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What challenges are there facing WooCommerce plugin developers when working with Gutenberg? Katie Keith shares what she has learned and tells us more about her WooCommerce journey.
In episode 39 of our podcast, Jonathan Wold and I chat with Katie Keith from Barn2 Plugins about:
- Moving their agency to WordPress
- Their decision to start developing plugins specifically for WooCommerce
- Challenges of or motivations toward their investment in WordPress and WooCommerce
- Challenges for a plugin developer around Gutenberg and WooCommerce
- Choosing which new plugin ideas to pursue
- Learning styles and documentation
- Tips on new plugin developers getting into the space
- Added features vs new plugin development
- Katie’s thoughts on the future this ecosystem holds
A Plugin Shop’s Views Around Product Ideas, Gutenberg and What the Future Holds
Katie shares her journey: how they started in the WordPress space in 2009 and some of the twists and turns along the way as they moved from services to products. She gives us insights into how confidence was essential as they moved into the WordPress space.
We moved into what is happening and reflecting on her experience in the past few years, including Gutenberg and her challenges as a WooCommerce plugin shop owner.
I asked Katie about her approach to documentation, how they come up with their ideas and how they decide which ones to pursue as new products.
We rounded off the conversation by asking Katie for her tips on anyone who wants to enter the plugin space, specifically WooCommerce and what she is excited or concerned about in the future of the WooCommerce ecosystem.
- WooCommerce 4.0 Beta 1 is Out
- Jonathan Talks WooCommerce Meetups
Where to find Katie
Jonathan: Hey everybody, welcome to episode 39 of Do the Woo. I'm your co-host Jonathan Wold. And with me today is the man who started it all. Hey Bob.
Bob: Hey yeah, blame it on me. I'm sorry, I apologize to everybody. Yes, I am the one who started it all and I twisted Jonathan's arm to join in at some point here.
Jonathan: You've done a great job. It's fun to see what you've done over the years and this year you've moved to a weekly. That's kind of a big move.
Bob: Yeah. So we'll see how that goes. It's gonna be interesting because we're pulling in more about WooCommerce and the people who do WooCommerce. The story behind them. Everybody talks about storytelling and it's like, yeah, we've done that for many centuries, but I think it's going to be an interesting approach. So I think as we move along, we'll discover some fun stuff about some of the people we have on.
Jonathan: So for those of you who didn't catch last week's episode, you had some announcements regarding sponsors. Do you want to catch people up on the latest?
Bob: First of all, I want to thank WooCommerce as our community sponsor. They are a new big sponsor that's bringing a lot to the show. Of course, you know where to find them.
Jonathan: Awesome. So today, we're very excited. We have with us Katie Keith from Barn2 plugins. She's the Operations Director and she's joining us from a very different time zone. Katie, it's great to have you.
Katie: Hi, thanks for having me.
Jonathan: And for our listeners, tell us where you're based?
Katie: I'm based in England, in the Southwest of England. So I think it's a morning for you guys. Evening for me.
Jonathan: Well, we really appreciate you taking time out of the evening to spend with us.
Bob: So Katie, I want to go into your journey to WooCommerce, but first tell us a little bit more about what you do at Barn2.
Meet Katie from Barn2 Plugins
Katie: We're a plugin company. We used to be a WordPress web design company and we transitioned four years ago to selling plugins. I've wanted to do that for many years, like many people on the plugin side of things. It really took off and that's all we do now. And we very quickly became specialists in WooCommerce plugins. Six of our nine premium plugins are WooCommerce. And we found that was definitely the way to go.
Jonathan: That's fantastic. Katie. One of the things I was curious about. You have had the advantage of being in the WordPress ecosystem for a long time. I think it was like 2009 when you started. Are there any highlights that stand out from your experience by watching the ecosystem grow or any particular lessons that you learned, especially in making that transition from services to products?
What experience stands out for Katie since being in the WordPress ecosystem?
Katie: Yeah, the whole transition itself has been a highlight because it's a completely different way of working. Obviously, the business is more scalable because you create a product and can sell it many times. You're not guaranteed to do that, but we found a good way to do it. So becoming part of the product world has been a real highlight. We've gotten to know a lot of fellow product company owners and it's brought us into contact with people a lot more than when we were doing WordPress websites. I suppose because product company owners, themes, plugins and so on, benefit from working together through integrating our plugins with each other, guest posting for each other.
So we've been a lot more involved in the community since we transitioned. And that in itself has been a highlight. But more widely, a major highlight has been seeing WordPress grow, seeing the community grow, the user base. Obviously in 2009 it didn't have a particularly good market share and WooCommerce wasn't a thing. And now suddenly you've got WordPress that powers the third of the internet and with WooCommerce, was it 30%?
Jonathan: 44% or so.
Katie: It's been amazing to be part of that because we backed the right horse. I remember years ago, my dad, who knows nothing about this stuff, was saying, what's with all this WordPress? Why don't you get into website security? I 'm not saying website security is not good and I'll tell you that you can do that within WordPress, but I feel we've kind of proved ourselves that WordPress was the horse to back.
The decision to focus the business on WordPress
Jonathan: I'm curious about that. Was it an obvious choice at the time or when you think back about it, what gave you the confidence to make that decision to focus the business on WordPress?
Katie: We kind of never did. So when we started building websites, we were using it as a generic tool. We weren't that confident. It was our first business. Back in early 2010 we were thinking, how can we earn a living ourselves without having to be employed? So we were just sort of targeting small local businesses. We didn't have websites because in those days people didn't always have a website, which is hard to imagine.
So we just found WordPress as our weapon of choice for building those websites. We didn't even initially tell the clients that we've been using WordPress. They were like electricians and washing machine repair shops, that kind of thing. They weren't interested in the technology or even using the content management system. So we did that for our own benefit.
And then towards the end of 2010 as a random experiment, I did some Google ad words around WordPress, specialisms. Keywords like WordPress expert, WordPress web design, that kind of thing. And at that time there was a real gap in the market. We paid about 70 British pounds worth on Google AdWords. We had something like 3000 pounds worth of work come in within a couple weeks which at that time was a big deal for the business. So at that point, we realized we needed to be a WordPress company. We needed to not do it behind the scenes quietly, but announce that we're using WordPress and people will find us for that reason. And that got us to work with national and international clients rather than just local because people were seeking a WordPress specialist at that point.
How Katie evaluates the future of WordPress from the last few years of changes
Jonathan: So last question about the history. There's been a lot of change in WordPress. We have Gutenberg over the past few years and there's a lot of question marks and a lot of excitement, but also uncertainty about the future. Has there ever been a point over the arc of your journey so far where you've perhaps questioned, is this the right thing for us to continue to invest in WordPress? Or, is that just a foregone conclusion or how do you evaluate it as you continue to look to the future having watched the past few years of change in WordPress?
Katie: Well, we haven't always been delighted with the direction that is taken from above. Maybe particularly with Gutenberg. The way they didn't particularly listen to feedback, the way it feels imposed on the community. As anybody reading the reviews of the Gutenberg on WordPress.org would see, it's still very, very low. That is the plugin version of it. So while we've seen issues with the leadership, that's of course our biggest doubts with WordPress, which was only a year or so ago. We just thought, well the community is so strong, the professionals working in it will keep it strong despite the issues we saw with the leadership from above.
So while there have been things we weren't happy with, it's open source. Everybody can do what they want to. It's so strong that we didn't seriously doubt it. But I'd say that's the closest we've ever got. Not just the way it was managed, but the way people were listened to.
The transition to WooCommerce
Bob: Yeah. One of the things I find interesting going back to when you said you started in 2010. That's when my brand started. I know that Yoast is celebrating because they started in 2010. Also, Genesis child themes. 2010 was really an interesting time because I felt the same way. I had been using WordPress for about three years and then I decided to really dive into it and make it a major thing by doing everything WordPress. It was a pivotal time and that's interesting to hear. So 2010, fast forward. When was the transition to WooCommerce and what brought that on?
Katie: Well between 2010 and 2016, we were building websites for clients and, and some of those were WooCommerce websites, inevitably. But we didn't, as a web design agency, specialize in WooCommerce as such. We just got experienced with it. We wrote some fairly big custom plugins for individual clients. It was just one tool of many that we worked with. It was more when we started selling our own plugins that we became WooCommerce specialists because sometimes we would create a WooCommerce version of the plugin and the generic one.
I remember saying to my husband and business partner, Andy, one time, I'm 90% sure that the generic version would outsell the WooCommerce version, I was so confident. Well we still have both of those plugins today we have password protected categories, which will password protect any kind of category and we have
Jonathan: That's interesting
Katie: So yeah, similarly we have table plugins. So we have Post Table Pro which take any kind of post type in WordPress documents, doc pasted pages, whatever. And they sit in a table and we have
Jonathan: Yeah, because it's tied to something that's actually impacting the bottom line for the business.
Katie: Yeah, exactly.
Documentation and learning styles
Bob: So you are involved with the documentation and oversee the documentation. I see you wear several different hats in your business.
Katie: Yeah, all the non-coding hats are me. Really.
Bob: Yeah. I can see you're not on the technical side so except in documentation. You have to be to some extent. Now, I did training for years and years and years. What are the learning styles you're seeing with those that buy your plugins? Is there anything that's changed over time? I mean, most of the time you see, good, solid, text and screenshots. Do you incorporate any video in your documentation? Is there any reason to? I would just kind of like to dive into this area a bit.
Katie: I think you need to incorporate all different learning styles because some people just like to use the settings page and figure it out for themselves. So that has to be clear, with clear notes and tool tips and so on. Other people like step-by-step written instructions. They want to go step one, step two and follow that. Other people love video and want to sit and watch me or one of my colleagues actually creating the system, like whether it's WooCommerce or a protected wholesale area. They want to watch me doing it on YouTube and then copy that themselves. So I think with documentation you have to keep it diverse because there are so many different people.
I personally hate video, I'm too impatient to sit and watch that persons speed. I want to be able to click through to the relevant bits. Especially with the classic four-minute intros that you sometimes see. But other people love them and they watch all the way through and they must have so much time on their hands. So you have to acknowledge that and do all the different types of documentation. And I think just genuinely, whichever the medium is, you need to make it really comprehensive because some people will just read the beginning bit like the general overall setup page. Other people will really delve deep.
So you have to keep the intro pages really high level and you have to provide the detail for those people who want it. And we find about half of our users are developers or agencies providing advice to clients. So they are likely to have some coding knowledge. Whereas the other half are store owners. They might be less technical and they'll know their way around WooCommerce. Hopefully.
Deciding which plugin ideas to pursue
Jonathan: One thing I'm curious about. You have, if I'm counting right, six plugins focused on WooCommerce currently and according to your timeline, you've got several new plugins in the works for 2020, which is awesome. How do you decide what plugins to focus on, especially given what you've shared so far about one would take off more than the other and then you find out that it's different. As you're looking at the next few plugins, how are you deciding what to put your energy into and what to create next.
Katie: It's a combination of gaps in the market and requests from our customers. So I'll talk about both of those. With gaps in the market we're in quite a privileged position to have that information. We have people contacting us saying, can you do this with your plugin? And it's nothing to do with our plugin half the time. But we try to be helpful with good support. So often we will Google it and see how you do it, because if you can provide that, then if your plugin still fits their needs, they'll still want to use it. So there is a benefit. I have a Google doc basically where I have future plugin ideas. So if I ever find anything that doesn't seem to exist, then I write it down. And that happens every few days with a new idea.
Then we assess it and do some further research and use some SEO tools as well, to see which ones are opportunities. Last year we released WooCommerce Lead Time, which is really simple. It just displays the lead time or the estimated delivery areas on the product page and a WooCommerce Default Quantity plugin which surprisingly there were no plugins that let you change the default quantity value.
So a lot of people using our WooCommerce Product Table plugin and because they use it as a one page order form, they want it to say zero in the quantity field so that the user can then type a different number. Or they might want it to add five to encourage people to buy more. So both Lead Times and Default Quantity just didn't exist until we released these plugins last September. So that's a gap in the market.
And the other thing is listening to our customers. Now last year we also released
And the one that we're working on at the moment is an experiment in that we've got three projects of people who are creating a wholesale store in WooCommerce. So they use WooCommerce Protected Categories to create a hidden category or series of hidden categories that only wholesale users can access. And then they add different prices for the wholesale products and they use our Product Table plugin to create a wholesale -friendly order form, because it's a bit more information-based in that visual in the standard layout has smaller images and more technical data. People combine our plugins to create a wholesale store, but that's not really what they were designed for.
Our experiment with a third way to get new plugin ideas is that we're currently working on an ultimate wholesale plugin, which combines what people like about those plugins, but without the compromises they are happily making at the moment. So for example, with WooCommerce Protected Categories, they're having to create a duplicate version of their product, one for retail, one for wholesale, which in some cases isn't ideal . So we're creating a wholesale plugin that listens to the problems that these customers have. It's not anything new and we already have those customers, but we're trying to do something. I don't know if that will help the sales because we already have a lot large number of wholesale customers, but it will make it easy for them to use and maybe we're losing people because the plugin is not dedicated.
Jonathan: It might also give you the chance to focus on that idea more broadly and attract folks who are wanting to get into it. Right? Because you have these early adopters who figured out how to combine things to accomplish what they needed. But by focusing specifically on the wholesale problem in theory, I guess you'll find out, is that you can attract more.
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Advice for a new plugin developer getting into the WooCommerce space
Jonathan: One more thing I'm curious about. When I talk to folks who are thinking, maybe I should do a WooCommerce plugin, you guys have done the hard work of getting to the point where you have the data and some of the insights to guide what you do next. For others who are interested in getting into the product space, what's your sense of the potential, yet unrealized, in the ecosystem? Do you feel there's still a lot or is it a little in terms of the, yeah, there are still plenty of ideas yet untapped. Or if you're talking to someone who's interested in getting into this space, what would you say to them about where they should focus or how they should decide whether it's worth getting into?
Katie: I don't think it is oversaturated and amazingly because of the sheer size of the market, and the more people you have, the more random requirements they come up with. But amazingly, a lot of the random requirements have a demand for them because of the sheer size of the user base of WooCommerce. Like the different plugins that we've released. There's a reasonable number of people wanting them, even for the small features.
And the other place to look is pockets that aren't being done well. There's lots of plugins that have been neglected or are just not very good.nI'd say that the way to find that information is to be part of it. So go to WordCamps and design websites for clients. I wouldn't get into it as a newbie in the industry. How are you going to have that insight to know what to develop?
So it's better to do it based on your own experience. Like when I talked to fellow plugin company owners, they've nearly always built plugins based on something in their experience. Like if they built a learning management system with WooCommerce signups, then that's because they did it for a client once and they might scratch their own itch because there wasn't a solution for their own websites. And so I'd say, don't just come in fresh, get immersed in it. And then the ideas will come to you.
Jonathan: Yeah. If you wanted to jumpstart one, an idea might be to find an agency to work with where they already have a lot of the experience and insights, but maybe haven't been able to find the time to capitalize on it.
Katie: Yes, get them to outsource projects to you. And so on.
Jonathan: Or, drawing from their insights to sort of figure out, hey, let's work on a project together.
Katie: That's good as well because you get to chat with these people.
Taking a new idea as a new product or an add-on to an existing plugin
Bob: One of the things I want to swing back to was when you were talking about how you made that decision to create another plugin instead of adding it as a feature. I think it was the Quick View plugin, which was an idea that's already out there. I mean, how many more plugins can we do? But if it's specific to a product you've already built and all the plugins out there aren't meeting the requirements to work with your plugin or its specific functionality, what better route than to create another plugin?
So my question is this: where do you draw the line when you come across an idea like that and you say, okay, is this something we want to add as a new feature or do we want to add it as a plugin?
Katie: It's a judgment call, really. I'll use the Quick View example. We knew that there was a use case for using quick view with the default store layouts, not just the product table layout provided by our existing plugin. Therefore it made sense to separate it, whereas other feature requests might be very specific to the product table. So we would add that as a feature to our existing plugin. It's kind of common sense and maybe a bit of research to see what else is out there and listening to your customers as well.
Bob: I like that approach because there's not always times when I need more stuff added to it. Something that isn't specific to my needs, but it's being added. It's an interesting equation and you have to kind of make that call at some point.
Katie: Well, it's about bloat as well, isn't it? You don't want to add too many things to a plugin that not everybody will use. So you've got to get that balance to make it a fully featured plugin that has lots of added value. You have to add to that over time because most companies, including ourselves, are charging annually now. So you have to provide ongoing value and keep adding features but not in a way that is just for the sake of it.
Bob: Cool. Let's see. Do you have anything else you want to ask Katie before we move into a couple of little items, Jonathan?
Are there things you're excited about or concerned about?
Jonathan: So one thing I'm curious about, WooCommerce is interesting for a lot of reasons. From my point of view and being immersed in it more from the community perspective, I feel like we're still really early in terms of its potential. When you think about the future as a business building on it, are there any particular things that you're excited about or concerned about with the direction of the project? And what you're seeing in the market, especially with non-open source income, with projects like Shopify, et cetera, coming in. How are you feeling about the future? Are there things you're excited about or concerned about?
Katie: I've noticed that Shopify market share has increased a lot in the last year. Every year I publish an article on our blog about the latest WooCommerce statistics and I noticed a big increase specifically to Shopify, which is almost rivaling with WooCommerce for market share now. Whereas two years ago it was on something like 4%. So there's something that Shopify is getting right that we need to keep an eye on. But WooCommerce is still the leader. In terms of the WooCommerce and the ecosystem at the moment, as a plugin developer, we're in a bit of a status change at the moment that's making it hard to have direction. And this is caused by Gutenberg.
So for example, we're planning three new plugins at the moment and I'm actively working on the specifications for those. We're talking about how to add information to the product page for one of them. But Gutenberg isn't even available on product pages yet. And they haven't provided a date for that. So we need to build a plugin that adds content to the product pages in a flexible way. But it feels like that there isn't a industry standard at the moment. Some people build their product page using Gutenberg or Elementor or anything like that, but it's not feasible for a plugin company to provide an element or block for every possible platform, plus a short code. So we need to make a decision, but I don't feel there is an objective, the right decision at the moment. I think that is a bit of a limitation because we shouldn't be in that position. We don't feel that we should be developing because we're waiting to see what will happen.
So there's that dilemma particularly with WooCommerce and the product page. How do you navigate that right now? I think we're going to go down the shortcode route, because you can use shortcodes everywhere. I'm in a Facebook group, I think it was the WooCommerce Help and Share Facebook group, which has thousands and thousands of people. So I posted on that and I asked, “what do you think of shortcodes these days? Are they old-fashioned? Are they good? And everybody said, “Oh, we love shortcodes”. So that was a bit reassuring. But I felt that a lot of people don't like shortcodes because they look like code, even if they're not coding at all. Non-technical users think that they are basically programming if they have to edit a shortcode.
So I'd rather provide something more visual, but it feels like it's not yet the time to do that. So I think we're going to go down the shortcode route, but then we're going to have to do a block or something in the future. And even then, what do people with Divi or Elementor use? It just feels uncertain at the moment with that sort of thing.
WooCommerce 4.0 beta 1 and WooCommerce meetups
Bob: That is certainly a challenge for sure and I'm excited to see what you're coming out with. A couple of other things I just wanted to bring up. The release of WooCommerce. 4.0 Beta 1. So time to get in there and have all that fun with the beta and see what's what's going on.
The other thing I wanted to bring up is something Jonathan is quite involved with and I've done myself, and I understand that Katie's located where there isn't really a WooCommerce meetup available. We're touching a little bit on WooCommerce meetups. Jonathan, can you give us a bit of info in a nutshell because I know this is a big part of what you're doing right now. Like I said, I ran a WooCommerce meetup for quite a while and you know, I'm being pestered by Jonathan to start it up again. I'm still thinking on that. Anyway. What's the scoop on the meetups these days?
Jonathan: Yeah, sure. Well, first a confession on 4.0. Something that hit me over just the past couple of days is I've been so immersed on the community side of things that I haven't taken time recently just to play with the latest versions of Woo. So I'm calling myself out for that. I'm looking forward to diving back in and seeing where things are going with it. But just in general, maybe you played with Gutenberg, for instance, a year or two ago.
It's changed quite a bit since then. And for me, I've done a lot with Woo in the past. I haven't really played much with 4.0. So I'm excited to carve out some time to jump back into that. I just want to encourage folks because these things move pretty quickly. If you haven't looked recently, it's good to go back and refamiliarize yourself with some of these things.
On the meetup side, today we have about 60 meetups around the world. Of those, a pretty small number are actually really active right now. There's a lot of interest, but the biggest challenge has been finding organizers who are willing to take the lead. It requires some effort and especially if it's new, it can be a daunting if you haven't had the experience.
Now our mission at WooCommerce is to democratize commerce. We're building on that idea of WordPress and democratizing publishing and I feel strongly about that. Katie, you mentioned community early on and that's a big part of what's made WordPress as big as it is. This community is really strong even though things can be somewhat uncertain about the project, It's just a whole lot bigger than a few individuals or a few decisions. And I feel like that's the same with WooCommerce— or could be. If we're going to be successful in democratizing commerce and making it accessible to folks, there needs to be a strong community around it. And meetups is only one part of that.
It's a lot more than just the meetup program, but my personal belief is that a healthy sort of vibrant meetup program is a really important aspect of a strong community because it gives local entrepreneurs a chance to go to a place and have their questions answered and to connect with others. You had mentioned, Katie, just like the product folks, when you can talk to people who are doing similar things, and I've seen the same in the merchant space, when they can talk to others who know you're selling something different, there's a lot of shared knowledge.
So what we're trying to do is just facilitate a lot more of that around the world where entrepreneurs are wanting to get started. My hope is to see all of us in the project helping people make better choices and decisions as time goes on. In the meantime, a lot of us get by through community connections. It's going to a Facebook group or attending the local meetup, asking questions like, hey, what should I do about this? What about that? So we're working hard to support the existing community and help it grow. And if anyone's interested in starting to meet up or get involved, please reach out.
Bob: Excellent. And I know that Katie's just biting at the bit to start one over in her corner of the world. But no pressure there. I'm just kidding.
Well, good show. Katie, it was great having you here. I know I've had you on another podcast, but I liked hearing more your company's background and how you got into this whole space. Where can people connect with you on the web?
Katie: Our website is barn2.co.uk. Our Twitter is @barn2media and you can find out more about us on either place.
Bob: Excellent. Well again, I want to thank our sponsors.
Katie: Thanks for having me.
Bob: And thanks Jonathan.
Jonathan: Awesome. Thank you.
Bob: All right everybody. Well you can go ahead and subscribe to the podcast on your favorite pod app. You can subscribe to our Woo newsletter or you can become a Friend of Do the Woo. Until next week, we'll see you.
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