For us, Freemium is about giving back

Recently there has been a lot of talk about a post by Matt Mullenweg where he said:

I think a good rule of thumb that will scale with the community as it continues to grow is that organizations that want to grow the WordPress pie (and not just their piece of it) should dedicate 5% of their people to working on something to do with core — be it development, documentation, security, support forums, theme reviews, training, testing, translation or whatever it might be that helps move WordPress mission forward.

I don’t think that this is a bad benchmark to aspire to although I’m not sure how practical it would be for smaller shops. It did get me thinking about what we do as a company for the WordPress community at large. One of those things is releasing Ninja Forms for free.  I firmly believe that providing quality free plugins and themes (or the Freemium model) is one of those things a company might do to give back.

This is not another post comparing business models. There tends to be a lot of mud slinging when it comes to the different business models. In my opinion the best business model is the one where your business is profitable and your customers are happy. Everything else is irrelevant.

What is the Freemium model?

If you were to ask the competitors of those that use the freemium model they would tell you that  it’s deceptive at best and a scam at worst. I have heard them rationalize their arguments but I still can’t make a case on their behalf. Don’t get me wrong, there are some that use the model in a very inappropriate way that hurts people. I’m not talking about those. You find those characters in every model.

The freemium model at it’s chore is where you offer a free product to the community with the ability to pay to get more functionality.

There are several ways this can be done. You might offer a Lite version and allow user to upgrade to a Pro version. Soliloquy does this. Another example would be offering a free base product and then selling add-ons to added functionality to that base free product. Great examples of this are Easy Digital Downloads and our own Ninja Forms.

Regardless of how this is implemented the results are usually the same. A free product that the community can use and a way for the developer to make a living by extending that Free product for those who would like more features.

Why we chose the Freemium model for Ninja Forms

Our goal has never been to simply profit from the community we are in. We want to contribute to it in any way that we can. We’ve done so by assisting in the forums, sponsoring WordCamps, coaching other businesses, and even by joining the WordPress theme review team for a short while. We don’t do any of those things as often as we would like but we do try.

The main way we’ve tried to add value to our community is to release a product in the full spirit of open source software and allow anyone to contribute thus making it a truly community driven plugin.

We have along way to go to make Ninja Forms the unofficial WordPress community form building plugin of choice. We are working hard to that end though. Our code is publicly available on GitHub and we encourage contributions. We’ve recently posted a public roadmap so users can suggest and vote on new features. We also support all users whether they are customers or not. Can we do more? We think so but it takes time to get a great infrastructure in place.

Releasing Ninja Forms as a Freemium plugin gives us the ability to make a living while at the same time giving something truly useful to the community that we cherish.

Freemium isn’t easy

Let me be extremely clear, Freemium is hard and many times very thankless. Out of hundreds of thousands of users only a fraction become customers. You get terrible reviews often only because the one feature a particular user wants is one that you charge for.

The hardest part about Freemium is that non-customers make up the larger portion of your user base and even though they aren’t customers they still have questions that need answers. Depending on the complexity and flexibility of your product this can be a very large expense.

Freemium is a terrible business model

I truly mean this. If you are considering using the Freemium model solely as a marketing tool or business ploy, reconsider. There are easier ways to get a product off the ground. Ways that will mean much less scrutiny and support load for the life of your product. Perhaps I’ll write about that at a later time.

In my estimation Freemium should not be thought of as a business model only, but a philosophy. It’s a philosophy that may not be right for every product, individual, or business. It works for us. It works for Ninja Forms. We’re happy to be able to provide what we believe is a fantastic plugin to an equally fantastic community.