WordPress Careers Masterclass: Selling a Product (E-Commerce and SaaS)

There are two main ways to monetize WordPress: you can use it to set up an online store and sell products, either physical or virtual. Or you can use it to power a Software as a Service (SaaS) business, like our own Edublogs.

Both of these sound like a great way to earn a living: you don’t have to deal with clients, you don’t have a boss breathing down your neck, and you don’t have to go out looking for freelance work. But before you picture yourself as the next Matt Mullenweg or Jeff Bezos, stop and think about the reality.

Edublogs is an example of a successful product-based business aimed at a specific market.
Edublogs is an example of a successful product-based business aimed at a specific market.

Setting up a successful product based business is hard. There’s a lot of upfront work that you’ll earn nothing for, which could prove to be wasted time if things don’t work out.

If you’re selling physical products you’ll need to maintain an inventory of stock, which costs money  And you’ll have to do lots of selling and marketing.

If you’re happier writing code, then it may not be for you.

Or it might be, but only if you’ve got a business partner or a team member who’s great at the sales and marketing.

Welcome to the fifth post in our WordPress Career Masterclass series! In this part of the course I’m going to cover four things:

  • Considering what you’ll sell and finding a market
  • Minimizing the Risks
  • Using WordPress for e-commerce – the practicalities
  • Using WordPress for SaaS – the practicalities.

So let’s start with the thing that too many people don’t spend enough time on – identifying what you’ll sell and who you’ll sell it to.

Missed a tutorial in our WordPress Careers Masterclass series? You can catch up on all six posts here:

Your Product and Your Market

Chances are you’ve had a great idea for something you can sell. You’ve talked to your friends and family about it and they all think it’s a great idea. Loads of people will want to buy this, you think.

But you should never make assumptions. This is something I did when I launched my own SaaS startup, edupress. I talked to a few people who worked in the relevant sector (education), hired a developer and got to work. But then when it came to sales and marketing I hit a blank. I hadn’t done enough research and I didn’t have the skills (or the inclination) to go out selling.

edupress
I made a few mistakes when launching my startup edupress. Hopefully, you can learn from them!

So before you start developing the site that’s going to power your fantastic idea, consider these things:

  • What is your product idea?
  • What is your market?
  • Who are your competitors?
  • Will people switch to you? How can you encourage them to?
  • How do you need to amend your product to better meet the needs of your market?

Let’s take these in turn.

Consideration #1: Your Product(s)

For many people, it’s the idea for a product that comes first. This could be a range of products you want to sell in an online store, or it could be a specific SaaS product such as website creation using Multisite, provision of online training or video content – or something completely new.

Avoid the temptation to rush into product development too early. At the outset, you should have no more than a headline idea of what your product is, enough for you to explain it to your prospective customers. If you spend too much time developing it in detail now, you’ll be less inclined to make changes to it based on feedback from your market. And if you do make those changes, then you’ll have wasted a lot of time doing it twice.

So think about your product at a high level, and consider how you can describe it in a way that makes sense to other people. Explain it not in terms of what is is, but what it offers. More of which shortly.

Consideration #2: Your Market

Understanding your market is the single most important thing you can do to be successful. Everything else stems from it: the product itself, the way you sell it, and the way you’ll need to adapt to a changing market as things progress.

Once you have a high-level idea for your product, think honestly about the potential market for it. Ask yourself these questions?

  • How broad is the market? If you’ve got an idea for something that’s targeted at everybody, then you’ll struggle to market it. Something more niche is much better.
    WordPress.com
    Start small – you’re not going to be the next wordpress.com
  • Where is the market located? If it’s in one country this will affect the way you present your product and your company. If it’s global you may need to consider tax implications on sales. And if it’s a physical product it’s a good idea to start local to keep shipping costs down.
  • How connected are you to your market? Do you already have a reputation and contacts? Do your potential customers tend to hang out somewhere, either physically or virtually? Do you have access to that place?
  • What are people looking for when they want to buy a product like yours? What do they tend to input into search engines?

Consideration #3: Your Competitors

Understanding the competition is an important part of knowing your market. Beware of basing all your decisions on what your competitors are doing – your business needs to be unique. And also avoid the temptation to copy exactly what a successful competitor is doing – you need to do something different. But knowing the context will help you identify the market for your product.

  • Who are your competitors? If your customers already have access to another product that meets the need you’ve identified, then that’s both good and bad. Good because it means there is demand. But bad because it means someone else is already established meeting that need.
  • How does your market feel about your competitors? If you have evidence that people aren’t happy with what’s currently on offer, then you have an opportunity.
  • What is it about what’s already available that people aren’t happy with? What are they happy with? What can you realistically do better? (Avoid promising the earth here)
  • Are there opportunities to collaborate with other businesses operating in the same space or with the same market? This may sound counterintuitive but you could find other people out there with products or services that complement yours. You could offer referrals, linked products or packages comprising products from both of you.

Consideration #4: Sales and Marketing

Once you’ve decided on a product and researched your market, you need to identify the best approach to selling into that market. This will vary depending on the nature of your product and your market.

  • How do your target customers tend to find what they’re looking for? Google search? Word of mouth? Email campaigns? Direct selling? Or a mixture of more than one? You’ll probably find that this evolves as your business becomes established. In the early days, you can’t expect much word of mouth business but as you gain more happy customers you should find that they recommend your product to other people. You might want to consider incentivising this.
  • What are people looking for when they want to buy a product like yours? What do they tend to input into search engines?
  • Do you have the skills to sell to your market in the most appropriate way? If not, can you afford to hire someone with them? Or could you take on a business partner with those skills? A lot of successful startups have two people driving them: once who’s great at product development and the other who can do the selling.
  • What’s your message? Think about how you will describe your product(s) to potential customers. Develop a quick, easy to remember line or two that focuses on the value of the product to the customer and not on the details of how you’ve developed it or what it does. In marketing terms, this is about focusing on benefits rather than features. Avoid using jargon in your marketing – or if you do, make it jargon that’s used by your customers, not web development jargon.
  • What can you do to get people’s attention that will be innovative and stick in their minds? If your competitors are large, established companies there’s a good chance that their marketing activities aren’t exactly cutting edge. As a newbie, you can get attention by doing something different. You might even find controversy gets you some attention.

Consideration #5: Encouraging People to Switch

If there’s an existing market for your product then that’s great because it means there’s demand. But it does mean you have to encourage people to switch to you from an alternative provider.

There are two important things you shouldn’t do:

  • Don’t copy your competitors. If all you offer is something exactly the same as what’s already available, then why should people switch?
  • Don’t compete solely on price. It only works if you have lots of capital to support cut pricing in the early days before you build up a big enough customer base. And it’s bad for credibility.

So you need to identify what your product’s USP (unique selling point) is. How is it different from what’s available? What gap in the market does it address? What’s better about it, or about you as a business?

It’s important to understand this and to keep things simple. When I launched my school website builder startup I made my product much too complicated – I tried to compete by offering all the bells and whistles. But it cost me lots of time and money to do that and made the product difficult to explain to prospective clients. If I did it again I’d go for a simpler offering and focus on being a small provider with a tailored service as my USP.

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Consideration #5: Making Changes to Your Product

Now that you’ve done your market research you’ll need to make changes to your product. If you think you don’t need to make any changes, then your research probably wasn’t thorough enough, or you may be fooling yourself.

Beware the temptation to please everybody all of the time and make every single change your customers have requested. This will steer you away from your vision. Instead steer a middle course, remaining true to the original concept while incorporating amendments based on customer feedback.

Unless of course your prospective customers hate your product idea, in which case you need to go back to the drawing board.

This is something you’ll need to do regularly once you’ve launched. Beware the temptation to rest on your laurels once your product/store is ready to go. Collect data on what’s selling and what isn’t, on who’s buying and on how people are interacting with your site. Use that data to identify what’s working and what isn’t, and make changes. Again, beware making drastic changes in one fell swoop – instead use split testing to see how incremental changes improve things, then build on those.

WPMU DEV guide to split testing
Our ultimate guide to split testing will help you get things right

Changes you may need to consider include:

  • The product itself
  • Price (although beware pricing yourself so low you lose any reputation for quality)
  • Sales message
  • Website design and branding
  • User experience
  • Product features
  • Target market

Minimizing the Risks

So, you’ve got your product(s), you’ve done your market research and you’re ready to launch. Great news! But before you dive in head first, it’s worth thinking about the ways you can minimize the risk to yourself, both financially and emotionally.

Some ways in which you can minimize risk are:

  • Don’t give up the day job just yet. Plenty of people have launched online businesses in their evenings and weekends and then switched to full-time when they start making a profit. If you jack in your job to work full time on your business and the sales don’t start rolling in, how will you pay the bills?
  • Don’t invest all your money in your venture. If you watch Dragons’ Den you’ll have heard stories of people who’ve mortgaged their homes, sold their cars and tapped up their in-laws for a loan to support their fledgling business. This shows admirable comment and self-belief but is just too risky. Launching an internet based business shouldn’t involve too much in the way of setup costs – it’s not as if you need premises, after all. So keep your costs to a minimum at first.
    Dragons Den website
    Watching Dragons’ Den will teach you the danger of investing too much of your own money
  • Launch small and grow over time. Don’t put too much time or money into developing your product before launch. Start with something simple and then add to it over time. This is the mistake I made with my startup – I hired a developer to work with me on my over-ambitious product and spent money on marketing –  it took me two years to recoup those costs!
  • Keep reviewing and adapting to the market. Identify what works and what doesn’t and be ready to change fast.
  • If you’re selling physical products, avoid having too much stock until you know what will sell. You will know your products better than me and how long they take to manufacture or deliver once ordered, but if you can minimize the stock you have in hand, the lower the risk.

Using WordPress for E-commerce: The Practicalities

So, you’re all ready to launch an e-commerce business. The good news is that WordPress is the best platform to do it from. As well as powering 25% of the Internet, it’s also the most popular platform for e-commerce. And it’s free!

Choosing an E-Commerce Plugin

Before you start creating your store you need to consider which e-commerce plugin is best for you and how you’ll set it up. Consider how your products are structured and inventoried so that you know how to classify them. Redoing it when you’ve added a few dozen will be something you don’t have time for.

Think about the features you want for your store. Include the features you’re planning now (which should be simple, remember) and those you’re planning on adding in the future. Make a list so you can compare e-commerce plugins.

So when you’re choosing your plugin you’ll need to consider:

  • Features
  • Payment gateways
  • User experience
  • Support
  • Cost

Some of the most popular e-commerce plugins include:

  • WooCommerce. This is the most popular e-commerce platform on the internet. It’s free but you’ll have to pay for add-ons, which enhance your store’s functionality. Some stores need these, some don’t. There’s a huge community of users and developers along with an API and extensive documentation.
  • MarketPress. Our own e-commerce plugin is free to WPMU DEV subscribers (or with a free trial). It comes with some extra features that are add-ons with WooCommerce (such as table rate shipping), and can be integrated with our other plugins.
    Our MarketPress plugin is free to WPMU DEV members and has great features and support
    Our MarketPress plugin is free to WPMU DEV members and has great features and support
  •  WP eCommerce. This plugin was one of the first e-commerce plugins to be established for WordPress and has its own large community of users and an API. It’s free but you can buy add-ons.
  • JigoShop. Again this plugin is free. It has a huge range of extensions, both paid for and free, an API and clear documentation.

It’s worth getting recommendations and taking some time to work out how each of the options works with your store, so you get the best one for you.

Planning Your Store

Putting time in now to plan will save you time having to change things along the line.

  • Consider how you’ll be using social media and how the e-commerce plugins interact with that. Identifying how your market engages with social media will be part of your market research – identify one or at most two social media platforms to develop in the early days and integrate those with your site.
  • Decide which payment gateway you want to use early on. If you need to set it up fresh there will be a delay while your bank details are being verified, and you’ll need to choose an e-commerce plugin that integrates with it.
  • Think about how much of your site will be about products and how much will be about brand. Products are essential and need to be easy for people to find, but depending on the nature of your brand and your market you may want to include content that promotes your brand. This could include photos, information about your business and its history, slideshows, video and more. Make it personal – yours is a small business so give it personality.
  • Get professional photographs of your products taken, or learn how to do it properly yourself. Quick snaps taken with your phone won’t show products off to their best advantage. Consider the backdrop, the lighting, the angle and the zoom. And make sure product photos are as consistent as possible. Take more than one photo for each product if it will be helpful and add those to your product pages.
  • Consider producing videos of your products, especially if they’re technical products that people need to learn how to use. Video quality doesn’t have to be as good as photo quality but you do still need to put some effort own to making them as good as you can. If you do this, use YouTube – it’s another place where people can find your business.
  • Identify how your products are categorized. Your e-commerce plugin should let you place products into multiple categories or taxonomies, tag them and group them if you’re selling discounted bundles. There are many different ways to do this: this guide should help you decide.
  • Think about the user experience, and liken it to the experience someone would have walking into a bricks and mortar store. Is it welcoming? Is it easy to navigate? Can people find what they’re looking for? Are offers and promotions appealing? Make sure you do user testing.

Once you’ve got a plan for your store you’ll need to put the work into setting it up. Again, keep things simple – avoid the temptation to add every single product now, but keep some back when you’ve got a feel for how they’ll sell. And carry on monitoring sales and making tweaks once you’ve launched.

Using WordPress for SaaS: The Practicalities.

WordPress is a great platform for offering web apps, and even more so with the advent of the WP-REST API.

It’s early days for the REST API but it’s likely that this will open up opportunities for developing apps of all descriptions using WordPress as the platform – you can read about some of the things the REST API has to offer in our examination of the possibilities.

But for now, the most common model is to use WordPress Multisite to power a business that offers people a way to get their own WordPress site without the hassle of hiring a developer. Edublogs is an example of a successful Multisite network that meets the needs of a very specific niche. Our Pro Sites plugin makes it easy for you to make money from a Multisite network.

Pro Sites makes it easy for you to monetise a Multisite network
Pro Sites makes it easy for you to monetize a Multisite network

Some tips:

  • Identify your market and think small. Don’t try to be the next wordpress.com. Find a niche market you know well and have access to, and identify what it needs.
  • Think about your pricing model. Some networks have different priced site templates, while others are free for all but with premium themes, plugins and features. Which works best will depend  your market. Pro Sites supports a range of options.
  • Think about how you’ll take payment and how often. Automated subscriptions are essential. For business customers annual subscriptions can reduce admin and risk, while for individuals monthly plans are often more popular.
  • Consider what your product will offer that others don’t. Look at competitors, both in your market and others, and find out what works and what makes people more likely to sign up.
  • Start small – launch with the core features your users need and then add to those as time passes and you raise the money to pay for it.
  • Keep adapting and listening to your users.
  • Finally and most usefully, follow James Farmer’s academy course on setting up your internet business, either on our blog or by signing up to the Academy course next time it runs – which gives you a chance to get feedback from James on your plans.

Selling a Product is Tough But Rewarding!

Selling products online isn’t the easy ride a lot of people expect it to be. It takes a lot of hard work and commitment, and there’s a big risk – in the early days you can’t guarantee any income, and you’ll have to put in your time and possibly your money to get things started.

But if you research your market, start small and only develop when you can and in line with your customers’ needs, you can make a big success of it.

Good luck!

Rachel McCollin
Are you thinking about starting a WordPress e-Commerce or SaaS business? Share your tips for finding work in the comments below!