Pippin Williamson

Every few months some thought strikes me and I cannot get it out of my head. Recently it was the importance of finding a balance between generosity and being selfish.

I have always strived to be a generous person. It has always been my goal to emulate the generosity my grandfather showed throughout his life. He was one of the single most generous people I have ever known and I hope that through my own life I am able to live up to the example he set for all that knew him.

I strive to be generous with my time, efforts, wealth, and knowledge. Recently, however, it has struck me just how important it is to be selectively selfish with your resources.

To help provide an example, I'd like to briefly tell you about something that happened within the Easy Digital Downloads team recently.

Last month we had an emergency team meeting to discuss possible solutions to a serious problem that we had allowed to develop in the Easy Digital Downloads ecosystem. You see, Easy Digital Downloads had become a victim of its own success. From the beginning, Easy Digital Downloads has encouraged outside developers to build on top of it and then submit those extensions to the Easy Digital Downloads extensions catalogue.

Through our own success, we created an identity crisis within Easy Digital Downloads. We advertised and supported so many extensions from so many different developers that it had become increasingly unclear--to us and to customers--what Easy Digital Downloads truly was as a product. To illustrate this, first understand that Easy Digital Downloads was built with a single purpose: selling digital products. Now take a guess at what one of our best selling extensions is called? Simple Shipping. That's right; one of our most successful extensions is one that transforms EDD into exactly what it is not supposed to be: a system for selling physical products.

Through the hundreds of extensions it had become possible to do almost anything reasonably well, but we had lost sight of serving our core purpose. We, and the wider development community that grew up around Easy Digital Downloads, embraced the flexibility of the platform we created and made it possible to do just about anything with it.

We not only lost focus on what our core feature set was, we lost sight on what the goals and agenda of our team were. We went from building and refining our product every day to just barely keeping our heads above water while trying to help customers get by and make these hundreds of extensions work "okay". What ever happened to Easy?

We had become far too generous with the features that were permitted in our system.

So we had an identity crisis with our product, yet we had an even bigger crisis within our own team. Not one of us had signed on to help set up sites that worked "okay" through a mishmash of piece meal extensions; we had signed on to build an easy to use digital eCommerce system that just worked. We signed on to build something truly wonderful, yet somewhere along the way, we lost that.

As a team, we were struggling and unhappy. Several of us seriously considered quitting. Myself included.

It became clear to us that we had to make changes, so we decided to be a little selfish. It was time to truly own our product and to refocus on what we had set out to build in the first place.

We have made numerous steps already to re-owning our product but we still have many more to take. In the coming months we will continue to make the necessary adjustments needed to get back to our core mission and I'm excited for the possibilities once we get there.

In the mean time, the realization of the identity crisis we had on our hands made it clear to me how important it is to be a little selfish.

We all know that a happy team performs best. We tend to forget and neglect, however, what it takes to be a happy team. Though not intentionally, we ignore the creeping problems that slowly strangle us and allow them to work their way so tight around us that we suddenly realize we can no longer breathe.

With the right amount of selfishness, we can address the problems that are consuming us. Once we have addressed our own needs as a team, we can address the needs of our customers.

Addressing our identity crisis has involved several significant changes.

First, we have committed to saying "no" far more often. If a feature isn't right for our core vision, it doesn't get accepted. If an extension isn't good enough, it is rejected. If we, as a team, are not 100% on board with something, we seriously consider canning it.

Second, we have committed to purging our ecosystem of features and extensions that are constant pain points. If we're constantly struggling to support a particular plugin or feature, we review the facts and use those to determine the outcome. If it is too expensive to support or simply does not bring in enough revenue to justify its costs, it goes.

There will be those that are unhappy with our decisions to remove certain features or plugins, and that is okay. For a long time I struggled with the possibility of a customer or developer accusing us of bad business or being greedy or negligent because we decided to remove a feature. I realized recently, however, that I am okay with that possibility. Why? Because we must be selfish from time to time. We must take care of ourselves first. Being selectively selfish is okay, great even. Do not ever let someone tell you its not.

The adage that the customer always comes first is wrong. The team comes first. My team comes first. Sometimes there is a feature that is loved by one customer but causes problems for 99 others. If it causes problems for 99 customers and only helps one, that hurts our team's health so it has to go.

If we have problems that are affecting the health and well-being of our team, we must address those. For us recently, this meant taking much tighter control of our product and no longer carrying the excess baggage that had accumulated in our ecosystem.

Be selfish with your time. Be selfish with your efforts. Be selfish with your product. Do whatever you can to find the right balance.

I strive to be generous with the resources I have, and I will continue to define my life through generosity as much as possible, but I will also reserve the right to be selectively selfish, especially when my well-being and the well being of my team depend on it.

Pippin Williamson

About Pippin Williamson

Founder and Managing Director of Sandhills Development.

39 comments

  1. Pippin Williamson

    Pippin,

    I couldn’t agree more! Perhaps it’s from experiences in my past where I learned the hard way (over and over), or perhaps it’s just been my observation (probably a combination of both), but I’ve seen this a lot in our industry. I’ve spoken to a lot of people in the last year who have (perhaps foolishly), asked for my advice, and the one piece I seem to keep coming around to that people latch on to, and thank me for later is that of focusing on your core product. Do one thing and do it better than everyone else. Just because you *can* do something doesn’t mean you *should* do it.

    This is not some innate wisdom for me, unfortunately. As I said earlier, it’s from being knocked down enough times because either I wanted to do it or because I was not strong enough to say “no” to my team even though my gut told me it was a bad idea.

    Greed (sometimes mistakenly called “success”) can drive us to make poor choices and reflecting on your choices, good, and especially bad, is what can help you to differentiate between greed and true success. Being happy with what you do is far more valuable than making a buck but it’s harder to measure.

    Congratulations on making the tough decisions and, as always, here’s to your true success!

  2. Pippin Williamson

    This is a great post for a number of reasons. I could grab several quotes and add my thoughts to them, but you’re likely going to get a lot of comments all of which will take plenty of time to read.

    So I’d like to add this above all else: I love you sharing that the tension of generosity and selfishness and the challenges that you and your team face.

    It’s not easy (and I don’t think it will be).

    And when a product or a service starts out and it begins to gain traction, it’s easy to get really excited about an economy growing around it. Who wouldn’t want that? And if it helps contribute to generosity, it’s harder to say no to it.

    But when it starts to sacrifice the core of your business – the heartbeat of it – then you’ve gotta take a step back, re-evaluate, and figure out how to correct that mistake.

    It’s tough and it’ll likely bum some people out. But it won’t bum out your team. Instead, like you’ve mentioned, it re-aligns you and helps you get back to what you started to do in the first place.

    And that’s awesome. Props for sharing this and props for doing what needs to be done for EDD. A lot of us appreciate it more than you know, we support the team, and we’re stoked to see these things being refined.

    I’m glad you’re still going :).

  3. Pippin Williamson

    This is great. It is your product and you’re the one supporting it. As long as your comfortable with the inevitable backlash, go for it. I’m a firm believer that the best products are those that do a certain set of things very well and ignore the outliers.

  4. Pippin Williamson

    This is a great post, and I am happy for you and your team’s decision. That said, after reading this, I feel the need to say that Simple Shipping is a necessity for me. I hope it makes the cut.

  5. Pippin Williamson

    Brave move, Pippin. Team first, easy first, and a solid product first. Declutter everything you need, in order to make EDD a great, light, pretty slick and badass plugin πŸ™‚

  6. Pippin Williamson

    Good for you and the team Pippin! I have to agree with you on all points here. Especially about the customer not always being right.

    In the end only you as the product creator can make the best decision for your customers as a whole.

    So to refocus and make EDD the best plugin for digital downloads is really something to look forward to. (though I already think it’s the best πŸ˜‰

  7. Pippin Williamson

    First, we have committed to saying β€œno” far more often. If a feature isn’t right for our core vision, it doesn’t get accepted.

    I think you’re making the right choice here. Almost all of my favorite products are good at one or two things.

    When it comes to software I rarely use swiss army knives I would much rather use the very best note taking app, the very best team communication tool, and the very best code repository.

    If you focus on making downloads as easy as possible to the exclusion of the infinite number of edge cases I’m sure you’ll do great things. πŸ™‚

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  9. Pippin Williamson

    Bold move, but sounds like the right thing to do. Looking forward to a follow-up post how EDD extension customers respond to it.

    How many extensions are we talking about? And which popular ones have to go?

    So how do you go about Simple Shipping? It clearly doesn’t fit the digital product core, yet it is one of the best-selling EDD extensions. When it comes down to it, what’s the main criteria for an extension to stay? Fitting into the ecosystem or profitability?

    1. Pippin Williamson

      Sorry for not seeing your comment earlier! I had some issues with Akismet automatically trashing a bunch of comments.

      At this point, we’ve discontinued and/or moved off-site around 30-40.

  10. Pippin Williamson

    Like the step of moving from being a single-person company to distributing responsibility and authority to staff, the step of learning to say no to customers requests is a very important and very difficult step in growing as a company and as a person.

    It’s particularly difficult when the customers say things like “you’re the only vendor we work with who actually listens to what we need.” That kind of ego-boost is very hard to turn down. On the other hand, it diffuses your focus. Being a grown-up sucks sometimes. Congratulations on a well stated definition of adulthood. Good luck with that.

  11. Pippin Williamson

    Like the step of moving from being a single-person company to distributing responsibility and authority to staff, the step of learning to say no to customers requests is a very important and very difficult step in growing as a company and as a person.

    It’s particularly difficult when the customers say things like “you’re the only vendor we work with who actually listens to what we need.” That kind of ego-boost is very hard to turn down. On the other hand, it diffuses your focus. Being a grown-up sucks sometimes. Congratulations on a well stated definition of adulthood. Good luck with that.

  12. Pippin Williamson

    Interesting thoughts here – reminds me of the old 37Signals (now Basecamp) articles about limiting feature bloat and telling their customers ‘no.’ And being able to let go of those customers who are begging for bloaty features.

    It’s a tough call – on one hand, your business goal is to satisfy demand (not just squeaky wheels, but real demand). There’s a limited selection of dependable WP E-Commerce solutions, and I can recall several instances in which I suggested EDD to a client that sold physical goods because I use EDD on my own site and it works great. My goal was to get my client an ‘add to cart’ button, PayPal integration, and have it just frickin’ work. We could handle shipping things after the sale had been made.

    EDD is, indeed, easy. The support is top notch. And even if a business is selling physical goods, an online store is just a transaction vehicle – all a vendor needs is a payment and an address, and if you have a framework that can give you that (without Woo-headaches/prices), it’s obvious that physical goods vendors will be interested. Digital transaction, physical shipment.

    So while you (EDD) want to limit the third-party support, the thought of ‘closing the door’ on options for selling physical products makes me cringe, especially since (per above) one could ‘hack’ EDD to handle digital transactions for physical goods.

    Removing features is dangerous territory. When you add a feature, you’re committing to supporting it, and a customer may build an entire business model/deliverable that depends on it. If you then take it away (because x number of customers are hogging your support time with questions/conflicts around it), you’re betraying the ‘contract’ (trust) that you had with the purchaser. If EDD needs a crucial security fix, but you remove a shipping option with the same commit, you’re putting your customer in a tough spot. How do we know that the feature we paid for is going to be there in six months? How does that affect our decision to buy products from you in the first place?

    If a particular feature doesn’t bring in enough revenue to justify its support costs, increase its price (or offer paid support). Explain the increase as a function of supply and demand. You said Simple Shipping sells well – great; double its price in six months. EDD products are already affordable (if you’re running a business worth its salt). If an extension is that valuable to people, they’ll show you by buying it. If it’s not worth it to them, you’ll have less sales, but less headaches and more time to work on your core products.

    Your ‘product/business identity’ is already ‘flexible, extensible, reasonable, honest, and realistic.’ Keep it that way!

    DB

  13. Pippin Williamson

    There’s always more we can do, more blog posts to write, more features to add, more edge cases to cover, more services to connect with, etc. And while these bring in more a few more customers they’re not always the customer we want. Focusing on less is almost always the right choice.

    It’s to your advantage to have 7/10 people give you 10 stars rather than 10 give you 7 stars. They both have the same number of stars but one produces *raving* fans and the other produces customers who will leave when there’s a cheaper option.

    Be the very best digital download platform. Knowing you and your team I’m sure you can do it. πŸ™‚

  14. Pippin Williamson

    There’s always more blog posts to write, more features to add, more edge cases to cover, and more service to integrate with. These are all great things and they bring in new customers but they don’t always bring in the *right* customer.

    You could have 3 people give you 5 stars or you could have 5 people give you 3 stars. You get the same number of stars but one creates *raving* fans and one creates fans who are just waiting for a cheaper option.

    Knowing you and your team I’m sure if you focus on making the best digital download platform that you can do it. Good luck! πŸ™‚

  15. Pippin Williamson
  16. Pippin Williamson

    This sounds a lot like you’re moving more towards a “closed” system similar to Apple’s App Store and I applaud that. I hear so many people complaining that Apple is being “selfish” for having a “closed” system but the result has been a better product for customers, developers and for Apple’s team.

    Thank you for your honesty and good luck on the change in direction.

  17. Pippin Williamson

    I understand and agree with what you are saying about your business but in laymons terms would love to understand what it means for me & my business? Does this mean I’ll still be able to plug in to Paypal and if so does it mean it will be with less glitches?

    1. Pippin Williamson

      As an Easy Digital Downloads user, it means great things. It means that over the next year+ you will see a constantly improved product as we refocus on the fundamentals of the platform.

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  25. Pippin Williamson

    Love EDD and super excited for your team. It’s tough admitting to a business fumble, so kudos to you & the team for acknowledging it and refocusing. Cheers.

  26. Pippin Williamson

    I totally get this. Look forward to seeing this progress in a very good way through all of this. As a side note, are you guys considering the third party plugins be allowable but unsupported and maybe they be housed elsewhere? Or something more intense to even prevent that? Just curious. Thanks for all that you guys do. Be encouraged and keep up the good work!

    1. Pippin Williamson
  27. Pippin Williamson

    It has been interesting to watch as you have evolved a very successful contribution to the WordPress community. Your practicality, openness and honest intentions are to be commended and, hopefully, emulated by others. I think your Grandfather would be proud.

    I have, at various times, evaluated and passed on EDD for my company and clients. Not because of the software, which is exceptionally appealing, but for the very reasons that you have expressed in this email.

    With this new-found focus I will be revisiting EDD with renewed interest.

    Nicely done πŸ™‚

  28. Pippin Williamson

    Well said, Pippin. I admire your generosity. It’s an increasingly rare quality, so thanks for setting the example. You’re right, though – generosity doesn’t preclude prioritizing our resources.

    There’s a healthy balance to maintain. Our time, treasure, and talents (and team) are things we – not out customers – are responsible for. So it’s only wise to be discerning about how they’re used.

    I learned this lesson too, while teaching online and making myself available for student Q&A’s via email. Well, it didn’t take long before that’s all I was doing. So, I had to reassess, and then pull the plug. It led to an adjusting my business model to work for both my students, and me.

    As the others have pointed out – well done.

  29. Pippin Williamson

    Great ideas, but you should be very rigorous in the rejection process.
    Something that makes no Β’ today could make a lot of $$ the day after tomorrow.

  30. Pippin Williamson

    Hey Pippin,
    Glad to meet you here.. πŸ™‚

    Nice article indeed.. I have learned many things reading this article.. you know. I am very happy to know that all the discussion in your site are interesting.

    I agree with you to be a little selfish. As you all know this is an important funda!.. And it works wonder sometimes. Therefore, I support your article.

    Thanks for your contribution through this blog.. πŸ™‚
    Have a great week ahead..

    – Ravi.

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  32. Pippin Williamson

    There is absolutely nothing selfish about doing what’s best for you, so long as you are not stepping on others in the process.

  33. Pippin Williamson

    You are so cool! I don’t think I have read a single thing like that before.
    So wonderful to discover another person with some unique thoughts on this topic.

    Really.. thank you for starting this up. This web site is one thing that is required on the web, someone with
    a little originality!

  34. Pippin Williamson

    “That’s right; one of our most successful extensions is one that transforms EDD into exactly what it is not supposed to be: a system for selling physical products.”

    You are wrong there, Pippin:

    WordPress was intended for an easy way for people to create blogs. Look where it ended up at…

    There is nothing wrong with a ‘product’ turning into a framework for doing things. This is the nature of Software. If your software was able to reach a status of a framework which enables people to do many things, you should be glad.

    As the ecosystem of a particular piece of software grows, people or services who would sort out the wild jungle that its extensions and additions become, no worries.

  35. Pippin Williamson

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