Divi Sensei: Jan Thielemann’s Story of Traveling the World While Building a Plugin Business

Today we’re excited to interview Jan Thielemann – a self-taught Divi module developer who built his WordPress business Divi Sensei and sells a host of other Divi modules and add-ons! He not only learned WordPress plugin development but also built his business while traveling the world. His Divi modules started gaining organic popularity and gained traction from there! Let’s jump in and find out more…

Jan, it’s a pleasure to connect with you and thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview! Please tell us, where are you from and what’s your background? How did you get into coding and development?

I’m from Germany, born and raised. Ever since my family got our first computer, somewhere in 1992 or 1993 I believe, I was addicted to it. It was clear that someday I had to work with computers one or the other way so I made an apprenticeship where I worked with hardware and software. I was one of only two students in my year who actually understood software development, and it was so much fun that I stuck with it and became a professional software developer.

Jan & Annika
Jan & Annika

I mainly developed backend systems in Java, but in my free time, I explored other languages and technologies. For example, when I was studying and working part-time, I bought my first Mac and started developing iOS and Mac apps.

About a year ago, my wife and I paused our world trip after 3 years so we could have our son, and we are now living in Germany again. I accepted a job offer, and I’m currently working as a Java developer, developing the backend for the mobile app of a German telephone provider. I run the Divi Module business on the side now.

I heard that you started developing WordPress products while traveling the world. Pretty amazing! What inspired you to get into WordPress development and what were the challenges?

That is correct. When I was travelling, I started a blog to keep my friends and family up to date. I also produced a lot of videos, which I shared on YouTube. After a while, our audience grew and more and more people started coming to the blog, so I thought I should do them a favour and make it a bit prettier.

Jan Thielemann Homepage

At the same time, a viewer who owns a marketing agency gave me a license for Divi – a very popular premium WordPress theme and builder – which I used to build the new page. At one point, I was in desperate need for a certain functionality (a good looking day counter to count how many days we were traveling). I couldn’t find any plugin which satisfied me, so I started exploring the Divi source code to see if I could simply develop something myself.

I love this kind of challenge: exploring something completely new, learning new techniques, and coming up with something cool. I started learning how to build a WordPress plugin that could contain my independently created Divi module. It took me a while to understand all the core principles of WordPress. PHP, CSS, and JavaScript were also completely new languages to me, which all have their own specialties – especially if you compare them to the object-oriented Java language. However, there are thousands of good articles and videos out there that helped me a lot.

What does developing extensions for the Divi theme involve and how did you come to decide that selling this product would be a good idea?

I’ll start with the second part of the question, because this was actually a very lucky coincidence. When I had finished the day counter plugin, I went over to one of the Divi Facebook groups and posted my plugin there, asking if anyone was interested in it and if they had any improvement suggestions. I gave it away free of charge and all of a sudden, this one guy contacted me and said: “Are you crazy, you can’t give away such an excellent plugin for free! You should sell it.”

It never came to my mind that somebody would pay for this, as I always saw WordPress as this neat, free platform with all the free themes and plugins you ever needed. Who would pay for what was, in my opinion, a simple plugin? But this guy convinced me and even suggested a place where I could start selling the plugin.

So after getting some success with the first module, I developed another two – and the third module really took off. It was exactly what people needed and I was blown away! I could hardly believe that with only a few days of work, I earned a whole month’s wage and could use that money to continue to travel.

Battle Suit for Divi – Jan’s Free Plugin Available for Free on the WordPress.org Repository.

Developing Divi modules was hard work back then because there was no official third party API and every Divi update could completely break your module. I spent hours digging through the source code and would have some strangest issues. I guess all it takes is a strong will and a bit of PHP/JS/CSS knowledge to get started with Divi. The rest is practice, practice, practice – and maybe a good mentor. 😉

What makes your product unique compared to other modules for Divi?

Hmm good question. Maybe it’s the quality of “Made in Germany” (or at least by a German company). After all I studied business economics and computer science where I learned a lot about proper software development.

It could be that my modules are well developed. I put a lot of effort into arranging settings and functions so that my modules are powerful and easy to use even for beginners. I took care not to forget the little things like descriptions on settings fields, which are cumbersome to write but make all the difference.

I also take pride in providing excellent support for my plugin. My goal is to satisfy my customers 110%. I respond to every question, and I often provide support that goes far beyond what others would do. The more I help without expecting a return, the more that comes back to me.

What was the trigger to start selling from your own website / store?

One of the marketplaces I was selling on (the one that made about 70% of my total income) got some really bad PR – and the fees were also quite high – so I was trying to diversify my income streams and reduce risk. I don’t want to depend on a single income stream, and when the income from that marketplace dropped significantly, I knew it was time to look for alternatives. Luckily, the marketplace recovered well and is still one of my personal favorites. It’s nice to know that if they suddenly decide to shut down, it wouldn’t put me into serious problems because I have a website marketing my products successfully.

Why did you choose Freemius for the job? How long did it take to get up and running on our platform?

The universe sent me an angel in the form of an unemployed German guy who wanted to build a web design agency. He was the one who told me about Freemius in the first place. I was skeptical at first – back then the Freemius website wasn’t the most appealing – but once I signed up and checked out the backend, I knew that you guys were favoring functionality over shiny design.

The setup of the SDK took only a couple of hours, but it took me a few days to fully understand all the bits and pieces and the possibilities Freemius offers. It took some time to come up with a plan and structure for my new plugin.

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What was your main concern before starting to sell with Freemius? And how do you feel about Freemius today?

Since I made a lot of money on various marketplaces, where I didn’t even have to advertise to make sales, and since my website didn’t have that many visitors, for quite some time I was not sure if it was the right decision to start selling on my own website. How would people find my work? After all you can have the greatest product, but if nobody knows it’s there, you won’t earn a dime with it.

I was also afraid that marketplaces would punish me in some way, but in hindsight the opposite happened. Today, I’m selling my older plugins side by side with my newer plugins on the very same marketplaces, thanks to the Freemius affiliate platform.

What is your all-time favorite Freemius feature?

Can’t you guess? It’s the Freemius affiliate platform! It allows me to make my customers my marketing department. They recommend my products anyway, and now they can even earn themselves a little bit of money for doing so!

What is it about Freemius that has fostered your business success?

Licensing is a big deal, so people can’t simply redistribute your work and you can make sure to get paid for it. When selling on marketplaces, the biggest problem for me so far was that either you had to use their licensing SDK, which lead to multiple implementations of the same plugin, implement your own licensing, which is cumbersome, or don’t use licensing at all. With the Freemius affiliation feature, customers get a proper license and even if a marketplace shuts its doors, customers can continue to enjoy your products.

Also, the great advice that Freemius provides behind the scenes has made a big difference. I chose the freemium pricing model, which is a free base plugin with paid premium add-ons, and so far people seem to like it very much. My add-ons have a 14 day trial period – which is another really nice Freemius feature – people can convince themselves of the quality before purchasing.

Finally, the very flexible pricing options help. I can not only offer subscription plans, but also lifetime licenses for the very same plugin. So normal users usually stick with the subscription plans, which I make affordable enough for everyone to not really think about.

How was your experience working with the Freemius team?

Simply awesome. Especially Vova – he is such a great guy. He is very supportive and treated me so nicely even though I bombarded him with questions when I was first setting up Freemius. At that point, I hadn’t earned a single dime, yet he and the rest of the team took the time to help me figure things out. I guess we must have some common personality traits.

What would you be your top 3 tips to fellow developers who want to get started selling WordPress plugins or themes?

Tip number one would be: Just do it. Don’t think too much about it. Well, maybe don’t go all-in and quit your day job, but use an hour a day or one day of the weekend to learn about what people want, the technology you use, marketing and so on.

Tip number two: Always make sure to add value. Never just copy a plugin or theme that already exists. It does not have to be something completely new, but if you just copycat a product, it will never be as good as the original. At least improve the things which do not work well, but please don’t copy/paste others’ code. Ideally, find a problem and then solve it by coming up with your own solution. Don’t forget to always give 110% for your customers, even if it does not earn you money immediately – it’s never a waste, as people will remember you and recommend you.

The final tip is: Don’t give up.

Do you have plans to expand your WordPress business? What opportunities do you see in the future?

Opportunities are everywhere, you just have to keep an eye out for them. At the moment I am looking for my first employee. If you had told me a few years ago that today I’d run my own business, I wouldn’t have believed you. Besides developing Divi modules, I would also love to develop more plugins for other builders like Elementor or something for Gutenberg. Who knows, maybe even some general WordPress plugins.

Besides this, I started to do freelancing in my free time. Why should I spend my valuable time in the evening, when wife and child are asleep, in front of a television when I can do something I love: developing software. And since I love a good challenge, I started to build a highly customized WordPress functionality using Toolset (one of the best and most powerful plugins for customizing WordPress). I could go on, but I guess I have said way too much already so let’s finish for today! Thanks for having me here!

Thank you for being with us Jan! It’s been a wonderful conversation, and we appreciate hearing your story. Best of luck to you in your business and personal pursuits. Until we meet again, goodbye Freemians!

Brandon Ernst

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Founder of Brand on Fire LLC, specializing in premium web development and digital marketing; former Head of Marketing at Freemius, leading content development and outreach, providing valuable advice for WordPress plugin and theme developers' growth.

Duke Devidze

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