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Why WP App Store Failed

TL;DR  — WP App Store failed because I failed to get it into people’s WordPress dashboards, it didn’t really solve any painful problem, and there aren’t enough quality commercial plugins yet. But I pivoted a while ago and now have a thriving new business. WP App Store has been rebooted as a mailing list for deals on WordPress products.

In May last year I launched WP App Store, a marketplace built-into the WordPress dashboard. The idea was to bring an Apple App Store -like experience to WordPress. I had gotten an excellent inventory of themes and plugins together from the most recognizable brands. Nearly everyone I talked to thought it was a great idea. I had great advisors cheering me on and some financial investment so I could focus 100% of my time on it. How could it fail, right?

Well today, I shut down the store. I built what I had set out to build in terms of a technology but not in terms of a business. The sales were few and far between. There are probably a hundred reasons why it failed, but I’m only going to discuss a few that I think are most significant.

WP App Store Reboot

Before we get into that though, I would like to announce that I’ve also rebooted WP App Store today. We have a pretty good size mailing list and I’ve established relationships with lots of talented people who sell great products, so I’ve decided to bring those two things together. Once or twice a month, I’ll send out an email to the list with an exclusive coupon code to get a percentage off some quality products for WordPress. That’s it. Very simple, but hopefully people will find value in it.

Now, back to the reasons why WP App Store failed.

Distribution Strategies

We knew from day 1 that we wouldn’t succeed if we had to ask people to download our plugin from our web site and manually install it into their WordPress dashboard. We were making the buying process for WordPress products easier, so asking people to do all this first nullified that value. I mean, look at the steps involved in installing a WordPress plugin zip:

  1. Download the plugin zip
  2. Login to the WordPress dashboard
  3. Go to Plugins > Add New
  4. Click Upload
  5. Click Choose File
  6. Find the zip on the hard drive that they just downloaded
  7. Click Ok
  8. Once the upload is complete, click Activate

If you’re at all familiar with running an e-commerce web site, you know that the tiniest obstacle between a customer and purchasing can have a significant impact on conversions. Years ago when I worked at ActiveState, I changed a select box with two options in it to two radio buttons, added a little extra copy, and visitor-to-trial conversions increased 50%. You can imagine the kind of negative impact the not-so-subtle obstacle of installing a plugin would have.

But like I said, we knew this from the start, so we had a couple of strategies we were counting on to eliminate this obstacle.

You may be wondering why we didn’t just add the WP App Store plugin to the WordPress.org repository so people could search for it and install it in just a couple steps from their WordPress dashboard. Unfortunately for us, marketplace plugins are not allowed in the WordPress.org repository. We checked.

Product Integration

wpas-installerThe first strategy was to embed an installer into themes and plugins. The concept was simple: get developers to add a snippet of code to their themes and plugins to introduce their customers to WP App Store and allow customers to install the WP App Store plugin with one click.

The snippet that I developed worked great and WooThemes added it to all their themes. Unfortunately, their customers started complaining as soon as it was rolled out. Many didn’t know where the menu item had come from. They were confused by it. Some thought their site had been hacked and that it was spyware.

Two months after adding it, WooThemes removed the installer from their themes.

In those two months, we saw significant gains in registrations and sales, so this mistake was costly. Clearly the WP App Store menu item should have been tucked under the WooThemes menu item to make it clear that it was part of the theme.

Web Host Integration

The second distribution strategy was to partner with web hosts and have them include the WP App Store plugin as part of their WordPress installs in exchange for a cut of the revenue. I was particularly interested in the web hosts offering low-cost shared hosting. Since they are dealing with such small profit margins, any additional revenue they can generate from a customer is significant.

This tier of hosting also tends to be rife with do-it-yourselfers, setting up their own WordPress web sites. I wanted to create a flow for these people, where immediately after doing a one-click install of WordPress from their web host’s control panel, they would be presented with a screen to choose a theme from WP App Store. Once they choose a theme, it would bounce them to a screen to choose plugins to extend the functionality of their theme.

I was pleasantly surprised by the initial interest from web hosts. I figured I’d have to reach out to them and expected that getting their attention would be a challenge. But just after launch, I had calls with a couple of large web hosts and there was a lot of enthusiasm.

Unfortunately interest waned and they put the idea of a partnership on hold. Some said they wanted to see some traction first. And so it became a chicken and egg problem. Web hosts wanted to see traction first, but we needed them to get traction.

Nonproblem

Let’s take a look at WP App Store’s selling points:

  • Curated marketplace — only quality WordPress themes and plugins
  • Browse products from all the top brands in one place
  • All vendors verified to provide top-notch support
  • One-click to buy and install a theme or plugin
  • All your theme and plugin purchases from different vendors in your WordPress dashboard
  • Purchases are synched to your existing account with the vendor (new account created if you don’t have one)

Where is the painful, time sucking problem that people will step over their own mother for a solution? It seems obvious to me now that there isn’t one.

In fact, it doesn’t seem to me that a marketplace really solves a problem itself unless the products it sells aren’t available anywhere else. Then the problem they are solving is making products available. The iOS App Store is the only place you can get apps for iOS. Most of the products on ThemeForest and Code Canyon are available exclusively from their marketplaces.

Immature Plugin Market

In October (5 months after launch) I conducted some customer interviews over email and most of the feedback concerned our plugin catalog.

  • Not enough of a selection of plugins
  • I wasn’t interested in any of the plugins
  • Prominent plugins are missing (i.e. Gravity Forms, Backup Buddy)
  • I already own a Developer license for most of the plugins
  • I want to buy a Developer license, but that isn’t an option (we only sold a 1-site Personal licenses)

I could count the number of quality commercial plugins on one hand when we launched. In the past year and a bit though, I’ve seen a few new ones hit the market that are exciting, but it’s not exactly an explosion just yet.

I think we are close to a tipping point with plugins. Maybe similar to where we were with themes in 2008. It’s one hell of an opportunity for plugin developers. I can hardly wait to see more talented developers releasing quality plugins and building a businesses off of them.

The Pivot

In November last year, on the advice of my advisors, I decided to refocus on a new venture: a pro version of my free WP Migrate DB plugin.

The new business has been doing great and I talk all about it in the following BostonWP Meetup presentation:

We still chipped away at WP App Store here and there, making our product catalog available on our web site, redesigning the plugin listing, tweaking the WP App Store plugin, and finally just a few months ago, enabling purchases from our web site. Unfortunately, none of these changes made any noticeable difference to conversions.

And so today, almost 2 years since I first started hacking at the code, I finally shut it down.

  • omarabid

    Dude, what’s wrong with you? People subscribed to “WP App Store” the WordPress plugins store and not to a marketing mailing list. You are basically spamming people. I just unsubscribed from this list.

    p.s.: I liked the WP App Store idea, and I think its execution was poor and that’s why it failed.

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    Thanks for the feedback Omar, but could you elaborate on why exactly you thought the execution was poor?

    I’m sorry you feel I spammed you. Since you’ve unsubscribed, you won’t get any more emails from me. I really hope others people do not feel the same. If they do, obviously I’ll shut down the mailing list.

  • Nuno Morgadinho

    Thanks for the write-up Brad. It is really interesting for me to read about what happened while executing this idea because I always though it was such a great one. I’m excited about what products you will be marketing on your list and I’ll keep an eye on your blog. Cheers

  • Pippin Williamson

    I don’t see this as spammy at all. I personally signed up because I was interested in the WP App Store and thought it had great potential. As a developer, a business owner, a customer, and a user, I greatly appreciate Brad’s transparency here. I truly appreciate that Brad is willing to explain to the world why it failed, as opposed to just letting it sink into the dust. The original list was designed for people to hear about near products in the WP App Store, and now it is being used for announcing new products and deals in the WP “app store”, a.k.a., the WP product ecosystem. Absolutely nothing wrong with that.

  • http://mattreport.com Matt Medeiros

    Thanks for the honest write up Brad and like you said in our interview — a great idea that perhaps is/was ahead of it’s time.

    Here’s the to the future!

  • Maxime Jobin

    Sad to see you go. I had the same idea as you when I launched PlugPress in 2011. Your idea of contacting businesses before being ready was a big eye-opener for me. We had a comparative vision but a different way of executing it. Finding a way to team up would, I think, have brought the best out of both projects. We are closing our store in November. This is such a need to add access to commercial products from the WordPress repository. It’s sad they changed the rules when we got in the game (because of plugins like ours). It would have been great for everybody.

    Good luck with your next project! I am moving on too…

  • Maxime Jobin

    IMHO, the fact WordPress repo won’t accept project like app stores is definitely a show-stopper.

  • ryandonsullivan

    Mad respect for laying out the whole process here and being so transparent about it. Anyone willing to show the world their successes AND failures gets some major points from me.

    That said, maybe we can just get one of the core team to roll WP App Store into 3.7 :)

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    Thanks Ryan! Hah, if I were to guess I’d say there won’t be an app store built-into core in our lifetime. :)

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    Thanks Matt, the support is much appreciated! :)

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    Awesome Nuno, thanks for the support!

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    Thanks for the support Pippin! I didn’t see how it qualified as SPAM either.

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    Yea, it’s too bad it didn’t work out for either of us. Thanks for the best wishes and I hope you too have better luck in your next venture. :)

  • Adam W. Warner

    Echoing others here with best wishes and the thanks for transparency of the entire process. There are definitely lessons to be learned by all of us running our own WordPress-based businesses with plugins and themes.

    It’s unfortunate that it didn’t work out as everyone who was excited and involved hoped it would. Just too many hurdles to overcome in terms of adoption and the number of available products to be included.

    That said, everything happens for a reason and I’m happy to see you continuing forward and using this experience as a stepping stone to the next successful project(s).

    Here’s to you Brad for giving this a shot and for sharing it with the rest of the WP community:)

  • Maxime Jobin

    I would argue you are right. The only option I see is if Automattic decides to create an app store and force it into the repository. Only them can change the rules or not respect them…

  • http://www.strangerstudios.com Jason Coleman

    Yeah, I don’t see it as spammy either. Just add a sentence or two to the top of the first promotional email with a link to unsubscribe.

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  • Lullo

    Your WP App registration does not work. Well done.

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    Thanks Adam, much appreciated.

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    What registration are you referring to? Do you mean the subscribe form at http://wpappstore.com?

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  • Bart Dabek

    Brad, really appreciate the breakdown of your approach I’m sure it will help quite a few people in the future. More then anything I think it’s just timing… you were a bit ahead of the curve.

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  • omarabid

    Hey Pippin. I’m also genuinely interested in the WP App Store. When I did read the blog post, I got really shocked as I really wanted this product to succeed and I thought it can have great potential and be of good help for developers.

    I’m not sure why Brad dropped the idea quickly, but I felt a bit disappointed and that’s, maybe, why I come up with a rude comment.

    I apologize for Brad if my comment was harmful. As for the mailing list, I guess people will decide if they want it or not.

  • omarabid

    Well, it is subjective. I think it should have focused on a few high quality plugins and made better integration for them. But that’s just my opinion and it could work or not.

  • Wordpress Loverr

    You will fail on this too…., but at least u r frank :-)

  • Chris Mack

    So, the question of course is why didn’t you just move the menu placement with WooThemes when you started getting the complaints? Seems like if they carried it for 2 months that was more than enough time to get the feedback and make a minor menu change?

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    Good question. I can’t speak for WooThemes here. It’s really a question for them.

    I know if I were them, I would protect my business and after receiving the backlash, I would have been telling concerned customers that it would be removed in the next release.

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    Thanks Bart!

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  • Paul

    I also unsubscribed from the list. I signed up to get info about the App Store. I think that you should close the list and invite people to sign up for a new one if its content is to be radically different.

    Of course, I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you, but WP Migrate Pro is a great plugin and I wish you lots of success with it.
    Just my feeling / opinion :)

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  • ohryan

    Good post.

    I’m curious about a tidbit you included near the end.

    “I think we are close to a tipping point with plugins. Maybe similar to where we were with themes in 2008. It’s one hell of an opportunity for plugin developers…”

    Could you expand on why you feel this way?

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    I think I did in the paragraph before that one. I’m seeing an increasing number of quality commercial plugins being released.

  • ohryan

    I feel like the increasing number of quality commercial plugins are making it *harder* for new developers to enter the market. As in, a lot of the good ideas are already taken.

    Also, I feel like the looming threat of Automattic incorporating your plugin idea into Jetpack is pretty serious.

  • zane matthew

    Just curious how much of your time did it take to maintain? I would imagine once something like that is up and running there would be little to no maintenance, so why shut it down?

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  • http://www.wpuniversity.com/ Ben Fox

    Brad it’s a shame to see you go. My partner and I believed in your idea and were installing the App Store on all our client sites. Unfortunately, as you said, installs weren’t translating to sales. We found that even if one of our clients wanted to buy something, they were still emailing or calling us to go over the their choice and in most cases we heard “Just install it for me” and send me the bill.

    I think your list idea is fantastic and I will be emailing you for more details on how to join it as a plugin provider!

    Thanks for failing so publicly and transparently! If you’re going to Pressnomics, come find me, we’ll raise a glass to fallen ideas.

  • CasparHuebinger

    Thanks for making your experience available for others to learn from. Personally, I never quite caught the idea behind WP App Store, but I absolutely do get the idea of WP Migrate DB. It is a brilliant solution for a single real-world problem (very real at least in the world of WordPress), and it’ll continue to be brilliant as long as it is kept as easy and focussed as it is now. I can’t stop referring it. :)

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  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    Interesting, thanks for sharing Ben! See you in Phoenix. :)

  • carlhancock

    A lot of good ideas are taken? You sound like some of the major theme developers circa 2010 back when they too thought the market was saturated and it would be impossible for newcomers to compete. Bullshit.

    Since that time theme market has exploded and their are more successful theme companies than you can count. The fact that I heard some of these successful theme developers making statements like that as far back as 2009 just showed me how little they really understood business, supply and demand and importantly the size of the WordPress marketplace.

    The same goes for plugins today. Don’t think you can build a successful forms plugin because Gravity Forms exists? Tell that to the guys at Ninja Forms. Don’t think a successful ecommerce plugin can’t be launched because of WooCommerce? Tell that to iThemes and there already successful Exchange product. Not to mention the fact Shopp was already very successful, as was WP E-Commerce, long before WooCommerce came on to the scene.

    The fact that there are successful products in a given space validates that there is a good market for what the plugin provides. If you think you can build a great product you shouldn’t be deterred by existing competition.

    Good ideas are already taken? Mobile phones were a good idea and weren’t a new idea when the iPhone was introduced. Look what it did to the mobile phone industry. It completely changed it.

    Never, NEVER assume that a great product cannot compete with existing competition. If that was the case then the marketplace would become stagnant because competition drives innovation.

    Does that mean every product will be successful? Of course not. But if you build a truly great product and can build up a strong initial customer base of fanatical users then you can leverage their word of mouth advertising to grow organically.

    The WordPress marketplace is absolutely massive and it grows in size every single day. As successful as Gravity Forms is we’ve only barely scratched the surface when it comes to market reach and the same goes for every single commercial WordPress plugin out there.

    Never let competition deter you from building a better mouse trap.

    As for Automattic and JetPack, I think you overestimate it’s impact. Case in point: forms. JetPack provides a built in form solution. Has it had any impact on Gravity Forms from a sales standpoint? Absolute not. In fact, our sales have gone up every single month since JetPack was released. It’s had zero impact. Last month (September) was our best sales month in the 4 year history of Gravity Forms as a product. The month before that was the 2nd best. And so on.

    When we launched Gravity Forms there were already several highly successful form solutions on the market. Wufoo and FormStack being the biggest and those SaaS solutions are still who we view as our primary competition rather than the numerous form plugins that are out there. We also launched Gravity Forms at a time when two of the most popular plugins for WordPress were form plugins… CForms and Contact Forms 7. Not only were they popular but they were free! Did any of these factors prevent us from being successful? Not a chance.

    Gravity Forms sales continue to grow every month and our product continues to get better and better. We have big things planned for the future and while we aren’t worried about the competition, there’s no reason why other form solutions can’t also be successful. There’s plenty of customers out there for people to carve out their own successful business.

    JetPack is Automattic’s tool for bringing WordPress.com related featured to WordPress.org self hosted sites. If you think it’s going to turn into an App Store, or introduce a wide variety of much more complex features such as ecommerce that rivals WooCommerce, forms that rival the capabilities of a Gravity Forms, event calendars that rival Event Calendar Pro than you don’t really know much about JetPack and what Automattic uses it for. It’s very blog centric and it’s purpose is to leverage WordPress.org self hosted users to boost WordPress.com’s numbers as it directly impacts how many registered users they have as well as increases products sales for things such as VideoPress, etc.

    You will never see JetPack turn into something like the WP App Store because Matt fundamentally opposes the concept of selling code. And he’s entitled to his opinion on the matter. His believes on selling code is why all of Automattic’s products (Akismet, VaultPress, PollDaddy, etc.) are SaaS solutions. Free plugins that interact with a paid hosted service. This is why you’ll never see an App Store for plugins built into the WordPress core.

    One thing I will say is if you plan on building a commercial plugin, make sure it’s a product and not a feature. Gravity Forms is a product. WooCommerce is a product. A plugin for creating and managing menus? A feature. And one that would have been squashed when WordPress introduced it’s built in menu management.

    Be smart about what you choose to build. The larger the larger and more advanced the product is in scope, the less likely it would be something that would be incorporated into WordPress core or even JetPack.

    In the case of Brad and the WP App Store he built a great product. We contributed ideas on how he should implement some of the things he did to create how the App Store worked and he implemented them beautifully. Honestly I believe the single biggest factor that held back the WP App Store had nothing to do with competition or marketplace saturation. It had to do with the fact so many buyers of these products are developers building client site who don’t want their clients to have an App Store on their site. They’d prefer to manually install plugins and themes they have purchased. It’s less like the iOS App Store or Google Play where the primary users are standard consumers.

    This combined with the fact with the exception of Woo’s attempts to include the App Store installer within its theme framework, the actual App Store sellers did very little to actually promote the App Store to the community as a whole. For something like this to succeed it would have necessitated the commercial community truly throw there way behind it. They didn’t. And we are just as guilty for that as everyone else, actually more so for a variety of reasons I won’t discuss here.

    Back to your original comment… never, NEVER let the fact that there is already successful competition deter you from entering a market. That is a mistake.

    Above all you need to build a kick ass product. If you build a terrible product and it fails, don’t blame the fact that there was competition. Blame yourself for building a bad product.

  • ohryan

    Hey thanks for the great reply!

    I’m obviously much more of a pessimist than you are :)

    Let me ask you this,

    Do you have any advice for breaking into the market? If I had a kickass plugin that did something uniquely awesome, I wouldn’t even know how to begin to get to word out.

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    Thanks Carl! The point about the commercial community putting their weight behind it is definitely a good point I failed to mention. I could probably write a whole post about that one. :)

  • http://bradt.ca/ Brad Touesnard

    I recommend developing a great free plugin that solves a significant problem, putting it up on WP.org, and promoting it. If the plugin is well built but you’re having a really hard time building an audience around it, it’s probably not a significant enough problem that you’re solving.

    If it is gaining traction, make sure you’re collecting email addresses. Ask your audience if they’d buy a pro version or addons. If so, build it and sell it.

    The hardest part is not building the plugin, it’s building the audience. I talk about how I did this and the numbers involved in this presentation:
    https://deliciousbrains.com/bostonwp-meetup-presentation-video/

  • carlhancock

    First off… Network, Network, Network. Follow the heavy hitters within the WordPress community. Interact with them on Twitter. Join in discussions that you see going on by searching for WordPress related hash tags and search terms on Twitter.

    Why Twitter and not Facebook, etc.? Because Twitter is probably the one place you can easily interact with most of the well known people within the WordPress community.

    Attend and meet them at WordPress events such as WordCamp’s, PressNomics, etc. if you are able to go to such events.

    Before we developed Gravity Forms we were completely unknown to the WordPress community. Nobody knew who we were. We introduced ourselves to the community at WordCamp Chicago in 2009 and used that event to build buzz for Gravity Forms by giving hands on demos to anyone and everyone at the event as well as inviting them to sign up to be beta testers. That created some buzz beyond WordCamp Chicago because of social media and blog posts related to Gravity Forms from that event.

    We kept that buzz going via closed beta testing that we promoted and then we staggered releasing the beta builds to those testers… who in turn discussed and raved about it on Twitter. Word of mouth is the single most important advertising you can get and it’s not something you can buy.

    Network your ass off.

    Another way to market is with an affiliate program. Although some within WordPress have scrapped them and had issues with fraud, etc. But we’ve had no issues with our affiliate program. But you have to police it. Don’t just approve all affiliates and keep an eye on it. Don’t payout to your affiliates immediately, delay payouts by 30-45 days to account for chargebacks and refunds.

    But networking and affiliates alone won’t matter if you don’t build a great product that solves a need and has mass appeal. This is a little bit hard to provide advice for because you also have to also enjoy whatever it is you are building. So I can’t really say “Build X” or “Build Y”.

    One good place to start is build a product that solves a need you have that either isn’t currently being served by an existing solution OR you are unhappy with the existing solutions.

    Don’t pick something that is too niche. Sometimes niche markets can be good. But I don’t believe that is the case with commercial plugins. It’s possible to be successful with a niche product, but you’ll have a much better chance if you create something with broader appeal.

    Once you know what you are going to build the most important thing is to build it well. Actually don’t just build it well. It needs to be great. It needs to kick ass.

    If you are building a plugin don’t look at it as a plugin. Plugin implies something small. Something that isn’t substantial. Look at it as software. Think of it as building a software product and treat it as such.

    After you launch and have users actively using the product, the most important thing i’d say is to learn to say NO. That doesn’t mean you outright tell them no. But do NOT, I repeat do NOT add every single feature that gets requested. That is a recipe disaster. It’s your product. Keep it that way. As soon as you surrender what it becomes to your users it’s no longer your product and it will likely contribute to it becoming a failure.

    Once you have a kick ass product and are networking your ass off, don’t expect it to instantly make tons of money. It’s going to be a slow burn. The most important thing is organic growth.

    Gravity Forms didn’t become a multi-million dollar product overnight. It took us 4 years to get where we are today. Creating a successful product isn’t easy, it’s a lot of work.

  • http://www.wpuniversity.com/ Ben Fox
  • http://www.wpuniversity.com/ Ben Fox

    Are they doing anything differently from you?Think they have a shot?

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