Founder Stories: Katie Keith On Building Barn2 Plugins
In today’s Founder Story, we feature Katie Keith, the Co-Founder and CEO of Barn2 Plugins!
Read on for lessons she’s learned from launching and marketing her software company.
1. Please introduce your business and share your role.
Hey, I’m Katie Keith – the CEO and Co-Founder of a software company called Barn2 Plugins.
We build and sell WordPress plugins, a type of app that adds extra features to websites built using the WordPress platform, which powers over 40% of websites worldwide.
We pride ourselves on creating high-quality plugins that are built to the latest software development best practices and providing industry-leading customer support to help our customers achieve success with our plugins.
Our bestselling plugin is a tool called Document Library Pro, which provides an easy way to add a searchable library of downloadable resources to a WordPress website.
Apart from that, we mostly specialize in building plugins that add extra features to WooCommerce, the top WordPress eCommerce plugin. These focus on improving the customer journey for online shoppers and helping store owners improve their sales and conversions.
I’m passionate about sharing what I have learned and helping other people to get started with creating a successful software company. I’m co-host of two podcasts: WP Product Talk, which discusses a wide range of topics related to selling WordPress products; and Woo BizTalk, which talks about the business of selling WooCommerce extensions.
2. How did you prepare for, and go about your launch?
Prior to selling plugins, we were an agency that built WordPress-powered websites for clients. This gave us valuable insight into the industry as a whole and helped us to identify gaps in the market and learn what customers wanted from their plugins.
In early 2016, we decided to make the switch to selling plugins. That was because we were attracted by the idea of selling products instead of services, due to the increased scalability and improved business model that it would bring.
We decided to start small and initially built two plugins that didn’t require huge amounts of development time. These were WooCommerce Protected Categories – a tool that allows store owners to create hidden areas within their store (e.g. for a wholesale area or to sell different products to different customers) – and Posts Table Pro, a tool that creates dynamic tables to list any type of content from a WordPress website (e.g. to create an audio library, member directory, or searchable blog post index).
To get started, my husband and co-founder Andy took a couple of months away from the client-facing work to build the plugins. When they were ready, we launched them on our existing web design website – simply by adding a ‘Plugins’ link to the navigation menu.
When the plugins were launched, I was responsible for marketing them. I mostly focussed on content marketing, which was surprisingly easy because both products were unique in the market at the time, so there was no competition for the keywords that we wanted to rank for.
The great thing about WordPress and WooCommerce is that there are still quite a few gaps and niches that you can focus on with relatively low competition, although things are harder now than they were in 2016 – and yet the market is so huge that even small niches can have significant demand. As a result, we were able to rank for the main keywords for each product fairly quickly.
Selling plugins was very much an experiment and we had no idea whether anyone would buy them – especially since we had chosen such small, niche areas. I was therefore amazed to see our first sales starting to come in after a few days!
The sales grew over time, although it took a while for it to feel profitable. At first, customers had a lot of bug reports and feature requests and it felt like we were spending a lot of time supporting each customer.
For a while, we wondered whether selling plugins might actually be less profitable than web design work. However, this improved after the first few months as the products became better tested and we had time to add extra features that customers were asking for.
We listened to our customers and launched more plugins, and were delighted to be able to afford to stop taking on new web design projects within 6 months. After that, we continued supporting our historical clients’ websites but otherwise focussed on growing the plugin business full-time.
We now have 23 premium WordPress plugins, and 5 free plugins aimed at giving something back to the community, and our company revenue is over $1.4 million per year. We are supported by a team of 17 people, all of whom work remotely from 4 continents worldwide.
3. Since launching, what types of marketing campaigns and designs have worked best to attract and retain customers?
Content marketing has always been our most effective way of attracting new customers. We now have a very well-established content creation process to support each of our plugins, and regularly publish new articles and tutorials which allow us to rank for more and more keywords.
Retaining customers is equally important, and that’s where customer support comes in. I initially provided all the support myself, but this stopped being sustainable as the volume grew and grew.
We now have a support team of 8 people, who work tirelessly to support our customers. We want every customer to have the help they need to get the most out of our plugins and to see ongoing value from using our products so that they continue to renew their license every year.
Now we have more plugins, we are also able to grow our revenue by cross-promoting our different products. We think carefully about which of our products work nicely alongside one another and cross-promote them to customers.
For example, 3 days after purchase, we send customers an email offering 50% off their next plugin – which includes hand-picked suggestions of which products will work particularly well alongside their existing ones.
4. What have been the most influential brands for your business? Whose branding and marketing do you aspire to and why?
While the WordPress industry has been professionalizing over the past few years, I still believe that the SaaS (software-as-a-service) industry generally has more professional branding than the typical WordPress company. As a result, I like to look outside of WordPress for inspiration. My goal is for the Barn2 brand to be as professional as the best SaaS companies.
5. What are your favorite marketing platforms/tools?
My favorite marketing platform is the Barn2 blog. Over the years, we have published a huge range of keyword-rich content about our products, which we own and have full control over. Our domain authority has grown over time and is now a huge asset for the company.
I work with an SEO company called Ellipsis which uses a range of tools to advise on content ideas, SEO, and so on. They have developed a unique AI tool called FALCON AI which makes accurate predictions of which keywords, headlines, etc. are likely to rank, based on data from their large client base.
10 months ago I also discovered X (formerly Twitter). We always had an X account for Barn2, but never really got much results for it – even when we hired someone to tweet regularly and build our following.
However, last year I created a personal X account as a trial and started building a following as a professional within the WordPress industry. This has been a real game-changer and is much more effective for us than having a company presence on X. I now regularly share my experiences and learn from other WordPress and SaaS professionals.
My X presence has helped with brand awareness within the industry in general and has also generated some specific opportunities for us. For example, we recently completed our first acquisition of another WordPress product – a plugin called WooCommerce Product Tabs – after the previous owner reached out to me having learned about my work on X.
I have also gotten to know other industry leaders through my personal X, who I have built relationships with over time and then met up in person at industry events. None of this would have happened if I wasn’t on X.
6. Looking ahead, what are you most excited about?
I am excited to see how far I can continue growing the company. Things are going well, so I plan to keep doing more of the same, and continuing to learn and make everything as efficient and streamlined as possible.
7. Who or what inspires and motivates you?
I am motivated by the fact that I work for myself and can directly benefit from my hard work. I can’t imagine working for someone else again!
That’s not enough on its own, however. I am also motivated by building a team who love working for me, and by building products that customers love. Without that, it would all be meaningless.
8. What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way that you would share with entrepreneurs hoping to launch or who have just launched?
I believe that Barn2 has been particularly successful because my co-founder Andy and I have complementary skillsets. Andy is an experienced software developer and my background is in marketing and project management. By combining these skills, we had everything we needed to build and start selling WordPress plugins. Any other skills could then be brought in later, as the company grew enough to start building a team.
Because of this, I recommend that entrepreneurs analyze the skillset of themselves and any co-founders. Identify any significant gaps and if these will hinder your growth, then you need to come up with a plan to fill these gaps.
I have seen so many developers start WordPress product companies on their own and not put enough time into m marketing. This means that their sales generally remain low, and they would be better off hiring or partnering with people to take care of marketing.
In addition, I was only able to build a successful software company because Andy and I already worked in a specific industry – WordPress – and knew it well. This gave us the insights that were essential to choosing the right products to develop, knowing which tools to use, and being able to market the products effectively.
As a result, I would advise aspiring entrepreneurs to create a business in an area that they are already immersed in and know well. Don’t just pick a random idea – focus on what you already know, and look for opportunities, and this will bring you much greater success.
9. What do you believe are the qualities of a good entrepreneur? And what makes a team successful?
I believe that a good entrepreneur must be highly self-motivated, as you need to work hard without anyone supervising you or telling you what to do!
You need to be willing to work tirelessly on building your business and not worrying too much about what people think.
For example, my friends and family struggle to understand what WordPress or plugins are and probably respect what I do less as a result. But that doesn’t matter because I have respect and recognition from within the WordPress industry, and I know that I am more successful than people in the more “respected” professions!
All companies have different cultures, and I believe in a relaxed company culture at Barn2. That’s because I switched to selling products largely for lifestyle benefits, and the WordPress industry is mostly home-based and values an excellent work-life balance.
I expect my team members to work hard and communicate well, but (apart from the support team) they are not required to work fixed hours or make significant compromises to their lifestyle.
Because of my relaxed attitude, I have never really thought too much about the team-building side of things – it has happened organically and I have expanded the team whenever we needed more capacity. Somehow, we have ended up with 17 people without any kind of formal team philosophy or plan!
A few months ago, I worked with an organization called TeamWP which provides team-building surveys for WordPress companies. They sent an anonymous survey to the Barn2 team members.
We had a 100% response rate and I was delighted to see that the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and significantly above the industry benchmark. I see this as evidence that you don’t need to take yourself too seriously when building a team and that people appreciate a relaxed team culture that values their lifestyle alongside hard work.