One of the curses of running a small software company is that you constantly chase side projects and product ideas. Always hoping for an idea that will let you take on fewer clients, work shorter days, and generally find some form of freedom.
The result is you often end up with a big pile of products that leave you with less time than you had before you started. Adding features, handling support, marketing (oh man, marketing). It all adds up. Inevitably, these products either get shut down or sold off to another developer to take over.
My company has a history of small-time product acquisitions in the WordPress space. I’ve purchased and sold a handful of plugins over the years. I even wrote a guide on WordPress plugin acquisitions for people interested in everything that is involved.
One of the things that can happen, after an acquisition, is that the new buyer gives up just like the original owner did. They let the product die with a lack of updates or support. Maybe they run into the same marketing problems and can’t generate enough revenue. For whatever reason, one day everything is gone.
This is what happened to the first software product I ever built.
I released my first plugin, a niche tool for writers and bloggers, on the WordPress.org repository sometime in 2012. It was so long ago that I can’t remember the exact date. I worked on it off and on for years until it eventually grew to a user base of several thousand.
In 2017, I decided I should build a premium version of the plugin and offer it for sale. This would be my first true commercially sold software product. It was very exciting and I put a lot of time and effort into building the plugin and learning how to sell and market it. There was a lot of trial and error but eventually, the paid version of the plugin launched and began to see a trickle of sales in the aftermath of its release.
The free plugin continued to grow like a weed. It eventually crossed the 10,000 active installations milestone. It was, by far, the most used piece of software I had ever written at that point. There’s nothing quite as satisfying, and scary, as releasing updates to something that thousands of people use. It makes you a better software developer.
The premium plugin, on the other hand, was not successful at all. Days would go by between sales. As the landscape around WordPress changed, supporting and improving the plugin became more of a chore for me and I lost interest. I learned a lot developing and marketing the premium plugin but, financially, it was certainly not worth the effort.
I decided to throw in the towel at the start of 2020 and began trying to find a new owner.
Several people had expressed interest in acquiring the plugin over the years that I worked on it. I reached out to one of those potential buyers to see if they were still interested. They were the perfect candidate, from my point of view, as they had a portfolio of WordPress plugins in the same niche as my own. The interest was still there so we began to work out details.
Pricing the deal was difficult. Sales of the premium version were non-existent but we came to an agreement on a fair price. Everything seemed to be in order and then the pandemic hit. The deal eventually fell through because of uncertainty with the buyer’s business. It was a really huge letdown.
A few months went by and another buyer came out of nowhere via a cold email. I jumped at the chance to close a deal and within days the plugin was in their hands. They owned several other WordPress plugins and seemed to know what they were doing at first.
Unfortunately, the rest of this story isn’t great.
I kept receiving support requests from buyers of the premium version. The new owner refused, or couldn’t figure out how to change the contact form on the plugin’s marketing site. This went on throughout the summer of 2020.
Over time development on the plugin completely stopped. It was still available on WordPress.org and the premium version was being sold but updates and support were non-existent. It was no longer being worked on.
Finally, this October, the free plugin was removed from the repository because of a security issue. The current owner has yet to issue an update. My best guess is the fix would take about five minutes to write and release. It’s probably safe to assume the plugin is dead.
The software product I abandoned has been abandoned again.
I feel bad for the plugin’s users. The premium customers paid for support and updates they never received. The free users, who made up the bulk of the user base by far, had their support requests ignored for over a year and a half. I have to take some responsibility for that because I chose to sell the plugin to the wrong buyer.
In hindsight, I should have kept the plugin in my own hands and simply shuttered the premium version. At the time of the sale, the best estimate I had was nearly 15,000 websites had the plugin installed and activated. There are not a lot of WordPress plugins with installation bases that large and it would have been smart to simply keep it in my company’s portfolio of products.
Even with minimal updates, I would have done a better job for the plugin’s users than the new owner did. The lesson is that proper due diligence on a new caretaker for your product is just as important as the money you can make on an acquisition deal.