How I made $80,000 with a single WordPress plugin

337/365: The Big MoneyThe journey described here is meant to be a learning and motivational tool, hopefully opening horizons to what is possible.

SEO Smart Links is a WordPress SEO plugin that helps people enhance their interlinking structure without too much hassle. The idea behind it is since Google and other search engines heavily attribute internal links and the structure of the site, it made sense to attempt to automatize the process, especially if your site is already established and it would be very time consuming to go back to every post and add these links manually. Along the way I added many other features like support for affiliate links, custom keywords, caching etc.

It all begun in 2008 when I first released the free version of the plugin. The plugin proceeded to become very popular and over the course of next two years reached more than 200,000 downloads, with a large number of reviews over the Internet including those at premier SEO industry locations like Search Engine Journal and others.

With the increasing plugin popularity one thing was inevitable - increased number of support and feature requests. Mind you, this was just one out of around 20 free plugins I developed by then, so the amount of day-to-day work just to respond to user requests was ridiculously big, greatly exceeding the amount of my free time. The free plugin also had some bugs due to the poor architecture chosen in the beginning so I knew I had to completely rewrite it.

I decided I will do that, but this time I will offer it as a paid product, and together with that offer rock-solid support as well as money back guarantee. I really had no other plans at that moment nor did I base my future income on the success of this project.

I released the premium plugin in December 2010. I did not know how will I promote it back then, so I organized a Twitter competition for three licenses and announced the winners in a nice video recorded drawing.

This gave the launch some wings and the plugin sales started.

During this time I also tried couple of ways of paid promotion including buying banner ads, advertising on warrior forum, even a review by the famous John Chow. None of it worked, it was a waste of money. I think one of the reasons it failed is that users visiting these places were used to the cheap products that sold them dreams. Mine was not cheap and certainly did not make any promises it can not fulfill. I also did not have (and still don't have) a typical sales page to which users are accustomed and to which I grew allergic over the time.

I set the lowest price to be $79 for the Personal edition of the plugin which you can use on one website. Professional edition allows you to install it on all your websites and costs $149. The Business edition has the most features, and it also allows you to install it on your client's site. It costs $299. The relatively high price (compared to average price of premium WordPress plugins) was also the indication of the tremendous effort put into creating the plugin, not just development but also research and my own SEO consulting experience accumulated over the years in the industry.

To date it sold 508 copies (about one a day on average) and this was enough to earn me just over $82,000 USD.

What do you think where did the most money come from - Personal, Professional or Business version?

If you thought the cheapest you would be wrong.

Note: the difference in totals here is due to some people upgrading between versions

All versions sold about equal number of copies, and because the Business version was 4 times as expensive it yielded as much more revenue than the Personal edition.  That was a surprising fact, one I would have never guessed beforehand.

So if traditional marketing channels didn't work - what did?

As you can see from the sales reports affiliates contributed to about 16% of all sales. Two or three biggest affiliates split between them  $6,000 USD. Looking back I should have promoted the plugin's affiliate program more as it is a great way to gain sales and it's also great for affiliates as I gave them a very nice 40% commission on all sales.

However bulk of the sales came from links in my own plugins. Since I had so many popular WordPress plugins I decided that it would be a good idea to include the link with the information about SEO Smart Links Premium to the Settings page of these plugins. These links would then be seen by WordPress users who are presumably happily using my other plugins and would potentially be interested in owning a premium SEO plugin. That meant very targeted "advertising" which resulted in a steady stream of sales.

This also means that all these free plugins I gave the community were now working for me. I often hear plugin developers say that free plugins are a waste of time, but in my example they were exactly the channel that generated the most leads.

Over the time I played with the idea of releasing the premium version of two other plugins, namely Smart Youtube and SEO Friendly Images.

Smart Youtube  is insanely popular WordPress plugin with over 1.2 million downloads to date. I created the PRO version which included large number of new features and additions which took several months to develop but then decided to keep it free.  The benefit of course is that the plugin became even more popular, getting 200,000 new downloads in just few months.

I still plan to launch the premium version of SEO Friendly Images as I created some very useful features that automatically adhere to the latest Google Image posting guidelines. I reckon that with two premium plugins one could easily have a nice living with about $4,000-$8,000 USD monthly in revenue from plugin sales alone.

I guess the best thing about having this kind of business is that once the plugin is created, everything is running more or less on auto-pilot.

Today I am fortunate to be working on a much bigger project that both earns for my living, but does so for 15 more people too and in the process helps thousands of users save their precious time. I am talking about ManageWP and I will leave the story about it for some other time.

Comments and questions welcome.


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Posted in: Business, WordPress
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  1. Jan 28th, 2013 10:59 PM

    Lover you smart links plugin. Been using it for years now. Thanks for the great work and congrats on the success of your pro release.

  2. Nov 23rd, 2012 10:24 AM

    Wow, what a great journey. You´ve got yourseft anonther bookmark, Vladimir ;)

    • Nov 23rd, 2012 10:25 AM

      (sorry for the bad writing. "yourseft anonther " = yourself another )

    • Nov 23rd, 2012 10:30 AM

      Thank you!

  3. Nov 18th, 2012 6:24 AM

    Thanks Vladimir for the value you provide in your articles and products! I am not alone in saying that there is much to be learned in your content!
    I have many people asking me about SEO and am just learning myself. The difference is I apply what I learn immediately test, test, test :)
    My article tonight will actually be about you I think. I enjoy writing about what inspires me.

  4. Oct 22nd, 2012 12:19 PM

    Hello Vladimir,

    Great to see there's a market for quality built plugins. Coming out with one myself soon after I'm done tinkering, perfecting and figuring it out the pricing etc. Loads of stuff to think about so thanks for this excellent write up. Good luck with ManageWP!


  5. Jul 8th, 2012 4:11 PM

    One of the things that amazes me about you, Vladimir is that you live in a country where unemployment is over 23%. You've not only created these plugins but an entire thriving company from the ashes of war and poverty. I don't know if you've talked about this aspect of your success, but I would love to hear the challenges and successes.


    • Jul 8th, 2012 7:10 PM

      Thank you very much. Yes you are right, the circumstances around me were a bit specific. However maybe it helped me see things more clearly, sooner. I do seem to have a gift for creating good products, and the rest is just execution. I haven't written much about it before.

  6. Jul 7th, 2012 8:02 AM

    Very impresive and inspiring story! Thank you for sharing with us!

  7. Jamie Krasnoo
    Jun 24th, 2012 8:20 PM

    This is great. Thanks for the article. I'm curious as to how you protect your code. Do you encrypt it or give it plain when a customer buys a license?

  8. Apr 18th, 2012 3:57 AM

    Hi Vladimir, thanks for the inspiring story, I just want to know if the smart links plugin supports Chinese or Japanese language.

    BTW, your blog is great and I am sharing it on my blog.

    • Apr 18th, 2012 5:58 AM

      Yes, the premium version works with all languages through UTF8 support.

  9. Faris
    Apr 10th, 2012 8:31 PM

    Hi Vladimir just curious to know whether these are real sales figures because in the beginning you mentioned it is for motivational purpose. "The journey described here is meant to be a learning and motivational tool, hopefully opening horizons to what is possible." :)

    • Apr 10th, 2012 9:44 PM

      Yes they are

  10. Apr 10th, 2012 10:55 AM

    The is an achievement to be proud and just goes to show that if one comes up with an idea and supports it, you can make money. This also shows that hard work pays off and one must always reach for the stars.

    Congrats again and I'm sure you will sell even more in the future :)

    • Apr 10th, 2012 9:45 PM

      Have in mind that it's not that much, many fail to see that it took around 14 months to get to $80,000 and two years before that.

  11. Apr 9th, 2012 7:25 AM

    Interesting.. Congratulation with your successful plugin. :)

  12. Apr 3rd, 2012 11:34 AM

    thanks for sharing this details, this encourages me to create and promote my own stuff which I am working now..

  13. Mar 29th, 2012 8:11 PM

    I hope I get a little mention in the Manage wp story , or just like social network the film I might have to sue you , ha ha :)

  14. Mar 21st, 2012 10:41 AM

    Vladimir, as the proverbial customer, providing WP related services, when I do the math the business version of the plugin pays for itself with one project. That is all it takes.

    And besides that main point — working with this plugin's business version seems like a fun process. Discovering whether it really works that well or not. Tinkering with all the advanced features seems like a good way to learn more about web marketing or to revise what I already know.

    So, I will be purchasing the business license as soon as I can find a client that really needs it.

    Meanwhile, I am already a customer of ManageWP, so I know you provide quality products. That is the third reason for your success. People like I trust you to provide the best there is. If something is not to my satisfaction I know that it is usually about the constraints of this particular field of activity rather that you have left something out or done a feature imperfectly. I think that is why you get so little support requests, your authority.

    • Mar 21st, 2012 10:49 AM

      Hello Robert

      Thank you very much for the insightful comment. Yes I am very much convinced that we all have to eat our own dogfood and this reflects in everything I create.

  15. Mar 20th, 2012 11:03 AM

    Simple brilliant post - A nice inspiring read to start my day

    Thank you and well done!

  16. Mar 17th, 2012 6:28 PM

    Really inspiring....thanks for the great plugin, i have used the free of your plugin. And today, i have also developed my own affiliate marketing related plugin. Lets hope i will make it success like you.

    Good luck to reach even more heights...


  17. nikola
    Mar 15th, 2012 10:53 PM

    Bravo, svaka čast na ovom uspehu! Vrlo inspirativno...

  18. Mar 9th, 2012 11:55 PM

    Congrats Vladimir! I'm working on a couple WP plugins myself and it's very encouraging that there's quite a market out there for top notch work.

  19. Mar 9th, 2012 12:05 PM

    Very nice story. And congratulations! I love your plugins :)

  20. Mar 9th, 2012 4:32 AM

    I purchased the Business version of the plugin for a project I was working on. Vlad was really very helpful in configuring it with our site's Custom Post Type setup. It's an excellent plugin and reassuring that there is excellent support behind it. I wish you all the best of luck with your future projects, Vlad.

    • Mar 9th, 2012 11:06 AM

      Thanks Matthew!

  21. Mar 9th, 2012 3:31 AM

    "I guess the best thing about having this kind of business is that once the plugin is created, everything is running more or less on auto-pilot."
    I've had doubts in the past about charging a once-off fee for a product, but offering indefinite support. Is there a risk that the time to support a product eventually get's beyond the money you collected from its sale?

    This is possibly more of an issue with premium themes where people often need help customizing them.

    • Mar 9th, 2012 11:06 AM

      The support isn't indefinite as you can see on the plugin page, but in the practice I do not have a lot of support requests anyway (couple a month). To have that you need to have a very polished product, and this one took years to perfect.

  22. Mar 9th, 2012 2:45 AM

    Congratulation, The journey surely give me motivation. I'm a beginner wp themes developer, and when I read on the SEO smart links product range, what I have in mind is, I can get this plugin as a feature included in my service, it is okay with 299, and after several lines, you mention that the business range is the highest stream. haha nice.

    I think from what I read it is not quite right if you said that one single plugin alone produce big 82K (wow) but your 20 free plugins also play a role as marketing. Thank You for sharing this story. Your kindness attitude inspiring me too.

    • Mar 9th, 2012 11:04 AM

      You are welcome, I enjoyed sharing it.

  23. Mar 8th, 2012 5:09 PM

    Thank you for the awesome write up! I released a pro plugin as well under similar circumstances. I had a free plugin in the WP repo that was getting good traction an then decided to release a pro plugin. I'm playing with pricing right now, but good to hear charging more works better.

    Best of luck with Manage WP

    • Mar 8th, 2012 6:08 PM

      Yep getting the pricing right can be a challenge. I did not experiment at all and relied on my "ninja" sense as with most things in life :)

  24. Mar 8th, 2012 4:51 PM

    Congratulations! This plugin is very helpful and makes SEO's life much easier and not only SEO's but all of the bloggers team : )

  25. Mar 8th, 2012 4:19 PM

    Very inspiring story and one that other WordPress developers should bookmark and read often to remind them that providing useful free plugins to the community is not only in "the spirit" of open source, but also the thing that builds the backbone of a solid marketing channel for later paid plugins and services.

    Thanks for posting this:)

    • Mar 8th, 2012 6:08 PM

      Thanks Adam!