Pushbullet's CEO explains why the app is shifting towards a paid model

Paying for features that were once free is a bummer, but Pushbullet's Ryan Oldenburg explains why he had to start charging.

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It was the shot heard around the Android world. Pushbullet, an Android fan favorite, introduced a paid subscription plan last week. The Pro service costs $5 a month, or $40 a year, and though it comes with a heaping of useful features, those features were completely free just a week ago.

You can still use Pushbullet without paying, but it’s severely limited. For instance, you used to be able to send as many text messages as you wanted, but now you’re only allowed 100 messages a month. Universal copy & paste is also no longer supported by the free version, and if you were relying on PushBullet to send files back and forth between devices, you’ll have to subscribe to move files bigger than 25MB.

Of course, running the Pushbullet service isn't free. Reliable, useful services deserve your support, but the developers of Pushbullet came out of the nowhere with this one. There was hardly any prior warning, just a blog post announcing the change. And the Reddit AMA offered up over the weekend only provided a bit of respite. So, I reached out to Ryan Oldenburg, PushBullet’s CEO, to ask about why Pushbullet adopted a subscription model, how the pricing tier was decided, and what he would have done differently were he to announce the subscription service all over again.

Greenbot: Why did Pushbullet decide to adopt a Pro model?

Oldenburg: Pushbullet has gotten quite popular. As a free app, however, it hasn’t been earning enough revenue to support itself. This was a choice we made early on in order to focus on improving the service and see how big it can grow. Having given it a couple of years now, we’ve hit the fork in the road. Unless an app is on path to be the next Instagram for example—which is extremely rare—it’s becomes necessary that it supports itself financially.

We’ve decided to work toward an independent PushBullet instead of giving in to an inevitable shutdown. We chose to implement a free and Pro model to support the service. We chose optional Pro accounts over advertisements because we felt ads would both be less effective and worse for users.

Greenbot: What will the money from the Pro subscriptions be used for?

Oldenburg: The incoming revenue will be used to cover the expenses related to running Pushbullet. The first priority is covering the costs related to keeping the service running (servers and file storage). Once those expenses are met, we’ll then cover other company expenses (accounting, etc.), and then support more PushBullet development.

Greenbot: Are you guys working to ensure that the paid tier offers enough “bang” for the user’s “buck”?

Oldenburg: We’d love to continue working to improve Pushbullet indefinitely for both Pro and free users. Since upgrading is completely optional, it’s up to everyone individually if it’s worth upgrading for them. Pro will only get more valuable over time as we continue working. We feel the pricing is appropriate to give Pushbullet the best chance at a sustainable future based on our decision-making process.

Greenbot: Did you warn current users that a Paid model was coming soon? I don’t remember ever receiving an alert.

Oldenburg: Our blog post was our first notification (we haven’t actually charged anyone yet). This was to get feedback as well. Next, we will be sending out an email to all users this week.

Greenbot: How did you arrive at the price point you decided on? Was there a lot of number crunching beforehand?

Oldenburg: We chose our pricing tiers based on several factors. We looked at similar services, like Pocket, MightyText, Feedly, and others, to get a sense for comparable pricing. We also looked at upgrade rates for other “freemium” services and considered this in calculations to ensure a sustainable Pushbullet is possible at our pricing level.

Greenbot: What would you have done differently if you could do this paid-tier announcement all over again?

Oldenburg: The biggest thing I would change is the fact that this felt like too much of a surprise to our community. The best thing I could have done would have been involving them in the decision-making process. That was my biggest mistake. We’ve been really fortunate to have a huge number of people get really excited about the work we’ve been doing. Having involved them in ensuring Pushbullet becomes sustainable would have gone a long way to preventing much of the upset we’ve seen.

Greenbot: Why not make a change to the pricing structure, or the features that are offered in the pro version, after so many users were unhappy about the subscription model?

Oldenburg: If we made everything free, Pushbullet wouldn’t have a future. That’s bad for everyone, so we need a balance. We chose to keep most of Pushbullet free and require a Pro account only for our more advanced features, or for heavier usage. It’s hard to balance “bang for your buck” in Pro, and making sure the free version is still great. We think this is best.

People are upset (reasonably) that some previously free features now require Pro. If we didn’t do this, though, there would be no reason for anyone to upgrade to Pro. And again, we’re back to Pushbullet being shut down, which is worse for everyone.

Greenbot: Will you be engaging with the community and figuring out pricing tiers as you move forward? Or is the pricing of the new Pro model set in stone?

Oldenburg: We thought about this a lot, but don’t plan to change the current pricing before December 1, which is when Pro starts. The most important thing to us is giving Pushbullet what we believe is the best chance at a bright future. Changing the pricing is not an easy win as it may perhaps seem—there’s a real chance it jeopardizes Pushbullet’s future for its users. Those that have already upgraded want to ensure Pushbullet lasts and continues to improve, and I don’t want to let them down.

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