Profit Pitfalls of Custom Plugins & Themes

Welcome to Press This, the WordPress community podcast from WMR. Here host David Vogelpohl sits down with guests from around the community to talk about the biggest issues facing WordPress developers. The following is a transcription of the original recording.

David Vogelpohl: Hello everyone and welcome to Press This the WordPress community podcasts on WMR. This is your host, David Vogelpohl, I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine, and I love to bring the best of the community to you hear every week on press this as a reminder, you can find me on Twitter @wpdavidv, or you can subscribe to press this on iTunes, iHeartRadio, Spotify, or download the latest episodes at wmr.fm. In this episode we have a really fun one, we’re gonna be talking about the prolific profit pitfalls of customer plugins and themes. And joining us for that conversation hooked on code, I’d like to welcome to Press This, this Torre Capistran and Torre Welcome to Press This.

Torre Capistran: Thank you so much, David. This is gonna be fun. I can’t wait.

DV: No, I didn’t really think through that title, we’re working on this for this, and having to actually say it out loud there but great the tongue twister.

TC: I think you did fine.

DV: Yes, deer in the headlights, I got it. Thank you. Thank you. Well, for those listening what Tory’s going to talk about today is success she’s found using off the shelf tools in her WordPress agency to deliver success for her clients, particularly around building faster and building more consistently and keeping the costs down for herself and her clients was still delivering that value. And so really kind of focusing off on the kind of third party or off the shelf premium plug in type strategy, and again Tory’s had a lot of success and that’s gonna explain to us here how she did that. Tori I’ll kick it off with you with the same question I asked every guest. Briefly tell me your WordPress origin story.

TC: Yeah, I struggle with brief, but I’m gonna do my best so I went to Southern Methodist University here in Dallas, which is where I am, and went to business school got a degree in marketing and a couple of language minors I love languages. I I’ve been educated in German, Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, and I feel like there’s another one that I tinkered with and that I just gave up on, but I had a lot of language education in my life and after I graduated with a marketing degree and didn’t have a job that really excited me. I sold like 75% of my stuff but my caps and carriers and I moved to a beach in Mexico, and not everybody’s WordPress story sounds quite like this. It gets a little bit more familiar as we go on. So I’m just a very type a person that’s probably a surprise to someone who decided to start an agency, but I was bored I lived, literally in paradise like 50 steps from a beach, and I was bored, so I came up with, you know, something that I wanted to write about blog about and I decided to make, like the creation of my blog project, you know, a real passion project and so in that. I think there was a day I put myself back at school and I taught myself HTML, CSS, the basics of email, HTML, right and that stuff in the 90s, all with lynda.com God Rest your soul. And I took 30 days to build my first WordPress website. And it was horrendous. But that was my learning curve. And then I remember the next time that I tried to build a site it was about four hours and it looks a million times better and I thought, Oh, I could charge money. That was before I actually moved back to the States. So when I came back to the States about six months after moving to Mexico, and I had a job, a real job in corporate America. And I knew pretty soon I wasn’t going to fit in. I did start charging for work so I did start as a freelancer taught myself, all the things about WordPress, as someone who needed a WordPress site right so I was, I really taught myself this industry from an from the eye of the person who doesn’t have enough time to waste on complex solutions. And after about two and a half years in my corporate job. I had enough of a client base that I could leave my position, and open up some code and switch to full time and it’s been, it’s been a really, I hate to sound too casual about it but it’s been really easy, other than the pandemic in terms of being able to deliver value and stay profitable and grow your after year, just I think because of my approach that now we apply agency.

DV: It’s really interesting, I think that you were right the latter part of the story was very familiar kind of building on your own figuring out, you can charge growing it into a business, and data say you’re the first person this guest to talk about an origin story starting with the beach in Mexico. I don’t know if it’s the most bizarre though, we’ve had like factory workers like there’s some stiff competition for that one Tory will have to go back into the archives, so I’ll see where you’re at. Yeah, pretty unique though definitely give you that. So you started hooked on code and because you just like, tell us real quickly like what hooked on code does.

TC: yeah absolutely so but then code was founded in 2014. And what we primarily do is work with, like disillusioned directors of marketing and CMOS at corporations who have been let down by either the inflexibility of their corporate website or the marketing website for the corporation they work at. They feel like their hands are tied. They can’t edit basic things, and they’re frustrated by that they come to us for a lot of times what we call back in, rebuild so we don’t necessarily redesign the site it’s already been approved and they don’t want to change we just make it functional which requires a rebuild, and we make it look identical. And then also, those similar kind of clients that are not, they aren’t really feeling like their web agency is taking much off their plate. They certainly feel like they’re executing on technical pasts that they don’t know how to do, but they don’t, they don’t really feel much relief. You know, they’re still project managing and babysitting and they’re, they’re frustrated by the billing and lack of communication. So what we what we really do is we take the bullshit, out of web design and maintenance. But that’s really what we do, I mean we’re just trying to take, Take the crud out of the very negative common experience happens with a lot of a lot of agencies that are serving that kind of client base, and we try to make it delightful, and we try to be a really, really excellent partner and we do that as we’re going to go into, by being very particular about a really narrow set of tools or tool stack functions very well together it’s primarily three things. And that lets us that that’s one of the foundational things that lets us deliver on a delightful experience and not have so many of those frustrating situations even, they’re not even possible with the way we build.

DV: I like how you could focus on customers that are disillusioned in flexibility in their digital presence, and kind of focusing on freeing them to guessing, actually use their website. I call this freeing your content team and your marketing team from your development teams backlog Jael notion that you’re just like, Yeah, I’ve got these ideas and the developers are like yeah totally like exportar.

TC: Yeah, I mean, I’m, You know I relate to that, as my own marketing person, right. I am, I’m the person who drives like a new strategy idea and I may have an idea and I love it that our team can be on a team meeting, and I’ll go, whoa whoa, let’s turn this into a workshop is everybody on the same page that we should figure this out. And if we’re all in agreement, we just dive in and everybody’s everybody’s in their, their respective systems, taking an idea through to execution and sometimes less than an hour and it could be redesigning and rewarding an entire an entire marketing piece or homepage or, so I feel for the clients that feel locked down by that and I feel the benefit of it, even on our own team.

DV: Yeah it’s it’s it’s a blend. So I’m curious I’m going to ask a kind of a, maybe a quick question here right before the break, but you mentioned your kind of prefer off the shelf plugins and themes, when you started hacking on code, did you ever like, try custom plugins or themes or did you kind of use third party premium plugins and themes from the start.

TC: Yeah, I, so given my background which is not in development. I did not from the beginning, attempts to do custom themes and plugins, there were some smatterings of attempts, as I brought in other like back end developers and other experts as contractors, but it wasn’t our strategy at the beginning that then we went away from. It’s something we kind of started with off the shelf, and then we explored this Oh should we be doing this question, and then we got back to it.

DV: No, no, we definitely should not is so interesting to hear people that have that part of their journey and their agency because I think a lot of people start with the kind of easy tools, and then graduate into like more completely custom things, but maybe at the detriment to their own margins and maybe even their customers experience the same way you discovered as you went through this.

TC: Yeah, that was that was our experience.

DV: Yeah, exactly. So, I want to dig a little deeper on this though, find out exactly what these advantages and disadvantages are a few, but we’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be right back.

DV: Everyone welcome back to Press This WordPress community podcast on WMR. This is your host, David Vogelpohl, I’m interviewing Torre Capistrano about prolific profit pitfalls, using custom plugins and themes Torre right before the break, you were explaining how you embrace using premium plugins and we first began with Darren code because like, that’s what you needed to use to build sites. And you talked about experimenting with custom plugins and themes but maybe not getting the benefit, certainly the speed that you needed to support your businesses for your clients. But I’m just curious, like what do you think the primary advantages or disadvantages are for custom versus off the shelf plugins and themes, what are you trading when you choose either side.

TC: Yeah, it’s a great question. I’m not sure they’ll say anything truly revolutionary but what, what I have noticed is when we went down the path of saying, Okay, let’s, let’s take this project on. We absolutely can do a good job, it is going to require custom plugin A and B, because nothing exists, that we can find that executes a, you know, a really seamless integration between maybe, this, this, this premium plugin that we are all agree we’re going to use and this other premium plugin or this other third party system. So we could tell in scoping sometimes, that if we were to take on that project, it was actually required. So, those are, that’s a unique talking point in terms of this because it wasn’t an either or situation, like, do we choose a premium plugin, or do we choose to custom develop it. It was a choice of do we take on a project that we understand there is not a prebuilt solution for, and we take on the burden of building it. You know it’s not necessarily always going to be the case that there is a solution out there. So when we were running into those projects that we were happy to take and absolutely delivered on the scope what we were realizing when we went back into post mortems for the project. Is it the amount, the our cost of that project in terms of labor and hours. We almost barely broke even, in every single one of these projects, even though they were, they were higher dollar sometimes by a factor of two, of what we were typically building and what we were typically contracting, and there was almost no profit, and then we went back and look it’s not because we had people like me, trying to build custom plugins and didn’t know what we were doing. If I had tried to do that, I would have failed right we have expert back end developers that we’ve worked with for a while and had a great rapport with there were no pitfalls and communication, there were only the kind of normal troubleshooting things coming up and q&a that you would expect in any type of custom project, honestly. But we went back and went through an evaluation. We decided internally that we didn’t feel like what the what the client got as a, as an outcome from that project would have justified, let’s say, doubling the cost of it, which is what if we decided yeah let’s keep doing this week, next time we would have been that same thing we would have probably had to two extra costs so that there would have been some profit. At least a 50% increase right. And so we decided amongst ourselves but we didn’t feel that it was appropriate or ethical I hate to go into ethics here about about pricing but we just didn’t feel like there was a match, based on the product that anyone would have delivered any, any team any just period what they got out of that. And what it would have cost to make it profitable for us to do it. So we we stepped away from those kinds of projects but we also make the choice consciously with every project we do not to go the I’ll say easy route I’m, I’m like, err quoting right here not to go the easy route, and say, Oh yeah, our back end developer could code that in like 30 minutes, and it would it would be a custom plugin that would make that happen but that’s easy. We, we consciously choose every day, not to make that go down that road. And instead, we may spend three hours in discovery as a team, which we’re eating that time because we do, every project, to discover a product, even if it’s a third party non WordPress product, not to open the can of worms too much here, that that achieves that business goal, that is the most appropriate use of their funds and that will give them the most return on the investment, even if it pulls that out of our project scope. That’s not the most common thing that happens, but it’s something we’re open to because really what we’re just trying to do is make sure that our clients technology that they end up with, and the outcomes that it’s delivering them and that the ROI that they’re getting from all of those technological choices which we’re consulting on that it’s positive enough for us to have benefited them and to encourage a long term partnership so really what’s best for them in their numbers in their financials is also what’s most likely to lead to a long term partnership. So I like to think along the lines of longevity, not just because these, these premium themes and plugins are they, they cause less issues in the updating process and I think we’re going to go into that a little bit later, but they also make it much much easier for that platform that we’ve built in particular their WordPress website to just live longer, right, we hear these stories about a Director of Marketing going, oh my god I just finished a website redesign project this agency. It took six months longer than we were quoted. It was, it was like pulling teeth I like stayed up at night and I cried because I had to send an email for the 15th time asking when I was going to see x y&z deliverables and I was promised three months ago right that’s not what I’m supposed to have to do here, and they would jump into a redesign with us or rebuild and that in that instance 10 days, sometime after. After finally launching this new website, because it, because it was dead. It was static, it was just completely costed but I couldn’t edit a thing and they realized that their hands were tied and they were changed.

DV: like you mentioned how the custom plugin projects with like, sometimes 2x The total revenue, like why not just increase your quotes to cover that, you know I guess scope creep or whatever it was that caused you to squeeze your margins like that. Was it that you felt it was unavoidable that that would occur or were you more compelled by the more positive outcomes you saw driving through customers using third party premium plugins.

TC: So it’s, I would say that it’s a mix of both. But there’s this, there’s this brand new publication out by abstract comm called the state of design in 2021. And basically it just talks about how designs can’t just be, you know, pretty anymore. And it’s not just that they have to do what you were asked to make them do they actually really have to. they have to lead to a business outcome that has a positive ROI. And if we as designers aren’t thinking about that and aren’t able to tell whether whether we achieve that, you know, we may be in, we may be in trouble and we may need to handoff those decisions to someone else who’s who can really stay accountable for them. So in the instance of, let’s use that example let’s say project involving a custom plug in app from the outset that we knew that was what needed to happen basically having a breakeven point instead of, instead of two axing the cost of that project, Assuming that the client would have said, okay, yes we have the budget for that and let’s proceed, assuming that, when we, when we did those force motor. When we did those post mortems and we analyze, not just what our profit was but we discussed what that would have looked like for the client. If we had to x, our quote, and, and that was the revenue coming in for that project. Yes, we would have had profit on it. I do, I do not think that there would have been, you know, an equivalent scope creep to always to keep it at breakeven I don’t think that would have happened. But we did not feel like those projects. And in particular, these ones that we had already completed, we didn’t feel like the ROI for the client on them would have been positive. If we had doubled the cost of that, and we went back and analyze, did we did we act efficiently. Did we spin our wheels, did we clock time where we were educating ourselves on particular integration, when we shouldn’t have been clocking that and the answer was no. Every, every hour tracked against that project was truly, you know the cost of labor for particularly that project that we felt really confident that it just wasn’t appropriate.

DV: Yeah, that makes sense I think it’s really interesting to think about it from the velocity perspective, and the ROI perspective, because they know how important it is to get new experiences and test out over and over and over and over again. And if you’re delaying with custom builds and everything. I know we see this of course, even just simple things like landing page strategies you can really hamstring an organization and its ability to grow and I think it’s really healthy that you’re thinking about it not ballistic ROI sets. I want to dig a little deeper, though, in more your strategy and how it affects your business, we’re gonna take a quick break. We’ll be right back.

DV: Everyone welcome back to Press This WordPress community podcast on WMR. This is your host David Vogelpohl, I’m interviewing Torre Capistrano, about the benefits frankly of plugins and themes premium plugins and themes that she’s seen in her business, Tori right before the break we were talking a little bit about your ROI focused approach with your customers not trying to Blue bills for improvements to their site get faster releases to deliver value faster for them and some of the ways that premium plugins and themes help you do that, you’ve also mentioned a few times that you look at projects that you suspect or know will require a custom plug in, and you turn them down. Is that helped or hurt your business to do that are you losing clients. In total, or are you just not getting the projects that you don’t think are a good fit for you.

TC: We, we have not lost any clients over our decision to, to step away from custom theme and plugin development that’s been, that’s been great because most of our most of our clients are in are actually seeing the benefits themselves you know with their hands on the mouse and on the keyboard, they’re seeing the benefits of the way that we’ve been building their websites and their understanding the amount of time that that’s saving them and the amount of money because their website is flexible rather than inflexible. So we haven’t lost any clients by that decision. Of course, and then I don’t really consider. Gosh, I don’t really consider it a loss when we, when we let a potential client know, your, your project requirements are outside of our service range so we don’t offer that service, we can recommend other agencies that do offer that service that we believe in and they’ll do a great job for you, but we only do that when we know that there isn’t a way to address their needs, that’s going to, it’s going to be more profitable for both, you know, their business and work within our service range, if we know that exists, then we spend some time educating our clients about the questions that they’re asking during discoveries, and what the options are that they may not know about. In that case, we’re just trying to empower them to take one step back from their, their requirements that they’ve identified and if they’ve already identified that something needs to happen a certain way, and what, what we know is that it could be, it could be executed in several different ways. We spend our discovery call with them with their approval, actually, as a bit of an education session, and at the end of that they can decide whether they want to go through further discovery with us for our approach, or if they just like to go off with that knowledge for further discoveries, just really don’t. This industry is so dense and it is so populated and there are so many agencies and freelancers and overseas options. I kind of feel like, you know, it’s just the right people that are going to find the right agencies and I don’t really consider it a loss when we end up turning down a project or a potential client because if we’re not going to be able to deliver them an outcome that really helps their business, and that is profitable for us. Why would we spend our hours, like, on, on the planet, not just like our work hours like why would we be spending our human limited hours on something that’s not going to benefit both parties. So I may have gone a little bit too deep there for that question.

DV: I think it’s a very healthy way to look at it. I also liked how you re emphasize how earlier you spend. Remember my agency days I used to tell clients we spend twice as much time on the back end experiences the front end, that would confuse them until they saw it in practice. Yeah, I think a lot of folks go from like building with plugin and some themes and kind of this hybrid DIY approach learning how to make custom themes and plugins themselves, and then like there’s this huge gap in the middle. And in my view like one of WordPress his strengths is its ability to give folks like developers and designers, the palette to create experiences that content creators and marketers, love to use. It sounds like that principle is key to your strategy.

TC: Absolutely it is we do every, everything that we execute every click, that we make every line of code that we type which is limited, usually to like a little bit of CSS, we’ve, we put ourselves in the shoes of a client who would look at that item that’s produced at the end of it the module or the page or the design decisions. And we go we ask ourselves the question, if I as a client wanted to change this, it doesn’t matter why. But if I wanted to, but I figure it out without calling, calling my agency, and we do everything we can so that that answer is, yes, I could figure it out. They would always call us for help, but that’s that’s what goes through our mind, every single day about 200,000 times a day.

DV: I love it. What a powerful thought and Torre thank you so much for joining us today.

TC: Thank you so much for having me. This has been a blast. David

DV: Yeah, awesome to have you here and if you’d like to check out more about what Torre is up to, please visit uncode.com. Thanks everyone for listening to press this WordPress community podcast on WMR. Again, this has been your host David Vogelpohl, I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine, And I love to bring the best in the community to here every week on Press This.

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