As a WordPress power user and developer for more than 12 years, I have seen a lot of changes in the WordPress universe. One thing that has not changed (thank goodness) is that the platform remains free. Additionally, there continues to be a lot of freely available plugins.
The prevalence of free plugins reduces the barrier to entry for someone to launch a business with little or no initial capital. In fact, now with Amazon’s free trial of their AWS products, you can launch an online business with no costs other than the price of your domain. Get a domain at someplace like Cheap Domain Registration and your business could launch for less than $10.
While building and launching a business on free products can be great, there are pitfalls associated with keeping your business on the “free” model.
The Hidden Costs of Free
Microsoft argued this point for years, telling potential customers that the “free-ness” of Linux would end up costing more than purchasing Microsoft Server software because of the cost of maintaining it.
Regardless of how you feel about Microsoft or commercial software, there is truth to that statement. If something is totally and completely free, it needs to have a very large and thriving community of developers behind it to keep it going.
In the case of Linux, there was (and is) a large (and growing) community supporting it. There were also several commercial ventures behind it. Incidentally, the Microsoft approach to Linux changed over the years. It is a great case study that is discussed in Chris Andersen’s outstanding book Free: The Future of a Radical Price (which I highly recommend).
The point is that relying on free only works if there continues to be a community of support around it. Without that supporting community, things dry up and go away. And that can lead to headaches for your business.
Living and Growing Community
We know that WordPress is unlikely to disappear any time soon. The community is large enough to prevent that. It has become more of an organism that grows on its own. Nearly a quarter of the Internet runs on WordPress. If some members of the community drop out due to pressing needs elsewhere in their life or simply lack of interest, others will rise to take their place. Besides this, there is a strong commercial model surrounding WordPress that is committed to it.
But in the plugin community, it is not always so.
You may have found the best whizbang gadget plugin that you love and you will use prominently in your WordPress installation. But will that plugin continue to be developed, staying current with the latest WordPress updates? That is critical if you are building a business.
There are currently hundreds (if not thousands) of plugins in the wordpress.org repository that have not been updated in years.
Developer Support – Why It’s Important
You need to be sure that there is a culture of support around the plugins you choose to use in building your business.
What do I mean by this?
Listen – there is nothing wrong with free. It is a great model. But if something free has no commercial side to it, then you need to look cautiously at how (and if) you will integrate it into your model.
For a small and simple plugin, that may be acceptable. Something simple can be updated or maintained easily. But a large and complex plugin maintained by one developer or a small group needs to be considered in a different manner.
Do they have a commercial model? If so, does it seem viable? How many downloads does the plugin have? Does it appear that the developers convert a reasonable percentage of free users into paid customers?
If not, consider the long term viability of any plugin, whether it is a free plugin or commercial. If developers are not supported they will lose interest. If they move on to other things, that leaves you relying on a plugin that is rarely updated, if ever. This could cause compatibility problems with future releases of WordPress or other core dependencies.
Change Your Mindset
It is interesting that we find so many people in the wordpress.org support forums consider “users” of a plugin to be “customers.” Too large of a percentage feel that because they are a user of a plugin, they are due some kind of support.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no obligation on the part of the developer to help you in any way.
That hardly seems fair, does it?
The preamble of the GNU Public License (GPL), under which all wordpress.org plugins must be licensed (or with a compatible license; and in fact, technically, all plugins, even those outside of wordpress.org, must be compatible with GPL), states the following:
This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE.
GPL licensing indicates that the software is without warranty, and may not actually work for your purpose. This also implies that there is no obligation for the software to be supported.
If you believe that you’re a customer because you’re a user, that isn’t the case. You are a user until you are a customer.
So What About Support?
Free support is great – for all the reasons that I mentioned earlier such as lowering the barrier to entry for micro startups. But as I also mentioned, you also need to expand your mindset beyond free.
You need to not shun the paid support model. If a plugin is free and only free, you are in danger of it becoming extinct.
It’s OK to begin with something that is freely available and get some initial help. But when building a business on a freely available plugin, you must consider how the developer is paid for support. If that developer doesn’t have a paid business model somewhere in the mix, tread carefully. And if you are not part of that paid community, you are, as Andrew Nevins indicated, merely a user. You are not a customer until you cross that barrier and support the developer.
Support can be a two way street. My business which is largely based on the premium support model. While my customers are purchasing support for the plugin, that supports me and the plugin. When it comes to plugins and other software products, I view the term “support” with a double meaning.
Look for plugins that have not only a large number of total downloads, but a large number of active installations. Those are likely plugins that will stay around. (Obviously if something is new, it is going to take time for widespread adoption, but that’s another discussion.) Developers that also have a commercial support model are likely to stick around – but you need to look at that in context of the other elements.