Editor’s Note: This article is written based on an interview with Jason Coleman. Jason is a co-founder of Stranger Studios, a WordPress agency, and is the lead developer of Paid Memberships Pro, a free membership plugin for WordPress.
You can read our full Paid Memberships Pro review here.
I had the rare opportunity to conduct an in-person interview (out in the real world and everything – take that internet!) for Sell with WP. I met up with Jason Coleman and we discussed everything from Paid Memberships Pro to how the GPL license affects business models. I really appreciated the chance to get some background on the development of PMPro and the unique business model that Jason and Kim use to monetize the plugin.
First, for some background. Paid Memberships Pro started as a marriage between client needs for a content-restriction solution and a custom eCommerce plugin built by Stranger Studios. At the time (in 2008), there were a few membership solutions available, but S2Member was the only plugin available in the WordPress.org repository and the available paid membership solutions were difficult to customize.
So what ultimately spurred on the development of PMPro? Jason said:
We had an eCommerce plugin for WordPress that at the time was even with or ahead of WP eCommerce in terms of features, but we only used our plugin for our own clients. Meanwhile, WP eCommerce was distributed through the WordPress plugin repository and was being used by thousands of sites. We had built a decent consulting business partially based on our internal eCommerce plugin, but we recognized the potential for a product-focused business like WP eCommerce had built.
At first, memberships seemed like a natural fit as a new type of product in Stranger Studio’s internal eCommerce plugin. However, they quickly realized that membership sites require an entirely different approach when compared to a typical eCommerce site – the checkout process is fundamentally different, as shipping information or checkout for multiple products generally isn’t necessary. Even though some parts of the eCommerce plugin setup applied, the experience could definitely be streamlined for a membership setup.
Once they came to this realization, it took about 4-6 months to build the membership plugin for their clients. “The next big step was to get the plugin working on multiple site configurations and with user-friendly settings,” Jason said. “It took about 1 year from the time we first launched any site using PMPro to when we released it in the WordPress repository for general use.”
PMPro has also evolved along with major changes in WordPress, such as the addition of custom post types and improvements in their usage in versions 2.9 and 3.0. How did this affect development?
Because of changes in WordPress since we started building, there’s some technical debt to be paid off. Pieces of the plugin are always being rewritten and updated so that it evolves with WordPress.
Add-ons are also constantly developed. Keeping the core plugin lean has helped most sites get what they need through add-ons or customizations without bloating the plugin or sacrificing stability.
When should Paid Memberships Pro be the plugin of choice for you? For many sites, the flexibility of the plugin makes it a top contender. As most serious membership sites will require a developer’s involvement or support for the membership side of the site anyway, keeping the core plugin lead, extensible, and customizable makes it a great starting point.
Jason compares it to WordPress itself: while WordPress won’t necessarily do everything that users need, it’s a starting point for almost any kind of website since it can be extended and customized. He sees PMPro acting the same way for membership sites – the core plugin handles all of the basics, while add-ons and customizations get clients the rest of the way when building the site.
So when is PMPro not the right choice? Jason thinks that most of the plugin is unnecessary for sites that want free memberships or just content restriction without the checkout.
If you’re not using the checkout process and accepting payments, you’re not using half of the plugin so it may not be necessary. There are also a couple other cases that it doesn’t handle, such as integrations with shipping systems or or including shipping rates. There’s an add-on that adds a shipping address to the checkout, but probably won’t work for sites that have more complex shipping needs – they’d be better off with an eCommerce cart.
There are also solutions that work better for sites that have downloads for members rather than restricted content (such as Easy Digital Downloads). However, the extensibility of the plugin makes it a flexible solution.
One of the things I find most interesting about Paid Memberships Pro is the revenue model for the plugin. Many membership plugins involve an initial purchase, which includes support and updates for an amount of time (usually one year). PMPro takes an entirely different route: the plugin and add-ons are entirely free, while support is monetized. While there are arguments to be made for either approach, I’ve always found this interesting and wanted to know more about the process that led to that decision.
First, I asked Jason about why the core plugin was released for free on WordPress.org:
When PMPro was being developed, there was a lot of stir in the community over the GPL license and the legality of different licenses for WP plugins was a bit of a gray area. Because of this, I asked Matt Mullenweg what he recommended for PMPro and his advice was to make the plugin 100% GPL. We wanted to align ourselves with WordPress leadership since we’re doing business in the WordPress community, so we decided to take his advice. Companies that reluctantly release their code as GPL and then try to hide the fact that the code is GPL or shut down groups who are distributing free versions of their plugin are in many ways fighting against the GPL. I wanted to embrace it and avoid those kinds of issues.
Once we decided to make the code entirely GPL, people could technically get the plugin for free via redistribution. We decided to then preempt that process and make it free ourselves, and that way we ensured customers got the code directly from us and we at least get to touch each customer, i.e., getting their email addresses. We could then monetize other parts of the experience and upsell services.
Releasing the plugin for free also helped a lot with marketing, because we didn’t have to compete with advertising and affiliate networks that a lot of other membership plugins already had in place when we couldn’t match those spending levels. “Free” gave us a lot more exposure than we could have generated otherwise.
Taking a different tact certainly seemed like a great play in the long run, as PMPro went from a new plugin to one of the top contenders for many sites because of the ability to try the plugin and extend or customize it. I know that it was one of the first membership plugins I’d played with simply because I could just download and install it rather than sign up for a trial.
My next question was along the same vein – keeping the core plugin free makes a lot of sense in that context, but what about add-ons? Why not use a “freemium” or extension model to monetize the plugin rather than releasing add-ons for free as well?
First, Jason said that it was in the same spirit of embracing the GPL license as releasing the core plugin for free: users could redistribute that code as well. It also ensures that users aren’t getting your products from other sites that undercut you on price – you then control the conversation about your products.
He also brought up some interesting points about how add-ons relate to the core plugin:
Keeping add-ons free avoids the decision on what should be added to core and what should be left out. If you’re making a lot of money on an add-on that almost all of your users need, would you really cannibalize your own revenue stream even though that feature should be in core? Keeping add-ons free eliminates that decision.
However, there are trade-offs to this approach. One of Jason’s goals is to make Paid Memberships Pro a starting platform for membership sites. Since these sites require so much customization, the core plugin and add-ons provide a great way to start tweaking a site until it matches the client’s needs. However, without a financial incentive to extend the platform, it’s difficult to build an ecosystem and get other developers involved with Paid Memberships Pro and building add-ons.
To monetize the system, users can sign up for a one-year, $97 support plan, or have the platform installed and customized (5 hours of development time plus a consultation call) for $697. The support plan includes access to a members forum where support questions and tips for customization are shared and answered.
The membership plans fund add-on developments in a way, as the customizations and tutorials usually lead to some code that can be released as an add-on once some settings and a UI is added. However, this model can also be a double-edged sword.
One of my reservations about monetizing support is that I feel that it encourages developers to drive users towards support rather than making the plugin and corresponding documentation as easy to use or read as possible. On the developer side, I think it adds unnecessary judgment calls when you have to decide which questions you’ll answer, and which require users to purchase support, which can sour the experience for some users. So does this affect Paid Memberships Pro?
“Definitely,” Jason says. “You’re not going to please everybody. We can’t provide great support on WordPress.org if that’s where we actually make money, since people won’t sign up for a support plan. Some people accuse us of not making the plugin as easy as possible, but we think most sites will require a developer or our help anyway.”
So how about the other side of that coin? Jason says:
Since support is what’s monetized, we try to make sure that it’s as comprehensive as possible. Many plugins that include support will tell you, “Oh, you’ll need to hire a developer to do that,” if the question would take too much time to answer. We won’t do that because people are paying us specifically to help them with these problems. We often spend a lot of time answering specific questions and writing tutorials on how to customize PMPro. If a bit of code is too specific to one customer’s site or will take too long for us to code up, we will ask them to upgrade to a “do it for me” plan.
Where’s Paid Memberships Pro going from here? There are some exciting times ahead for both the plugin and for Stranger Studios. Version 2.0 is currently in development and should be released within the next couple of months. The biggest feature addition will be the ability to allow multiple memberships per user. This would be a great addition for e-courseware or other topic-based membership sites. Members could pay for access to a specific course or channel, and can purchase access to as many memberships as needed.
The next version also includes a framework for adding payment gateway integrations, which will make adding gateway integrations far easier and will hopefully generate involvement from other developers.
Stranger Studios also plans to build a larger ecosystem around Paid Memberships Pro. This will start with some membership-driven, PMPro-specific themes so that certain types of membership sites can purchase an all-in-one solution. Improvements in multisite support are also in mind, as well as more “do it for me” installation / setup services, which many freelancers tend to avoid due to the back-and-forth involved with the client.
Thanks so much to Jason for taking the time to sit down and chat with us!