2021 has been a fascinating year at Barn2. After the chaos (and unexpected growth for plugin companies) that shook the world in 2020, we have spent 2021 consolidating and building the company.
The two Directors - my husband Andy and myself - left our home in the UK ☔️ to enjoy a year working remotely in sunny Mallorca ☀️ 😎
All of this happened during a year of unprecedented acquisitions in the WordPress plugin space. We have gone against the tide and remain an independent company 100% owned and managed by its original founders.
This is the story of 2021 at Barn2.
2021 in numbers
- 7,701 new plugin sales (compared to 6,385 in 2020 - an increase of 21%)
- 7,970 plugin renewals (compared to 4,708 in 2020 - an increase of 59%)
- 1,243 refunds – refund rate 8% (compared to 1458 refunds/13% in 2020)
- 5 new plugins and 130 plugin updates released
- 119 knowledge base articles and 77 blog posts/tutorials published
- 12,445 support tickets from customers in 123 countries (compared to 9,427 in 2020 - an increase of 32%)
- $21,155 paid to our 486 affiliates (sign up here!)
We also reached some incredible milestones. Our total lifetime plugin sales passed the 3 million dollar mark. For the first time, monthly revenue is regularly achieving 6-figures. We now have 22,000+ paying customers, plus 20,000+ free plugin users - that's over 44,000 people using our plugins! One of our affiliates achieved lifetime commissions of $50,000.
Of course, these figures are revenue rather than profit and our costs have increased as the team has grown. Nonetheless, this is a fantastic achievement and we're eternally grateful to everyone in the Barn2 team for making it happen.
We launched 5 new plugins
Clearly, the demand for WordPress and WooCommerce plugins was set to grow and grow in 2021, as more and more businesses turned to selling online. It made sense to continue expanding our portfolio of plugins that solve real problems on people's websites, as well as improving our existing ones.
Document Library Pro
Our existing Posts Table Pro plugin had always been popular for creating a document library, but it wasn't ideal for this use case. As a result, in early 2021 we launched our dedicated WordPress document library plugin.
Document Library Pro was immediately popular and now competes with WooCommerce Product Table to be our biggest selling plugin. It's amazing given that so many people see us as a WooCommerce company!
WooCommerce Fast Cart
We love building WooCommerce plugins that help customers to buy online more quickly and easier. Our previous plugins (e.g. Product Table and Quick View) make it easier to add products to the cart, so we needed a solution to speed up the final parts of the customer journey.
WooCommerce Fast Cart lets customers complete their purchase more quickly by showing the cart and checkout in an on-page popup. It's a much faster way to shop. Launched in September, it is already proving to be a very popular plugin.
WooCommerce Quantity Manager
While there were other quantity plugins on the market, none of them were natively designed to work with our other plugins. For example, customers needed a quantity plugin that worked with Product Table, Restaurant Ordering, and other Barn2 plugins.
WooCommerce Quantity Manager was the result. It has minimum and maximum quantities, quantity increments, default quantities, role-based control, and more.
WooCommerce Variation Prices
WooCommerce Variation Prices is a classic Barn2 plugin because it adds a very specific feature to WooCommerce which isn't available elsewhere on the market. It simply lets you replace the standard price range for variable products (e.g. "$10 - $100") with a format of your choice (e.g. "From $50). Simple but effective!
WooCommerce Discontinued Products
WooCommerce Discontinued Products is another single-feature plugin which is unique in the market. It adds a much-needed 'Discontinued' stock status to WooCommerce so that you can manage end-of-life products separately from other items.
We grew the Barn2 team
Having started the year with a small but strong team, we continued to grow during 2021. The team now works out as the equivalent of about 8 full-time colleagues and consists of:
- 2 directors - my husband Andy as Technical Director, and myself as Operations Director.
- 4 developers
- 4 full-time support engineers
- A part-time virtual assistant
- Regular freelancers to assist with marketing, copywriting, social media and design.
We have team members in the UK, US, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Philippines. Given that everyone works remotely, the team is surprisingly close-knit due to being in constant communication on Slack.
Everyone works beautifully together to share ideas, solve problems, and to provide an excellent service to our customers.
2021 is the first year that we have hired developers as permanent employees. Previously, all our developers were freelance - for example, through Codeable.
While Codeable has some fantastic developers and we continue to work with them, it's an expensive way to hire. I would say that Codeable (and freelancers in general) are a good option if you (a) don't need full-time hours, and (b) aren't financially secure enough to provide job stability to permanent employees. By mid-2021, it was clear that Barn2 were a long way past this stage on both counts.
We had put off employing staff because we were unconfident in the hiring process and didn't want to spend a long time on the legal side of things. However it was obviously the right thing to do, so we got started.
We created job descriptions for two positions: A Senior Plugin Developer to build and maintain plugins for us, and a Web Developer to take care of the Barn2 website.
As a small company, we don't have the capacity to train inexperienced developers and don't take risks with the quality of our plugins. We have always hired very experienced freelancers, and wanted to replicate this in our new employees. That's why we created a Senior-level role instead of just asking for a 'Plugin Developer'. It meant offering a higher salary, but I think it's worth it.
Advertising the vacancies
I promoted the vacancies in various places. This included WordPress Jobs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Workable, Post Status Jobs, WeWorkRemotely, WPHired, Remoters, and the Barn2 customer newsletter.
I also personally head hunted specific developers who had the right skills. This was particularly important for the Web Developer role because not many people have Easy Digital Downloads experience.
The best responses came from Post Status, Facebook groups, Workable (although there were a lot of time-wasters on Workable), WeWorkRemotely, head hunting, and the Barn2 newsletter. Next time, I would save time by focussing on these channels.
A barrage of applications
Within hours, I received literally hundreds of applications. Quite frankly, the quality of most of them was shocking - especially for the 'Web Developer' role. I quickly learned to instantly reject any application that mis-spelled 'WordPress' or 'WooCommerce'. No one who would make that mistake could ever fit into the Barn2 team!
I don't understand why any employer would consider someone who simply sends their CV without any sort of covering letter or explanation of why they are suitable for the role. Who has time to read through a CV without any indication of whether it's relevant?! And more importantly, if the applicant hasn't taken the time to write a covering letter then they are unlikely to have the communication skills we needed.
We had asked each applicant to provide examples of their code (e.g. a plugin they have written) so that we could check their development skills. Again, this allowed me to rule out a lot of people - if they ignored this request then they probably didn't have the attention to detail that we were looking for.
But on the plus side, we also received some excellent applications. Our dream was to hire people who already had experience of selling themes or plugins. I wasn't sure we would attract anyone of that calibre, and was delighted with some of the people who applied.
Once we had sifted through all the applications, there were 5 people who were clearly worth interviewing. This felt manageable. All 5 were extremely impressive so we felt we had a good chance of finding the right people.
The interview process
Andy and I conducted the interviews on Zoom, which was interesting because neither of us had interviewed anyone before. We intentionally kept it friendly and informal.
In theory, we would have been happy to hire any of the people that we interviewed. However, two people in particular stood out for the Senior Plugin Developer role. We confirmed this by asking them each to develop a small plugin.
In the end, we were so impressed with both of them that we ended up creating two Senior Plugin Developer positions instead of one. Both are now valued members of the Barn2 team. Hiring more developers than we intended was definitely the right decision.
Hiring a good web developer is HARD
Unfortunately, things didn't go so smoothly with the Web Developer role. The Barn2 website is pretty complex. Ok, very complex. It uses Easy Digital Downloads and has a lot of bespoke functionality. It requires a very experienced developer - but people with that level of experience aren't interested in looking after an existing website. As a result, the people we interviewed for the Web role were more interested in the Senior Plugin Developer role - even though the salaries were similar.
At the same time, we started realizing that looking after our website isn't really a full-time job. We need a dedicated developer for the website who is available during emergencies, but it won't take up all of their time. The job description we had written simply wasn't right.
We tried hiring two of the people who we had interviewed on a part-time freelance basis, but unfortunately neither worked out. In the end, we solved the problem by expanding the role of one of our existing freelance developers - instead of hiring someone new from scratch. They start in their new expanded role in January 2022, and will give the website some much-needed care.
Hiring staff worldwide - the practicalities
I must admit that I was naive about the logistics of hiring employees in other countries. When we decided to advertise worldwide, we assumed that we would be legally allowed to hire people regardless of their location. After all, big companies like Automattic seem to do it all the time. Unfortunately, this isn't the case.
Part-way through the hiring process, I discovered that as a UK registered company, we couldn't directly hire employees in other countries. That's because we don't have a legal presence in those countries. We considered various options such as whether to hire people as independent contractors, or to get a 'Global Employment Organization' (GEO) to act as the 'Employee of Record' (EOR) on our behalf. This was a lot of work and led to some unexpected costs. I could have approached the hiring process more professionally if I had known about these technicalities beforehand.
Moving to Mallorca
Andy and I have worked hard to build a company that gives us a flexible lifestyle. We quit our previous jobs, started a web design agency, and eventually transitioned to selling plugins. We've built a remote team around the world, and can work from anywhere.
We both love the idea of being digital nomads, travelling and working from different locations. However, this has never been an option because while it would fit well with our work, it doesn't fit so well with parenting a school-age child.
We had often discussed how we would travel the world after our daughter Sophia leaves home. However, that is 8 years away (at least...). It was frustrating to think that we had achieved so much work-wise without being able to make the most of it.
In May 2021, we had a new idea - why not move to Mallorca (our dream location) for 1 year? It would be Sophia's final year of primary school and she has to change schools in September 2022 anyway, so this would just mean 1 extra school move. We started planning straight away, enrolled her in a British International school, started advertising our UK house as a holiday rental, and hired a beautiful apartment near the sea in Mallorca.
That part was easy, but the move was a lot harder than we had expected.
We moved to Mallorca at the end of August. It felt like perfect timing because the Barn2 team was at the ideal stage to keep running things while we got settled, and the school year starts in September. However, it was actually TERRIBLE timing because of - you guessed it - Brexit.
We were eligible for a long-term visa and thought it would be easy. I naively thought: "Spain will want us!" Unfortunately, it's not that simple. This is the first year that UK citizens have needed visas to move to EU countries. The Spanish Consulate in London was overwhelmed with applications and couldn't cope with the demand.
We waited months and months to receive an appointment to apply for a visa, and never heard back. We didn't want Sophia to miss the start of the school term so we moved to Mallorca under the 90-day visa-free period, hoping to get a long-term visa sorted in that time.
As time went on, we felt more and more stressed and powerless. Sophia loved her new school so we couldn't just return to the UK. I spent a huge amount of time researching immigration issues and consulting lawyers.
An unexpected property purchase
In the end, we figured that the only way to remain in Spain was to buy a property in order to get a so-called "Golden Visa", which you can do without having to go through the Consulate in London.
While buying a house wasn't on the roadmap for 2021, Andy in particular has always dreamed of having a second home in Mallorca. While it was very complex to get the funds together, we were in the fortunate position that it was possible for us. So, we are now the proud owners of a Spanish Golden Visa and a beautiful holiday rental property in Mallorca!
Hopefully it will be a good investment as the property market is growing, and it was already being successfully rented out on Airbnb. (Fancy a holiday in Mallorca? Book it here!) However, this entire process has taken many weeks of our time which we would rather have spent growing the business.
Now our visa problems are sorted, we are pleased to able to work more while also finding more time to enjoy our time in Mallorca.
We were NOT acquired
It's hard to write this without mentioning the (literally) million dollar question which all plugin companies are being asked at the moment:"When are you going to get acquired"?
If you work in WordPress, you can't have missed the huge increase in the number of acquisitions during 2021. Barely a week goes by without another plugin company being acquired by a big player. EDD, Yoast, LearnDash, Iconic, The Events Calendar, GiveWP, SearchWP, ACF, MailPoet... the list goes on.
We have felt the effects at Barn2 too. All year I have been contacted by potential acquirers, including some very impressive names.
Now or never?
A lot of people in the industry feel that independent plugin companies like Barn2 won't be around for much longer. The feeling is that they will either be acquired or will struggle to remain prominent in the market. However, I don't see any evidence of this.
When you read about yet another acquisition, your thoughts instinctively turn to the other companies who have been acquired. It feels like everyone is selling and I know some plugin company owners who feel an unspoken pressure to jump on the bandwagon. You don't think about the long list of successful companies that remain independent. But that doesn't mean they don't exist!
Personally, I don't feel threatened by the fact that some companies are getting acquired. I love owning Barn2 and wouldn't want to lose such a big part of my life, at least for the foreseeable future. Moving to Mallorca has shown that I can work flexibly and achieve the lifestyle I want without needing to sell. And financially, it makes more sense to continue growing the company than to cash in our biggest asset in return for a few years' profits.
As a niche company specializing in WooCommerce, there are always new gaps in the market that we can fill. We are well diversified with 17 different plugins, and there's no reason to think that we will struggle to compete with larger companies. The situation might be different if we built more generic plugins, but it works well for our business model.
Customer support grew by 32%
Amazingly, we helped 12,445 customers in 2021 - 32% more than last year.
Our support team has remained steady at 4 full-time team members. As they have become more and more experienced over time, they have been able to absorb the increased demand without affecting timescales or quality. The main difference is that they now have less time to focus on non-support activities, such as documentation and compatibility testing.
The WordPress community
For the second year in a row, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that there were no in-person WordPress events to attend. This is a shame because I love meeting people at WordCamps.
As always, I continued collaborating with people from other WordPress companies wherever possible. This has included:
- Working with other companies to integrate and cross-promote our plugins with their products.
- Being interviewed for WordPress podcasts, websites and YouTube channels, such as PressThis, Starter Story, the LifterLMS podcast, and WP London.
- It is now more than 2 years since I joined a group of 6 plugin company owners called 'WP Business Mastermind'. We have continued with Zoom calls every 2 weeks along with daily contact on Slack to share our ideas, feedback and experience of running similar companies. This year it was particularly interesting to get an insiders' view of one member's journey through acquisition.
What’s in store for 2022?
Everything is going great, so we plan to continue doing more of the same in 2022. This includes:
- Launching more new plugins - our vision is to have a Barn2 plugin for all of the common features that store owners add to WooCommerce. By creating an ecosystem, people can use our plugins to extend their store while being confident that everything will work perfectly together.
- Contributing more to the WordPress community, which will hopefully include starting to attend WordCamps and meet people in person again.
- Investing more in the Barn2 website, which has been neglected since the summer after losing our previous web developer.
After the chaos of 2020, it has been nice to focus more on business development during 2021. This has allowed us to release new plugins and add features more rapidly, while improving our development processes to make our work more scalable. I'm delighted to have welcomed two full-time developers to the team and haven't regretted this decision for a second.
Moving to Mallorca took Andy and I away from work more than we had anticipated, which was disappointing. The team were fantastic in keeping everything running smoothly while we were bogged down with Spanish legal paperwork. Now we have settled in and finally got our visas, we're excited to focus our energies back on work as we get into 2022.
I’d like to thank our amazing customers, my Barn2 team colleagues, plus the wider WordPress community for making 2021 a year to remember. I'm looking forward to continuing to build on these successes to make 2022 even better.