9 min read

Building a WordPress Product

Building a WordPress Product

We have just released our first proper product. Why do I call this a ‘proper’ plugin? We’ve released plugins before, but this one is different.

I’m going to run through how we built our latest WordPress product from first steps. How we explored the problem, the market and then our build process.

What is this plugin? Take a look at our introduction to the Grow Plugin here.

Why build a WordPress Product

We have been a client-focused agency since the start. We design and develop WooCommerce sites. Building Grow marks a distinctive break in how we have been doing business.

There are three main reasons we decided to look into product building.


When you are building sites for clients, you are selling your time. Client work is selling hours. Your time is finite, and growth will be significantly more linear.

There are also diminishing returns on your investment in staff. People need people. For management, for their welfare, for their training. If you are in the hours selling game, you have to put your prices up to accommodate this. It’s why a freelancer can be £300 a day, and an agency will be three times as much.

A good example of scalability is WhatsApp, which has grown over five years to have 900million users. It has only 50 staff.

Responsibility and clients

How is the relationship you have with a client different than that of a product customer?


If you look at this image, you can see how siloed departments can create problems and not achieve the intended goal. For example, design and development can not correspond. Perhaps the original specification was not checked by developers or UX. Responsibility can be spread thinly across multiple silos.

With product building, the responsibility is down to you alone. The risk moves onto your shoulders, but so do the potential rewards.

When a client project is a success, you get paid the same for your hours. If a product is a success, then you reap the rewards.

The Flip Side

It is worth pointing out that the reverse is also true for these items. The benefits of client work are that they are not scalable. You can do business with a single client.

Responsibility – well it is not your risk. You are not the one who requires to see a return on investment. You are selling hours.

Hierarchy of needs


We’ve been building the sites of companies for years. They spend with us for a return on their investment. They are looking to grow their business. It’s hugely satisfying seeing the work you have completed be a success and grow your clients companies. It’s also inspiring to see how business can grow.

What if we were to point the skills we have learned inwardly on a project that we could grow.

That would be very fulfilling. The below image is a pyramid of needs. It is used to describe how an individual’s needs change.

These same needs relate to agency development too. When we first started, we took on all the jobs we could. I would drive around the country and have meetings with anyone. I had to fulfil the basic needs of sustenance.

Once we had grown our reputation and financial buffer we could focus in on the niche we wanted. We could choose the clients we were a better fit for us. Do work we loved. We fulfilled our psychological needs.

At the top of the pyramid, we have the self-fulfillment needs. I think this is the apex of agency work and something we want to explore. For us, this was product work, where we held all the responsibility and the risk, but could reap the rewards.

The pyramid chart shows us that needs, grow upon needs. You must satisfy your psychological needs before you can look at self-fulfillment. So it is with our client work, we love it and love it even more for the opportunity it has given us to work on our projects.

Client work has enabled us to do product work. I think they can work well together in an agency. In fact, they have made our work even better!

How to build a product

So we can see some of the benefits and the risk of building a product. What are the steps that you can take to start product building yourself. I think the most important thing is to treat your product as a client. If you always push your product to the back of the queue, then you will find it lies neglected.

We have had to say No a lot in the last few months. It is hard to say No. If prospective clients want to work with you, have an exciting proposition and budget then it is very hard. But if you are not disciplined you will never ship.

It’s hard to have success in the WordPress marketplace. I’ve heard it said that it takes a lot of ’sweat equity’. Sometimes the good plugins are not the successful ones. Just F*cking ship is only so good as a mantra if you can deliver to your market.

The good news is I suggest starting alongside your client work. You can start with booking out a few days a week dedicated to your product. That’s because one of the most important stages of product development is in the discovery stage.

WordPress Build Profit Image from SouthPark

The image above shows how many people approach product building. You want to explore the phase 2 first. What is the problem being solved. A successful product comes after that.

Discovery Phase

A discovery phase helps you learn about who are your customers. What can you learn about the market. How do they work, what are their pain points? Where does your market hang out online? What kind of content do they like? What tone suits them?

A good discovery phase will help you uncover who your customers are. One of the best ways to do this is as a part of the community. If you are viewing from outside the userbase, you will miss a lot of important details. That’s one reason a strong engagement with the community is vital.

In the WordPress world, our potential customers are engaged with blog content, social networks and emails. Strong content marketing addresses this community. You can write and get feedback.

Building Trust

There are a few other factors that you benefit from by having strong content marketing. Specifically if you are providing unique and useful content, you are demonstrating that you are an authority. You are helping others and providing tremendous value to their working lives.

They will know, that you know, and they will trust you.

And trust you for good reason, if you are providing them value and helping them you are an important reference point for them.

Capturing Emails

The other benefit of good content is that when someone finds your site and are impressed you can collect their email address. You can keep them informed of any further content produced they could find useful (and improve your standing in their eyes and the community). But also when it comes to launching your product you will have a good list of potential customers to give your product it’s initial sales.

Does it work?

I haven’t yet mentioned the problem we are solving. The reason for your product. Because you are more likely to solve the problem once you have learned about who it serves. There is no need to solving a problem that doesn’t exist.

There is also the danger that solution is not wrapped up in a way that your market would use. It is likely that there are conventions and expectations that will inform how successful a plugin is.

In summary a discovery phase provides you the:

  • Market Insights
  • Launch Platform
  • Product Validation

Our Discoveries

At the start of this year, I wanted to look at product development. I had a few ideas about some common problems and wanted to explore them. First I knew we had to up our game with content marketing. I set the goal of producing at least four high-quality blog posts a month. Usually I did more, sometimes less.

We also integrated MailPoet and OptInMonster to capture and manage our email list.

We also work with a wide range of clients and knew their pain points. One of the key items we learnt from all this was that stores were not growing as much as the owners expectations.

One reason was down to these expectations, so we engaged with some articles that addressed misconceptions with ecommerce. But we also knew that many of the sites we produced had the capacity to grow significantly more.

We noticed marketing decisions were being made in a vacuum. They were decisions not guided by data.

If the store owner could see their key metrics and compare them to their target, we would enable smarter marketing decisions and growth.

The Build and MLP

You may have heard of an MVP – minimum viable product. A product that can be built: quick, cheap and fast. It’s a common approach to test the market and see if further development is viable.

The Happy Startup have championed the idea of an MLP – Minimum Loveable Product.

I think this approach better suits the WordPress market. Fast, cheap and quick won’t necessarily create a product people love.

It is better to have a smaller group of users that LOVE your product than lots of like it. So what is it that makes a product loveable and successful:

  • Solves a single problem
  • Work with minimum setup
  • Create value (save time or money)

With this in mind, we went about our build with an emphasis on simplicity. We spent a considerable amount of time on the mockups. It’s easier to change things when they are on paper, so make plenty of amends in the early stage.

We did the programmatic elements in Excel and the layout on paper. Again, it’s easier to play and test here than in the code.

We then spent time trying to remove and remove. To make the product more simple. To get to the essence of what we wanted.

Value your time

If your day rate is £400 and two of you spend a month working on the build then you have £16,000 in lost revenue.

That’s just the development.

Remember the project is a significant investment of your time and money. There are rewards if the product is successful, but be mindful of time spent and the associated costs. Ideally track everything so you can measure your own ROI.

Launch (and Patience)

In our experience, the WordPress marketplace has a slow build up. Launch day is not the same in other markets.

For instance, I saw Monument Valley had it’ biggest launch on the Apple store on its first day.

Monument Valley Graph
Not bad for a launch!

That would not be possible with WordPress product. Well, we don’t have an App Store for premium plugins for a start. A steady approach is a smart approach.

I would suggest thinking about the MVP graph earlier. Get passionate customers on board and build from there.

If you launch without preparation, then you will have a very small response.

When Wayne meets Jim Morrison in the desert, he is told “Book the bands and they will come”. Unfortunately, Jim’s wisdom doesn’t apply to WordPress products.

I’ve seen people say all you need is a good product, and the rest will follow, but I don’t agree. I think that’s a given for success, but you need more.

If you look at the plugins people use, they were formed by having a strong discovery phase to determine the problem and the user base.

Wayne meeting Jim in the desert
So, did Jim Morrison give you Del Preston’s exact address? Yeah, he said EXACTLY London, England.

Refining your product

You have a few advocates of what you do. They love it. The best plugins adapt and grow with this feedback. Think of it as an ongoing discovery phase.

First there will be bugs. There will always be bugs and edge cases you don’t find. Be prepared for the first few weeks after launch to push out fixes. You can quickly see if there are even bigger problems you had overlooked.

Then look at how people are using it and what slows users down. Optimise. Perhaps there are some assumptions you have made that are glaringly obvious once pointed out to you. Because we had made out Minimum Loveable Product, we can be nimble and adjust.

We are already working on version 1.1 and will start a larger push on the next version. We’ve learnt a huge amount about usage and been inspired to add some changes from looking at how Grow is being used.

If anyone comes into contact with Grow for the first time, I know they will be more impressed with what comes next.

Keeping the community

We are not stopping our client work. We’ve now got a full-time client called Grow. Treat your products like clients, be sure to tally up the costs (like a client certainly would) and own the responsibility for its success.

WordPress product building has the opportunity for much success but isn’t without risk and upfront investment.

Elliot gave this talk at WordCamp Manchester on 10th October 2015 – have you built a product? Did you find a discovery phase important or did you find other methods better? Let us know in the comments.