EPISODE 120

From Freelancer to WordPress Education Company with Shawn Hesketh from WP101

Chris Badgett of codeBOX talks about the entrepreneurial journey from freelancer to WordPress education company with Shawn Hesketh from WP101 in this episode of LMScast. You will learn about the successes and failures that Shawn has had and how to create and maintain an engaged community.

Shawn has a blog, plugin, and courses dedicated to helping people understand and navigate WordPress. He has 26 years of web design experience. In 2008, he started WP101 as a series of videos to help people learn WordPress. When Shawn first started he was not making a profit, but over time he developed a stable business model so that it was profitable.

WP101 was not an overnight success. Creating stability and sustaining it was a long and tedious process. Shawn updates his videos with each update of WordPress so that the WP101 users will be able to have the most recent information. Shawn has also built up a large online community around WP101 that he maintains and is active in.

Juggling life can be difficult at times, so Shawn believes that you need to be aggressive with how you choose to spend your time. You will be able to see more success in your course or membership site if you build a community around it. Focusing on your community and the need you are trying to serve will take you a long way in your niche. It is important to actively seek feedback from that community. Shawn talks about how he stays engaged in his WP101 community and how he improves his processes based on the feedback that he receives.

It is also helpful for you to reach out to others who can help serve your customers. Licensing your material will vastly increase the impact of your information and your profit. About two-thirds of Shawn’s monthly income comes from his WP101 plugin and the material that he licenses out.

Chris and Shawn also discuss the importance of maintaining balance in your work-life relationship. Constant improvement and never ceasing to learn are philosophies that Shawn believes in.

You can learn more about WP101 and Shawn Hesketh at WP101.com.

Post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us.

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and today we’re joined by Shawn Hesketh of WP101, which is a WordPress training site. I’ve met Shawn in person, and I’m really fortunate as the co-founder of LifterLMS to work with Shawn. And Shawn also uses LifterLMS to deliver his online courses. It’s a great honor to have you on the show. You’ve been a big part of the WordPress community for a long time. You’ve helped a lot of people get up to speed with WordPress, including myself. I remember the first time I met you, through Skype or whatever it was, I had heard your voice so many times before that I had that same thing.

People say that when they meet me now because of this podcast and my 200-some odd YouTube videos. You’re definitely a legend in the WordPress community and you’ve just helped a lot of people with WordPress, which helps them start businesses or build websites, which is really amazing. Your platform has been around for a long time. You have a nice, large community and I wanted to kind of pick your brain so that the people that are out there listening, the online course creators, the entrepreneurs, the teachers, can learn some pro tips and tricks from you and also where you’ve stumbled along the way. Shawn, thanks for coming on the show.

Shawn Hesketh: Hey, thanks for having me on, Chris. It’s an honor to be on your show, and huge fans of what you’re doing. I’m happy to talk about mistakes that I’ve made because that helps somebody else avoid making the same mistakes, then maybe that makes it all worthwhile, so I’m happy to do that.

Chris Badgett: Yeah. Yeah, I mean we hear this expression about standing on the shoulders of giants, and sometimes there’s a misconception that they always have to be these larger-than-life, in-person mentors. But you can stand on the shoulder of giants all around you in books and podcasts and shows like this or whatever, so sharing the ups and downs has a ton of value. Well, for the uninitiated who has not maybe come across WP101.com yet, what is your full offer? What is it that WordPress 101 offers?

Shawn Hesketh: Well essentially at its core, WordPress 101 is a series of video tutorials that help beginners, mostly people who are brand new to web publishing in general, to learn how to use WordPress to build beautiful websites for a blog or a business or whatever else they can imagine. We started very simply with a core series of videos that just teaches WordPress, and then over the years we’ve added additional courses that teach how to do additional things with your WordPress site that you might run into down the road after you’ve got your initial site built and up and running. We’re continuing to create new courses and new videos and new tutorials that might come down the road for topics like SEO and marketing and other things like that. We’re your one stop for beginners to learn how to use WordPress to build their site.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well before that, I know you came from a freelancer agency-style work. Just briefly, what was the journey? How did you get to wp101.com as being your main jam? Before that it was LeftLane Designs, correct?
Shawn Hesketh: That’s right. Yeah, LeftLane Designs was my design company that I started fresh out of high school way back in 1988, and for 26 years I was a freelance designer. Towards the last decade of that business I was primarily delivering branding solutions for small businesses and startups. In some cases they would refer to me as their in-house or their outsourced in-house graphic design department. We ran everything from designing the logo and branding materials to the messaging, the marketing strategy, which of course led to the web strategy. In the mid-’90s I was creating websites for my clients.
Then in the mid-2000s we started creating sites using WordPress. As we brought that tool in it gave our customers the ability to edit their own content, which was one of the more popular requests in the mid-’90s, without having to hire a webmaster, as we called ourselves with pride. I was a webmaster but they had to call us any time they wanted to make changes to the phone number on their website or whatever. We started using WordPress to give them the power to make changes to their own website. Part of that was handing off the keys to the client at the end of a project and providing some one-on-one personalized WordPress training, to get them up to speed with how to use this tool to edit their content.
After delivering that in-person 101 training couple of dozen times, I had customers say things like, “Hey, this has been phenomenal training but what happens if I forget everything that we’ve talked about two weeks from now? What do I do then?” That’s where the idea came to create a series of video tutorials, which became WordPress 101, but initially was just to serve my clients. I didn’t actually begin the journey of building WP101 as a product strategy. I never imagined that it would be where it is today. It just was born out of serving a genuine need and really the desire that I had to serve my clients better.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Then you also started helping other agencies or freelancers out there by giving them a tool that they could put into the WordPress website to deliver videos to their clients. To me, I remember that exact same experience where I would sit down, I’d be in a small business in their office, and it would take about maybe 60 minutes to get through all the details of publishing a post and categories and tags and putting images in there. Having a quality place for them to go learn on their own where they can use the pause and rewind button, that kind of thinking, it gave the customer a powerful tool and it gave the freelancer a lot more efficiency in their business. You really solved a really good business problem there.
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah, thanks for that. That’s exactly how it came to pass. In fact I created the series of videos for my clients. Then as I began talking with other friends of mine who are WordPress developers and designers in the space, they said, “Man, I need that for my clients. Set it up as a membership site and I’ll send my customers to you and they can get the video training there.” Then after a couple of years of delivering that, another friend of mine also a WordPress developer, Bill Erickson, said, “Hey, you know this has been great, but you know what would be even better is if we could deliver these videos directly inside my clients’ dashboard.”
“Why don’t you release your videos as a plugin, and then we can subscribe to the plugin, we can install the plugin on the client’s site, and then they can have the video tutorials right in their own dashboard and that would be an even better experience?” We created that product, the WP101 plugin, to serve WordPress developers and agencies, and that’s been incredibly helpful to a lot of businesses to be able to provide that training to their clients in the place that makes the most sense: right in their own WordPress dashboard. Yeah, that was a second way. We actually have three different streams. We have multiple ways we’ve kind of been able to leverage or put these videos to work, and that’s been kind of an interesting thing to see unfold over the years.
Chris Badgett: Well the third way, I believe, is just you license your videos to other companies. Which recently on our LifterLMS demo, I licensed your course and I sent it out to my email list. LifterLMS is a WordPress learning management system plugin for building online courses, but in order to really get going with it you need to have a base understanding of WordPress itself, so it was only natural for me to want to get the best-in-the-world WordPress training right there and encourage my people to take it.
It’s only going to help them have a much stronger foundation for building on top of that with online courses and other e-commerce and engagement stuff related to that. Licensing is just a brilliant thing. In the last episode, if you were listening to that one with Bjork Ostrom, he talked about how he was able to maintain recurring revenue for his membership site, because he was always launching a new online course every month, among other things that would happen every month. But one of his big, key takeaways is you don’t always have to create it, sometimes you can just license it. How did the idea for licensing come about?
Shawn Hesketh: It really came about from conversations about where customers or students will benefit best from the videos. Obviously end users would benefit the most from our membership site at wp101.com. There, they can not only watch our videos but also ask questions in our Q&A forum where course creators that we’re bringing on are able to answer questions. They get expert questions, that kind of one-on-one help. That’s one channel. If the customer would best benefit from having the videos directly in the dashboard, then the WP101 plugin serves them best. Then the last scenario is the one you described. Our licensing program is the best way to use our videos on your own website, usually within a support portal or something like that.
It’s just about ways of delivering the same content in different streams to deliver them in the best place possible for your audience. By thinking of our videos and our content in that way, we’ve created not only different streams of recurring revenue, but also ways to put the videos to work far more effectively than we would have just leaving it as our own website and having people come to our website and see them there. In fact, our plugin and licensing programs make up two thirds of our monthly revenue. Only a third of our monthly revenue actually comes from the membership site itself, which is where we began. By far it’s a lot more beneficial to everyone to think about ways to leverage those videos in other streams, including the plugin and licensing.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, that was a masterclass in segmentation and product/market fit and repurposing content through different delivery mechanisms, so thanks for sharing that. Let’s go back to your story a little bit and zero in on that moment where WordPress 101 was sustainable enough that you were able to really make the switch. I know that it’s more of a process than an event most likely, but what was the time of your life like where you were transitioning from doing design or agency work over to your online education company full-time?
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah. Well, I love meeting people who look at WP101 today and probably heard about us years ago. We started in 2008 with that first series, so in eight years we’ve come a long way. People come along now and look at WP101 and feel like it might fit those narratives that they might’ve heard about overnight successes, how you build a product and they will come, you just release this thing and it became…it was not an overnight success. It is not the holy grail of making money while you sleep, all those kinds of fun myths that are out there. In fact it was a very slow, tedious evolution.
When I released the first set of videos for my clients, those were not really even intended to provide any source of revenue beyond just a significant value add for my clients. We just provided those after the fact as a resource that clients could go back to. Initially there wasn’t even an expectation to make money off of these videos. When we turned it into a membership site to serve other developers and companies in the space, that’s when we started thinking about revenue, but even then we initially built the membership site on a pay-what-you-wish model.
It was strictly donations-based, whatever you feel like the training is worth, and it was tough to kind of land on a pricing point for the videos because the videos would have different value to someone depending on whether or not you’re using WordPress to build a blog, to share some recipes with family and friends, or you’re using WordPress to build a full-blown e-commerce site. The value of this training would vary wildly depending on what you’re actually using the videos for, so one way to tackle that was just to offer them under a pay-what-you-wish model. We did that for a couple of years, and in fact we even donated 50% of whatever you chose to pay for the course towards charity.
It enabled us to do some really cool things, but there was not an expectation to ever replace my income necessarily. It wasn’t until years down the road, maybe four years into the process, when we started having people approach us about becoming affiliate partners and wanting to use our videos for their customers in different ways. It’s really difficult to set up an affiliate program on a pay-what-you-wish model where somebody pays a few bucks, right? We realized that in order to really begin partnering with people at that level, we needed to fix our price points and develop a more significant, stable business model, pricing strategy.
So we kind of put those things in place. Then all along one of the drivers was my commitment to keeping these videos up to date. When I first started looking for WordPress tutorial videos to provide to my own customers, I only found one other set of screencasts and they were already badly out of date. In fact they still haven’t been updated. I knew that one of the challenges was going to be continually updating these WordPress tutorial videos with each and every release of WordPress. That takes time. It takes resources. We’ve close-captioned the videos. Now we’re translating them into Spanish. Each of those layers that you add adds a layer of complexity, and as you do that and you want to grow, that takes revenue to do all of that.
Yeah, it was a full four years into our eight year journey before I really began looking at WP101 more seriously, and treating it with kind of the respect that it deserved. Three years ago I started kind of slowly transitioning out of client work and freelance work to put more attention on WP101, attending more WordCamps, getting in touch with and having real conversations with WordPress beginners and figuring out how we can serve them even better. So yeah. It’s been a wild ride but it’s a slow evolution. I see a lot of companies today getting in trouble because their expectation is that if they just build this thing and release it, that the masses will come, and it often takes a lot more work. It takes a lot more effort, rather, to build a community than it does to release the product or the course.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Yeah, when you first said 26 years I think and the design work, to me, that’s another 26 years to overnight success because the people I see who do the best with WordPress or really any kind of web app, web development, web education, before all that they’re solving business problems. So use technology to solve business or life problems, and by doing all those hard yards of consulting and seeing where people are struggling and seeing what works. That’s also part of that journey that makes the technical training fill the business need backbone or whatever.
Yeah, I totally appreciate that. We all hear about the lean startup, which was originated out of the idea of lean manufacturing which came out of Toyota in Japan. They had a word called kaizen which means continuous improvement. Obviously you’ve committed yourself to that. About keeping things updated, I don’t know if you realize you’re actually talking to one of your competitors here in that I have a WordPress course on Udemy. I have over 16,000 users in it last time I checked. I haven’t updated it in three years. And Udemy has recently contacted me that they might be taking it down soon or something. I mean, it’s not that I don’t continuously improve things. It’s just that particular course I haven’t come back to.
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah, yeah.
Chris Badgett: Whereas when I see you, WordPress rolls out a new thing, boom, you’re on it like “Okay, this is what’s happening in .7” or whatever. It’s awesome. It’s awesome. Where does that come from for you, that commitment to continuously improving or updating? A lot of people get really focused on the product launch, but that’s just the starting line and you take that seriously. Where does that come from, that commitment?
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah, I do. If I had to make a distinction … What I see right now are a lot of companies that are product-focused instead of people-focused, and I know this seems grossly naïve and basic, but I find that this is an enormous differentiator. Because if you’re really doing what you’re doing to serve your audience, your community, then the products and the solutions kind of are easily born out of that. Commitment to update the videos comes out of my commitment to serve the WordPress agencies and developers and designers, and larger companies like GoDaddy and Media Temple, who are using our videos to train their customers.
Out of the commitment to that relationship, we have to keep our videos up to date always with the latest version of WordPress because otherwise this reflects badly on our partners, all of those companies that are relying on us to provide this training. It’s a relationship first model. Then kind of going a little bit deeper … When I graduated high school … I don’t know if I’ve told you this before, Chris, but I’m the oldest of seven kids. In a big family like that there was no money set aside for college, so right out of high school I knew that I wanted to go into graphic design. At that time the best place to study graphic design was in the Art Institute.
The Art Institute of Houston, my home town, was incredibly expensive. While I could’ve gotten some financial aid it also would’ve just meant massive student loan debt. Rather than going that path, I just went down to the bookstore and literally looked at year one, these are the books that they recommended, and I just bought those books right off the shelf, went home, and devoured them. That kind of commitment to just never stop learning, which is kind of a personal mantra of mine, has carried me through to today. It just has never stopped. I began learning about cool things like Gestalt theory and typography and leading and all these cool things that I didn’t know about before, and that kind of approach continues today. I’m still learning. That kind of constant learning, constant evolution, is something that I’m hard-wired for, so it makes sense then.
It comes out of that same desire, that same place, to constantly keep these videos up to date, to make sure that we’re serving people in the best way possible, because I believe in never stop learning. The moment you begin stagnating and you say, “This is the content, we’re done with that, it’s one and done” … From the moment that stops you’re losing touch with the people that you intended to serve in the first place. The more you’re able to stay connected with them, keep your content up to date, keep a finger on the pulse of what your customer, your audience needs, that’s going to inform what you create next, how you continue to evolve your course, your training, your product, or even your services. I’m deeply committed to a people first approach, and then developing products and solutions that serve them best.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Yeah, I love that story about going to the bookstore and doing that. I call that trait in somebody, which is really common in entrepreneurs, I call that batteries included.
Shawn Hesketh: That’s cool.
Chris Badgett: That’s actually one of the qualities I look for. It could be about anything but you can tell it, and when people tell stories about things they’ve done or how they got into something, if they just kind of clawed their way through it … Under their own power. There’s no carrot or stick approach. That’s really cool. Like I said, that’s a really important quality in today’s world when you’re building a team or just in terms of if you’re looking at focusing a lot of effort of your life into something, it should have that natural … You shouldn’t have to try too hard to be motivated about it.
Really that’s the big opportunity with online education. The way things are headed, it seems like the world is becoming more and more conducive to helping people who want to take charge of their own education and figure it out kind of in their own way, whether that’s take this course over here, go to this school over here. The world is just more … It’s out there for you. You just got to go do it, and that’s why people are creating courses in all kinds of interesting niches. Even if there’s only 30 people in the world interested in some micro-topic, they can now find each other on the Internet or whatever.
Shawn Hesketh: That’s right. Yep, absolutely.
Chris Badgett: That’s fascinating. I was mentioning batteries included as one thing I look for in a team. Throughout your journey, what has been your approach to team? Have you always wanted to be a solopreneur? Do you bring in freelancers as needed? Do you have any people, or have you had people and then you changed over time? Does anybody else in your family help? How does it all work? From a team perspective for you, what’s your philosophy?
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah. 26 years as a designer was basically solopreneur. For a period of about five years my wife actually was working for me. She was prior to that was an elementary school teacher, quit that after five or six years to come work for me. We did some great work together. She’s great about the administration side. As a team we worked that business really well, just a husband and wife team. These days she’s much busier homeschooling our kids and has more than her plate full right now. WP101 is primarily me full-time. But it’s not really a solo effort because when it comes to other pieces, for example the plugin, which is obviously software that’s installed on hundreds of thousands of sites, I don’t trust my developer skills to create something of that scale.
I’m more than happy to bring in developers who have the chops to be able to create that type of a product. We partnered with Mark Jaquith, who’s actually one of the lead contributors to WordPress, to create the first version of the plugin and then maintaining that plugin, we hire only kind of best-in-class WordPress developers who have a solid reputation. Because when we make changes to the plugin and push that back out, I want to be able to sleep that night knowing that we didn’t break hundreds of thousands of websites. I do bring in key people to help out from time to time. Then the other key area is in the creation of content.
One of our biggest challenges is there’s just no end to the number of courses and tutorials and videos that we could create to serve the thousands and thousands of WordPress products and services in this space. What we’re trying to do is to be strategic about: What courses do our audience would they most benefit from? Are they in fact asking for? And kind of just a quickly sidebar on that. Closing the loop on our earlier conversation, when you have a people first approach and you have real conversations with the audience you’re serving, they will tell you in the form of their questions, and sometimes more critical feedback, where you need to take your next training and where you need to provide some additional material to kind of fill in the gaps.
We’re listening to that feedback, and then that’s helped us to kind of informs our future roadmap of what new courses, what new training, or even what revisions to our existing course do we need to make to better serve our audience. When we talk about scaling a tutorial business like WP101, I realize that I can’t create all the videos and also keep them up to date all the time. What we’ve done is partnered with some other subject matter experts, and bringing them in to create the courses, and then partnering with them to make sure that the videos are the highest quality and the production that we’re bringing to the table is consistent with what people have come to expect of WP101. But we’re partnering with these subject matter experts because they’re the ones who really know these products inside and out.
For example, Daniel Espinoza is a noted WooCommerce expert. WooCommerce is an amazing e-commerce platform, and I think they just released a stat that says they’re powering something like 47% of all online stores, which is crazy. I do not have the skills to teach somebody how to use WooCommerce. Daniel does. We partnered with him. He created all the scripts. I partner with him to create the voiceovers, gave him some tips and pointers about how to create those on-screen actions. We did some editing together. It was a collaboration to make sure that that course was delivered in the best way possible, but essentially it’s Daniel’s content. Then Daniel now is available in our Q&A forum to answer WooCommerce-specific questions of members who have been through that course.
We’re using that same model to partner with other subject matter experts. The next series we’re about to release, in fact, it was created by Zac Gordon, who’s a very well-known and respected WordPress teacher across a broad range of topics. But Zac’s partnering with us to create a series of videos for the Jetpack plugin for WordPress. By partnering with subject matter experts, we can deliver the content that our customers want, that our students need and are asking for, but leveraging everyone’s time a little better. But it’s an interesting way to scale because it’s not quite bringing on full-time employees or even part-time employees, but really thinking more along the lines of partnerships.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Yeah, partnering seems more and more the way of the future as the world gets more complex, as the rate of change gets more complex. Unless you’re a superhuman you can’t do it all. If I made one point that I would be willing to make in every single episode, I would say just in terms of observing the successful online course platforms, I see four key things. I used to say three but I added a new one recently which I’m going to go over. The first three are the expertise or the knowledge, so the understanding of WordPress or WooCommerce with Daniel, like you mentioned. Then there’s the instructional design, which for you making the professionally polished videos, you have that design asset which you’re really strong in and you help your partners level up their game there. The third thing you need is a platform or a course delivery system to do that. Then the final thing, which I’ve added recently, which I see as a trend in a successful platform, is community.
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Both, especially the entrepreneur behind it, is enmeshed in some kind of community. For you I think that’s the WordPress ecosystem, but perhaps there are some other places, small business stuff where you live. There’s that community piece, and also part of your platform, like you said, people get to ask questions and you’re there to support them. So you’re fostering that community. It’s not just like a silent “Here’s the content.” If you get stuck you have a open feedback loop, which not only gives your people a great experience, it also helps you see where you need to improve and where new opportunities might lie. That’s really awesome. In terms of customer support, you’ve got that feedback loop. Where have you fallen down in customer support? What have you learned over the years? What is your style for customer support for your training?
Shawn Hesketh: I’ve gotten lectured recently because I think it’s surprising for some people to learn that I’m still providing 100% of our customer support by choice. We have 27,000 members on our site. The plugin is installed on hundreds of thousands of sites. We don’t actively have to provide necessarily technical support for all of those sites. Primarily the support requests that we get come through our membership site. I choose to actively participate in those conversations. We use Help Scout just in terms of sharing a tool, because it’s a very easy email-based support tool that doesn’t kind of put the burden on our customers with having to learn how to use our customer support system just to submit a ticket.
I’m a big fan of email-based support where they can easily fill out a form to begin a conversation, and then just email back and forth replies. But by having those conversations, that’s the best opportunity that I have to determine whether or not the training that we’re providing is effective. Are we actually accomplishing the goals that we set out for the course? Is it actually beneficial to our audience? Where might we be missing some key elements? If I keep getting the same question over and over again, then that’s a great way to kind of make a mental note the next time we write the course, I need to flesh out this particular section a little more and provide a little more clear instruction about this particular area.
I choose to kind of continue doing the customer support. In terms of dropping the ball, the biggest challenge with customer support is just the sheer volume and the fact that it just doesn’t stop. Right, it doesn’t stop for holidays and weekends and sick days and on and on. That is the biggest challenge, and I know that that would be an easy way to bring in someone else. A lot of people are tempted to. The first place, in fact, they want to kind of outsource is customer support, and I’m not sure that’s necessarily the best strategy. I definitely wouldn’t advise it in the beginning.
Because I think it’s critical to make sure that you continue to get that feedback. The way that I drop the ball is actually the way that I pick up the ball. I think it’s the fact that I’m always on. This is something that could be improved over time. It is definitely a challenge, but for the moment anyway it is manageable. It’s not something that’s eating six to eight hours a day. I can take care of all of our customer support within a matter of an hour to two per day, and for the time being I just choose to participate in those conversations because it gives me the best sense of where our customers and where our audience are, and whether or not we’re actually providing something of value to help them.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, that’s awesome. At LifterLMS we also do a lot. We’ve actually outsourced before and then pulled back. Thomas more on the technical side and me on the pre-sale side and some of the customer support side, we do a large volume of it ourselves.
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: We found that really investing in on it … Over time we could actually do double what we thought was possible in our time for it, and you learn little tips and tricks. We also use Help Scout. Great tool. We have some … Not canned responses, that sounds kind of negative, but there’s actually just common things that: “Okay, if I add this here.” All these little things save like 20 seconds here. It adds up to hours a month or a week or whatever. And it’s not necessarily the whole message but it’s just like “Oh, they’re going to need this little chunk, this little chunk, plus this custom response.” You can cover a lot of ground, probably way more than you think you can, once you get good at it.
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah, those responses are incredible. I use them as templates, and then like you said I tend to modify them. In fact I don’t think I ever just apply a template and hit send. So I always customize, but it provides a good place to start when you’re getting some of those questions over and over again, so a fantastic tool. I’ve never gotten a piece of negative feedback from any of our customers about the customer support experience. Help Scout, it works transparently, and the best tools I think are those that are kind of invisible but help you make the best use of your time.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. Here’s just one more. Help Scout has this thing where people can rate your reply that we have turned on, and we actually have it so that it goes to our slack. Then you can see if it’s negative there’s a red rocket, and then if it’s positive there’s a green rocket. Sometimes people leave feedback, so we’re like, “Oh, I can see their perspective. Maybe I would handle that differently the next time,” but you give people a way to vent but also to tell you where you’re doing well. We get a lot more green rockets than we do red rockets. Some of the comments that people make about how much they appreciate or how fast or how in-depth the help was or whatever, that’s really motivating.
It’s really motivating. Well, let’s go into one more technical detail and just do a quick lightning round here. A lot of people making online courses … If you’re listening on the podcast, LMScast, you may be listening in iTunes or Soundcloud or whatever, but we also put all these interviews on YouTube. We’re having basically talking head right now. But most of your content for your courses is screen sharing. Just real quickly, can you run through … I mean, this is somebody with, I don’t know, a decade of years experience making screen share videos. What is the technology stack that you use from the type of computer, the microphone, the anything in your office to make the sound better? What are you using? Even in the browser. What’s your stack?
Shawn Hesketh: Oh, you bet. I love geeking out and talking about this stuff. First of all, to your point about talking heads, I’ve actually chosen not to put my head on there. We experimented with that for a little while. There are some great tools. The tool that I use for recording my screen cast is ScreenFlow, which is an amazing tool. It’s only available for the Mac, so if you’re using a PC you might want to consider Camtasia instead, the other most popular screen casting tool or screen capture tool. Both of those tools enable you to capture a talking head. You’ve seen this in tutorial videos where your head appears down in the bottom right hand side or off to the side of the content that you’re presenting on screen.
But the feedback we got is it’s actually distracting. People didn’t actually benefit from it and to be honest, they’d rather have the screen real estate to be able to see what it is that you’re teaching. Now, the type of content that I’m providing is educational and we’re talking about a piece of web software, so it makes the most sense then to primarily be showcasing the screen actions, and so that’s primarily what I’m creating. We no longer do talking heads. We had a brief experiment with it. But for the most part, the feedback that we get is that our audience doesn’t want to see the talking head. They just want to see the content as it’s presented.
In terms of gear, software, I use ScreenFlow for capturing the on-screen actions. But to be honest I think most of this … The first impression that people are going to have of your online training videos is the audio quality. I’m an audio nerd with a background in music and audio and video recording, so I actually have invested quite a bit into my audio rig. These days you can get a lot better audio quality out of USB mics than you could when I first started. Probably one of the best USB-powered mics right now is the Rode Podcaster. Really popular among podcasters, and it’s so simple because you can just set it up on a boom arm and one cable plugs into your computer, you’re set to go.
No extra hardware needed or anything else. In my particular setup, I have a broadcast quality mic that is the Shure SM7B. It’s the same microphone that famously Michael Jackson used to record vocals. Pentatonix, the a cappella group, uses this as a performance mic. For me and my voice this was the microphone that best captured all the inflections and enabled me to provide the best kind of sounding voiceover, and I think that’s really important. When you’re delivering an hour and a half worth of content and people are listening to primarily your voice, it’s incredibly important then that your voice sound as good as possible so that it doesn’t become taxing or harsh, if there’s a lot of sibilance, over-pronounced S’s or popping P’s.
All of these kinds of things become a distraction to the content you’re teaching. The microphone is very important. It is not a USB-powered mic. It’s an XLR microphone, so I have an XLR cable that goes down to a preamp. I use the Grace Design M101, which I thought was an appropriate name for WP101 videos. But it also is a super clean preamp, and it powers this microphone which happens to be very power hungry. Then from the preamp I plug into a Duet by Apogee, which is just a digital/analog converter that plugs into my computer. I capture all my audio in GarageBand, because that enables me to apply some filters to the audio to make sure that it’s mastered, make sure that every voiceover that we create is being sent out at the same level, so that if I’m recording videos a year from now they’re at the same level as the ones that I’m recording today.
That’s really important when we’re constantly updating our series, and plugins like that do help to provide a better quality audio because we can also do cool things like making the audio, the narration a little warmer, for example, in tone. Then just master the levels to make sure that it’s all going out the same way. That’s kind of the hardware and the software in terms of the process. Real lightning round here. I’m one of these guys who prefers to script every single word ahead of time, so I tend to create a local demo environment first. Then do a dry run, during which time I’m actually recording and writing down every single word that I’m going to say, making careful notes about where I need to put a pause, for example, to allow for a little longer on-screen action.
Once the voiceover is done, recording the script as a voiceover, then I import the voiceover into ScreenFlow and then finally record the screen actions to match the audio, which is how we get that nice, precise action on screen, everything matches up nicely, and it gives us that professional quality that people have come to expect from our videos. Those are kind of the highlights of the process itself. That doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. I would only recommend a script-first approach if you have the ability to read a script in a conversational tone that makes where your listeners can’t tell that you’re actually reading, and that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. If that’s not the case for you, then by all means go for the conversational tone above the process, but that’s the process that’s worked best for us over the years.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. You’re standing up right now I believe, right?
Shawn Hesketh: I am standing. I’m at a standing desk.
Chris Badgett: Do you record your videos standing up?
Shawn Hesketh: I do record my videos standing up. Vocal coaches will tell you that you give better support for your diaphragm and you’re able to speak more naturally when you’re standing as opposed to sitting, so I prefer to stand. And also for all the other health reasons that we have become aware of in recent years. But I tend to alternate if I’m doing email and those kind of things. Then I’ll hang out in one of the chairs behind me in my man-cave and handle email from a laptop, seated. Then whenever I get up to do the serious work I’m always standing.
Chris Badgett: Well, that’s awesome. Well, in terms of the man-cave and needing good quality audio … If you have kids, which I know you do, I’ve got kids … Sometimes they come in here, but strategically I time interview times when they’re most likely not to be around. What are some work-life balance things that you’ve dealt with? I’ll just say for me as somebody who’s run an agency, who builds product, it’s been a long journey to go to have more healthy relationship with the work-life balance.
I used to sometimes work super late, four o’ clock in the morning, get up at nine, get really close to some severe burnout or whatever, let things ride. But over time I’ve really committed … That’s one area I really focus to that continuous improvement, and I realize sometimes working less I get more done because I’m more balanced, my energy level’s good, I’m not just pouring coffee on the problem all the time and my clients aren’t getting at emails at three o’ clock in the morning or whatever. Over time I’ve covered a lot of ground. What are some work-life balance tips for you?
Shawn Hesketh: Well, speaking to the recording, we do have three kids. Our kids are 13, 11, and 10 now, so they’ve been trained over the years. Daddy’s been doing this for eight years. They know I’m recording, that they need to be quieter than normal.
Chris Badgett: I just want to say when this curtain, if you’re watching this on YouTube, is closed, that’s a signal that do not come in here and don’t knock.
Shawn Hesketh: Exactly, I was just going to say when the door’s closed they know Daddy’s probably recording. We’ve stopped just shy of putting a red light outside to flash that recording is taking place. Some of that’s just about communication. Our kids have kind of gotten used to that. They know what that looks like. I’ve also spent a decent amount of money in recent years soundproofing the area that I do most of my recordings, so we actually have some portable soundproof panels that we bring into place to kind of create a vocal booth when I’m doing most of my heaviest recording. That definitely helps to cut down on outside noise. It also helps to give it that kind of warm sound.
Actually on that note, let me just make a quick little tip, because I wish every podcaster, anyone who recorded audio for the web, would use at least these two panels. I take every opportunity to recommend these. If you’re starting off recording your voice and you recognize that you’re getting some echo from the room around you, the best thing you can buy are two panels called DeskMAX. They’re the DeskMAX panels by Auralex, and you can find them on Amazon. They cost a couple hundred bucks. They’re essentially two panels that have a backing board on them and then they’re four inches of thick recording foam.
There’s two of them. They’re two foot by two foot roughly square, and you can put those on either side of your workspace and if you do that you’re going to cut out a good 80% of the room echo and noise that you’re getting from your room. It goes a long way toward increasing the audio quality that you’re producing. That little tech tip, I have to make sure and get that in and recommend it. It’s an easy thing to invest in. It’s not a permanent solution, so you can easily tuck them away in a closet when you’re not recording. So you’re not committing to putting foam up on your walls like I have.
With all the recording stuff out of the way, your real question was more about how to achieve that delicate work-life balance. That’s been an incredible challenge over the years, particularly during those transition years that we were talking about earlier, transitioning from being a freelance designer where I was already … You try to schedule your work as well as possible, but as a freelancer you often find yourself backed up against a wall where you can end up working long nights and weekends and that’s really challenging. Add to that trying to spin up a product and provide some service and support for that product, like we did with WP101, and you can pretty quickly find yourself working 60 hour weeks on a regular basis.
I’d be lying if I said that we never did that, and Kay and I had some hard times several years ago facing burnout, and we had to drop off several other activities, kind of extracurricular activities that we were really involved in, to make more time for ourselves. My biggest tip is to become aggressive about what you choose to spend your time on. We talked earlier about customer support. I choose to participate in the customer support but I know that I can manage that within just a couple of hours. When we’re not actively rerecording videos this business can be managed within a reasonable workweek, so I don’t have to any more juggle the nights and the weekends and all that kind of thing.
Rarely do we have a technical issue that requires me to jump out after dinner or in those evening or weekend hours to take care of that. The way that we’ve gotten to this place, though, is by aggressively minimizing our commitments. For our kids, for example, we found ourselves a couple of years ago in the space where one kid was enrolled in ballet and the other was in gymnastics and the other was playing soccer, and we were building up this time of year before the Christmas holiday. One of our kids was in The Nutcracker so you had additional practices going on.
And you’re trying to juggle a business and attending a Word Camp, and it was insane. It was insane. We actually sat down and had a tough discussion, Kay and I did, about the kind of life that we want to create and the kind of lifestyle we want to create for our kids. We want to be more known for a lifestyle of peace and availability to our friends. We’d like to have deeper, more meaningful conversations with family members who we neglected during those years when we were overworked and stressed and over-committed. To make room for those we’ve had to clear out some other things, so we this year did not participate in all the things, all the sports, the gymnastics and the soccer and all that.
That’s gone in exchange for doing some travel as a family, which has been incredible for us to kind of bond as a family unit, and doesn’t carry with it that strenuous kind of requirement, especially during this particular time of year. It takes a real commitment to be aggressive about your schedule, your calendar, and what you do choose to say yes to. I would just say it mostly comes from a place of being able to say no a lot. Sometimes it’s difficult to say no to those things, but that is exactly … In fact it’s the only way to arrive at the kind of work-life balance that enables you to do this meaningful work you’ve committed to for years to come. Ultimately that’s what we would love to be able to do.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. I think it might be a little cliché and I can definitely confirm this from my experience … When you’re in the beginning and you’re in the hustle sometimes you have to say yes to everything. That’s what I did. But then later it is about saying no.
Shawn Hesketh: Sure.
Chris Badgett: You definitely don’t want to go down in flames while you’re saying yes to everything and trying to figure out your path, but trying on a lot of different things is good.
Shawn Hesketh: I think a key in that, too, just real quick, is just thinking in terms of seasons. It’s okay to burn the midnight oil for a little bit. You’re working on an intense project. Whenever we record all of our WordPress 101 videos, the kids know that I’m going to disappear in my man-cave for three or four days, and those are going to be longer days. It’s okay to do those things for short seasons as long as you’re not committing to that as a lifestyle, and I think that’s what mentally helps you to be able to process those more stressful times, is knowing there’s an out. I’m only doing this for a short period of time and then we’re going to be able to get into a more reasonable balance.
Chris Badgett: Another thing I’ve seen with you, not just scheduling work but also I think you call it a daddy date night where you take your kids out, I’ve always admired that. Sometimes putting some things like that on a schedule is helpful, just to reinforce the balance.
Shawn Hesketh: Every Tuesday night. Tuesday nights are date nights, and it just happens to work out where there are generally four Tuesdays in a month, and so the first one is Mommy and Daddy. Mommy gets to go out with Daddy. And at each of the Tuesdays following I take out one of the kids, and it’s a great touch point. It’s amazing how getting your kids alone allows them and gives them a space to have conversations with you that they might not have in the presence of the rest of the family. It’s incredibly important time. It’s one of the highlights of our week.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, definitely on those date nights and on your travels and experiences, I’ve seen something coming out of you which is some incredible photography that you do with your iPhone. When is the iPhone photography course coming out?
Shawn Hesketh: That’s great, man. Thanks for needling me about that. It’s really interesting, I’ve always enjoyed shooting and our kids have been trained since the earliest of ages that there’s always a camera pointed at them. They’re incredibly photogenic and so they’re a lot of fun to shoot, but I’ve always enjoyed photography. It’s a good creative outlet outside of the other work that I do. For that reason I chose to never really pursue it professionally, because I don’t want to kill the love that I really do have for photography right now.
Chris Badgett: Keep it as a hobby.
Shawn Hesketh: Absolutely, it is a hobby so I enjoy shooting. This past year we took a trip to Florida and I did something really risky that I’ve never done before, and that was what you’re alluding to. I took the iPhone 7+, the brand new iPhone 7+, with us on our beach trip and did not take the DSLR and the big bag of lenses or even the Fuji camera that I have, it’s a little more lightweight. I just took the iPhone and kind of pushed myself to see just how good is this camera that they’re raving about, and the cool portrait mode and some of the cool things that they’ve built into this camera. I was blown away. I never actually missed the other cameras. What I instead enjoyed was the fact that I constantly had my iPhone with me.
Because it’s waterproof I didn’t have to worry about having it at the beach, as I was with my DSLR where I’m carefully guarding that thing. Just the freedom was a huge benefit, but the images were just stellar. Now, we’re still a ways from getting the same resolution, and I really do miss that, but in terms of getting the flesh tones right and the colors of those beautiful sunsets and sunrises on the beach, I was really impressed with how far they’ve come. Yeah, I think we’re just now in a place where a smartphone could actually become a legitimate photography tool, and we’re seeing some of those images. Who knows when a course is going to come out of that. I’d love to share some of the tips and tricks. Almost every image that you see has been edited in some way or another, so there’s a insider tip for you. But yeah, we’ll have to give that some thought.
Chris Badgett: Well, if not a course at least one YouTube video like the best of tips and tricks. That’d be awesome.
Shawn Hesketh: There you go. There you go.
Chris Badgett: Well, there goes Shawn Hesketh again, ladies and gentlemen, the same guy who bought the design books and did it himself. Batteries included, figuring out the iPhone for photography. Well, people can find you at wp101.com. Is there anywhere else where people can reach out if they want to connect with you?
Shawn Hesketh: You bet. You can follow WP101 on Twitter, @wp101. You can follow me on Twitter, @leftlane, L-E-F-T-L-A-N-E, and then I also blog at shawnhesketh.com.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, thanks for coming on the show, Shawn.
Shawn Hesketh: My pleasure, Chris. Thanks for having me on.

EPISODE 119

Bjork Ostrom’s Journey from Food Blogger to Recurring Revenue Membership Site with Courses

In this LMScast Chris Badgett of LifterLMS talks with Bjork Ostrom of Food Blogger Pro about his journey from food blogger to recurring revenue membership site with courses, and how persistence in the online workplace leads to success. In this episode you will learn how to build an online community and keep that community engaged with an online course or membership site. You will also learn some tips on how to identify your niche so that you can produce the most value possible.

Bjork Ostrom and his wife Lindsay run a successful online blog dedicated to food recipes. Bjork firmly believes that the process of success is created over time and requires a lot of work and refinement. Lindsay started out by posting recipes on social media, and this evolved into the couple starting a blog, which then turned into the membership site Food Blogger Pro that they run today.

If you are having trouble tapping into your niche or connecting with your online audience, then the tips that Bjork has to offer will be valuable for you to learn. Bjork explains the strategies he actively uses in his own business to make it successful. Tips on how to optimize your membership site or course can move you to the next level, and it is especially valuable to receive these tips from someone who is actively working in the field.

Keeping your online community engaged in your content is one of the most important aspects of running a membership site. It is important to provide the best experience for your customers, but it can be difficult to master how to keep people engaged.

Bjork discusses his strategies of keeping an online community engaged as well as how to get one started. Bjork highlights his approach to using social media and other tools he uses. He and Chris discuss the importance of persistence, dedication, and constant improvement, as well as how that plays into producing high quality content.

Running a successful membership site or course takes a lot of time and work, and it can also be confusing. Constantly putting in effort and continuously refining the process is important when it comes to staying relevant in the online marketplace. Creating content is a long-term process for membership sites, so it is important to provide not only content with high value, but also content with consistent value. As Bjork mentions, creating courses or membership sites is a lot like writing songs. You will write one thousand songs, then record one hundred of them, and then get one hit.

You can visit Bjork on his social media and on his website Food Blogger Pro. You can find out more about Chris Badgett at LifterLMS.

Post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us.

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and today we’re joined by Bjork Ostrom from Pinch of Yum and Food Blogger Pro and WP Tasty. How are you doing, Bjork?

Bjork Ostrom: I’m doing great, Chris. Yeah, super excited to be here and to chat with you about anything and everything. All topics are on the table for us.

Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Bjork is a creator of a membership site, a blog, and inside that membership site are courses. He’s built quite a large community. I want to bring him on the show for you all so that you can learn some tips and tricks and just learn from Bjork’s experience. We’ll just get into some details around that. My understanding is that it all started with just a blog, Pinch of Yum, a food blog.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. For sure.

Chris Badgett: What was your journey from starting blogging to getting into deciding to build a membership site?

Bjork Ostrom: Yes. Many moons ago, it was probably six going on seven years ago, so this was 2010, April of 2010. My wife Lindsay who was a teacher at the time, I was working at a non-profit said, “You know, I’m super interested in getting interested in food recipes.” We had been married about a year. For the first time, she was cooking for two people instead of just herself. She started to get interested more on recipes. She’s posting those in social media and things like that. At one point, she was like, “Ah, I think that people that are following me kind of friends and family might be getting a little bit annoyed by how enthusiastic I am about sharing these recipes.” We were like, “Oh, maybe there’s a better place for that.” That’s when we had this blog conversation. At the time, I was really in to instill into audio books and podcast. I’m like the people that are listening to this right now. It’s like information junkies, right? I love that stuff.

I was listening to Crush It by Gary Vaynerchuk, which was like a perfect book for me to be listening to at the time. I hadn’t focused in on my business, it was really just like business in general, but I saw this one come up as recommended, and I was listening to it. That kind of planted the seed or the idea for creating a blog. Back in April 2010, we started Pinch of Yum on a Tumblr blog. At the time, we’re like we didn’t know what was going on. We post some photos and then Lindsay would post the recipe in a different post and we’re just totally clueless to the process. To do like a super fast forward through the story, we won’t spent too much time on it, but it was little by little, day by day, step by step that we started to figure it out.

It’s interesting to these interviews because I’m telling it from my perspective. A huge, huge part of it is Lindsay and her time and energy in creating the content, figuring out photography, testing the recipes and building it up overtime to figuring it out. How do we get more people to engage? How do we get more comments on it? Overtime, we slowly but surely built it up. We eventually switched to WordPress which is what we’re running the blog off of now. That’s really been our story. It’s been a story of like everyday showing up and figuring out in really small ways, how can we make this a little bit better and improve it? It all started back in 2010 with Lindsay saying, “Hey, I want to post some recipes online.”
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, yeah. Continuous improvement is what it’s all about. I mean, it’s easy to look at a membership site or successful blog and just want that. There’s seven years of hard work and not doing it alone, you’re doing it with Lindsay, and you’re committed to continuously improving things.
Bjork Ostrom: Those are all such important things for people to consider. My assumption would be people that are listening to this, there’s a percentage of people that are really successful at their site and they’re wanting to turn it up, they’re wanting to amplify their success. There’s also a portion of people that are listening to this that want that, that haven’t yet gotten it and feel like in some way they’re maybe inadequate. They look at other people that are really successful and then they’re like, “What am I doing wrong?” A lot of times, it’s just patience. It’s sticking with it and showing up everyday, even when it feels like you’re only pushing the boulder a little bit. The reason is because those people are on the other side of the hill. They’re like pushing the boulder up still. They’re like, “This is so much work. Stop. I get crushed by this boulder.”
What they don’t realize is there will be a point where they get to the top of the hill and the incline changes. Maybe it just goes to a plateau or maybe it even goes down a little bit where like they push the boulder and then it rolls on its own a little bit, but it takes a long time to get to that point. For those that are listening, I would encourage you to continue to make small improvements everyday, to not show up and do the same thing, to find ways to make improvements. Just stick with it for a long period time, because it does take a lot of time.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Before we get into courses and membership site, what are some key take aways that you learned that make the difference between average blog and a more successful blog? What did you find out in that time in blogging to what you …
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. For sure, the biggest thing is just how much time it takes to produce high quality content. I think that a mindset that people can often have with content is you can go in and do something really quick and publish it, and then you check the content box like I’m doing in marketing or I’m creating content. If you have let’s say three posts that you’re doing, and there are those kind of like effort posts where you’re going in and checking the content marketing box, it’s better to combine the time that you’re using for those three posts to do one really in depth super high quality content post, as opposed to spreading that out and feeling like you’re doing the right thing because you’re producing a bunch of content.
It takes so much time to produce something that’s going to be helpful, that people are going to engage with and that people are going to share. If you really think about what it takes to share a post or a content, it’s really rare to do. Think about all the content that you read and consume and how little of that you actually shared, because there’s this one, two, three percent range where it has to be top notch and it just takes so much time and energy. I think it’s harder than most people really realize.
Chris Badgett: … That’s a really good point. Checking the content box, I like that like, “Okay, I’m going to write my 500 word posts for today,” but that’s not the approach to take. I know when I blog, if I might really get excited about a post, it’s going to take days to make it. It’s going to be images, it’s going to be video in there. There’s going to be a lot of links in there. It’s going to include research. It’s a lot of work but that’s how you make good content.
Bjork Ostrom: Right. That type of content can give back exponentially over a long period of time, depending in you’re industry. If it’s tech like you’re going to post something and it might be the iPhone 6 and then it’s outdated in six months or a year. In general, the type of content that is longer form type of content, the minute you go back and update throughout, that’s going to be content that’s going to continue to give back and it’s well worth the time and energy. The hard part is especially in those early stages when you’re doing it and it doesn’t feel like anybody’s there, that’s the difficult phase to break through is, when you’re working another job and using your free time that you’d usually watch Game of Thrones or hang out with you’re friends to do this side hassle and you’re not getting any engagement or interaction with that, and knowing that you have to put in on the content side at least, I think this is really true like a year or two years.
If you’re doing a strictly content based business or doing content marketing, there’s a real long tail, long term pay off with it. Obviously, there’s other things that you can beat in the thumb man business, like there’s infinite number of ways that you can create a business. Some of those can scale really quickly if you’re using advertising and you have a budget to spend money on advertising to create income from a product. If there’s a margin there, you could do that in a month. Right? If we’re talking specifically about content, it’s a really long term game and you have to pay your dues with it for sure, a lot of sweat equity.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. If you’re listening to this and you’re like, “I just want to make online courses or make my membership site and focus content there,” I think not doing a blog of any kind, even if you just post four times a year, you need all the service. In fact, I don’t know if the listeners know this, but the reason I left LMS, the product this year are WordPress blog and for making courses. It all started for my blog post I wrote when I first started building an online course website or WordPress. I was really passionate about it and just sharing what I was doing and how it worked and everything. That blog post kind of went viral. I wrote a lot of post that not many people will check out, but that post took off like, “Oh, there’s a real need here. Maybe I’ll start offering services helping other people who were trying to figure this. I’ll do it and then later into that building of product on top of that.” Also, one blog post that I wrote at 2 o’clock in the morning four years ago.
Bjork Ostrom: We talked about it as one hit wonders. It’s like a band. If you hear that story of the Beatles and they’re like, “Oh, God. They were awesome.” They only think they did was write hit songs and in a way, yes, like later on but, what you don’t realize is there’s hours and hours and hours and hours of time and energies spent like writing songs. I think it’s true across the board with musicians, if you look at them like, “Go write a hundred songs, a thousand songs, record hundreds.” One of those will be the song that makes them as an artist. As they go, maybe they’ll add to that repertoire if they’re really lucky. I think when you look at blogs or if you look at content based sites, it’s really similar. You’ll have you’re hits and then you’ll have your supporting cast of content. You need that supporting content in order to have the hits. You need to pay your dues writing those “songs,” in order to have the hits.
I would guess if you look at 99% of websites, there’ll be 10-20% of their content will be driving 80-90% of the traffic. Your example is a great example of that. You paid your dues and wrote a lot of content and that didn’t necessarily drive a lot of traffic. If you hadn’t done that, you would have gotten to this point where you produce that one piece of content that really changed the introductory of your career and your business and …
Chris Badgett: And life.
Bjork Ostrom: … life. Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Before that post across multiple websites and different topics, I’d probably written a couple of hundred blog posts.
Bjork Ostrom: Right. Exactly.
Chris Badgett: It was just that one took off, I started getting phone calls for work. It’s just, boom.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. People are taking pictures, video on the screen, showing up on People magazine.
Chris Badgett: Not quite that much. I don’t care if it’s nice on the street. That’s cool. Let’s talk a little bit about the food blogger niche. To me, it sounds kind of intimidating because you know, what a massive niche like how do you compete? I know you focused a lot on creating high quality content. How did you differentiate or how did your brand emerge?
Bjork Ostrom: That’s a great question for sure. I think that for us specifically, we’re unique use case or example of a site. One of the unique things that we come to the table with for Pinch of Yum is Lindsay has the skill of food developing recipes and also this deep interest in the art of the process, both the writing and the photography. She really enjoys both of those things. I come from the standpoint of being really interested in the text side of it, right? Like monetization and marketing and things like that and we’re working on it together. It’s just really unique combination where we cover a lot of the different areas that our food content site would be focusing on. For that reason, Pinch of Yum itself in some ways has become a place for people to go to learn about blogging. That’s just do this on the decisions we made early on. I would write reports once a month and say here’s the things that we’re learning about building a blog.
In some ways, the Pinch of Yum niche is like recipes and food. It’s also a niche with like us being interested in the blogging space. I think one of the things that people often think about is like, “Oh, you must get a ton of traffic when you do photography posts and if you do, you know, the reports that you do each month.” In reality, I crunched these numbers maybe six months ago, it’s like 1-2% of the traffic to Pinch of Yum are those posts. The vast majority of it is the recipes themselves. In terms of like carving out a niche for ourselves, that’s kind of what we’ve done. I’d recommend the people that are getting into the food niche is that they find their own niche. The reason is because if you’re just going to do like broad recipe posting, it’s going to be really, really difficult because you’re going to be competing against things like All Recipes or Martha Stewart or things like that, sites like that.
One of the things that’s really exciting about the food niche is there’s so many different niches within the food niche. There’s real food, there’s dietary or research in Paleo. There’s specific types of food. You could do like all meat recipes. You could be the grill guy. There’s so many niches within the food niche, the broader food niche. That’s my encouragement to people that would be getting into it or that are starting, is to really claim a specific niche that’s not super, super small. You don’t want to be the red velvet cupcake blog, but niche enough that people can go to you and say, “Oh, I understand what you are and I know that it can come to you to meet specific needs.”
An example would be we have a baby on the way, so I don’t know when this post will go out. We have a baby boy arriving in April. I know that parenting is a really big thing for you which I think is so cool and we’re excited about that. If we were looking to start a site from scratch, that would be a great niche to start them would be like, how do you create really healthy food for a growing baby or even pregnancy? How do you have a healthy pregnancy…
Chris Badgett: Smart choices.
Bjork Ostrom: … or for a baby like maybe see you get out of that stage? There will always be babies and parents interested in like loving and caring for their kids in the best way possible. That would be a great niche to get into if you’re just getting started out.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, two big take aways I’m hearing there. One is just that to find your niche is often helpful that overlap two things. For you, it was foods and recipes, but it was also the business or the lifestyle of food blogging, which is like an interesting intersection. The other one is just evergreen. Just because you might create a site or get really passionate about a newborn for the next year that content there’s newborn is born everyday, forever.
Bjork Ostrom: For sure.
Chris Badgett: It’s just like I’m still learning stuff where there’s always people trying to teach things. It’s not to go away, it’s an evergreen topic.
Bjork Ostrom: Absolutely.
Chris Badgett: Going evergreen is helpful. Ultimately, you ended up creating food blog or pro?
Bjork Ostrom: Yup.
Chris Badgett: That’s a community for food bloggers, a membership that has courses in it. Where did that come from, in terms of why didn’t you just keep blogging and figuring out how to monetize your blog? Why did you end up also building a community?
Bjork Ostrom: I think the biggest thing was like, the easiest way for us to expand into other areas has been just like keeping our ear to the ground and like what are the consistent rhythms and patterns that we hear and the interactions that we have and then creating a solution for that. It’s like find the need, fill the need. There’s a podcast interview that I did. We have a food blogging podcast, it’s called the Food Blogger Pro podcast. We were interviewing is a couple from Steamy Kitchen, so it’s steamykitchen.com. They were talking about different ways that they are looking to build their business. The phrase they use “find the need, fill the need,” and Scott and Jaden Hair are their names and same thing applies to us. What we did is we had Pinch of Yum that was growing, we’re building that. We heard this consistent rhythm and pattern from people that were asking us questions about really specific things of the blog. How do you do XYZ, like how do you format you’re recipes in a way that they show rich pins on Pinterest, so these really specific niche questions.
It’s like we could create resources within Pinch of Yum and do that, but we were all ready and still do feel a little bit of dissonance with that first and foremost is the food blog and 99% of the people that come there are coming for recipes. If we are starting to inundate that with just like blogging stuff, then it feels like, what is this? The identity is a little bit muddy in terms of understanding truly what it is. It made sense for us to build this other brand and of this other site, and technically a different business that is a kind of a sister business or sister site to Pinch of Yum.
The reason for creating it really came out of hearing this consistent need, and the reason for spinning it off as a separate site was just because we knew we wanted to do it as a membership site. If we want it to give that it’s own personality and brand and presence, then we’d have to separate that so then this could be too clean existences, if that’s the word, on the internet and as brands. They could co-exist and partner, but they’re not the same person, they’re siblings.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. How did you get you’re first people into the community?
Bjork Ostrom: We did a pre-sale three months before we launched the site. Our pre-sale is like this, we had people that followed along on Pinch of Yum that we knew are food bloggers, so that’s where we launched it. We did a launch post and we had three different tiers. I’m not saying this is the best way to do it, but maybe some people will get some ideas from it, it worked okay for us. We pre-sold the one year membership to Food Blogger Pro and we incentivise, the sign ups by having the price increase as it got closer. If you signed up three months in advance, this was before we had a content, before we launched the site, it was $49 for one year. Then, the next month it was $79 and the month after that is $129. We just collected those, we used E-junkie and collected via PayPal so it was a super simple process to collect those payments. When we launched, we emailed those. I think it was maybe a 100-150 people. We emailed about a log in and they jumped in and started to go through the content and be members of the site.
That’s how we started it, launched it. After that, we went to just a straight, open period where people to sign up if they wanted to … We experimented with like a $1 free trial where people could sign up and they could go through a trial. At this point, what we’re doing is we’re doing an enrollment period. We’re like we got to the point where there’s enough people signing up and integrating into the community, asking questions that maybe had been asked before. To us, it felt like kind of disrupting things a little bit, that we wanted to shift away from that and really focus on doing enrollment periods where we’d have this new “class of people” joining. That would end in of itself have more of a rhythm where we could welcome them in and give them attention as they join. The other thing that’s nice about that is that it allows you to have a marketing rhythm. You have these periods where you can really talk openly and consistently about enrollment.
Before it was like, are we always going to push signing up for this, or it wouldn’t make sense to not push to sign up for this much, to offer a free content, to do a podcast. Then occasionally say, “Hey. We’d really love you to sign up for Food Blogger Pro.” That’s what we’re doing at this point and that’s worked really well for us.
Chris Badgett: How many times a year do you open it up for new enrollment?
Bjork Ostrom: We have a waiting list and we do two really big, we call them public enrollments. We talked about it on the podcast. We post on Pinch of Yum. We post about it on Food Blogger Pro. We looped in the affiliates. They do really big promotions. In between those, we do too private enrollments which is a very short window that we offered to people on the waiting list. The reason for that is we don’t know want to inundate the people that aren’t interested with content around Food Blogger Pro, so we do that twice a year. We want to cast that round net occasionally because it’s important to get to people in that aren’t aware of it. We also want to make sure that people that are interested in it and they’re on the waiting list, that they don’t have to wait like six months to get in. That’s why we do those intermediary private enrollment periods just to the waiting list.
Chris Badgett: That makes sense. Is it lifetime access? Or is it ..
Bjork Ostrom: Yup. No, it’s not. That was yup to your question, no as a response. The membership is structured in a way where you can sign up for monthly so it’s $29 a month or yearly $279 a year.
Chris Badgett: Got you. That’s really interesting. How do you keep people engage or how do you build a strong community? If they’re going to be getting monthly billed or yearly billed, what’s your secret sauce to building a strong community based on your experience?
Bjork Ostrom: It’s hard. It’s really hard with content based sites because people aren’t using it as a tool that they hook into their business. Right? It’s not quick books where if you come with that on quick books like that’s a really really big change. With content based stuff, you’re kind of relying on people’s motivation to apply that content. Especially, if you know in our case like we’re sending out a receipt every month and saying, “Hey. We billed you again, like just a reminder.” It’s really easy for people to say, “Oh, I’m not using it. I’m not going to go in and I’m going to cancel.” For sure it’s a difficult thing. Return rate ends up being anywhere depending on the month between monthly and yearly like 10-12%, which is you would probably know better than I would. I would say that’s maybe average.
Chris Badgett: I’m not sure on that one.
Bjork Ostrom: Okay. I’ve heard as high as 20% quoted as the average for return rate, but I also know that in the SAS world like software as the service they would say, “You kind of want to shoot for like three or four percent.” SAS would be more of like the quick books. There’s kind of the same between where if you’re somewhere in between there, you know the 5%-20% for a membership sit, I would assume that’d be pretty good. 20% is kind of hard to maintain because you have so many people leaving every month. Our biggest thing has just been doing whatever we can to provide consistent value towards that the primary questions that people have. We do that in three different ways. The first way is we do a live Q&A every month, then we use CrowdCast to do that. That’s been a really great way to source questions, to do a live Q&A. Every once in a while we’ll invite people on and they get to interact around that live Q&A which has been a great way to do that.
A lot of times we do that on a specific topic and occasionally has special guest on for that. The second thing that we do is I do a once a month Happening Now video. The Happening Now video is a kind of like, if you and I Chris were to be at a coffee shop and you’d be like, “Hey. What’s happening now with your business?” I’d be like, “Here’s a few cool things,” and talk about the stuff that I’ve been doing in the past month.
Chris Badgett: Just in terms of the Pinch of Yum site.
Bjork Ostrom: Both. I think people are interested in both. Right? If we do a marketing campaign for a Food Blogger Pro, even though it’s talking about the site that they are a part of, I think people can get a lot out of that.
Chris Badgett: It’s behind the scenes like this is what’s happening.
Bjork Ostrom: Exactly. An example would be something as simple as I talked about using a new like screen capture tool. I talked about how I’m using that, or maybe how I’m using like videos to communicate better with teams, or talking about like when we started using slack. We talked about that. Also, bigger picture things like, “Hey. There’s this really big change for SEO that impacts rest of your blogs,” or like, “Here’s an advertising change that we made.” Super small things, but as you and I know like as business owners, when we have those coffee shop conversations, a lot of times those are the things that are like, make a huge impact on the business. Right?
Chris Badgett: Super reliable. Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: They’re super valuable and it’s just a snippet of information. This is opening up that opportunity for people that don’t usually have that opportunity, because they don’t have people that they sit down with at coffee shop. You’ve been doing this for a number of years. You have connections. You know that you could maybe pin somebody on email or slack or jump on a call. If you’re just getting started out though, you probably don’t have those connections. This is a way to do like a virtual coffee shop conversation with people. That’s the Happening Now course. Then we do a course like an actual course that we do once a month. That’s ten to upwards of 20 videos that are three to five minutes long focusing on a wide range of topics. Right now, we’re focusing in on video. As you know, if you scroll through video, you see these like videos of just how to make cheese hotdog rings. It’s Buzzfeed doing like this viral video on cheesy hotdog, pretzel rings that you can feed your dog.
That’s a really important thing for bloggers both on Instagram and Facebook that we’re focusing in on that. How do you create those videos? We have somebody on our team that is shooting those and editing those. She’s taking on those courses, communicating our process along the way. That’s the other way that we add value and help people stick around. A couple little snippets for people to take away, we always include the upcoming content in the emails that we send to people, letting them know that they they’re charged. Like, “Hey. Just a reminder, you’re charged today. Here’s the upcoming courses that we have. The three next things as well as the three past things.” It’s a link to those, just so people know that type of content that we’re producing as a reminder here’s the value and here’s where you can get that.
Then we also have that on the accounts page. When people got to the accounts page, managing their membership information they have, upcoming content as well as the past content that’s been delivered. I think that’s a valuable thing for people to consume and to be aware of especially in this context when it’s content based stuff that requires people to consume the content in order to get value from it.
Chris Badgett: Thanks for that, Bjork. That’s a goldmine of value there in terms of how to create reccuring value in a content based business. It’s not about crossing your fingers with a lifetime membership, hoping people don’t turn or unsubscribe or cancel their membership. That’s like a real strategy to add occurring, repeatable value every single month with a system, but you’re not necessarily doing it all alone. Just to reiterate that’s a live what I call office hours type monthly want the many call and then you have a new course every month and then you have behind the scenes which is I like that, that’s a really unique one behind the scenes video content.
Bjork Ostrom: It’s super simple. It’s like 10-20 minutes long. People can’t see this because it’s a podcast, but it’s like you and me here chatting, except that I’m just chatting to the screen and such a little image of me and then a recording on my screen. We use screen flow for that to record that super sleek and it’s a fun thing to put together. A good thing for me to do every once month to like review like, “Hey. What are the things that we’re doing and implementing and making sure that we’re staying on top of that so we have stuff that we can communicate to people?”
Chris Badgett: On this podcast, we have over a hundred episodes here at LMScast. I could literally never run out of things to talk about relating to…
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, for sure.
Chris Badgett: … courses and membership sites. If I’m a course creator and I’m now considering, “Okay. If I’m going to launch a new course every month,” that’s a little more challenging. I mean it could be a lot of lessons.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. For sure.
Chris Badgett: How do you A, not run out of ideas for new courses and B, how do you choose what to do next for the monthly new course?
Bjork Ostrom: I think our niche is a little bit interesting because we’ll never run out of ideas for a course. Since in what we’re doing is we’re taking all of the different elements of building a business online and like re-scheming it and applying it to …
Chris Badgett: Your niche.
Bjork Ostrom: … It’s niche. Right. Like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, accounting, SEO, all of those things can be applied to our niche and realistically are very different. It’s not like we’re just replacing food blog whenever we say blog, or very specific things that you would differently than you would with like a normal generic content site. In some ways, it’s a little bit easier for us because that type of content will never run out. Important thing for me has been, I don’t want to pretend to be an expert on everything. It’s not like I don’t want to get to the point where I’m learning something in order to teach it. There are times where we bring in people that have an expertise in a certain course or that have an expertise in a certain subject that then teach that course. Sometimes what we’ll do is we’ll even lease a course, like somebody might have a course that exist somewhere else like on another course site or maybe they have their own site that they have this course that lives under.
What we’ll do is we’ll lease that knowing that it’s not like we’re stealing customers from them because people that we’re serving wouldn’t go to them probably. Then we pay them usually a yearly recurring fee, whatever that might be, a $100, $200 to have this course that we then have internally within our content on a specific subject. An example would be active campaign which is the mail service provider we use. I know enough to do what we need to do within it but I’m not going to be able to teach people on it. It wouldn’t make sense for me to learn that and then apply it. Our niche is a little bit unique and that we can always have this unending supply of content. In terms of deciding what’s next, it’s that you’d be the ground thing. It’s what are people requesting and where it’s the need. We hear that through the forum.
We have a forum where people interact in a community. We’re able to not formally, like we’re not taking a survey every month, it’s just naturally like anything. If the Minnesota Twins are doing really well, you start to hear people talk about it and that conversation bubbles up and you’re like, “Oh. Lot’s of people are interested in Minnesota Twins.” Term or analogy but if lots of people are talking about rest of people against on the Food Blogger Pro forum, we know that there is something there and that people are interested in that. There’s a need because that’s naturally what rises to the top conversationally so then we address that need by creating content around that if possible.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Just to give people an idea, there are people out there that licensed their courses. For example, Shawn from WP101, you can license his course on WordPress Basics. It’s phenomenal. He keeps it up to date. Every time there’s a new release of WordPress, we actually licensed his course WP101. We have a free WordPress Basics course on our site. I know a lot about WordPress but I didn’t have to create that course because Shawn has the best course out there. He has a licensing deal, it’s all automated. You go buy, you get the videos and then you’re off to the race.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: I think that’s such a big take away to not do it alone.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s been a huge part for us. I would in the last year and a half, the biggest thing for us has been building out a team which is easier said than done. There’s a point where people are just happy to be creating an income from what they’re doing, but naturally what will happen is you’ll continue to build on that. As you improve, you’ll naturally more things to do then more successful you are. I would encourage people as quickly as possible to figure out ways. It doesn’t have to be full time, but even to bring somebody in ten hours a week. Maybe it’s somebody that’s their primary job or interest is staying at home with their kids, but they have ten hours a week over nap time or after kids go to bed to dedicate to helping out with some stuff.
You’re able to bring this person on to help manage whatever would be; customer support, social media, things like that. As quickly as you can, I would encourage people to get to what their salary equivalent would be, and then don’t spend above and beyond that, but then put back into the business in order to grow. It’ll be a huge thing and sustainability is important in this industry as we talked about at the beginning. That’s one of the best ways to continue to do what you’re doing, to sustain yourself is to build the team around what you’re doing.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely. Let me ask you a question around community. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that “people come for the content but they stay for the community.”
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Yeah.
Chris Badgett: It sounds like you have a forum. What else do you do to foster a community? Do you have a Facebook group, maybe other things?
Bjork Ostrom: e don’t have a Facebook group. We did for a while and it was kind of sharing Facebook group, so like people would share content. They wanted other people to share and you know, I scratch your back, you scratch mine. What we realize is it got too much to manage. We wanted to house everything in one area and really focus in on that. The form that we have is on Food Blogger Pro, it’s not a different site, it’s not a Facebook group. The other thing that allows us to do is to use that content to build the community stronger. For example, there might be a long conversation thread on somebody that’s starting to do video and ways that they’ve been able do that successfully. If that left within Facebook, it’s a little bit harder to bubble that content back up or define that content or really to internally share it. We’ve really focused in on growing the community just on Food Blogger Pro, not in other places.
The ways that we do that and the ways that we’re really within the community is, we have somebody on staff that manages the form full time. Laxa is awesome and is really focused on how do we focus in on this community, make sure that everybody is good in the questions answered, that they need answered. Her like supporting cast is what we call the Food Blogger Pro experts. We have we call the panel of people that work in a specific industry and are either in entrepreneur that have been in business, solopreneurs, industry experts, consultants that would have some type of invested interest in conducting with people in our industry, and also, potentially have some time that they can dedicate to helping the communities. Casey Markee for example. He’s an SEO professional. He comes in and he answers questions specific that people have about SEO.
We have somebody that focuses on design and development. Lauren comes in and she answers questions that people have about the WordPress designer plugin problem that they’re having. If people are interested in working with her, they go to her site which is onescup.com. They worked with her in kind of support or IT role. That’s been a really big shift that we’ve had as well and a big movement for me away from being the expert. One of the things I realize is like I can’t be the expert on everything, especially if were going to get to a growth point where I’m investing in our employees and our staff as opposed to continuing to be the expert on every same things. That’s been a really important shift that we had within the past year and a half.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well lot’s of great takeaways, Bjork. If you guys are listening, you want to hear more about this and see what’s going on here, go to pinchofyum.com, that’s the blog and then check out the membership site which is called foodbloggerpro.com. If anybody wants to connect with you or find out more, where else can they get in touch with you, Bjork?
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. I’m not active on Twitter but I see replies. If somebody wants to tweet at me it’s Bjork Ostrom and that would probably the best way. Just open up a conversation there and love to connect.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, thank you for coming on the show. I really appreciate you sharing so much. Thanks for being a shining example of how to put in the hard yards, do the work and then build a team and build a strong community in online education business. It’s awesome.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Thanks, Chris. Super fun to chat.

EPISODE 118

Tin Can API, eLearning Authoring Tools, LRS, H5P, and More with Dennis Hall’s LifterLMS xAPI

This information-packed episode of LMScast features Chris Badgett of codeBOX discussing Tin Can API, eLearning authoring tools, LRS, H5P, and more with Dennis Hall of Learning Templates, who’s also created the LifterLMS xAPI.

If you’re not technically inclined you’ll still find this discussion informative and easy to understand. You’ll get answers to some basic questions, especially if you want to understand the scope of what LifterLMS xAPI does. Dennis starts with an explanation of what an API is and what it’s for. Basically Tin Can API, the Experience API, and xAPI are all names for the same thing. It’s simply a tool that connects things together.

If you’re new to LifterLMS, it’s a WordPress plugin that makes it easy to create, sell, and protect your online courses. The LifterLMS xAPI is an add-on for your WordPress site that gives you even more functionality. It also removes the need for a programmer to set up the API for you, allowing you to create your learning products and generate reporting with no programming skills required.

Dennis fills in some history on SCORM – the Shareable Content Object Reusability Model – and why it’s being replaced by the xAPI. He tells how xAPI and LifterLMS integrate to access eLearning services, and use communication channels in ways that save bandwidth for mobile devices because a lot of students use those to access your courses.

You’ll learn the difference between a Learning Management System (LMS) and a Learning Record Store (LRS), what their functions are, and how xAPI handles information privacy. Chris and Dennis explain competencies and activities beginning with measurable learning objectives for your curriculum, and how all of that gets reported. And LifterLMS is now the only WordPress-based Learning Management System that supports CASS competency analysis.

LifterLMS xAPI is also able to work with H5P content, giving you rich, visual, web-based, interactive content for your course, lessons, or quizzes. You’ll also get a quick overview of eLearning authoring tools and how they integrate with LifterLMS xAPI. By getting the most out of Tin Can API, eLearning authoring tools, LRS, H5P, and more with Dennis Hall’s LifterLMS xAPI, he has solved a lot of problems and provided new integrations and additional features.

Post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us.

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and today I’m joined by special guest Dennis Hall from Learning Templates, creator of the incredible LifterLMS xAPI plugin, a companion to LifterLMS that we’re going to get into in this episode. First, Dennis, thanks for coming on the show.
Dennis Hall: Thanks, Chris. Nice to be here.
Chris Badgett: LifterLMS xAPI does a lot of different things, and I really wanted to take the opportunity to talk with you and get some answers to some pretty basic questions for people first coming across this, or for people trying to understand the full scope of what LifterLMS xAPI does. A lot of people listening to this episode already know what LifterLMS is, but in case you’re new, LifterLMS is a WordPress plugin that makes it easy to create, sell, and protect engaging online courses. LifterLMS xAPI is an add-on that you can add to your WordPress site that gives even more functionality, and quite frankly a lot more power and functionality to the core feature set of LifterLMS.
Let’s start at the beginning, Dennis, what is xAPI? Which is also known as the Experience API, and also known as the Tin Can API. If someone came up to you on the street and said what is that, how do you explain it?
Dennis Hall: What xAPI is, or Tin Can, as it’s most commonly referred to, a little history…Tin Can was the original project name that ADL, Advanced Distributed Learning organization, the U.S. government subsidiary. Tin Can was the name of the project that was given to a company called Rustici, who are the owners of SCORM.com, which I’m sure a lot of people are aware of over the years. Tin Can is just a nickname, in reality. It’s kind of stuck with it, but xAPI is the Experience API. You’re correct.
What xAPI is, it is exactly what they say, an API, meaning an application programmer’s interface. The wonderful thing about it is those of us who have developed things against xAPI have taken the programmers out of it. We’ve given you an API where you fill in some information, and that populates the information to be sent to servers and to be transmitted around the world, and to be communicated between you and your course, as well as your Learning Management System and your course. We’ve taken the technical programmer part out of it all, and made it much easier for the end user, the person who has no programmatic skills, to be able to focus on the job that they are good at doing, which is creating their learning products, and generating reporting output that makes sense to them.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. You mentioned the word SCORM, and my understanding is SCORM is something that’s dying, or phasing out, being replaced by the xAPI, as the new standard or whatever. For those who are looking at SCORM, or still using SCORM, can you talk about how that’s going away, or what’s new, and how people can think about it? You hear these words, SCORM, and Tin Can, or xAPI sometimes side by side but help us understand the difference.
Dennis Hall: Sure, to understand the difference you have to kind of have been in the industry since the onset of this. Back about ’95, we all started talking about and beginning to work with a specification called AICC. This was the Aviation Industry specification for reporting course materials and reusing courses amongst different platforms. The idea was you could have one course sitting on one server, and you could have many different Learning Management Systems connect to it, and be able to have those users of those Learning Management Systems use that content.
That kind of brought in what we call the SCO, back then though they called it an AU, and Assignable Unit, in reality. An AU was also a kind of file that you configured for AICC to work, but the beauty of it is that you could cross domains in the internet. That really was beneficial, but AICC, from a reporting, or a granular reporting perspective, it just didn’t have enough giddy up to really turn people on enough to go for it. Then came SCORM.
If you recall, I mentioned the shareable content part of AICC, well that got carried into SCORM. SCORM is an acronym for Shareable Content Object Reusability Model, and what that kind of means is that everything in your course is an object, and because it’s in your course, and your course is being used, it’s shareable content, because it’s being used amongst different people. You’re not giving a physical course to each person. You’re hosting it centrally, and having a bunch of users connect to your LMS and use it. It’s shareable.
What is sad about SCORM is one of the first things that ever went away were that AICC model, where you could connect from your domain to another domain, and use the course in the other domain. SCORM lost that right away, and that forced everybody to take that shareable content, and start distributing it amongst all the different LMSes to be used locally. This was a problem for people who wanted to centrally host courses and resell them to different platforms, but it was something, I’m not going to say become liked it. People just succumbed to it, and accepted it for what it was.
That was the problem with SCORM, is that throughout the years it went through four evolutions, and in those four evolutions, essentially people just became more and more apt to succumb to the lesser abilities, let’s call them. SCORM kind of got milked down so much. It’s not uncommon for somebody to expect, Dennis Hall completed course A. Dennis Hall scored 55% on exam A. That was kind of it. ELearning really took a big hit, because eLearning could do so much more, but SCORM was basically killing it.
Then through the different iterations of SCORM, things tended to become more broken. Even to the point where by the third edition of SCORM, if you made a big enough course you could never get a completed on the course, because there was so much information being sent to the LMS, and the LMS wasn’t able to handle it all, so it was losing data. Essentially, in large courses, people weren’t completing courses. I myself have been an instructional designer and courseware developer through this whole evolution. I’ve seen it grow from day one, from the beginning of AICC, even beforehand to be honest. It just got more and more broken as things got along.
Like I say, the only thing that kept it going was the fact that people were expecting less and less, and their expectations were lowered quite a bit. More than a year ago now, the ADL, various working groups, I’m in three of them. I’m in the xAPI working group, as well as the cmi5 working group, as well as the CASS working group. In two of those, xAPI and cmi5, I’m one of the contributing authors to that. There are a number of us in there including Learning Management System vendors who are all in there.
What we’re trying to do in the xAPI working group is we’ve created a specification for the xAPI to be able to send and receive data. We’ve created rules. What type of data? What format of data? What format of information? What kind of details should be in the information? This sort of thing. In the cmi5 working group, what cmi5 is, it is a layer on top of xAPI, that compliments xAPI, and applies a set of rules to Learning Management Systems to be able to use xAPI effectively. It basically determines, for example, what format should the AU, the Assignable Unit, which Assignable Unit kind of means the course. What format of the information should be in the course, and how should the Learning Management System read it?
That’s all the technical stuff. That’s out of the way. Bottom line is though, the announcement that SCORM was no longer being supported, it doesn’t mean that it’s dead. It simply means it’s not going to evolve, and grow anymore. That happened a little over a year ago that that announcement was made. At that time, xAPI had been gearing up for about two years prior to. At that time xAPI was announced as the replacement for SCORM.
Chris Badgett: Got you.
Dennis Hall: The beautiful thing about xAPI is that what you had in AICC, what you lost in SCORM, you’ve now regained with even tons more information in xAPI. That’s the whole history in a nutshell.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. You’ve been along for the ride through all that, so that brings a lot of depth of knowledge and experience there, in seeing where things have been, and where they’re headed, where the opportunities are, where the problems are.
Dennis Hall: Yeah, you’re right. What’s important, a key word there is where the problems are. What is really important to understand about implementing xAPI is to understand what your objectives are when implementing it. When you want to use xAPI do you have a valid reason? Are you doing it just because it’s the latest greatest thing? That’s not really a good reason. Are you doing it because SCORM is failing you? That’s a better reason. It’s an important reason, but is it still going to serve your needs?
Another thing with xAPI, something that we’re seeing a lot of is eLearning implementations. The thing with eLearning is that unlike LifterLMS, LifterLMS the content’s in the website, where eLearning, the content can be anywhere in the world, as I mentioned with the AICC being brought into Tin Can. What’s really important to understand about that is that here you are. You’re on your mobile device, an iPad, for example. I wouldn’t do learning on a cell phone, but some people might, even. Let’s say you’re on your iPad, there are rules related to browsers in mobile devices.
As an example, when you open up a video in a mobile device it never automatically plays. You always have to tap it to play it. That’s a rule that’s built into all mobile devices, and this is because mobile devices by default will not stream two channels of information simultaneously. They’ll only connect to one thing, and use it, until you intentionally tap something to make it connect to the other thing. Then, it’ll stop communicating with the first thing. They do that intentionally, because the mobile developers have been trying to save bandwidth usage for their users, so they don’t clock up gigabytes of data usage every month. That is the design.
LifterLMS doesn’t have a problem out of the box, because everything’s native in LifterLMS. You’re using one communication channel. As soon as you open up an eLearning course within LifterLMS, your mobile device has to make a choice: eLearning or Lifter? The end. When you tap the eLearning to get it started, you’ve made the choice for the device, and it can communicate to the Learning Management System. Excuse me, it won’t communicate to the Learning Management System.
It’ll communicate to a database called a Learning Record Store. In my case, the ones that I implement, they’re high performance databases. They’re designed to be 8,000 times faster than your typical WordPress database. That is what I provide as a service as well. It’s really critical when you’ve got 100 users that are constantly streaming data in and out of the database, as well as people trying to run reports off the database at the same time. You need the performance. You need the speed, especially when crunching reports.
Chris Badgett: Got you. I just want to say what LifterLMS xAPI does at a high level, and then let’s get into unpacking more of these bits and pieces that people need to understand to see if it’s a good fit for you or not. LifterLMS API makes it possible for you to integrate LifterLMS with an xAPI or Tin Can service. You can manage your LifterLMS competencies and activities, your H5P content, as well as uploaded and linked Articulate, Captivate, or Lectora eLearning course activities. Those are those external courses that Dennis was talking about there.
LifterLMS xAPI does a lot. You may only need certain pieces of this, or you may need it all. You may need everything, and you’re really going big with your eLearning. Circling back to what you were just talking about, Dennis, LifterLMS is a Learning Management System. As you helped me understand, it’s a LCMS, a Learning Content Management System as well.
Dennis Hall: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: WordPress is a content management system. What is the big difference between an LMS, and an LRS? A Learning Management System versus a Learning Record Store?
Dennis Hall: Good question. A Learning Management System is a system that encompasses everything to do with your users, everything to do with your registrations, everything to do with scheduling, if you’ve got that, and everything to do with serving content to those users based on a set of rules. A Learning Record Store is primarily a database. It’s a place that you send data to. Some Learning Record Stores have reporting ability built into them, where others don’t. There are certain ones that can and can’t provide reports, but that’s all it is. A Learning Record Store is simply that.
However, what happens as the forward facing part of the Learning Record Store is that it receives xAPI data, and it interprets it, and then it stores it appropriately based on how in interpreted the data strings. We won’t get into that technical stuff, but it’s actually you’re sending strings of information to the server, the server interprets, oh I see this, I should put it here. I see that I should put it there. The end.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, and if you’re new to the technical jargon, that’s one of the ways I like to first explain the concept of an API. It’s kind of like a pipe that connects things together.
Dennis Hall: It is.
Chris Badgett: It’s sort of like connecting your LifterLMS site to a Learning Record Store. That pipe is the Tin Can API.
Dennis Hall: That’s correct. One of the things LifterLMS xAPI does is it prepackages everything that the user’s doing, and it prepackages it in an xAPI format, and it sends it to the Learning Record Store, which then unpackages it and reads that information, and stores it in the appropriate location. It is important to understand, by the way, all the data being sent across is encrypted.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, privacy is a big deal. I think one of the things that really helped me understand the difference between a LRS and an LMS too is that an LRS may be receiving data from multiple Learning Management Systems. You may be getting data from some course platform over here. It might be Lifter powered. Something else over here. Whoever owns the LRS for some kind of degree program, or certification, or training objective, the data can be coming in from all kinds of different places.
Dennis Hall: That’s right. You really need a high performance server to handle it all. One other thing to mention, since you were just on that subject … Sorry, go ahead. I lost my train of thought there.
Chris Badgett: In terms of LifterLMS xAPI, I know when you first set it up it asks you which Learning Record Store, or LRS do you want to use, and you’ve got one that you have in there that you recommend, or people could sent it to a different one of their choice. Is that right? Can you help us understand the options around that?
Dennis Hall: Yeah. One of the things with the xAPI’s standard. It is a standard that allows you to connect to any Learning Record Store that is xAPI compliant. In the case of Tin Can, of LifterLMS xAPI, I do have a special key added into mine, so it is best suited to work with the Learning Locker Learning Record Story system. Learning Locker is a project that I’ve done minor development in with that company as well, and it is an open source project out on GitHub. However, the server that Learning Locker sits on is a very, very important architecture that helps Learning Locker to work as fast as it can.
There are a number of other companies out there that do also host their own Learning Record Stores. SCORM.com itself hosts one. There is Saltbox. There is a number of different companies out there. When you connect LifterLMS xAPI to any of those Learning Record Stores, you will need to contact them, because they’ll have to provide you a key separately, much like the user key that is setup in mine. If you go with a Learning Locker provider, then that key will be provided to you as part of the package already. You don’t need to worry about converting, or trying to figure out how to ask them for the key.
There are three pieces of encrypted information typically associated with the Learning Locker setup. One is the LRS key that I just described. The other is your LRS user key, your username, excuse me. Then you’ve got your LRS password. What you receive as LRS key, LRS username, and LRS password already pre-encrypted information. They won’t look like your username or your password. These get repackaged again into further encrypted data. We encrypt the encryptions, and we send that optimized server, or any Learning Locker server, or any Learning Locker type server, let’s say.
Chris Badgett: What about, if we’re sending data over the pipe, what is a LifterLMS competency and activity? These are some types of things that we can communicate to our LRS through the API. What are competencies and activities?
Dennis Hall: Good question. It’d be better probably to start with a learning objective. What is a learning objective? For people who have been developing courses over the years, they understand that learning objectives are statements that define the expected goal of a curriculum, or a module, even, or a course, or a lesson, in terms of demonstrateable skills, or knowledge that will be acquired by the student as a result of the instruction in the lesson, course or module.
Learning objectives are also known as instructional objectives. They can also be known as learning outcomes. In fact, I hear them quite often as learning outcomes more than learning objectives. It seems like a nicer name I think. Another name for them is learning goals. I’ve heard many people call them that. Learning objectives describe what the learner should be able to achieve at the end of this module, for example, and they should be specific. They should be measurable as well. They should be measurable statements written in behavioral terms.
Chris Badgett: What does that mean, behavioral terms?
Dennis Hall: Behavioral terms, an example might be, that is how I was able to identify bacteria, or that sort of thing. Those are learning objectives. Why have I brought that up first? Because the learning objective is one piece of the foundation. The other piece of the foundation is the competency, which will directly relate to the learning objectives. Competency is the capability to apply or use a set of related knowledge, and skills, or abilities. Otherwise known in the industry as KSAs, which you may have heard of. Knowledge, skills, abilities, those create a competency.
Now, once you have your knowledge, skills, and abilities in a row, related to a competency, then what happens is that you should be able to successfully perform the critical work functions to complete that learning objective. I don’t necessarily want to talk about tasks, about physical tasks, but one thing about xAPI is that it doesn’t restrict you to eLearning only. There are apps out there that are xAPI enabled on phones. I kind of joke around saying someday there might be a record in a Learning Record Store that might say Dennis Hall visited the top of Mount Everest. That might be because-
Chris Badgett: Because of the geolocator in the phone?
Dennis Hall: That’s right. I went to the top of Mount Everest, and tapped my phone saying I’m here, and when I tapped it it stored an xAPI record, because there was no cell coverage. When I came down off the top of Mount Everest, it connected to the nearest cell tower, connected to my Learning Record Store, and submitted that data. That’s a native function of xAPI.
Chris Badgett: Very cool.
Dennis Hall: Record stores. That’s something SCORM cannot do, by the way. If you attempt to do that in SCORM, you’ll be dead in the water from the start.
Chris Badgett: Got you. You can send data to your LRS about what people are doing with LifterLMS courses, or lessons, or quiz questions, and these sorts of things, and you can also create competencies that fulfill some kind of learning objective, and pass that data through the API as well.
Dennis Hall: That is what we do. There’s been a couple of fallbacks to xAPI. THey’re not bad things. It’s just that they’re things that surprise people. They’re not used to it. xAPI can send a lot of data. It can fill up your database pretty fast if you let it. What’s important to understand is that you get a lot more data than you did with SCORM. Secondly, xAPI data, out-of-box, xAPI data can look a little bit cryptic. You’re going to see Dennis Hall experienced this eLearning. It’s like okay, well the whole idea behind xAPI is to say the actor did something. Dennis Hall experienced this eLearning. Dennis Hall being the actor, the verb being experienced, this eLearning being the object that he experienced. Sorry, talking about myself in third party. I’ve lost it.
What I’ve done, Dennis Hall experienced this eLearning, it’s just a bit too, let’s call it out there. What would you say if you had completed a specific learning objective in an eLearning course, wouldn’t you rather see something like Chris completed this eLearning, or module one, or Chris was able to complete question three, or this sort of thing. What I’ve done in LifterLMS xAPI is I’ve taken the competency, and assigned it to that learning object, so now when you run a report in the Experience API reports, raw statements we call them, will come out, and by default the ADL verb will be sitting behind the learning object, so when you click on the learning object in a report it’s going to come back and say here’s the ADL verb per course.
What I’ve done is I’ve remapped the information, so that in LifterLMS xAPI, what happens is if you click on the name of the learning object that’s being reported, it will actually map you or redirect you to the competency that you’ve created in LifterLMS. Now you can take a competency, and you can assign it specifically to the start page of a LifterLMS course, to lesson one of a LifterLMS course, to quiz one of a LifterLMS course, or even to question one of a LifterLMS course. Whenever people read a report, they’re going to have a clickable item, and that clickable item will be the name of what the person experienced, the learning object the person experienced.
When they click on the name in a report, it’s going to come up and say, here’s the competency that was associated with it. Otherwise, the only other alternative is to send you off to the ADL server, and you’re going to see what is the definition of course. That’s one of the drawbacks so far, but it’s not a drawback with the specification. It’s simply a drawback with the application of the specification. What I’ve done in LifterLMS as far as I’m concerned is best practice where I’ve directly linked the competency to the learning object.
Chris Badgett: Nice job solving that problem.
Dennis Hall: Yeah, I’ve been, by the way, also given you the ability to rename that experienced item. You can rename it to whatever you want. Dennis Hall jumped off a cliff. Done. As long as you have a learning object called a cliff, and you have a competency saying well I guess he died, whatever the case be. You can put whatever you want, and you can put it in any language you want.
That’s another key thing is the Experience API out-of-box, although the verbs are very flexible, if you use it directly out-of-box you have to assign a language to it. As you know, in WordPress you can have multi-lingual sites, so in that particular case you can actually create a new course in LifterLMS, and you can map new lessons to it in the different languages, and use those same competencies in different languages, because WordPress can serve competencies separately in different languages.
Chris Badgett: Awesome.
Dennis Hall: The course itself may have to, the lesson may have to get redone, but the competency can be translated in WordPress, dynamically.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. We’re still not even half way through it.
Dennis Hall: No.
Chris Badgett: That’s amazing, and LifterLMS xAPI does a lot. It opens up the door to a lot of avenues. That reporting piece, and the customized view of that is really incredible, and matters to people who want really advanced reporting, and a focus on this type of competency-based learning.
Dennis Hall: That’s it. Competency-based learning is evidentiary learning. That’s what’s really most important about it. If you want your course to be meaningful, and you want to be able to prove that it’s meaningful, set this up, use competencies. They become the documentation to prove the skills, the knowledge, and the ability of the user.
Chris Badgett: I like that.
Dennis Hall: Another thing, earlier I had forgotten my train of thought. I did want to make mention, one of the specifications with xAPI is that the learner owns their data. What’s important to understand about this is that everything I do in a LifterLMS Learning Management System, the administrator at the moment of the system has to be able to export my information out, specifically. Now, it’s all fine that you see Dennis Hall experienced eLearning. That’s not very useful information to a human resources person receiving your XML file, which by the way would be filled with hyperlinks back to the original content, and back to the competency.
LifterLMS is now the only Learning Management System that’s WordPress based that supports CASS competency analysis. What’s really important to understand about this is that when Dennis Hall, or Chris, basically quit their job and say, hey HR give me my learning records, when HR gives them their learning records in an Excel spreadsheet, now Dennis Hall takes this to the new company and basically says, oh you want to know what my competencies are. Here they are, in my Excel spreadsheet. Please import them into your system, so that my human resources information can be updated properly.
It’s actually a key takeaway, and the reason for this is because the U.S. military has this guidance, or this push going on, so that when their people leave the military, they get equivalencies, or college credits, if you wish, and those have to be applicable so you can be …
Chris Badgett: So their records are portable.
Dennis Hall: That’s correct. In fact, with xAPI that’s the rule, not an option. It’s the rule. The owner owns their data. Now, in this particular version of LifterLMS xAPI I don’t have a front-end data export, so the learner won’t be able to get their own data, so for now they’ll have to ask the administrator. However, I do have a number of planned releases in the future with LifterLMS xAPI, and one of those planned releases are to have front-end shortcodes so the user can get their own data, leaderboards, this sort of thing.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. LifterLMS xAPI also introduces the ability to work with H5P content. I’ve been aware of H5P for a couple years now, and my understanding of it is it’s an open source project where you can create these incredibly rich web based, interactive things. It’s very visual. The place I’m drawn to when I think about it is using it for some quizzing, like with really advanced graphics, and non-linear learning situations where you can end up in all kinds of different places. Tell us more about what H5P is in your experience, and how it works with LifterLMS xAPI.
Dennis Hall: Yeah, not a problem. First off, H5P is a non-SCORM, I would put. It is xAPI only, or nothing. You can already use H5P content in LifterLMS, but it’s not going to report anything if you use the content alone. However, what I’ve done with LifterLMS xAPI is I’ve packed, and even preconfigured your H5P xAPI connector in my plugin. When you install my plugin, it’s an optional install of their H5P plugin, but when you install their H5P plugin from mine, I actually preconfigure everything for you so you have nothing to setup. You just install it and you’re done. It works out of the box. Beyond that, as well, I also have a lightbox plugin which I’ll explain later.
The H5P content itself, what H5P Content is, and that’s the name of their plugin, by the way H5P Content. Pretty straightforward. I don’t package that plugin with mine. I only package the connector, and you can actually just do a search in the WordPress plugins directory. In your plugins page you would simply click add new. You’d be immediately taken to the WordPress repository or plugins. You would do a search for H5P. In searching for it the first thing that comes up is H5P Content. You’ll install it. Once you install it you then have a bunch of libraries available, and the libraries, there’s about somewhere in the area of 50 or 60 different libraries that they carry.
Each library is a type of interaction that you can do with H5P products. The content type products that they present you with, there’s tons. There’s image, do hotspots over images, do drag and drop over images, do hotspots over videos, do drag and drop over videos. Basically you can get the idea that the object would be the video, or the image, and the interaction they provide you might be drag and drop, hotspot, multiple choice, pick one, you name it. There’s just tons and tons of different ones. They create very rich interactive content to be used in a LifterLMS course, lesson, quiz, or question, just like my LifterLMS xAPI connects to.
In doing this, when you use LifterLMS xAPI, once you create that content and those interactions using H5P, which is a very simple, intuitive interface, by the way. Actually I drool over it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful product. Once you’ve created that, and it’s in your course, lesson, quiz, or question, it will automatically just start communicating xAPI. With my LifterLMS xAPI, at that point you have a couple of choices. You can turn on or off every single course, lesson, quiz, or question in LifterLMS. You can turn off the xAPI reporting.
Let’s say that I have an H5P content sitting on my course page of LifterLMS for course one, I may only want to report the H5P content, so at that point I simply would turn off the xAPI for the course, but the H5P content will still travel.
Chris Badgett: Report.
Dennis Hall: It will still report. Same thing can happen later on, I’ll explain, with eLearning. Let’s say lesson one in the course has a bunch of learning objectives, and such, and it has no other content. It’s pure LifterLMS content. I may want to turn on xAPI reporting for that, and assign a competency to that as well.
Chris Badgett: You can mix and match.
Dennis Hall: Absolutely. In lesson one, for example, I can turn on xAPI reporting for that, assign a competency to it, as well as apply my own custom verb within the content of lesson one. I can embed an H5P interaction, and I can embed as many eLearning interactions as I wish.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Let’s get into eLearning a little bit, because I think this is kind of confusing for some people. LifterLMS, without all of this, you’re working with lessons, which are kind of like WordPress posts. You can put videos in there. You can embed Vimeo videos, Wistia videos, Youtube videos, you can put text, images, whatever you can think of that you can put on a regular webpage, you can put in a LifterLMS lesson.
Dennis Hall: Correct.
Chris Badgett: In the eLearning community, there are some different types of tools out there, and one of the things that I find, just as being a member of the community is there are these people called instructional designers out there, and a lot of them, they’re coming to WordPress, and LifterLMS later, they’re more focused on building eLearning with authoring tools like Articulate, Captive, Lectora, these tools.
What you’ve done is, if somebody builds an eLearning module, which we’ll go over in a little bit, and they want to stick that in a course, or stick that in a lesson, or stick that in a quiz, you can also mix and match with that as well, or have that be the entire course, is this other content, and it’s going to talk through the xAPI. Can you give us a lightening fast tour Dennis of eLearning authoring tools, and how they integrate with LifterLMS xAPI?
Dennis Hall: Yes, the key being xAPI. That is the point of integration. With LifterLMS what I’ve done is I’ve created a form that allows you to either upload your xAPI published, or your Tin Can published eLearning project.
Chris Badgett: You can upload that directly to your WordPress website.
Dennis Hall: That’s correct. You can upload it directly to your WordPress website, or if you wish to run it off a different web server, you can link to it from your website. There’s advantages to doing it either way. For example, if your LifterLMS website, if you want to keep it light and airy, so light and speedy, and fast, and quick for everyone, that’s one of the reasons why I offshore the database, so to speak. I don’t mean offshore literally. I mane that’s why the database isn’t sitting in LifterLMS.
Chris Badgett: The LRS is somewhere else.
Dennis Hall: That’s right. That’s because if we start piling 9,000 records a day into LifterLMS, you’re going to need a bigger server real soon. It is best practice to use a surrogate server for that. I create that service. eLearning, in LifterLMS, excuse me, you have the ability to turn on or turn off reporting of anything that you want granularly. In eLearning you don’t have that choice, unfortunately. What’s going to happen is, as an example in Storyline, hitting page one of your course, it’s going to send two records. The first record saying the course was entered. The second record saying the start page was entered.
You’re going to get a ton of data whether you want it or not, and unfortunately we don’t have control over the way those companies have developed their product. Not without becoming a programmer, and going in and programmatically adding or removing things. We don’t want that, do we? What we want is we want a person to simply upload their course and get it done, the end. In Lifter I give you the granular ability, but in those courses we can’t do that. What you can do is, you can at least turn off your Lifter reporting for that particular course, lesson, quiz, or question that you’ve uploaded a eLearning course into.
The operation of uploading a course is one thing. What’s really cool about the way I’ve done this, by the way, I do smart disk management for the courses. If you upload a course called my favorite course one into LifterLMS, I put it in your uploads folder, in a specific folder called courses, and I always watch that folder. If you later come and update my favorite course one, and call it my favorite course two, what’s going to happen is when you go in to update the course, I’m going to remove all the files, and the folder from my favorite course one, and replace that for my favorite course two, because you’re updating. If you add a new one you can call the new one my favorite course one again if you want.
Then when you delete a course, I delete the course for you as well. You have nothing to do behind the scenes. Everything is done within the update panel, or the update forum. In that forum as well, again future versions, I am going to allow you to remap your course, each course item to a competency in LifterLMS, because today, again, based after the same problem I explained earlier, where as soon as you click the name of that item that was int he course, it’s going to send you off to an ADL page saying a page was viewed. Dennis experienced a page, and it’ll give you this definition of what a page is. Again, I’m going to allow people to remap their uploaded courses to valid competencies within Lifter.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. For the uninitiated out there, who hasn’t yet used, Articulate, Storyline, Captivate, Lectora, these types of tools, what can you do with them that you can’t necessarily do like on a LifterLMS lesson WordPress page where you might insert video and text, and audio embeds, and thing like that? What can you do with these tools?
Dennis Hall: Good question. Sorry, I should have respected that question earlier. I did not. Basically, the various Articulate products that are available, the Captivate, and Lectora products that are available today, for the most part what they’re giving you is everyone’s giving you a fairly standardized xAPI output. What they’re doing for you as a courseware developer, they allow you to do things like import PowerPoint, which everybody actually really hates in the industry, but PowerPoint is an important tool to develop with speed the subject matter expert.
However, they allow you to create rich, interactive content, rich interactive media content within a eLearning environment, or a online course environment. Once you’ve created the product that you want, which is your eLearning course, you then publish that from that product as a Tin Can, or xAPI package. Those products then zip that up for you, and put it into a proper format for you to upload into your Learning Management System.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. You told me about, and you showed me a feature that was really incredible, that I just want to make sure that the listeners and the viewers here understand. Let’s say I’m building my course platform, and I actually want to bring in courses from somewhere else.
Dennis Hall: That’s a good question.
Chris Badgett: Maybe I work out a licensing deal with them.
Dennis Hall: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: My understanding is I can be on my LifterLMS site, but serving up courses from somewhere else through the xAPI, and that somewhere else is somewhere that I don’t own, but it’s somebody who either gave me permission, or-
Dennis Hall: That’s right.
Chris Badgett: I’m paying a licensing fee to. Can you tell me how that works, and what that’s all about?
Dennis Hall: Sure, yeah. I did briefly mention that earlier when I talked about uploading courses to a different server. Essentially, in that same upload forum that I was just describing, when you create a new course, or you update a course, let’s say that you had a course locally on your server, you can actually delete that course, and in that same forum you can link the same course title to a course out on a remote server. There’s only two pieces of information that you need to be able to link a remote course.
Information number one is what is the URL to the start page of that course. It’s going to be out on http://www.domain.com/path/two/index.html, for example. That might be the start file of your course that somebody else is allowing you to use, or rent, or whatever it be. After that they need to give you another piece of information, and that is what is the starting activity ID, or the starting ADL activity URL for that. It might be http://adl.net/path/twocourse. Those are the only two pieces of information you need to link to a remote course. Beyond that you’ll have a title that you’ll put in. That title will be reflected in LifterLMS.
After that you’re done. You now have all the foundations set for running local and remote courses such as the old AICC model, that allow you to do this, to use those courses. To use the courses in LifterLMS xAPI, that’s a separate function. What I’ve done is I’ve built in the LifterLMS editor, the course, lesson, quiz, and question editor that is in LifterLMS. By the way, as well as the membership, and non-membership editor, it also has this. No, disregard. It does not. No. It’s only courses, lessons, quizzes, and questions.
In your editor I’ve added a new button to your editor’s button bar, a button called xAPI with square brackets around it. The square brackets denote a shortcode in WordPress. I’ve created a visual button builder that allows you to use images for your buttons. You can even use a combination of image backgrounds, and have borders and such, and reshape the images to circles, or rounded rectangles, or whatever you wish, or you can just color your buttons, and make them look exactly like the Lifter buttons if you wish, as well.
No matter how you do it, you have the ability to create a custom button to launch your eLearning course from a course, lesson, quiz, or question. You would do that by selecting in a dropdown menu the eLearning course title that you’ve given your course. Then you would configure your button, you could click insert, and boom you’ve got a button in your course to launch the eLearning. That brings up that other plugin, the lightbox plugin.
By default, and this is not just with my plugin, it’s with any scenario in WordPress. If you have an external HTML file that you’re pointing to, like in WordPress, if you click on a link it might open up and replace your website, or it might open up in a new window or tab. In Lifter, the way I’ve done it with these if you use the lightbox plugin, it will open up your eLearning course in a lightbox. Now a lightbox is that kind of grey shadowy, that grey border around an HTML cage that you see. Basically you would interact with your course within that lightbox plugin, or within that lightbox.
If you are going to use eLearning, I highly recommend using activating the lightbox plugin that I supply as well, and that is simply so that if you don’t activate it your courses will open up in a new tab or window automatically. The drawback of doing that is that the users will no longer be focused on the content that they launched that product from. If you’ve got, let’s say lesson one has some really important information. Then it tells you watch this tutorial, because it doesn’t have to be a course, right? It can be a tutorial that’s done in Storyline or something, or a video, or whatever, so watch this tutorial about what you just read, or watch this demonstration.
Then you watch that, and you close it, and then you continue reading, and it says, here’s another demonstration on another aspect of what I’ve read as well. You have multiple eLearning inside that content, and that will all open up in lightboxes, and keep you in the content so when you close the lightbox you haven’t lost your place.
Chris Badgett: That’s incredible. Yeah, and that’s definitely the better user experience to just-
Dennis Hall: Absolutely.
Chris Badgett: Fade the background, and give them what they want, and then when that’s done they’re back where they started.
Dennis Hall: No, they’re back to where they left off.
Chris Badgett: Where they left off, yeah. Just to reiterate your point, because I think it’s a really important one, Dennis, is that when we use this word eLearning, or course, that we’re making with these other authoring tools, those don’t necessarily have to be complete end-to-end courses. They could be just one lesson in your LifterLMS course, or they could even be part of a lesson, like you said.
Dennis Hall: Absolutely.
Chris Badgett: You might have a video on your LifterLMS lessons and text, and then you say click this button, and now you’re bringing in this eLearning content that you have either hosted locally or elsewhere, or whatever. It’s amazing. What you’ve done is you’ve opened up the door to craft really intricate learning journeys.
Dennis Hall: Yes, absolutely.
Chris Badgett: With the best tools available out there.
Dennis Hall: Yes. If I may add, by the way, you’ve said something really, really important there. You can break up your eLearning courses. It’s not uncommon, actually, to have an eLearning module that focuses on one learning objective, and has one competency related. Which, by the way, if you do it that way in LifterLMS xAPI, I give you the ability already to remap that default adl.net/path/two/course to one of your competencies already. If you do a single learning objective eLearning, so if you upload or link a single learning objective eLearning, you can already map that eLearning to a competency built in LifterLMS.
Chris Badgett: That’s really amazing.
Dennis Hall: Yeah, so you can already do it. What I plan in the future is that if you have multiple modules, or multiple pages within the eLearning that are reporting xAPI data, in the future you’ll be able to remap all of them to competencies. Because again, the biggest problem the eLearning vendors have is that they don’t map you to anything that actually is meaningful.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Nice job. You’ve solved so many problems, and provided so many integrations, and additional features. It’s really incredible. I know, like when I was first learning about how all this stuff works I had a lot of questions. If you’re listening to this, or you’re watching this, and you want to reach out directly with a question, just go to LifterLMS.com/contact, and we’ll get you your answer there. Also, if you invest in the product, we’re hosting this product that Dennis has made, and the LifterLMS store, and it uses our support system, so if you are using LifterLMS, and it sounds like LifterLMS xAPI is a fit for you, and what you’re trying to do, or you want to try it out and see what you can make with it, we can support you in all the normal ways that you’re used to being supported through the LifterLMS systems, and that sort of thing.
We’re really honored, Dennis, to have you, and LifterLMS xAPI in our store, your decades of experience, and all this knowledge, and seeing the journey of eLearning, and being a developer, and being an instructional designer yourself, and doing client work, you have a really unique insight into creating really effecting Learning Management Systems. Again, we’re honored to have you as part of the LifterLMS community, and thank you so much for coming on the show.
Dennis Hall: Thanks a lot, Chris. Honestly, back at you on that as well. The one thing I’ve found with your team is that you guys are awesome to work with. I really, really appreciate the support that you’ve given me, but as well the support that I see you give to your community. You guys love your community and it shows. It shows big time.
Chris Badgett: I appreciate that. Thank you very much. Dennis Hall, ladies and gentlemen, Learning Templates, and then come find out more about LifterLMS xAPI at LifterLMS.com.

EPISODE 117

Living the Education Entrepreneur Dream Lifestyle Without Compromising Values with Danny Iny

In this LMScast Chris Badgett of codeBOX talks about living the education entrepreneur dream lifestyle without compromising values with Danny Iny. This episode focuses on deciding what you want to do, knowing your values and letting them drive you, and deciding what to do next when you reach your goals.

Danny Iny is an eLearning entrepreneur from the Course Builder’s Laboratory. He’s also the founder of Mirasee, and he’s the author of the book Teach and Grow Rich. Danny produces high quality information from reliable resources, and should be on your short list of people to watch, follow, and learn from.

You may feel you can’t express your core values in your professional capacity, but Danny firmly believes your values should be an exciting part of your work. You should be able to produce outcomes that reflect your best self. It all begins with intentionality. Everything isn’t going to happen at once. You do it by making small iterative changes with lots of little wins along the way, and eventually you’ll see things get better overall.

Online courses are going mainstream as people discover they can learn directly from experts without going to a university. Students still need that deep transformation that can only happen through scaling the human touch. That’s a shared responsibility between you as an online instructor, and your student as an active participant who seeks a defined result.

Danny and Chris discuss ways to achieve that one-on-one experience, as well as how to conceptualize scalability through the human component of direct personal touch, and providing the level of support required in a way that’s cost effective. You’ll also learn why people get stuck and how you can progress past those sticking points. Build a business based on fulfilling work and designed to create a lifestyle with work you can care about.

Living the education entrepreneur dream lifestyle without compromising values gives you the opportunity to bring positive change and beneficial impact in the world through online education. Becoming an educational entrepreneur does take time and a lot of work, but focus on creating value and you’ll help people get results, not just knowledge.

Post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us.

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and today we have a special guest, Danny Iny from the Course Builder’s Laboratory. He’s also the founder of Mirasee, and he’s written an excellent book called Teach and Grow Rich. If you’re an online course entrepreneur, if you’re a teacher, if you’re an entrepreneur, we’re bringing you a really special guest today with Danny Iny.

Today we’re going to get into some of the lifestyle pieces and components that come with developing online course or your education project, and we’re going to get into how to stay true to your values and how those can drive you and help you get to the process of getting up and going. First, Danny, thanks for coming on the show.

Danny Iny: Chris, it is absolutely a pleasure being here. Thank you for having me.

Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, I resonate a lot with your story. We’ve both got young kids at home. We both care a lot about certain values or ways we want to be in the world with how we live, the types of people we want to surround ourselves with, the type of customers we want to work with. I have noticed that’s a similarity between us and that we’re very intentional about those things. I wanted to start off and focus on this values piece. How do you see values? I know it’s so important to you because your company name is Mirasee. Maybe start with telling people what Mirasee is and then let’s transition that into how you approach values in your life and business.

Danny Iny: Yeah. Absolutely. Mirasee is a coined name which means we made it up, but if you look at the roots, Mira in Latin languages means either to see or to wonder at and the see obviously is to see so it’s kind of a play on wondering at what we could see at what might be possible.

Yeah, values. We all have values and we sometimes feel like we can’t have them expressed and lived out in our professional life. It’s like this is how I come home and behave the way I would like my kids to seem and behave when it’s possible. I think it should be all the time. I think it should be a part of your work. We were talking before we hit record the kind of the role that work plays for a lot of people.

That it is facilitative, you do your work to make money so that you can pay your bills, and then you can, well, maybe you donate some money to charity. Maybe you volunteer on the weekends. Why not create work that by its work product by the outcomes and by the process of the way you do it, is that impact, is that expression of who you want your best self to be. I think a lot of that comes down to intentionality, and so I think that’s where it all starts.

Chris Badgett: Yeah. That’s really cool. Focusing on values and in my experience, it’s really exhausting and I see it around in other people in the world. When you’re doing something and it’s not resonating at a values level. It’s just really exhausting. Whereas you’re really in your values and working with the people you like to work with. That sort of thing, the exact opposite thing happens which is more energy starts building, you wake up excited, things like that.

People listening here, there’s a lot of online course creators out there. There’s a lot of teachers who are trying to figure out this whole online thing. There’s entrepreneurs out there and all kinds of different businesses that are looking to incorporate online education either as a product in and of itself, or as an add-on to train customers or to help attract new customers.

They want to know how to stay true to their values. How do you go about it? It can be a struggle at first when you’re developing your entrepreneurial project to have that double life of okay what if I’m starting in, I’m a little stuck, I don’t like my job or I want to be home more around my kids and my partner. I want more location freedom. How do I begin to start to tip the scales over into bringing more values into my work or my side hustle? What do I do as a starting point?

Danny Iny: It’s a great question. It’s a hard one to answer because you just start by doing it. Big change doesn’t happen all at once. We just celebrated the New Year, this is the time when New Year’s resolutions which are promptly followed by blue Monday which is the second Monday of the month which is when people are like it turns out I haven’t stuck with any of my resolutions.

It’s because a lot of resolutions are that big change. This year, I will go to the gym every day, and I will be in bed by 7 p.m. and I will only eat vegetables and never drink alcohol and spend four hours reading to my kids every day and it’s like, first of all, the math doesn’t work out. There are only so many hours in a day, but changing so much behavior all at once is hard.

I would look at well, what is one small thing that you can change and stick with it for a month and then add another small thing that you can change and iterate towards something better. Your goal isn’t to magically just change how life is today because that’s not how these things work. It’s about iterating so that now life looks a whole lot better.

Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Lots of little wins along the way. Look at you snapping into teacher mode on big things that I’ve learned from your material is that the difference between being a publisher and being into education. In your words, with education. The teacher and the learner share some responsibility in the outcomes and you talk a lot about in your book Teach and Grow Rich which is fantastic read, about the downward pressure on pricing in terms of information products whether that’s books, or online courses, membership sites or whatever.

That don’t have that robust educational include component which includes a lot of action, but like you mention it starts with small action. You also talked about agile, bringing in agile development type. That type of thing where it’s an iterative process which you’re talking about right there. Start small and just start taking action in the right direction. As cliché as it sounds, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Not necessarily with just reading a book.

Danny Iny: Absolutely. It’s really interesting. Because we live in this world of courses building and selling courses, teaching how to do it. It’s starting to become a lot more mainstream. I don’t mean within the world of online course creators. I’m talking about the world at large. I feel like a company like master class for example. It’s bringing courses by Aaron Sorkin on screenwriting, Dustin Hoffman on acting, stuff like that.

That’s amazing. It’s going mainstream and if you look at, you would expect this is the top of the line information. Of course there’s a hundred bucks, because it’s purely information. When I take Aaron Sorkin screenwriting class, I have no connection with Aaron Sorkin. He’s responsible for my success. He’s not reviewing my scripts or anything. It’s just information and that’s great, and that has its purpose.

What that does is on the one hand, it opens the market, it opens people’s awareness that I can take courses from experts, and not universities which is a huge thing. Then they’re like but where’s the deep transformation. I need someone to supply that. That’s where the people who are watching this come into the picture.

Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Yeah. We talk about this a lot. It has different names but one of the strategies we talk about is scaling the human touch with robotics. There’s only so much that you can do in terms of automation and you also wisely touch on this issue in the book, Teach and Grow Rich.

What advice do you have for somebody who’s trying to scale that transformation, that shared responsibility, and the outcomes? What are the beginning stages of that without getting locked into the one on one is the only way? An obvious one that we recommend a lot is having weekly or monthly office hours where you can have a one to many component and the conversation can be adaptive to the crowd, not just preaching to the crowd or whatever. How else can somebody facilitate transformation and start to try to scale that.

Danny Iny: That is a great question. There is a strategic answer and there’s a tactical answer. The tactical answer, I can talk about. I guess we can do office hours. I have coaches that work for me that support our students and we support them in a variety of ways. They’re someone on one interaction. Some office hours. A variety of these different setups.

How you choose what you will do, it comes down to how you conceptualize scalability. A lot of people think about scalability as if they’re a software company. A thousand more users, no big deal. Doesn’t require any additional anything. Courses are not software. You’re not a software company. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t scale. It just means it isn’t going to scale like software company.

I think a much better analog is a company like Zappos, great human component, great direct personal touch, and clearly they operate well at scale, you don’t get acquired for billions of dollars, if you’re not operating at scale. What it comes down to is not about minimizing the level of support provided, but being able to provide the level of support that’s really required in a way that is cost effective.

Cost effective meaning profitable on a per transaction basis. I know that for the number of students that I need X number of coaches for. That dynamic works out so that I can make enough money to pay my coaches and still have a profit. That means that if I need twice as many coaches, could have twice as many students, that works. You figure out what does the support people really need. How can I deliver that in a way that’s cost effective and your student base scales, so does your support.

Chris Badgett: That’s awesome, just to tie that back into meaning of values. We have another podcast episode with somebody named Peter Fallenius and he talked about building online learning environments on top of what he call outlier learning which is built on top of some social science that came out about self-determination theory and in Peter’s view to create true meaning and transformation both in yourself and in a learning environment.

You need three components which are team or community, you need the social interaction and that’s an interesting thing that can scale some on its own, like in some ways if you have a community environment. People can help each other and I can scale a little bit but not doing it alone and having other tutors like you’re talking about is a great way to responsively scale and not just let support get worse and worse every time.

Another thing is just creating an environment of rapid learning where you get lots of little wins and like you mentioned the iterative process. It’s all about action. It’s all about doing. When people have activities to do, those are things that can scale, they can go out into the world and do those things and grow in that way.

Then the other is just leadership which is meeting the opportunity for people to lead their own learning journey and take on responsibility for teachers and tutors to be responsible, really foster a community of leadership. These are things that can grow, but like you said it’s not infinitely scalable.

Danny Iny: Not infinitely scalable without the resources dedicated to its scaling as well.

Chris Badgett: Yeah. Scaling responsibly. That’s awesome. That’s really cool. Well, as people get going I’ve seen this working with a lot of education entrepreneurs and online course creators. Sometimes people get stuck where they lose. I don’t want to say motivation because I know they care and they’re motivated, but whether it’s some kind of imposter syndrome, fear of success, getting bogged down in the technical tools requires, focusing on technology when they should be building community or curriculum.

There’s all these stumbling blocks. It’s almost like a forest that you’re navigating through at night to try to get to the other side of launching a truly great platform. One of the things that I think really helps motivate people especially if they’re starting from a point where they’re under-optimized, they’re away from their family. They’re not fulfilled with their work is to know a little bit about the light on the other side of what life can be like as an online course creator.

I know I mentioned with you before this call. One of the things that I’ve been able to do is just spend a lot of time around my kids, it’s been important thing to me from before they were born and it was something I intentionally planned for and built a career around.

Now I get to reap those benefits. I just spent a better part of a year traveling with my family around the United States and visiting national parks and things like that while still able to run an online course and software business. Can you tell us a little bit more about your journey and how you got into all of this and help inspire people who are, if they’re not stuck now, they will at some point hit some obstacles and they need to dig in and keep going?

Danny Iny: Yeah. For sure. I’ve definitely been through my fair share of challenges. The last attempt I made at building a big company imploded on me and I walked away from that with about a quarter of a million dollars in personal debt. You have to do something so I started a new business because I have bills to pay, and I started consulting practice, and I found there were people that needed the service that I was providing, that didn’t have the resources to afford it.

I was like well what if I create a course that would teach them some of that stuff and it wasn’t all at once, it wasn’t over night but building that business, and building that practice in such a way that was designed to create the lifestyle that I care about.

Very focused on building an online audience, very focused on building work that I can do from anywhere. Not that I like to travel that much and I actually like staying home but work that you can do from anywhere, means working I don’t have to drive into an office or visit clients for because you work in my case from home, or in an office that’s across the backyard.

A lot of it just comes down to. This is actually something that I’ve always been very adamant about, like refusing to commute, spending half an hour, an hour in traffic every day. It’s like that’s just not a good use of time. When you can avoid that, you appear to be so much more productive because you essentially have an extra hour or two than everyone else.

If someone watching this, you have to drive through traffic, that’s a shame and that doesn’t mean you can’t be successful. You want to think about. Some people don’t mind it. Some people love driving and listening to audio books. One of the things that would be the biggest wins for you and how can you rearrange your life to make it happen.

Maybe you can negotiate to work from home one day a week, maybe you can, really how much of an income you have to supplement. How much you have paragon your expenses to allow you to meet that leap and start investing more, growing more. You want to think about how you can take those first steps. The first step to that is you took a year and you traveled around the US in an RV with your kids.

I make a point of being present with my children as much as I can. I like working close to home. I like that I work with my wife as my business partner. The first step to that is having a clear picture on what that perfect day lifestyle actually is for you. I think the gap for a lot of people is they don’t really know. The way they define their perfect day is not based on what they want, but based on what they don’t want.

You end up with a lot of very adolescent, I want to travel the world and sit my thighs on the beach and have my own private island. It’s not really what they want, it’s just the opposite of what they have now. They’re describing their dream vacation rather than their dream life. Vacations are great, but you’re ideally want to design a life that you don’t urgently need a vacation thought.

Chris Badgett: Absolutely. That’s a really good point. Yeah. The concept of permanent retirement, sitting on a beach. It’s cool but it’s not really sustainable. You get bored. You want to have fulfilling work and like you’ve mentioned I think which is another, sometimes common misconception is that once you achieve it, doesn’t mean you have to give away all your stuff, become a minimalist and travel the world hopping from Airbnb to Airbnb with your family.

You may just like to further stay at home and get more stuff and visit with your friends and family that you already have. I think that comes down to is just getting really brutally honest with yourself about the lifestyle that is good for you, which is going to be totally different than from the next person.

Danny Iny: Absolutely.

Chris Badgett: What are some struggles along the way that you had to overcome as you started to find some success teaching others. What are some stumbling blocks, did it affect your relationship or did you get too obsessed with it sometimes and since the Internet never turns off, did you have issues with boundaries or did you have something working and then all of a sudden it stopped working? What did you struggle with and what kept you going during the hard times?

Danny Iny: All of those things happened from time to time. Things that you thought were going to work didn’t work. Things that did work stopped working. You find that your investment of time or energy or resources is not always ideal. You make bets that turn out to have been bad bets to make. All of those things are going to happen. I don’t think it’s about avoiding those things. I think it’s about recognizing them for what they are when they do happen which is not signs that you’re not on the right track.

Not signs that you should quit or anything like that, but just cues for you to course correct, cues for you to adjust. As an entrepreneur a big part of your job is plan B. If plan A didn’t work, now it’s your job, come up with plan B. When something breaks, when something doesn’t happen the way you wanted to, you can see that as my God the universe is telling me I shouldn’t be doing this or the universe is sending up the bat signal and I’m batman.

This is the sign for me to step up and do my job because once business as usual, anyone can do it. That doesn’t mean your job is easy, but if you want to create a great success and be well rewarded for it. Well, if it was easy anyone can do it. This is a job for you to do and that’s really cool. There’s a quote out of the last lecture that I really like. He says that the brick walls in your past, they’re not there to keep you out. They’re there to keep everyone else out until it give you a chance to prove how much you want it.

Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. That’s really cool. Well, let’s talk a little bit more about the Course Builder’s Laboratory and what makes it different in the space because you really focus in on the difference between the information publisher which is getting downward pressure on pricing and demand and things like that versus really creating transformative educational opportunities.

Like you’re just talking about in terms of the obstacles in the way, part of real learning is you fall down sometimes and if you’re the teacher, the way I think of it as a parent is like, and as as leader in business is it’s okay and it’s actually part of the process to let people make mistakes. I just want to make sure I protect people from making unrecoverable mistakes.

Danny Iny: And it’s important to get back up. Here’s how I see the Course Builder’s Lab as being different from a lot of the I will teach you how to build and sell course programs out there. First of all, the support. Every student in our program gets a dedicated coach on our team and that doesn’t mean that you can send a question, goes to help desk in India.

No, that’s a coach that is your coach that knows what you’re doing in your business, will give you actual feedback on what you’re trying to create because we found that’s what it takes for people to be successful. There’s also rebuilt and iterative course. A number of times as we work with more and more students and because of that there’s a track record.

That when you go through a lot of these courses, with a good sales pitch, you’ll typically find 5 or 10 maybe 15 case studies or testimonials and if you read them closely, you’re like I don’t think this person actually took the course. I think they’d work privately with the course creator or with the buddies of them or something.

What is there that can give me confidence that a regular person like me will be successful. We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of people go through this program and achieve great success and we guarantee results again unlike a lot of people in the industry. If you join this program, put it on time, do the work, you will launch a course successfully.

If you don’t, we will help you create a plan to get back on track. If you execute that plan and you still don’t launch a course successfully, we’ll give you double your money back because clearly it didn’t work. We’ve only had to fulfill on that guarantee I think three or four times, out of thousands and thousands of students. The process works for the people who work, and the infrastructure is there to support the people who want to be successful.

Chris Badgett: That’s really awesome. Let’s look at an issue in terms of the journey. In terms of getting through that aspirational lifestyle that listeners are aspiring to. I think I’ve heard and it might have been quoted from a sociological experiment where after you’re making somewhere around $70,000 money doesn’t necessarily make you happy or whatever.

That may or may not be true, but let’s say in terms of timeline. In your experience in working with lots of people. If they’re starting in the side hustle phase and let’s assume we’re trying to get to that $70,000 approximate mark and then beyond what do you think is a reasonable expectation. Obviously every night is not how it works at all. In the journeys that you’ve seen from zero to hero how does it play out over time?

Danny Iny: Typically. Obviously there’s a lot of variation but the transition to full time, the part where you’re making enough money from this endeavor that it can replace a full time income. That happen sometime in the year two. It can be sooner, it can be in the first year, it can be later. It can take as infinite amount of time if you’re not doing anything. Typical to be earning enough money for you to replace your income and go full time usually happens in year two.

Chris Badgett: That’s really cool. What do you see after replacing your income to really doing well? What differentiates the people who they’re inspiring to like okay I made it. I escaped my job or I replaced my income and I’m doing my own thing. I’m in alignment with my values, awesome. Do some people just stay there or be like all right let’s see how far we can go?

Danny Iny: It comes down to what their ambitions are. Something that I’ve learned. We just closed the year just under $4 million last year. Something that I’ve learned over the last few years is that it’s a lot of work to grow business. It’s not a lot of work to keep a business more or less the same size they tapped.

Any given year, and I face this choice every year. It’s like do I want, I could probably work four months out of the coming year and will do in the range of $4 million again or I can put in all the hours I’m going to put in because I see us growing a lot bigger. Everyone decides for themselves.

At what point, and they’re like this is as big as I want to go. I’m happy with this. I want to invest my energies elsewhere versus this is where I want to invest my energies because this is what I’m excited about. This is the impact I care about making. This is how I get to work with the people that I enjoy working with. It really comes down to ambitions and how much do you want to push to go.

Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. I just want to reinstate that point because it’s so good, which is that what Danny said is that to grow a business is really hard, it’s a lot of work. To maintain it is not that much work. If you want maintain and do a holding pattern. One of the beautiful things about being an education entrepreneur is that you really get to embody the core purpose or role of the entrepreneur which is creating value.

In this case, we’re transforming people’s lives through processes, through support, through training. Your platform, to do that for somebody and maybe then it ripples out and affects another person. You have such an opportunity to really send out those ripples of positive change or beneficial impact out in the world through on education.

Really if entrepreneurs already is successful whether they’re educational entrepreneur or not, and they’re at the highest levels and they’re just killing it, living large and stuff like that. It’s easy to think that that can happen fast, but it does take time, it does take a lot of work and just really focusing on that value creation and transformation is really what it’s all about and helping people get results, not just knowledge.

That’s one of the key things out there. I wanted to ask you another question just based on your experience. If people are really wanting to pursue their values and have a working life in helping others, in alignment with their values and through their trainings.

At what point let’s say on that timeline of two years to replace what I was doing before, how much of that before I need team members. At what point does the one person show fall away?

Danny Iny: It depends a lot on how much you want to grow and how far you want to go. Yeah, it depends. You could certainly get to the point of creating your job for example on your own, when you want to, you might not. You’re definitely not going to grow much faster, a few hundred thousand dollars a year working on your own just because there’s more that goes into it.

Again it depends a lot on your ambitions. I started building a team early because I like working with people. I like that we’re stronger together than I would be on my own.

Chris Badgett: Yeah. I think I’ve heard that there’s a lot of glamorization of the solopreneur out there, but I think that just comes from unhealthy thing in society where people don’t like the work environment that they currently work in and they think they want to be alone, but that’s actually, it’s actually really cool to work with great people doing amazing things of similar values.

Danny Iny: Absolutely. It’s the same positioning the win scenario against your current scenario. If you’re working with people you hate. It’s like I don’t want to have a boss, I don’t have employees, I don’t want to have anyone at all. Why not just have better people? Work with them in a better way.

Chris Badgett: Yeah. Absolutely. That’s as we talk about the aspirational lifestyle and you’re thinking about the hammock with the laptop on the beach. Being alone on the beach with everything full automated and no relationships, working relationships around you. It may not be what you want, so spend a lot of time really thinking about that. For a lot of people I see just thinking back to childhood is a good way to rediscover where things started to change or where responsibility perhaps ever took alignment with values and that kind of thing.

Well, Danny. Where can people find out more about what you’ve got going on? I highly recommend everybody listening check out the Teach and Grow Rich book and Danny anything Danny’s doing, whether he’s launching something or just putting out a content, it is incredible, it’s deep, it’s not topical. It’s based on real world results and case studies and it’s just such high quality and refreshing that I just want to acknowledge you for that and encourage the listener to put Danny on the short list of people to watch, people to follow, and people to learn from. Where can people go to find out more?

Danny Iny: Chris, thank you. You’re very kind. Best place to find Teach and Grow Rich is Amazon because that’s where people buy books. Yeah, other, Mirasee, my website for my company is Mirasee, M-I-R-A-S-E-E dot com. We periodically open Course Builder’s Laboratory to new students and if you’re interested in that at a time when we’re doing that, I would love to have you join us.

Chris, you’re going to be sharing a little bit of information about that as well so everyone can watch their inboxes and if you’re watching this video, you’ll hear from Chris when that happens.

Chris Badgett: Absolutely. Well, thank you for coming on the show, Danny and to you out there listening. I just want to encourage you to spend a little time reflecting on your values. Spend a little bit of time thinking about your ideal future in great detail and what that guides you and motivates you as you make the transition to becoming an educational entrepreneur.

Danny Iny: Absolutely. Thank you again for having me, Chris. This has been awesome.

Chris Badgett: Thanks, Danny.

EPISODE 116

Engaged Facebook Groups, Divi, and LifterLMS with Eileen Lonergan from Elegant Marketplace

In this LMScast Chris Badgett of codeBOX talks about engaged Facebook groups, Divi, and LifterLMS with Eileen Lonergan from Elegant Marketplace. You’ll learn about building and running online groups, integrating LifterLMS and Divi with WordPress, and finding your niche.

Eileen has a thriving Facebook Group called the Divi Theme Users Facebook Group. She is one of the owners of the Elegant Marketplace website, and Divi is their showcase WordPress theme. Eileen and a co-owner, Andrew, came to LifterLMS when they needed to put together a video tutorial course. They were able to use it right out of the box and create the course using the default layout.

Starting with Google AdWords, Eileen became familiar with WordPress and themes. Then she discovered Divi and liked it so much she started blogging about it. From there she started the Divi Facebook Group community, which has grown to over 19,000 users in just 3 years.

Building a community for your online course gives it momentum. You can use the existing tools in Facebook, or use a WordPress add-on like BuddyPress to create your own community environment. And you can make it an open group or restrict it to members-only. The key to making your group successful is to find your niche, know it inside out, and build for it.

Eileen and Chris discuss aspects of running groups like being a moderator, setting boundaries for your time and accessibility, working with other group administrators, maintaining balance between promotion and support, and hiring members when they demonstrate expertise. They also talk about building your audience, finding your ideal students, and injecting a little bit of fun into your group experience. Plus they offer some great pro tips for course creators just starting out.

You can find out more about engaged Facebook groups, Divi, and LifterLMS with Eileen Lonergan at Elegant Marketplace.

Post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us.

Chris: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and in this episode I’m joined by Eileen Lonergan. How are you doing Eileen?

Eileen: I’m good. How are you, Chris? Thanks for having me.

Chris: Thanks, it’s good to have you on the show. Eileen has an amazing Facebook Group with over 18,000 people in it. It’s called the Divi Theme Users Facebook Group. If you don’t know what Divi is, Divi, is a WordPress theme, and we’re going to get into that. She is also one of the owners of the Elegant Marketplace website. We’ll discuss what that’s all about a little later in the show. But to start off, Eileen, how did you get into WordPress and Divi and Facebook?

Eileen: Okay. I, back in the day, got a degree in advertising, so I worked as a media buyer, which meant I was working putting ads into different magazines or buying time on television shows. Then I moved abroad for awhile. When I came back, a friend … The internet was in its infancy stage when I was away. When we came back I had a friend who had four different golf sites and was looking for somebody to help him do his Google AdWords. It was a natural fit for me. Then he decided to do something else and I took his clients. I was doing AdWords. Out of that, I really began to understand SEO. AdWords is awesome, but as we both know as soon as you stop paying for clicks, your content does a dive. The golf clients were getting priced out of the market. I started helping them with content. Then one thing led to another and I reconnected with a friend that I went to high school with who was developing a WordPress theme. He said to me, “If you ever built …” I’d built one website in Front Page. I was like, I am never, ever going this again. This is horrible.
He said to me, “If you ever make another website and you buy my theme, I’ll hold your hands through the whole thing.” I was like, “That’s so great, but I’m never, ever doing this again.” That’s how I got to WordPress. Just one thing led to another. I was really committed, and I am still to my blog. I would just casually post on Facebook, “Here’s another website.” Then I just kept getting client after client. Through that WordPress connection, my friend Don Campbell … He has a really cook product now called Get Five Stars, which is a review platform. He’s really doing that and not doing the themes. One of the guys from that group we were in called me one night and said, “I think you’d really like this Divi theme.” It was like, all right. I went and I bought it and I thought it was great and I love it. On my blog, I started posting some of the things I was figuring out. As I was figuring things out, I was also looking for a community who could answer my questions. Although I’m a big, huge fan of support and paying for it, sometimes you just want your little posse and you don’t want to wait around.
Chris: Yeah.
Eileen: I started the Dive Theme Users Group. Maybe two hours into it I realized, “Oh, my gosh. This is probably not the right name because as soon as you open up anything with WordPress, you start getting questions about WordPress. You start getting questions about hosting, learning platforms, plugins.” The focus everybody is gathering around is Divi. I think that gets people in the door.
Chris: That’s awesome. How many people are in there right now?
Eileen: I checked this morning and it’s almost 19,000.
Chris: That’s amazing. Just to plan a little context of where we can go and really look into that in more detail. For the online course creators out there, the membership site builders, the people trying to build community around a brand and build training around a certain brand, there’s this community piece that pops up. You can do that on our own platform. If you’re using WordPress you can use something like BuddyPress and build Facebook in a box type social networks, but you can also leverage the tools that are already out there, like Facebook or just other online community platforms. Now you get conflicting advice around Facebook. For example, I may not want people to leave my training site to go to Facebook because they’ll get distracted and they’ll never come back. The counter argument to that as well is if your stuff’s not good enough, people don’t want to come back, then maybe it doesn’t really matter.
I do understand the importance of protecting the focus. Really one of the things that make a Facebook group great is just a thriving community and numbers, having enough people to get that momentum. For example, if you have your own forum that nobody posts in, it’s a graveyard or it’s a dead forum. What are some of your key insights that you’ve learned over the years in helping to build this up to almost 19,000 people? How do you build community in Facebook? What are the do’s? What are the don’t’s? Let’s get into all that. Maybe we can start just by looking at the niching. You mentioned, okay, this isn’t just WordPress or web help that you share. This is for a very specific users of one product called Divi. In the niching department, what else would you add? What about niching has helped make your Facebook group successful?
Eileen: That’s a really good question. I think that finding your niche is a little bit of a wild card because you have to care about it. You can’t just say, “I’m going to have a group about plugins.” I don’t really care about plugins because you become very tied to these groups, I guess if you want them to be successful. You have to care about it and you have to use it and you have to like it. For me, with the Divi theme, I specifically … While I’ve tried a whole bunch of WordPress themes and I have licenses to them all, my philosophy has been get to know one theme really, really well, and ultimately it will make your life easier.
For me, I don’t necessarily have niche clients. I don’t just do chiropractors or dentists or authors. I need something that’s flexible enough that it can accommodate these different businesses, but I don’t want to be learning a new theme every time. The beauty of WordPress, or I think a lot of people come into it because they think, “Once I know this behind the scenes, the dashboard becomes really easy,” but each theme has its own little nuances. Where do I change the colors? All that stuff. I think it’s important to have a niche. It grew really quickly. I randomly posted on an Elegant Themes, one of their blog posts. We’re talking about this in a group. That opened up the flood gates.
Chris: In a comment?
Eileen: In a comment, exactly.
Chris: Okay.
Eileen: On my website, on my blog posts, I put “For more learn, visit the Facebook group.” Then people would start telling their friends about it, give you support, started directing people to it. They did a blog post on it. It’s taken off from there. I’ve definitely gotten help and support along the way from Divi from Elegant Themes.
Chris: That’s awesome. How long has it been? Going from 0 to 19,000, how much time has passed here?
Eileen: I think it’s been 3 years.
Chris: Yeah, that’s a lot in 3 years.
Eileen: It’s a lot in 3 years. Back to your previous question, what makes it a vibrant community, I think if somebody is going to start one of these groups, you have to realize that you’re not going to be the most popular person on the blog.
Chris: Because?
Eileen: Because you have to say no. You have to …
Chris: Like moderate?
Eileen: You have to moderate. Sometimes it’s really easy to kick people out because they’re posting the Ray Ban Sunglasses deal, and you’re just like, “You’re out.” Other times people are just relentless with their self-promotion and you have to decide is that detrimental to the group? Are they just annoying or are they really just … There’s a lot of cultural differences between Americans and other countries. You have to say sometimes to people, “You really don’t want to say give me your login and password in a Facebook group because that’s dangerous. People are just going to view you as a spammer.” You might spend a little time saying, does this person really have a skillset that they’re bringing to the table or are they just creepy?
Chris: Right.
Eileen: Right.
Chris: Yeah.
Eileen: Because there’s some of that out there.
Chris: Yeah, Facebook’s wide open. A lot can come in there. If you’re looking at it for an online course or your learning platform, I think there’s really two approaches, kind of like how you guys with Elegant Marketplace. We can talk about that in a moment. You can have a Facebook community that then a piece of that points to your online course, your membership site, or, in your case, your marketplace. Or you can go the other way where only people in your course who get in are allowed in a group and it’s very tightly restricted. I think that’s just a question of what’s your model? What are you trying to do? Are you trying to funnel people from Facebook into your platform or is it really just that’s where the community lives for your members only?
Eileen: Yeah.
Chris: How does a Facebook group … First of all, what is Elegant Marketplace, and then how does the Facebook group and Elegant Marketplace interact with each other?
Eileen: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Elegant Marketplace is a marketplace for child themes and plugins and other creatives. We have everything from style packets for if you’re maybe not a designer. One woman has put together a style packet focused on travel and tourism. I don’t want to pick fonts and colors. That’s in their image packs are in. We had one guy do a whole writing series on client contact, everything from initial reaching out through the either great job, you were an awesome client, to this isn’t really working out so well. You can buy all those emails for a pack. We’re also moving into Elementor and other page builders, themes, and layouts for those.
That’s what Elegant Marketplace is. That fell out of a group of people I met through the Facebook group. It started with more people. Now there’s just two of us, Andrew Palmer and I. Andrew is in London. We try to come up with a delicate balance of promoting our developers and keeping things open and informing people of what’s going on in WordPress with hosting. You and I did an interview, which is great, introducing the Divi community on using Lifter. We try to work with our developers so they’re not posting on their own in the group. We don’t want to over-do what we put into the group because we want people to be happy to be there.
We don’t want them to feel overwhelmed. We get a lot of questions. People will say, “I would like a plugin that …” Or, “Does anybody know how I can have this same image appear on the bottom of every post?” You know what? We have a plugin for that and you can respond. Sometimes people respond with sharing the code on how to do that. Other people … Google fonts is a great example. How do I add Google fonts? You know what? We’ve got this 10 dollar plugin. People are like, “Done. I don’t want to deal with the code.” It’s a bit of a balance. Hopefully we strike the right balance of promotion and satisfying peoples’ needs.
Chris: That makes sense. I mean, it’s challenging to moderate and to have it be top-down. At the same time, these other great things happen in the Facebook group where peer to peer conversations and new relationships are forming in the community. How does that work out for you? What kinds of things do you see people, like new relationships forming, or how do, without getting you or your partner involved, what other kinds of things are happening in there?
Eileen: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s really been amazing to me. Thank you for asking because I’m really proud of it. I think that we have had life-changing results. Organically from that group peoples’ lives have changed.
Chris: Has anybody gotten married?
Eileen: No, I know, I know. I do know of one relationship. At some point maybe there will be a little Eileen, or I’ll get a wedding invitation. Yeah, I don’t know. If anybody has gotten married they haven’t told me about it. I get really nice emails. I got this one from this woman who is in Ireland. She said, “Because of this Facebook group and these tutorials and learning, I’ve been able to move back to my hometown.” Yeah, so we get those a lot. I can’t reveal numbers, but we have paid out a lot of money to the developers who have created the child themes and the plugins. I hear of people who got a car, paid my rent, I’m no longer living paycheck to paycheck. It’s definitely significant, from that end. Then I get the people in South Africa at Word Camp who are all Divi users from the Facebook group who met up and had lunch. There was like 8 of them or something. Yeah, so it’s great.
Chris: That’s awesome. My business partner, he’s one of the organizers of Word Camp Los Angeles. He was talking about there was this group of Divi users. It’s what you’re talking about. It’s one Facebook group, but there are happenings where they get together in person, which is amazing.
Eileen: It is amazing. I was at a local meetup last night. The guy sitting next to me was talking about themes. He was like, “I had to leave one of the Facebook groups.” I was like, “Really? What happened?” He said, “Just so time consuming. There was so much going on. I would just go on there and I would forget about all my other work.” I was like, “What group was that?” And it was mine. Dude, you’ve got to get back in there.
Chris: Right.
Eileen: Come on.
Chris: Right. Let me ask you one … For the online course creator out there, if you’re building a community, sometimes things happen in your community that you don’t intend to happen. Sometimes it’s serendipitous and really positive, and sometimes it’s negative or sometimes it creates chaos in your business. What I mean by that … This is just a simple example. We have a Facebook group around LifterLMS product. It’s called the LifterLMS VIP Facebook Group. When you join or whatever, the about thing is like, “This isn’t the official support channel.” We get lots of questions for support.
What’s really cool is some of the other people in there will start helping each other answer their questions, and sometimes people will start tagging me and stuff where they’re trying to get me to answer support, which I can do and I’m happy to do sometimes when I have the answer, but we also have our formal both free and paid support channels. We have a process and a whole team ready to roll on that stuff. People break the rules, but it’s not that big of a deal, but it is … I don’t know. How do you deal with that? Do you guys get support or customer service questions in your Facebook group about Elegant Marketplace or do the developers or is that not really an issue for you?
Eileen: No, we definitely get support. I think support is unbelievably challenging. People are in the moment and they want an answer, so any way they think they can find you, they will utilize. I’m guilty of that as well. Though, yes, people will tag us. We, for our developers, offer the first line of support. Frequently it’s the, “I forgot to unzip the zip file.” I mean, that’s the number one. Or somebody customizes some code, and then they can’t. Andrew is in London and I’m on the East Coast. I’m wearing my Maine, my LL Bean sweater in honor of Chris, my main friend. We have a little time zone, and then we have somebody on the West Coast and we try to patch together answers. It is hard. We both keep Facebook open all day long and jump in and try to answer.
Chris: Do you guys answer support questions in Facebook?
Eileen: We do.
Chris: Okay.
Eileen: If somebody posts on Facebook we’ll answer in Facebook. Sometimes we’ll say, “Let’s touch base privately because it’s complicated.” I was helping some woman on a Sunday night at 7 o’clock. We were going back and forth, back and forth in Facebook and then realized she’d edited her code. I was like, “You know what? I’m not getting into this on Sunday night.”
Chris: Right.
Eileen: We do answer. I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do or not. Sometimes it’s just easy and it takes two minutes. It also shows people that we’re paying attention. To your point about having a private group if you’re running a class, it’s great because if somebody else knows an answer, then they jump in and solve that for you. On the other hand, if it’s your group, do you want to work Sunday nights at 7 o’clock? I can’t answer that for you.
Chris: I think part of that, too, which I can relate to as well with the Sunday night example that you mentioned, is that if you’re going to run a Facebook group there’s some really smart people out there who design user interfaces and software to literally be addictive. It takes some serious self-control, especially if you use Facebook for personal stuff, just keeping up with friends and family. When that red alert goes off, or whatever, I think it’s helpful if you’ve been around the web for awhile to try to figure out some boundaries and just some healthy habits around, okay, I’m only going to do Facebook group between this and this time or five days a week, not seven days a week, or whatever. Eventually, the more you do it, you’re going to need to have some boundaries. That’s been my experience. I guess for email and for everything else, too, but Facebook groups, or Facebook in general, is helpful to at least be aware of how you use it and when you allow yourself to use it.
Eileen: Yeah, I totally, totally agree with you. I know you and I both like to get outside and get some exercise. It’s important. I mean, I had one guy … I’ve never talked about this before. I think maybe I mentioned it to you. Last year I was going through chemotherapy and I was literally, literally in the chair hooked up. The nurse is there in her hazmat suit and the whole thing. This guy is just pinging me. He wants to put his … He’s putting his link to his product in the group. I just kept saying, “We’ve got to talk about this. It’s too spammy. Now is not a good time for me.” Then now is not a good time for me became you know what? I’m getting chemo right now. It’s really not a good time for me.
Your business is not my priority. I said no, and just kicked him out. I just can’t deal with it right now. That’s extreme. Hopefully nobody is getting chemo as their problem. After that, I realized, yeah, I need to be a little bit less tapped in all the time. That’s when not being popular comes in where you just say, “You know what, dude?” Not everybody is right for your group, and you’re not right for everybody. That is something that is sometimes you have to do your deep breathing and remind yourself of if they’re not right for me, I’m not right for them, and it’s okay.
Chris: Absolutely. That just in general is just a challenge for being online. I mean the internet never sleeps. It’s not a 9 to 5 thing. It forces you to either get really good at boundaries or not so good and watch some important things slip away, whether that’s just taking care of yourself or spending time with friends and family or sitting down to dinner and those kinds of things. It’s amazing how it can take over.
Eileen: Right.
Chris: I think that’s one of the dark sides of online community is just to make sure you have healthy boundaries.
Eileen: Right, I totally agree. Having a partner with Facebook group … When I first started the group, anybody who was in admin had the power of … They could only be an administrator and then they had the power of kicking you out. I was a little hesitant as to who I made my partner because I didn’t want to be kicked out. Now you can have people do administrative stuff and not have that power. You can have helpers who are under the radar checking for appropriate … For me, I always want positivity. You have to start somewhere. What’s a silly question to you today may have been the question you were asking a week ago, so there’s no judgement.
Chris: Absolutely. I think getting people familiar with the search function is always good so that they can find stuff before that might have been asked about that sort of thing.
Eileen: Yeah.
Chris: Any fears about Facebook changing? For me as a business owner, I know … I can’t remember when it was, a year or two ago when Facebook made it so that your Facebook page, the reach of it go much smaller. Then you have to pay or boost posts to reach more people, even your own people that like to post. Otherwise it’s going to reach a small fraction, like 1 or 5% of them. I mean, I understand why Facebook did that from a business model perspective. Right now groups are amazing. In the back of my head, I’m waiting for that shoe to drop, but I’m not that worried about it because, well, I think that would be very damaging to Facebook. If I have a strong community and we need to go somewhere else, I know we can. I’d hate to see it go away, but do you have any fears like that or any reservations with Facebook at all or issues with them and having privacy or anything like that?
Eileen: The privacy thing I think is really interesting. I fully, in my heart, believe if you … Anything you put out there, you might as well just do a mental check. Would I mind if my grandmother saw this? Would I mind if my children saw this? My future clients, employees? Perfect example is we have some people in the Divi group who post mean things about their clients, and their clients are in the group. If you find the National Inquirer, you deserve to be lied to. It’s like that kind of thing.
I totally hear what you’re saying. What I always tell clients … It doesn’t come up anymore, but people used to say, “My business is on Facebook.” I’d say, “That’s really not a great plan.” We have a strong website and a strong blog and directing people there for more information is always a good thing. If the group went away I would be really sad. I think that groups are where it’s at on Facebook right now. If that changes, like you say, I think that we’re nimble enough or responsive enough that maybe we’d figure out the next place to be. It’s really easy and it’s really fun, but I don’t think maybe 19,000 could be replicated quickly.
Chris: Right.
Eileen: But I think we could make it happen, don’t you?
Chris: Yeah, yeah, I do. I mean sometimes change is … Not all Facebook changes are negative or anything like that. All the new Facebook Live stuff and the focus on video. The whole live thing, especially, for a learning environment is a great opportunity to blend in not just passive video courses, but also some live sessions in the Facebook group or whatever.
Eileen: Yeah.
Chris: Cool.
Eileen: Yeah, I know. I think that’s part of the attraction to this business maybe for you and I because we both love to learn and we both love what’s next and staying current. Maybe it’s not as nerve-racking to me as other things.
Chris: Absolutely. Yeah, I just go with the flow. That’s it.
Eileen: Yeah.
Chris: That’s it. Cool, well, for the listener out there who’s just getting started and they’re at day one and they’re clicking the create group button, it sounds like if we were going to give a few tips of how to grow the group, it sounds like for you being in a strong niche with a lot of people that are just hungry for a community that doesn’t necessarily exist yet in a super micro-niche is one, your community is related to a certain product, or at least it started that way. Having that other company getting involved on there in their social conversations, whether that’s blog comments or they even write a post about your group, that was a big accelerator. What else has helped the growth in general?
Eileen: I think having niches within the niche. We have a huge amount of people in the group who are photographers. They tell one another about it. We have a lot of virtual assistants. They’ll say to their virtual assistant gang, “You should join this group.” Our own little helpers, we definitely have done some boosted posts. Anytime we write a blog post, or I write a blog post, where I may say, “This question came up in the Facebook group, Divi group.”
Chris: You link to it.
Eileen: I’ll link to it. Then we’ll get people to join that way. I think that slow growth maybe isn’t bad either because it’ll allow the person setting up the group to find their feet and figure out what works for them. I think definitely highlighting some of your power users is good.
Chris: The super connectors?
Eileen: Yeah, because they’re great. Sometimes I see people just answering all these questions. I’m like, “Who are you?”
Chris: I have a couple names in my head. I’m like, yeah, I know who comes to mind when I think about that, which is amazing.
Eileen: Yeah.
Chris: I have hired some of those people. I need to hire somebody for support, guess where I’m going first.
Eileen: I know. I know, I was speaking with Robby from Beaver Builder yesterday. The person that does all of their tutorials was one of their power users.
Chris: Yeah, it’s only natural.
Eileen: It makes perfect sense and it’s great, which is another thing is you don’t really know where your career opportunities are going to come from. Like we said earlier, so much business has come out of people answering questions because you say, “Man, she’s the Gravity forms guru,” or, “That person is the anything related to wedding photography websites.” We’ve got a whole slew of those people in the group. I’m going to this person who … I know Melissa Love. She comes to mind. She’s used Lifter on a new course that she’s launching. Michelle Nunan is one of our shared power users. I think it’s a great way to increase your own profile if you’re trying to get business or set up your own tribe by being active in a group.
Chris: Absolutely. Sometimes, like you were saying, the groups overlap. In LifterLMS, we have a segment of people who are really passionate about Divi. Then I’m sure you have some Divi people, there’s a small segment who’s interested in online courses. There’s other Facebook groups overlap, and those users move between. It’s really fascinating when you think about it. It’s just another way to grow is to not be an isolationist.
Eileen: Right.
Chris: Perhaps there’s other … I’m a member of probably … I mean, I’m a little obsessive about it, but probably 30 or 40 Facebook groups related to online courses. Do I spend all day and every day in there? No, but at least once a month I just like to drop in and check out, okay, what’s going on over here? What’s the conversation about? I know that person, that person, that person. You start recognizing faces and you can see, like you were saying where it’s helpful to be helpful, not just promotional all the time. If you are jumping around, I think that’s a beginner, newbie mistake is to always be slinging or promoting your stuff or whatever. I try to always be helpful. If it makes sense in LifterLMS or link to something, depending upon where I am, if the person is asking about I’ll do it, but I’m very sensitive to try to be helpful in the group and always give before take.
Eileen: Yeah. When I first started in my first Facebook group, which was my friend, Don, from high school who had the WordPress theme, I had this personal standard that I really tried to adhere to, which was for each question I was going to ask I had to have already answered or shared three things. It could be I found Unsplash, and I’m sharing it with you guys, or I found this plugin or somebody has a problem. You know what? I know how to do this. Let’s jump on Skype and I’ll help you solve it or here’s the answer or whatever. Whatever it is I’ll Tweet your blog post, whatever it was. I was really, really religious about it. The upside was whenever I had a question, people were so pleased to be able to answer. When you have a question you’re in that moment of frustration, which is why they’re pinging you on Twitter and Facebook and all the rest because they’re just desperate for an answer. I think you’re right. It’s fine to go into a group and poke around, but try not for your first post.
Chris: Buy my Ran Ban Sunglasses.
Eileen: Buy my Ray Ban Sunglasses. Definitely.
Chris: Right, well, let’s talk a little bit about just where LifterLMS and Divi overlap. If you’re new to all this, just to make sure everybody knows, LifterLMS is a WordPress plugin that makes it possible to create and protect online courses. It’s mostly about functionality. It does have some design elements, but you still need a hosting account. You need to install WordPress, and you need a theme. That’s where Divi comes in. Can you tell the uninitiated what is Divi?
Eileen: Divi is a WordPress theme from Elegant Themes. They have, I don’t know, maybe a hundred different themes. That is I think their showcase theme. What makes it so popular is their page builder. You can drag and drop, have columns, different modules. You can export and import. If you like a layout from one website, you can send it over to another website very easily. It’s very portable. Then within Divi, Andrew and I came to Lifter because I had a course. We had somebody give a whole video tutorial series on Essential Grid and as a free course, Andrew has done a course. For us, we used right out of the box. Your default layout and styling was just fine for what we need. As we mentioned before, Melissa Love has used it. She did some styling. Then Michelle Nunan has a theme, which I have been lucky enough to see. It’s a child’s theme, and she has … Because the LifterLMS pages are really custom post types, you can put a little snippet of code, which she’ll share with you right into your WordPress, I guess, page functions and post functions. Then you can use the Divi page builder. She’s come up with this child theme with the previous or next lesson and previous lesson in the side bars. Everything is really styled, and she’s got columns where you can download the audio, the video, the PDF documentation, whatever. It just looks great. If you’re really wanting to customize, then I wish her theme was live right now, but you’ll it hopefully in just a couple of days. I think you’ll like it.
Chris: Awesome. I can’t wait to see it. If you’re listening to this, by the time this goes live, it should be out. Where would people go to find that?
Eileen: Yup, it will be at ElegantMarketplace.com. Thank you.
Chris: That’s awesome.
Eileen: Anybody who is looking to get into the e-learning space, which you should be because the possibilities are limitless and especially with all of the features that you have from membership to audience engagement or whatever it is, it’s an unbelievable platform. You guys have thought of everything.
Chris: I appreciate that. The thing that we don’t have is just not a super heavy focus on design, so when someone like Michelle comes along and is like, “All right, I’m going to bring some awesome design to this,” that’s next level stuff. I mean, that really completes the picture.
Eileen: Right.
Chris: That’s really cool and I encourage anybody to go check that out.
Eileen: Yeah, yeah, I do, too. I can’t wait to see it or have everybody see it.
Chris: Awesome. Eileen, I want to thank you for coming on the show. What’s the URL for Elegant Marketplace if anybody is going to check that out?
Eileen: ElegenatMarketplace.com.
Chris: Awesome. Anywhere else you want to send people?
Eileen: We have all the usuals.
Chris: Okay.
Eileen: The Twitter, join the Divi Theme Users Facebook Group. What else? Pinterest. I typically will do the Pinterest stuff under Eileen Lonergan just because I’m addicted to Pinterest in my spare time.
Chris: Good to know. Let’s leave people with one pro tip for their Facebook group or creative ways to use Facebook groups. For me, I’m just going to say that if you’re just launching your course and you’re in the marketing phase, or even while you’re building it you should go ahead and start building your audience. It’s really important to get involved in Facebook groups where your ideal students hang out. For example, if you have a photography education website, it would be important to not just join Facebook groups with other photography teachers, but go find where your ideal photography aspiring photographers are hanging out, whether that’s a beginning photography group, and iPhone photography group, architecture or landscape photography group. Whatever it is, you can go somewhere and you might find an area with 30,000 people already in there that are within the range of who you’re trying to teach to. Go get involved. What’s yours Eileen?
Eileen: That’s a good one. I like yours a lot. I guess my tip is for the moderator or the founder would be don’t be afraid to inject a little bit of fun. We had a little ugly sweater party. Everybody posts their photos of them in an ugly sweater. In order to allow people to promote themselves or share what they’ve done or their successes, a lot of times on Friday I’ll post like it’s a virtual cocktail party. I’ll post, “Okay, drink time. Share what you’ve done this week.” Then people can put the sites that they’ve completed or the clients that they’ve landed. Some of the stuff people come up with is like, I’m so proud of you. It’s awesome. Don’t be afraid to have the human element in your group.
Chris: Awesome, well, Eileen Lonergan, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for coming on the show.
Eileen: Thank you so much, Chris. I appreciate it.