Becoming known for building the finest components as a web developer instead of rushing towards customization & integration

Fri, Jun 14, 2013 at 12:20PM

Here is the vision I try to paint for the people I work with.  Often it feels like we are addicted to making money off a few high budget clients and it seems hard to replace that with something else.  

One way to expand on your web development business is to post very high-end theme and plug-in work exclusively on web sites that let you sell them.  They usually want to have your work exclusively, but that may not always be required.  Once you have reached hundreds or thousands of sales, it will seem amazing how much money you got for the work that was done.  You also have close to zero customer relationship management, instead working on things as a kind of wish list & supporting the users with any technical questions / compatibility issues, which focuses on delivering a high quality and more profitable project.

Some of the money you earn goes to the site hosting the digital sales of your plug-ins/themes.  These third party sites usually rank very well on search engines and are proven to drive a lot of sales through to theme/plug-in builders, so it's worth it in my opinion.  You could try to build your own sites to compete with existing sites, but as a new theme developer, you won't have the resources to do that.  Put first things first.

A few examples of third party themes and plug-ins making a lot of money

$12, sold 1458 times = over $17,000 total

Woulding it be cool to learn and get paid for doing 3d plug-ins as a developer now that we have access to hardware acceleration and fast javascript engines?

$45, sold 12,442 times = over $500,000 total - This one is essentially it's own platform built on top of wordpress with many things included to allow you to reuse it for hundreds of unique sites.

This Joomla 3 responsive theme sold 101 times for $45, which is $4500 total.  Not all themes sell hundreds of times of course, and the competition is getting harder, but you have to think of how everything comes together in the end for your other goals.

Even if you work had only minimal/average sales, you'd still make some money, and be more aware of what makes your work marketable.  Over time, the technical and visual perfection of your work becomes more important then deadlines and relationships as you have more projects out in the wild.

Start with emerging trends and new technology for a first-mover advantage

If you explore new technologies and deliver a plug-in for it early on, you'll likely find people ready to buy it from you since you'll rank for it on google more easily as one of the first to do it.  As that technology matures, your software will also mature and hopefully your great position on search engines and directories will pay you back handsomely.

Pushing yourself further creatively

If a design takes you months, and you put your heart into, it doesn't matter how much money one client pays, eventually you'll want to stop because it will never be enough to pay you full time.  You'll need to stop helping them, and help someone else.  It always feels like you don't have their business in mind when you do the work like this.  It feels like you tell them a clever story to get their money, and once you've been paid you disappear again until they can afford some major work again.

With these apps / themes that are re-sold, you continue to work on 1 product continuously as you get more ideas, it becomes very flexible and powerful and beautiful and you get paid for it as you improve it, because people care about the technical / visual perfection, instead of a deadline and sales volume.

In some cases, these works are just collections of third party open source projects with nice design details just like any other web site.

Spending 6 months to a year on projects that never become popular or successful is often frustrating and even when they work out, you had to delay a lot of other work and deal with a lot of requests that were conflicting with your creative direction / inspiration. Putting your extra time and money on themes and plug-ins is probably easier then building robust software, and you can always reuse the elements developed as commercial or open source plug-ins as part of the larger product.

Open source and plug-in/theme development go together nicely

The work I do on open source is to help inspire a network of other developers to collaborate, but you could just as easily dedicate yourself to making commercial projects that earn income on their own.  Perhaps version 1 of your plug-in is open source free, but there is nothing stopping you from changing the license for future versions of your work as the owner of a project or offering a dual license with additional features to premium customers.   Additionally, there is usually nothing in an open source license stopping you from charging for putting together a collection of open source projects.  Open source just requires that the work stay open source to the person receiving it.  The work involved in integrating them and making it beautiful is something that people do pay for.

Offering a complete business solution is VERY DIFFICULT

In some ways, there is no reason to try to market our own complete business solutions now because it takes years to evolve to the point where your solution is clearly superior to competing solutions.   You have to think about all the things you're not doing to understand that statement.  For everything you have done right, there is a long list of technical and visual imperfections, which have a dramatic impact in a larger application.  

Consider this list of what it takes to make a complete online business solutions for your customers

  • Be professional and available at all times
  • Beautiful and engaging graphic design
  • Create automated tests for the project
  • Create documentation for users and developers including video/audio
  • Fast performance on front-end and back-end
  • Fine tuned copywriting
  • Implement or build a powerful content management system
  • Implement or create customer relationship management software
  • Make it scalable to multiple servers and the cloud
  • Manage social marketing, SEO, and administrative tasks
  • Manage hosting for the application
  • Meet with customer, and create/execute plans together
  • Provide technical training customer support services
  • Sell the service through all channels of marketing including video and offline
  • Use goal based analytics and user feedback to improve conversion

Instead of trying to do all of this now, you can work on this as mini free & commercial projects for years.  As the sum of the parts become superior, you can finally launch that complete business solution and attract clients effortlessly having truly earned your position as a leader with your software and creative vision.

Becoming known for the parts instead of the whole

If you make the finest individual components, you can eventually become the person who manufacturers the completed item.  However, there is a huge market for people who just buy components.

Sure you can rely on using other people's parts to put together your compete business solutions, but we know this is incredibly difficult and often inflexible to customer requirements.  We often have to go through a lot of difficult custom work to get the client's goal achieved.  At the end, the solution is usually so custom, that there is little future sales generated from that work.  It was a waste of time in the grand scheme of things.

Some of the creative vision demands you have control of how things are done, like with Apple pushing for innovation in parts like batteries and displays before having a real product.  Doing all things right is very hard as a very small company.  We need to do fewer things right, and let other people do the other things better then us.

How to do this now?

Use 25% of a client project budget to afford investing in development of a commercial plug-in that is used on their web site.  Then you later resell it hundreds of times.

Make a site on Wordpress or another existing popular application for a client not because it is a superior solution, but because you want to learn how to theme it or develop a plug-in for it that enhances will give you another commercial avenue.

Buy and build a site with one of the most popular themes on, to better understand how they build and support their service.  This allows you to understand how to make your theme products competitive and worth more.

Before your next integrated project like an ecommerce web site, you should stop and evaluate the correctness of an individual component that you either have or build for it.  Learn what it takes to build that correctly according to Agile software development or another set of professional software development recommendations.  Make these recommendations part of company policy and enforce them on all future work. 

Once you've achieved one component correctly according to the standard, you can then re-estimate all future work based on the higher standard.  If a project can't be estimated a reasonable cost when it is done correctly, it shouldn't be done.  If the person selling has the same idea about long term vision as the designer and programmer, there should be a more direct way to proceed to having meaningful work that fits with the long term goals of the integrated system.

You have to start by admitting how bad things are as a team so everyone works to change it. I've spent a lot of time measuring myself according to acting like a software developer instead of building lots of random scripts for custom projects.   I apply some of Agile software development process to my work, but not all of it yet.  It's very hard to do things correctly when you haven't been.  I have been taking large breaks on my client work to fix a lot of the flaws in the source code.  As these things improve, I find my client work becomes easier.  I feel better having done things the right way. 

Once a higher standard is set, everyone should have a clear way to measure themselves according to it so they can self-manage as much as possible.   When a sacrifice or mistake is made, that should corrected by modifications to future sales, training, and hiring.  Reviewing each other's work would become an important of the process to ensure compliance with the long term vision.

Being able to measure yourself according to a list of criteria helps fuel a sense of security in your work that will can improve morale of an individual or a team.  Many companies struggle to hire and maintain talented employees.  You should think about team building and morale when considering a change like this above all else.  It's more important to have people who are excited about the work, then the actual work.  If you have employees who can't get excited about doing better work, then they should probably be replaced.  Now is the time to set a higher standard for your employees and yourself.

Now is the only way forward

Many of us already know all about this, but we're too addicted to our old ways.  Now is the time to do meaningful work that is useful to many instead of few.  Now is the time to elevate your skills.  Now is the time to explore that area of web design & development your clients never allow ask you to get into.  Now is the time to be happy.

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