vision of WPtouch, what we wanted it to be. And we were really worried that if we sort of let everybody attack it, it would become this least common denominator sort of product.

So eventually we just hit a point where we had to make some money off it, so the idea was to make a commercial version which had a few more bells and whistles, and also came with support. We launched that almost three years ago now.

This is just a preview – to read the rest of the article, download your free copy of Web & PHP Magazine.

„The plugin was really just a stone around my neck“

Joe Dolson runs a web accessibility consultancy and develops WordPress plugins on the side. His most popular creation is WP to Twitter, which allows tweeting of blog posts from within WordPress. Now at 1.5 million downloads, it is supported by a paid equivalent, WP-Tweets Pro.

W&P: How long have you been working with WordPress?

Joe Dolson: I’ve been working with WordPress since 2006… yeah, that sounds about right. And I started developing plugins in 2008. And my biggest, best-known plugin, WP to Twitter, is actually the very first one I wrote. Which was not the plan, it’s not like I was saying „Oh, I’m just going to learn how to write a WordPress plugin and it’s going to become hugely popular“. That was really more of a surprise than everything else. So that’s kind of the path I took was, y;know, just decided I’m going to sit down and I’m going to learn how to do this, because I think it’ll be applicable to my freelance and development business. And then it turned out to start getting more popular. And that’s when I had to start thinking about things like doing pro plugins.

I view it in some ways as I had to start thinking about it, because though it is actually – I feel it’s valuable to contribute free plugins to the respoitory, and I don’t regret doing that at all, but it is in no way profitable. For a long time I would publish the per-download earnings that I had on plugins, based on donations. And it was, y’know, a quarter of a cent per download kind of thing. Not exactly, y’know, not even paying for my development time or support time.

So, my path was more along the lines of „I have an existing plugin which is quite popular“, so I built an upgrade that people could purchase. And that’s been pretty effective at supporting the development needs and processes for that plugin and support.

W&P: The free version of the plugin, WP to Twitter, has now had over 1.5m downloads… how did it become so popular?

JD: I’ve been working with WordPress since 2006… yeah, that sounds about right. And I started developing plugins in 2008. And my biggest, best-known plugin, WP to Twitter, is actually the very first one I wrote. Which was not the plan, it’s not like I was saying „Oh, I’m just going to learn how to write a WordPress plugin and it’s going to become hugely popular“. That was really more of a surprise than everything else. So that’s kind of the path I took was, y;know, just decided I’m going to sit down and I’m going to learn how to do this, because I think it’ll be applicable to my freelance and development business. And then it turned out to start getting more popular. And that’s when I had to start thinking about things like doing pro plugins.

This is just a preview – to read the rest of the article, download your free copy of Web & PHP Magazine.

„I’m not really interested in having a very large userbase“

Mikko Saari is the developer of Relevanssi, an enhanced search plugin which has been downloaded from the WordPress repository over 300,000 times.

W&P: When did you start developing WordPress plugins?

Mikko Saari: Well, I’ve [only] ever developed this one plugin, and it started in 2009. So, four years ago. And that’s basically because I needed it for myself. I wasn’t happy with the search in WordPress and I wasn’t happy with the available plugins to fix it, so I had to make my own.

W&P: When did you decide to create a commercial version?

MS: That’s been around… two years or so. So, it’s been a while. I first started asking for donations, and got some. And then it dawned on me that people might actually want to pay for this. So I came up with the premium version, and it’s been pretty good business. So it was a good move.

W&P: If you wanted to, do you think you could turn Relevanssi into a full-time job?

MS: Yeah… it’s kind of close at the moment. I could just about, almost, feed my family with just Relevanssi. And that’s pretty good, because if I worked on it more and put more effort into the marketing part of the equation, then I could easily see it would make enough money to be my prime source of income. And it’s kind of been my backup plan – if my current job fails, then I can continue [to] put more effort into Relevanssi.

This is just a preview – to read the rest of the article, download your free copy of Web & PHP Magazine.

„The biggest challenge is the support load“

Michael De Wildt is the developer of WordPress Backup to Dropbox, which has has been download over 300,000 times in the past two years.

W&P: Why did you start developing Backup to Dropbox?

MDW: It was a personal need. So basically my blog got hacked by some script kiddies, and got defaced, and at that time I didn’t have a backup solution, and so I thought I’d better go get one. And basically, in the plugin directory, all the ones that worked were either insecure – for example asking for your Dropbox password in plain text and storing it in wp-options [table]. Some of them just blatantly didn’t work, and the other ones were just way too complicated like that. Plugin developers seem to have a thing where they really just want to add every single feature that everybody asks for, and it’s just overcomplicated and makes things really hard for the user. So I basically cracked the shits and wrote my own, that I wanted to be super-simple and just do one thing, and one thing only.

W&P: What challenges have you faced while developing the plugin?

MDW: So basically, the biggest challenge is the support load. Once you get up to 400,000 downloads, 80,000 users, for one person that’s a significant amount of support [to provide]. I get probably about two or three emails a day, two or three posts a day, all this sort of stuff that I have to try – not to mention development as well! So it kind of comes to a balancing act of: how much time do I spend the issues that people are whinging about, and how much time do I spend telling people that I’m fixing the issues they’re whinging about? If I ignore them, they crack the shits and leave, but if I respond to them then I don’t have time to fix the problem they’re whinging about! So it’s kind of like a catch-22 there.

This is just a preview – to read the rest of the article, download your free copy of Web & PHP Magazine.

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