WP Autoresponder

(also later known as Javelin Email Marketing)

What is it?

This was an email marketing plugin that allowed the administrator of a WordPress blog to gather subscribers, set up follow-up emails that go out at specific intervals from the date a given subscriber subscribed, send email broadcasts, deliver blog posts as email broadcasts.

It basically did what many paid services such as Aweber and Mailchimp did for a fee of ~$600 a year for free with no upper limit on subscriber count or outgoing email limit.

The WP Autoresponder plugin as was listed in early 2014 before it had to be removed from the repository. The WP Autoresponder plugin as was listed in early 2014 before it had to be removed from the repository.

Towards the end of its existence it had received over 120,000 downloads. It had so much success that it was deployed on a 600 tennant WordPress multisite website. Stats on usage indicated that it was deployed on 30,000 unique IP addresses and 62,000 WordPress installations as of mid 2012.

Why did I make this?

I started making this at a time when I was not eligible for credit cards yet.Which means using popular email marketing services were out of my reach even if I had money.

I also needed a portfolio piece in my WordPress consultant website as I was, at the time, planning on becoming a full time consultant. I have since outgrown developing for WordPress to better platforms.

For my personal use, I needed to customize the presentation of blog post emails that went out to subscribers new blog posts are published on my website. I needed complete control and flexibility in the way my messages reach subscribers.

Why did I stop making it?

The development and maintenance of the plugin was incredibly challenging. During the making of this plugin I made many many software development mistakes. Probably made every single known mistake, then invented 10 new ones, then made them too.

It was so challenging to maintain it that it would have been easier to write it from scratch all over again. Add to that a personal tragedy that struck me in mid 2012 left me with little energy and appetite for taking on the task that was required to revamp it into a worthwhile plugin. I had spent 3 consecutive 14 day annual vacations over rewriting this plugin just to abandon it in the end. Pains me to just think about it.

But I had to give up on it and move on lest it become a case of the tail that wagged the dog. Due to all this the plugin had to be removed from the official repository.

Where can I find the source code?

I have the copy of the plugin at my GitHub account. Warning: It has the worst code you can find.

What are the (painful) lessons I learnt from making this extension?

On Features

Every feature I add into a plugin can become a selling point. It can also become a huge liability that could be the death knell to a software project. There were some features in the plugin that were useful to a very small set of users as well as features that were broadly useful to everyone.

The enormous scope of the project meant after a certain point adding a new feature meant things broke all over the place. Back in the days when I started developing the plugin I was not the best of programmers with limited experience. As a result my code as horrendous and became a nightmare to maintain.

Limit Features

I learnt that you should start your web application with a limited feature set and nail them to perfection incrementally and then. Having more features will not ensure the success of a web application.

More Features ≠ Success

Furthermore a feature set and the corresponding user experience was like an appeal to a worldview. An application with the user experience that I defined will appeal to different people than another application.

Race to Premium

I should have made the effort to ensure that the development of the plugin was profitable as soon as possible. It was not enough to rely on consulting work that came from it. Creating something so large just to settle with consulting work that comes from it was overkill. A huge missed opportunity. There was a huge opportunity to monetize the plugin through a premium version/hosted version that could have sustained my development on the plugin and made it the WordPress standard for email marketing.

Why does having made this make me a better engineer?

Having the experience of having made this makes me a better engineer in the following ways:

  1. Better UX: If there is one thing my plugin did better than a lot of other plugins, it was provide a better UX. I am not saying it was pretty. But it communicated the idea of what it was meant for very well to anyone who might install it and give it a spin.I have experience handling bewildering support tickets that could be solved with changes to the messaging in the user experience.
  2. Experience Building Distributable Software: There are many unique challenges that one faces when writing software that is meant to be distributed and installed in end-users’ individual servers as against web applications that are deployed in one server that multitude of users use.
  3. End-to-End Development: I was good at developing and deploying software in a large variety of environments from the most restrictive to the fairly liberal ones and the challenges those environments post and what we need to do to proactively overcome those issues.