An interview with Mark Hamstra: On freelancing and selling digital products

I’m doing a series of interviews with people in our industry where I find out what makes them tick, how they go about their day, and what we can learn from them.

My first guest is Mark Hamstra, a 24 year old self-employed PHP developer from the Netherlands. Mark is the founder of modmore, a provider of premium extras for MODX.

Lets jump straight in.

For those that aren’t aware, can you tell us what MODX is and what you like about it?
MODX is an open source content management platform. It has been around for a decade, and is one of the few systems that truly deliver the creative freedom that professional designers and developers need. Its philosophy of separating markup from logic and content makes it a really great tool for people that need to deliver an easy way of managing content, while maintaining control of what is returned by the system to the browser.

How long have you been self-employed? What did you do before?
I’ve been self-employed since 2011. Before going freelance, I studied Hospitality Management for 2 years and then I dropped out to go freelance full-time. I haven’t had a ‘real’ job, I just jumped head first into freelancing.

What made you start your own business, especially at such a young age?
I’ve been developing websites since middle school so it felt like a natural progression and wasn’t that big a leap. My brother does some entrepreneurial stuff and my mother used to have her own conference centre, so it runs in the family a little.

“Freelancing provides some diversity, a different perspective and it’s a nice change.”

Can you tell us about the freelance work that you do and how that works with modmore?
At the moment, I spend about half my time freelancing and half my time working on modmore.

On the freelancing side, I have a few clients who ask for guidance about how they should build things with MODX but mostly I build sites for agencies. I don’t do a lot of start to finish projects. Most often an agency will need something developed in MODX such as talking to 3rd party services.

modmore is where I make and sell premium extras. We’re a small team of 4, each with their own expertise and role within the business. These are all independent contractors spending an average of 4 hours a week contributing to specific projects. Right now we are also looking for someone to manage content and communication.

How did you start modmore?
I had enough money saved up to take a few months off freelancing to build modmore. I needed to spend a lot of time building the products and the platform. Now I try to spend a month working on modmore and then a month freelancing to keep things balanced.

Do you enjoy the freelancing side or can you see yourself going full-time on modmore? How would you like things to pan out?
I would like modmore to grow and I can see modmore playing a bigger role. That said, I can see modmore generating more freelance work too, especially when it comes to integrating our plugins. It does make things interesting to go from one to the other. Freelancing provides some diversity, a different perspective and it’s a nice change.

“Pricing comes down to value. What does it offer? What would people use and what would it be worth to them?”

Why did you decide to base your business on MODX rather than a more popular platform such as WordPress?
I’ve spent the last 6 years working with MODX, including a year working with the MODX core team to develop the platform. I know it well so it seemed like a logical fit.

WordPress would have had a bigger target audience for sure. But when I started modmore, I saw an opportunity to start a new market and to be the first in the MODX community to offer premium extras. Even now, there isn’t much competition.

What does the process for creating new products look like?
Well, there’s no shortage of ideas. I have a list of who knows how many ideas. We also ask our users if they have ideas during signup, so there’s a lot of things we hear and see.

From there, it’s scratching an itch. For example, with ContentBlocks (a plugin which lets you easily construct a page with pre-built blocks), I didn’t like having to build out by writing the markup by hand. That’s how the first ContentBlocks proof of concept came to be. Build it, see if it would work, and then keep refining it until it’s an actual product.

Sometimes, some of the things we work on don’t actually make it into a final product. When I first started out, I had 3 or 4 plugins I wanted to sell and only 2 of those made it. I went to the MODX meetup in London and I presented some of my ideas and there was a real distinct difference in the projects that people were interested in.

“We don’t have sales often because we don’t want to devalue our products.”

How do you approach pricing for your products?
Well, pricing is definitely one of the more difficult things when it comes to selling a digital product. Our costs per product are basically zero, there’s no distribution costs or manufacturing costs so it doesn’t matter if we sell 5 or 500. So pricing comes down to value. What does it offer? What would people use and what would it be worth to them? I don’t think we always get it right. At some point we dropped the pricing of one of our extras called SimpleAB, but sometimes it can be easy to undervalue a product as well.

One of the things we’re experimenting with is subscriptions. Rather than buying individual licenses, a subscription lets you have unlimited licenses. Although the uptake hasn’t been as quick as we’d like, it is growing every month and we can see this growing to be a significant part of our revenue.

We do occasionally have sales, too. Black Friday last year was a huge success. We sold more in a 24 hour window than in the prior month. We don’t have sales often because we don’t want to devalue our products. We try to sell premium products. There are alternatives to what we sell, sometimes even for free, but that’s not what we want to compete with. We want people to buy for the quality of our products and the support that we provide.

You put together your own conference, MODX weekend, last year. How did that come about? What did you learn? Would you do it again?
I helped organise MODXpo Utrecht 2012 and MODXpo Cologne 2013 but I had another vision of how I could run a conference for MODX. It also helped that I studied Hospitality Management so it was a case of combining my development side with the hospitality side.

MODX Weekend was more expensive than MODXpo because it was all inclusive. I really wanted people to come for the weekend and then not worry about getting a hotel or finding somewhere to eat.

We didn’t make a profit. In fact, we made a loss. But despite that I think it was worth it. I think the conference really put modmore on the map. It was a great weekend, with a lot of great speakers. We published videos of the talks which still get a lot of traffic.

We’re not running the conference again this year. I am thinking about doing an event in 2016. Next time I’d focus on where the money is spent so that we can make it more profitable. I’d also look at how we market the event so that we can get more people to attend. I’d try to lower the ticket price, too.

Do you do many talks? How do you find public speaking?
I do talks mostly at meetups and MODX events. I’m doing a talk about MODX at a local PHP meetup in the next few months. I don’t consider myself a professional speaker and I still get nervous. When you’re organising an event and speaking at the same time, that can be difficult. Preparation is key.

What do you think the future of MODX is?
There is need for change, but that’s natural. For the immediate future, the core vision of MODX is still very relevant and useful. It’s interesting to look at the longer term though. Jason Coward has written about how he thinks the next major version could be rearchitected (Keeping MODX Relevant — Part One and Part Two). I’m looking forward to see how it will be shaped and contributing as well.

“I try and take the right project at the right time. It can be tempting to take everything that comes your way but that doesn’t always work.”

How structured is your day? Do you have any set routines?
I’m quite chaotic. For a long time, I would sleep in every day and work every night. Recently, that has changed a little. The day typically starts with support, I’ll answer a few support tickets in the morning. And then, depending on what the task is for the day, whether that’s freelance work or modmore development, I’ll take it from there.

Since running my own business, I’ve found it tempting to work all hours. Have you found that too?
Yeah, I did get burnt out a few years ago because of that. Constantly working, constantly trying to get client projects finished, constantly trying to get more clients. I was stuck in that loop.

How did you get over that?
Taking time off helped. I also stopped taking on additional freelance projects for a while. I finished everything completely before starting something new. I had to get out of the loop of constantly going from one project to the next. If you don’t wrap up a project before adding a new client, it can quickly become overwhelming. One client is late delivering something you need for the project and everything snowballs.

Now I try to have work hours and I do less work at the weekend. I try and take the right project at the right time. It can be tempting to take everything that comes your way but that doesn’t always work.

What tools do you use?
I use a Mac. The most important tool I use is PhpStorm – I think that’s the best IDE you can get. GitHub for version control and Trello and GitHub issues for project management. I’ve started using Dash lately which is nice for documentation. We also use Slack for internal communication as well as hanging out with the MODX community.

Any resources (books/podcasts) you’d recommend?
I would recommend a book by Scott Stratten called UnMarketing. Anyone that does anything remotely connected to marketing would find that an interesting book. Also, I’d recommend REWORK from 37signals.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
Attend more usergroups. Especially if you work remotely or from home, it’s important that you get in touch with people who also use your language, your framework, whatever it is you use. Even just an evening a month, you learn so much from discussions with other like-minded people and you also make a lot of contacts.

What are you currently working on?
Well, we are working on something big but that’s still secret – sorry! We’re also working on which is a magazine style website for MODX which brings dailyish content varying from blog posts, to tutorials, to videos, to podcasts. We’re inviting anyone to contribute and we’re hoping the community will embrace it and help maintain it in the long term.

A massive thanks to Mark Hamstra for being my first guest and for being so generous with his time. You can follow Mark on Twitter. Or, checkout modmore (and in particular ContentBlocks, a game changer if you build websites in MODX).