EPISODE 124

Technology Partnership and the LifterLMS Done For You Set Up Service

In this episode of LMScast Chris Badgett talks with Ali Mathis about technology partnership and the LifterLMS done for you set up service that has been re-released. They discuss what the LifterLMS Done For You set up service is, as well as confusion some customers in the past have had with terms used in course development.

The LifterLMS Done For You service was created by LifterLMS to help the person who is an expert in their own field, but they need technology assistance with building their course. Ali and Chris talk about what they have seen with the Done For You service and how going with the Done For You set up service can have a lot of benefits.

Many companies try to do everything themselves, because they think it will save money. But as Ali discusses, the hidden cost of creating your course alone is your time. Time is money, so it may be more effective for you or your business to sign up for the Done For You service and let the experts who have course design down to a science handle it.

Another benefit to using the LifterLMS Done For You set up service is the people who will be making your course are professionals that have done this before. So they have learned how to avoid the classic mistakes most first-time course creators usually make. Ali also makes the great point that as the content creator, you should focus on creating the content and ironing out the details rather than spinning your wheels putting together the website.

Chris and Ali talk about the difference between demo content and the teacher’s content. They also discuss the difference between content and design.

To learn more about technology partnership and the LifterLMS Done For You set up service, you can visit lifterlms.com/dfy

You can 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 I’m joined by Ali Mathis. Today we’re getting into some exciting news about the re-release of the LifterLMS Done For You set up service. Thanks for coming on the show, Ali.

Ali Mathis: Thanks for having me, Chris. Good to be here. Hi, Everyone.

Chris Badgett: We got a lot of feedback around our Done For You services, and part of what it was is that we weren’t communicating as well as we could about what all was inside of it. So we spent a bunch of time recrafting the messaging, the pricing, and none of that changed. What we did is were just trying to better illustrate what you get when you get the LifterLMS Done For You set up service, which isn’t for everybody. There’s a lot of do-it-yourselfers out there. There’s a lot of people that are hiring their own agency to do a bunch of custom development and extend LifterLMS into interesting places.

But the LifterLMS Done For You set up service is for that person out there who is really just wanting to be the expert to do their piece, but they can’t do it all. They want to have a technology partner to help them on the journey. They want to get it set up fast, and they want to avoid the classic mistakes and leverage the benefits of working with the same team that makes the product – LifterLMS – and have that same team set up the service for them and launch in as little as two weeks. That’s what it’s all about.

Ali and I wanted to get in with you, and explain what we’ve seen and how going with the Done For You Set Up Service can have a lot of benefits, and the first one being just that speed to market of five to 10 business days, depending upon which of the packages you select … Launching quickly can have a lot of benefits, but tell us, Ali, what are some opportunity costs that people … What are you missing out on if you’re trying to do it all yourself and taking a long time? Like, what might be the hidden costs?
Ali Mathis: Well, one thing that I’ve seen in some of our clients is that they think that they can, maybe not necessarily save time, but save money by trying to do something themselves. When you don’t let an expert do it and you try to take it on yourself, while it can be a good personal learning and personal growth opportunity, sometimes it takes a lot longer for things to get done or it doesn’t work exactly right. Ultimately, I think we’re all very busy and your time is valuable.
I know it’s a cliché, but time is money, so the time that you spend fiddling around with things yourself when we could have the site up and running is time that really not only costs you your own money in terms of time, but you could be making money and getting a return on your investment from your website because we have it down to a science, and we have it perfected and we can just get it up for you in five to 10 days, depending on the level of the package that you need.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely. Yeah, having the team that built the product do it for you and save you all that time can be really critical. Like Ali said, it’s an investment, and our goal is always 10 times value, so whatever you invest in your set up service or if you’re a do-it-yourselfer and you’re just getting the software, we want you to see those returns. We’ve designed LifterLMS to be a publishing tool for building an online education platform that can create real results, impact and income in the world. In the beginning you do need to go through some investments, some startup costs, and if you’re going to have another team do it and do it quickly, there is an investment there. Our goal is to be a technology partner with you so that you can earn back that investment as quickly as possible.
The other thing, not only can going through the Done For You Set Up Service get your platform up fast, you can also avoid a lot of the classic mistakes that come with doing it yourself. Part of doing anything yourself, as we all know since we’re interested in things like education and learning, is that there’s a lot of mistakes. The very first time I built a website a decade ago I made a lot of mistakes. I can do it much, much, much faster now.
This ties into our earlier point about speed to market and how quickly are you going to start earning your investment back when you’re making some mistakes? Nobody is going to make less mistakes than the company that actually built the product. What are some mistakes that you see people making out there, Ali, who are perhaps trying to do it themselves when they do have the resources to invest in a team, but they just haven’t made that switch in their mind about partnering with a technology partner?
Ali Mathis: This isn’t a specific mistake, more as I guess an overall comment that you, you the customer out there, are the expert in your field and you have a vast knowledge base to share, which is why you’re putting together an online course platform, whereas we are technology experts. You should really be spending more of your energy finalizing and refining the details of your course in your area of expertise, and not worrying about the technical details or getting bogged down in terms of just wasting time or spinning your wheels by building your website when we could be doing that.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. If you want to find out more about this Done For You Set Up Service, you can just go to lifterlms.com/dfy. That stands for Done For You. You can also find the Done For You Set Up Service in the store. We have a little quote generator that you can select the type of things you want done, and it’s going to give you an exact price and the package for that. When you invest in that, you’re going to be … the stop watch has started and once we get everything we need from you so that we can get on the scene and do what we got to do, it’s anywhere from one to two weeks, and you’re up and running.
Ali Mathis: I think one thing, Chris, I know that you and I worked on a lot when we were pulling the service together is really listening to customers and their requirements. You know, I’m not interested in selling somebody a product that they don’t need, so that’s why we offer four different sort of levels that are tailored to your budget and your technological needs.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely. This is a big decision. It’s a big investment. If you need to have an email conversation or anyone to jump on a call, we have ways to do that. You can find all that at lifterlms.com. Really just I’d encourage you to take a step back and think about your project. As I’ve said many times on this podcast, there’s four things that you need to be successful. First, you need expertise. Second, you need community. Third, you need instructional design or the ability to teach and package your course. The fourth is the online course delivery system, the technology part. It’s very rare that one person can do all those things, so I would encourage you to consider, if you have the means and the resources, to have us just step on the gas pedal for you as a technology partner to get your learning platform launched as soon as possible.
Ali Mathis: Chris, one thing before we go that I think would be helpful would be maybe for you to go over the difference or for us to talk about, to help clarify, what demo content is versus people’s own content because that’s a question that we seem to get a lot in terms of different package levels.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely. In the web world, demo content it’s basically like placeholder content. It’s images, it’s text, it’s videos, it’s badges. When we get into e-learning and online courses, it’s certificates. It’s LifterLMS engagement emails that have stuff in there. It’s just not your stuff. It’s not your pictures, your courses, your lessons, but what that does is, it’s like going to a neighborhood, if you’re looking at real estate, and you go to the spec home. You can see, oh, okay, there’s a couch here. This is what the kitchen layout is. But this is not my stuff. This is just some demonstration stuff.
There’s really two reasons that people go with demo content instead of having us at LifterLMS install your content. That is, one is price. It’s more time intensive on our part to gather all your course materials and platform materials, and install and configure all that. Also, some people just preferred, instead of just … if you were to just buy the LifterLMS software tools, it’s like showing up on a piece of lawn with a bunch of stacks of wood and bricks and everything, and you have to put it together.
In this case, somebody just wants, “Well, just set it up for me. I know it’s not my stuff and it’s a little bit cheaper, and I’m going to come behind you, and I’m going to replace your paint with my paint. I’m going to put my course image where yours was. Now I know where that goes. Oh, I see you have these sample engagement emails. I’m going to go in there, but I’m going to reword the wording so that sounds like it’s coming from me, and I’m talking about the things I want to be talking about.”
That’s why people use demo content. Or if you really … you’re already … you’ve got your course material together and you’re not really using the demo to save money or as a starting point for your course, you might want to just really step on the gas pedal and have us install your content, and in the very act of us collecting it all for you, it’s going to ensure that you’ve thought of everything and have all the pieces you need to make a successful platform.
Ali Mathis: One confusion that I hear a lot is the difference between design and content. I think we should just clarify that all four levels of the package do include configuring, and styling the launchpad theme to match the basic colors of your logo and your color palette. You can give us a design reference to work with. That’s included in every level package.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, absolutely. Design is really important and that’s another reason to leverage the ability of the professionals out there. You may have a logo, you may have a color palette, but even if you just have a logo and you have some design references of sites that you like from a design perspective, that’s all we need to take those design cues and implement that on your learning platform. Design is really important, but just like going to some college dorm rooms versus that same person, when perhaps they’re a little older, you can see how the design changes over time or how the ability to appreciate good design changes. It’s good to work with a design professional, so that’s another important part of the package as well.
Ali Mathis: If you head on over to the lifterlms.com store, which is underneath the Ad-ons item on our main menu there, you can actually click on the Done For You product and see the difference in what each package includes.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. Just to give the listener just a little more like, “Well, what is it going to look like?” go look at the LifterLMS demo and see what that looks like. Just realize that those same tools can be configured to a very different design and made to look completely different based on your design preferences or your content and that sort of thing, so just to give you an idea of what type of platform it is that you can get through the Done For You Set Up Service.
Ali Mathis: Definitely.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, thank you, guys, for checking another episode of LMScast. Go find us at lifterlms.com if you have any questions about the Done For You set up service, and let’s build great online learning experiences together.

EPISODE 123

How to Think Outside the Blueprint and Build a Work of Art Great eCourse Adventure Style

Welcome to this week’s LMScast! This week we discuss how to think outside the blueprint and build a work of art Great eCourse Adventure style. Brad and Andy from The Great eCourse Adventure share their journey out of ‘the blueprint’ and into the realm of passion and innovation. This episode is full of tips and tricks about developing your own uniqueness and independence in the online course industry.

Brad and Andy talk about the current online education industry and outline their unique approach. They have a creative brand and style that they developed form their own interests. Brad and Andy focus on putting themselves in their students’ mindset and asking what kind of course they would want to buy.

Many online courses have a major flaw, and that is they are boring. Most online courses are 100% filled with information. While that can seem beneficial on the surface, it ends up giving the student information overload, which causes them to tune out of what is being said. Brad and Andy believe that a course needs to provide interesting experiences to students so the material will be more memorable. Brad talks about creating an experience that people actually want to show up to and creating user excitement. Their course style utilizes an entertaining storyline and a journey on an adventure through the course.

Their quest has been to create engaging content that goes outside the traditional course blueprint. They are working to develop a culture and community that love to do this type of course building work. Part of developing a community is providing experiences and emotion, and that is something The Great eCourse Adventure has done in a creative way. They also talk about bringing online courses to life with themes.

Andy believes that people should looking at course development as an art form or craft instead of as a get rich quick scheme. They talk about the importance of adding value to the industry as well as to people’s lives. Chris mentions that making money is a byproduct of creating value. One of the ways Brad and Andy add value to their business is by thinking of their students’ interests rather than thinking of them simply as customers.

Brad and Andy noticed that a lot of people in the online course business today are not using a creative approach to teaching. This is because they are focused on linear tactics, or getting the customer from Point A to Point B. Brad and Andy found that using their personalities in the course would make it a better experience for them, as well as for their students.

They talk about their journey from owning a course company that was ‘within the blueprint’ to turning it into the unique adventure it is today. When you live the lifestyle you love, you never need to take a vacation, because you love what you do.

Experience their teaching methods firsthand at their interactive CoursesWorthSharing.com website. To find out more about how to think outside the blueprint and build a work of art Great eCourse Adventure style, visit TheGreateCourseAdventure.com.

Thank you for joining us on this week’s LMScast! You can post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast.

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and today I’ve got two very special guests. We’ve got Brad and Andy from The Great eCourse Adventure. We’re going to be getting into some more unconventional or just different ways of looking at things when it comes to online education and crafting digital experiences and transformation online, and we’re going to kind of critique what’s going on out there in our industry, and really push into some interesting ways in which these two guys and their company and their community are transforming the way things are done, and just taking a different approach. I think you’re going to get a lot out of this episode, but first, Brad, Andy, thanks for coming on the show.

Brad: It’s awesome to be here. Thanks for having us, Chris. Thanks for everybody who’s listening.

Andy: Yeah, thank you.

Brad: Absolutely, and just so everybody knows, to get it right, this is Brad’s voice speaking here.

Andy: And this is Andy.

Chris Badgett: If you want to see these two lovely gentlemen, LMScast is also on YouTube, if you happen to be listening on the podcast. These guys have a beautiful website. It’s called The Great eCourse Adventure, which is at TheGreateCourseAdventure.com. Is that right?

Brad: That’s correct. Yeah.

Chris Badgett: You’ll see right away when you go to that website that these guys have a really unique brand and style, and really it’s a work of art. That’s something we’re going to get into today. First, let’s kind of get oriented and look at kind of what’s going on in our industry, and maybe critique it a little bit and have a conversation around just some trends that are going on that you guys are taking a different approach against. What’s going on out there in how you see our industry these days?
Brad: That’s a great question. It’s one of the questions we talk about a lot. I’ll throw one down, Andy, and then maybe you can offer another, because I know there’s definitely multiple.
One of the things that we see a lot of, and it’s just one of those things that we’ve all been taught over the years. It’s become the status quo for the industry, is that all courses are basically alike. You have a free offering. You have a course. It’s a PowerPoint presentation or talking head video, and you get a PDF. That’s about all there really is to it. We live in an age of distractions and entertainment, and people love to get high on quick digital fixes, and a lot of teachers out there building e-courses are still creating these 45 minute long PowerPoint presentations that kind of pack a ton of information and give a whole bunch of to-dos, but don’t actually give people an experience that helps them to take in the lesson, digest it, and then integrate it into their business immediately.
What happens is people go into information overload. They get overwhelmed by these long PowerPoint presentations, or they get radically bored. The thing with being online rather than in a classroom, the classroom you’re kind of forced to pay attention to what the teacher is saying, whereas online you can easily go over to Facebook and start scrolling the wall. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s people right now who are listening to the podcast that are distracted by something at the moment. It’s just kind of the way of the world.
The question we started asking ourselves is, “How do we create an experience that people actually want to show up to? They’re excited to do the next lesson?” We’re giving them the information or the process in a way that’s exciting for them, that’s engaging, because the dropout rate is pretty insane for the industry. 70% to 97% depending on which expert you ask. Regardless, it’s a big fail. That’s been our quest, and our question that we’ve been asking is, “How do we create highly engaging and different kinds of courses that go outside of that traditional blueprint?”
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. What about you, Andy? How do you see the landscape these days?
Andy: I mean, there’s so many different things, but like one thing that I’ve sort of been getting to a point of, every time I hear this I just roll my eyes is … And we all know this as the whole, like, “six figures in six days.” You know, “Take our course. You’ll be making six figures in six days, like, no questions asked. Money back double guarantee.” Yada yada yada. Every time I hear something like that, it just … I think there’s a few things wrong with that. I mean, first of all, that’s just absolutely unrealistic, period. I think it’s a great sales technique to use to kind of hook people in, but I think that it also, you know, the reality is that creating an online course and creating a sustainable business utilizing online education, it takes time, just like building anything else does. I think if there’s unrealistic expectations going into it as a course creator, that it’s going to be easy to get sort of disenchanted or maybe even just kind of stop believing in the vision as, “Oh, this was only supposed to take … I’m supposed to have $100,000 by two weeks in.”
Chris Badgett: By Tuesday.
Andy: By Tuesday. It can be easy, when you have that perspective or that expectation, then the idea of it maybe taking two years to get to a point where things are sustainable just doesn’t compute. I think people just give up very, very quickly. We’ve learned that there’s no shortcuts. Sometimes there are cases where somebody comes up with an idea and it’s just an immediate success since they’re just out the gate, and that’s usually the stories that we hear, but you know, the slow route is the best route. One thing you kind of touched on earlier was just talking about how you feel like what we’ve done is a work of art, and we feel like that there’s a certain point where, like, you get into your craft, if you’re a course creator. That’s kind of what we’ve identified ourselves as. We’re course creators, and that’s just, like, what we do. That’s our craft.
It’s not a matter of doing something very, very quickly to get to a result. It’s like, we’re just in it, and we’re just crafting the best stuff that we can craft, and it’s just like any sort of skilled craftsperson in any trade. You can make a sustainable business doing that if you’re good at what you do and you just put the time and energy into it. We’re really working to cultivate a culture and a community of people that are just, they have a calling to do this type of work. Maybe they’ve been teachers, and they want to get their work online. It’s not just another “get rich quick” scheme to these people, right? And that’s not what it is for us, either.
I think that that’s one thing that, you know, a lot of people get into it just as another quick way to make cash, and that’s great, but it’s just unrealistic. I think that when more people get into it just for the sake of, you know, that’s what they feel called to do and they really want to sort of dive into it and look at it as more of a craft or an art form, that’s when we’re going to start to see some really incredible stuff spread out of the woodwork. Yeah, and that’s where the opportunity lies, in my opinion.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Just to kind of piggyback on what you’re saying, the “six figures in six days” type of copywriting. I see a lot of people who come through, like, kind of the internet marketing or “make money online” scene a little bit, and then they … There’s this tendency, and sometimes I see this as just an evolution into just getting deeper where you end up more as an artist than just trying to scratch and find some cash on the internet. You know, people, like for example, I think a lot of this started or has some roots in certain key teachings out there from the marketing community. For example, Robert Cialdini has a book called Influence, and there’s like five ways you can influence people. For example, with something called “social proof,” which means, “Okay, I’m going to put a bunch of testimonials on my course page, and because other people see these other people have all this success, that’s going to increase my conversions and allow me to sell more product so I can make money online.”
A lot of this kind of sales training actually I think has a lot of roots in a guy named Dan Kennedy who put together a lot of …
Andy: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: … sales training. None of that stuff, Dan Kennedy or Robert Cialdini, they’re not bad people. They’re not evil people. They’re really talking about just marketing and sales, and you know, you can influence people. That’s what they find, like, in this direct response marketing community. It’s cool to know that stuff, but it’s kind of like Spiderman. With great power comes great responsibility. Like you said, it’s not about making six figures in six days, because in my opinion the money is just byproduct of creating value. Where does the value come from? Art. What is the best art? It’s priceless. You can’t even put a value on it, so there’s no limit.
I think it’s only natural, and sometimes maybe you really do need to make money or you need to leave your job, or you’re trying to find a different way of living, or being in a world where the economy’s changing, that it’s okay to, like, want to make money online and try to do that, and you do need to figure out copywriting and how to, like, write. At the same time, I encourage people to always, like, ultimately also cultivate that artistic side. You guys have done so much work in all this. If we’re looking at this as kind of like the baseline, you guys are kind of having a higher conversation over here, and taking a different route. What do you mean by “thinking outside of the blueprint”? What does that look like?
Brad: Yeah, I love that question. Before we did The Great eCourse Adventure- this is the example- we had an online course on building online courses called The eCourse Creation Blueprint. It was everything we just talked about. It was very blueprint. There was nine modules. Each module was a PowerPoint presentation that was 45 to 60 minutes long with a whole bunch of to-dos, and the success rate wasn’t profoundly awesome, but we were making money. We saw a path that we could make a lot of money.
Andy came here and we were going to … He lives in Hawaii, I live in Canada, and we were going to rerecord. We were going to spend a couple of weeks rerecording the whole product and making it better. Our big idea is instead of doing PowerPoint, we do it on a whiteboard. It was a big idea. That was like the breakthrough. Right before we go into filming, we’re standing on a mountain above my house, and I looked at Andy, and I’m just like, “Would you purchase our course if you found it a few years ago when you were looking for this type of info?” He was like, “No.” I was like, “No.” I’m like, “That’s a really big problem.”
We started asking ourselves, we had … Like, literally we were up until five in the morning that night brainstorming, like, “What would we want to purchase?” That was when the slip of the tongue happened, and we’re like, “Well, it would need to be an adventure. It would have to be fun. Like, people should get an adventure map when they sign up.” I’ve always enjoyed Saturday Night Live, and I was like, “Well what if instead of just a regular talking head video, that we did an entertaining storyline that is a journey of all of our participants going up a mountain? They start a base camp and they end at launch summit where they launch their course. Along the way, they meet interesting characters, and they have experiences that you have on an adventure. There’s mystery. There’s unknown. There’s comedy, and all of this stuff.”
We’re like, “Well, what if we gamified it, and our badges were actually backpack supplies, and we created our own mountain currency that people who are rewarded for participating, they can spend that on products in our shop?” It just kept snowballing. It suddenly went from this dry, boring blueprint that was just like all of the others, and the only thing that separated us from all of the other teachers teaching e-course creation was that our personalities, like who we actually are. The way it was designed, the look of the website, it looked like any of the top five other people out there that are teaching this stuff. That was one of the questions we often got on webinars. Like, “What separates you from David Simon Garland or any of those other guys?” We’re like, “Well, this, that, and the other thing,” but it wasn’t like awesome answers. Now it’s like, “You go to our webpage …”
Andy: We don’t get that question anymore.
Brad: Never. Never. I was listening to a podcast with Rick Rubin, and he was saying that you either have to give people a “fuck yes” or a “fuck no.” I hope I can say the F-bomb on your show.
Chris Badgett: That’s all good. All good.
Brad: What we were doing before is, it was just kind of like … There wasn’t that type of response, whereas with our webinars we do now with our Great eCourse Adventure, people are like, “Fuck yes. This is the coolest thing ever. Like, where has this been all my life?” Or, like, “You guys are lame asses and I’m gonna go to the blueprint over here, because that’s what I want.” I think, like, the thinking outside the blueprint thing, the benefit was, is, we had already created our blueprint. We knew our content. We knew our process. What we did is we took that skeleton, all those lessons, and we asked ourselves, “How could we give this creative flair? How can we bring this to life by adding personality?”
The way that we add personality is by giving a course a theme. That’s one of the main things we teach our students, is you give your course a theme, you bring it to life. Our theme for The Great eCourse Adventure is going up a mountain. We did a webinar recently where the theme was kind of a Star Wars outer space adventure. We’re traveling to the new world of online learning. This is something that our students are starting to catch on to and applying it to their creative process as well.
Andy: Yeah. The interesting turn of events … Well, I guess I’ll back up. I think this is a really important thing to realize, is, like, when we were doing the eCourse Creation Blueprint, it was purely a business thing. Like, everything about it was business. It wasn’t heart and joy. We fell in love with the process of creating it. There’s no denying that it was an enjoyable process. Creating that and promoting it, we felt good about it all, but when we realized … We were like, “You know what? We wouldn’t actually buy this if we’re honest with ourselves.” We were like, “Well, what would make this awesome?” As Brad said, we went through this whole process and then The Great eCourse Adventure theme sort of came in the picture, and what started happening, and this is the really important thing, is that all of a sudden we started seeing all these ways that we could take our other talents and passions and abilities that are seemingly completely unrelated to what this work is, and all of a sudden it like demanded that we infuse those talents and passions and things into this course.
All of a sudden, it went from like this thing that we were doing to make money, and you know, to be of service and whatever, blah blah blah, to this thing that’s like our dream project. Like, it ticks all the boxes of something we want to work on and offer the world. We originally thought, we were like, “Well, okay, cool. This is just going to be a fun way for other people to learn how to create a basic blueprint type e-course.” We weren’t going into it being like, “We’re going to teach other people how to do this.” It was just like a more fun way to do it the old way. The surprising thing that happened was that our first round of beta students were like, “Oh my god. This is amazing.” And all their courses were, like, mimicking what we were doing. They were, like, creating themes and like doing all this stuff, and we’re like, “Whoa.”
Brad: Going out and buying green screens, too
Andy: “This is what they want to do.” Yeah, everybody’s like going out and buying green screen kits, because yeah, the whole thing we filmed on green screen. Everybody’s wanting to do that. They were so inspired by it that they’re like, “This is what we want. This is how we want our courses to be.” The whole thing kind of started to get shaped into that direction and now that’s what we’re teaching, is not how to do it the old way. We’re teaching them how to do what we do now, which is really what we believe is, in our opinion, is the direction that we see online education going, or at least a direction that’s a very important direction.
We see this a lot, like, in traditional education. It’s kind of a big … I actually don’t know how big the movement is, but in the traditional classrooms, a lot of teachers are realizing that they’re having problems with kids staying engaged. One of the things that they’ve realized that helps really well is gamification. There’s actually a lot of applications out there that are these sort of like apps that help you gamify your in-person classroom. It’s like an RPG, kind of like fantasy kind of Warcraft type game. I think it’s called craft … Classcraft is actually this one specific one. They use it as a way to gamify the classroom time, and get the kids enrolled in this fantasy experience that is just another layer that exists on top of the basic educational information, or whatever it is that they need to learn.
It’s working wonders. Like the teachers that adopt this approach, they’re seeing insanely high increases in engagement, and just kids, especially kids that generally kind of zone out or whatever, they’re like, “Whoa.” Like, “I’m so into this. This is the coolest thing in the world.” You know? It’s like, the key thing is like it’s not replacing the core educational aspect of, “We need to learn what one plus one equals two.” These sort of dry things that we’re here to learn, but it’s all about adding another layer on top of that, and that’s kind of what we’ve done at The Great eCourse Adventure. It’s like almost more or less the same content that we used to have, but it’s just got this whole other layer, and layers and layers on top of it that makes it not feel like work or education, that you’re not like, you know, in this sort of … [barking] Excuse me, my puppy.
Chris Badgett: I have to ask you guys, where did that foresight or vision come from to even have the openness to ask yourself, “Would I buy my course two years ago?” And be honest with yourself? Where did that kind of vision and moment of, like, introspection come from? I mean, being on top of a mountain above your house I think definitely helps, but like why did you even go up the mountain?
Brad: That’s actually one of the ways we came up with The Great eCourse Adventure theme, is the majority of the time when Andy would fly up to Canada and we’d spend our couple week work stints together, is we’d spend most of the time outside. We’d be out golfing. We’d do these epic, day long hikes. We’d take the pack, and the dog, and our journals, and we would just talk about our business, and we would write out our lesson plans and ideas and all that sort of stuff. Adventure was a huge part of how we were building our business. I mean …
Chris Badgett: Just to make a observation, you also were getting offline. It’s not about being online all the time.
Brad: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Go ahead.
Brad: We tell our students that all the time. It’s like, “Don’t build your course sitting on your computer. Go out into the world with a journal and a book and experience life. Live your dream now.” Like, how can you live your dream now and create your course as a part of that experience? That’s what we were doing, and it was just kind of a … It was just a gut feeling that I had before asking the question, that we were standing there, and something didn’t feel fully alight. I couldn’t put my thumb on it, and I just … The question just sort of came out. I asked Andy, and then that, we realized it was a really big problem, because so many entrepreneurs do this. They create something to sell because they think it’s sellable, and they don’t actually believe in it with their whole heart and soul. We’ve put everything into The Great eCourse Adventure, and we believe in it with our heart and soul. We don’t have to sell it. The course sells itself to the people we made it for. I think that’s a big thing. Like if we’re doing the thing that we are most passionate about, that energy is in every single thing, every word of copy, every lesson that we have in it. It’s all just embedded in it.
I think that’s something people need to do, is have an honest reality check with themselves. It doesn’t mean you need to go out and redefine your whole business. You could do what we did. You could take the business you’ve already created and ask, “Well how can I infuse more of my passions and personality into what I’ve already created so that it’s more me?” When we do that, when we own who we are, or we own our unique creative outlook or point of view or whatever it is and we just allow that to express, the right people come. I mean, we have not had a single problem with our tribe who are going up the mountain with us, because these people are just so enamored by the experience we’ve created for them.
Chris Badgett: I think that’s a really interesting point that you made about people. Once you did this, people stopped asking you, like, “How are you different from X?” Instead of being incrementally different or slightly similar, it’s just like a whole other level of magnitude, and it sounds like bringing the art and the passion into it also just made motivation for you guys to keep going, and it became fun. That’s just like a totally different game. Instead of trying to make money online, you’re just doing your art. It creates transformation in other people’s lives, with the kind of people you want to work with, and then that’s where the value comes from, and that’s where the money comes from. It’s not about just making money online, right?
Brad: Exactly. Yeah. It’s such a big shift, and it feels great.
Andy: It’s a relief. It’s a relief. I remember when we came up with the idea for The Great eCourse Adventure, it was just like, “Ah, yes.”
Brad: It was so exciting.
Andy: Just quickly evolved into what it is, almost effortlessly. It was just like, once we found that magic ingredient or that magic set of ingredients, it just was like, baking the cake was just … It was a piece of cake.
Chris Badgett: What do you think is blocking people from getting there? I mean, you guys used to … You had to go through that personal inquiry before you opened the doors, but why is maybe perhaps the majority not doing that, in that space of education courses?
Andy: I think first of all is that people just haven’t thought about doing this type of thing. I think a lot of people, especially in the online marketing space, and just … We’re so techy and analytical that …
Brad: Tactics.
Andy: It’s very much about, like, linear tactics. Just getting from A to B. Like, “I don’t have time to mess around with like, you know, stories and narratives, and fiction doesn’t fit into this world.” Right? Here’s a great example. One of our students, she’s been with us since the beginning, so it’s been about a year since we did our first launch. She’s been with us, very very active, engaged, and hadn’t really created anything in this year’s worth of time, but very, very engaged. Like always posting in the forums, yada yada yada. We were kind of wondering like, “I wonder when she’s going to create something?” She finally, this last … It was like right around the Christmas break, she had this idea. We did an interview with this guy Tad Hargrave, and he mentioned this idea of this 10-10-100 rule, where the idea is create something, anything, in less than 10 days with less than 10 hours time and less than 100 bucks, and just see what happens with that. She’s like, “That feels awesome. That feels like a good motivator. I’m going to do something with that.”
She was kind of like, “All right. I’m gonna … What do I do? What do I do?” She was kind of coming up with different theme ideas, and she wanted to do kind of like an end of the year sort of process, where women would sort of reassess their goals and intentions and whatnot. I don’t want to get too far in the details, but the same person was definitely very resistant to this idea of themes and gamification and all these sort of things that really make The Great eCourse Adventure what it is, but through time she started kind of being like, “Okay, this makes sense. This makes sense.”
Anyways, she came up with this idea for this, like, her theme was this kind of retreat, log cabin theme, and she just did this simple Facebook group and created these basic images that sort of helped kind of create a sense of environment or place, and she sent out an email to her relatively small list and was like, “Hey, I’m going to do this thing. It’s free. If you want to participate, come do it.” She got a handful of people to participate, and she was amazed at A, how well received this theme idea was, and even these small gamification elements like puzzles and things like that. They all loved it, and her engagement was like, it was like over 90% or something like that. Through all of this, through this simple thing, she is like lit up. You can just tell that she is just, like, “I know exactly the direction that I’m going with this. It was all hazy and unclear, but now I know, and it’s good.” Now that she’s tasted what it’s like to be like, “Wow, I can be creative and this can be fun,” she is just like, she’s on a roll, and it’s so cool to see.
I think it’s just partially that people just haven’t thought about this possibility, and then when they do think about it or are presented with the opportunity, it’s kind of like, “Well, that doesn’t really make sense to my analytical, what? Left brain side of myself.”
Brad: Yeah. I think more play in the business world would be really good for everybody. We feel like if we want to make money, then we need to be buttoned up and serious and come across like we have our shit together, but let’s be honest. Nobody’s really got their shit together. Nobody really knows what’s going on here. If we could just all hang out the dirty laundry and get real with ourselves, I think the self-inquiry piece is so important for people, that if we all just took the time, even if it’s just spending two-three hours and asking ourselves some really honest questions about the direction we’re heading and the direction we want to go, and see if those two paths are aligned. Because whether they’re in alignment with what we really, really, truly want and who we truly want to be, or out of alignment, just being honest with ourselves we can figure that out and change course. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. It can all be integrated into what we’re already doing, where we’re going.
Andy: We’re really big proponents of this idea, like, and this is something that we do kind of guide our students to consider, is this idea of especially in the online marketing world, there’s this idea of passive income. I know even like Pat Flynn, the Smart Passive Income guy, he’s like … His tagline is like, you know, basically, “Work hard now so you don’t need to later,” or whatever. It’s this idea that we’re going to do something that’s annoying and we don’t really want to be doing it right now so that maybe later we don’t need to do anything, and then we can just kind of retire. I think that that whole idea … I mean, I like the idea of passive income, that’s great, but just the idea of doing something now that we don’t want to be doing so that we can maybe do something we want to do later, I feel like is ultimately … It just doesn’t resonate with me.
Our big question is like, “How do we do what we want to do now, and how do we make this whole business exactly what we want to be doing right now, so that we don’t need to be living a life that we need to take a vacation from?”
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. It’s almost like a shift in the collective consciousness from, let’s say, at least in the internet world, like the 4 Hour Work Week. You’ve got the palm trees, you’ve got the hammock. Person on a laptop, works four hours a week. That’s the passive income dream, but this is another evolution of that. Even the author of that movement and that book, Tim Ferris, he doesn’t work four hours a week. He spends tons of time doing all kinds of stuff that he loves to do, and yeah, he’s got passive income. That’s great, but work is good. The idea that you’re going to live on the beach for the rest of your life, unless you’re, like, you know, surfing or whatever, is like you’re … What gives you meaning in life, it’s not sustainable.
Andy: I live in Hawaii, and I don’t go to the beach that much. You know what I mean?
Brad: There you go.
Andy: Yeah, it’s true. It’s like, even Tim Ferris, great example. You know, he is completely absorbed and totally engaged with his work, and a lot of it doesn’t pay him directly, but it’s all one thing, you know what I mean? It’s all one thing, and that’s what he wants to do. If you didn’t pay him to do it, if he didn’t make money from it and he was all set, like, he’d still do it.
Brad: He’d still be doing experiments and …
Andy: Yeah. It’s like, if you got to that point of not needing to worry about money, well it’s not like you’re just going to lay around the whole time. You’re going to find something to do, right? You’re going to find a hobby. You’re going to get into some sort of art. You’re going to start crafting something. Otherwise you’d just get really bored really fast, so that’s kind of what our whole mission has been like. “Well, let’s just figure out how to … Like, whatever that future craft would be that I would retire into, let’s just do that now. Let’s get to it, and not waste time doing things I don’t want to be doing.”
Brad: It’s so fun. I mean, the amount of fun this last year has been since we came up with the idea has been insane. It’s been a lot of work. I mean, Andy came here four times in about a six month stretch where we’d do these three week work binges, where we would be working around the clock. We’d wake up, we’d go play sunrise golf, and then we would work until the wee hours of the morning. We’d get three hours sleep, we would have coffee, we would have drinks. We’d go for those epic hikes, and it was just, our whole journey was fueled by creativity.
The Great eCourse Adventure, I mean, we funded ourselves to build this through out beta presale. We had hardly created anything other than a trailer and a few of the videos to show what it was, and we did a landing page, and we had over $30,000 in presales come in. That funded us to start building it before our next launch, and that was like, we weren’t selling a product at that time. We were selling the vision of what we were there to create. Our list at that time was, like, 400 people. We didn’t have a big list. We just, people believed in this because everybody is so ready for, like, “What’s the next cool idea?” Everybody out there who is a teacher, who is building online courses or that’s getting in this, you have the opportunity in your industry to be the next cool thing. To come up with the next really cool idea that everybody turns their head. Right now, you could be scrolling the internet or your Facebook wall and most of what out there looks the same, sounds the same, and on 80% of it is the same. We need to stand out this day and age. Need to be something that is bold, daring, different, and wildly unique.
Andy: That’s a …
Brad: Go ahead.
Andy: I was going to say just kind of tagging onto that, one of our big paradigm shifts is going from this idea that we’re like, creators or transmitters of information, that the purpose of an online course is to basically just to relay info, right? If you take that approach, that’s what spawns so much sameness, in that it becomes a purely mechanical thing.
Chris Badgett: It used to be called information products.
Andy: Yeah. So the idea is like, “Well, that’s not really what’s going on.” Like with the information product, really what’s happening is somebody is paying to be transformed. They’re paying to become something they weren’t before, or learn a new skill that they didn’t have before. Really what you’re selling is transformational process, and transformation happens through experiences, right? So it’s like, we see ourselves as facilitators of transformational experiences. The key thing there is experience, so if we look at, “What is the experience that someone’s having when they are engaging with my thing?” Whether it’s my course, or my website, or this, or that. We’ve kind of come to a place where we’ve actually put the design of that experience at the forefront of everything. It’s less about utility and more about this … Because it’s hard to define, like, what experience is, and you can’t really tell what it’s going to be like to be somebody interacting with your thing.
We’ve found that by taking that into consideration in that creative process, that the experiences somebody has is going to be way more profound. That kind of got us out of our own way a bit. Because if you think about, like, if you just create this purely mechanical course that’s super boring and then you kind of look at it from like, “What is it going to be like to be somebody going through this?” You’re going to quickly realize that it’s pretty friggin’ boring.
Brad: Yeah. I mean you look at, most people what they’re doing is like, “Okay, somebody signed up for my course. I know I need to create a thank you video, so I created a thank you video.” Which is them standing in front of … “Well, hi. Thanks for signing up. Blah blah blah.” It’s like, “Okay, now I send lesson one. Here’s lesson one.” We need to get methodical and put ourselves in the students’ shoes. Rather than calling them customers, let’s call them students, because that’s what people are. They’re not a customer. They’re paying for a course with you, which makes them a student. We need to think about every single detail, like what do we want them to feel when they get on that welcome page? What is the emotion we want to invoke in them, and how can we do that?
I mean, we’ve thought about it from every detail, even our autoresponders that we have. Some of the autoresponders are hilarious. We’ve got one character in the adventure called Sherpa Steve, and he’s this grumpy bastard of a Sherpa, and so some of the emails that go out are from Sherpa Steve. And if somebody has been inactive for, say, three days, they haven’t come, then they’ll get a reminder from Sherpa Steve of, you know, “Get back on the trail or I will be standing here with your pack and I will surely die because there’s a pack of wolves surrounding me.” It makes people want to come back to the mountain, because they get that injection of dopamine. They’re like, “Oh yeah. This was fun. I want to go back.” You don’t have to have a Sherpa Steve in your course, but how can you make every single step … I mean, when you create every lesson, every lesson page, every autoresponder, ask yourself, “How can you make this an enjoyable experience for your student? What is going to make it enjoyable for them?”
The two things that we’ve found kind of ties that together and makes that answer really easy is one, having a theme, and two, knowing what your course’s personality is. Your course will have a personality. It will talk in a certain way. It will write in a certain way. The lessons come off with this certain vibe. The graphics and the colors, they all give off this energy. If you can be clear on what that personality is for your course … If your course was a person, how would you describe it? It’s a really great question to ask, because most of the courses that are out there have very little to no personality. If you’re learning from somebody who doesn’t have a personality, how much fun is that going to be? How engaged are you going to be? Chances are, you’re going to glaze over and you might retain 10%. What do we do to make it so that we retain 90%?
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. If I was … Let’s just use an example. Let’s say I’m doing a kettle bells for beginner, like, training video. It’s like, if I’m honest with myself and I think about it, I’m like, “Yeah, I wouldn’t buy my course. It’s boring. I’m just in front of a … I’m in my yard, showing proper technique.” What if I wanted to invoke some, you know, crusty Russian kind of theme? How would I do that?
Brad: Let’s call the course “Kettle Bell Hell.” It goes from like, “How to Do Kettle Bells” to, like, “Kettle Bell Hell,” and maybe the lessons are infused with some rock music. You could be on a green screen.
Chris Badgett: Like some death metal.
Brad: Bring that fire to the practice, right? Then your emails wouldn’t be like, “Oh, gee, I sure hope you enjoyed your practice today.” It would be like, “Get your ass outdoors and get your kettle bells on!” That personality would come through.
Chris Badgett: Lots of black and red.
Andy: Exactly. It’s like, once you kind of understand or have a picture of what your theme is, and when the synergy is there and it works well, everything becomes like crystal clear in this very uncanny way. It’s like, once we said those words, “The Great eCourse Adventure,” I mean, just had that picture in our mind of like, “Oh, we’re not creating courses. We’re climbing a mountain.” You know what I mean? It was like, from that point, it was clear what needed to happen, in the moment we were dreaming up each component of it. In the same way that, like, with the Kettle Bell Hell thing, if that was the theme, and we really want to make it this kind of like, almost like over the top kind of comedy of ridiculousness but still serious, like, “No, this is serious boot camp.” If that was the theme, then it’s like, you can almost just see how that could evolve…
Chris Badgett: I see what you’re saying.
Andy: …and become a thing.
Chris Badgett: I see what you’re saying too, how the information is still kind of the same. I still have the same technique. It’s just a personality comes out.
Brad: Exactly, and obviously …
Andy: Because honestly like …
Brad: … the personality of your e-course, it’s going to be similar to your personality. For us, like The Great eCourse Adventure, we’re kind of goofballs. We love to have fun. We’re playful. We laugh a lot, and so that personality is really expressed through the course. Kettle Bell Hell, perhaps that will work for somebody. Perhaps it’s a different scene with a different personality, but that was just the first thing that popped into my mind.
Andy: Yeah. It does need to be in alignment with the truth of kind of who you are. When you get the right combination, it provides an unexpected channel of expression and creativity. That’s when the fun stuff happens, because then it’s like, “Oh, wow. There’s all these parts of myself that I would never have been able to insert into this project, but now it’s all there, and it’s demanding it of me.”
Brad: I just want to share another example from one of our students. She’s building a course that’s helping people to change careers. She’s got this really cool superhero theme, and she’s somebody who’s not … She doesn’t love being on the camera. She’s also a part of an improv group. She loves writing. She loves creating the lessons, and doing all the writing, and she’s bringing in friends from her improv group to play some of the characters in her superhero themed course. She’s writing all the scripts, infusing with the lessons, and then she’s bringing other people in to be in front of the camera more. She’s still getting on the camera and she plays herself in this adventure.
Andy: She’s actually great on the camera.
Brad: She’s amazing.
Andy: She just doesn’t enjoy it, so she’s like, “Well, I don’t need to be the one on the camera.” She’s just scripting everything out, and she’s just finding where she best fits and what she needs to outsource, essentially. Her course is brilliant. It’s called Career Avengers, so it’s like you have this sort of Marvel superhero theme, and it’s all about you, as a participant, you are becoming … You’re in superhero training to, like, basically learn how to change your career with the most ease, right? Because she’s like a career change coach. It’s brilliant. It’s almost like, the way she’s got it set up, it’s so fun that even if I wasn’t looking to change careers, I think I’d still want to go through her course just because it’s really well-made and well thought out, and just fun, you know?
Brad: Yeah.
Andy: That’s one of the things, too, that we made it … We were like, “Wow, you know, this should be so enjoyable that even if somebody doesn’t want to create an online course, they should still have fun watching these videos and going through this course, just for the sake of going through it.”
Brad: Yeah. I mean, another thing is so many courses out there end up not being financially successful or sustainable businesses. That sucks when you create something that you hated the process of creating and it doesn’t make you a whole bunch of money like you originally intended, so why not create something that’s awesome, have a blast doing it, put it out to the world. If it doesn’t succeed, then go create your next thing. It took me … I’ve been building courses since 2011. I actually was building meditation courses. That was how I got into e-learning. Those courses, they took several years to get to the point. Now they’ve circulated all over the world and that’s how I bridged into teaching people to build courses.
It takes a lot of work. I mean, I made the commitment. I went from teaching 200, 250 meditation workshops a year to telling myself, like, “I’m done. I’m not going to teach meditation workshops anymore. I’m putting all my energy into online.” That was my commitment at the end of 2011. I gave myself five years. Now I’m like, just past the five year point, and I’m like, “Holy cow. I never would have saw myself doing what I’m doing now when I made that commitment.”
We kind of have to obsess about this stuff. We’ve got to really love e-learning. We’ve got to fall in love with the tech learning curve as well. Fortunately for us, there’s amazing tech out there, like what you guys are doing at LifterLMS. You make it easy for non-techies like myself.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. I appreciate that, and it’s a journey. It’s not a destination, and it’s not six figures in six days. You might as well enjoy the process. Success isn’t guaranteed. You might as well have fun doing it. That’s all really good stuff. I think to kind of close it out for you, the listener out there, let’s just take a trip back up on that mountain, and let’s say somebody is … You out there listening to us right now, you ask yourself, “Would you take your course?” You’re brutally honest with yourself, and you say, “No.” What are the next questions that you should start kind of potentially reflecting on to help step into that power, to step into that art form? What should someone, if they realize the answer is “no,” what are the next questions? Is it like, “What do I actually have fun doing?” What would you guys say? What would you guide the listener to ask themselves?
Brad: I remember a few of the first ones we asked. It was really simple. The first one we asked, “Well, what would we want to purchase?” What would take us from a “no” to a “Yes, I would pull out my wallet and pay $500 or $1,000 for this course”? What would convert us? That was when The Great eCourse Adventure idea came out. We started describing the type of experience that would inspire us to pull out the wallets, and that was one we were like, it had to be adventurous, had to be fun. I think that’s the best question to start with is, “What would inspire you to purchase?”
Then it’s like, “What do you need to change about what you’ve already created to turn you into a yes? Can you take what you’ve already done, or do you have to take all of the wisdom and experience you’ve gained up to here and give yourself a blank canvas?” We just added this new flair on top of our old blueprint, and that was all that was really needed.
Andy: Yeah. For us, it was a very … It was quite simple, because once we asked ourselves, “What would we want to buy?” Like, “What would make us go from a no to a yes?” One of the first things that came up was like, “Well, we need to feel adventurous. It would need to feel like a grand adventure of some sort.” There was a few other words. It was maybe a matter of a couple minutes, in all honesty, and then I was like, “It would need to be like a Great eCourse Adventure.” Then we were like, “Oh, there it is.”
Brad: I wrote them down. I wrote, “The Great eCourse Adventure” on a piece of paper, and “The eCourse Creation Blueprint.” I’m like, “Which one would you buy?” We’re both like, “That’s it.” We literally killed The eCourse Creation Blueprint right then and there, even though we had a launch coming up in less than a month. We were going to do another launch, and our income was dependent on that launch, but we’re like, “Screw it. We can’t go forward with this anymore. We have to go into this.”
Andy: I would say, too, just for somebody like, if somebody is realizing, “Wow, okay. I really don’t want to continue down that path I’ve been on. I want to freshen things up and make it more exciting for me and my students,” the first thing is really to take an inventory of what excites you. What are you passionate about? What are you a total nerd about that is seemingly unrelated to your course? In our case, going on adventures and big hikes was like, that was the thing that we were doing when we were not working on the course. That was the natural, like, “Well that’s okay. It needs to feel like an adventure,” because that’s in alignment with what we were really immersing ourselves in.
From that point forward, more of the details kind of came into view of, like Brad said, he loves skit comedy. Then we were like, “Well, we could kind of make the lessons feel kind of more skittish, and have characters and stupid jokes and things like that.”
Brad: There’s about 90 videos in The Great eCourse Adventure. Like, 90 video lessons, and every single one is on a different background. There’s 14 checkpoints. Each of the 14 checkpoints is a different landscape that we go through on the journey up the mountain. All the backgrounds kind of look similar, feel similar. Each checkpoint has at least one new character that comes into the story that helps to teach the next lesson in building your courses. There’s all this mystery that keeps you like, “I can’t wait to finish the work I have in front of me here so I can go see who we meet next, and where are we going after this?”
Andy: I just want to point out too that it’s important, like, to realize that your theme, when you introduce a theme into your course, it changes the dynamic in many ways. Specifically around, it creates more of a niche product, right? That’s something that’s very important. Especially with how things are in the industry today, like, getting more niche is actually the way to go. You’re more clear about who you’re serving, and it’s easier for those people to find you.
For us, we are attracting more of the people that are in resonance with this idea of going on an adventure. If somebody has no … They don’t want to go camping, they don’t want to go to adventures, like, that’s just not their thing. They’re not into, maybe, humor, they’re not our people, even though they might have bought our other course. That’s an interesting thing to realize, and also, like, you wouldn’t want to pick a theme that you’re not really super stoked about.
Brad: Just one more exercise, that once people get into this question asking thing. There’s a game that I like playing in brainstorming sessions, and it’s just the “what if” game. Once you start to open your mind to possibility and just start asking yourself, like, “Well, what if it was a mountain scene? What if people got a map when they do this thing? What if when people sign up, we send them a package in the actual mail, and they actually receive a formal letter, and maybe a gift about it?” Just start throwing ideas down. Don’t limit yourself to what you could do. We have all the technology, all the tools. It just takes imagination, creativity, and some play to come up with your great idea that’s going to help you build something that you’re going to be stoked about for the next five, 10 years. Who knows where that’s going to lead as you spiral out?
Chris Badgett: I like that “what if” game. I can see just a trend here looking at words, and perhaps just playing around with different names of your course. Like “Avengers,” you guys mentioned. “Kettle Bell Hell.” The adventure theme, but just hypothetically reimagining what you would call your course, and then when that lines up with your personality and what you represent, that’s a neat way to play that game.
This is really amazing, and I just want to encourage people to go check out TheGreateCourseAdventure.com. You’re going to see Brad and Andy’s website, and you’ll see exactly what they’re talking about. How this is very much a themed experience. I know you guys put on webinars and stuff too, so I’d encourage everybody to go check that stuff out and see all the content that they’ve got, and just check out their videos. They’re really good. Once I saw these guys, I was like, “This is different. I’m really into this.” I’d encourage you, the listener, to go check it out and just see, because it’s not the norm of what you see out there with building online courses, and how to go about it. Go check it out.
Is there anything else you want to kind of point people towards to go and see?
Brad: Yeah. I mean, we’ve got … If people want to go check it out, we’ve got an outer space adventure that will teach the art of e-course creation, where we really take people deep into the concept of themes and storytelling and gamification, and community development, and all these different things. It will really showcase exactly what we’re talking about. It’s about a 48 minute presentation adventure. Check that out, and we’re always thinking about what we can create next in this body of work, because it’s so much fun.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Thank you guys for coming on the show, and to you the listener out there, ask yourself that question. Would you buy your course? If the answer is no, it’s time to start reflecting.

EPISODE 122

Hot Education Niches, Organic SEO, and From Blogger to Online Courses with David Payette

In this episode of LMScast Chris Badgett discusses hot education niches, organic SEO, and from blogger to online courses with David Payette. David talks about his journey from being an online blogger with no profit to having a successful blogging business and online courses. He shares tips on finding education niches and about success that he has acquired from his business endeavors.

David used to work at an Apple Store as a technician. He decided to leave due to frustrations that it was difficult to get his ideas implemented in such a large company. He also did not feel like he was able to spend enough time on individual customers’ needs. After that he ventured out into his own web design business. This is where he discovered WordPress and the power that it has. Today David is the owner of Payette Forward, which is a successful site where he blogs about how to solve common problems people have with their iPhones, Macs, and other issues.

David lived in New York when he started his blog. He took a trip to Hawaii to visit a friend and decided it would be great if he could live there. So he found a job, continued to blog, and ultimately ended up living in Hawaii. David’s decision to make his life work in the land of his dreams greatly affected the outcome. Success is a change of thinking and a change of attitude.

Chris and David discuss the power of blogging and the details of monetizing blogs. David shares his tips with building blogs and how blogging at the start panned out for him. They talk about on the importance of organic SEO and quality content. The best marketing is results, as Chris says. And learning how to produce results for your audience is key to answering their questions and solving their problems.

Planning for success but being prepared for failure is one of the most important things you can do if you want to succeed in any business. Part of planning for success is finding ways to both find and optimize your niche. Finding a niche can be difficult, so it is important that you stick to areas you are passionate about. This will help you to stay in the game when times might be tough in your business. It is good to work with other people, because they can help you stay motivated and can help with managing fear.

You can find out more about David at Payette Forward.

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 I’m joined today with David Payette of PayetteForward.com. And I wanted to interview David and bring him to you all today so that we could look into discovering a hot niche and how to really develop a blog and work with things like organic traffic and monetizing the blog. As an online course creator, if you’re starting, just a subject matter expert and you’re blogging, it can be big on your mind, like, well I need to get some income going here before I take more time and invest more into building my course and taking a risk on launching that.

We’re going to get into David’s journey as a really interesting journey with his blog over at PayetteForward.com, and also David’s going to be asking me some questions about where he’s at as he’s considering launching a membership site and courses. He has some questions that would be of value to you to see what we talk about in our conversation. Thank you for coming on the show, David.

David: Thanks for having me.

Chris: Well tell us a little bit about your story. How did the blog start, what is Payette Forward, and what is this hot niche you discovered?

David: Sure, thanks, and thanks for inviting me to be on the podcast today. Payette Forward, like it sounds, is a play on words. My last name is Payette, and I was working at an Apple Store in upstate New York, in Albany, a few years ago, and I don’t know who suggested the name to me, but somebody there did. My story is one of unexpected success.

About four years ago I was working in the Apple Store here in upstate New York, which is where I am right now, and I was a technician, and I was a family room specialist, not a genius, and I loved certain parts of the job, but in other ways I wasn’t a great fit. At the time, I was becoming frustrated with the way that things were going at work and some of the policy changes and really it wasn’t their fault at all, it was just that I wasn’t, there were some things that I wasn’t happy with.
One of the things was I realized that I wanted to be able to spend more time with each customer, but Apple, because it’s a busy store, they need to be able to get people in and out real quick, one of the things was that I like to come up with creative solutions, and I found myself suggesting things and those suggestions weren’t taken, but it was totally fine. Apple’s doing fine. Apple is great, so the reason I mention that is that, let’s see, in February of 2013 I got to a place where I realized that I was frustrated, I wasn’t a good fit, so I quit, and I started my own business.
Chris: I just want to interject there, for those of you listening, one of the words I use to classify the people that are listening to this type of show, we call them education entrepreneurs, and part of just being an entrepreneur in general is usually you hear a common thread of either you were unemployable or you discover some big opportunity or a combination of both or there’s some kind of driver in you that’s just really driving you to create in the world.
That unemployable quality, which I also share with you, it’s not that you can’t get a job. It’s just that certain things are fundamentally … like if you can’t see your ideas expressed or you’re being forced to minimize the parts that you love about the job or feel like you need to execute on what the promise is, you need engagement, you need to spend a lot of time with the customer, if you don’t get to fulfill that, it is really frustrating. It’s a very common thing for entrepreneurs to have that quality.
David: I think that’s good to hear, too. One of my takeaways was that I realized that even though I was told sometimes that my ideas … even if my ideas weren’t taken to heart or weren’t executed, it didn’t mean that they were bad ideas, and the reason I mentioned my frustration with Apple, is not to knock Apple or anybody at the store at all, because overall it turned out to be a wonderful experience for me, but I couldn’t see it at the time.
In February of 2013, I quit, and I started my own local web design and consulting business. My goal was to work with local web design businesses or local companies to help them increase their presence online, which is what a lot of people do when they start out. I called that Payette Forward, and it had nothing to do with iPhones or anything that I ended up doing later.
As part of starting that business, I figured, okay, I’m going to be selling websites to people, so that’s when I learned how to use WordPress, just really only about three years ago. I discovered I always thought that blogs were stupid, and I thought that WordPress, I thought it was just for blogging, and just like a lot of people have a misconception about how powerful WordPress is. The people that are listening to this podcast know how powerful WordPress is, if they’re there, but I think that probably a lot of people can relate to that preconceived notion and how that changes.
I learned how to use WordPress. I built myself a website because I thought, hey, if I’m going to sell websites to people I should have one of my own so I can put it on a business card. As part of building that website, I made a blog section, and the reason I did it was so that I could tell people when I sold them a website that, hey, I had a blog and you can have one too. I figured, okay, I need to put something in this blog section or else it’s just going to look empty. I wrote one blog post over breakfast one morning in August of 2013. I totally forgot about it.
Chris: I just want to share with you a similar story. Sometime in 2013, I believe, I wrote a blog post about my journey, on my web design blog, about my journey with building my online course when I was using some off the shelf WordPress plugins and themes to put together, and that blog post went viral. All the other posts I wrote, didn’t really get much attention. All of a sudden people started contacting me with questions about WordPress and online courses, learning management systems.
Over the course of these years, I specialize in that, build a software product for that, but it all started with me writing a blog post in 2013 that I didn’t really think much about. It wasn’t an intentional, I’m going to make a viral blog post, but anyways, I’m just noticing a similarity here.
David: Absolutely. That’s amazing. I had taken one WordPress course on Linda.com, and I really learned a lot from that. One of the pieces of advice that they gave as part of the course was for a blog post formula, ask a question, answer it. Make the title of the blog post the question, answer it in the body. I took that formula and I said, okay, what was the most common question that people used to ask me about in the Apple store? It was, why does my iPhone battery die so fast? Because anybody with an iPhone can relate to iPhone battery problems. As an Apple Store employee, I got a lot of experience solving that problem, and I had some answers firsthand.
I wrote that as the title, and I wrote the answer in the body of the article, and as I said, I forgot about it. I never intended to write another blog post, and then six months later, it went viral and five million people read it in a week, and it was one of those ridiculous, life changing experiences. I remember, I was sitting downstairs in my parents house with my dad and prior to that day when it started to take off, I had been getting about 150 hits a day on that article. I thought that was amazing, that 150 people from all over the world were showing up and reading my article.
Chris: That’s pretty decent.
David: It really is cool. It is. It is remarkable that anybody shows up. It’s still amazing to me that people show up and read my articles. I remember sitting with him, we watched the number go up to 26 people at once, and then we watched it go up to 95 people at once. I thought something was broken, and so did he, and then, I think at the peak there were like 13,000 people at one time reading my article. It was crazy, and it was great. I had monetized my website just enough to make enough money to move to Maui and it was a really cool experience, the way that everything happened.
Chris: Let me unpack that piece just a little. How do you monetize a blog? What did you do?
David: Well the easiest way to monetize a blog and the way that I did it at first was with Google AdSense. I think this was before the days of the official Google AdSense plugin. Yeah, it’s just that process of finding an ad network and placing the ad units on the page, and then letting the ad network do the work, in terms of finding the correct advertisers for the people that are on your website.
Chris: For the uninitiated out there, Google AdSense, and correct me if I’m wrong, David, but the version you’re talking about here is you have a blog and then you have these ad units, which are just squares that either go inside the content or around it, like in the sidebar or at the bottom or at the top of the website. The ad network, you put some code in there and the ad network actually displays banners.
David: Fair.
Chris: That’s pretty much it, right?
David: Yeah, it’s an amazing process. Google has two different sides of their business. They have adwords, which is where people buy the advertisements, so a lot of people, when they sign up for hosting plans get that $25, spend 25, get $100 adwords credit. Sometimes those are the ads that end up on my website, so there’s that side, and then there’s the publisher side.
With AdSense, I get paid .68 cents of every dollar that people spend with adwords, so it’s a really cool way that it works and AdSense, is … People come up to me all the time and they’re like, hey, I was on your website. I think it’s awesome you’re advertising the exact same product that I was looking at two days ago.
Chris: That’s called retargeting.
David: Right, exactly. Then other people will say to me, how do you choose the advertisers that show up on your website? How do you get these relationships? I tell them, AdSense does all the work for me.
Chris: For those of you that don’t know, that’s how Google really makes a lot of their money, so it’s not … they don’t make any money off search engine.
David: Right.
Chris: This is how they make the majority of their income.
David: They make something like $17 billion a quarter on advertising revenue. Of that, a lot of it gets paid out to … I think most of it is in the Google search stuff, but a lot of it, like billions of dollars every quarter, gets paid out to publishers like myself. It’s not like there’s just a little money going out right now. It’s an absolute ton of money that Google pays out to publishers for ad space.
Chris: If you’re going to do it, though, you need to have a high traffic site. I see a lot of people with AdSense that … they don’t have the numbers of traffic to really justify the ads or whatever. You can’t always engineer it, and I know you discovered this, all of a sudden it went from 100 to 13,000 people at once, but what other tips do you have for people about, that you had the question and answer format for the blog posts. Then you have just paying attention to your analytics to make sure you’re aware when things take off, but what else for organic traffic? What tips do you have for somebody who’s … courses and stuff aside, just for building a blog and content, how do you get good, organic traffic?
David: If I may plug a course that we’re actually developing right now and we’re going to call it Blog Winners. It’s something that I’ll ask you about too because I think I could be an interesting case study and some of the people that are listening to this course might be interested in, and probably in the same situation of someone who has developed a system that works or something that there are people coming to me all the time and asking me how I do it, and then for myself, realizing that, hey, this is something that is marketable.
Then when confronted with the choice between do I go into high end client work or do I try to put this out and give it away to people in a course format is a decision that for me, at this point, isn’t very hard for me because I love to … I love the independence and the ability to work directly with people and not necessarily high end clients that demand a lot of attention. Although I would make exceptions in certain cases, so just backing up though, to your previous question, I would say just about AdSense, to not wait to turn on AdSense or to apply. Even if you’re only getting five or 10 people on your website a day or not much traffic at all.
There’s really no reason not to apply for AdSense and set up a couple of ads, if you do it correctly, and as long as you don’t go outside the bounds of what Google allows or put too many ad units on a webpage. In that week, I made over $10,000 that week from AdSense. It could have been 50 or 60 if I knew what I know today about how to optimize ad placements and how to use that type of revenue. People should know that if I didn’t have Adsense on my website with my 150 people a day, making less than $1 a day on AdSense, if I had waited I might have missed out on a ton of money, so I think it’s important as one piece to set ourselves up for success in that respect.
Chris: That’s awesome.
David: About organic SEO, that’s my bread and butter right now, and I love talking about SEO. I think that it’s just such a valuable commodity right now of content. It’s a great opportunity. Someone like me who has a brand new website, I didn’t have domain authority. I didn’t have page rank. I didn’t have all these buzz words that people say that you need to be successful at SEO. There are a ton of people right now that are … there are a ton of websites, you Google SEO secrets, and people make promises about what needs to happen to be successful in SEO, and I found that a lot of those things are just entirely untrue or outdated. In some cases, the same things that worked five years ago, like tags or meta tags, they actually hurt websites today.
Probably everyone has heard content is king, and if that’s the truth, then people who are creating courses are in the best position to take advantage of SEO today. I would challenge people to, okay, I’m going to sell a course but every piece of content within that course is SEO material and is article material and can be used to get free traffic to the website and then can be used to sell the course. I think that content marketing is huge, and there are a lot of companies that are doing it well, and a lot of companies that aren’t doing it very well.
Chris: That’s a good point. I mean, the course creator out there has a unique advantage in that they’re pretty experienced at creating content, whereas for some people that’s a struggle, but typically if you’re teaching something you’re usually … no problem cranking out some written content or doing some video content or creating image content. The course creator has a unique advantage.
David: Absolutely. We’ve been able to replicate that success, not just on my website, and the iPhone battery article is no longer the most popular article on my website. I think it’s my iPhone won’t charge, is number one right now, and my headphones won’t work, or something. It’s one of those that is the most popular.
Right now I should mention my numbers. Obviously viral hits are great, but it’s not sustainable. I can’t expect to have that every week, so right now as a baseline, we see about 1.6 million uniques a month, and about 50,000 organic clicks a day from organic SEO and that website.
Chris: Let me ask, just right there, what makes this iPhone usability, common questions such a hot niche?
David: I think that it’s a built-in … I mean, a lot of people have iPhones, so it’s…
Chris: Ubiquity, widespread.
David: Absolutely. It’s ubiquitous. I think that also people who have iPhone problems are naturally going to use those devices to search for answers. Most of my traffic is mobile. Most of the people that show up on my website are people with iPhones because a lot of the problems that we address aren’t my iPhone is broken. It’s really, my headphones won’t work, my iPhone won’t sync to iTunes, and they’re using their phones to search for it.
I think that successful niches are all over the place. There are so many opportunities right now for people to leverage the power of the content that they already have. If you think about it, how much is organic SEO actually worth, right? If I’m paying $2 a click in Google AdWords, and I’m getting 50,000 clicks a day on my website for organic SEO, then I’m getting $100,000 of…
Chris: Worth of traffic.
David: …of traffic a day. If I had to buy it I’d have to pay $100,000 a day for it. That’s the value of organic SEO, and the message is that anybody can rank number one in Google. I can outrank Apple for their own support articles. I can outrank iMore and Mac Rumors and the other guys that have large teams and the big competition. Nowadays the playing field is really quite level, and it all comes down to the quality of content, and Google uses a variety of metrics to track user engagement, and they don’t necessarily publish those things, but it has to do with time on site, bounce rate and all that good stuff.
Chris: That’s incredible. That’s really interesting because I think in this day and age you often hear, it’s all about niches and stuff like that, which is important. I mean, there are micro-niches that you could build a blog or a course around, but there’s also … it’s important to not be scared of the mega-niches like the iPhone, something that’s very ubiquitous, it’s not really a micro-niche, but what you’re doing … the strategy there is to just provide incredible value. If you’re clearly defining the problem and answering the question and solving that pain, compete, like you said, with the big players in the space, like Mac Rumors or even Apple itself, which is awesome.
Whereas in a micro-niche, it’s more about showing up and just doing the work, whatever, but you can … I don’t know. I see people get into this all or nothing thinking, like I have to go to the big giant hungry market or I have to go to this tiny, obscure micro-niche, and then I’ll just be a big fish in a small pond there.
David: I think it’s important to go where some people are, and there are various tools that are out there to … and that’s the SEO game. Organic SEO is, okay, where are people searching, what are people searching for and the what hasn’t already been written? It’s not something that I’m afraid of. I’m not afraid to go after what’s already been written if I have unique content that isn’t on other people’s websites. A lot of the people that are listening to this podcast are people who have unique insight into the topics that they’re selling courses about.
I could write an article about, why are my eyes so dry? Which is a very common Google search, and it’s not going to do well because even if I can put it together in all the right ways, I’m going to be pulling information from other websites, and I’m not going to be giving anything really unique.
If I were to go to an ophthalmologist and talk to them about that problem they would have all of these unique insights that they could give me, and people would respond to that, and that would rank well on Google. I’ve done that before, so people who are listening to this might think, okay, this guy got lucky in one niche, and he’s talking like he knows everything.
If you Google, why are there so many mosquitoes in my yard, I’m number one for that because I interviewed a guy that knows that stuff, and I put it on a different domain so it’s not links … it’s actually called Pay it Back. I’m glad I separated the two, but we’ve been able to duplicate the success and rank on the first page and number one across a variety of topics.
Chris: That’s awesome. I just want to highlight that point. We talk a lot about, in this podcast, the four requirements for building a successful platform. One of them is expertise. One of them is instructional design. The third is the right online course delivery system, and the fourth is community. But the first one there, the expertise has to be there, and the fact that you can repeat something, especially in a totally unrelated niche is definitely a clear signal of expertise.
Perhaps there was some luck involved, everybody has good and bad luck, but when you start repeating things, you may not always win, but if you can repeat success, then it starts to become a lot more solid.
David: Absolutely. With regard to giving themselves the opportunities to success, I’m sure that you talked about this, but I think it’s very important for people to set themselves up technically, and we’re going to talk a lot about how this all works in the course that we’re going to put out, but setting ourselves … If I hadn’t set myself up technically for success, I was on a $9 a month net firm server, which was the company that … I was piggy backing off of my mom’s hosting plan for this website.
Chris: Did your site go down? Did your site go down when you got out?
David: Because I … one of the miraculous things that happened between the August and six months later when it went viral in February of 2014, was that I took a whole bunch of technical steps to make my site more robust and faster that I just did out of a desire to solve the, why does my WordPress site take eight seconds to load problem.
Chris: Right.
David: Because I thought … I did some reading and I know eight seconds, I found webpagetest.org, I found GT Metrics. I found some tools that I could use, and I saw how bad my website was, so I started to learn how cache and plugins use, so I learned how W3 Total Cache works, which is great. Then I also found out about Cloudflare, and even though I am absolutely not paid or endorsed by Cloudflare, no, I have no horse in the race, but I love Cloudflare because if it wasn’t for that, and it wasn’t for the caching, my website would have gone down.
WordPress just came out as being one of the slowest CMS’ out there, we’re talking about that, now it’s a problem at work camp, but if it wasn’t for Cloudflare my site would have gone down pretty quickly. A lot of the people that would have seen it would have gotten a white screen, and it would never have gone viral. I would have never made the $10,000, and I would have never gone to Maui, and I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you today.
Chris: Right.
David: I wonder how many smaller people’s websites start to go viral and then the server dies.
Chris: Or they get that big link from a high page rank site and all of a sudden, boom, site gets crushed.
David: Right, and then it passes. For me, it was Facebook. What happened was Facebook. Somebody shared it in Texas and that’s pretty much all I know. There’s somebody out there that changed my life in a very significant way. I don’t know who they are, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to thank them, but it happened. They shared it, more people shared it, and then Google Analytics, I saw it just bubbled out all over the whole country and then the world. It’s fun to watch when things do go viral.
Chris: Yeah, I’ve heard what you’re describing there described as, you should build the six lane highway even though you’re just a small thing, you should be ready. You should plan on success. I mean, you don’t want to spend more than you have in hopes that you’ll be successful, but you definitely want to plan as if things might actually work.
David: Yeah, I mean, why not? Also, even if it, at a smaller level, setting ourselves up for success is important because it’s the difference between a two second and eight second page load. Even if there’s only two people on your website, we’re pressing slow out of the box and then when we pile on plugins and I’m sure LMS’, it’s a lot of work to doing the backup. There’s just no way around having a dynamic website, so setting ourselves up for success is important no matter how many people there are.
Chris: Yeah, and just on a small side tangent, one of my recent areas of interest is this whole concept of … I never really believed it, the thing that people are … fear of success, or whatever. As somebody who’s worked with a lot of clients, customers, launched my own projects, I’ve recognized in myself and others that fear of success where right before launch is imminent of the new thing or whatever it is, there’s always this tendency to creep into delay, sabotage, slow down. Even with people that are already successful. I just find it fascinating.
Even that little thing about, just not even thinking about, well what if this works out wildly successful beyond my dreams? A lot of people don’t even entertain that thought, and like you said, they might miss, I think that’s actually stemming from a place of fear of success. They might miss that opportunity that their site gets crushed because they’re not really ready for traffic.
David: That’s absolutely the case. In my case, my success was really preceded by a change of thinking and a change of attitude around what was possible for me in my life. I would never have left Apple if I didn’t have this inner knowing that everything was going to be okay regardless of how things turned out. I think that fear has definitely crept into my life at certain times about success, and it still does from time to time, and I try to surround myself with people who help me to catch me when I start to go into those delays or self doubt or self sabotage.
I think there’s a balance that happens between being realistic about, okay, this isn’t going to work out. For instance, we went to Cabo Crest together, and I went in with an idea that we were going to build a course around … and I think we actually talked about it the first night briefly about iPhones, and I was going to build out this whole course, and there was going to be a section about interacting between myself and the people.
Bryan Clark and I had a conversation the first night. He’s like, Dave that’s not going to work. I was like, why? He’s just like, there is no way that people are going to pay money to do … now he talks about it with a couple of other people. They’re like, Dave, that is not going to work. In that case, I think it would have been foolish for me to continue to walk down that path, having gotten advice from people that were successful.
But with regard to fear and moving forward and fear of success, I think it’s definitely a challenge for all of us at any level to imagine … because my mind always goes to what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen to me, and then I think it’s going to happen.
Chris: Right.
David: I can’t tell you how many times the last couple of years since I’ve been doing this that I thought, this is it. It’s all going to fall apart now, maybe it’s a fear that people will think I’m a phony, or I don’t know. Sure enough, it’s never happened, so I just have developed this … I think it’s something that comes with experience. I know that you have it too, a resilience around not getting into that Chicken Little mode, the sky is falling. I don’t know exactly how everything’s going to play out, but I do know that everything’s going to be okay. If that makes sense.
Chris: It does. I think that’s just part of the entrepreneur’s journey. It has to do with risk tolerance, and it also has to do with hedging the down side, and sometimes there’s just classic grandmotherly advice where you plan for the worst but hope for the best. That’s really good advice.
That’s awesome. Let’s talk a little bit more about transitioning to … you’re creating a course and where does that … let’s start with where does that come from, and why not just keep writing blog posts and trying to monetize the blog? How are you shifting the courses, or rather why are you adding courses into the mix?
David: Right, and that’s what it is. It’s an adding, and it’s an expansion. Up until about six months ago I had done everything myself with the website, and I was answering emails and running the server and writing new material and all the different hats that I had to wear. It was becoming overwhelming. Fortunately I was able to get to a place where I was making enough revenue, I had continued to use AdSense but also added some affiliate networking to my website in areas that are very relevant to my users. Then I was … I lost my train of thought, where was I going with that?
Chris: Adding courses. When did those come into the diversification mix?
David: Right. I was able to hire people, that’s where I was going, over the summer, and we were able to start to scale the website because I got to a place where I realized that if I were to … if I could write more iPhone articles forever and ever, I’m making some money. I’m making more than enough to travel and live a life that it was beyond my wildest dreams a couple of years ago, and it was like what you were saying.
I hired a couple of guys. We started to scale the website. We’re doing well. But all throughout this time, and then at Cabo Crest people come up to me and they say, hey, how do you do what you do? A lot of people would come up to me all the time, just friends, and they said, hey, I know I can do what you’re doing. I know that I can start a blog. I have all this thing. I just need a couple of tips, how do I get started?
Then I would start to explain to them the beginnings of the process, and they’d be like, that’s not for me. It’s deceptively simple. It looks simple on the outside, but running a successful website and building and LMS, and building courses online, the people that are listening to this know how difficult it is to do that and be an entrepreneur, and stay sane, and do all those things.
What I wanted to do was start to be able to scale Payette Forward and bring on other people, and that’s what we’re doing, but also start to be able to teach people how to do what I do. Because I’m in an iPhone niche, which is highly competitive, and I was able to do this. These niches are all over the Internet, and the one thing that I find most people don’t realize is that they’re an expert in a topic. Most people that I talk to are an expert in a specific field of interest, even though they don’t think they are. I can start to ask them things like what’s the most common question that you get on a daily basis? They’re able to … from customers.
People don’t necessarily realize how valuable their knowledge is, or it can be from a hobby or it could be from … my friend with the mosquitoes thing, he didn’t think that knowing to spray oil in the leaves of this specific plant was anything special at all, but I had never heard of that and obviously the people that read that article hadn’t either, because that’s what they find valuable.
I wanted to be able to sell a course that teaches people how to do what I do, but also how to live the life that I’m able to live today, which is really ridiculously good.
Chris: That’s awesome. I just want to put a caveat on that point. This happens to me too where people will look at something, for example, recently I just settled in Maine, but before that I was on the road for eight months with my family, living out of the RV, going to national parks, but I was still working from the road. It’s not easy, and it was four years of hard work to make that happen, and even before that, a decade of experience developing as a manager, as a leader and things like that. Discipline, the ability to work on the road.
What may appear … if you look at the lifestyle, you’re talking about the stable income, the flexibility, the freedom, time, income and mobility and those things, and if somebody’s … there’s people who are like, okay, I want to do that overnight too. Those aren’t the people you want. If somebody wants to learn about how to build a web agency, or launch a WordPress software product, that may sound sexy, but I know it’s a small percentage of people that if I was going to train, there’s the right people that are going to do the work and ready to move forward.
But I think it’s fascinating, and I think as online course creators we go through this sometimes where we may fear or actually attract people that think it’s going to be easy or whatnot. Like you’re saying, when you start repeating things again and again and consistently stay in business and keep things going, go to a different niche, that’s always a sign of, oh, there’s something to learn there.
I’m interested in your course because I know what it takes to get to the point, to grow a team, the amount of risk you took when you walked away from the job to stand behind your values and things like that. Anyways, just keep going.
David: Sure. If I could back up to what happened when it went viral, because it went viral. I made, let’s say $10,000 that month. I went to visit a friend on Hawaii, and I’m a guy that comes from a very middle class background. I never thought of myself as a person that was going to be able to go to Hawaii. That was farfetched retirement type stuff for me. I don’t come from a family with a lot of money, so this is not an opportunity that’s reserved for the elite. It’s really open to everyone.
I went to visit a friend on Maui for four weeks, and I just never came back because I had my local consulting thing going on here a little bit, but it really wasn’t taking off that much. Then I got to Maui, and I looked around, and I was like, hey, this place is really nice. I grew up in upstate New York so it was very different. I stayed with a friend for four weeks and my traffic on my website went back down again. I forget how much, I was getting a few thousand people. I went from making $10,000 that first month to making somewhere between $700 and $800 the next month.
That was when I was like, all right, I can go back and I can make the web consulting thing work and try to do that, or I can just stick it out and see what happens. I ended up meeting some people who just happened to need an SEO guy, and then they offered me a place to stay in return for SEO work, which was just like this great experience that happened. That didn’t quite work out, but then the thing went viral again, and in that short amount of time a million people read it that month, and I was able to make something like $22,000 that month. I was able to live off that for a little while.
It took me, I’d say, less than a year to get up to, without viral hits, to get up to a baseline of revenue where I was making $2500, $3000 a month, which was enough for me as a single guy to live on. I wasn’t even really writing that many articles at the time. I probably had about 30 articles on my website that was doing that and paying the bills. I was actually working on other projects.
Not to get too far off track, but just to demonstrate that the reason I become overwhelmed was because I really wanted to expand and I really could have just chilled on Maui for a very long time, and I could be there today, but I really just have this … and I think it’s part of what got me to where I am today and wanting to sell the course, is this desire to continue to learn, to continue to grow. If there’s something that I don’t know how to do, as an entrepreneur I think that I want to naturally learn how to do that.
Chris: That’s awesome.
David: With regard to my online course that I want to sell, I guess I would have some questions for you too, if I may.
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. What’s on your mind? Before you ask, I just want to highlight that point that … and I’ve experienced this too where you go through dips along the way. You might have a success, but it’s never like this straight line or this hockey stick with no dips or whatever, so the fact that you … it’s just a common trend I see as people. They have their ups and downs and they stick with it.
David: My success has been like the stock market. It’s like this. The end is good, is what I say and there have been months that have been great and months that … the thing is, with organic SEO traffic, and the opportunity here is not to have viral blog posts. I’m not selling a course about … I don’t want to sell a course about how to write viral blog posts that make a lot of money really fast. I can show people how to build a foundation of revenue and then give themselves the opportunity to have those viral hits on top of that.
It comes down to a lot of the time picking content that’s evergreen, the content that people are going to be searching for, and it doesn’t have to last forever. My iPhone … iPhones aren’t necessarily evergreen content in the traditional sense. When  the iOS comes out every year I’d rewrite my battery article, but there aren’t a lot of things that need to change. I think that that foundation is possible, and that’s what I try to build the course around, is showing people how to change their lives significantly by setting aside their concept of the path that life has to take and getting more into, what could my life be like if I had the opportunity to make one, two, three, four, five thousand dollars a month passively. I don’t really love that word, but passively have that money show up, and then I can do whatever I want to.
When I wake up today, and a lot of people that are listening to your podcast and a lot of people in our world, when we wake up we don’t have to go to work. If I want to take the day off … one of the things I was thinking about was if somebody came to me today and said, I have this incredible life changing opportunity for you. All you need to do is pack your bags and head out the door and we’re going to Asia for three months. I could say yes to that opportunity, and I think that it’s important for people to be able to say yes to that opportunity or to put themselves in the position to be able to say yes to opportunities like that.
What you did with … even though it is hard work to do stuff on the road, definitely. But what you did with traveling with your family and giving them that experience is so amazing to me. I mean, how many kids get to grow up in national parks? It’s wonderful.
Chris: That’s the thing that, for me, I’m motivated by. Money’s one of the last things. It’s the ability to have location freedom and lifestyle freedom, those are really the top motivators for me. Of course, I love making products and adding value and being an entrepreneur, but my biggest thing is time with kids and experiences. That’s what I value most.
David: Where I am today is I make more than enough for myself to live on and to have a couple of employees, and I’m very fortunate to be there. However, there are people that are getting a small percentage of the traffic that I do on my website that make more money than I do. Part of my struggle as a publisher has been, how can I monetize my content, because it’s difficult. Generating enough money just from ad revenue, like AdSense is difficult, so by adding in some affiliate products I was able to bump it up.
If something’s relevant to my niche, people click through and buy hundreds of iPhone cables every month from my iPhone won’t charge article. I said hey, maybe your cable’s broken. If it’s not … if it’s broken, check out this six foot cable that I use. It’s on Amazon.com. I make something like .40 cents per cable that’s sold, but the way that Amazon works is you make a percentage of everything that person buys for the next 24 hours.
Chris: Oh wow.
David: Sometimes I get lucky and make 50 bucks if somebody buys a TV. I have my main … the way my website is right now is I have my main source of income, which is advertising revenue, and then I get a bunch of little checks from other places which also make up a significant portion of my income.
Chris: Well diversification is awesome, and I will say that I’ve often … I know a little bit about SEO. I don’t have as much experience as you but I know, just in talking to people and clients coming to me, everybody is … well not everybody, but there’s a significant amount of people who are hungry for ethical, experience based, repeatable SEO tactics and services, or whatever.
There’s a huge demand, and a lot of people have had a bad experience with poor SEO information or services that didn’t work out as promised or as expected, or whatever. I just know that if you can crack that and add value and add a reasonable offer, in terms of … you’re not promising the world but definitely like, okay, if you do this and if these variables line up correctly, you could expect this to happen. The market’s hungry for that sort of thing.
David: Yeah, absolutely. I will say that everything that I teach and everything that I practice is 100% white hat. I don’t do any of the tricks because Google is filled with rooms full of the smartest people in the world that are writing ways to take down those tricks, and it’s more than that.
I’ve seen websites, and I know people whose websites have been successful for a very short amount of time and then they fall right off the map. Their business goes from life sustaining to zero because they used a trick to get there, and they didn’t build their website on a foundation of good content and good technical stuff and good SEO.
For someone like myself, as long as my information is valuable and my website is optimized and I’m writing about the right things in the right way, then my website is going to continue to be successful, and I don’t believe in cheating, and I don’t believe that anyone has to cheat to be successful at SEO. If anybody is thinking about hiring somebody to generate a bunch of false backlinks or anything that people do to try to subvert Google, I would absolutely recommend against it because even if you get the short term success you can fall off the face of the map.
Then it’s like, all right, I need to get a new domain name and start from scratch because it’s really difficult to get those manual actions removed. I have friends who have done that.
Chris: If you think you’re gaming the system, you probably are. So avoid that.
David: Right. Should I do this? Probably not.
Chris: What questions are on your mind about moving into the online course space, or how can we help you?
David: Sure. Yeah, well, I think that one of the things that we talked about before we spun up the podcast was, you mentioned that you have some clients that … or you’ve seen some people that use your software that make $2000 a month, I think you said.
Chris: A year.
David: Oh, $2000 a year. Then other people that are using your software make $250,000 a year. I wanted to ask you, well what, in your experience, is the difference between those two courses?
Chris: Well I think one thing … there’s a lot of factors, but one thing that we share in common is the right niche. It’s a hot niche. That’s one thing. Another thing that I find makes a difference between okay success and awesome success is where there’s a requirement or some kind of governing body or board that has certified some course for something. If it’s like some kind of continuing education requirement that can be taken online and its endorsed by some board that says which programs can be used for continuing ed.
Whatever your industry is, if you can find continuing education requirement boards and you can serve that market, and they have … they or some publishing body has advertising opportunities to shortcut getting the right kind of traffic, those things can really take off.
David: That’s a great idea.
Chris: The other thing is people who don’t do it alone tend to be a lot more successful. Like I mentioned before, those four areas of expertise, instructional design or packaging the lessons and course progression, the system you use to deliver it and then also having a community around it or building that community. It’s very difficult for one person to do all four of those jobs. Having some help is definitely one of the things where success comes from.
The other is, I would say, it’s all about the content, like you mentioned content is king, which is a cliché thing we hear but the most successful courses that I’ve seen, it actually rarely has little, anything to do with how nice the design of the website is. It’s more about the content.
I guess another one would just be, the best marketing is a great course, that actually gets results. If you’re really clear in your offer and yeah, you got to fight and tooth and claw for your first 10 to 100 students, but if they start getting the results you promise, that’s the best marketing there is. Then that’s when things can really take off. You don’t have to try that hard to market if you have all these success stories spilling out of your program.
It’s important that whatever that success is, is something that people are really passionate about, like weight loss or healing from depression or even technology niches though, like drones, you know all the flying drones and cameras and all that stuff now? That’s a hot niche. If I had some drone experience, I might make a course about that, because that thing is going up and to the right like crazy.
David: You’re right.
Chris: I don’t know. I could keep going. I mean, what…
David: That’s all great advice, and I feel fortunate to be in one of those hot niches. I think, like I had mentioned before, we were going to spin up a course about how to use your iPhone, and I think there’s a a lot of valuable information there and that’s something that I’m interested in. I’m really interested in helping people, especially who may be new to technology, get to know how to use it better and become more … because technology is such a great tool to connect people.
However, when I started to look at who my ideal client is, and started to also build out a value letter or a sales funnel dump, that course specifically, I saw where it was going to have to go, and I realized for myself that I don’t want to be there. The target market for that aren’t necessarily the people that I want to work with. It’s not something that I would want to get up on stage and really talk about, how to use your iPhone better, but when I can get behind something like SEO, that I’m really passionate about, and something that I know works for people and I’ve seen change people’s lives that that is something that I could really write about and find that target client.
Chris: I think that’s really important. Some people call that the on-stage test. If you couldn’t see yourself on stage happily and excitedly talking about the subject matter, maybe you’re just going after it because it’s a hot niche or there might be some money there. Those are the wrong reasons, and those aren’t going to help you when you go through the dips of, okay, I had a great month, now I don’t have a great month. You got to be passionate about this thing.
David: We’re going to structure our course in a higher price point. We’re going to try to get people in and give them a preview of what everything is about and give away some valuable information. But then I also go for a higher price point so that we can individually work with people, because that’s what I love to do. I love to be able to work with people directly and help them to get started, because that’s what I love to do. It is definitely a smaller sub-section of people that we’re going to be going after, of people that are willing to invest some time into it and that are willing to … that aren’t looking for a get rich quick scheme, because I think that anybody that promises a get rich quick SEO scheme is probably making a false promise.
Chris: I’ll say that’s another thing I see with the successful courses is they … a high price point, and it’s usually achieved in one of two ways, one way is there’s a bunch of small courses. SEO’s a big topic, I mean you could come up with 10 different courses that focus on a specific aspect, and then you have a membership option where you get all the courses for a bigger but reduced price than buying them individually a la carte.
When you have that $500 plus high ticket course, that’s definitely a common trend that I see with successful courses, so that’s one way to bundle a bunch of small courses. The other one I see is that you just have one course, but it’s just that good. If you go through it, if the people go through it and they do the work they 100% of the time get the result. Those kind of courses that are truly life changing or whatever, can also take off, and the way that I see people with one course justify a high price, usually involves some kind of live element, but you can still do it at scale, for example, if you have a monthly recurring revenue model you’re like, well how do I justify whatever, $100 a month indefinitely? Well, you have to add recurring value.
The way people do that, at least once a month they have a live office hour where people can come and ask questions in an open ended, just like this, you’re using a service called Zoom to have a call right now. There could be 20 other people in here that could be stopping by to ask custom questions. Oh, and the other one is to do a monthly webinar where, either by yourself or with another expert, you go over a relevant topic, and then open it up to Q&A at the end. That’s another way people get to, and justify the high price or the ongoing recurring value.
David: That’s so great. I’m going to take your advice directly for those things, because that’s right about where our price point’s going to be and the course is designed to be able to be burned through right away. Part of, something in my niche is that we’re going to have to be changing a lot of things and updating as time goes on because SEO has changed significantly since I started to now. There are things like accelerated mobile pages, things like the featured snippet POCS that have recently been introduced to mix things up and HTTPS and all these other things that continue to change.
That’s a really great point, and I’m going to take your advice on that and add either a webinar or the … we had definitely considered doing some office hours in terms of being able to stop in and ask questions, because I really do want to work directly with people and not just sell some products.
Chris: That creates a feedback loop because when you actually hear the questions, you’re like, oh, maybe I need to make lesson two over here a little more clear.
David: Definitely.
Chris: Or I need to add to it. Another thing, in a recent LMScast episode we talked with Shawn Hesketh of WP101.
David: Great, yeah.
Chris: One of the things Shawn does really well is he updates his course with WordPress changes, just like you’re saying technology changes. SEO changes over time, and if you’re that course creator that keeps up with the time instead of, oh this was a classic two years ago and nothing changes, you’re not really sending the message of, this is the latest, cutting edge stuff. Now there are some evergreen topics like certain health or parenting things that never really change, but if we’re going to be talking about technology, there’s definitely a lot of value in keeping it updated with Google releases and SEO best practices that evolve over time.
David: Especially as we get going we’re going to be wanting to spend extra time with people to help them get going, so that they see the results that we know they can and also so we can learn more about how to structure a course in a more effective way. One of my questions would be what’s the best way to go about getting some of your very first customers for a course?
I’m fortunate because I have a website that gets a lot of traffic. I can put some popups on there or use that as a promotional tool, but also if someone, let’s say they didn’t have a website, how might they go about getting a very first few customers?
Chris: That’s a great question. You have to tooth and claw. You have to be resourceful, and one of the things that we say, which is counterintuitive because we make a learning management system software, is to not launch an online course in the way you’re thinking first. The first thing you do is you just need to find three people and you do it all through monthly calls with Skype or GoToMeeting or something like that, and everything is completely manual. You’re teaching live. You’re catching feedback live. It’s really your pilot program, and from these three people you can then, okay, now I’m going to take a step back. I’m going to record my video lessons. This worked. That worked, so you have your first more passively online course came out of that live pilot run with three people.
Now getting three people or five people or 10 people to start, which you can do at a higher price point, especially if they have a lot of direct access to you as the expert, you just got to do it, the three methods, which is inbound, outbound and relationships. Everybody has their own unique mix, inbound meaning content marketing. If you already have a successful blog, like you’re saying, with a popup or whatever you can do that. You can guest post. You can create really SEO targeted content.
Outbound thing, which I highly recommend, most people hate it. They think cold calls, or cold emails, and they want to go throw up or something like that, but if you are very clear about your offer and the type of person you want to work with, you can typically find where those people hang out. One of the best ways to do that right now is in a Facebook group. There’s so many really interesting niche Facebook groups out there that you can become a part of, add value, and start finding, potentially pitch some people inside there about your offer.
Then leveraging relationships is a big one, so if you know somebody who already has your customer or your ideal customer, especially if you’re in a non-competitive … your offer is totally non-competitive with theirs, it’s a no-brainer to work with somebody. They look good by bringing you in and adding this awesome option to their customer, and the customer’s happy because you’re there to provide them with the course.
It’s really a struggle though. The startup is the hardest part, but you were there with your blog where you had just a blank WordPress site with no traffic. I started with an email list of one with myself on it, and you have to start and leverage the content, the relationships or the willingness to go out into the world whether that’s in person, email or on the phone, and talk to people, your ideal people to get the first group.
David: Absolutely. That’s super helpful. The Facebook groups is a wonderful suggestion, to find people that are going to be receptive. We are excited to get going and like we talked about with SEO, I’m not afraid of going after high competition articles, even on brand new domains that don’t have any authority or any of these things that you’re supposed to have to be successful at SEO.
What we’ll do is we’ll take some parts of our course and we’ll write articles that give that information away and make it very valuable, and then demonstrate through that process that hey, there’s this whole other thing that they can get into that will teach them how to use this information more effectively. Companies like … the one company that I always like to think of is Digital Ocean, which is my hosting provider, so I’ll just mention, I pay $20 a month to host my website start to finish.
I love Digital Ocean because in their content marketing, because the way that I found them was I Googled something about a Linux circular command or something, and then they showed up. Then I Googled something else and then they showed up, and eventually you end up on this great website that’s full of great, helpful content and you notice, hey, these people are actually not just a content provider. They actually have this whole other component which is their products, their cloud hosting and I think that applies across the board to anybody with a product, especially if they have a database full of help articles, or they have support questions, or anything like that. A lot of that stuff can be repurposed fairly easily to become a great inbound SEO target.
Chris: When I’m hearing you talk about this, one of the most powerful things in marketing and sales and getting your first customers, which we can relate on here is, for example the cell LifterLMS, our WordPress learning management system solution, the number one place people are before they buy LifterLMS, which is free to get started, or download the free LifterLMS to get started, is our demo. Basically it’s meta, but they’re using … they’re taking our course about how to build a course, and then they buy the product.
Whereas for you, I would also recommend the same thing. Use your SEO and your content marketing strategy of take that lesson in content and then hype it, take pieces of it out, push it through the blog, and then basically what better sales tool than to talk about your journey, watch me build a course from scratch, from zero.
David: That’s really interesting, and yeah, that’s something that … we’re going to be doing that anyway, so why not bring it within the context of the course because, yeah, inbound SEO, and then it’s like, okay, hey, this worked on you. Maybe it will work on others.
Chris: People love that. People do that in the Internet marketing niche all the time where they’re explaining how they sold you and got you on their email list and stuff like that. It’s cool, because you can … if people have a level of self-awareness they can take a step back and analyze their experiences with all that. It’s meta, but it definitely works in some niches.
David: What I’ll say is one of the hardest parts for me about starting with this community of actually selling courses is the fear that I don’t know enough about the topic, and what I’ve seen, what actually happened for me was I saw some people selling courses, especially with how to make money online, topics like that make me think scam, scam, scam right off the bat. I saw other people selling courses. Part of what was … I saw them making a lot of money selling courses that were full of information that may or may not have been accurate or valuable.
I’m not interested in being perceived that way or in selling anything that is remotely like a scam, and so I wonder if you have any advice for people who may be wondering whether their information is valuable enough to sell as a course. How do you know when you’re ready to step up to the plate and really put your content out there?
Chris: That’s a great question. The first thing I would say is to go check out the LMSCast episode with Marcus Couch on imposture syndrome, because we talk a lot about that issue. The reality is, I think the best explanation I’ve heard of that and that I’ve seen in practice is on a scale of one to 10, you may be a six. You’re struggling with the fact that you’re not a 10. How can I possibly teach somebody else?
The reality is there’s a lot of ones and twos and threes and even fours and fives out there that could benefit from your level six knowledge, so as long as you’re just a couple of steps ahead, that’s step one. Step two is the ability to effectively communicate and teach. Step three is to stay with it and focus on continuous improvement and having a feedback loop and commit to making your course better over time and look at the launch of your course the first time as the beginning, not the end.
There’s a journey through it in that way, and it’s just that whole beginner’s mind zen thing where we often don’t celebrate our successes. We focus on our weaknesses or we talk to other people as if they’re a reflection of ourselves but really they may not … they haven’t had all the experiences we’ve had or the domain expertise in the specific topic. If the desire is there and if they are, in fact, at level two and you’re at level six, that’s really all you need.
David: Absolutely. That’s a great point. It took me awhile to get to come to that realization, and it took practice too, also I find myself teaching these techniques to people automatically and that also got a lot of confirmation from people who put them into use and had success, or put them into use and then asked me to consult with them. It took a little while for me to get that confidence around this to realize that it’s a difficult thing to make promises about. It’s a difficult thing to say, I promise you that if you follow these instructions that you’re going to rank in SEO.
I can say that it’s worked for me every time. I can say that it’s worked for my friends every time that they’ve followed the instructions, but it’s something that … it’s like I don’t have direct control over what every person that buys the course is going to do, so I think there’s a certain amount of detachment that I have to have about the result and just do the best job that I can about putting the best information out there.
Chris: That’s a really good point, and one of the things we talk about sometimes on this podcast is what I call the dirty little secret of membership sites which is that, I think Udemy published a statistic that 10% of the people who bought courses there actually finish the course. If you keep that in mind, that’s why at LifterLMS we really focus on the whole concept of engagement but your course should be so awesome that not finishing it is not even really on the table. If you get somebody in there, and you get them some good results right away or as soon as possible so that the motivation is strong, then I guess that’s my advice, is focus on making your course … having people be successful is almost a foregone conclusion as long as they do the work.
However, the best we can ever do is share our experience, and the world is a dynamic, changing place, so the best place to know for certain what’s going to happen is just for people to do it in the real world. You can’t be responsible for that, so you do have to let go of … reality is the ultimate judge, and your job is, you’re really just a guide out there who has a lot of experience who’s helping people achieve the best possible outcome as quickly as possible. The terrain is uncertain and that sort of thing.
David: Absolutely.
Chris: Excellent. Well, if people want to find out more about you, David, Payette Forward is P-A-Y-E-T-T-E Forward.com. I’m imagining people can go there. Is there anywhere else you want to send people who are interested in finding out more about you and possibly your course?
David: Well, I think that at this point, Blog Winners is still being spun up, and it’s going to be BlogWinners.com and right now there’s a couple of demo pages, so I’m going to have to install a coming soon plugin, now that I talked about it. I think that the Facebook group is a thing to check out, so if you Google … if you want to find me it’s hard to type in PayetteForward.com. Type in something like my iPhone won’t charge, why does my iPhone battery die, or my iPhone won’t vibrate, my iPhone won’t ring, or any of those things and we’re right at the top. That’s the easiest way to find me.
Chris: Look at that, David he’s showing you right there. He’s showing his material by showing how he ranks for what you would think would be impossible to rank for.
David: That’s the thing. I couldn’t teach it if I wasn’t actually living it.
Chris: Exactly.
David: I can do it, but also the Facebook group. If you Google iPhone help or Payette Forward, or Google. If you search for iPhone help or Payette Forward within Facebook you’ll find our Facebook group. I think we’ve got 2400 people. We ask questions and we interact about iPhone related problems, if that’s something that they’re interested in. Otherwise, they can shoot me an email on Payette Forward, and I’m happy to hear from everybody.
Chris: Awesome. Well thank you for coming on the show, David. We’ll have to do it again some time.
David: Thank you so much, Chris. It was great.

EPISODE 121

Online Business Building Pro Tips with Beaver Builder’s Robby McCullough

Welcome to LMScast! This episode features Robby McCullough of Beaver Builder. You will learn about how to make an online community flourish and how to make valuable partnerships in business. Robby gives expert tips about how he turned a web development hobby into a scalable business. He shares his story of how he found his business partners and how they built their business with Beaver Builder.

Robby is a co-founder of Beaver Builder, which is a WordPress plugin designed to make page building as simple as possible. The plugin enables people with absolutely no web development experience to be able to create websites with drag and drop features. It started out as a side project for the creators, but since then it has evolved into a very popular page builder.

Having partners in business can help you get through difficult times and keep the workload manageable. Chris and Robby highlight how using strength in numbers helps to reduce stress in the workplace.

The online community the Beaver Builder team has built is one of the critical components to its success. Power users are people who are passionate about a product and are often willing to spend a lot of time and resources in the community. It is very important to empower these users, because they are major factors in driving a thriving community online. The Facebook community for Beaver Builder was not started by the company. It was a engaged user that kicked it off. Having a forum for Beaver Builder users has helped the community grow. If you nurture your online community, it will have a snowball effect which can lead to tremendous growth.

Robby and Chris discuss how creating valuable partnerships with others can grow your business immensely. The partnership Beaver Builder has with GoDaddy has helped their business reach more people and increase sales. Robby tells the story behind that relationship and provides some of his experience in making it effective. The partnerships you establish in the workplace can serve as your biggest distribution channels. You might be surprised about who will help you if you reach out to them.

You can find out more about Robby McCullough and website building with Beaver Builder at WPBeaverBuilder.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 I’m joined today with Robby McCullough from Beaver Builder. And Beaver Builder is a page building software for WordPress. We actually use it at LifterLMS. If you go to Demo.LifterLMS.com you can see how we’ve used Beaver Builder to spice up our demo site that has a bunch of sample courses and that sort of thing on there. We are going to talk a little bit about the Beaver Builder page building software today, but one of the great things about Robby and what he’s been up to at Beaver Builder, he’s just as experienced as an online entrepreneur as somebody who’s been at the digital game for a while, building products, serving a community, growing, and evolving over time. We can get into some just general issues that are relevant to you as an entrepreneur, as a teacher, as an online course creator, and really, Robby and I can really rap on some just experiences in figuring this whole thing out in a digital world.

Robby, thanks for coming on the show.

Robby M.: Hey, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Chris Badgett: Well, to get into a little bit about Beaver Builder, it’s a page building plugin for WordPress, and if anybody wants to find out about the history of Beaver Builder, and the story, and what it does, I’d encourage you to just Google some other podcasts where Robby and Justin and Billy, they talk about their journey. In this episode, we’re going to kind of go into a little different angle, just more about online business in general. I do want to touch on the fact that it’s not just you. There’s three people. There’s more than three behind the business, but you guys are kind of the main force behind Beaver Builder. How did that come to be in terms of being a three person company, as opposed to a one person company?

Robby M.: Yeah. My two partners are Justin and Billy, and I found them through a Craigslist ad years back, which is funny. It’s not the first time I’ve heard people say something similar with Craigslist. It’s such a good way to bring people together. Before I was doing web work, I was working at a YMCA, and it was a fun job, but it was kind of dead end, and it wasn’t, like, a career. I was getting a little older, and decided I needed to get a real job, quote-unquote. I started looking on Craigslist. I had always had a passion for web and design and coding, and I was reluctant to get into that as a career, because the kind of idea of sitting at a computer all day, like I would have rather been, you know, outside or doing something like being a rock star, or a professional video gamer, you know? But I reached that age where I was like, “Okay, I really need to like … I have this skillset, and I should leverage it.”

Long story short, I found them on Craigslist and we started working together. They hired me on as part of our web agency, which we no longer have. We started working on Beaver Builder as a side project, and the guys and I, we all got along really, really well. I’m really fortunate that they offered … They wanted to bring me on as more than an employee. Originally, when we started Beaver Builder, we started it just as a side … It was going to be a side company, and we all three were going to be equal partners in that, as opposed to where I was an employee with the agency business. It eventually just kind of engulfed, Beaver Builder engulfed the agency, and from the logistics standpoint, too, it made a little bit more sense just to kind of take that partner structure and run with it. I lucked out. I found them on Craigslist, and we became fast friends, too, and we hang out a lot outside of the work zone. That’s kind of how that started out.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. I’ve got a background as a solopreneur, but over time I’ve ended up in partnerships, and at LifterLMS it’s not just me. I have a partner, and we have a team of about 10 people right now, but the partnership has been critical to the success. Just not trying to do it all alone. Sometimes the solopreneur thing can be kind of sexy, or you maybe want to try to maintain control over equity and things like that, but in my experience, having some quality partners is well worth sharing the ownership and that sort of thing. Really just not having to do it all, because especially in the online world, it can be somewhat overwhelming to do the marketing, the engineering, and the managing the team, and managing the business. There’s so many things that for one person to do all of it over time, especially as you grow bigger, it’s really hard and stressful to maintain all the responsibilities of that leadership.
How do you guys divide up who does what? I’ll just preface that by saying, we give ourselves at LifterLMS, CEO, CTO, kind of these titles, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s individual tasks or areas of responsibilities that we chop up, which may or may not fit into those labels. How do you guys do it? How do you divide it up, who does what?
Robby M.: Yeah, we had a similar story when we incorporated. We all kind of had to come up with the labels for the lawyers, right? Like the CTO, and the CEO and all that. We don’t pay attention to those at all. We consider ourselves all kind of like equal partners, and there’s three captains on the ship. It’s not really any one of us that’s leading more than the other. When we were working as a web agency, we used to say that we were kind of like three freelancers that just worked under the same umbrella of a company. As opposed to having our own areas of expertise within the agency work, we were all kind of doing the client onboarding, and then building websites, then doing the ongoing maintenance. We all kind of had our areas that we excelled at, at that time, but we still … Billy, Justin, and I were all working on websites and building websites. We all had that kind of shared skillset.
Then when we transferred to Beaver Builder, we had the opportunity to kind of specialize a little bit more. Justin is our lead developer. He’s the code wrangler, does the lion’s share of the building. Billy is our kind of like business and operations guy. He also manages our support and our affiliate programs. Handles, like, our accounting and our finance. He has a background at HR, so he also does a lot of our kind of hiring and managing of employees. I was kind of the odd man out, right? Because we needed someone to do, like, marketing, and none of us really had any business … Not business, but any experience in marketing, or even like a whole lot of desire. I used to think marketing was like sales and advertising, like you think of the greasy salesman, like car salesman guy, and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to be that guy.”
We recognized we needed someone to jump into that role, and so that was kind of the role I jumped into, and it’s been a really fun journey for me. It was kind of organic how we all fell into those niches. Justin just started building this thing in his side time, and yeah, we all started jumping in to support him in that process, and kind of finding where we could help, and then those roles just kind of materialized over time through that process.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, if you’re listening to this, there’s strength in numbers, and if maybe you’re hitting a roadblock because there’s a skillset that you don’t have or you’re just not set up for, perhaps consider partnerships for your project, because you can definitely stay alone too long and burn out, and end up in some bad places, or just not reach your potential because you lack the right partnership.
Robby M.: Totally. I don’t know if you can relate to this, but I’ve always had kind of hobbies and passions that I get really obsessive over. I’ll get into something and I’ll learn it really, really deeply, and I’ll get to, like, pretty far along, whether that’s playing guitar, was one of the things I was hoping to do when I was younger, and got pretty far along in that, but then, yeah, the burnout. My whole life has been … It’s just, you get to that point where you lose interest in those things, and having partners, for me especially, is a motivator to keep going and kind of get over those humps, or those speed blocks that you run into when you’re trying to progress through whatever it is, be it professional or a hobby. Your partners are there to kind of pick you up when you’re down and vice versa, and yeah, if you can luck out and find someone that you’re compatible with that also is complementary to your skillset, you’re just golden.
Then again, I mentioned that I feel so fortunate I met those guys, because we really have that … We get along really, really well, and then we also have these very complementary skillsets where there’s not a whole lot of overlap in what we’re doing anymore.
Chris Badgett: That’s just super powerful. Just to give you guys an example, I don’t know if my partner Thomas has ever listened to one of these podcast episodes, and there’s over 100. I’ve never actually read a line of his code. I mean, I’ve seen it maybe here or there, but we’re focusing on very different parts of the business, and that’s just kind of an extreme example.
Robby M.: That’s funny.
Chris Badgett: Let’s talk a little bit more about marketing, because a lot of people listening to this show, they’re teachers, they’re experts, they’re entrepreneurs, but maybe they don’t have a more advanced marketing skillset. I’m a lot like you, I think, in that I used to think that sales was evil, or I wasn’t really that interested in it, but over time, it really grew on me. Now I’m on the opposite side, where it’s a great thing, and I really enjoy it, and it’s about service and education, and all that sort of thing. When I’m looking at my marketing strategy, or looking at somebody else’s business and examining their marketing, I divide it into three areas: Inbound, outbound, and relationships. Inbound meaning content marketing, stuff you create that attracts people, like this podcast episode. Outbound would be like prospecting or cold emailing, cold calling. Reaching out to somebody or a company that’s never heard of you. Relationships is really what it sounds like. Relating to people. Maybe they’re further along on the journey. Maybe they’re influencers in your industry. Maybe they’re at a similar place than you. Maybe you’re helping somebody out who’s trying to get to where you are. It can go in all kinds of directions. There’s all kinds of relationship building.
How do you approach those three areas of inbound, outbound, and relationships?
Robby M.: I like that system of breaking it down. For inbound, I think this might seem like a cliché answer, but one of our strongest inbound tools is our product itself. Again, we didn’t have a background or experience in marketing, so a lot of … Even still to this day, word of mouth marketing has been huge for us, and we have a really passionate community of users that really love our product. That’s been, like, our main inbound has just been generating a quality product. I mean, that can apply to anything, if you’re doing courses or businesses. If it’s something you’re passionate about and you’re building something that you have, the quality will speak for itself, I guess. It’s really, really difficult to … If you’re not selling something of quality that you believe in, then you get into that kind of skeevy side of marketing where you’re kind of just pushing this … You know, when you’re trying to sell something, or when you’re trying to make something out to be really, really great when it’s not. That’s when it feels kind of yucky. If you have something quality, of value, then it just becomes communicating that. Helping people in a way, right? Like, “If you’re looking for this, and you need to do it well, we have this.” How do you make that happen?
As far as the outbound, I think for us, outbound and relationships kind of go together in a way, too. When we first got started … That’s the thing right there. The inbound, it’s like the chicken and the egg problem. It’s like, you can have this great content, but if nobody knows you’re there, you’ve kind of got to reach out and get people. We did everything that you like … We put together the list, and the spreadsheet of the 50 or 75 WordPress blogs and sent contact forms to all of them, and searched for all the best, like top 10 page builder articles, and left comments on all of them. Back when we were getting started, we were hustling a lot harder, I guess, to kind of get our name out there. I like to use that snowball analogy, you know? We started with a really small snowball and had to put a lot of work into building it, and then as you kind of keep rolling it and keep building it, it grows and grows, and eventually it kind of gains some momentum and starts taking off, and you can step back a little bit.
Then, yeah, relationships too. Before we started recording we were talking about conferences. Chris and I, just for a little background, we met in Cabo, at CaboPress, which is an event hosted by Chris Lema. I think we both kind of had the experience, I remember talking to you about it, where it was a really hard trip to justify, because the travel, and the ticket, it was a little bit of an investment. Not having done anything like it before, we were kind of curious if it was just going to be like a really expensive beach vacation and that we can write off our taxes, but it definitely … That event in particular, and then all of the follow up events where I was kind of meeting all those people in that network that we built there, really ingrained this idea that meeting people in person and building those relationships in person, there’s just nothing like it. You can get to know people virtually, and we were Tweeting at people, and talking with people on Slack, but nothing beats that face to face interaction and getting to know someone kind of on a more personal level. That’s something that we’ve just recently identified as being really valuable, and I think we’re going to try and do a lot more of, or at least keep that train a’rolling, because it’s fun, too, right?
Chris Badgett: Yeah. It is fun, and it’s always good to get out of the building and go rub shoulders with people. That’s what it’s all about.
Robby M.: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Well just building on that relationships thing, there’s some quote … I can’t remember the exact, who said it or whatever, but a lot of times with goals, some people say it’s common for people to aim too low. One of the areas there that has really impressed me with what you guys have done with Beaver Builder is that you’ve worked out a distribution deal with a hosting company, with GoDaddy.
Robby M.: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: What that is, like if you’re an online course creator and you’re looking at your platform, perhaps you might be able to get your course out there in a much bigger way with a much bigger company or brand that already has a distribution network. For example, this podcast is on YouTube. It’s on iTunes. I’m using those services to help distribute the content. LifterLMS, for example, has a free version of the plugin. You get started for free. That’s, we’re using the WordPress repository to distribute the plugin. That can be done with courses and content in all kinds of interesting ways, but can you tell us a little bit about any lessons learned, or how it even came on your radar to seek that distribution channel? Which my understanding is, your Beaver Builder is automatically installed on some GoDaddy hosting accounts. How did all that play out, and what would you recommend to somebody who’s thinking about a bigger distribution?
Robby M.: Yeah, that’s a good segue. Again, we lucked out, right? It was really fortunate how all of these kind of pieces came together. Circling back to the idea of relationships, when we were first starting Beaver Builder, within the first maybe six months or so, we were all … We used to all share an office. We’re all distributed now, but our office was in Campbell, California, which is just down the road from Sunnyvale, where GoDaddy, one of their satellite offices is. They were looking into page builders. I mean, this was a couple of years back now. About two or so years back, and you can kind of see where they’ve gone with this. We’ve been able to see this idea progress, but they were looking at page builders, and they were basically just looking at ways to onboard people and make it easier for people to build websites on their hosting.
They did a search of all the page builders out there. They liked us, and we happened to be local, so they reached out to us and we did an in person meeting. We got to know them face to face, which was invaluable. I think it definitely gave us a leg up just that we happened to be in the same vicinity, and we got to meet them and get to know them on a personal level.
Fast forward a couple months or years, even later, we never really ended up getting something going from those initial conversations. Like we had just gotten our feet wet. I think this is, like, with hindsight it was a good thing, too, because the kind of scale that GoDaddy has would have just like blown us out of the water if we’d tried to take that on at that point. We did it a little backwards, as far as the whole freemium, premium thing. We started with our premium product, and eventually released something for free on the WordPress repo, and kind of saw that as a distribution channel. I think that, for us, it’s hard to give advice on how anyone could recreate this, because I do, I think we got kind of lucky and it was something we kind of accidentally fell into.
What we did and what worked was we had that free version. We kind of had the sampler available, and when we were originally talking to GoDaddy, we were trying to figure out, “What would a bulk license deal look like if we were going to try and sell our product to GoDaddy so they could distribute it to all their customers?” That was really daunting and scary idea, because they would probably have wanted, like, pennies on the dollar for what we were trying to sell it to ourselves. You’re talking about, like, getting into negotiations with M and A guys who have been negotiating their entire lives. Like, we were just these little, like … We’re like, “I don’t know. We’re scared. We don’t want to do this.”
What ended up working for us and what ended up making the partnership happen was that we had the free version, and then a year or so later, they kind of came back around once they’d ironed out a little bit more of what they were doing and had some more concrete plans, and they were able to use our free version. That’s what’s being bundled in with their WordPress hosting. We have, like, a special modified version of that free version that gives them a couple of our premium features, so GoDaddy customers do get like an enhanced version of the free version, but we still get to have a little button in there that says, “Hey, if you want more, click here and upgrade.” It was really a win-win in that sense.
It’s like you go to Costco and they have the free samples out there. It would be like if, I don’t know, if your … Yeah, that’s a great analogy right there. If you’re just a little baking company, and you’re making cookies out of your house, and Costco wants to work with you, you can give them a couple of free samples to throw out there, and if people eat them and like them, you’re golden. For us, the having the free version was what made that partnership happen, possible, along with the relationship building.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Part of that, one of the big things I’m hearing in there was just the courage to, “Oh my gosh. Big company.” Or all these M and A guys. A lot of it just comes down to courage. Just to share a story from my side, one of my first online course projects was in organic gardening and permaculture. We went to the bestselling author in the world in permaculture, and he was going to be speaking at an event a couple states away from where I lived at the time. We said, “Hey, can we film you and turn it into an online course? We’ll do this kind of royalty share forever. Work out a deal. Sign right here. Just say yes.” He said yes. That’s how it all started.
Robby M.: Nice.
Chris Badgett: Then he would promote his course, or our course from his platform, and now that was more distribution, all through relationships with a little bit of courage to, like, even go out there with the big players or whatever.
Robby M.: I could totally relate to that. Reaching out, that was something we still do and did a lot in the beginning. It was reaching out to people for help, and particularly I think in the WordPress community, we’re really lucky that a lot of people are really generous with their time. I don’t know if you and yours may or may not be interested, with easy digital downloads and Pippin, right? Pippin Williamson. He’s a really big name, and has a really successful and great product in the WordPress space. He was one of those guys we used to put up on a pedestal, and we’d kind of emulate what he was doing with his business in ours. He wrote an article that we used, and I ended up reaching out to him and writing him an e-mail about something, asking him a question. I was really nervous to do that at the time, and we got this really thorough response back, and he was really genuine and generous with his time and knowledge.
But yeah, reaching out for help, you’ll be surprised at how many people that might be intimidating to you, but will take the time to help if you just ask.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, also on the relationship front, you know, a relationship for marketing and sales, and just being a good player in your industry is cool, but you guys have also done such a great job of fostering and developing relationships inside your own community of users and customers. I’ve seen you have a very active Facebook group, and I think there’s multiple Facebook groups. You have an active Slack channel for a certain segment of power users. What’s your approach to community building internally, like around your business? How did that get going and how did that get going so well?
Robby M.: Thanks for all the kind words. I really appreciate you fluffing us up here. Our Facebook group and then the Slack channel are kind of the two hubs, I’d say, and I wish I could take a lot more credit for them, but they actually were started, both of them, by members of our community. By our users and customers. We were a little bit surprised to see them flourish the way they have, and when that started, again, the snowball thing, but when that snowball started rolling, they were like, “Wow, this is cool.” Then we jumped onto it. We saw that … Well, one of the nice things, right, is a lot of people jump into those communities with questions. Beaver Builder is a page builder. A lot of people using it are building websites, and a lot of the questions they have aren’t necessarily technical questions, as far as like, it’s not the type of thing you’d put in a support ticket for a bug fix or conflict or something, but it’s like a general, like, “Hey, there’s this website that’s doing this really cool technique, you know, like when you scroll down, all the things are fading in, or it’s got this really cool design that I’ve never seen before. How can I do that? How can I recreate that?”
The community lends itself really well to those kind of hive mind questions where you can tap into people’s experiences, and we also I think, a lot of our user base is freelancers and agencies, and people that are not just kind of building websites for themselves and for their business, but are actually building websites as a business. That’s also helped our community a lot in that, again, because when we first got started, and this is one of the things we’ve kind of learned and got better at over time, is like identifying who our customers are. At first, we kind of thought it was going to be do-it-yourselfers, people that were like, Joe’s Candy Shop needs a website, or the real estate agent, and someone recommended WordPress, and they don’t know code, so they found a way to do it by hand, page building. Then as we’ve grown and kind of gotten more in tune with everyone, it’s turned out that where we started, too, when we were building Beaver Builder, was we needed a tool for our agency so that we could build websites faster, and that resonated I think with a lot of other freelancers and agencies.
It’s been really organic, but as far as like circling back to the question about our community and how we manage it, and how we grow it, it’s been very organic, but once it started, once that kind of kindling caught on fire, we just started throwing wood on top of it. We added a link to our community in our onboarding emails. If you purchase Beaver Builder, it says, “Hey, jump in our community.” It’s actually in the product now when you install it. It says, “Hey, we’ve got this great community. Come by. We’d love to see you. Share a project. Say hello.” Again, feeling very fortunate, but I think the whole WordPress community is a very kind of opening and generous … Like our community is a microcosm of the WordPress community, which also kind of shares a lot of those nice traits of people being really generous with their knowledge and their time.
I’m sure you’ve been part of communities online that just go to … That are not very friendly places to spend time at, right? It seems like almost most communities that start … You know, think of the YouTube, or Reddit, or Digg.
Chris Badgett: Right.
Robby M.: If you go on any of those sites, if you were there in the beginning, they were these kind of cool and fledgling places to spend time. They eventually kind of progressed, and get worse, and worse, and worse. Hopefully that doesn’t happen for us, knock on wood, but yeah. I think the WordPress community as a whole is not heading in that direction, so that helps us a lot, too.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. The community’s starting point, I mean, doesn’t necessarily have to come from the platform owner. That’s really cool, and to see it evolve that way.
Robby M.: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, with hindsight, if we could do everything over again, we would have set the Facebook group up on day one, but again this is going back to our, like, when we started Beaver Builder, and the marketing, selling, we didn’t really know what we were doing as far as marketing and building communities. It worked out great that someone was like, “Hey, you guys might want to do this, and if you want, I’ll do it for you.” “Yeah, go for it.”
Chris Badgett: I think with any platform, when you have a strong user community, certain power users emerge. We have people who were just doing support for free in our Facebook group, or other people like building their own products that go on top of LifterLMS. When you see a power user, my approach is just to do whatever that you can to help them be successful, and if that includes, if it’s possible, giving them a job or a part time job, or helping promote what they’re up to through other channels, try to reward those power users. What’s been your experience with power users? Where do they come from, and then what do you do with them?
Robby M.: I’m trying to think of a concise answer, here. Trying to think of one, but I don’t have one, so let me, like, ramble about a long story again. No, just really quickly, one of my first, the first websites I ever built was a forum, and I was a part of a forum. This was kind of in the Web 2.0 days. Maybe around like 2003 to five, six, somewhere in that window. I was part of a forum for a video game that I really liked, and there was this community on this forum, and the guy that ran it, I saw that, and I was like, “I want to learn how to do that. I think that would be a really cool thing to have and do.” I started a forum about surfing. I started a couple of them, but one of the ones I started was on surfing.
I think that’s a natural thing, when you’re developing a community. The hardest thing at first is getting people in there, right? If you’re ever doing a forum, or I’m sure courses and classes are very similar, too. Of course in the education space, having a community really helps, because everyone can learn and encourage each other to keep going.
Chris Badgett: You really do have to fight for your first, like, 100 users or whatever, and really be creative.
Robby M.: Oh yeah, absolutely. With the forum thing, and I know I remember reading a story … I mentioned Reddit, but those guys all had, like, 20 fake accounts. I did this too on my forum. You go in there, just have conversations with yourself, you know? I mean, like serious conversations. I think in the forum space, you have moderators, and you can give people some control over the ability to, like, help you monitor spam and keep things in line. I think it’s a natural … When I was doing forums, and now on the Beaver Builder community, we weren’t out there recruiting power users. People just kind of naturally take on those roles. If you can identify those people and then, like you were saying, assist them and give them tools, whether that be the ability to help you moderate the community or even just reaching out and giving them encouragement, saying, “Thanks,” and identifying, “Hey, you’ve been putting a lot of time in here. I love what you’re doing. We really appreciate it.” Identifying those power users and just kind of nurturing them and saying, “Hey, if there’s anything I can do to help you, let me know, because what you’re doing here is great. That’s been helpful for us.”
I think the best way is just, yeah, trying to identify those people and nurture them, as opposed to trying to generate them or find them and bring them in. It’s something that kind of happens naturally.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, and one thing I’d add to that is sometimes my first reaction, depending upon what they’re doing, it may not be positive. Like, “Wait, what is this person doing with the brand?” Or, “What is this new product that they didn’t consult with me about?” Or whatever. Then I say, “Hold on.” I take a step back. I’m like, “This is beautiful. Somebody, they’re so excited about the product that they’re going off in this direction with it. That’s great.” I don’t know. That’s just been my experience. Most of the time I’m positive and super happy about it, but at first, these people start popping up out of, quote, “nowhere.” It’s like, “What’s going on?”
Robby M.: Yeah. No, I can relate to that. I was telling the story of our group, our Facebook group and the Slack channel were happening organically. It was something we didn’t have control over, and there was a part of us that were like, “Oh, I don’t know if we want to have someone else in control of this group that’s using our name, or that’s kind of leveraging our community.” It’s a balancing act, you know? In most cases, it’s been a good thing. I mean, like occasionally you get people in there that are spamming, right? They’re like, “Oh, buy this thing.” But yeah, you’ll see those posts that are like, “Oh, man. Hey, I just got this service and I started using it. It’s been amazing. If I like it this much, you guys will probably like it this much.” Maybe depending on what kind of community you’re in, I would say like nine out of 10 of those might be spam, but one of those might be genuine, or vice versa. Maybe it’s like nine of them are genuine and one of them is a spam post, but yeah, you do kind of have to like … Again, finding that balance point, but then encouraging the good and trying to politely and politically filter out the bad.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, and if you have a learning platform and then a community that goes with it, whether that’s a Facebook group or some kind of Slack channel or BuddyPress thing, or whatever it is, one of the most beautiful things that can emerge is when the community starts moderating. I would never recommend just relinquishing leadership or control over moderation. You should always be involved in keeping quality high, but it’s always a really cool thing to see when the community starts protecting itself, or helping identify, or helping guide people. Like, “Oh, that’s not really appropriate here.” Whatever it is. That’s really cool.
Robby M.: Yeah. I think no one likes to be told what to do, for the most part, and yeah, if you go in there with the kind of, like, dictator attitude, like, “This shall not stand,” if you go in there with that kind of all powerful attitude, I think people respond a lot better when you say, “Hey, this came up. What do you guys think? How should we handle this? As the leadership, what do you guys want?” Just applying that rule, even to our product, right? A lot of our features and things we implement come from our community and reaching out to …
In building a community, right, you’re not doing it for you. You’re doing it for the people that are a part of it, and involving them as much as you can in every way you can, I think is really beneficial.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely. Negative things happen. I actually, like the first time I saw a LifterLMS premium product on some kind of torrent download site, I was celebrating, because I’m like, “Awesome. We’re big enough, we’re desirable enough that somebody wants to pirate the software. That’s great.”
Robby M.: “We made it, yeah.” Right?
Chris Badgett: I actually heard somebody else say that in a podcast, so I kind of had preconditioned myself for that moment to happen, but when it did happen, I was like, “All right. Check.”
Robby M.: That’s awesome yeah. You’re an optimist, I can tell, right? Because I’ve had the similar thought, but then I’ve also seen it go, like, the opposite direction. People getting really upset about that, or occasionally we’ll … It’s really nice, right? But we’ll get, like, a user that will email us and be like, “Hey, have you guys seen there’s this, like, nulled version of Beaver Builder out there. These guys are being jerks. You’ve got to go get them and shut them down.” It’s like, “Ah, well, could be a lot worse, you know? No one might not be interested in us.”
Chris Badgett: Yeah, I think …
Robby M.: I’d much rather have people interested enough to pirate our software than otherwise.
Chris Badgett: This is a timeless issue. I mean, for course creators, harken back to book publishing. I remember, I think, The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo, I saw this audiobook version narrated by him freely available on YouTube, and Paulo Coehlo left a really nice comment below the video.
Robby M.: That’s funny.
Chris Badgett: I don’t know. I mean, piracy is just part of the digital world, and some people call that the Newsweek model. Like if you go to a doctor’s office, you can pick up a magazine you didn’t pay for it. You can get the content or whatever, so maybe it’s not the end of the world if your stuff ends up kind of in some interesting places. It is definitely your intellectual property, and in some cases you have to fight to protect it, and regain control of it. Think about it, if it’s worth … You’ve got to pick and choose your battles, I guess is what I’m saying.
Robby M.: Totally. Totally.
Chris Badgett: In that light, one of the things I’ve noticed with you and Beaver Builder is, and you’ve built a brand, a strong brand, both kind of the brand of Beaver Builder and then just I think a strong personal brand in the community and in the industry. One of the things I notice is, if somebody writes a post about Beaver Builder or about an event you’re at, or whatever, you’re there in the comments or in the Facebook group or whatever. How do you keep up? As you grow and get bigger and you lose control of your every piece of content, and other people start doing stuff on their own, like how do you keep track of your brand around the web?
Robby M.: Yeah. It’s gotten a lot more difficult as we’ve grown. Still, I know I’m fallen off on it a lot these days. I need to get back on that horse, but one of the things I used to do religiously, and this was actually a … I used to, I’m a pretty big gamer. I always have been, and I don’t know if any of you or your listeners did World of Warcraft, but I definitely put in some hours on World of Warcraft, right? One of the things in World of Warcraft is you have daily quests. Something that you just do every day. Each day, you can do this quest and get some gold or get a prize or whatever, but you can only do it once per day. I really got into that, like, routine when I was a gamer of starting, doing my dailies, right? I’ve tried to translate that over to the business, and so I have these kind of like daily chores. Again, I’ve fallen off. I’m not very good at keeping routines, but for a while there, I was really religious, and I had a folder of bookmarks on my browser that I called “Dailies.” I just opened them every morning.
One of them was, like, I use TweetDeck, but one of them was TweetDeck, and I have a search for our name, like “Beaver Builder” with a space. “BeaverBuilder” with no space. It’s just this one big combined search that will put up every single mention of Beaver Builder on Twitter. Then I also have a Google search for Beaver Builder. Then with Google, it’s really cool, because if you go into their tools menu, there’s an option to search for mentions, or whatever the term is, but for things that were published within a certain time frame, like in the last 24 hours, or the last week, or the last year. One of my dailies was just popping open that browser tab with the search for Beaver Builder over the last 24 hours. Any time something was published on Beaver Builder, I had it right there, and I’d jump in and make a point to just say, “Hey, thanks. Thanks for the mention. We really appreciate it.”
I’m trying to think what else was on there. I had a couple of, like, the news sites. I try and keep track of the kind of WordPress news. I’m trying to think if there’s anything else applicable on there that I have in my dailies. I don’t want to look it up right now, but yeah, that was my trick, was doing the Google search and the TweetDeck search, and then just making a part, like with my morning coffee, popping it open, seeing what was out there, and responding to it.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. I do that as well, where every day … I don’t call it my dailies or whatever, but I have this thing where I go check certain places and see what’s going on. I’m definitely taking notes on using the Google tools and the TweetDeck to kind of find things a little easier.
Robby M.: Yeah, I love that ability to search Google in a certain timeframe. I use it all the time, outside of business related stuff too. Using Google is a skill. We were talking a little bit off air, before we started recording, about education, and I mentioned that I was a horrible student but I loved learning. Being skillful with Google, I think, is just one of the most powerful ways to learn. Google’s such a powerful tool, too, if you dig into the ways you can connect searches with … Like you can search for certain terms, like an exact match, or you can do like with the comma, so you’re looking for this or that, or the plus sign, so it’s this and that, and you can negate certain terms, and being able to kind of manipulate Google and manipulate the results that it returns is so, so powerful, and a lot of just the education I’ve gotten online on my own terms has been from …
It’s like, you know, a good analogy might be your code editor. If you’re a coder, they say you should really take some time to get to know your editor and kind of learn the shortcuts, and learn the inner workings. I feel that way about Google, too. As an aside, sorry. That was getting a little off track here.
Chris Badgett: No, that’s really good. If I could teach a skill, everybody thinks they understand Google, just like everybody’s above average driver, or whatever. When we actually hire a developer, one of the things we’re looking for when we ask them, like, “What do you do when you get stuck?” Well, we basically want to find people who are problem solvers, not necessarily super credentialed. In order to be a big problem solver, you have to know how to use Google really well. Most people think, but there’s truly an art to it, like these kind of things you’re talking about with the date range search, or how to search forums, how to tell quality results.
Robby M.: Totally.
Chris Badgett: Put them together, and all those things. I mean, Google, I would just say … I don’t know. Maybe 90% of people are way under-optimizing what’s possible with it.
Robby M.: Okay, you just gave me an idea, and part of me doesn’t want to say it because this is going to be my golden goose kind of thing, but I’ll put it out there for your audience because I probably won’t have the time to do it. Ever since I met you and learned about Lifter, I’ve been wanting to do a course. If you guys get to it first, go for it, but someday I’m going to do a course on, like, power Google use. I think that would be a cool one.
Chris Badgett: That is a cool course. I just want to say that I’ve seen this over and over again. Companies that make something, like Google, or Beaver Builder, or Lifter, whatever, the best courses are actually always made by another company. There’s this guy. I forget his name. Michael something. He has a course about the Scrivener software. The guy who has the best course about Evernote does not work at Evernote. I know people make courses about Beaver Builder that aren’t at Beaver Builder. It’s kind of hard to do both, but what I’m saying is, even Google, Google has all the resources in the world, but why doesn’t that course exist? Why haven’t we found it? Maybe the world needs Robby or one of the listeners out there to curate that wisdom down into a course.
Robby M.: That’s a good point. I used to think this about Photoshop, and then we kind of fell into a similar space, but the guys at Adobe who created Photoshop, I wonder if they look over some of the artwork and some of just the amazing talented people that have been able to use their tool to produce whatever it is … The guys that are building Photoshop probably aren’t those 1% of the 1% kind of talented and skilled artists that are creating the beautiful portraits or whatnot. If you’re creating canvases, it must be so cool to see the artwork that people put onto it. We have a little taste of that in Beaver Builder, in that we created this tool that allows people to create web pages, and I get that feeling a lot when I’m looking at … Like, we have our showcase where people Tweet us and say, “Hey, check out this site I made.”
It’s just so above and beyond anything that I would be able to do. When you see that kind of culmination of talent and experience coming together in a medium that you helped put out there, it’s such a cool feeling. You’re right, there’s folks … Like, we’re doing an okay job at creating Beaver Builder, but there’s folks out there that are so much better than us now at using it, which is bittersweet, right? I wish I had more time to explore and write code and do design, but yeah, anyways …
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Yeah, it’s a fascinating facet. Well, let’s talk a little bit about democratization, which is in some ways in the WordPress community, people joke about it sometimes. That everybody’s trying to democratize something. In some ways, WordPress is known to democratize publishing, like it’s not just the big media brands that can create content, or news, or websites. Even a lot of people go to something like Twitter to get news before they go to The New York Times or whatever.
At Lifter, we like to say that we’re democratizing education, both for the teacher and for the learner, and for you guys, it’s almost like you’re democratizing the ability to build websites, where whether you’re a small business owner, a business owner, or a builder of products for that market, you’re bringing the accessibility to someone, which puts downward pressure on the price and the skills required to create this thing. Let’s talk about democratization a little bit. First, with Beaver Builder. It’s really fascinating how there’s always a layer in technology where when websites used to be super expensive and you had to have a webmaster write every line of HTML, and then CMSes came like WordPress, and now you’re a page builder on top of WordPress. It’s just another layer of abstraction above the ones and zeroes that make up electronic communication. I guess, where is the democratization heading for you guys? For Beaver Builder? What’s next? What is the next evolution of what you’re doing, bringing that accessibility and ability for people to build great looking sites without being a developer or designer? Where’s it going from here?
Robby M.: That’s a good question, or a tough and good question. The thought that instantly came to my mind is, to go back to the partnership we’re doing with GoDaddy, I don’t know if you get this in your community. I get this all the time. One of my mom’s friends is an artist and my mom, she told me she was out for coffee, and she mentioned that her son Robby was doing something with GoDaddy, and her friend was like, “Oh, GoDaddy? Oh, no. They’re horrible. They’re a terrible company. One of these … Oh no.” They’ve got like this really horrible stigma, right? But on the topic of democratization, GoDaddy is one of the most affordable web hosts out there, and if you’re trying to get a website or a business online, they’re one of the best. Really, the bang for your buck there is so, so, so high. You get so much value out of that.
We’re thrilled to be a part of that, because their whole push when they included our product, it’s part of this onboarding tool which basically, when you sign up for a WordPress website for GoDaddy, they walk you through this process of like, “Hey, okay. Your site needs a name.” They’re targeting this towards people who aren’t necessarily developers or designers. I mean, they’re trying to get small businesses and people, course creators are a great example of someone that might be out there that has a talent or a skill, or builds something, and they want to share that and maybe build a revenue stream around that.
I think that partnership with GoDaddy that we have right now is really powerful on that note, that their effort to make it easier for small businesses and entrepreneurs, creative people, to get online and get their skill, talent, course, product, whatever in front of people. Sorry, I’m like trying to … How do I …? And the software. I think that’s been a really cool thing for us, in that vein. As far as what we have planned, I’m hoping we can do that with every major web … Like, “Hey, if you’re a major web host and you’re listening, come find us. We want to make it easier for your customers to build websites.”
I think we live in a really cool time right now, and it’s never been easier. I mean, like the music industry is a good one, right? 25, 30, 40 years ago, if you wanted to get music in front of someone, you needed to have a tens of hundreds of thousand dollar recording studio, and you needed to have a CD press or a printing press. You could record something onto a tape deck at one point, but technology has made it exponentially easier for people to create and to share their artwork, and it’s such an amazing time in that there’s top club hits that are being made by some kid on a laptop now, and that technology that … You know, they say the computer that sent a man to the moon, like my iPhone 7 is 20 times more powerful than that now. It’s just wild how much opportunity we have to put stuff out there, and build, and create, and share.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. I think that’s kind of at the root of democratization, is that things just get easier. Like you were mentioning with GoDaddy, they’re kind of getting in front of the problem of, “Okay, I’ve got a non-technical customer. How do I get them set up and just remove layers of complexity or decision fatigue, and just give them the best tools for what they’re trying to do so that by the time they’re done with the setup process, they’re like ready to roll?” Without having to, like, “Okay, I have hosting. Now what?” It’s just a fascinating thing. I think that’s what democratization is all about, if you’re wanting to teach. That’s like one of our goals, is to make it so that technology is more accessible in terms of piecing together the components that make up an online course.
Robby M.: Yeah. I mean, hearing you say that, too, I wish … Why I love what you guys are doing at Lifter, and I love just the idea of online education, is, like, man, I wish I had learned some of those skills in school. You know? I wish when I was in high school there was a class on building a business, or … Yeah, I was always really passionate and creative, but it was looked at as a bad thing. I was ditching class to go play guitar, because I wanted to be a rock star, and everyone was like, “What are you doing? This is a horrible choice. You need to conform. You need to go to school, then you need to go to college, then you’ll get the job and the pension.” Even just since I’m in my 30s now, things have changed a lot since then, but that kind of process that maybe the generation before us was able to leverage a lot better isn’t necessarily going to be an option for a lot of people, here in the States. This might be exclusive to us here.
The whole American dream, that used to be it. Like, you follow the line to the end. You get the job, you get the pension. That’s how it all worked, but now I think that in the future, more people are going to be needing to start their own businesses and kind of make their own way in the world. I’d even go as far as to say that might be a better quality of life, you know? Being your own boss, and getting to do your own thing and explore your passions and your creativity. Being able to produce that club hit on your laptop, that guy was having a lot more fun than if he was flipping burgers at McDonald’s, I imagine.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely. If you want to see a great example of what Robby is talking about, in terms of producing that club hit, there’s a website that delivers online courses from some of the best in the world. It’s called MasterClass.com. It’s not powered by LifterLMS, but what’s his name? Deadmau5? Do you know who …?
Robby M.: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, sure.
Chris Badgett: He’s probably one of the best in the world at electronic music.
Robby M.: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Go check out just the intro video to his online course, and that was his point. He’s saying that, like, what people are making on a laptop, you don’t need all this fancy recording studio. The democratization of creating this art form has never been more accessible. If I wanted to do that, if I wanted to create electronic music, I now have access to one of the best in the world at it, and he can teach me how to do it from home, and so on. It’s not to say that there’s no time and place for traditional education systems or in-person training, but there’s never been a better time to both teach or learn in these really tight, interesting niches, which I would agree with you. I had a similar experience where the mainstream just wasn’t quite doing it for me. I just wasn’t getting the pieces, or at least the spin or the flavor on it that was of interest to me, or whatever it was was kind of outdated or not relevant, or whatever.
Robby M.: Yeah. I was also young and dumb back then, too. Now, I look back on those days like … I’ve been watching this documentary, The Untold History of the United States. It’s on Netflix. It’s by Oliver Stone. I moved out to an area, I live close to a reservoir that used to be … There used to be a couple of logging towns, and they flooded them, so they’re ghost towns. We’ve had a drought here in California, and the reservoir has gotten historically low, and a bunch of the kind of remnants from these towns started appearing. I never liked history when I was in high school, but being immersed in it and watching this documentary, like, history is fascinating. I was like, “Man, I wish I had …” I didn’t have the appreciation for it back then, but I agree. I’m, like, talking down on traditional education. That was just my experience, but no, I wish I could do it all over again with the kind of wisdom and maturity I have now, because there’s a lot of fascinating stuff out there that, yeah, you’ve just got to kind of find. Find how you relate to it.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome.
Robby M.: It makes it a lot more interesting and a lot easier, I think, to learn. When you’re interested and passionate about something, or when you find it on your … Maybe that’s what it is. For me, it was finding things on my own. I had a hard time kind of following … Well, I could talk all about that. All about my struggles with education as a youth, but maybe we should …
Chris Badgett: No, that’s part of the … We share that story, and I think that concept of finding stuff on your own, like now with this proliferation of online education and all these niche trainings that are available online or in person, or at these events on the most obscure topics, you can now find that stuff, or some webinar about something really specific that you had been into but it just wasn’t around when you were 16 or 20 or 25 or whatever. That’s the beauty of this day and age. There’s just never been more opportunity. The technology is here for people to create that kind of stuff and also to find it. You can become a self-styled person.
I often think about the professional world. If let’s say a company like Apple wants to hire a programmer or whatever, they could put together like, “Okay, you’re going to need to learn this online course, this online course.” To get the jobs of the future, it’s almost going to be up to the employers of the company to create the perfect package of experiences, where they’re not necessarily looking at degree programs from the best universities, but they want to see somebody who has done all these different things that aren’t necessarily part of the traditional education system. Especially since the world, especially in technology is changing so fast.
Robby M.: Yeah, that’s a great point. Yeah. Because computer science right, like intro to computer science at every university, over the years the language has changed, right? It’s been C, or maybe it’s Python, or a lot of people have been encouraging Javascript as a first language these days. To learn this, just in the subject of engineering and programming, to learn the basics, it doesn’t really matter which language you pick. If you’re Apple, and you have the iPhone, which is … What is it? They’re not…
Chris Badgett: Swift?
Robby M.: Is it Swift? Whatever, they have their stack, and they have the … Why wouldn’t you want someone that learned on that stack? Well, I guess there’s benefits to learning other languages, too, but I think that’s a really interesting point, that yeah, if you can groom your own … It would be a lot more efficient to kind of groom your own people with your tools and your environment, and as things have gotten infinitely more complex, and the others, instead of just being the one, couple, five classical programming languages, now there’s thousands, and frameworks, and those abstraction layers we talked about, you know, they’re only going to keep getting more and more prolific and complicated.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely. When I hire a developer, I almost don’t even care about their academic background. It’s more like, “What can you do?” Or, “Let me see some examples.” Or, “What struggles …” Like, “Let’s talk about how you work through problems.
Robby M.: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Then, “What kind of person are you?” Where you went to school is like, I guess I don’t even ask that. They’re not going to apply or show interest if at least they don’t have a shot.
Robby M.: Yeah, it’s a different world out there.
Chris Badgett: Well, Robby McCullough, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming on the show. If people want to find out more about you, or Beaver Builder, where should people go check you out besides joining the Facebook group and the Slack channel?
Robby M.: Yeah, thanks. Our website is WPBeaverBuilder.com. We’re pretty active on Twitter under the BeaverBuilder account. Then I have a personal account, @RobbyMcCullough, which I don’t Tweet a lot, but it’s a great way if you want to like reach out and ping me about something, I’m there, and listening. Yeah. This has been a really great chat. Thanks so much for having me. We got to dig into some cool topics. This was a really fun one.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, thank you Robby, and have an awesome day.
Robby M.: My pleasure. See ya.

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.