Hootproof: WordPress -Support as a business model

Michelle Retzlaff Last updated 23.01.2020
7 Min.
WordPress  Support

Quality, flexibility and professionalism. These are the three most important characteristics of a good WordPress business, says Michelle Ratzlaff, founder of HootProof. A successful WordPress entrepreneur on the eternal conflict between free and paid, pricing and scaling opportunities in the WordPress business.

To WordPress a huge market has emerged in recent years. And not only in the USA. Development, support, hosting and shops are just some of the promising business areas. Michelle, founder of HootProof and successful WordPress entrepreneur, has found her niche and talks in her guest article about the importance of continuous education, quality of work and flexibility. We at RAIDBOXES have been working with Michelle, Niko and Kjell for a long time and recommend HootProof to customers with special support needs.

I'm Michelle, founder of HootProof. After studying computer science, I worked as a software developer for a few years before starting my own business in mid-2015. With my HootProof service, I offer a WordPress support service for solopreneurs and small businesses. My team and I solve problems with WordPress and implement change requests. That means we advise our customers for example in the selection and setup of Plugins and Themes, carry out Theme- and plugin adjustments or set up member areas. In this post I describe my way from a free blog to a three-man team.

In the beginning was the blog: The start of HootProof

I started the blog in May 2015 and in September 2015 I added the WordPress support in its current form. While I clearly started HootProof as a WordPress business, the exact monetization strategy was not clear to me at the beginning. I experimented with a productized service (performance optimization), started to develop a paid Plugin and of course also thought about classic info products like e-books and online courses.

There are three areas I would like to discuss more specifically, because I have learned a great deal from them:

  • The eternal conflict between free and chargeable
  • Pricing in the WordPress business
  • The scaling
WordPress support of HootProof: how it all began.
The HootProof owl: trademark of Michelle's blog.

Free vs. paid

Especially with a new blog or a new WordPress business with little reach, it is very difficult to get attention on the net. For me it took months until the blog traffic increased noticeably, readers commented and this finally also had an effect on my service, i.e. the WordPress support. Direct advertising measures, such as Facebook Ads or Google Adsense, didn't work for me at all - probably because they were designed too directly for sales.

In the spirit of the Thank You Economy, I tried to offer a lot of knowledge and even my service for free. But there was always a mental limit: I didn't want to give away too much of my knowledge "for free" and possibly make my paid service superfluous.

On the other hand, I really wanted to give potential customers the opportunity to try out my service for free and without risk, in order to convince themselves of its value. At the beginning, I therefore worked with free "test tickets".

However, experience has shown that most interested parties fall into one of two categories: Either they try to use the test ticket as much as possible, but are not really interested in becoming paying customers - e.g. because they only run their blog as a hobby or prefer to work on it themselves. On the other site are interested parties who need no further convincing that our service is exactly right for them and are willing to pay accordingly. In the end, this group is made up of exactly those customers with whom I want to work and to whom I can actually offer the best possible service.

WordPress support sample prices of HootProof
Prices for one hour of WordPress support at Hootproof. The hourly rates allow for effort-based billing and offer advantages for customers and providers.

In terms of content, it has also become quite simple: Most users will find many useful tips and concrete instructions on the blog and in the knowledge database to be able to solve typical problems themselves. The online course is basically about similar topics, but much more in-depth and structured than detailed step-by-step instructions in blog form.

Those who do not want to invest time themselves, but would rather hand over effort and risk altogether, can then commission my team and me directly. So there is no direct competition between the different levels of help and self-help.

The most important insight for a WordPress business at this point is: Design your offer in such a way that the free and paid portions do not cannibalize each other. Sounds banal, but requires a lot of thought about what services and information you really want to give away for free and for what you charge how much money.

Especially with WordPress support, the pricing model is a real challenge.

As far as the service is concerned, the pricing model was a real problem in the beginning. Fearing the competition and the more or less prominent role models in English and German-speaking countries, I opted for a flat rate model at the beginning. At that time, customers could order an unlimited number of "tickets" for a fixed monthly amount.

However, even after adjusting the prices and the maximum number of tickets several times, this led to various problems. For one thing, this model is inherently unfair: some customers paid the same for one or two small things a month as others paid for many, much larger tasks. Where does one draw the line between a "ticket" and a larger job? Second, the fixed price is a clear barrier to entry for a potential new client, who asks "Is this even worth it for me? Can I even take advantage of this?". And last but not least, I didn't see a solution to pay my team members fairly and on an effort basis on this basis.

After a few months, I switched to hourly billing for WordPress support. This way, every customer pays for exactly the amount of work his tasks require. I was initially very afraid of the reactions to this step - but it was definitely the right thing to do. Our customers have full cost control. For example, they can set limits and view the recorded effort at any time. And we are no longer limited to "small things", but can accept jobs of any size - from backup setup to plugin customization. This is fair and goal-oriented for all parties involved.

From Solopreneur to Scaling the WordPress -Buisness

Like most solopreneurs, I did everything completely on my own in the beginning. It wasn't until May 2016 that I brought Niko on board as my first team member, and Kjell joined me a little later. This gave me the space I needed to work on the online course and other WordPress projects. In addition, we can exchange ideas on tricky tasks and take turns with vacations. So I don't have to be available alone every day anymore.

WordPress support: The team of HootProof
The HootProof team today. Just a year ago, Michelle was managing WordPress support on her own.

To organize us in the team, I have long been looking for a suitable software. Until today, I haven't found one that meets all the requirements. Therefore, we use a number of more or less well integrated tools:

  • HelpScout for receiving and processing support tickets
  • Harvest for time recording in the team and display via API in WordPress
  • The WordPress Plugin User Frontend Pro for registration and user profile
  • The WordPress Plugin Sprout Help Desk for integration with HelpScout
  • a small self-written Plugin to improve the integration with HelpScout and display the recorded time in the customer profile

Overall, scaling has worked very well so far - my team is doing a great job and we complement each other well with our different skills and experiences. And that's exactly the key insight for scaling: find people with whom you can work well together and (perhaps even more important) who complement your own skills. This way you create a more powerful team and potentiate the capabilities of your business.

Where is the business today?

I'm going to be honest and upfront about the numbers here. However, since June 2016, I've neglected the growth of HootProof, producing hardly any content and not pursuing any other marketing strategies. As a result, the support service is slowly growing through referrals and current online presence. I believe it could grow much faster if I paid more attention to social media, new blog articles, and targeted advertising.

In the last 6 months, the WordPress support has brought in an average of about 3000€ per month (net). A large part of the revenue I spend again for my team and about 100€ per month for the above mentioned tools.

So what makes a successful WordPress business?

The market around WordPress is huge, but increasingly competitive, now also in German-speaking countries. Unfortunately, half-knowledge is also widespread and many freelancers still offer their services at dumping prices. In addition, WordPress and the landscape around it is developing rapidly - further training and continuous, intensive work with WordPress are essential.

The opportunity here, in my opinion, is to find a well-defined niche and become an unbeatable expert in it. How about, for example, a productized service for WooCommerce setup. Because WooCommerce is a comprehensive topic with many pitfalls and opportunities. With a wealth of experience and in-depth knowledge, you can create a lot of value for a target group that is willing to pay.

In addition, I would always focus on quality instead of price. Our hourly rate is deliberately set high, because we want customers who approach their WordPress project professionally and value our work.

To sum up:

  • Quality comes first - differentiating yourself on price is not a good strategy in this market (actually in any digital market) in my opinion.
  • Professionalism - clear, goal-oriented communication with your customers, professional way of working with high quality standards.
  • You need to stay up to date in this fast changing world. This happens almost automatically if you work with WordPress continuously.

Conclusion: A WordPress business can be started very quickly and with little effort. But scaling is naturally a much more difficult issue. Quality standards and team organization must be considered.

You have questions about your own WordPress business? We look forward to your comments!

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