Finely crafted WordPress plugins, tutorials, reviews and more.This site has come about in part as a way for me to focus all of my custom WordPress plugin work in one location, but mainly as a resource that I hope will help to fill the gap in WordPress plugin development documentation. My goal with this website is to provide a resource for all levels of plugin development.
In all, 2018 was an incredibly successful year for me and my company, Sandhills Development. We had some great achievements that expanded the team, grew our revenue and profit, acquired a new product, sold two plugin products, branched out into a new market and industry, and matured as a company. We also, however, had some significant challenges that were perhaps some of the hardest yet. I’d like to share some details about each.
When Sandhills Development first started, I had no intention of having a large team and was very reluctant to ever grow the company to more than 5-8 people. Through the growth of our products, however, it has been necessary to increase the size of our team to fill ever-growing resource needs. At first I was leery to allow the team to expand beyond what I felt I could directly manage but over time I welcomed the challenges that are involved with doing so.
Today we are at 19 full time employees and one part time / variable time contractor on the software side of the business, and two full time and two part time helpers in the brewery. We’re preparing to bring on 2-3 more on the software side in the near term.
In March, 2018, we welcomed Tyler Lau full time to our marketing and administration team.
In May, 2018, we welcomed Daniel Goldak to our Easy Digital Downloads support team.
In May, 2018, we welcomed David Sherlock as a variable time contractor to our Easy Digital Downloads support team.
In August, 2018, we hired Jeordyn Hensly to help with retail sales in the brewery. Her role transitioned to brewing assistant and bar tender by October.
In August, 2018, we hired Jacob Unruh to work on the production side (brewing, packaging, cleaning) of the brewery.
In September, 2018, we welcomed Mihai Joldis to our Easy Digital Downloads and Restrict Content Pro support teams.
In October, 2018, we welcomed Mandy Jones to our marketing team.
In October, 2018, we welcomed Tunbosun Ayinla to our AffiliateWP development team.
In October, 2018, we welcomed Phil Derksen to Sandhills Development as a partner and product lead.
Each person that has joined us has been an incredible asset to the team and I’m proud and honored to have each of them working with us.
Sandhills Development team (Mihai not present), September 2018
In the next two-four weeks we plan to on-board three or even four new team members in various roles.
Sales and acquisitions
For the third and fourth time in recent years, I sold two of my earlier plugin products to new owners in 2018. These were products that had tremendous amounts of potential but were falling by the wayside under my control.
In February I sold Fullscreen Background Images to Scott Deluzio. This was one of my earlier products and one of my favorites for a long time. I think what I liked most about it was its simplicity and single purpose. It’s easy for plugins to grow beyond their original scope and become something far and away from the original intention. Fullscreen Background Images was a plugin that always stayed true to its original purpose and I really loved that.
In October I sold Simple Google Maps Shortcode to Gordon at Web Factory. This was another of my favorite plugins that I relished the simplicity of. It literally did one thing and one thing only: register a shortcode that displayed a map of any address.
Both of these plugins had a lot of potential for doing much more but managing them on top of our other projects was beyond my capacity, so I decided to sell off both plugins.
In 2017, when we closed the extension marketplace for Easy Digital Downloads, we purchased a large number of plugins from 3rd party developers and brought those plugins under our own management. That was my first experience negotiating purchase deals of that nature. This year I had another first: negotiating an acquisition and merger with another company.
On October 1, 2018, Sandhills Development acquired WP Simple Pay through a merger.
As we have grown over the years, I knew there was a distinct possibility large acquisitions would be in my future, either as the entity being acquired or the entity doing the acquiring. I’ve had a number of potential acquisition discussions over the years, mostly from parties interested in purchasing Easy Digital Downloads, but this was the first time I was on the other side of the table for a product worth more than $500,000.
I had been considering the possibility of purchasing another company / product for some time but had never landed on any definite targets. The acquisition of WP Simple Pay landed unexpectedly but was ultimately a perfect fit for everyone involved so discussions did not take long.
In May, Phil Derksen, the founder and owner of WP Simple Pay, approached me with a quick email:
Ironically, that email was sent a few minutes after we concluded a podcast / webinar episode on the topic of selling WordPress product businesses.
Phil went on to tell me how he felt he’d grown WP Simple Pay as far as he could solo and was ready to be part of a larger team. His options were to either build a team or join an existing team. Phil and I have known each other for close to ten years (we met very early on in both of our WordPress careers) and we’ve always gotten along great. We share a lot of values and ideals, both in our personal lives and in the way we build products.
We quickly agreed that WP Simple Pay and Sandhills Development could be a great fit, so we moved on to discussing ways to make a merger or acquisition a reality. There were a few possible avenues on the table:
Sandhills Development could purchase WP Simple Pay outright, assuming full ownership of the product, and then employ Phil
Phil could sell WP Simple Pay to Sandhills Development and then move on to do something else entirely
Phil could transfer ownership of WP Simple Pay to Sandhills Development in exchange for cash and/or equity in the larger company
In the end we decided on the 3rd option. Phil was given a piece of equity in Sandhills Development in exchange for Sandhills Development assuming ownership of WP Simple Pay.
WP Simple Pay was incredibly attractive to me for a number of reasons.
The first was that it was led by someone I’d known and respected for a long time. Anytime you work closely with someone, you will get to know them really well. Ideally you get along great with the people you work with. Knowing that Phil and I already had a good relationship meant there was very little worry about culture and personality fit.
The second reason was that WP Simple Pay was already a successful product bringing in ~$25,000 / month with good profit margins. That meant the product was already paying for itself while being operated by a solo founder. With a few additional resources, it won’t be difficult to grow it to $30,000 and beyond.
The third aspect of WP Simple Pay I found attractive as a prospective acquisition was its position in the eCommerce ecosystem. It was successfully serving a niche of customers that neither Restrict Content Pro nor Easy Digital Downloads were fulfilling well, mostly due to the nature of those products and their complexity. By adding WP Simple Pay to our product portfolio, we are able to attract another customer segment, expanding our potential reach.
Since writing my first year-end review in 2012, we have grown our revenue each and every year. In 2018 we continued that trend with an overall increase of 21.47% with a total income of $2,747,500. This was an increase of ~$500,000 over 2017 with a profit increase of 96.65%.
Of the $2.7, our break down between projects was roughly:
There are a few items I’d like to go into more depth regarding revenue.
First, AffiliateWP became our first product to independently surpass a million in revenue in a single year. This was a milestone I was exceptionally pleased with and is a testament to the product we’ve built and the team behind it. Along with being our largest revenue generator, it’s also still one of the least difficult products to maintain and support. It’s incredibly stable and due to it’s stability and high volume, it operates on a ~30% profit margin.
The excess cash flow generated by AffiliateWP has enabled a level of flexibility for us that has been immensely valuable. It has permitted us to take risks, devote team members to new projects, and put efforts into places we wouldn’t have otherwise.
We have extensive plans for AffiliateWP in the next year and I’m really excited to share more information about those soon.
Second, Easy Digital Downloads saw a decline in revenue for the first time. Over the course of 2018, our average monthly revenue dropped from $73,500 to $70,500, with a peak at $83,000 and a bottom of $60,600. Note: I have excluded November from these averages due to the significant fluctuations caused by our annual Black Friday sale. In the first half of the year, we averaged $73,700 per month and in the second half of the year that average had dropped to $66,500.
This decline, while it may not look too terribly drastic, was excruciating to watch and deal with. On average we had a net operating loss of $10,000 every month for six months in a row. Out of the 12 months in 2018, seven operated at a loss ranging from $2,500 up to $20,800. At the end of 2018 we did manage to turn a small profit for Easy Digital Downloads but that was largely due to the influx of funds the annual Black Friday sale brings us.
There are a lot of factors we have considered as possible reasons for the decline in Easy Digital Download’s revenue, but they are mainly guesses. We’ve been unable to nail down one or even many definite causes. A few potential reasons include:
Natural age of a product. It’s possible we’ve simply hit our peak, though I don’t believe this.
We unintentionally out-priced our average customer. This is quite possible.
We face tougher competition than ever before. This is definitely a factor.
Something changed (such as traffic sources) but we haven’t identified it yet.
Business owners got spooked by GDPR and other stricter regulations of online businesses.
We have not succeeded well enough at updating our product offering to hold the interest and value of business owners.
While we are unsure of what 2019 holds for EDD’s revenue, we are fully committed to it and do believe firmly that we’ll be able to continue to grow above and beyond what we’ve done thus far.
The fourth item I’d like to cover is the $74,205 we added through WP Simple Pay. By acquiring a mature product, instead of building from scratch, we significantly increased the rate of revenue growth. Of course we also incurred the necessary expense to acquire the product and its team (Phil Derksen). Due to how the merger / acquisition was done, however, the cost had no direct impact on our cash flow nor cash reserves.
The $74,205 revenue that WP Simple Pay added was purely from October 1 to December 31st. With an average of $24,735 in monthly sales, WP Simple Pay will have a significant impact on our 2019 sales.
The fifth part of our revenue I want to mention in more depth is the $83,367 we earned through Sandhills Brewing. Last year my brother and I seriously entered into an effort to open a microbrewery in our hometown, and we succeeded. The brewery began operating in February, 2018, and opened to the public at the end of April, 2018. We started at $1,181.11 in sales our first month of operation and finished the year with ~$13,000 in December.
Note, some of the reported revenue for the brewery is from investment from Sandhills Development.
I’ll share more on the brewery below.
The final aspect of our revenue I would like to touch on is profitability. In 2017 I stated that one of my goals was to maintain the sustainable profitability that we had achieved. In 2018 I’m pleased to say we were able to hold strong and operated at a 19% profit margin.
This profitability gave us the flexibility to grow, invest, and plan for the future .
I began my career in WordPress with blogging. Early on I wrote multitudes of posts and articles, ranging from tutorials to opinion pieces to product launches. Writing content was integral to everything I did.
As the company grew, however, it became more and more challenging for me to write as frequently as I would have liked and my publication rate dwindled to almost zero. In the last year for example, I’ve published less than 10 articles.
Content marketing is something we’ve struggled with as a company for a long time. We never quite managed to figure out how to consistently produce high quality content on a consistent schedule. We tried again and again but never succeeded.
That is until this last year. At the end of 2017 we put together a content plan for 2018 that included planned content for several months at a time with specific people assigned to write the content. This worked really well but was still a struggle because it required everyone to find time in their already busy schedules to write the content. What it did, however, was pave the way and lay the foundation for a dedicated position in our team for the first time: content writer.
We hired Mandy Jones towards the end of summer to come on as our dedicated writer. This worked really well, not only because it raised the bar for how much content we could push out but because it also significantly lightened the load of the rest of the team that had been working extra hard to produce the content previously.
For the first time in a long while, we were able to publish consistent, high quality content across multiple brands.
Hiring a dedicated writer was an excellent reminder of how hiring the right person for the right role can have a significantly positive impact on a teams’ performance and work load.
Along with the content marketing efforts we pushed forward in 2018, we finally for the first time also managed to establish a real marketing department led both by Kyle Maurer and Lisa Gibson. As a developer at my core, I’ve always struggled with many aspects of effective marketing so it was never a part of the company I felt comfortable managing nor creating.
One of the beautiful aspects of building a team is seeing first hand the skills and values each team member can bring to the table. In 2018 Lisa and Kyle clearly demonstrated their marketing skills and made it clear how much value we could add by having a full-fledged marketing program.
Today we have four full-time team members working in marketing. By the end of the year I expect we will add one or two more.
As usual, there are a number of significant updates surrounding each of our products throughout the year, and I’d like to share a few with you for each.
Easy Digital Downloads
At the end of 2017 we announced a plan for significant updates to Easy Digital Downloads in order to solve some large, overwhelming issues left over from poor early decisions. We originally estimated that we would be able to finish and release the update within the first six months of 2018.
Obviously that release did not happen as we are still yet to release 3.0 and it’s now more than a year past our original announcement. There are a bunch of reasons the release has taken longer, but the primary reason is that the project was simply way larger of an undertaking than we had originally estimated. It was extensive enough that it has taken more than a year of very active development by half a dozen developers to get it near beta ready.
We are now anticipating a beta being ready in the next 1-3 months and we are working to provide for frequent updates on our development blog.
Since we’ve spent so much of our development resources on the development of 3.0, many other areas of Easy Digital Downloads slowed down in 2018, though never to a stand still. We now have a better team than ever before and we’re able to keep continued focus on numerous areas of the product at all times.
As mentioned above in the revenue section, Easy Digital Downloads did see its first decline in sales in 2018. We tackled the problem from a lot of different angles, but two of the most visible are what we did with pricing (yes we changed them again).
In June we launched a new pricing model that introduced “access passes” for extensions. These were effectively memberships that granted access to certain extensions. The lower memberships granted access to more basic or standard extensions and the higher memberships granted access to the more advanced extensions. This is the direction we have planned to take Easy Digital Downloads for several years. We originally launched EDD with what came to be called the “extension model”, where advanced features are sold as separate plugins, each requiring their own purchase.
Over the years we collected extensive evidence to suggest that a la carte extension sales is not a great experience and, oftentimes, is too challenging and/or overwhelming for customers. The access passes we introduced in June were our solution to the problem by neatly packaging all of the extensions into a tiered membership setup.
Except it didn’t work.
We had already seen the model work wonderfully for AffiliateWP and Restrict Content Pro so we really expected the same model to work for Easy Digital Downloads too. After launching the new model, however, our sales continued to decline and they dropped enough that we were seriously concerned that we had just damaged them even further.
Ultimately we came to a conclusion on why the memberships didn’t work for Easy Digital Downloads: we had out-priced our average customer. Even though the membership options were offered at a significant discount over purchasing extensions individually, the price tag continued to scare people off. At least that is what we believed.
On August 1 we lowered the prices for extension passes. That change was difficult to make and not without challenges, but it appeared to have worked:
Aug 1 – Oct 31 compared to previous three months
We are still at a lower monthly revenue than at the beginning of 2018 but we are continuing to see improvements.
Restrict Content Pro
In 2018 we were able to raise RCP’s revenue by more than $60,000 over the previous year. We were able to achieve this by continuing development and significantly upping our marketing efforts for the platform.
Along with the content marketing mentioned above, we also leaned heavily on re-targeting advertising, both of which helped push the needle.
The main focus in 2018 for RCP was the completion of 3.0, which, like EDD 3.0, is a significant architecture adjustment with a re-designed database structure that improves performance and opens the gates for a large number of major features we’ve wanted to build for a long time. The previous database design prohibited a lot of important features.
Restrict Content Pro 3.0 beta was released last week and so far has been running smoothly. We’ll give it a couple more weeks before finalizing the release.
It took nearly a year to complete the 3.0 update, in part because of its size and complexity and in part because we had an unexpected team departure that took its toll on the project. More on that below.
On March 13, 2018, I announced a new website and development focus for Sugar Calendar. The plan was to do with Sugar Calendar what we did with Restrict Content Pro, and that is still the plan that we are working on completing.
Due to a number of reasons, some in our control and some outside of our control, the development and release of the new Sugar Calendar has taken significantly longer than we had intended. Our intentions originally were to have the new version and a series of add-ons released in six months or less from the time of that announcement. That, sadly, has not happened, and we’re not proud of it.
Our communication of the delays that have occurred have also been less than stellar, and for that I want to apologize to each and every one of our customers.
The good news, however, is that we are still absolutely dedicated to finishing the project and I can now say with much more confidence that we are getting close.
We currently plan to release the beta of the new version on, or very close to, February 5, 2019.
AffiliateWP continues to be the most reliable and feature-rich affiliate marketing plugin available for WordPress. Through extensive integrations and wide support for all of the main eCommerce, membership, and form plugins, AffiliateWP has continued to grow and..
I am excited to share that WP Simple Pay has joined Sandhills Development.
WP Simple Pay, led by Phil Derksen, launched four years ago with the goal of offering a simple way to integrate Stripe payments into WordPress. It has stayed true to its goal and continues to be an excellent way to process payments and subscriptions with Stripe.
Since 2013, the team at Sandhills Development has worked to build the best products we can in eCommerce, membership, affiliate marketing, and other verticals. While doing that we’ve learned a lot about what we do well and what we’ve done poorly. We’ve also learned very well the kinds of customers our products work for and those that they’re not quite suited for. We’ve found the gaps and strengths in our offerings.
WP Simple Pay is a product that perfectly fits into several of the gaps in our offerings, so by bringing WP Simple Pay into Sandhills Development, we can do much better at offering our customers the solution that best fits their needs, whether it be complex digital eCommerce or simple payment processing; full-blown memberships or just quick and easy monthly payments.
Phil and I first got to know each other near the beginning of our WordPress product journeys six or more years ago and have consistently communicated since then. We’ve shared strategies, ambitions, and challenges in master mind groups, over many dinners, and frequently consulted each other as we built our products. Phil’s products have used Easy Digital Downloads and AffiliateWP for years and his experiences and feedback from doing so have contributed great value back to me and my team.
As of October 1, WP Simple Pay is now being maintained under the Sandhills Development umbrella. Phil has joined the Sandhills Development team where he will continue to lead and work on WP Simple Pay as well as other projects.
What will change
As with any merger or acquisition, customers may be uneasy and worried that the tool or team they love will change. We fully recognize why that uneasiness happens and want to reassure everyone that the changes that will be made in the next few months will be positive for all.
At first, very little will change. The product will still be led by Phil and the same support team will continue offering top-notch support. We will make a few minor branding updates to bring the product in line with our existing products.
Being part of a bigger team now, WP Simple Pay will receive development, support, and marketing resources from Sandhills Development. After the initial merge and everything is settled in, this will allow us to continue growing the tremendous product Phil has built, and push it even further.
We are really excited to be working together and cannot wait to begin sharing the results of our combined efforts.
In October, 2012, I released a plugin called Simple Google Maps Shortcode. It was a very simple plugin that simply registered a shortcode that could be used to display a Google map of any address on a post or page. The plugin was simple, efficient, and did just the one thing very well. Overtime it grew to more than 10,000 active installs and is still actively used on thousands of sites. Today I’m happy to announce that the plugin has a new home and has been acquired by WebFactory.
Gordan has already released a few updates for the plugin and plans to continue developing it into a more powerful solution for site owners to add Google maps to their sites.
Among other things, Gordan plans to release updates to introduce the following:
A GUI for creating/customizing the final map display
Today I’m really excited to announce the launch of a new, dedicated website for Sugar Calendar! Say hello to sugarcalendar.com.
This is the first in a large series of updates we are working on for our sweet and simple event calendar plugin for WordPress. In the coming months you will see new features released, improved interfaces, numerous add-on plugins, and a whole lot more!
Back in November, 2017, John James Jacoby joined my team at Sandhills Development specifically to work on Sugar Calendar. With the skills and experience that John brings to the table, we will be elevating Sugar Calendar from a small, simple event calendar plugin to a full-featured event platform. Work on this is in progress and a lot of updates will be coming out in the near future.
John and I have both spent considerable time building and maintaining our own event calendar plugins so with our combined knowledge and experience added to the vast wealth of skills at Sandhills Development already, we should be able to deliver a really good platform.
While we are working on the updates, we need to ask a small favor of existing customers. As part of the migration to the new website, we have regenerated all license keys and account records on sugarcalendar.com. In order to ensure your site(s) stays up to date with the latest versions, please follow these steps:
Update to Sugar Calendar version 1.6.6 from within WordPress like any other update.
Full Screen Background Images Pro is a plugin I first built seven years ago that allows site owners to easily configure background images on their site that scales automatically based on the browser size. As one of my earlier plugins, I’m thrilled to announce that it has a new owner and home. Last week, Scott DeLuzio and I came to agreement for him to take over sales, development, and support of the plugin.
I am really excited to see Scott take the plugin further by adding great new features and bringing it up to date with today’s standards and expectations. If you have previously purchased the plugin, or are considering purchasing it, rest assured that you are in excellent hands with Scott.
To help ensure the transfer goes smoothly, let’s address some commonly asked questions for acquisitions like this.
Do customers that purchased from Pippin’s Plugins still get updates and support?
Yes! All customers will get support and updates directly from Scott for the duration of their license key. For example, if a license was purchased from pippinsplugins.com on June 1, 2017, that license will be valid for support and updates from Scott until June 1, 2018, at which time it is then necessary to purchase a renewal from https://fullscreenbackgroundimages.com/.
Can customers log into their account at the new website?
Once all customer accounts have been migrated, yes. Expect an email from Scott in the coming days with instructions on how and where to log in.
Can expired license keys be renewed at the new website?
Yes. Please contact Scott through the new website if you need any assistance in renewing an expired key.
Who should customers contact for help, Pippin or Scott?