We’re happy to interview Kobe Ben Itamar from Freemius, as part of our series on WordPress SaaS founders: Weglot SaaSy.
Q#1: What is your background, what should our readers know about you?
My educational background started with an academic degree in Linguistics from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I specialized in dead Semitic languages like Akkadian, Ugaritic, Aramaic and Ge’ez, as well as several ones that are still spoken nowadays like Neo Aramaic, Arabic and Amharic. I really enjoy learning new languages and the whole subject intrigues me, so I got to learn a few more non-Semitic languages as well, like Portuguese, English, Spanish and a few others with varying levels of knowledge.
Another interesting thing about my life choices is the fact that my wife, my baby daughter, and I had just recently moved to the south of the country and became part of a collective community. We’ve been living here for the past two months and things are looking great, so far. Really happy about this decision to share our lives together with a larger group of people, working together for a greater cause.
When I think about it, there are some similarities between this community and the worldwide WordPress community, in which each member keeps striving to contribute and push towards the benefit of the entire WordPress community and its users 🙂
Q#2: What’s your main activity within WordPress today?
My main activity within WordPress is focused on the business side of things, through Freemius. Everyone knows that WordPress is a great platform that packs a huge supporting community behind it, and like many, I think that part of WordPress’ strength and popularity comes from the ability to extend its capabilities, using plugins or themes.
When it comes to the products that are based on WordPress – I’m a strong believer in the theory that says that plugins or themes that have a business plan to support their efforts will live longer and outperform their free competitors in every aspect, and this study proves it, statistically. I think it’s becoming rare to see a plugin or a theme that someone is operating as a hobby and giving away for free become successful and dominate its category. Plugin and theme developers need money to support their efforts and to better their products for the benefit of their users.
So, going back to your question – what I’m mainly focusing on is helping those developers find ways to monetize their WordPress products, and making them understand that the days of asking for a donation for your free plugin are pretty much over. That is not a sustainable model.
Q#3: Why did you choose a SaaS (subscription service) model? Did you change your model from your beginnings? and if so, why?
That’s a great question, and I think that it’s one that every WordPress product creator should be asking themselves when they come to think about their business path. Not every product should be a SaaS because it’s not necessarily a perfect match for all. There’s an article I really enjoyed on the topic, by Josh Pollock, talking about how it seems like everyone is SaaSifying all the things, and why it’s not necessarily a good idea.
That said, we did choose to go SaaS with our product 🙂
Both me and partner came to Freemius from a SaaS startup background. I previously worked at a SaaS startup called Pagewiz, and Vova had founded several startups in the consumer and enterprise space (all SaaS), so it was a natural choice for both of us. SaaS has been our model since the beginning, and we see no reason to change that, for our product.
I think that SaaS has a ton of advantages such as:
- Full access to data, which helps you make better product-related decisions.
- The ability to iterate fast – you don’t need to wait for users to update your product, you just deploy a new version to the cloud and everyone get it right away.
- The financial benefits of running subscriptions, which add up over time and help build a “healthy business”.
There are obviously more benefits to going SaaS, and we are working hard on passing that mindset and those best-practices on to our partners (WordPress devs), helping them to SaaSify their plugin businesses and theme shops and adjust them to the subscription economy.
One of the benefits we are “selling” is ZERO maintenance and peace of mind. When running a self-hosted solution there’s no way you are going to get that. You will always have to keep the product up-to-date, making sure it has all the latest security patches, etc. – there’s always maintenance involved, and that’s a huge pain. In our case, part of what we offer is advanced analytics and usage-tracking for plugin and theme developers. Self-hosting an analytics solution is very (very) “heavy” on storage and processing resources and running such a solution on a WP instance, even if it runs on a strong VPS and uses custom tables, is just not scalable. WordPress was not built for that.
Q#4: What’s the key metric you’re closely watching on a daily basis?
The key metric for us is the number of new modules that our SDK was integrated into, or in other words, the number of WordPress plugins and themes that are selling with our platform, and the volumes of sales we process for our partners. We are constantly monitoring these metrics and compare them against our churn rate. If our effective growth rate ever slows down or halts we immediately have to wonder what happened.
When we make our annual goals we first set our desired number of WordPress products (and sales volume) which we want to see using our service by the end of that year, and then strive to get there asap. We continuously try to be creative & test different acquisition channels and marketing methods that would help us spread the word around about our service among as many WordPress developers as possible.
Q#5: How do you handle support? And how important is it to you?
For support, we use Help Scout and combine it with a Help Scout App we’ve developed for our developers. We are using the Freemius platform as a monetization solution for Freemius too (AKA dogfooding). This enables us to leverage anything we build for our developers internally, as well.
Being that our product is quite technical – most of the support tickets we handle tend to be technical as well. The data that our integration pulls in is conveniently presented to us in a sidebar, alongside the actual support ticket from the customer.
It helps us to better understand the source or the context of the problem, not having to send back & forth emails just to catch up with the user. That way, our team stays quick & efficient, “wasting” as little time as possible on support tickets.
Q#6: What will be the next big moves for you within the WordPress ecosystem?
Our next moves within the WordPress ecosystem naturally have to do with our product. I can, however, reveal only some of the surprises we have in our pipeline, as not all of them are ready to be publicly uncovered just yet.
I can tell you that we’ve just released an affiliation platform for our partners into production. It allows them to now promote their WordPress plugins or themes through links which they can spread out to bloggers or reviewers, for example, sharing a cut off of each transaction that comes from those product promotions. Using this affiliation mechanism, free WordPress products, listed on the official repository, are able to generate unique links so that their affiliates will be rewarded with a commission, once the user upgrades from free to the paid version.
Another thing we plan to work on is the ability to sell bundles. Once released, it will enable WordPress devs to sell any combination of WordPress plugins/add-ons/themes with us. We already know there’s a huge need for this and have developers waiting for this eagerly, so that’s a top priority for us.
Like I said, we have a few more surprises which I still can’t uncover 🙂
Q#7: What’s your favorite SaaS reference?
That’s a hard one. It’s really hard to run all of those SaaS companies in my head and choose one. I guess I’ll go with the last SaaS company that persuaded me to sign up and then upgrade to one of its monthly billed plans – HubSpot.
I’ve recently been working on strengthening our cooperations and ties with other companies within the WordPress ecosystem, and to that end had made a research, seeking for a good tool for the job of managing this multi-phased process and the leads that it would create for us. So, I was basically looking for a flexible CRM, which I could pivot for my specific needs.
Like many others, I’ve heard about HubSpot and was exposed to their line of products, mostly through their aggressive content marketing efforts. You really have to admire those guys – they have been at it non-stop for a long time. To make a long story short – I gave the HubSpot CRM a try, along with a few other CRMs which were included on my shortlist. My experience with the HubSpot product was so damn good at the trial phase, that the others just didn’t stand a chance. It felt like it was made especially for my needs.
One of the things that really struck me with the HubSpot SaaS product is the amount of value I was able to produce, only using their free product version. It’s just inevitable that I would think: “If this is what I can do with their free version… This tool is going to be a serious help if I upgrade.”
There’s a good reason why HubSpot has always been a leader in SMB customer acquisition.
Q#8: What was your toughest challenge in your entrepreneurial journey?
For me, the toughest is using the word “no”. As entrepreneurs, we need to be able to manage our resources and time in a smart and efficient way, as much as possible. If you don’t use the word “no” every now and then – you will likely find yourself busy doing things that don’t exactly bring you closer to achieving the goals you have set.
Let’s look at this interview, for example 🙂
I agreed to take the time and answer these questions for a number of reasons, among which the desire to help others, share my accumulated knowledge, perhaps promote my own product while I’m at it, and a bunch of other reasons. But the bottom line is, when asked if I’m interested in participating in this or that project, business endeavor, or even develop a new feature for our own service and include it in our next release – we always have to weigh the pros and cons from our point of view and make a wise decision about it.
From a business point of view – it is even more difficult to say “no” because your natural desire is to make your customers happy. But, the thing we need to remember, as entrepreneurs, is that time is one of our most expensive assets. Every time we say “yes” to something it means that something else, which may be more important/urgent is getting a “no” from us.
Being capable of saying “no” is definitely a skill to be honed, and the faster you learn to do it (in a polite and respectful manner, of course) the more time you will have left for the truly important things. In that context, I’d like to recommend “4-Hour Workweek”, by Tim Ferriss.
Q#9: Whom should we interview next & why?
Glad you asked this. I know just the guy 🙂
He’s one of the smartest entrepreneurs in the WordPress sphere, IMO, and I bet he’ll have some insightful answers to your questions. I’m talking about Mr. Luca Fracassi, the founder of Addendio. Also, he has a great sense of humor!