This month, I had the chance to interview Aaron Bowie, a super-chill guy based in the UK who like many of us, made the transition from IT guy to plugin developer and is now living off the fruits of his own labor and knowledge.
Hey Aaron, thanks so much for joining us today! I’m excited to share your story with our avid readers, so let’s start from the very beginning – Where are you from and what’s your background?
Hey, Thanks for having me! I’m Aaron Bowie, based in Aberdeen (bonny Scotland). I’m the founder of We are AG. We are a small team that offers payment processing solutions for WooCommerce store owners.
I have been working from home since I started We are AG, but I plan to convert a brick workshop in my garden into a home office in the near future.
How did you get started in WordPress?
When I left school I was working in construction, which was hard work for little money and too much rain! But, it was a job that paid the bills.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with computers. Growing up, I did have hand-me-down PC’s, but nothing I could really do anything with. I had messed around coding and read some books, but I still had no idea what I was really doing. I managed to save a bit of money and bought a PC. I was so excited. It was my first ever proper PC though, so I soon realized that components were not cheap.
Back in the day I was quite active on tech forums, one of which was an American forum that focused on case mods – I loved this, I was a huge PC case-modding fan – and after chatting with one of the owners of the site, I found you could get stuff for “nothing” by reviewing items. How cool was that?!
So, for my first time, I built a website using WordPress; this was my introduction to the platform. Fast forward six months or so, and I had a WordPress website for doing hardware reviews.
I was getting components sent over from everywhere, pallets full of PC cases and all sorts. I would email companies and go “look, we’re getting this much traffic on the website, we really want to include a review of your product” and they’d send it!
Fast forward another year, and the website was maybe the fifth most successful review website in the UK at the time, with the reviews getting 40 – 50,000 unique visitors a month.
I became good friends with many of the small, local computer shops and would offer to swap some of the cases, fans and stuff for items they had that I wanted. Everyone won!
That is how I met and started working with my mentor, Dan, as an IT Tech. My job was to fix whatever came in – computers, laptops, phones and the like. Then in the evenings and at weekends he would help me with code and stuff on my website. He took me on as a junior developer, working on front-end HTML, CSS, etc.
I’m pretty sure he got frustrated at times when I just couldn’t get my head around how something would work. But then he’d sit me down, we’d have a beer, and he’d walk me through the issues until that light bulb moment clicked. In time, I became more interested in what he was doing, he was a PHP developer, and so he started teaching me some of the basics of PHP.
It was quite funny, as instead of going to the pub or gaming, we’d think up wacky ideas for websites and systems we could build, then spend the whole weekend making them happen, kind of like a hackathon.
This was such an interesting time, and I learned a huge amount. I am truly thankful to have met Dan and for all his help in the early days. Naturally, I eventually wanted to move on to work at an agency, so I could apply those skills, earn more, and further develop my career.
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I soon returned to working with Dan because I could not get on with the “office politics.” It simply didn’t suit me. But working with Dan, we created small websites with small budgets – low-stress.
The only problem was that the tech Dan had built (a custom CMS) interfered with my passion for WordPress, which Dan hated, being a thoroughbred PHP developer.
I knew I wanted a real change for myself, but I just didn’t know what to do. I was still learning a lot (you never stop). So, I decided to go on holiday to Sicily. We had no internet, no phone signal, and two weeks of bliss.
I’d brought a big blank notepad into which I’d put ideas and plans for the future. I was even starting to design my own logo and branding, and basically building the plan for We are AG.
As soon as I got back, I started to put the plans into action, and We are AG was born.
Wow, what a story?! I’m so anxious now to learn about the “first steps” of We are AG. Tell me more!?
When We are AG started, I had a single client from day one, and the money was not amazing. BUT – I did have a guaranteed £30 per month for doing basic maintenance and small updates on the site. This was obviously not something I could live off, but it was a start!
I did have a guaranteed £30 per month for doing basic maintenance and small updates on the site. This was obviously not something I could live off, but it was a start!.Tweet
I started out by working through the platform People Per Hour and became one of their top sellers. This worked well for the first year or so.
It was while working on an agency project that I was asked to do some work with WooCommerce. I had spent some time playing around with WooCommerce and picked up the basics quite quickly. It seemed this was something I could focus on, something unique to me, so I brought the focus of my website and blog posts to aspects of WooCommerce sites. This took off, with plenty of traffic resulting in being approached directly for projects.
I’d built a few small plugins, mainly for clients, but nothing really interesting, until I built one to handle Barclays payments within WooCommerce. The whole reason why I built my first plugin was because one of my freelance clients was using one from the WordPress.org repository. It had suddenly stopped working, and there was no support from the plugin dev.
The whole reason why I built my first plugin was because one of my freelance clients was using one from the WordPress repo. It had suddenly stopped working, and there was no support from the plugin dev.Tweet
I told the client I would look to build my own plugin, give them a free licence, and then I would sell it. I started getting maybe one or two sales a month, and then after a few months, this grew until I realised how useful this could be as a business.
I told the client I would look to build my own plugin, give them a free licence, and then I would sell it.Tweet
I started to focus on building WooCommerce extensions, not specializing on payment gateways to start with.
The next plugin also came from a client request, and with their permission, I sold about 20 copies of the new plugin, which paid for my development time.
Then I had two plugins for sale on my website.
Then I had two plugins for sale on my website.Tweet
Sales would potter along, and I would have sporadic bouts of energy to build more plugins every three months or so. They were all basic, minimum viable products that were developed to get started and to understand if there was a market for them. If the feedback was positive, and with more sales, then, I would build other features into the plugins – but only features that people were asking for.
This became the focus for We are AG – WooCommerce payment plugins. I had pivoted the business yet again. To me, building plugins was way easier than dealing with clients or agencies – at least on the payment side of things!
I had started to grow tired of chasing clients for payments. Too often, I’d get the 50% deposit, do the work, and then it would take ages to get the final payment. That’s not a good business model.
Focusing on the plugins had a massively positive effect on me, on my sleep, my mental health, and I finally had a life!Tweet
I still do some freelance work from time to time by supporting a super cool local agency. I see this as me consultant work, as I help the team there with little WooCommerce bits, some custom functions, or small plugins to fit their client projects.
Would you tell us more about the plugins you’ve developed and what you’ve learned in the process?
When I first started selling plugins, I had a real mixed bag. Over time, I found myself building more payment gateway plugins, and I decided to focus on just payment gateways.
The first Barclays plugin was what we call an off-site gateway. Over time. I started to get requests for a feature that offered a direct link for payment, where customers pay on site.
This led to an easy rationalization for the pricing of my product, which was well-priced, as I was in the middle of both competitors.
The higher cost competitor had both payment options built into a single plugin, which in my opinion, the cost was too high. Some users didn’t want to have this other payment option, as it would mean they would be required to have PCI DSS SAQ A-EP Certification.
I decided to build a totally separate plugin for the direct link version, as I could then offer both versions at a competitive price and the customer could choose what version they wanted. If they wanted the off-site plugin they could pay $59 and only need a SAQ A certification. If they wanted the direct link version they could pay the $139 and also get their SAW A-EP certification.
I have found some users over time decide they want to “upgrade” to the other version, which we are more than happy to accommodate. I have found this model to be a lot easier to manage and allows us to compete our own plugins against each other rather than doing add-ons, both of which Freemius allows.
I have found this “model” to be a lot easier to manage and allows us to compete our own plugins against each other rather more so than doing add-ons that Freemius allows.Tweet
Support is key, in my opinion, to any plugin business. We pride ourselves in reliable and fast support, which has allowed us to pull sales away from the cheaper competitors of ours who have been reported to provide next-to-no support. It’s been almost two years since I hired someone to help with support, and not only has he been an amazing part of the team for helping customers, but we have also managed to build amazing documentation and a setup wizard.
All of this helps bring the number of tickets down significantly. While it requires a lot of leg work in the beginning, it’s totally worth it to hire someone to help you when you can afford it and have the support demand.
While it requires a lot of leg work in the beginning, it’s totally worth it to hire someone to help you when you can afford it and have the support demand.Tweet
What kind of marketing have you done for your plugins?
Up until about a week ago, I had done zero marketing for my business. The only thing I would do was a blog post per month. In my freelancing days, I spent a fair bit of time working in Spain. The digital nomad life was amazing, and I was lucky enough to meet some very interesting people in my travels.
A good buddy of mine is a marketing wizard whom I met in Spain. I remember we were having a chat online when I was back in the UK about my website. He mentioned that if I changed the layout of my product pages, I would get more sales. I was not convinced at all. How could just changing the location of some text on a page have any impact on sales?
I took a screenshot of my last three months’ sales and made the changes he suggested, 20 minutes later, and I was done. To my shock, he was bang on the money. That month, I had a 30 – 35% jump in sales, This was huge and came from something so simple.
The last few months, we have been planning some marketing tactics for me to work on. I have been preparing on my end and trying to learn more about this field thanks to my friend. In a few days, a few new adverts will go live, and I am excited to see how this plays out.
How do you approach partnerships in the payment gateway space?
Building partnerships with payment providers like Barclays, Lloyds and Ingenico has been key to our success. Having worked with these providers for some years, I have grown to know some of the guys there (I’ve even sent a few cases of beers 🍻 to them). Their inside knowledge and tips on improvements have been invaluable. Because I have some really good relationships with these providers, I am also featured as the recommended plugins for WooCommerce on their websites. They actively push my plugins to their users.
This has changed since the early days because I now have a catalogue of WooCommerce payment gateways and I try to hunt for new payment providers I have not built for. I’d send an email saying who I was, what I had built, and ask for test API credentials.
Once I’d get the details, I’d build the new plugin, set up a demo site and email the provider again saying that it was ready and requesting marketing materials to share the product with the community.
After launching a recent plugin, someone from a major PSP (Payment Service Provider) apparently looked over my LinkedIn profile and wanted to have a chat. They wanted to know more about me and the business and were keen to have a meeting with the intent of partnering or buying the plugin from me. The meeting was super cool, I had demoed the plugin, its setup wizard, and the feedback from the guys in the meeting was amazing.
While there were a few different options on the table, and the plugin was super new (I had only sold one licence at the time), I was keen to see how it would pan out if I continued to sell it on my own just like my other plugins. Gladly, they were willing to partner with me while I sold the plugin on my own.
With the plugin being actively promoted by the payment service provider, it gives us more selling power and value, and I am hopeful for the future.
It’s pretty amazing you’ve already had a buyout offer! It’s becoming more and more common in our space. So, what brought you to Freemius?
Probably the biggest problem that I had selling plugins was licensing. It was a constant headache, and I found myself spending more time working on this than on any other part of my dev work.
Tthe biggest problem that I had selling plugins was licensing. It was a constant headache, and I found myself spending more time on this than on any other part of my dev work.Tweet
Up until a couple of years ago, I was starting to grow tired of the battle with the licencing system I had hacked together, I was having a chat with James Kemp (someone I respect and look up to), and he had said he was starting to make the move to Freemius from CodeCanyon. I started looking into the platform and reading as much as I could about it. I finally decided to take the leap.
It started with a small step of starting to sell one of my lower revenue generating plugins through Freemius, and then moving all the licenses over for that plugin, which took about two weeks.
That was very much the selling point for me – handling the licensing – it was more work than it should have been, so having Freemius handle this is absolutely worth it. Over the next couple of months, I started to move the rest of the plugins over and this now works really well for me and for our users.
Moving to Freemius was a real game changer for me – sales jumped within months, users loved the new onboarding, and I had zero stress integrating the Freemius SDK.Tweet
How was your experience working with the Freemius team?
The times when I have had questions or issues Vova and the team have always been there. Knowing that the team is there and are able to advise or fix something is invaluable.
What are the things that you find unique with the value-proposition that comes with Freemius?
The Slack community is really good, I feel like I live on Slack with other communities but I have to say the Freemius one is one of the more active ones. Be it someone asking for help or someone sharing something funny with the community, it’s a really good mix.
As of late I have really enjoyed the Youtube series “Experts Corner”, it’s been really good to get some insight into how my colleagues run their businesses.
Finally I have to say the best value-proposition is the continued roll out of new features to the platform. I truly see Freemius as our business partner, they have our back and for that I am grateful. Thanks guys!
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions – it’s been great hearing your story – maybe we can end by telling us about your future plans?
This year, we’re rolling out setup wizards for all the plugins, and working on two new plugins at the moment, one of which contains a new functionality related to managing payments, which has taken 6 months to build and will probably take another 6 months.
We plan to offer more than just payment gateway integration, but to also help users understand the data that comes from their payments, and much more.
I’d like to start converting my brick workshop in my garden into the home office I mentioned – Having worked from my living room for a few years, it’s now time to try to have something for work and have some disconnect from home/work.
Thanks for the questions and feel free to reach out in the comments!