January 2020: what we learned from zero customers

January 2020 was our first month live. We officially released our WordPress affiliate plugin on the 6th and it was quite the journey since. We pushed new features, published our first articles and started connecting with people. But business wise, we fell short of our goals.

Now, we knew SliceWP’s initial traction would be slow. It’s a brand new plugin and competition is relatively high in the market, so we weren’t expecting anything spectacular.

Our goal for the first month was to have one customer. Just one. We felt that was an enough win to start off.

But it didn’t happen and it gave me quite a lot of food for thought. So, I took a couple of days to ruminate on this and found three things that are linked very tightly together:

#1: The market is quite saturated

We’re at a point where there’s a WordPress plugin for mostly every need. The affiliate marketing space is no different from others.

But, over the past years I’ve had the opportunity to work on some successful WordPress plugins, including Profile Builder, Paid Member Subscriptions, WP Booking System and Social Pug (now Grow by Mediavine), which taught me the importance of a great product and customer service.

Given the experience acquired, I knew that, with SliceWP, my brother and I could create a product better built and supported than most competitors.

Unfortunately, I didn’t fully understand just how difficult it is to start growing a WordPress plugin nowadays. Today there are more than 55.555 plugins out there just on WordPress’ official repository.

(By the way, I have not altered the text from the above image in any way. 55.555 was the number showing when I visited the Plugins site. I guess I’m lucky in weird ways.)

In my naivety, I thought following the simple strategies of previous projects would work. But the market of yesterday is not the market of today. All of the above mentioned plugins were launched years ago when competition was lower and spreading the word was easier.

Back then, just launching was enough to get you moderate success. Which leads us to the second point.

#2: The WordPress plugin repository isn’t the promotional tool it used to be

Based on my previous experiences, I thought releasing SliceWP on the WordPress plugins repository would help it gain some initial traction. I was wrong.

We’re one month in and SliceWP has less than 10 active installations. On some days it even has zero downloads.

I thought we were doing something wrong, so I started doing searches on the repository with different keywords to see how the plugin ranks. In short, it almost doesn’t. It’s practically buried under pages and pages of other results, regardless of the search query.

I blamed the issue on the plugin’s age, so I checked the repository’s newly added plugins list, where I discovered tens of pages filled with plugins that had no active installs or ratings. Besides a few that were related to massive plugins, such as WooCommerce or Elementor, the place looked deserted.

This was honestly disheartening. It seems like new plugins have close to no chance of making it without outside help and to prove that they’re better than established competitors.

Even so, we won’t abandon the repository. It offers the infrastructure we need to provide a free version of SliceWP in an open environment. And the above two points lead us to:

#3: Too much product and not much marketing

For us, building things is fun. It’s engaging. We like to discuss functionality at length, to write down edge cases and to code. Pushing new features or refactoring existing ones feels like we’re continuously moving the ball.

And while true, it’s just one part of the story. In the end, having an unknown polished product helps no one.

You might be thinking right now, “like doh, genius!”, but when you’re focused on creating something, you tend to neglect other aspects. Especially for our small team of just two technical people, marketing wasn’t something attractive. In all honesty, it’s quite scary.

We knew in theory of its importance and it was always in the back of our minds, but because we have limited resources and we wanted to get to market as soon as possible, we put all marketing efforts on hold.

Looking back, I believe this is something we should have invested some time in. I don’t believe it would have resulted in a flood of customers, but it would have spread the word and we might have reached our initial goal.

All is not lost though. SliceWP is a project for the long run, and now that we realized what our biggest weakness is, we are working towards improving it.

Our focus for the following months

#1: Content, in-depth quality content

Yes, marketing is scary, but we’re ready to take up the challenge. So, to start, we’ve already committed to producing helpful content.

This is an area we can fully control. It might not lead to great results in the short run, but I believe it’s better than to invest massive amounts of time into cold emailing or ads.

Our goal with content is to help our users and potential customers. It’s to educate and build trust. And our first efforts went into our blog, where we published two articles for the month of January, and one that landed in the first days of February:

  1. We started off with SliceWP’s story, which gets into details on the chain of events that led us to build the plugin. I saw this as a great way to introduce ourselves and to take you behind the scenes on our journey. 
  2. We continued with our first series, named “Slice Tips“. Slice Tips will be a collection of posts teaching how to spice up SliceWP through code samples and make your affiliates’ experience better. The first article from the series is all about emails: How to create custom email templates for SliceWP
  3. Our third article is a walkthrough on setting up an affiliate program for a WooCommerce store. This one is quite massive, but packed with loads of useful information.

But the blog won’t be the only focus. As we don’t yet have documentation articles for SliceWP, our main efforts will go into setting up a knowledge base, filled with step-by-step guides: both written and video formats.

#2 Continue improving the product

We have a development list so long that it almost hurts to look at it. But we’ve identified some of the key features that are the most important for the near future.

Our plan is to release at least one new premium add-on each month this year, while also improving the experience of the free core plugin. I believe this schedule is quite feasible without compromising on quality.

So far our first weeks were quite productive on this front, with four small releases for core and two premium add-ons for January.

Core saw a few small bug fixes, under the hood improvements and the addition of a logo field for the email notification system, so you can now match the messaging of the emails with your branding.

As far as add-ons go:

  1. The first add-on released after our official launch is Custom Conversions. With it you can register commissions for your affiliates from any page, most likely a “Thank you” or a “Receipt” one. This is useful when you have a custom built checkout solution, and are not using one of the default integrations, like WooCommerce or Easy Digital Downloads.
  2. Our second, a simple, but useful one, is Affiliate User Role. With it you can assign the “Affiliate” role to each one of your WordPress users that are also affiliates in SliceWP. This is useful particularly if you manage several user roles and want to easily distinguish your affiliate users from your other roles.

We managed to do quite a lot in a month’s time, but we’ve barely even scratched the surface for what we want to achieve. The following months are going to be just as packed. We’re going to be releasing something each week, so please stay tuned!