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CSA Plans : Upgrades and Subscriptions

I have started to received a few emails regarding the future plans around Store Locator Plus and the proposed upgrade and subscriptions model.  Hopefully this post will answer those questions.

Add-on Pack Upgrades

In the not-so-distant future upgrades to the add-on packs will not longer be free. Security patches or patches to maintain compatibility with the base plugin will be free, but upgrades will not be.    Upgrades are primarily changes to the add-on packs that add new features and functionality.   Yes, they will contain bug fixes but that is NOT the core focus of upgrades.

In the future upgrades will focus on adding at least one new feature whenever a new version is released.  Frequency of upgrades will depend on customer input.  The more interest in a feature, the higher it goes on the development schedule.   In general the current add-on packs tend to receive an upgrade with new features at least once every few months.

Upgrades may be available for purchase at a fraction of the cost of the original purchase.   I am not 100% certain this will be an option given the complexities of the current eCommerce system I am using on the site.    However if it is possible, users that do not want a subscription will be able to purchase an add-on pack for $X today and likely a fixed fee of $10 whenever an upgrade comes out with a feature they want to install.

Enterprise Subscriptions

Did you say “users that do not want a subscription”… does that mean some sort of subscription is coming?

Yes.

And no, you will NOT be required to have a subscription to use your product.    You can still get the base product and all the upgrades and patches to the base product for FREE.   Note, I said BASE product.  That is the Store Locator Plus plugin that is listed on the WordPress Plugin Directory.     Add-on packs will still be available via the flat purchase price model that exists today.     The primary change here is if you purchase add-on pack version A today, that is the only version you will have access to.

So what is the Enterprise Subscription, you ask?    Well let me tell you what I’m thinking…

The Enterprise Subscription will give you access to ALL of the add-on packs for the Store Locator Plus product including those add-on packs that exist today and any new ones that are launched tomorrow.   You will also be entitled to get any of the upgraded add-on packs as long as your subscription is current.

How Much Will Subscriptions Cost?

My current thought is that the initial subscription fee will be set at $200, slightly less than the “Kitchen Sink” package that includes all of the primary add-on packs.   The recurring monthly fee will be $10.

Users that purchased more than $100 in products since September 1st 2012 will be given a $100 discount toward the subscription.  Users that purchased the Kitchen Sink package or spent over $200 will be given a $200 discount.   Discounts will be handled via a post-purchase rebate (refund) as the PayPal subscription system “gets all wonky” if you change things on the front-end of the transaction.

Pro Pack Changes

Prior to launching the add-on pack upgrade and subscription programs, I will be doing two very big things to the popular Pro Pack premium add-on pack for Store Locator Plus.

Removal of License Key System

The first change will be to remove the license key requirement completely.    Instead the product will follow all of the other add-on packs and be a completely separate download.    All users that have a license key today will be required to login to their CSA account and download the Pro Pack as a separate file, install it, and activate it alongside the latest release of Store Locator Plus.

For those people that purchased the add-on pack from within the admin panel of WordPress, you will need to go to the CSA website and “purchase” the free Store Locator Plus product.  This will create a login account and order to which I can attach your verified Pro Pack purchase.

Anyone that purchase the Pro Pack prior to January 1st, 2013 you will need to request that the Pro Pack be added to your account.   When sending your request you will need to send your Pro Pack license key and an order # for any order that you have on your CSA account.

Feature Reduction

The other big change to the Pro Pack is the removal of a dozen or so features that are currently part of the product.   Any of the settings that are explicitly related to the search features, map features, or results features will be moved to Enhanced Search, Enhanced Map, and Enhanced Results add-on packs.

The reason for this change is primarily to group all features into add-on packs in groups that makes sense.   The current configuration of “buy Enhanced Search to get these 10 search features or Pro Pack to get those 10” is very confusing to new customers.   It also provides the framework for improving the admin user experience though grouping feature sets, further simplifying the user interface for new users.

In addition, by moving  features into “closely related” groups, it allows for more efficient code.  Underlying functions and methods can live in a single add-on pack that are only activated when needed.   By spreading out features for a single interface element, such as the search features between Pro Pack and Enhanced Search, it heightens the chances that the extra code will need to be loaded into memory.  It also means that nearly identical code either must live in two places, doubling the memory and disk footprint, or the code needs to be moved into the base product which means it loads on thousands (15,000 and counting) of websites whether or not they have installed or use any of the features of the Pro Pack or Enhanced Search.

The primary motivation behind the removal of features is purely for the purposes of simplifying the message and experience for new users while providing improved performance and security in the add-on pack ecosystem.

But I Paid For Those Pro Pack Features!

Yes you did, and you can keep them.  The solution is simple, keep the base plugin and add-on packs the way they are.  Do not upgrade   Remember, upgrades are optional.    When you purchased the Pro Pack from Charleston Software Associates you purchased a product that does A,B, and C for $X.    That will not go away if you do not install the optional updates.

“But I want the latest coolest things for free.  That is how it has always been!”.   As you read above, that is changing.  Upgrades soon cease to be completely free.   The new D, E, and F features will not be available to customers that purchased the Pro Pack, or any other premium add-on for that matter, that had features A,B, and C at the time of purchase.    The reasoning has been explained above.

“Buy my customer will upgrade the plugins, I just know it!”.   Wait, you have customers upgrading their own plugins but don’t know enough about plugins that they hired you in the first place?  Yikes!   That means they don’t read the upgrade notes BEFORE installing something, do they (you do though, right?).    That is a very, very bad practice.   In fact upgrading just for the sake of upgrading to have the shiniest new thing is not really a great idea on a production server anyway.   Production servers are meant to be stable and constant installation of new software makes it inherently unstable.    You’ve never had something break from an update, have you?   If not, count yourself lucky.. and stop upgrading live production servers just for fun.   Read & learn BEFORE upgrading.    And tell your customers to do the same lest they risk things changing.

As a side note, the actual settings that turn stuff on and off via the Pro Pack will not be going away when they move to a new add-on pack.   Thus, if you do upgrade and lose a feature the site should still function as before.    Not guarantees, but in 90% of the cases that is how it will work.    If you are installing on a new site you really should be buying new add-on packs anyway, you just may need to buy two of them now instead of one.

What Is The Upside?

Thus far the Pro Pack discussion has been mostly about what is going away.    The license system going away, that is a good thing for many reasons including a smaller footprint, better performance, and the biggest thing is eliminating the hassle of keeping and finding the license key for new installs or whenever you move servers.

In addition there are several key features going into the Pro Pack.    The focus of the Pro Pack will be to server enterprise clients with thousands of locations.  As such the first new feature once these changes are in place will be location export.   I am also exploring a “migrate settings” feature as well as several interface changes to improve management for locations with thousands of installs.

In other words, you lose some features that are not really related to big-install management of locations but you will gain some new features shortly afterwards.

Why The Changes?

I know some of this may come across as a bit harsh or not very customer friendly.    After having discussed these changes with some of my repeat customers as well as the larger corporate enterprises that are using my plugins, it is clear that this is the right path to follow.    Unfortunately the options of donation-based financial support or paid customization or one-on-one support yields so little revenue, literally NOTHING in terms of donations, it is not sustainable.

Unfortunately these changes are necessary to be able to fund ongoing development and refinement of the Store Locator Plus system. The current model of “buy once get all the new bells and whistles for free forever” (free upgrades, BTW, has never been advertised) is not sustainable as money only comes in from new customers.  People that have invested a lot of time in setting up and configuring Store Locator Plus prefer a sustainable business model that brings in recurring revenue over the risk of all updates and support going away.

Having subscriptions and paid upgrades makes ongoing development and support possible.  Without it the updates and support stops as soon as I run out of new customers that are willing to buy the add-on packs.    I think you’ll agree that the subscription fees are reasonable considering the monthly feature upgrades and weekly patches that have been the norm over the past 6 months.

On the plus side of the equation, these changes will ensure development and support continues.   Funds will be available to build new feature sets and have the funds to pay for the development (with my very close oversight), which means more add-on packs and extended features will be coming.

Please share your concerns, comments, and suggestions.

This is not a done deal yet and I’d like to refine the concept before implementing the technical changes required to support it.

For now, business as usual… but changes… hopefully with positive results for everyone… are coming.

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Daily Update : More Cleanup

What have I been working on lately in the Charleston Software skunk works?

SLP :DevGru

Some docs and video tutorials for third party add-on developers, or as I am calling them “SLP DevGru”  (short for development group).   I’ve had several developers asking about how to build add-on packs, offering to help build stuff, and making a little side money while doing so.    Since there appears to be some active interest I though it best to nurture it as it will create more options and a better Store Locator Plus ecosystem for the users.    That’s good for everyone.

Current Pro Pack Tweaks

While I’ve not added anything to Pro Pack I have done significant work this week on isolating Pro Pack features from the main plugin.  That means that sometime in the next release or two the Pro Pack will become completely isolated as a separate side-by-side installation.   That means a lighter weight base plugin.  Less memory with less disk I/O  means faster performance of the base product.

It also means the license keys will eventually go away for the Pro Pack.    When that happens all users of the Pro Pack will need to download and install a separate Pro Pack zip file and activate it alongside the latest version of the base plugin.   This will mean fewer “I lost my key” or “I never got my key” issues, which adds up to about 10 email messages every week that I can keep out of my inbox.   It also simplifies the installation process and eliminates some confusion over license as it is the ONLY Store Locator Plus add-on pack that remains activated by a license key.

When the new Pro Pack download becomes available you will need to have an active account on the Charleston Software Associates website to obtain the download.   For those that ordered a Pro Pack license from within the product it is possible you do not have an account on the CSA site.    Order a free product such as the base Store Locator Plus plugin to create a login.      I will be adding the new Pro Pack download to any account that has a Pro Pack license ordered since January 2013.    All other users will need to request the new download when the time comes.

Current Plugin Tweaks

While refining the elements around the Pro Pack I was came across various sections of code, and complete files for that matter, that were dormant.   Those were eliminated, which reduces the security risk footprint and lessens the size of the installation.      I was also able to eliminate at least 3 confirmed data I/O operations on every view of the location finder page on your site.

The add-on pack builder has also been improved.    I noticed some older client sites had files in their add-on directories that were removed many versions back.   The new add-on pack builder ensures the new zip files that are built are clean files with no legacy items left behind.  While I’m not sure how WordPress handles an inline-update, a deactivate/delete/install/activate cycle should clean out any unused legacy files from add-on pack folders.     Getting rid of unused files is a great way to improve the security of your site.

Speaking of Security

On that note, you really should be DELETING any unused plugins from ANY vendor that are on your site.   Deactivated plugins are still accessible to external sources.   Hackers can leverage this as a doorway into your WordPress site if that deactivated code has security holes.   If you are not using a plugin, delete it.

Future Add-On  Pack / Pro Pack Changes

Another BIG CHANGE coming to the Pro Pack will follow directly on the heels of the separate Pro Pack downloads.    Any feature that is currently part of the Pro Pack that is a better fit for the Enhanced Search, Enhanced Map, or Enhanced Results plugin will be moved to those separate add-on packs.      This is being done to reduce the size of the Pro Pack plugin, which has become very bloated and is inefficient in how it is constructed and how it operates.     It will make for a smaller faster Pro Pack plugin that focuses on key enterprise operations like data import, bulk location management, and related activities.

I have started marking those features that will be moving on the Admin UI.   In addition to the Enhanced Map, Enhanced Search, and Enhanced Results features, the reporting module will also be separated into a new Reporting add-on pack.

The reason for these changes is to continue to improve the foundation of the product.    By creating add-on packs that focus on a single operational area of the product I am able to create more efficient code and improve performance.  This is critical on sites with a large number of locations and high search volume.   Some sites receive dozens of map requests every minute and reducing I/O as well as memory usage has a significant impact on response time of the site.   It also means larger installations will not need to upgrade to larger servers only to serve a location map.

For any Pro Pack user that does not want to lose the changes, the upgrades are not mandatory.   If you retain your current version of the product the feature set will remain intact.

For those users that “shoot first and ask questions later” that lose features after an upgrade… you did WHAT?   It always shocks me how many people click “install this update.. updates are cool… I fully and completely trust this plugin author I’ve never met before” without reading the update notes.

Luckily not many people have complained about features moving to a new add-on pack for those elements that have already moved out of the Pro Pack.    Those features that already moved were relocated primarily due to code structure changes.  It simplified the code and/or eliminated issues on certain installations by doing so.

While some people may think this is purely being done for financial gain, that is not the case.  It is 100% driven by my desire to continue to refine the product and build things “how they should have been done in the first place”.  It is the right way to structure the product and I refuse to compromise doing things the right way to placate a few people that are more concerned with not spending $25 than they are with having the best plugin I can build for them on their servers.

Paid Upgrades?

That said, I am currently working on a plan that IS financially based.    The simple fact is that providing documentation and support for a plugin with 15,000+ installations is becoming a full time job.    That does not include the 20-30 hours of coding I put into the product on a regular build cycle or the posts, like this one, to keep people updated on what is going on.

In order to continue to maintain and improve the plugin there needs to be a better financial model.     The current model of “buy once, own forever, and get monthly updates for free” is great.  Except for the fact that the ONLY WAY to support future development is to sell add-on packs to new customers.     That means that every month there is significant risk that I will be coaxed into going back into the full-time tech job world and development and updates in the Store Locator Plus ecosystem will stop.

Think about it for a minute.  How many add-on packs would YOU need to sell to feed your family, pay for health care, pay the rent, pay for the servers you run the business on,  and all those things that go along with just getting by?    That is a LOT of new product sales for most people.   Remember, this is a solo operation.   It seems I’ve done a decent job of building a “corporatey” website, but everything you see here is just one guy hacking at a keyboard from a home office.

After discussions with a number of customers over the past 2 months, it has been made clear that some organizations have the Store Locator Plus product as one of the main features of the website.    One client recently told me they see 42% of their web traffic utilizing the location system and only 2% of those users view anything else on the site.      If development and updates of the plugin stopped it would be a costly endeavor for many organizations to find a replacement.

I have come to the realization that creating a simple subscription based system for obtaining product updates may be a good model for my customers and create a sustainable model for supporting the plugin.     The current “buy it and own it” model will remain.   The base plugin and upgrades to the base plugin will remain free.    However I am exploring the possibility of creating an “Enterprise Subscription” model.

Concept: Enterprise Subscription

The concept I am playing with for the Enterprise Subscription is fairly basic.    Enterprise Subscriptions pay a sign-up fee, slightly less than purchasing all of the add-on packs which would put the fee slightly under the cost of the “Kitchen Sink” package.   The recurring monthly fee would be set at a nominal rate.  I’m thinking something close to $10/month.     Any member with an active subscription will get access to any future upgrades and patches of the add-on packs at no cost.   They would also be given access to any new add-on packs at no cost.

Concept: Purchase With No Subscription

Customers that do NOT have an Enterprise Subscription can still purchase the products the same way they do now.   They will get the latest versions and will get free upgrades to the latest base product.   However any add-on pack upgrades will no longer be published as a free update unless there is a security risk or notable issue that makes the add-on pack incompatible with the base plugin.     All optional upgrades to the add-on pack will require purchase of the upgrade.     Upgrades for add-on packs will be set at something close to $5/upgrade.

There may be some modifications to this model before I “go live” with it.

I the Enterprise Subscription concept is a good compromise between generating enough revenue to continue development and support and keeping the plugin affordable.     Larger installations with a vested interest in the Store Locator Plus ecosystem will be supporting development and online support with a small monthly investment.    Smaller installations can build out their projects for their clients at a cost that is no higher than what they are paying today, they simply do not get future improvements and new features for free.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this model.  While it feels a little bit more “big business”-like, I feel it would be a disservice to the customers to not address the potential risk of having development and support go away.

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Building A Site for Digital Content Sales

Today I received an email from a friend asking if I could help someone he knows in building a website.   The request is simple, help build a website that connects to social media and allows for registered users to download a paper he has written, keeping track of these registrations as leads.

The immediate answer is easy.

Use WordPress.

Ok, so maybe too simple an answer.   WordPress is way beyond a simple blogging platform.  It is a complete website and even a web applications building platform.   Take the website, glue on the right theme, add a few plugins, configure.  Done.

Far easier than 20 years ago when I built my first web engine for an ecommerce site,  writing thousands of lines of Perl code. It just about took a Phd in computer science to build a site like that back then.  Today, WordPress… click, click, type some settings, click… write some content… done.   But how do you get there?

Step 1: Pick A Host

This has come up TWICE today, so I’ll tell you who I use then tell you who I would and would not go with for most sites.

First, what I use.   Microsoft.  Yup, them.   Running a Linux server.    CentOS 6-something.  In a virtual dedicated server setup.  I know, I know… Microsoft and Linux?   Yeah.  And it didn’t even burst into flames within moments of doing the install.    So how does that work?     Microsoft has a service they call Windows Azure.   Don’t let the name confuse you.    “Azure”, as I like to call it, is basically the Microsoft equivalent of the Amazon Web Services environment.   In other words “cloud computing”.   It is NOT just Windows.

A Slight Diversion : Cloud Servers

What is the cloud?  A fancy name for remote computers and web services.  Really no different than rented servers from any other ISP, but today the term “cloud” tends to refer to any online service that gives you a simple web interface and programming APIs to control the resource.  This includes web hosting and web servers.   Just like the web servers you’d rent from an “Internet Presence Provider” (IPP) 5 years ago.   The only real difference here is they tend to put an emphasis on using virtual machines, just like those you run on a desktop like VMWare or Virtual Box.

That said, there are basically the same options with “cloud computing”, like “the cloud” provided by Amazon and Microsoft, as there are with renting a server.  You can get a website-only plan, a shared hosting plan, and a dedicated hosting plan.   This is sometimes called something different like “virtual private server” and “virtual dedicated server”.

In my opinion, if you are doing cloud computing then you really should be only looking at Virtual Dedicated Servers.  Otherwise just eliminate the confusion of “cloud computing” and go with a standard host.

If your website is going to be HUGE and you are going to get tens-of-thousands of unique visitors (uniques) every day or will have highly variable traffic with peaks of tens-of-thousands of uniques/day, then investigate and learn cloud hosting and dedicated cloud servers.

For the rest of you…

Back To Hosting

Ok, so I use a  Windows Azure virtual dedicated server running Linux.  But I’m a tech geek.  I know system security, system administration, and coding.  I can manage my server without any issues.

However, for a typical hosting company where you may need some assistance and do NOT need  your site to carry a super-heavy load, there are other options.    However, before I make a recommendation here are some companies I would stay away from for various reasons.

Do NOT use:

  • GoDaddy.   Way too many people have problems with GoDaddy hosted sites.   I cannot tell you how many broken sites of clients and customers were fixed when they left GoDaddy.    I also cannot tell you how incompetent it was for GoDaddy to take down MILLIONS of sites for several DAYS because they cannot configure a network router.   Then they refused any form of compensation to anyone.  I don’t even host with GoDaddy but my domain name is registered there and they took me offline for days.   This is NOT the first time this has happened in the past 12 months.   Not too mention most of their support staff is clueless.

  • LiquidWeb.   They  used to be one of my favorites.  As they have grown in size they too have grown in incompetence.  They cannot run a shared server properly to save their life.   I often found myself training their support staff.   They too have crashed my dedicated hardware, my shared server, and those of several customers for days-on-end.  No compensation and no apologies in most of those cases.
  • 1-And-1.   I’ve had no personal experience other than through my clients.  Mis-configured network routing.  Inability to fix blatant DNS issues.  Crashed servers.  Less performance that advertised.  Difficult to get in touch with competent support.  I’ve been paid good money to PROVE that 1-and-1 was the source of several major problems for clients for 1-an-1 to finally admit the issue was theirs then take weeks to address the problem.

Ok… so you know who to stay away from.   Who to use?

Well there are 2 companies I don’t have personal experience with but I’ve heard good things about.  The first, I only know about through casual conversation and what other people said about them.   The other is one many clients, with deep pockets, have used and swear by them.  I’m aware of them but have not used them personally.   In either case I think you are in good hands.

  • ClickHost.  They sponsored WordCamp Atlanta.  Already bonus points there.  They KNOW WordPress and love it.   If you are doing a WordPress site they seem like a perfect it.  Reasonably priced and WordPress knowledgeable.  Plus they just seem like cool people.

  • RackSpace.  They are the “100% guaranteed up time” people.   And from what I here they NEVER go offline.   They also have top-notch support.  And you pay for it.   Probably the most costly of the hosts  that are out there, but if your site can NEVER go down, they have a reputation for pulling that off.   Unless you screw it up yourself.  Then they try to help you fix it.

Step 2: Install WordPress

If you use someone like ClickHost, this is a few clicks and a couple of web-form questions away from being online.   Easy.

If you “go on your own” then you download WordPress, setup the MySQL database, and install via web forms.  Once you get MySQL setup, the 15-minute part of the “famous 15 minute install”, then the WordPress install really is just 15 minutes.  Very cool.

Step 3 : Themes

The harder part now is selecting a theme.    Themes are the skin of the site.  How it looks. There are tens-of-thousands of them online.  There are dozens within the free themes directory on WordPress.  There are a lot more out there in various online stores.  Some are free, some are paid.

But one thing most people overlook?   Themes are not just a pretty face.   MOST come with built-in functionality and features.  Think of it as a skin plus some cool functional elements added in.  While not all themes add functions or features to the site, many do.  Especially premium ones.

It is often easier to find a theme that does 90% of what you want and then add a few plugins.    Finding a theme that LOOKS cool, but does JUST that then adding 20 plugins is often a more difficult route.   If you follow my other threads you’ll know why.  Many plugins in the free directory at WordPress are abandoned.  Some don’t work well.  Others just don’t work.   Don’t let me scare you, plenty are GREAT and work perfectly.  You just need to “separate the wheat from the chafe” and that can take some time.

My recommendation?  Start with WooThemes.  I’ve found they have the best quality themes out there and more importantly, they actually ANSWER SUPPORT QUESTIONS.   Many themes, including premium ones, skip the later point which can be critical in getting a site online.      How to avoid at all costs?  Envato’s Theme Forest.  I’m sure they have a few good themes in the hundreds the promote, but the chances are finding those few are just too low.   Of the 10 “your plugin is broken” messages I get every month, 9 of them (or 10) are from someone using a Theme Forest theme that is horribly written and just plain breaks everything in their way.  Including plugins.   DO NOT use Theme Forest stuff.

Ok.  So you’ve got a theme, it does what you want and/or looks cool.       Now what?

Step 4: Plugins

Go find a few plugins that do what you want.  Start in the free WordPress plugins directory but widen your search to the premium plugins.  Unfortunately there are not a lot of good premium plugin sites out there.  However many of the better free plugins on the WordPress directory have premium upgrades.

Again, in the  3rd party market stay away from Envato’s Code Canyon.   While they offer a few good plugins there are far too many bad ones in the mix.    Not to hammer Envato too hard, they have a good idea but they SUCK at quality control.  They are obviously just playing a numbers game and going for volume over quality.

Got It, But For My Site?

Now you know the components, here is where I would start to build a site like the one described initially.

1) Host with ClickHost.  Small host package is probably fine.

2) Install WordPress 3.5.1 (or whatever the latest version is today).

3) Install WooCommerce as a plugin.  It is in the free directory and you can find it right from the WordPress admin panel by searching “woocommerce” under plugins.

4) Go to WooThemes and find a WooCommerce compatible theme that you like.

5) Go to WooThemes and look at the WooCommerce extensions.  There are several for doing subscriptions and digital content delivery.  They are premium add-ons but relatively inexpensive.

6) Add JetPack to your site.  It is a WordPress plugin from the guys that build WordPress.   It adds a bunch of cool features that you can turn on/off without much effort.  Mostly the social sharing and publishing tools are what we are looking for here.

7) Add VaultPress.  Also from “the WordPress people”. This is your site backup.  You want this.  Trust me, the $15/month is worth it the first time you break your site or it gets hacked.

I also strongly recommend adding Google Authenticator so you have 2-step authentication for your site.  It reduces the chances of someone hacking your password from the web interface.   This is not critical to functionality or security but I do recommend it.

So that is how I would get started.  I’ve not recommended specific themes or WooCommerce extensions because they change frequently and there may be something that better suits your particular needs.

Good luck and happy blogging!