A tale of two product launches: WordCamps Brighton and Bucharest

I recently had the great pleasure of speaking at WordCamp Brighton, and tomorrow will be speaking at WordCamp Bucharest. My first time at both, and a real treat!

I wanted to make my slides and useful links easily accessible, which is what this post is. You’ll find both below:

Must reads on online product launches:

These are all good, but read them with your “survivorship bias” goggles on: you’re hearing about the handful of product launches which worked, and not the ones which didn’t. This is hard, and may take you a couple of goes to get right, but that’s really okay.

I really hope you found the talk and these links valuable. We can be friends on Twitter if you like, I’d recommend taking a look at my weekly newsletter for WordPress professionals, and I’m taking on some work at the moment, so do get in touch.

Exploring a purchasing decision: “Double Your Freelancing”

I’ve just purchased Brennan Dunn’s “Double Your Freelancing” course, as it’s a) on sale today (urgency!) and b) solves a problem I’m interested in at the mo. My thought process for making a purchasing decision was very interesting. Couple of notes, which I thought were worth sharing:

1. I’ve been subscribed to Brennan’s list for a long time, but only today considered purchasing. Before, his course hasn’t solved a problem I needed; now it does. A one-day urgency sale, with a single reminder email was enough to prompt me to buy.

2. The sales page was very good, but I skimmed a lot of it. I only read it properly when I was pretty sure I wanted to buy. So, making sure sales pages are skimmable is important.

3. There was so much social proof on the page I didn’t look for independent reviews. Social proof from people whose names I recognised was very powerful.

4. I presumed I wanted the most expensive tier – and even added it to my cart – but then looked at what was in the cheap tier. I realised I didn’t actually want or need any of the things in the more expensive tier, and saying “you don’t get free updates” seemed like a technical nightmare. On purchasing, turns out that hunch was right, and there are free updates. Thus – adding real value to a more expensive tier is key.

5. I was surprisingly price-insensitive. With a discount code, I was happy to pay the $200 for the top tier, on the justification I only need to take away a couple of things for it to be worth it. Quite possibly I would have used that logic right up to $400 or $500.

Brennan does around $80k/month in sales, so he obviously has this down. Interesting nonetheless to work out how I decided to buy this course, caveats on what’s weak in the sales process, and how one can avoid them going forwards.

Lessons from failing to sell WordPress themes at the start of the gold rush

I’d like to take you back in time six years, to a time when the world of blogging was very different.

The “premium WordPress theme” was in its relative infancy, the default WordPress theme was Kubric (HuffPo claims “Kubrick has helped change the face of cyberspace”) and WordPress 2.9 had just launched, boasting the addition of being able to “trash” posts.

The default WordPress theme at the time, which "

The default WordPress theme at the time, which “helped change the face of cyperspace”.

At this time I was 15 and running writing a lot of WordPress tutorials, alongside studying for my GCSEs. I could see the gold rush to sell WordPress themes happening and reasonably assumed I could be part of it.

I spent six months building an okay theme with a partner and didn’t go great. The product failed. After talking about survivorship bias (and accusing the classic product case study of misleadingly highlight success) I figured I should share my story and (in an attempt to avoid survivorship bias) clearly say what I’d do differently now.

Let me walk you through what I did wrong and what lessons can be learned from my unsuccessful foray into the WordPress theme market.

Building an audience and then failing to leverage it

The number one product launch tip you see is “build an audience”. Build your audience, build your email list and you have a licence to print money – apparently.

At the time I was running WPShout and I did have an audience. Approximately 1,000 or so RSS subscribers (this was the key metric then) but no email list.

One of the ad banners we created for the theme.

One of the ad banners we created for the theme.

We spent six months building the product but only mentioned it once on WPShout, a couple of weeks before launch. In the WordPress gold rush we were scared people would like our (mildly innovative) ideas, so thought silence was the best approach.

We did collect 150 or so emails on a “coming soon” landing page, but… you guessed it, we failed to email them before the launch.

Plot twist: being silent about your product is not an effective marketing strategy.

We were scared of people nicking our ideas so shared literally nothing. This was a bad idea for two reasons:

  1. Once launched, the features we were keeping secret were copyable. Keeping it secret before the launch only gave us a couple of weeks head-start which, in the grand scheme of thing, isn’t all that much.
  2. Nobody was waiting for us to unannounced launch a WordPress theme, so when we did, nobody gave a shit. Give people a reason to be excited and give a shit (and also money).

Clearly, when people tell you to “build an audience”, they also mean to mention “you need to sell to that audience. Having an audience is good, but insufficient for a successful product launch. It’s imperative you tell your audience about your product – and do it lots. It’s obvious to you you’re building a great product, cause you’re spending all day working on it. Nobody else is sharing this.

lf I was re-launching this again now, I’d spend a lot more time strategising about the launch sequence. Leverage the pre-existing audience and add new people who are specifically interested in the new product. Let people know about the product a couple of months out and introduce more specifics as launch date gets closer.

Make people excited about your product in the run up to its launch. Don’t just build an audience, reach people who will be interested in your product and then go out of your way to tell them about it.

Invest in your business

We kept costs as rock-bottom low as possible. That’s a very honourable bootstrapped startup approach, but there’s a difference between being bootstrapped and failing to make the investments required to grow the business. As you can probably guess, we did the latter.

Two investment mistakes we made.

1. We didn’t buy the software that made buying a nice experience

We failed to buy the software required to make growth sustainable or to make the customer experience a flawless one.

The chief culprit here was membership software. Fully-featured membership software was required here, so that customers could login and access their purchases. Solutions like EDD, WooCommerce and Gumroad didn’t exist, so we went with eJunkie. It was pretty ugly but did work. We also didn’t choose reliable WordPress hosting (I agree with WPShout’s SiteGround review, and now happily use them).

Unfortunately, eJunkie didn’t offer any sort of membership management, so instead of spending $180 on the only membership package around, aMember, we settled for something from CodeCanyon that cost $5. It did work, but it didn’t work very well.

If I was doing this again now I’d make the investments needed to make sure we could smoothly sell WordPress themes and customers have a great experience. No need to go overboard on spending, but purchase the tools needed to do the job well.

2. We didn’t offer refunds

The second investment we failed to make was refunds. We didn’t offer refunds, reasoning the website gave you a good idea of what was included and we were offering a digital product that had no way of “returning”. Anyone could just ask for a refund and keep the product, right?

Technically yes, but in practice very very few people will do that. We only had one or two people ask for refunds – which we refused in both cases – but it’s just not worth it. Make sure your customers are happy. You want people to universally say good things about you. In nearly all cases it’s quicker and easier for all parties just to sort the refund and leave it.

If I was doing this again now I’d just offer refunds within 14 or 30 days. Don’t think of it as “your” money until that period has passed.

Have a marketing plan after launch

This sounds obvious, and probably is, but a big part of survivorship bias is ignoring these seemingly obvious things, so gonna talk about it anyway.

We did have a marketing plan for after we launched, but we didn’t have a good marketing plan for after we launched. I bought some ads on a handful of blogs but that was roughly the extent of it. We didn’t track the ads, so had no idea if any were successful.

Obviously, you need a good marketing plan which can deliver results you can quantifiably say are “good” or “bad”.

If I was doing this again now I’d spend a lot of time thinking about post-launch marketing and this would almost certainly involve affiliates.

We did have affiliates with our WordPress theme, but saw them as “taking” a cut of “our” revenue, so we offered the minimum commission we thought we could get away with and structured the program so you needed multiple sales before we’d pay out. This stacked the cards in our favour, but also mean nobody was really interested. I was able to leverage some contacts to get some support, but nobody was incentivised to really promote the product.

My thinking around affiliates has changed a lot since then. Affiliates are not “taking” revenue, they’re providing you with extra revenue. Therefore, more affiliates and more affiliate sales is a great thing!

Sell WordPress themes with or without affiliates?

Sell WordPress themes with no affiliates, sales = x$. With affiliates, sales = 10x$! Which is better?

What I’d do now – and what we did with MasterWP – is to make affiliates an offer too good to refuse. Offer 50% commission and be happy to do so. You want affiliates to be happy and excited to promote your product because there’s a lot in it for them.

The key to making this work is communication with affiliates. Inviting affiliates rather than having open signups is a good way of ensuring you’re working with high-quality sites and good people. If you’re doing that, make sure you clearly communicate what you’re doing and what you expect from them – and then make it easy for them. Write copy that can be used as a template, provide graphics and offer convenient metrics. Provide everything affiliates need to do a great job promoting your work.

There are worst post-launch ideas than buying ads on blogs, but it’s obvious that you must be able to track these for them to be of any use. I like affiliates as there’s no upfront cost to you, but by no means is this the only or best plan.

Lessons learned trying to sell WordPress themes?

I launched my WordPress theme the same day as another, Genesis 1.0. One of these is now a multi-million dollar business and the other is being dragged out from the internet archives so I have something to write about.

My project to sell WordPress themes was never going to be a million dollar business; we didn’t have the same quality or vision as StudioPress, but you get the point: it was a missed opportunity.

Furthermore, these are my lessons learned and what I’d do now, but that doesn’t mean this is what you should be doing. It’s thoroughly misleading for any product case study to claim this is the best or only way to do things.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, there’s no shortage of guides promising you “the secrets”, but “the notion that I made twenty thousand dollars in twenty four hours is endlessly appealing… but grossly misrepresents the reality that this is hard.” Hopefully this post offers a little perspective: I spent six months building a product six years ago and got basically nothing from it.

The key takeaways from this are:

  • Make people excited about your product in the run up to its launch. Build an email list and make use of it. Provide a ton of value for people.
  • Share what you’re building.  You can’t keep the ideas powering your product secret. If you’ve got a particularly good unique selling point, flog it as much as you can.
  • Spend money where you need to.  Make sure your customers have a flawless experience – that way they’ll buy from you again.
  • Have a plan for after you launch. Affiliates are a good thing to be thinking about.

Failure is nothing to be especially ashamed of, it’s just a learning point which can be leveraged so next time can be better. With this post you can leverage some of the learning – without having to screw stuff up first.

Survivorship bias: understanding “how to” case studies that make everything look easy

A mainstay of the modern product creator’s marketing toolkit is the case study. They typically walk you through step-by-step what the creator did and show how you too can do this.

They typically come with a title that looks something like:

  • I made this many thousand dollars in this many hours whilst doing surprising thing.
  • I got this much traffic whilst not doing thing you expect me to do and in this timeframe.

After all – after you’ve made said achievement it’s easy to milk it a little bit extra by sharing the tantalising secrets to your incredible success.

survivorship bias in marketing case studies

The problem with these case studies is they make it look easy. Whatever “it” is, it’s always just a straight road from a blank page all the way to watching the money flood in.

I have a problem with this: very very rarely is any of this easy. If it was easy, someone else would have already executed your idea.

The notion that I made twenty thousand dollars in twenty four hours is endlessly appealing – who doesn’t want to do that – but grossly misrepresents the reality that this is hard.

In misrepresenting reality, I argue these case studies are of exceptionally limited use. They satisfy a curiosity to check up on how other people are doing but fail to offer anything actionable you can take away and implement.

This is classic survivorship bias. Survivorship bias is the tendency to focus on only those processes which have “survived” and overlook those which failed. It’s typically seen in medical and investing fields, but applies well to marketing – and especially mega case studies.

Ian Lurie explains the concept nicely:

In marketing:…We only write about the winners. If we only write about the winners, then you only read about tactics as part of success stories.

Survivorship bias often makes the wrong tactics look right. We see those tactics and stop digging…. Always ask ‘Why, really, did this work?’

Given learning from people with a track record of success is a pretty good idea and these articles have the potential to be useful, how should one analyse them? How do you account for the bias and take away something actually useful?

Here are some of the questions you should be asking.

What preconditions for success are there?

Start by asking what role preexisting audience, network and influence play. How does this compare to your situation? Will this work as well if you have none of the preconditions the author is able to leverage?

If preconditions are important (they probably are) then can you get to the same point? If you can’t (say the author leverages five years of networking and you have three months) then is this a deal breaker? Probably not, a deal breaker but may have an impact. If that’s the case, ascertain the impact this is likely to have on your own execution.

At the same time, if a post is promising to show how I increased x by xx%, what was the starting point? Going from 20 visitors to 100 is a 500% increase, but 100 visitors is rarely something to write home about. Where stats are relative, be cautious.

What’s the one thing success is reliant on?

This is a great thing to be asking: work this out and you can establish where to focus your efforts. There’s often one pivotal point which accelerates the success of the project, but it’s rarely highlighted.

Social media posting is often pivotal here. Prominence on any one of a number of social sites can put rocket boosters on all sorts of metrics, but there’s often a huge amount of luck involved here.

Social sharing was a big problem we ran into with MasterWP. We produced a free email course and needed to get it in front of people. Week one posted on a host of social sites and got nothing. A week later tried again and hit the top of the /r/wordpress subreddit. Without this we wouldn’t have had enough interest to move forwards. It seemed whether our social posting was successful or not was random.

Chance and luck play a big role and it’s hard to account for them. Were you just unlucky, or does your product suck? Still, working out social sharing isn’t a level playing field gives you time to work out how to get an advantage.

Social media posting is a good example but by no means an exhaustive list. Working out where those pivotal moments are lets you plan and mitigate for them.

Is this ethical?

The most sensational case study headlines often rely on the sketchiest of tactics:

  • Pre-order numbers that rely on deception.
  • Signup numbers that rely on really annoying popups and/or other misleading tactics.

When startup speak meets a desire to make the numbers work no matter what, you end up with (actual) case studies which say this:

“we ultimately relied on a bit of deception to validate the idea”

It may be possible to achieve sensational numbers with the tactics described in these case studies, but do you actually want to use them? Think about the long term damage to your brand.

How much work went into this? Am I prepared to commit and make sacrifices?

This is one of my favourites. Let’s call it the “totally unreasonable amount of work required hack”. Case studies often hide behind phrases such as we wrote the whole course over an intensive weekend or repeat these steps with everything you publish.

Often these are disguising the truth: the “intensive weekend” turns out to be ten days without doing anything else at all (and conveniently not having a regular job or bills to pay in that time) and the “couple of steps” you have to repeat takes up an entire day’s work which I’m sure you happened to have spare.

It’s so easy to take the advice of those who are already successful as the gold standard, but you’ve got to ask if the level of commitment required is desirable.

A year ago whilst I was doing my degree I experimented with getting up at 6am to write blog posts (#6amclub) on the basis of Sean McCabe’s recommendation. I’d watch Casey Neistat and be super inspired to work unreasonably hard. It fell to my girlfriend to remind me: these people are workaholics. Their lifestyle resolves solely around work and that’s totally undesirable.

You know what – she was right. I have things other than work that are important to me. When a case study is making something look easy, take a close look at how much work they’re advocating.

What am I not being told?

It’s fun to portray a story of vast success in which there were small challenges but these were triumphantly overcome. The big challenges detract from the narrative of I know precisely what I’m doing and are thus glossed over with some literary gymnastics.

Working out what you’re not being told is important as when you come to do it, it’ll never go to plan. There are going to be difficult challenges and you need to know what those are. There may be points where it looks like the project is fucked and it’s not worth continuing and you need to know how to respond.

The reason you’re reading a case study from someone who’s done something successfully is they’ve had the tenacity to keep going, even when shit got tough. Sure, they’re under no obligation to share the difficult details with you, but it’d be a hell of a lot more practical use if and when you come to use the case study and feel like giving up yourself if you knew how those offering themselves as models reacted when things got really shit.

Take inspiration from the one-sentence clues that things might get really difficult and if and when things don’t work out, use these clues to help you decide how to respond.

 Product launch case studies that are useful

Case studies can be useful and inspiring resources. They can also, however, be thoroughly misleading and give the impression of ease when it’s definitely not the case. A case study offering only the good bits is showing off, not sharing anything useful.

To demonstrate my point about well-done case studies being helpful, these are a couple I got a lot of value from:

Take off the rose-tinted glasses, settle down to the reality that hard things are hard and remember if what you’re doing was easy, someone else probably would have gotten there first.

Get my new free course: Becoming a WordPress Master

I wrote a couple of months ago I was planning on setting out freelancing full-time after my graduation (and a trip to Japan). This has now all happened and I’m entering my third week working for myself 100% of the time.

I’m excited to be writing regularly again, and over the next couple of weeks I’ll be transitioning some content from BlogBettr to here and publishing a new post every fortnight. You can grab a newsletter subscription if you’d like to stay updated.


One of the first projects I’ve been working on is a free course for WordPress users to become WordPress masters and do everything they want, themselves.

There are a ton of WordPress courses for beginners and a second ton for experts, but nothing that bridges the gap – and that’s where MasterWP comes in.

I’m producing the course with Ben Gillbanks. Ben and I have worked together for years and have eighteen years of working with WordPress between us (me as a power user, Ben as a developer), so we cover all aspects of the WordPress spectrum.

The free course runs for a week and empowers you with the skills to set up sites how you want, manage sites for clients and vastly increase the value of your WordPress skills.

The full lesson breakdown looks like this:

  1. How to choose the perfect WordPress theme
  2. Get the most from theme support
  3. Theme customization basics (+ helpful plugins)
  4. Make your site load really quickly
  5. Using CDNs for extra speed
  6. Integrating email marketing with WordPress
  7. Keeping your WordPress site secure

The lessons are thoroughly detailed and packed with quick tips and convenient takeaways, so it’s worth grabbing the course even as a refresher. After all, it’s free 😁

The course starts next Monday (12th September) and signups are only open until then, so signup for free here.

We’re hoping to follow-up with a more detailed advanced course, so would love to help develop your skills and hear your thoughts. Let me know on Twitter.