Vova Feldman Interview

Hello again and welcome to another Themeisle interview! This month, our special guest is Vova Feldman – the CEO and founder of Freemius. We talked about efficient marketing techniques for a new business, WordPress, productivity, and more.

If you missed last month’s interview with Tom Zsomborgi from Kinsta, you can read it here. Also, if you’re interested in learning more about various topics and jobs that involve the web, you can check our full collection of interviews with experts from the WordPress community and beyond.

Vova Feldman Interview at Themeisle

Vova Feldman is an entrepreneur who loves his job so much that he never feels like he’s working.

While most teenagers don’t have the slightest idea about their future careers, Vova was already committed to making a living as a professional web developer at the age of 14. Around the same time, he also flirted with the entrepreneurship world by co-starting his first company.

Fast-forward, after many experiences of founding several businesses ever since, he’s brought together a cool team and community to form Freemius – the company that makes selling premium WordPress plugins and themes hassle-free.

If you have a WordPress product that you want to bring to market, but you’re not particularly crazy about putting together your own checkout, licensing mechanism, payment processing, automatic updates, EU VAT handling, and other headache-inducing things, then Freemius might be for you.

Let’s hear it from Vova himself!

Vova Feldman Interview – “If an Influencer Promotes Your Product, There’s an Opportunity to Make a Lot of Money Quickly”

When and how did you start working with WordPress? Is there an interesting story here?

Vova Feldman:

My WordPress origin story begins in 2010. Around then I was doing things related to Computer Vision, which is a field of AI focused on how computers can attain high-level understanding from digital images or videos.

The stuff is really interesting to me and I wanted to share my learnings with others and get their feedback. I wasn’t aware of WordPress or any other similar platforms back then, but I did know that my blog needed a mechanism to kickstart the feedback loop. Because it takes time to build traffic and all of that, my first thought was to find a rating solution that let people cast their votes with a click. When I couldn’t find one, I did what most devs would do: I built it myself. The result is a service called Rating-Widget.

In 2011, my previous business partner and I were accepted into a startup accelerator program called TechStars, and Rating-Widget was basically shelved. Even so, I still received support and feature requests for it, with many of them asking how they could add the service to their WordPress website. To make it easier, I eventually decided to wrap it into a plugin and put it on the WordPress.org repo.

Those were the initial steps — but I still wasn’t directly involved in WordPress until three, maybe four years later. After leaving the company and starting to look for my next opportunity, I discovered that Rating-Widget had a lot of users. This was reason enough to develop it into a commercial solution with subscriptions with two of my former colleagues. You could say that while the plugin was in active development for another year or so, I wasn’t actively involved in the WordPress ecosystem.

Over that period, the core Rating-Widget product didn’t change much — the regular story, right? So most of our time was spent on commercialization and eCommerce. This is when I said to myself: ‘You know, there are tons of product makers out there building their side projects, their development projects, but most of them can’t leave their day jobs to grow a business out of these passion projects’. With Rating-Widget, my teammates and I had learned so much from a commercial perspective, and this knowledge/experience along with our background in SaaS startups put us in a good position to create a solution that could drastically reduce the go-to-market time.

Developers in the WordPress space were now our target audience, so it became really important for me to be more active in the community. I wanted to see what was happening in the business ecosystem, meet the makers and shakers, and hear about their experiences firsthand. I started attending conferences and being more active on online forums, etc.

These choices would eventually lead to Freemius, but I’d say that it was during this initial research phase that I officially invested in WordPress on a professional level.

What’s your technique for staying productive throughout the day?

Vova Feldman:

When I wake up, I don’t open my phone and all notifications are turned off to avoid external distractions. After some light exercise, I plan my day based on rollover tasks and stuff that’s already on the roadmap. Only after this is done do I check my notifications to see if there are surprises that need to be dealt with. If something’s urgent and can’t be pushed out a day or so, I slot it in and allocate a specific time to action it. The key here is to be proactive instead of reactive, to control my schedule rather than giving others control over it.

It’s important to have a strong mission behind everything you do and to see the ‘north star’ of where you’re headed. This is why controlling your schedule is so important. It gives you the ongoing satisfaction of achieving stuff, which builds momentum and keeps you moving forward. It’s a kind of energy that feeds off of productivity and sustains itself.

Positivity is also a big deal to me and I use a simple methodology to rewire my brain in the morning and evening. I discovered it through Tim Ferriss, who is an entrepreneurial lifestyle guru of sorts. The app is called the 5 Minute Journal and it helps you to appreciate your life and what you’ve achieved instead of beating yourself up over things that you didn’t finish.

Reframing your life through a positive lens is especially important for high achievers like entrepreneurs and business owners, who are always looking ahead to see what the next big thing is. We have so much to achieve, so many milestones to reach, and it can be difficult to appreciate the smaller things that eventually get you there.

At work, I optimize my day by minimizing distractions. I don’t have an email tab open, and unless something is critically urgent, I postpone it until there’s an opening in my calendar. Some things solve themselves, so don’t feel bad about pushing those tasks out by three, even four days. Obviously, there will be urgent tasks that you can’t ignore: ‘How much can I realistically take on every day without it affecting higher priorities and the ‘bigger picture’?’ That’s the question you need to answer before incorporating critical task time into your calendar.

Another productivity technique I use is to avoid reacting when emotions are running high. Let’s say a customer talks sh*t about you online. It’s so easy to type out an accusatory/defensive response in return, isn’t it? But you’re being reactive and driven by (negative) emotion — you’re unintentionally breaking the pattern of being organized and following your schedule. Take a step back, evaluate the situation calmly, and determine whether the issue is important enough to shift your own tasks for the day.

If you like to dive deeper, I’ve recently written an in-depth article covering all the productivity practices I utilize every day. You can check it out here.

How do you define “being successful”?

Vova Feldman:

For me, success is meeting your goals. In life, in business, in everything you aspire to do. Of course, you won’t always meet them, but it’s the intent to be aspirational about your life that’s so integral to personal growth. Success in life looks different to everyone, but for me, it’s setting up your goals and meeting them while acquiring new skills and resharpening existing ones.

What does “a good day at work” mean to you?

Vova Feldman:

This is related to the last answer. A good day for me is when I manage to complete everything I’ve planned for that particular day. I’ll add to that by saying an extra good day comes with the addition of getting positive reinforcement or feedback from whoever you serve.

In the context of Freemius, this would be something that reinforces our mission. For example, receiving a note from a developer to let us know they’ve managed to quit their job and start a plugin business with our help. Those extra good days tell me the company is moving in the right direction and that I’m managing my time effectively.

Describe the WordPress community in one word.

Vova Feldman:

Empowering.

What’s the no. 1 thing a new business entering the WordPress space should do?

Vova Feldman:

Market research. And I’d like to expand on that because it’s quite a broad term.

First off, you need to know your audience. If you don’t know who you’re serving, that’s a problem, and this relates to any business sector. For WP specifically, who influences your target audience? Who do they listen to and respect? Where do they hang out? Getting an understanding of the dynamics at play in the ecosystem is critical when you’re new to the space.

Next is to understand your numbers. During my time at Freemius, I’ve had conversations with developers whose aspirations for their businesses are bigger than what can be achieved. There needs to be a realistic convergence of numbers and dreams, you know?

What type of company do you want to create? How big do you aspire to be? Is the audience large enough and are they willing to pay the money you’d need to achieve/sustain your growth?

Based on those answers, you can determine whether it’s reasonable or unreasonable. But you have to be honest with yourself — you can’t aspire to build a $10 million business if you plan to sell a plugin for $50 and there are only 5,000 potential customers for it. And look, I’m totally okay with getting involved with smaller businesses, but the math has to work.

What’s your favorite/must-have WordPress plugin and why?

Vova Feldman:

Damn, you can’t ask that 😅

Honestly, there are too many to mention and it would be unfair to single out a specific one. But I will say it’s kind of like a 3D moving puzzle, right? Remove a single piece or mechanism and there’s a very good chance the puzzle will be worse off because of it.

For instance, if you don’t have a good security plugin your site’s in danger of being hacked. No backup plugin? Goodbye data. And accessibility? Page builder plugins are changing the game and bringing in more people to the community (many of whom can’t code). That’s a great thing.

What do you think is the most efficient way to market a product at this moment?

Vova Feldman:

Influencer marketing is a big one. We’re in a place now where some WordPress influencers have 100, 200, or even 300K subscribers on YouTube, and they’re able to wield this power by targeting specific buyers and users. If you can collaborate with one of them for product promotion, it can have a major impact on your reach, influence, and bottom line.

I haven’t experienced this type of partnership myself, but I’ve known people who have done it through Freemius and I’ve seen firsthand how it can boost your revenue. If an influencer promotes your product strongly, there’s an opportunity to make a lot of money fairly quickly. Guys like Paul Charlton and Adam Preiser come to mind. They have a lot of authority/credibility in the space and I’ve seen the results that partnering with them can yield.

And you know, I’m still a strong believer in content marketing. By that, I mean providing real, actionable value that’s relevant to your target audience. Admittedly, it’s much harder to pull off these days. In the past, you could build a list of subscribers — a community — around your content fairly easily (if your content was valuable). Now, there is tons of content available online, covering almost anything you can imagine. We were lucky at Freemius in that no one was focused on the business side of selling plugins and themes, so it was easier to cater to a niche and grow a community through our blog and YouTube channel.

I still believe it’s a good strategy, but it’s a long-term commitment that will only bear fruit in a few months, or more likely a year.

What is driving you to keep doing what you’re doing? What’s your personal mission?

Vova Feldman:

I’m really excited about Freemius and our mission. I’ve had to transition from being a developer/engineer into being a business owner. It’s a shift that many solopreneurs are going through now, or will go through in the future. I don’t develop as much anymore but I’ve still got those experiences and learnings, plus insights into the business side of things.

It gives me a deep sense of satisfaction to know that Freemius is sharing our ‘playbook’ with developers so that they can expedite their own successful journeys in WordPress. I guess it’s human nature and not unique to me, but it’s really fulfilling to know that I’m helping others achieve their goals in life. It’s a win-win that keeps me going.

On a personal level, I’m trying to get better all the time, personally and professionally — I’m trying to build a better version of Vova every day. It’s interesting to be able to track that progress and see my growth, to know that I’m moving forward in my life positively.

If I had to summarize, my mission is to be healthy and happy while helping others achieve the same.

That sums up our Vova Feldman interview. If you enjoyed it and want to learn more, please leave your comments in the section below. Also, if you have any ideas for who we should talk to next, feel free to share your suggestions with us!

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