EPISODE 133

2 Ways to Combine Online Courses with a Productized Service with Brian Casel from Audience Ops

Today Chris Badgett of LifterLMS discusses 2 ways to combine online courses with a productized service with Brian Casel from Audience Ops in this episode of LMScast. Brian is the creator of Audience Ops, which is a content marketing company, and they have made a name for themselves in the industry with their done-for-you content service.

You can use Audience Ops to have content written for your blog and they will also write email newsletters and social posts to go with the blog. They are also releasing more content marketing tools, such as calendar software and a content marketing training program.

In this episode Chris and Brian really get into how you can provide productized service with online education. Brian learned the concept of productized services through the process of trial and error. He sees the process of moving from consulting to a productized service as a bridge where you use the knowledge you have to move to a product you can sell.

Chris and Brian discuss the difference between a productized service and an agency. A lot of people think of a productized service as a glorified agency, but it isn’t. Agencies will do specialized things for different clients, whereas a productized service uses a standardized and systematic way to offer the same package to all clients.

Having a productized service and a course built around the same content is very valuable. Clients that are willing to pay to have it done for them will have that option. And customers that are starting up and are on a tighter budget will have the option to learn how to do it themselves.

Brian believes a productized service can also come in handy for companies that are not able to pay for the consulting that you may do, but they are willing to pay for the service. They also talk about how having a requirement of a payment for entry helps keep students engaged, because they have invested something other than time into what you are selling.

Chris and Brian talk about constructing a productized service and what goes into that. You will need to take into consideration what you include in your service that customers may face issues with, such as delivery, common questions, and package content that is not as easily delivered through a course.

For something that can’t be delivered as an online course, a set up service could be the way to go. As they discuss, a set up service could range in price and what needs to be done. The set up service does become more active for the employees providing the service, and that is one challenge. Chris likes the software plus set up service combination.

To learn more about Brian Casel you can check out his personal website CasJam.com. And you can visit Audience Ops which is a productized service for creating ongoing content for your site. You can also find him on a podcast called Bootstrapped Web with Jordan Gal.

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 today we have a special guest, Brian Casel from Audience Ops, and many other projects that we’re going to get into in this podcast. Brian’s also an expert in productized services. He teaches how to do it, and he’s done it himself many times and consulted on it, so we’re really going to get into that. And we’re going to get into two ways that you could really think about combining a productized service with online education, with online courses, and a couple of different scenarios to get the gears turning about some different options you might be able to put on the table for your business that you might enjoy, might make your life easier, and might make things a lot more scalable, and your customers happier.
But first, Brian, thanks for coming on the show.
Brian Casel: Hi. Thanks for having me on, Chris. Yeah. Good stuff. Glad to talk to you.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, I’ve seen a lot of your stuff online, and a lot of the messaging starts with the phrase, when you’re done with billable hours, what’s next? I can relate to that. I’ve done a lot of consulting and projects with marketing and developing agency and stuff, but where does the root of that phrase come from?
Brian Casel: Yeah. That’s interesting. I wrote that, I came up with that phrase probably about two years ago, probably around the time I came out with the productized course and really just started thinking about that concept of the productized service. And when you’re done with billable hours, what’s next? That was the mindset that I had in a couple of years prior to that. I had been making a living as a freelance web designer for a few years, and not necessarily billing by the hour, mostly billing by the project, but that’s essentially the same.
You know, you can only take on so many projects, and you’re essentially selling your time for money, and the thought that kept popping into my mind year after year was, how far does this go? You can keep raising your rates, which I did over time, but then even that hits a ceiling at a certain point, so then the next step is, what’s next? Are you going to build an agency? Are you going to hire employees? Or you going to transition into products? And all of these different directions seemed really confusing, challenging, possible, not possible, so it’s just that question of how far can you go by billing by the hour.
And what I learned through trial and error over time is this concept of productized services. That seemed to be the easiest path, or the easiest bridge to go from being a freelance consultant to owning a business and a brand that can actually grow in different directions. I mean, we can get into more specifics about productized services, but I did find that was the bridge that can take me from, hey, I’m Brian Casel, and I do websites to I own a business. It’s called this, and this business does this service, or this product, and we have a team, and it’s a self-sustaining thing, and then eventually that business that, the first one was Restaurant Engine, I was able to build that into something I can sell, and I exited from in 2015. You know, it didn’t require me to run, and then now I’m into the next one, Audience Ops.
Chris Badgett: That’s really cool. Well, just to tie into your story of being done with billable hours, I got there in a sense with building up a web development and design agency. We’re up to about 17 people. Our hourly rate was $200 an hour, and that’s what we would use if we were doing a fixed-price project, in our estimations pretty much. But at the end of those projects, they were often pretty high stress. There was a lot going on. We did some quite large projects, and we’re really at the higher end of the market of a certain type of web development, specifically focused on membership sites and sites that were doing online education.
We kept doing that, and then we made the jump to building our product, which LifterLMS, and for those of you listening who haven’t heard it, if this is your first time, LifterLMS is a WordPress plugin that makes it easy to create, sell, and protect online courses. And then after we got that going, and that’s been going for about three years, and eventually we kind of phased down, took the foot off the gas of the custom client work. The product was really taking off in its own right, and we also added productized service, which I think is probably when I first came across your material online is, I really wanted to make sure I was thinking through a productized service, and how to do it right, and what it’s all about. I’m a big learner-type person, myself, so we created a done-for-you setup service with that.
But that, your messaging resonates with people like me, who is like, okay, I’m kind of done with billable hours. I appreciate the ride. It was a good journey. Some people, I forget who I’m stealing this from, but there’s something called the corner office test. And I was looking around. I did not want to be the CEO of an agency that was, like, 25 deep, 50 deep, 100 deep. I would rather focus my strategy and innovation more on a scalable product or productized service. That seemed much more appealing, exciting, and the more of the type of team I wanted to build and have fun with.
Brian Casel: Yeah, absolutely.
Chris Badgett: Nice job on your messaging, because it definitely hooked me.
Brian Casel: Hey, I mean, those are things that I dealt with for years, myself, too. I knew it. Yeah, like how to grow this thing, how to make it more scalable, and then all those frustrations that come with typical consulting. And don’t get me wrong. I had some clients who were great. I loved working with them, did some really great, big projects over the years. But overall, whether it’s taking days to write a big proposal that doesn’t sell, or going to these client meetings, or getting pushback from clients, or doing 20 different projects in a year, and all of them are completely different from one another, and the idea of hiring people to do those projects with you is so hectic, because everything is different.
That’s the difference between what I consider to be a typical agency and a productized service, because a lot of people get that confused. A lot of people think, “Well, the productized service is just kind of a glorified agency, isn’t it?” And it’s semantics, but I consider them to be pretty different, because agencies do anything and everything for all these different clients. As long as they have the budget to afford the agency, then they’ll do it. But what’s required there, is you need to hire a lot of different people, and a lot of people who can handle putting out fires, and dealing with client requests, and giving clients custom attention.
We do that to a certain extent in Audience Ops today, but it’s in a very systematic and standardized way. We essentially offer the same package to all clients. We deliver it in basically the same way, the same process, the same schedule, the same deliverables. The content, we do blog content, so the content of course is unique, 100% original, tailored for each audience, but the package of how we deliver that and the process for how we create that content is all the same. And that makes it easier to hire people, to put people in specific roles that fall into our process, and to essentially remove myself from the delivery of the service, so that I can focus on those systems. I can focus on marketing. I can focus on building our new products, which we’re doing this year.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome.
Brian Casel: Actually, just listening to your story, though, I followed this pretty similar path. I was doing freelance stuff and then got into doing Restaurant Engine, and I took probably about two years to bootstrap Restaurant Engine and slowly, gradually phase down that freelance work, as needed, you know.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. That’s awesome. I like what you’re saying, like a difference between an agency and a productized service. One way I think about it is, the agency, you got to have a bunch of really smart, adaptable people.
Brian Casel: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Whereas the wait in the productized service is more on the packages and the process. Both create value. They’re just totally different ways of creating value. And that doesn’t meant that if you have an agency, the people are really smart, and there’s no process, and everything’s like the wild west. You still have process, and you know, if you have a productized service, you’re still working with smart people. It’s just, which are you leading with? Are you leading with process and packages, or are you leading with an all-star, adaptable team?
Brian Casel: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: But let’s get into a couple scenarios. Some of the people coming to this podcast are teachers or experts in something, and eventually, one of the things they’re looking for is scale. They’re used to doing one-on-one consulting, or they’re teaching at live events, or in classrooms. They can only get so big and only reach so many people. With online courses, that’s all about, let’s take that experience and put it online, where you have global scale, and put a price tag on it. And yeah, it’s may not be as bespoke and custom as one-on-one consulting, where you’re reacting to every nuance of what’s going on, but you can create an education product and do that at scale.
If someone’s like, “Okay, I’m getting tired of one-on-one consulting. I’m going to create a course, but this productized service thing also sounds interesting.” Where do they start?
Brian Casel: I think that the productized service can be, like I said earlier, like a bridge to go from being a general consultant to having a product that you can sell. And when I say a bridge, I mean, you can take whatever consulting that you’re doing now and find ways to really standardize it, make it more focus, deliver it in the same way with standardized pricing and packages, and that’s a way to basically productize your service. But the benefit of coming out of that, and the way that you take that bridge over to turning it into some sort of course is, you take the methodology that you use in your consulting, whether it’s the same advice that you’re giving to clients again and again, the way that you answer the common questions, and all that data, all that knowledge, and all that expertise that you’re building up, and that you’ve really refined through your consulting, that’s what essentially goes into the course.
And when I say finding focus and standardizing down your service, it’s not only in terms of what you’re doing, how long you’re doing it, but it’s also who you’re doing it for. A lot of consultants just work with anybody and everybody who comes through their door, and they’re ready to work with you. But you know, through that process of building a package and a price, and a price tag and a value proposition, the other really important side of that is, who is that for? Who does it resonate with? Who resonates with the specific problem that you’re solving, and once you can identify that, that’s for, it really leads you down the path to say, “Okay, now I really know what that specific pain point is, and that’s something that I can build a course around, or a software product, or something.”
Chris Badgett: Something I’ve noticed just in having a consulting service, a productized service, and a product is that, sometimes the audiences are little different at the different points. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Or sometimes maybe it’s, they’re just on a different part of the customer life cycle, or buyer’s journey, or whatever. What would you have to say to that?
Brian Casel: Yeah, that’s something that we found with Audience Ops, and that’s why this year we’re going almost in our third year of Audience Ops, and now we’re transitioning into really just expanding our product line for that reason is, we found that there are different segments. The done-for-you service, our content service, basically that’s how we started, that’s how we launched the business, that’s what has made it self-fund and grow itself and help us establish ourselves. But now that we have established ourselves, now the done-for-you service becomes the high end, and we’re going to be coming out with a software product called Audience Ops Calendar, and a training product of course, as well, which is also about training on content marketing.
What I found through the done-for-you service is, most of our clients see it as a really good value. The pricing that we have set up for content, actually, it’s cheaper than hiring a full-time writer for your business. It’s more efficient, more cost effective than having the founders do all the writing themselves. They see the value proposition there, and they’re usually established businesses who’ve been around a couple of years, and they’re ready to invest in having the content done for them.
But we also found that there was a smaller segment of our customer base who, maybe they’re bootstrap startups, tighter budgets, and they’re looking for an entry point to start doing content marketing. That’s where this course is going to come in. And then the software, Audience Ops Calendar, could also fit that group, but it’s really aimed at people who are doing content marketing, or managing a content calendar for your business, or for your clients. If you’re doing kind of what we’re doing with content marketing for our clients, the Audience Ops Calendar product will be aimed at managing a content calendar, streamlining the process with your team, but it also has some analytics built in, so you can measure performance of your content, and see it all right on the calendar.
Essentially, in the next couple of months as these new products roll out, we’ll be able to keep having the high-end, done-for-you content service, and then options for do-it-yourself stuff, like the software or a training product that you can get into. And the other thing is that, we’re using the training product as an entry point into the done-for-you service as well. The course, you could apply that credit towards the first month of the content service. Clients of the content service, we’re using our software for them, so they get access to the software too. The three products kind of work hand-in-hand. We’re still a content marketing company. We’re not doing all these different things, but we’re just breaking it up into different segments of the same audience.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. One of the big takeaways there, if you’re listening, and you’re a highly paid consultant who’s relying on your smarts, and in the moment that adaptability is, there are more clients out there. There are other segments. There are other adjacent markets that maybe can’t afford your high-end consulting but would fit perfectly in your productized service.
Brian Casel: Yeah, and the thing that I want to stress here is that, it sounds like we’re doing a lot, and right now we are doing a lot. Soon we’re going to have three products sold through our sites, so that’s doing a lot. And I’ve developers. I’ve got writers. Got managers. We have a lot to manage right now. I would never suggest to do all this stuff right out of the gate. That would not have been possible. Two years ago when I was starting up Audience Ops, I looked at building a SaaS right from the get-go, a software-as-a-service product. And the economics just did not make sense. Investing all that time and money into hiring developers, and it would take almost a year to build the software. We would have no audience of our own. It just didn’t make sense. Instead, I only started with the productized service. That was profitable and self sustaining, and self funded the growth of the company, and now two years in, now we’re able to take these steps to expand. Again, that’s why I see the productized service as that bridge.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, and it doesn’t all have to happen at once, and if you’re consulting right now and thinking about doing a productized service, it starts with just creating an offer. Put that in writing, make a sales page or an opt-in page about it, and really the act of creating that is going to force you to really isolate, what is it that you provide the most value at, and what can you go to process around, and it’s just a great exercise to do, even if you don’t launch it, just to clarify your thinking in what makes your offer so good.
Brian Casel: Yeah. The way that I like to think about it is how to come up with a really valuable offer. You’ve been a consultant. You’ve been freelancing, and typically what happens is clients come to you, and they say, “All right. I need a new website,” or whatever it is they come to you for. “I want this, and how much time will it take? How much does it cost?”
If you flip it on its head, what if you had an opportunity where a potential client came to you and said, “Well, I don’t really know what we need. We’ve got some money to spend. You tell us. What do you think is your best recommendation for what we need based on where we’re at right now?” It’s your opportunity to design the best possible solution, the best packages of services that you know will really drive home results for this clients. What would be included? What would you include in a service like that? How would you deliver it?
It’s like the dream for any consultant, to not be dictated to what they want, but actually they use their expertise and recommend what they believe the client should have. That’s what forming a value proposition for a productized service is all about.
Chris Badgett: Very well said. And once you start doing this, you’ll see all around you, there’s packages everywhere. If you go look for a car, there’s three versions of it. If you’re looking at some sort of vacation package, there’s different versions of it.
Brian Casel: Exactly.
Chris Badgett: Packages are everywhere. Not every car company says, “Okay, well what sort of steering wheel would you like,” or “Tell me all the pieces of the car you would like.”
Speaking of segments and different types of markets and people, some of the people listening to this episode in software companies or some kind of product business, and they’re not consultants. They’re not trying to necessarily create courses as another revenue stream, but they’re rather doing it to educate their customers, both for marketing purposes and also for onboarding purposes, to reduce churn, and you can really actually use the same course for that. But one of the things I’ve noticed is, a lot of times with a particular software product, it’s another company that ends up building a productized service around it, but if I have a software company, and I also want to build a productized service, like a setup service, what’s your advice to that person?
Brian Casel: First, I think it’s a good idea, and I think not software businesses are open to that idea of opening a service. A lot of software product businesses are, “We got in this thing to build software, not to provide services,” right? But I think that there’s a big opportunity there, and it’s a way to really add a lot of value and increase loyalty for your products. There’s so many benefits to this.
Because if you think about it, if you have a software tool, let’s say it’s an analytics tool or something like that, that only solves half the problem. The other half of the problem is actually implementing the tool, setting it up, configuring it for your business, and actually getting the value out of it. There’s really two side to that coin there.
There will always be the customers who are do-it-yourself. They don’t need the hand holding. They just want to set it up themselves. That’s great, you know. Hands off. But if you can offer some sort of done-for-you setup service, consulting service, a coaching. There’s coaching for success out there that’s kind of like included customer support, but you can go above and beyond, where it’s like concierge onboarding, or even monthly strategy sessions with your customers.
There are a lot of different ways that you can go with this, but what I found, the way that I really came across this was with Restaurant Engine a few years back, my previous company. Originally, when I started it, I thought it would be a website builder for restaurants, and restaurant owners would just come to the site, sign up, create their own website using our system that we give them, and they would onboard themselves. That was the idea from the outset.
We built all the software automation to set up their sites automatically, and all these customization options, all this stuff built in. And then, during that first year, what I learned was, they just need it done for them, and if we offer that as a service. First we offered it for free, like, “Hey, we’ll set up your website for you. Just get onboard with the service.” And that was good for a little while, and then we started charging for it. You know, $99 setups and then $200 setups. I don’t know what they’re charging now, but what I found then was, once I started for that setup service … Oh, and then eventually we made it required, so all customers had to pay for the setup service.
What I learned was, yes, it definitely decreases the number of new signups, obviously. You’re asking for an upfront payment. That’s always going to decrease your number of signups. But the people who sign up are, a) 95% more likely to complete the setup and get onboarded into the subscription service, and b) also way more likely to stay onboard for a long period of time and not churn out, because they invested in some sort of initial setup service. They invested their time and energy and money into it, so the likelihood of them switching away is much reduced.
I think it definitely pays, and you know, since it’s a software, it’s a very standard operation. Again, it’s not totally custom services different for every client. It’s setting up your software that you designed in the best way that you know how. You can just train your team to do that in a very streamlined, efficient way, so at the end of the day, it doesn’t really cost you a whole lot to offer that service. I just think that combination of software plus service, or courses plus service, or coaching, I love that combo.
Chris Badgett: What about productized services, like with us, we have a done-for-you setup service for your learning platform site, but we’re not really going after recurring revenue. It’s not like it’s a productized service that goes on and on and on, and just continually adds value. It’s more of this investment that gets you over a hump, like you’re talking about, like these are the people who are going to succeed because they’re not going to get bogged down in the technology that’s going to get launched. They’re going to be ready to roll.
But we’re not really going after ongoing stuff. What are the pros and cons, or how do we even think it? Should we, if we do a productized service, think recurring revenue, or one-time white-glove, like, “Okay, I’ll take the TV from Best Buy, and I’ll set it up in your house for you, and then we’re done.”
Brian Casel: Well, you know, there’s no doubt about it that recurring revenue is a more attractive biz model. It grows over time. Every month you’re not starting from zero again, and you’re growing. That’s always great, and I tended to seek our business models that are a recurring model, but I don’t every business has to be in the recurring mode, and certainly not productized services. I’ve sold, and I do sell, products that are one-time, like my productized course is a one-time sale, and it comes with an option for a one-time coaching session. That’s a very simple one-hour productized service that I sell, basically.
And I’ve seen other productized services work really well. I saw one a while back that’s like, “Landing Page in a Day.”
Chris Badgett: Oh, cool.
Brian Casel: It’s like you book your day on the calendar. You pay a thousand bucks, and he’ll design and write the copy for a landing page on your site, and he’ll spend that one day working with you, giving you the revisions, and then the day’s over, and that’s it. And so, that’s a really great way, especially if you’re solo, and you plan to stay solo, and you don’t really want to grow the team. That’s actually a pretty good model to standardize your service, eliminate all that stress that comes with putting out of the fires of being a freelancer doing a thousand different things, and just doing one thing in a very standard way. You get to focus on your craft that love doing, and you work with one customer segment who you really love to work with, and just schedule it out, price it at a point where you know makes sense for your lifestyle, and that’s a great little business right there.
And you know, the other thing that I’ve come across a lot is, as I said, recurring revenue is a really attractive model, but I think too many people try to fit their business into a recurring model when it just doesn’t fit.
Chris Badgett: There has to be a recurring value, right?
Brian Casel: There has to be recurring value. You have to be solving a problem that repeats itself on a monthly basis. If it’s designing a website, maybe it takes a couple of months, but once that is done and launched, yeah, there’s a little bit of maintenance, and that can be an ongoing service, but the cost of designing and building a website is not the same as maintaining it over time.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. One of the things I’ve noticed sometimes is some fear around, if I switch, it just seems like it’s not possible from high-end consultant, the value is me, and I can come into a room, and I can do all this stuff, and I have these high-end engineers around me, and I can figure it out. What’s your advice for helping someone either personally or with their team to transition, change the mindset, because it seems like it’s a true mindset. There’s a lot of inner work that you’ve got to do to do this stuff.
Brian Casel: I guess first of all, you don’t have to change overnight. You can phase one in and phase one out over time, or you can just keep a balance for a long time. A lot of people do that too. You can kind of experiment with offering a productized offer that’s like a sidebar, or only when it makes sense for a particular type of client, you can offer that. Otherwise, you’re doing your custom consulting. That’s totally fine for a while.
The other thing that I encourage people to wrap their heads around is that, as talented and as much of an expert as you are, that doesn’t mean that other people are not just as smart and talented and experienced as you are, and you can bring that talent into your team. And your offer and your business does not have to have your name on it.
For example, Audience Ops right now, we hire exceptionally talented writers, and we have a very high bar in order to be hired as a writer at Audience Ops. Right now we’re hiring a writer, and we’re sifting through hundreds of applications, and so, you know we have really talented, smart, capable writers, and we’ve just defined a very specific creative process that our writers follow. And so at the end of the day, our clients are receiving … And frankly our writers are much better writers than I am. Our clients would not receive the same value if I were the one writing their articles than they would our writers, and our editors, and our designers all working on it.
I think that’s the way that you need to start to think about it, if you’re on that fence.
Chris Badgett: For the people out there that haven’t really seen Audience Ops yet, what’s the quick elevator pitch of what it is?
Brian Casel: Yeah. Audience Ops is a content marketing company. As I said, we’ve made the name for ourselves with our done-for-you content service, where we write the content for your blog, and we also write email newsletters and social posts to go with that, and we’ve designed a whole package around that. Now we’re also releasing content marketing tools, like the calendar software and a content marketing training program, as well.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Ever since we last talked, I’ve been thinking about software with a service with education, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there. Even if you’re not a software company. Let’s say you do high-end consulting for setting up Infusionsoft or Active Campaign or Drip, you know, marketing funnels, and you go into a business, and people pay you lots of money, and you deconstruct everything, and you’re doing high-end consulting, and maybe you have a team around you. But even if you don’t own Infusionsoft or Active Campaign or Drip, or whatever, there’s an opportunity there for a consultant to create a productized service around it, and also create education. Nothing sharpens the saw and makes you even better than trying to teach what you do to somebody else.
Brian Casel: Yeah, that’s so true. My mother actually taught me that. She was a long-time teacher. She taught college level. She doesn’t do it anymore, but she used to teach computer programs, word processing, and Microsoft Office, and that kind of stuff to college people and also professionals. She did corporate training. And it’s true. She taught me that you don’t really learn a thing until you have to form it into a lesson and really get it across to somebody else who depends on them learning it for their job or to get ahead.
You know, the other thing, and going back to that last question about, if you’re the expert, how do you productize that and get other team members on board? I mean, you can use your expertise to design the best system and solution. For example, we do some stuff with Drip automation, with the email sequences and stuff that we set up for clients, a lot of that was built out of my experience working with Drip, and so I built the strategy, and then I’ve just formed it into a process, and then I hired people who can use our template and implement it. And there are plenty of different ways you can do that in different businesses, so rather than using your personal expertise to be the person in the room talking to the client, you can be the person behind the scenes, to design the solution, and then hire people to put into the roles to execute it.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, that’s awesome. I used to do some of our productized deliveries, and I would just carry it around in my head, and I sat down with our product manager, and I was like, “All right. We’re going to build a process here.” And then, she’s been doing a lot of them, and it’s going famously. And she’s improving the process as it goes, which is another important thing.
Brian Casel: Oh, totally.
Chris Badgett: With courses and with productized services, you’ve got to have a feedback loop. It’s important not to automate everything and totally remove any kind of listening, because there’s so much room for improvement, and sometimes one little tweak, you might uncover a lot more value.
Brian Casel: So, so true. We’re two years into our done-for-you content service, and this month we’re overhauling a lot of our processes, and we’re always doing that. Kat is a member of our team who helps out with the processes, and we’re just going through it. We’re changing some of the strategies based on feedback, based on what we see drives better results, and now we’re slowly tweaking the processes, and getting each member of the team onboard with, all right, here’s how we used to do it. Here’s how we’re going to do it going forward. There’s a constant refinement of the processes, for sure, so important.
And you know, also that, as your team starts to grow. Early on, I was the one who created all the initial setup processes. But then as the team starts to grow, I become more and more removed, and so then I actually rely on the team to either tell me what’s happening on the ground. Where can these things be improved? What are some shortcuts that we can build in? And now, it’s gotten to the point where a lot of the new processes and things, the team is actually writing, and I just look at it, and I’ll review and coach them on how to do it.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, I know the listener is thinking, “Well, how do I actually create processes?” And I’ll just share my way is, I usually start loose and more creative with mind maps and just make sure I get the brain dump. And then, ultimately, I try to end up in a spreadsheet, or a Trello board, or something like Asana, where it’s like, okay we got it. Here it is. This is step by step. But it definitely, I don’t start with something like Trello, or a project management software tool. I need to make sure I get every opportunity to get all of the ideas out of the right brain, or the creative side of the brain, or whatever. All that stuff that’s locked in the consultant’s head that you, some of it goes down to the subconscious, and you’re just operating on auto pilot, but you got to bubble that stuff up before we can build a process around it.
But how do you capture processes?
Brian Casel: Yeah. Pretty similar to you. Almost everything I do, whether it’s processes or just planning a new initiative, whatever it is, I try to do a brain dump into my notepad. I do that a lot. And then, I kind of process it all and build it into something. We use Google Docs to keep track of all of our processes, and then once spreadsheet to catalog them.
In terms of creating a process, if you’re going from a point where you’ve been doing a lot of stuff, and you have no processes documented, what I would recommend is just start simple. Start with the low-hanging fruit, which are the things that you find yourself doing repeatedly, on a weekly basis. The big projects that you do maybe once in a while, totally custom, it doesn’t really make sense to document that, because you’re probably only doing that once. But the recurring things like, I don’t know, sending an invoice to a client, or doing QA on a website … I just come from the web design world, so these are the examples that I know … but editing an article, editing something that you’ve written, that has a process that’s repeatable. And so, start simple. Just jot down some of the high-level bullet points, like I’d step by step, how am I doing this today? You don’t have to get into all the details, just kind of step by step. And then next week, when you’re doing it again, go back to that same process and maybe fill in a few more details. And then, keep filling in more and more detail. Maybe include screenshots. Include whatever you think would be helpful.
My whole goal, really, in managing my team is, how can I make their jobs as easy as possible? I want them to feel like, “Wow, everything is just handed to me on a silver platter. All I need to do is show up and follow the process and do what I’m great at.” That’s the feedback that I get from the team is, I just try to make their jobs as easy as possible. If you’re new to this, think about it like, if somebody else were to do the thing that you’re doing today, what would they need in order to execute it in the same way that you’re doing it? They would need some instructions, so try to see it from their eyes, a new person coming in, and get to a level of detail that can get there.
Chris Badgett: And that, ladies and gentleman, is another example of how a productized service is different from an agency. An agency would take that fire and pass it to somebody on their team.
Brian Casel: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: A productized service, would they like, “Hold on. Let’s take a moment, and let’s build a process around this.” It’s still going to involve people, but you’re going to put the fire out with process, not people.
Brian Casel: And that’s another great point, and this comes up again and again over the last couple years with Audience Ops. Same thing back with Restaurant Engine. As these fires come up, but fires will still come up. A client will have some edge-case scenario where it’s like, “All right, well how do we handle this? They have some special requests.”
I always stress with me team, don’t just say yes to the special request right off the bat. Sometimes we will accommodate it in some way, but first bring it to the team. Let’s look at it. Let’s see if it’s something we can work into our process for all of our clients, not just for that one special case. And if it is, if it would benefit all clients, if it makes sense, then we’ll tell the client, “All right. You know, sounds good. We’re going to take a few weeks. We’re going to work out a process for this, and then we’ll roll it in.” And try to find a way to deliver it in a standard way, rather than just saying, “Yes. Sure. Yeah, we’ll do that. We’ll do this.”
And then in some cases, when it’s just something outside the scope of what we would do, and it just doesn’t make sense, then we’ll say, “No. It’s not something that’s included, but here’s some resources that might help you out.”
Chris Badgett: Yeah, that’s awesome. We do that at Lifter LMS too. Now, if it’s starting to drift into custom-land, we have basically a referral of trusted agencies that we can refer people to, and it feels good to do that, to have gotten to that point.
Brian Casel: Yeah, totally.
Chris Badgett: Well, Brian, I want to thank you for coming on the show, and I’m going to try to list some of your stuff off, but at the end, fill in what I’ve missed.
You can find out more about Brian Casel at his personal website, CasJam.com. He’s also the creator of Audience Ops, which is a productized service for creating ongoing content for your site, which I encourage you to check out, especially if you’re an online course creator, a membership site owner. We spend so much time focused on the content that’s locked down inside your online course, or in your membership site, that it’s easy to forget about the blog, and you know, you should be creating some content to start attracting new leads as part of your content marketing or your inbound marketing strategy. I highly recommend you check out Audience Ops. And Brian’s course on productized services is located at CasJam.com/Productized.
Where else can people find you on the web, Brian?
Brian Casel: Yeah. I mean, you pretty much nailed it. The other thing is, I cohost a podcast called Bootstrapped Web with my buddy, Jordan Gal, and we’re just coming off a real hiatus on that, but we’ll be recording tomorrow. But we’re just talking week to week, updates behind the scenes, what we’re working on in our respective businesses, so that’s kind of fun. And yeah, like you said, CasJam.com, that’s my personal site. You’ll find stuff about productized services there. And AudienceOps.com.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, thank you for coming on the show.
Brian Casel: Thanks, Chris.

EPISODE 132

Teaching Like a Pastor, Technical Team Building, and How to Use Forms in Lessons with James Laws from Ninja Forms

In this episode of LMScast with Chris Badgett of LifterLMS, we will be talking about teaching like a pastor, technical team building, and how to use forms in lessons with James Laws from Ninja Forms. Chris and James discuss using forms and the best ways to deliver your message to your customers.

James has an interesting background. He started out working as a grocery store clerk, and next he became a vacuum salesman. Then he became a pastor. And then on to developing a WordPress business with Ninja Forms. The company allows you to develop forms for your WordPress sites. There are many things you can do with forms inside of the membership site and learning environment.

When James was young he was in the ministry, and from there became a pastor. That gave him a lot of experience being on stage and talking in front of a crowd. He met his business partner doing that, and he tells about their relationship and how they make their business work. Building websites for ministries to help them stay connected was how James got introduced to the space.

Chris shares his story of learning leadership skills and studying animal psychology when he was leading sled dog teams in Alaska. They also discuss how their teaching processes have evolved over the years.

When speaking to a crowd, it is important to give them one point with a lot of emphasis on that point. As James says, “When everything is important, nothing is important.” This simply means that when you push many points, the single most important does not stand out, and thus your speech is not as effective.

Listening, trust, and maintaining a budget are some of the most important things in business. James shares the specifics of how he maintains stability and keeps morale high in Ninja Forms. They also discuss how you can become profit-minded and that one of the biggest mistakes in business is not understanding cash flow.

Chris and James talk about building a rapport in your industry so that you have trust and influence. They discuss the benefits of blogging and podcasting, and how that free content helps you build credibility and trust. Online certifications are also becoming big in the eLearning industry, and they discuss the application of those in online courses.

To find out more about James Laws, you can go to mastermind.fm, adventuresinbusinessing.fm, or find him on Twitter at @jameslaws. Learn more about Ninja Forms at NinjaForms.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: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMS Cast. Today, I’m joined with a special guest, James Laws from WP Ninja. James has an interesting background. He started out as a grocery store clerk to a vacuum salesman, to a pastor, then to doing something similar to me in developing a WordPress software product, business, and company around that. James has had a winding path in the same way that … As many of you know who have been listening to this podcast for a long time, my background’s in outdoor leadership and running sled dogs and things of that nature.
We’ll get into James’s story in a little bit, but to give you guys a sneak peek of what’s in this episode, James’s company, Ninja Forms, makes an incredible form product. There’s so many things you can do with forms that people may not be aware of, especially inside of a membership site or learning environment, so we kind of want to open up your mind to some things you can do with that. We’re going to get into topics around building a certification course and why that might be of interest to you, not just making courses to make money.
Then we’re going to get into what it’s like for people like James and myself to lead a technical team or be a part of a technical team and guide the vision as a non-technical co-founder where that’s not our primary focus and how we do that. We’re also going to get into creating content, like podcast, like the one you’re listening to here. James and I are both podcasters, and it’s always good, not only just to create content, but also just as a form of expression and connecting with people to have something going on outside of your main business unit. James, first let me just thank you for coming on the show.
James: Well, thanks for having me. It’s going to be fun. You gave a huge list of stuff we’re going to be talking about. There is so much information that we’re going to back here.
Chris: Yeah, this one’s going to be jam-packed. But since you have a background as a pastor, I know you have a lot of experience being on stage and talking, so I know we’re going to really get into it. Let’s actually just start there with a little bit of the personal story of … In hindsight, sometimes life makes sense and the dots kind of connect, but as you take a circuitous or windy road through life and end up where you are today, how did your journey end up? How’d it begin and how’d it end up where you are today? What was the story of that character arc?
James: Yeah. Probably like a lot of entrepreneurs, I found myself doing lots of jobs, so I was never really truly content in any one position. Generally speaking, I would learn all was to learn at a job and I’d become discontent and frustrated. In fact, I’d become a bad employee because of that frustration and that discontent. I think it probably presented itself in the work or in my disinterest in looking in other things. At an early age, I’d gotten into ministry and somehow had found myself on the path of pastoring a church, and that’s where I met my business partner. He actually came and attended the service one Sunday and over the course of a year, we became really close friends and started dabbling in starting a business. We’ve done everything from application development from Access, you know, using Microsoft Access as the application framework we were working with to just doing graphic design to doing Flash websites.
The reason I even got into digital products in the first place was building websites for ministries. I had a pocket of ministries that I was working with, and I wanted to make sure that they had a relevant and accessible presence online. I started really learning how to build websites that way. My background is mostly in HTML and CSS, and that’s about as technical as I got. Then over the years, I’ve picked up maybe through osmosis from being around developers. I’ve picked up quite a bit of knowledge around that. That’s how we got started, was just meeting somebody who had some similar interests and starting something, starting to realize that actually pastoring and leading a church was not very different. In fact, not different at all to leading a business. Thinking about the finances of a church and the team of a church and empowering and casting vision for your congregation. All that stuff transfers over to a business very easily.
We started experimenting, doing freelance work, and then built a little plug-in that just started to take off, and the business kind of … I want to say, really, the business happened accidentally. We threw it out there. We thought there was an opportunity for Ninja Forms to become a product that people would like and use, but when it really just finally started to take off and we started to have a hockey stick growth moment, we were like, “Oh, this is the full-time thing. This is what we need to focus all our energy on.” I want to say we discovered it more than we created it.
Chris: That’s awesome, having things kind of emerge organically like that is a really cool journey. Well, I want to dig into the pastor piece a little bit.
James: Yeah.
Chris: I 100% have a similar experience where I used to lead teams of people in remote regions of Alaska. I got into leading teams of sled dogs and got really into animal psychology, which funny enough, can translate into human psychology. But most of my leadership stuff came from leading and managing people and running a company. Yeah, it’s portable. You can take it into another industry, I figured out. I really want to get into the pastor piece because a lot of people listening to this show are teachers, either by trade and they’re kind of getting into the technology part and trying to scale and do things like that with the internet, or they’re already online course creators, not necessarily traditional teachers. What is something, like if you were coaching a younger pastor on how to communicate, lead, and teach, what are some big things that you could pass along into how to be a effective teacher? What’s worked for you?
James: Yeah. My teaching process as a pastor has evolved over the years. When I first started, like most people, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was just kind of learning from people around me, thought they were doing, working through the process, I read a lot of books. I used to go through a lot of the same process of really have these detailed notes and really thinking through it. What it really came down to is by the end of my time teaching as a pastor, it really comes down to stories. It comes down to one point. What is your one thing you want to drive home when you’re communicating? It’s the old adage, right? “When everything is important, nothing is important.” You ever see somebody on a website where they highlight everything and every time. All of a sudden, you’re like, “I don’t know what the important piece for me to take away from this website really is.” In speaking and in teaching, there’s that same thing, right? If you have too much information and too many points that you’re trying to drive home, all of a sudden, none of it feels important.
One of the first things I would say is practice. Speak. Because the more you do it, it really is a numbers game. The more often you do it, the more comfortable you get at it, and the better you get at it. But I would definitely say hone your message down to a single point. Figure out what is the most important thing that you’re trying to present in that moment. When I think of things like courses, or teaching at a church, or even a podcast, what is the one thing you want to drive home in that moment? You’ll have time if you win their trust and you present good information. You’ll have time to give them another thing later. But right now, give them one thing that they can apply today.
Chris: That’s a really good thing. Well, I’m not going to ask you for another thing because that’s the one thing right there.
James: That’s the important one. That’s the one, that’s the takeaway.
Chris: That’s the good one. Well, sometimes when we have a vision for our business or our course or like a learning environment hat we’re trying to create, or a tribe, if you will … The vision, or the leadership of the vision, or the innovation, the driving force behind the vision, is bigger than one person. I ended up in that spot, you ended up in that spot. I know enough to be dangerous as a technical person, but it’s not my strength, just like design is not my strength. I know in Ninja Forms, you guys have a nice sized team and you do it a little counter to what the software world with what is popular in that you actually have an office, which is really cool and awesome. That’s killer. Going back to the leadership piece, how do you best work with a bunch of technical people?
James: Well, you know, it’s funny. Just, I think, last year, my business partner who is my CTO, he’s the technical side of our business. We did a talk called Entrepreneurs and Engineers Managing the Tension Between Opposites, because he sees things very differently than I see things. Over the years, we have learned to deal with all of these things. Then as we’ve hired new developers and other team members that are not developers, and watching that tension between them as they butt heads, and they’re trying to figure this dynamic out, I think Kevin and I kind of stepped back and went, “Oh, we have some stuff we need to teach our team that we have learned over the years.”
A lot of times, with technical people, one of my pieces of advice in communicating is parrot back what they tell you. Try to put it in terms that you understand, and explain it back to them. Over time, this does a couple of things. One, it builds trust between you and the developer because they know you’re listening and you’re trying to understand their concept. It shows that you’re giving them time to brag and talk about what they’re working on, because they’re excited. They solved the problem. We had this happen in our office once. One of the worst things you can do is a developer solves this problem and they show it to you and they’re like, “And it does this, and it does this, and then we do this, and then the background we’re doing this,” and then you look at it from a non-technical perspective, maybe from a user-interface perspective, and you go, “You know, it’d be better we could do x.” You’ve just crushed their spirits. You’ve deflated all that they’ve done. You’ve undervalued what they have accomplished.
There’s a time and place and there’s a way to communicate, though. I always listen more than I talk when I’m talking to developers. I try to soak as much up. You’re going to learn from that. I mean, I feel like I can carry on a pretty good technical conversation with people because I listen to my developers a lot. If you start talking to me about deep down in the development of how you’re handling this object or how you’re extending this class and doing this, I can actually talk about that. Not because I can write that class and I can modify that object, but because I’ve heard enough about it and I’ve talked through it with them. Listening is a big piece.
The other thing is finding ways to challenge and excite your development teams. What I am very good at, I think one of my skills in my business is I make my developers want to work on things. I give them challenges that the puzzles starts moving in their head, and they starting thinking, “Oh, how would we solve that?” That’s an exciting puzzle for me to solve because developers like to solve puzzles. That’s their gifting. Everything a puzzle, find a way to excite them, is a really important way. I think those are two things, right? Those are probably two big takeaways. I’m breaking my own rule right now of having one important thing and I’m giving you two important things. Listen. Listen a lot, and when you do need something from them, find a way to gamify it a little bit and turn it into a puzzle and get them excited about it. They will surprise with amazing work. They’re magicians. Developers are magicians. There’s no other way just to put.
Chris: Yeah, that’s solid advice right there. Well, what about the other side of that equation? Some of the people listening to this, they may be, which I, myself, have been guilty of the past, being kind of stubborn. Because I had a business partner, I have a technical CTO business partner, you do too. But before that, I was by myself and sometimes you’re doing yourself a disservice by not partnering up or just always trying to outsource overseas the technical parts and minimizing the value of it or whatever. How did it work out for you? When did you realize, “I’m really only half of the leadership of this equation,” or, “We need each other.” Where was that moment of humility, or how did that come for you, or were you just kind of aware of that from day one so you didn’t go through …
James: Yeah, I was going to say, I think was aware of that from day one. That’s because our business relationship was first birthed out of our friendship. We actually became really close best friends before we ever decided to do business together. That kind of helped frame a mutual respect. I respect his mind. I respect how he thinks about things. I would say, I would put him toe-to-toe with any other developer. Not necessarily because he knows every language, but because of the way he thinks programmatically. It’s a sight to behold, to just take it in. I’m always mesmerized when he comes up with the solution. Some of it was we already had built up some of that mutual respect over time. We just drew really clean lines, as far as authority, in our company and in our relationship.
We have a real simple process. I think it only works because we have trust. If you don’t have trust with your partner, this doesn’t work. You first have to work on trust, and once you have trust in place, I leave all product decisions to him. He is the final word. What he says, goes, and I will stand behind him 100% once he puts his foot down and says, “This is the direction that we’re headed.” In all other areas of the business, that authority falls on me. I determine when we hire, I determine who gets paid what, I determine all the legalities and the running of the business. We’re thinking about buying this building that I’m in right now, and he doesn’t have any input at all. It’s not that he doesn’t have input, he doesn’t care. He’s like, “If that’s what you think we should do, do it.” Like, he has given that authority, and I have given him product authority.
But it works because I know, when we’re talking about product and I have an opinion, and I strongly share my opinion, I know he weighs that heavier than any other thing that he’s factoring because he trusts my opinion in the user-interface space and in the product space. Because we’ve worked together for so long. When you’re right frequently enough, your partner will go, “James is usually right on this, so I’m going to weigh this very heavily,” and vice versa. I think that has a lot to do with that.
Chris: Yeah, that shows a lot of maturity and the value of trust there. For those of you listening, if you’re working with a developer or designer, sometimes you just got to trust them. If you’re always trying to kind of heavy-handedly lead, like, “Okay, I want to design a course cover image, and I want my face over here, I want these mountains over here, I want this giant font and my logo,” you’re already kind of short-cutting your project because you’re not letting the designer lead with their strengths and stuff. And they’re not your business partner, maybe you’re just outsourcing the project. But I think that’s a really important point you made about allowing leadership in others. It’s very important.
James: That’s a struggle, and it’s a struggle you’re always going to have. I have it because in this business where I’m feeling it now, is I’ve always been the one who’s done all the design work. I’ve been the one who has pretty good taste in colors and symmetry and how things fit together and designing. I’m the one who has Photoshop on their computer and doing all that stuff. But we just recently hired a guy who does our design work now, and I’m relinquishing control of that. We have different opinions on some of the things on how that looks, and so I try to gently guide him to what I think is just better, but then I have to allow him to express himself and to be the designer that we had hired him to be. There’s always that tension, and I think you’ll go through that in phases of business. You don’t conquer it once and then never have to face that demon again. You’re always conquering it as your business grows.
Chris: Yeah. Well, on that note of growth and as the phases evolve, like you mentioned earlier that there was a hockey stick of growth period, your Ninja Forms is, I think, in the top 30 free plug-ins on WordPress, right? You probably know the statistic.
James: We are number 32.
Chris: 32. You’ve grown tremendously, grown a lot. What are some of the things with … If you’re listening to this and your course really takes off, like if you really hit a nerve or a market need, or you figure out some way to solve some problem that a lot of people are really interested in, what are some growing pain situations that came up that you would … If you could do it all over again or that you would advise that someone who may about to enter that situation, to think about?
James: Yeah. Here’s a big problem I think a lot of businesses fall into. We tend to, in the early days, because it’s still new and it’s still growing, and in some cases maybe it’s not your sole source of income, it’s this side thing that you’re working on, hoping that someday it’ll become your main source of income … If you hockey stick, the biggest mistake you can make, really, is not understanding the dynamics of your business, understanding the dynamics of the cost of your business. What I see a lot have done, and I’ve fallen into this myself, is you have so much money in your bank account because everything is growing so fast, and everything’s happening so quickly, and you’re like, “Oh, well, I can do this, and I can do this, and I can sponsor this event, I can do this, and I can buy swag, and I’m going to buy everyone on the team these really nice jackets that have our logo on the back, and I’m going to do all this stuff, I’m going to travel to every single event because we’re huge now! We’re huge!”
You just get so excited and you start spending money because it’s in the bank account, but your bank account is lying to you. Your bank account is not what you actually have. You have not thought through all of the expenses. You haven’t thought through that every business has a seasonal flow, and that’s different depending on the business that you have. If you’re in the outdoors space and you’re mostly fly fishing and river guide and stuff like that, the winter is a slow season. You’re not doing anything, and if you’re not planning and building up a reserve during your high season in the middle of the summer and late spring and early fall … If you’re not building up a reserve for that, then you’re going to find yourself in the winter season going, “Where’d all the money go? We were making so much money,” and you may still be making the same … It’s just one of those situations where your sales may not have declined, you may just be in that seasonal dip, but now, you’re feeling pressure.
How do some people make this mistake? They hire too soon, or too many, too soon, and they don’t really think through what the salary means over the long course. It’s not whether or not you can pay the salary today, it’s whether you can pay the salary in your lowest month. That’s where you have to be looking at. When we budget our salaries, we have to think about what is our low month, like where could we dip and are we still okay at that point. You have to think through that. It’s probably a good idea to think through what percentage of revenue you think your expenses should fall under.
Luckily, in the online world, you can get away with not a lot of overhead. But we’ve taken on a building like you pointed out, and we have to equip it, so we have desks and we have chairs and we have everything you would imagine that an office needs to have. We’re paying for internet for everybody and then we have all the things that just are tied into having a building. You have to keep those expenses in mind. You just can’t keep adding expenses thinking, “We’re doing so well, we can handle this other $500 a month fee. No big deal.” Because eventually, it catches up to you. You have to be really mindful of that.
I think one of the biggest mistakes, really, is just not understanding your cashflow and just being mindful of that as you go through, and really being profit-minded. One of my favorite books is “Profit First” by Mike Michalowicz. He basically talks about how we think of finances as … And this how I’ve run my personal finances forever, most people do, right? This is what I’ve earned, then I subtract my expenses, and what’s left over is mine. That’s what I could either save or spend or do whatever I want to. The problem is your expenses grow by excess. The more cash you have, your expenses just seem to grow to match that expense level. As long as you have cash, you’ll spend it. That’s just the way it works, so you’ll take on more expenses.
The better way to think about it is to say, “Here’s my profitability percentage that I’m aiming for.” So when my money comes in, I’m going to take that percentage out first. I’m going to take my profit, my taxes, whatever it is that I need that’s an absolute I want, I’m going to pull that out. I’m going to run my business on what’s left, and that’s my metric for whether or not can we afford to pay somebody, take somebody else on payroll, or can we take on this new expense.
Chris: That’s good stuff. Well, let’s shift gears and just talk about another thing that I think we both enjoy, which is podcasting. The reason I bring this up is because a lot of online course creators or teachers are really focused on creating the lesson content, or the quizzes, and collecting assignments, and all these things. But in order to grow your platform, like if you want to head towards or give yourself the best odds of potentially getting some hockey stick, you need to make it easy to be found. If everything’s locked down behind a course, a membership, and you can’t necessarily get to it easily, your site’s not going to be well-indexed. If you don’t have a blog, you need to have some free media out there. That’s the content marketing game. But it’s also, from my experience, is an incredible amount of fun. I enjoy it. It’s a great way to get smarter and network with great people. But also, most importantly, represent your user base.
That whole thing … We were talking about one of the areas that I’m trusted as a non-technical co-founder is I’m really in sync with the experience and what our users are looking for, and the problems they have. That’s what’s guiding the questions I’m asking you in this podcast episode. When I do that and then somebody listens to this, and they hear about James and Ninja Forms, and how to approach scaling, and how to work with more technical people and stuff, it’s adding a lot of value for free. It just goes with the brand and also just the content stuff. I just want to say, for me, getting into podcasting … I used to start with just a pair of earbuds. I don’t have the foam blocks on the wall like James does, right? Maybe one day I’ll get to that, and I noticed that they’re red and black. James was mentioning how he was the design guy, so of course, they’re in brand alignment with Ninja Forms.
James: It’s true.
Chris: But anyways, starting a podcast … I mean, it’s a little technical, but it’s not that crazy. I, personally, don’t have a problem of doing at least one a week and keeping the momentum, but I guess my main point before I turn it over to you, James, is that I think podcasting is a great way to develop content, but also just to represent your user base and get out there in the world and build some relationships. I have a whole system where all I have to do after this is I upload this into Dropbox, and all the other pieces, my team takes care of. There’s a service like Rev.com out there that transcribes it and that gets published with it, which creates a bunch of text content that the search engines can index, and so on. It’s beyond just using it as a form of content marketing. I just get so much out of it and enjoy it so much. What’s your podcast journey like?
James: Yeah, about a year ago, I was doing these mastermind calls with Jean Galea from WP Mayor. It’s basically a WordPress news website, tips, tricks, and things are going on. We started just having our own little mastermind, just talking shop, him … He’s in Barcelona now, but at the time, he was in Malta, and we would have these conversations. We both had it in on our bucket list items for the year to start a podcast, either to join a podcast with someone else, or start our own. We just said, “We’re having these conversations. We’re having really good information and stuff like that. What if we just opened it up and just let people listen in?” That’s kind of how Mastermind.fm started, as a podcast.
Through that year, all last year, I fell in love with the idea of podcasting because I’m a terrible writer. I mean, I can write, I can do it, but I overthink it. I spend too much time trying to craft my words and say it just right, but it ends up in this really huge content piece that nobody would want to read. By the end of it, I don’t even care about my point. I’m terrible at it. But I spent years as a public speaker, so getting up in front of an audience without any notes, having just a concept or an idea that I wanted to unpack for a group of people, came actually very naturally for me. What I realized over the course of the year, that’s exactly what podcasting can be for me. It gives me a outlet to share what’s on my mind and hopefully provides some information for people.
This year is a year of podcasting for me. You mentioned the red and black on the walls. As anyone in my office will tell you, I don’t know how to do anything halfway, so when we decided we were going to start our own podcast in-office, I went and I bought all this foam and I glued it up on the walls, I bought a mixer and an audio interface and these really expensive microphones. I just went all out because I just go all in, and you don’t need to do any of that. You can do podcasting so cheaply if you want to, and it can still sound great. To me, it’s all about the obsession of getting the best stuff that I could possibly get, but there’re probably people who can sound just as good as our show with much less.
That being said, I got into it because … I think from what you’re saying, right? I got into it because it’s fun. But I want to say something to what you said about the idea of it’s a great content, put some free content out there. It’s a way for you to be a voice for your customers, or your market, or your tribe. There’s another level that I think is really super important. I would ask anybody who has an online course. I would ask you this question. Why should I sign up for your course? Is it because you promise to teach me something, or is it because you have proven yourself as an expert, and why would I not spend money on your course? Look at the podcast and the content that you write as a way of building your reputation and your trust so people listen to you and go, “Oh, yeah. This woman, this man, they know what they’re talking about. I will, yes, take my money and teach me this topic because I’m not going to learn it from anyone better.”
You build a rapport, and let’s be honest, I read a lot of blogs. I know you probably read a lot of blog posts, but when you listen to somebody on a podcast, you feel like you know them even though you may have never have met them face to face. I’ll go to a conference and as a matter of fact, just last year we were at PressNomics and we were at the first night, the kick-off party. I’m standing outside in this area, and there’s all of these people around. I hear from behind me, “Hey, is that THE James Laws of Mastermind.fm?” I’m like, what? Is that a thing? THE James Laws of Mastermind.fm? It was a couple fans, and so we had a good conversation and they talked about that they were listeners of the show and asked me some questions. It almost immediately created a relationship, like we knew each other even though I’d never met them. But they’ve heard my voice for 20, 30 episodes. From that, they felt like they had this comfort level of talking to me. It can do a lot for your reputation, and I think it validates whatever it is you’re trying to sell.
Chris: Absolutely. Another thing that just came to mind as you were talking is just as a teacher or somebody who’s presenting on something, there’s no way to get better than to just teach on-screen than to do video podcasts.
James: Yeah.
Chris: It’s only going to make you a better communicator and presenter.
James: Absolutely.
Chris: Well, shifting gears, one of things you mentioned before we got on this call was you were looking at to potentially creating a training program around your product that involves some certification. I think this is really cool, because I love looking at different ways to use online courses. Online courses can be the main business, it can be the main product, it can be internal. You can use them for internal training for your business where they’re not for sale, they’re not open to the public, you’re just curating the best training for your team. There’s just so many different ways you can use them. Can you tell us about your use case of what you’re considering creating a training and certification for?
James: Yeah, so full disclosure. I am not yet currently a customer of LifterLMS. But I was looking over the website and reading, and I’m like, “Oh, this has a lot of stuff that we want to do. This is the solution for what I’ve been thinking.” In my head, I have this idea, and it wasn’t originally my idea. It was one of my developer’s ideas, but like everything, I take what is an idea and I blow it up into something much, much bigger than it started off to be. Here’s the problem. This is the challenge that we face as a company. We know that Ninja Forms is the most powerful and flexible and extensible form builder in this space. We know this, hands down. The problem is communicating that, teaching that, or getting other people up to speed so that they can also develop on Ninja Forms easily for clients.
What happens is, we get a lot of support requests where people have these really crazy things, and I’m sure you see this with LifterLMS … As full-featured as LifterLMS is, I’m sure you still occasionally get people who’re doing stuff and you’re like, “Wow, that is such a unique and specific use case.” It would be hard for us to build that into a general product that everybody would use. We get that all the time with Ninja Forms, and we don’t have the bandwidth to sic a developer on and say, “Hey, build this for this support person who may or may not have paid us any money up to this point.” A lot of times, we want to refer them to a developer, but we only have a few developers who build add-ons that we sell on our marketplace who we would trust to say, “Yes, we will put you in their hands and we know, even though we connected you and we may not hear about the conservation that happens afterwards, we know you’ll be in good hands because we explicitly trust this particular individual.”
We had this idea. What if we built a course that teaches them the fundamentals, because there are some just basic fundamentals of building on Ninja Forms … And it can be broken down in some really basic parts and lessons that would be really easy to go through with code examples, with codas that they can work through and communication back and forth with our team to help them as they progress through this process. The goal being, and this what I, looking at your site and I saw something on your site about certification, gamification. I saw stuff on your site about all these different pieces that you could use as far as features that you can do with LifterLMS, and I started to think about that myself. I was like, “Yeah, that’s …” And then even the accepting payments to purchase access to the course.
Here’s my use case. I want to create a fully functional, in-depth course of becoming a certified Ninja Forms developer, or get the Ninja Forms stamp of approval, yes, we recommend this person. It will be a course, it will be a fee. There won’t be an expensive fee because in my opinion, people who invest in learning see it through to the end, and people who do not invest in learning give up very early. I’m the same way, we’re all the same way. This is just the way we’re wired. My company spent $1,300 to let me do this online learning for PHP, MySQL databases. I made it through halfway, and then I felt like, “Meh, I got what I wanted out of it. I learned enough, I don’t need to keep going,” because I didn’t pay for it. Had that been my $1,300 on the line, I would’ve seen that course through all the way to the end. I’m talking about a nominal fee, under $100, much less than $100, just to get in and just to put a little bit of green behind your motivation to become a certified Ninja Forms developer.
Then there’s all kinds of bonuses for that. You can put them on your website, and show them, and ways to contact them easily, “These are the people we recommend to build anything on Ninja Forms.” They move up the list for recommendations from us and our support team. If they build add-ons, they get pushed to the front of the line and they get … You know? I mean, there’s all these different ways that we can do that. I was thinking, from a forms standpoint, wouldn’t it be great just to simplify this. We have a PDF form submissions add-on for Ninja Forms where at the end of the course, they click submit on a Ninja Form and we email them an actual certificate with their name on it and the course that they completed. They get that, and they can print that and have a certification to see and hold, and something like that. Just little things like that, nuances that can, I think, build a community of people around a product. That’s our use case.
Chris: That is a really awesome one, and that is why James is doing well as an entrepreneur. I know one of the emerging trends in e-learning and learning management systems right now is kind of unique certification situations that are not necessarily something you’re going to find at community college or university that have this very specific use case.
James: Yeah.
Chris: I think part of that is just a mental thing for people, where your certification means something when it means something. It doesn’t have to come from some government agency or something like that. For your case, I’m always listening for the business problem, is you’re helping people get jobs.
James: Yeah.
Chris: Which is a great problem to solve, and you’re just serving the person who uses your software, and everybody wins. They’re going to be able to deliver great form projects and you’re building the Ninja Forms community, and that person has really sharpened their saw and become well-rounded. You’ve sped up the learning curve as opposed to everybody just kind of figuring it out on their own, or whatever. Certification is a huge thing. I mean, it can go into all kinds of niches. You can create some kind of babysitting safety training course and then a babysitter could … You could train them on all these 10 things that babysitters should know to be safe and secure, or whatever, and then two babysitters are applying for the job. One of them’s like, “Oh, I’m certified with this, check out their website.” I mean, it’s cool. Certifications are a big deal. That’s really cool.
James: But it comes back to that building trust, right? If you build up as you are the organization to trust for this issue, then your certification matters. A Ninja Form certification in any other space, probably meaningless, right? It’s some plug-in. I’m certified for some plug-in, who cares? To people who need Ninja Forms help, a Ninja Forms certification from the creators of the product themselves is a huge reputation boost. All of a sudden, that comes with a lot of clout and a lot of trust built into it. Like you’re talking about that babysitting certification. If you build a brand that becomes known and you can show that social proof with people who validate your name, you build that up, and all of a sudden your certification … It means something. People go to it and go, “Okay, I can trust this. This is something I can believe in.”
Chris: Yeah, that’s really good stuff. Well, I wanted to get into and unpack Ninja Forms a little bit and what people can do with that in a learning environment or membership site. You mentioned PDF form submissions, which is really cool.
James: Right.
Chris: I want to get into that, and I do also want to agree with you, too, that that is a great thing that I see some people doing, is they’re … LifterLMS, for example, has a automated certificate generation digital system.
James: Okay.
Chris: Print a PDF and all that. But I see some people going and getting the fancy paper at the print shop. Even though the whole course happened online, they’re mailing this thing that can go on the wall, it can get framed, or whatever, and that’s really cool. It’s important to remember that stuff.
James: I love it.
Chris: Coming back to forms, a lot of people think, when you get the forms, it’s just about contact forms and I need an email address, or whatever. But there’s so much you can do. Let me just lay a little bit of groundwork of some of the things that I’ve seen. You’re, by far, the form expert here and can build on what I’m talking about here. A lot of what happens in a learning management system is there’s interaction between student and teacher. You can have contact forms. You could have a lesson that requires somebody to buy something, so you could have a little isolated e-commerce event happen. If I was taking a course about how to hike the Appalachian Trail and on lesson five, it’s like, okay, go buy this pair of hiking boots and this is the exact way to get in the right size so you don’t get blisters. You could actually have a form there.
Uploads is a huge one. If I’m doing some kind of health and fitness workout training thing and you have to upload a video or a photograph of you doing the thing, you can send that. You can do all kinds of short answer, paragraph text, essays, essay-type stuff. I mean, it really goes on and on. You can make forms beautiful and easy and not overwhelming, like some giant form you can break up into multi-steps. What do you guys call it? Multi-part forms.
You can integrate it with other stuff, like there’s a service called Zapier, so if you want something to happen on a form and then have it blast out to some other application somewhere, you can do that. This one I’m looking at … If you go to ninjaforms.com/extensions, you can see all these things that Ninja Forms can integrate with. I like this Excel report where Ninja Forms submissions go to an Excel file. You’ve got this stuff where it can connect with SMS through ClickSend or Twilio. I mean, it just goes on, and on, and on. Let’s just lay out some user stories or use cases of what people can do with forms that they may not be aware of.
James: Forms is one of these things, and it’s one of these dangerous things because you really can do anything if you put your mind to it. It really is limitless. Now, not everything can be done within the user-interface, and some things may need modification with code. I got a request the other day that was really kind of bizarre, but he, in his head, he had a use case for this. In his mind, this is what he wanted. When somebody submits the form, he wanted it to alternate sending an email to two different admins, or teachers, or leaders. What ended up happening is you submit a form, it would go to this person. The next person to submit the form, it would go to this person, and then back again. Switch back and forth.
Chris: A round robin.
James: Yeah. It’s kind of a weird use case, it’s not something that’s built into the UI explicitly because it is such a weird edge case to want to do that, but I guess if you’re trying to throttle how many requests each person is having to deal with … Maybe you have two people on a support team, or maybe you have two teachers that are working on a course, and you don’t want to have one person get bogged down by every single request, so you round robin it, so to speak. When you have different teachers, that’s an automated process. That was kind of a weird request, but those are the types of things that people think of when they’re building things out.
People use calculations to do some really crazy stuff. You may do something, and I know any course where it’s worth anything is going to have quizzes and some sort of a way to build that. But you can also build onto that with a form, because forms … Ninja Forms has a huge calculation system that you can ask questions and give those things, those answers, values. Add that all up and send different responses, or create different certificates, or send it to a teacher if it’s below a certain level because they need some help, or not send it to the teacher, or schedule something that gets shot out on social media just to congratulate them and praise them, because at the end, their score was a certain point. That kind of social reinforce what they’re going through, and they’re going to see their name up there, and they’re like, “Oh, holy cow, they mentioned me.” You automated the whole thing. You didn’t do any of it, but they feel like it was that personal touch, like I’m engaged with this community, and they are congratulating me. This stuff is all automated.
Another thing we have is you may want to send data web hooks. This is a little more technical, so if you’re not technical person, this may not be right up your alley. But if you have a server where you want to get data from that submission and do something with it that’s separated just from the learning management system or separate from the site where that’s all happening … You want to pull that data over for some other reason, hooking it to another service that’s CRM, or anything like that, you have that ability to get that data. I think getting people through a certain process of, “I’ve gone through these lessons,” and at the end, you’re going to subscribe them to a mailing list that’ll put them into a drip campaign of other information to get them into maybe sell them other courses, and stuff like that. Being able to even send that information that I’ve completed this course, therefore they are probably a likely candidate for other courses that we have, and so we want to push them in that direction.
It really is endless, the number of things you can do. I really love the purpose of student-teacher engagement. You get to the end of a lesson. You mentioned this briefly already, but the idea of getting to the end of a lesson, and even if it’s just like simple paragraph question. Ask this question and it gets sent right to a teacher who can then reply to that email and say, “Great job, yes, you got a good understanding of this concept.” Even what we talked back to talking to developers, parroting back in terms that they understand. We know this in teaching, and this is a great statement that I’ve heard, and I can’t remember where I heard it from, but they talk about thoughts untangle themselves through the lips and the fingertips. Basically, if you can’t explain it verbally, or you can’t explain it by writing it down, then you don’t understand the concepts. You don’t understand it yet.
One way of reinforcing a course is at the end is ask them to parrot it back in their own words. How well do you understand this? Explain this process to me. Being able to actually get that feedback immediately to a teacher … Zapier, being able to push it into another system, being able to put it into a spreadsheet for later review … All of those different things that you could do with it.
Scheduling is a big one. For Mastermind.fm, we get guest hosts on Mastermind.fm. I send them a link to Calendly, which most people are familiar with, but it lets you say, “Here’s my schedule, pick a time slot and submit.” It asks them some questions. Well, for Mastermind.fm, when they submit that form, when they submit Calendly, I get some information back to my site, then I can interact with a form to push that further. But it also, using services like Zapier, I take that information and I create a Google document with their notes in it. I create a calendar that invites them and my co-host. I send that information to Trello for a card where we manage certain projects. I post it in Slack as a notification so that everybody knows that we have this person coming in. Because I work mostly in Basecamp, I put all that information in Basecamp as well. This whole process is automated through just from the triggering of sending one form. There’s a number of ways that you can automate your life and make things really powerful. Those are just a few things that I’ve seen done or I’ve done myself.
Chris: That’s awesome. One of the things we notice is really emerging in our community and people who are really trying to push the boundaries in online education, and really fight that problem that you mentioned about … I think Udemy released this statistic that of the people who enroll in their courses, 10% actually finish them. That’s like, from day one, we’ve wanted to build software that goes after that engagement issue and helps people complete things. One of the ways to help people complete things is to actually have a feedback loop.
James: Yep.
Chris: If you’re doing a survey, it doesn’t have to be giant. It could be a survey at the end of the course or the end of each lesson or section. You could do, like you said, where you could ask the student to state back what they learned, or you could just have more of a multiple choice, or on a scale of one to 10, or open area, how could I improve this lesson, what was great, what worked for you, what didn’t. But you can’t really improve that thing as efficiently as possible without involving some kind of feedback loop from your user base, so forms are perfect for that too.
James: Yeah, absolutely.
Chris: I’m definitely going to steal your quote there. I just want to make sure I got it right. “Thoughts untangle themselves through the lips and the fingertips,” right?
James: That’s correct. It’s not mine, but you can give me credit for it if you want.
Chris: Good.
James: It’s true, and about that feedback loop, we use that even for our … Our documentation for Ninja Forms is built just with a custom post-type plug-in that I put together. But there’s a form at the bottom of every document that asks, “Was this helpful, and is there anything you’d like us to improve on it?” At this point, it doesn’t ask for an email. At this point, it doesn’t ask for any other information. It’s wide open, just tell us whatever you want to tell us. But on our main page, viewed only by our admins, we get a link to every document and every suggestion for that document so we can go back through and act on those things. Getting feedback for your course is huge. That’s a super powerful reason to use a form on a regular basis and get them to engage with you, and then let them see that that feedback is actually being implemented and used in different ways. I think that’s also a super important point.
Chris: Fantastic. Well, James, I really want to thank you for coming on the show. I want to encourage everybody to head on over the ninjaforms.com and check it out. Go on over to the extensions page and see all the different things that you can do with a Ninja Form. Thank you for coming on the show and sharing your story. I know you’ve got a podcast at mastermind.fm, and also at adventuresinbusinessing.fm. I just want to thank you for coming on the show. Is there anywhere else you’d like people to check out if they want to follow you or see what you’re up to?
James: Absolutely. Sure, you can find me on Twitter, @jameslaws, and if that adventuresinbusinessing is hard to remember, just hit aib.fm and you can also get to it there. Yeah.
Chris: Nice. Well, thank you for coming on the show, James. I really appreciate it.
James: Thanks for having me, I had a lot of fun.

EPISODE 131

Web and Personal Security for Your Course Platform with Shaun James from Pentester University

Chris Badgett of LifterLMS talks about web and personal security for your course platform with Shaun James from Pentester University in this episode of LMScast. Shaun teaches people how to do ethical hacking in order to perform penetration tests to help strengthen cybersecurity of websites and online businesses.

Penetration testing is ethical hacking that tests the cybersecurity of companies and tells them where holes are that bad guys could potentially get in so that the holes can be fixed. When Shaun was young, he learned how phone numbers work as codes. That got him into puzzles and ultimately led to him becoming the owner of a cybersecurity company.

Schooling for learning network security is very expensive. So Shaun started a YouTube channel teaching people how to do it for free. He received great feedback from that, so he has started an affordable school where he teaches people how to test network security.

When creating online courses you are normally collecting customer and student information. Making sure that information is protected for students’ safety is important, and that is a major part of what penetration testing is out there to do. Any page is vulnerable to hacking attacks, even static ones. Having security even on basic, non-interactive HTML pages is important.

Chris tells a story of one time when he got hacked and how the hacker was able to redirect his website to the app store if a user accessed it on an iPhone. Shaun shares some great tips on how to protect yourself from attacks and how to protect your backups. They also describes what SSL is and how that is used to protect information.

SQL injection is a way that unprivileged users can make the server give them information from a website. Shaun shares an example of how a website is vulnerable to these injections. He also talks about JavaScript injections and what those are and how they work to attack users.

They discuss concepts such as worms and DoS attacks, which are denial of service attacks. And Shaun gives an example of someone whose website was crashed by a DDoS attack. This type of attack causes a website to get so much traffic that it crashes. Shaun gives some great tips on how you can mitigate these types of attacks for free.

Hackers can also gain access to your camera and/or microphone and be watching or listening to you so making sure you are safe in that regard is important as well. Shaun gives some tips on how you can prevent that from happening.

When your website is under attack from hackers, you should shut it down immediately. This stops it from getting much worse and protects others from getting infected. Changing your password is also necessary when restarting after an attack. Shaun gives these tips and much more to help you in an attack situation.

Having backups and taking care of your website are very important. There are a lot of possible things that can attack and corrupt your cyberspace, but that does not mean you should avoid the internet all together. You should know the ways to prevent potential problems from happening, and when they do how to mitigate them.

You can learn more about Shaun James at Pentester University. You can also find him on YouTube at NetSecNow.

Thank you for joining us. 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 we have a special guest, Shaun James from Pentester University. We’re going to get into web security, personal security and how that relates to your online course platform, but before we get into that, Shaun, I just wanted to thank you for coming on the show.
Shaun James: Thank you, Chris, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. Well, tell us a little bit about your story, because you’re a cybersecurity expert, so can you tell us about your journey, like where you came from, how you got into cybersecurity?
Shaun James: Sure.
Chris Badgett: How you got all the way into teaching others about cybersecurity, and for those of you listening, Pentester stands for penetration testing, but I guess first, tell us what that is, and then tell us the story from the beginning.
Shaun James: Okay. Penetration testing is really just companies trying to hire an ethical hacker to find the holes that the bad guys would use to get in, break in, steal customer information, business critical information, stuff like that. That’s really all it is, and cybersecurity over wraps that, if you will, to include many things like network security and defensive and offensive security and things like that.
Chris Badgett: Very cool, very cool. Well, how did you get into this world of cybersecurity? What’s your story?
Shaun James: It’s actually a really long story, so I’ll try to keep it short. I actually started when I was a kid. My parents used to get super mad at me when I’d pick up the touch tone telephone and start dialing pound codes and star codes, writing them into a notebook and figuring out what they did and all the messages, and the phone company would actually call my house and ask what the heck we were doing. When I got old enough to ride my bike down the street, I used to go to a pay phone and do it.
I’ve been doing this stuff since I was a little guy, but what really got me interested in it is the love of technology and the fact of being able to legally break into systems and figure out security holes, and it’s like a puzzle. To me, it just made sense that that’s what I had to do with my life. I didn’t always, I wasn’t always a penetration tester. I went to school, I learned a different trade, I learned automotive.
At the same time, after high school, I learned networking and computers and security and stuff like that to get really in depth with it to get my certifications and so on, so I always had a back up career. Hurt my back working on cars early out, so I decided that, to heck with this, and I went on to start work for other companies and eventually started my own company and they started subcontracting me and eventually I cut out the middle man and went right after the big fish myself.
That’s really how I got started in that, and after you do something for a really long time, you look for another challenge, so what I did was I created a YouTube channel that now has 35,000 subscribers and I started teaching for free. That was pretty cool, I got really good feedback from that, so I decided to start an online school and actually teach people how to do it because the biggest problem is school is not affordable. It’s just not. I spent $16,000 for six months of school for network security. A lot of courses are $5,000 and some are free, but I live by the old adage, you get what you pay for. I decided to start my own affordable school and here we are.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome, that’s awesome, and one of the things I want to highlight, it’s not really the topic of this show, but the fact that you were already creating content and you found that you had community on YouTube, that’s an awesome way to go about it because a lot of people start with the tools and they don’t have any content yet, they don’t have the community, they don’t have any traction or momentum, so I just want to commend you on your starting point there.
Shaun James: Cool, thank you.
Chris Badgett: Well, when I think of ethical hacking and getting hired to do that and the economy around that, I think about banks wanting to protect their stuff or, but what is, who else should be concerned?
Shaun James: Anybody that’s online really. If you have a computer connected to the internet, at some point, you’re vulnerable. That’s just the way that the world works. That’s the internet for you. If you want to be 110% secure, unplug from the internet, stop using it. Really, that’s what we tell people.
Everybody really has to worry about that, and specifically, online course graders. A lot of times you’re collecting customer information, student information, things like that, and you want to make sure that that stuff is secure. You don’t want to have it vulnerable, like the Amazon and credit card companies get hacked all the time, and banks, and other businesses, and that’s just what it is. That’s the nature of the beast. Everybody has to worry about it, really.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, yeah. Well, what, for someone who’s, this is new information to them, what areas do you focus on for the course creation platform to have increased security? Is it just eCommerce related? Is it logging in to the back end of WordPress, or where do we need to be concerned?
Shaun James: It’s really almost everywhere. I know that’s a terrible answer, but it’s everywhere, so even if you had a static website, right, that you’re posting some information on. For instance, if I was an attacker and you had a popular website for whatever niche it was or whatever it was, even just a static page, if I were to be able to break into the back end of the FTTP server and upload or change your files to include a payload inside of the website, you’ll never see it.
I’ll never modify the text of your website. It looks like a normal website, however, when users go to visit there, I can steal their cookie information which is used for logins. I can steal information from them. I can take over their computer and use it to attack other computers. It’s really important to have, even website security on basic, very basic static HTML websites.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely. I think getting hacked, sometimes it’s not even a question of if, it’s a question of when.
Shaun James: Right.
Chris Badgett: One of my first online course websites, WordPress website, got hacked and there was some kind of code that somehow got in there, and it was actually smart. If I was logged into the site as a WordPress administrator, I couldn’t tell it was there, but, and even people on computers couldn’t tell it was there, but if you were on a mobile phone and you went to my website, it would redirect you to some app, something for sale in the app store.
Shaun James: Right, so it was just a click jacking, if you will, is what we call it, and that’s just to take a specific set of users that you want, for instance in that case, to make app sales or free downloads for the app so they can make money off the ads, it’s just to redirect those users away. I would make a payload, for instance, for iOS and for any other cell phone operating system, and then I would redirect users based upon, every time you surf a website, your information’s given out. What you’re using, what version, all that good stuff.
Chris Badgett: What, where do you start? What’s the first place to start with, okay, I want more security? Where do I start? Is it with hosting? Is it with other plug-ins? What do I do?
Shaun James: What I would start with is the hosting company itself. You obviously want a reputable company, and with that, you want to make sure you’re keeping your own backups. You can’t always trust the company to actually keep and store your backups. Things happen. Backups get lost all the time, so you want to make sure you choose a good host. For instance, since you’re using WordPress for the Lifter LMS, right?
Chris Badgett: Right.
Shaun James: I use the same thing, so what I wanted was a reliable host, and there’s tons of them out there, big name guys. I used to have a hosting company back in 2002. Well, I know a lot of these guys started around the same time I did, so I know where they’re at, but the point is that they can’t all offer really good security. The host I personally use is WP Engine, and I think that, in my research, they’re one of the best. They offer good security, backups, live sites. They do all sorts of good stuff.
The next thing you want to start with there, and this is probably more logic than anything, is not to use a common email that you use everyday for regular communications for your site admin email. Make it an email that you don’t use anywhere else but specifically for that, and that helps because if I was able to get your email address and I know your website and I want to break into it, the very first thing I’m going to do is pop that into what we call BruteForcer, which just really tries username password combinations over and over again until it gets the right one, and I’m going to try a password list. I have one that I created for 1.2 million unique passwords myself, and I would break into your website and then do what I had to do.
Don’t use your regular email. That’s number one. Two, there’s a lot of plugins for WordPress, and I guess this conversation’s going to go more towards WordPress because that’s what we’re all using, like for instance Wordfence. Wordfence is a really super good plugin for all types of security. It offers firewalls, spam scanning, malware scanning, if somebody did break into your website, it scans the site for your users so it could pick up common attacks, things like that.
Also, there’s a plugin, I can’t remember. I think it’s made by, Huge-IT is what it’s called, the company, and they make a login redirector, so usually what happens is when you setup a brute-force type deal, you would go to the WordPress login. That’s pretty common because it’s the same on every single website. You set your attack up to go to that URL and guess those usernames and passwords. However, the Huge-IT thing has a pro version and a free version. Free version probably works pretty good, too, but it really just creates a pop up, if you will. It’s harder to attack a pop up because it’s not an actual URL.
That’s some of the common things you could do there, and again, the host is key. You should have SSL on your websites if you’re collecting any information, even if users are registering for a free account, or logging in, or giving you any information whatsoever, you should definitely, definitely have SSL, and it’s free.
Chris Badgett: Let me ask you some questions around that.
Shaun James: Sure.
Chris Badgett: Secure Shell Certificate, is that what it stands for? What-
Shaun James: Secure Socket Layer, yeah. SSL.
Chris Badgett: Oh, there we go. There we go.
Shaun James: Yep.
Chris Badgett: What does it actually do? What does it do?
Shaun James: When you communicate on the web, you’re sending out packets. Think of a packet as a pill, right, and inside the pill you have, what’s the payload there, is the medicine, right? You have the outer shell of that. What SSL does is it’s basically the outer shell to the critical information that’s inside. It encrypts the communication between you and a server, so when you’re sending your stuff over, it’s encrypted by 128 bit SSL certificates, and there’s a public and private key.
There’s a lot of technical stuff that goes on behind the scenes, but really what it does is it encrypts the session or the line between you and the website. Any information you send or the website sends back is in that encrypted tunnel, or in that pill.
Chris Badgett: Right, so for example, your students in your online course website, when they’re typing in their username and password, that’s communicating with your server, right?
Shaun James: Correct.
Chris Badgett: The SSL is, you’re actually protecting your students’ email addresses and passwords and things like that.
Shaun James: Right, and all their personal information, so for me, I send out some gifts to my students when they first enroll, depending on what they enroll in and so on and so forth, and I collect their mailing addresses. A lot of people don’t put their right mailing addresses, but nonetheless, the users that are serious, they put in their real address. I want to protect that information.
I don’t want to give that out to anybody that may be eavesdropping, and it doesn’t have to be anybody eavesdropping on the websites, and their computer could be compromised from somewhere else, a suspicious download or a crazy email or something. Their computer could be giving up the information, not necessarily our website, so I want to make sure that no matter what, both of us are protected so we create that encryption.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. That’s awesome, and I’ve heard of a simpler plugin than Wordfence called Limit Login Attempts, which all that does is, I mean Wordfence does a lot of things and I’ve used it a lot too, but Limit Login Attempts just helps with that brute-force situation where someone can only forget their password three times, then they get locked out for-
Shaun James: Exactly, and what that does is ban it by IP address, so even that said, that’s not even really safe anymore because you have things like VPNs and proxies. Tor was a infamous proxy that used to switch your IP address or your proxy fake IP address every so often. If I was a BruteForcer and I’m using Tor to do that, all I’m going to do is shut Tor off, start it back up, fire the attempts again, and of course, I have a new IP address and I can keep hammering the system.
You also don’t want to set that threshold too low, so if you set it at three, now the user’s locked out, blocked by their IP address. They can’t really just change their IP address. Now there’s support tickets and chaos, so you have to find that happy medium with the threshold to set it for a lock out.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, that’s a good point. I like what you were saying, too, where sometimes things are just obvious, like if I’m going to a website and I’m like, “Hey, I wonder if that’s a WordPress website,” I actually just add wp-admin to the end. I’m like, “Oh, there’s the login window.”
Shaun James: Right.
Chris Badgett: WordPress used to, they used to create the first user account with the username Admin, so, okay, now all I have to guess is the password.
Shaun James: Exactly. Seems pretty easy.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, yeah. Security is something that keeps evolving.
Shaun James: Sure.
Chris Badgett: It’s always just worth looking at, but what about, let’s talk about eCommerce a little bit. Help me understand this issue with, like with Lifter LMS, if you sell with credit card, there’s a screen powered by Stripe, a little part of the checkout screen, and then, but Stripe is actually handling the PCI compliance or whatever. Me as the site owner, on my website and in my Stripe account, I can only ever see the last four digits of the credit card number or whatever.
Shaun James: Right.
Chris Badgett: We’re used to that when we call somewhere and they’re like, “Hey, what are the last four of your credit card,” there’s some security checks in place there.
Shaun James: Sure.
Chris Badgett: If I’m selling credit card, accepting credit cards on my website, am I good with Stripe and a SSL certificate? Is there anything else I need to think about there?
Shaun James: No, you’re pretty good because Stripe themselves has to self regulate according to PCI DSS compliancy, like you said. That’s a very strict compliancy they have to meet at a certain amount of months, I think it’s now three. Every three months, every quarter, but they have to have their own set of security there. First of all, they have to have SSL, that’s number one, primary, before they ever get their certificate to be able to do any kind of credit card transactions.
Two, when they’re storing the user’s information, credit card, so on and so forth, it has to be encrypted. You have the point to point encryption, which is the SSL, and then when it’s stored on the server, you have to have security at rest. There is strong encryption there to encrypt the actual databases where the credit card information is stored. It’s not impenetrable, it happens all the time, you see whatever bank gets hacked, whatever credit card company gets hacked, and the things are leaked.
Ashley Madison, the whole nightmare that went down there with all those poor guys that lost their credit cards and their personal information and everything else, it’s just a common occurrence, but you’re safe as a teacher, as a course provider, because you’re offering the best encryption you can from them to you, and then from you to Stripe, that’s handled on Stripe’s end. Stripe has to create that encryption tunnel. Users usually are secure in that way. It’s not impossible, like I said, to interrupt that transmission. There are ways to do it, but it’s not something that’s going to happen every single day.
Chris Badgett: I got you, okay. Well, also, since I have the expert on the line here, I wanted to, I’ve heard of SQL injections or whatever, so anywhere there’s a form, like a comment on a blog post or a contact form, a hacker can insert malicious codes through those areas where they can input stuff sometimes. Can you tell us a little bit about how that all works?
Shaun James: Sure, so SQL injections, or SQLi, is basically where, whenever you create a website that has any kind of interactivity to it, you click a button, you go to a different link, you fill in a form, all that stuff has to be stored somewhere. SQL is basically a database where it stores that information. When code’s written improperly, it allows users, or malicious users I should say, to actually inject malicious code into that to trick the database server into giving up the information to unprivileged users. When you create a database connection, you’re saying, this username, this password has access to change, modify, update whatever tables inside this database or retrieve that information also.
When I trick it to do it, it’s because the code doesn’t properly sanitize my input. I can, for instance, if you ever notice, you go into a webpage that says, www.somesite.com?php or index.php?id= and then a number, that’s very susceptible sometimes to a simple attack. If you put an apostrophe there, you can see that it returns an error. When it returns an error, you can say, “Okay, this is susceptible to SQL injection,” you can go further. It’s just, it doesn’t properly sanitize that extra character that I put in, so it gives up that information.
With that being said, once I’m able to do that and figure out that there’s some errors there and it’s not properly sanitized, I can drop the entire database table. I get usernames, passwords, credit card numbers, social security numbers, everything. That’s how a lot of these big hacks actually work.
Chris Badgett: Is that scraping? Is that what that’s called? If you, let’s say you want to get all the emails or credit cards out of something, what’s scraping?
Shaun James: Well, scraping is a tool or sometimes people actually, before there was tools, we used to do it manually, go in and view the source code of a website and do searches for whatever, email addresses or usernames, passwords, things like that. Scraping is basically a tool that goes to the website, does the same thing, opens it up almost in a text editor, if you will, and pulls down any kind of information that you want it to get.
For instance, an email address, is there a list on a website for support, for, a lot of websites for whatever reason still have directories of employees, I don’t know why, with email addresses and telephone numbers and all this good stuff, so if I wanted to, for instance, do a spoofing attack, I’d go scrape the website, get all the email addresses. Now I have the email addresses, I can either try to break into their emails or fake an email to somebody else in the company from somebody else in the company and get them to open a file, and then I’m in to their company and that’s it, it’s over. A scraper is really just going to the website, pulling the information down and having that information available to you for whatever use.
Chris Badgett: Got you. Well, let’s talk about another area that has always, I’ve always wanted a deeper understanding on, especially with WordPress sites, is where does all that spam come from? Is that really a security thing, or are those bots that, leaving comments that have nothing to do with the blog post? What is that?
Shaun James: Well, so I usually recommend using plugins that would use reCAPTCHA, which is Google’s idea of trying to defeat these robots or spambots. The comment spam comes from just being, somebody smart enough to be able to write code to find a comment section, input the correct fields, and then hit post. Really, every time you hit a button to post a comment, it’s just a data packet. That’s all it is. It’s a post or a get or something like that in the HTTP protocol. It’s pretty simple to actually make those things. That’s why I think that WordPress should just roll out with reCAPTCHA right off the bat.
Chris Badgett: Right.
Shaun James: You know what I mean? It’s so common now. It’s constant.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, no. There’s no reason to get up to 500 comments pending in the queue.
Shaun James: Right.
Chris Badgett: I agree with you that they should just, at least have it turned on by default.
Shaun James: Right, and the thing with comment spam is, if it’s, SQL injections are not the only thing you can do with forms. I can do JavaScript injections, which are called remote code injections, and I can actually upload or post a comment that looks like a normal comment, “Hello everyone, welcome to whatever,” and inside that, hidden, is a payload that will steal your cookies, your login information, redirect you, whatever. Download a file to your computer or whatever.
It’s pretty important to have that, too, because there’s a lot of people that create those bots that go out and look for vulnerable forms to post that kind of code into, and that’s how they create botnets, is basically taking over one computer to take over 100 computers to take over 1,000 computers and so on and so forth.
Chris Badgett: That’s like the concept of a worm, right? What’s a worm?
Shaun James: A worm basically replicates through a network, and it’s, it used to be where it’s like a user got something and say if there was 10 computers on the network, the worm would actually be intelligent enough to try to search out these other computers, see if there’s any open shares, everybody shares files across a network, and replicate itself through those shares and then execute itself. Then it would take over all 10 of those computers and use those 10 computers for whatever it was, distributed computing, compiling code, trying to hack other people, and now that’s really turned into botnets, as we all know, we see on the news.
The hacker group Anonymous, you know they’re so infamous for DoS attacks, or denial of service attacks, and that’s how they do it. They don’t necessarily just use one tool, because it’s easily preventable. They’ll use 10,000 computers that they have at their will by one program to command them all to attack something.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. Back in our agency days, we were helping clients who sometimes were suffering from a DDoS attack, which is like a, it’s a lot of fake traffic that, it’s too much traffic and it causes the websites to crash.
Shaun James: Right.
Chris Badgett: Well what, so what causes, what if somebody, how does that happen and how are you supposed to fix it?
Shaun James: You’re talking about a worm attack or something?
Chris Badgett: Or just like a denial of service, like, “My site keeps going down, there’s all this fake traffic. What do I do?”
Shaun James: There’s a great, great company called Cloudflare, and what they do is actually content filtering. What they’ll do is mitigation of those attacks, so like you said, the attacks work by additional, DDoS stands for distributed denial of service attack, meaning there’s multiple computers all over the world attacking one website, server, what have you. What Cloudflare does is actually redirect that bad traffic away. It doesn’t really necessarily shut down your website. They have what’s called a CDN, which is a content delivery network, so they spread your site over around multiple servers.
Now Google and Yahoo and all the big companies have been using that for almost a decade now, and now Cloudflare actually does it for free, pretty much, I think. That’s the only way to really mitigate that. Back in the day, I used to write custom scripts on my servers in the server company to actually deal with that. I would set a threshold to say, if there’s five connections from this same IP, take that IP address and send it to fbi.gov. Let them go attack fbi.gov and get arrested.
Chris Badgett: Right.
Shaun James: There was ways to do that, but now it’s more efficient. Cloudflare is just awesome. There’s other companies like that, like GoDaddy has their own little thing that they do there, but I’m pretty sure they use Cloudflare as their back end anyway. It’s all DNS mitigation now.
Chris Badgett: Got you, and we use WP Engine ourselves too for all our sites, and we’re really happy with it. I know there’s also, if you do get hacked, what’s somebody supposed to do? Where to they turn to to trust? I can just share, in my experience, when I first got hacked, the story I was telling you earlier, that’s when I became a customer of a company called Sucuri, and they cleaned up the hack and then they, I paid for extended firewall service and monitoring. I had a great experience with Sucuri. Where should people go? How do they know where to go if all of a sudden their site’s redirecting or they’re getting weird ads or things appear to not, so they might be hacked, what should they do?
Shaun James: Sure, so the very first thing that I would do is shut down the website immediately because you don’t want anybody else getting infected. You certainly don’t want it getting worse and you definitely don’t want to ruin your reputation, especially if you’re a popular site. Then what I would do is, again, backups are key. Restore your backup.
Change your password, because it’s possible that they broke your password and that’s how they got in. Change your FTTP password, which is where you upload your files to change, any kind of control panels, back end admin logins, change all those passwords. Password security is key here. What I’ve noticed with Lifter LMS is, from default, it makes you use a secure password, which I love that. I do.
Chris Badgett: That’s a public service that we do that some people don’t like and they immediately set it to weak, but we’re trying to be good citizens of the internet here.
Shaun James: No, that’s awesome. Yeah, and that’s awesome because it doesn’t take just your admin account to be hacked. It could be a user’s account. It could be anything, anybody that has any kind of right access on the website, so really what you want to do is shut down the website immediately. Change the password to your FTTP first, because that, maybe that’s how they got in, they cracked your FTTP username and password. Change that password first.
Change any of your control panel passwords. Restore a backup and figure out where the hack came from, so there’s various sites out there, I’m sure you can Google and search for them, that will actually scan your website for malicious code. Again, the WordPress Engine is pretty good at protecting against that stuff, and also, Wordfence is pretty good at protecting that. Maybe you have an outdated plugin. Maybe it was some code that wasn’t written correctly and allowed a remote injection or some sort of payload upload or something like that. Very first thing is always keep a current backup.
I like to make backups every day. I’m just crazy like that, but just in case something does happen. I’m not a guy that wouldn’t get hacked. I’m sure at some point it might happen. Hasn’t happened yet, thank god, but it’s, anybody’s vulnerable. The NSA gets hacked, for god’s sake, so they have millions of people working to protect their security and they get hacked by six year old kids in Indonesia.
Chris Badgett: Wow.
Shaun James: There’s nothing you could do to prevent it. Really, there’s nothing you can do besides not be on the internet, but really, that’s the first step I would do, is to make sure you [inaudible 00:26:10] and then change your passwords and restore your backup.
Chris Badgett: That makes sense, and yeah, backups are really important. Some people overlook it but, and especially if it’s your main business or you spent a lot of time building it up. You should have a good web hosting company that’s doing automated backups. You should have a copy locally, like on your computer. Download it or put it on a hard drive or something, and then if you want to get really crazy about it, download it, put it on a hard drive, and then keep it in a different location in case your house burns down. You can go to-
Shaun James: You can go really crazy.
Chris Badgett: If you’re making a lot of money off your platform, you should treat it-
Shaun James: Invest in it.
Chris Badgett: With an insurance policy like that.
Shaun James: Sure, sure. You definitely invest in it. Listen, we don’t do a million dollars a year in my course. We’re still getting traction here and getting going, but the thing is, I like to invest in any kind of ventures that I have a vested interest in, whether it’s financial or time or labor or whatever. I was going back and forth between a cheaper web host, hosting it myself, or somebody that’s going to do it for me and it’s just done.
If I have a problem I go, “Hey man, I got a problem. Can you fix it, yes or no,” and that’s it. I don’t have to worry about the nuances of fixing it and worrying about it and all that stuff. WordPress Engine does automatic backups, which I think is awesome, even for the lowest level plan. You really can’t beat that, but backups are definitely key.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, yeah. WP Engine is, I think their for one site plan is $30 a month, which is more than the $10 a month shared hosting plan starting point that a lot of people start with, but the peace of mind that comes with some of their security measures, backup system, a staging environment for testing stuff, it’s worth it. You’ll end up paying eventually for other services or whatever.
Shaun James: Right.
Chris Badgett: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the difference between web security and personal security. Where does the internet stop and where does personal security begin? What do you mean by that?
Shaun James: Well, so you could have the most secure website in the entire world, where it’s password protected, encrypted. You could have all the bells and whistles that we spoke about, and then some, and it still may not be good enough. Here’s the thing. Everything comes back to you in the end. You have to have some sort of personal responsibility for your user’s security, your student’s security, what have you, and that starts with your own personal security.
Again, there’s no way to protect you 110% besides not being on the internet. I know I keep saying that, but it’s, that’s the truth. That’s the reality. The thing is, your personal security is key. If you’re not really, like Windows is very susceptible to hacks, and it’s hacks and viruses and malware and all sorts of bad stuff. If your system’s compromised, it doesn’t matter how good your website security is. If you log in to your website, there’s a possibility there’s a key logger, which captures your keystrokes on your keyboard on there, and it sends it to the hacker. Now the hacker doesn’t have to do anything, just log into your website.
Usually you get those kind of infections by downloading files. I know, I used to be, when I was in IT repair, viruses were my key business. I’d charge $100 per virus removal. It’d take me 15 minutes to an hour, and these were repeat customers, like every week, it was like a bad drug habit that these people had. They wanted to download everything, every little popup that came up, “Download now,” “Okay, great. Run it? Sure.” Email attachments, that was huge. “Oh, Johnny’s sending me a document, let’s open it up.”
It was just crazy, and the problem is that that’s really considered what we called social engineering, right? I’m tricking you, as a user, whether I’m spoofing email addresses or sending you questionable information, and you just don’t know any better, and I take advantage of the human element and I trick you into downloading something, clicking on a link, what have you. Now I take hold of your computer and everything that your computer does from there on out, I take over that. Even SSL is not going to save you in that way because SSL starts when you actually send the information. When you’re typing it in there, you could be typing into a secure form, but if I have a key logger in your machine, I’m capturing those keystrokes before they even leave the computer to on the website.
Again, personal security’s key. You have to have a good antivirus. That’s first and foremost. There’s a lot of free ones out there which are really good. Your firewall in Windows should stay on. You don’t want anybody jacking up your system there, and you should just use some common sense. Don’t download everything on the internet. I promise you it’ll still be there tomorrow. Make sure your email attachments are really coming from the people that they say they’re going to come from. Don’t click on links in emails. That’s another common way people get infected with all sorts of good stuff, and that’s it. You have to just have some logic behind using a computer these days.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, and the reality is, it’s just out there. Facebook, you see all the time where somebody, we’re almost getting comfortable with it as a society, like, “Oh, hey, ignore all that. My Facebook account got hacked.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s why you sent me all these airline ticket deal sites and some discounts on some Ray-Ban sunglasses, and I haven’t heard from you in two years.”
Shaun James: Right, exactly.
Chris Badgett: We’re getting comfortable with it, but if you’re going to be on the web, you have to get comfortable with the realities around that, around information and security.
Shaun James: Sure.
Chris Badgett: We’re not trying to scare anybody, but talking about your actual machine, your laptop itself, it’s important to take that into the equation. Some of the things that I see that some people who are the most concerned about security or are paranoid about it or whatever, they put a piece of tape over their camera. Somebody can actually hack your camera, is that right?
Shaun James: Yeah. Actually, I do the same thing. To be honest with you, I turn my camera off in the computer, and I still put a piece of tape over it because, realistically, I don’t want anybody seeing what I’m up to in here. If I’m typing away and working on something or if I’m having a conversation, even the microphone inside the keyboard or my microphone here can be turned on and anybody can be listening to you.
If you’re worried about it, turn it off, unplug it, put a piece of tape over it. My microphone, like I said, I unplug. I’m a little paranoid myself because I know what can actually be done. Not that I have anything to hide, it’s just, I’d rather not have the availability for somebody to listen in on a conversation. For instance, I’m talking with my lawyer about bank accounts or about bank numbers or something, credit card, I’m on the phone giving somebody a credit card number or something, I don’t want anybody hearing that potentially.
It’s all due diligence to yourself. You got to have some sort of self responsibility. Not to make people scared, like you said, where, “Oh my god, hide the laptop underneath the mattress or in the safe or something every night,” but the point is, is that, try to take care of yourself because there’s no one piece of software or hardware or any kind of security whatsoever that’s going to cure the human element. We’re vulnerable as people. That’s just the way it is. We’re very trusting in nature, so people abuse that power.
Like you said with the Facebook stuff, so Tom Jones is on your friends list. Haven’t spoken to them in a couple of years, but you see him and you want to follow up with him and see what’s happening in his life. Tom Jones says, “Oh, so many people viewed my profile today. Sure,” and then it says, big stupid button, “Log in with your Facebook account.” Oh, that’s easy. They click the button, and now they just gave their username and password away. It’s a no brainer that their account’s now used for spamming purposes and try to grow whatever it is that the spammer is after. It’s just the way it is. You have to use some due diligence.
I always yell at my wife on the tablet. “Don’t click anything on Facebook. Just don’t do it. Stay away from my laptop for sure, and whatever you’re doing on your stuff, just don’t click anything, don’t sign in with anything, just stop. If you have a question, ask me.”
Chris Badgett: Yeah, and while we’re talking about personal security, one of the other things I just wanted to bring up, if you’re doing a security audit of your online course business or whatever, you probably, when you set up your Stripe account or whatever, I recommend treating your business like a business, even if it’s from your laptop from home or kitchen table or whatever. You probably set up a bank account for your business and you connected your, the Stripe account to your online course business website, or bank account. Also your personal information, like your business name. You don’t have to make that your home address. You can get a-
Shaun James: PO box.
Chris Badgett: UPS Store box or one of these, whenever you see suite whatever, those are business mailbox services. If you want to maintain a degree of privacy, at all levels there’s always another step up that you can take if you want to take that kind of stuff into account.
Shaun James: Sure. The thing for me is I teach cybersecurity, right? A lot of my students are just, they just want to hack something. A good portion that sign up want to be jerks, too. They just, they probably already know some stuff and they just want to get at me because my popularity on the internet with the network security and the YouTube channel and everything else. It’s just common ground for guys like me.
A lot of guys in my industry have this happen to them all the time. They do a couple talks, they do some conferences with other hackers that are at the conference, and you have somebody that just has it out for you for whatever reason. “I hacked the big guy.” Everybody used to be after Kevin Mitnick, a good friend of mine, one of the world’s most known hackers ever. That’s just the nature of the beast.
From what you were saying with the PO boxes and stuff like that, keep your personal information guarded. None of my personal information is online. It’s just not. I don’t even use my real last name. That’s how serious you have to be because there’s people, when you get to a certain level of whatever it is you’re doing, there’s people that want to ruin it for you and they just want to harass you and send crap to your house or just be jerks. Try to treat it as a real business, like you said, and keep everything separate from your personal life and just make sure that your mailing address is not your house if you’re worried about that. Make sure your bank account’s a business bank account, and you shouldn’t have any problems.
Chris Badgett: I’ve heard of one more that I just wanted to ask you about while we’ve got you on the line about personal security where, if you have a phone, smart phone, or your laptop’s in a bag, people can wear these devices that literally pull data from other devices as they walk by you or something like that.
Shaun James: Yes.
Chris Badgett: Can you tell, again, we’re not trying to scare anybody, I’m just trying to raise some public awareness about security outlets.
Shaun James: Sure, so yes, there is, it’s referred to commonly as RFID, which is what credit cards use and things like that, to give out your information. Magstripe readers, things like that, so even Bluetooth enabled cell phones. Everybody’s walking around with smart phones, like you said. I can hack your Bluetooth and take your contacts, anything you have in your phone, anything you saved inside your phone, pictures, emails, the list is brutally endless.
Here I have my old cell phone here, it’s just an old HTC, and I’ve reprogrammed this to actually do the same kind of things. Here’s my new phone, it’s an iPhone. Doesn’t matter that they’re two different operating systems. It just doesn’t matter. If you’re walking by and you got Bluetooth on this, steal, and I walk by like this and I crack your Bluetooth key and I can steal all your information, download it to the phone, you never know.
For instance, I live in New York, so if I’m in the city and I’m walking down a street, I just hold this right like I’m looking at a cell phone, like every other dummy that’s walking down the street, and really I’m collecting everybody’s information. It’s just the nature of the beast. Technology is a double edged sword. It’s a good thing because we get to do a lot of cool stuff, science and technology and stuff, but it’s also a bad thing because everybody puts all their stuff out there. Everybody does. Companies, regular people, everybody. Everybody does it.
Chris Badgett: Right. Well, tell us about your course, Shaun. Who’s it for and what, who’s it a good fit for and is this a good career for people? What kind of people is it good for? Who are you trying to help and what’s your dent you’re putting the universe with your online course?
Shaun James: Sure, so for me, I offer a different way of teaching than most other people, and that’s what I’ve been told on my YouTube channel and everything like that, so that’s why I keep progressing with this idea that I have. It’s really for anybody. If you want to make a career change, I’ve got a lot of people that were stockbrokers. I’ve got a lot of people that were bankers or people that were just factory workers, people that were in the military and have nothing to do when they come out, they sign up for my courses. I even have people that are in IT that are just looking to change in a different direction and stay in the same relative field that sign up for the courses.
I teach them from complete beginner. I could teach you in 30 days or less how to become able to do a penetration test. The goal for me is to have more people that are on the good guy’s side than the bad guy’s side, because the bad guys are always 10 steps ahead of us no matter what we do, how smart we are, how many people we are. The idea is to grow the cybersecurity community and the problem is that school is very expensive. I’ve paid $16,000 for six months of schooling, and then you have other online courses that are $5,000 for boot camp, and you don’t really learn much. They assume that you know a lot already.
I fit somewhere in the middle, and I help people at an affordable fee to be able to progress into a career into cybersecurity, and you don’t really have to know anything when you sign up for my courses. I’m trying to make the world a safer place by putting more good guys out there than bad guys, like I said.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, what’s the name of the course and your website and where can people find out more about you if they want to connect with you on YouTube or social media or anything?
Shaun James: Sure, so it’s pentesteruniversity.org. That’s the website, and we have one course up there right now that I’m in the process of completing to upload the content, which is Penetration Testing for Beginners. Then we’ll have an Intermediate and an Advanced course, and then we’re going to have Linux courses and Web Security courses and all sorts of good stuff up there continuing on from our old platform.
If anybody wants to reach me, they can go to the website, reach me there. There’s a contact us form, a secure contact us form. My YouTube channel is NetSecNow, it’s N-E-T S-E-C N-O-W, and that’s where I got 35,000 guys so far up there. Feel free to reach out to me anytime. If you have any questions or anything, just contact me, I’ll be happy to help you.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, thank you for coming on the show, Shaun, and I really appreciate you sharing your experience and helping us all level up our game when it comes to security, so thank you.
Shaun James: Great. Thanks, Chris. Thanks for having me, and thanks for the good work on Lifter.

EPISODE 130

Bridging the Gap Between Marketing and Innovation with WordPress Web Hosting Expert AJ Morris from Liquid Web

In this episode of LMScast with Chris Badgett of LifterLMS we discuss bridging the gap between marketing and innovation with WordPress web hosting expert AJ Morris from Liquid Web. AJ also tells a little about his interesting journey from working at a school district to business marketing.

It can sometimes be frustrating to work with people who do not have much training in a field. AJ shares his approach to working with people who have less technical skill than he does. He breaks things down in different ways for people’s differing learning styles. And he believes being patient is key.

Understanding the mindset of the customer is important when selling products to them. But understanding how your team thinks about the customer’s needs is also vital to the process. As the product manager, AJ believes that you become the bridge from marketing and innovation because you end up being the customer’s voice inside the company.

Chris and AJ discuss how the goal of business is to create a customer, and how always focusing on improving the customer or the learner experience is important.

They break down the different types of hosting plans. AJ provides an excellent analogy of how hosting plans are similar to different types of housing. As AJ explains, the size and functionality of housing and hosting changes as you upgrade them. They also touch on managed WordPress and exactly what that is and how it can help course developers.

A staging environment is a place for testing that matches the production environment. This can be used to test out features on your website before they are actually implemented. As Chris mentions, it is similar to how the automotive industry tests out cars in various situations with test dummies before real people drive them.

Chris and AJ talk about how Liquid Web works with backups and the accessibility that Liquid Web provides you with. You can also purchase domains through them. Liquid Web also has iThemes sync, which gives you a portal to all of your WordPress sites. You can install and update plugins across all of your sites at once instead of going through the hassle of doing them individually. It also allows you to hook up Google Analytics so that you can see a high-level overview of what pages are being accessed.

To learn more about AJ Morris and Liquid Web you can check him out on his Twitter, his blog ajmorris.me, or at Liquid Web.

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: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Bagett, and today I’m joined with AJ Morris from Liquid Webb, which is a hosting company. We’re going to get into some interesting topics today about bridging the gap between marketing and innovation. We’re also going to have the opportunity to talk with somebody who’s on the cutting edge of managed WordPress hosting, and what kind of things you need to consider for running a professional learning management system, and having that hosting piece dialed in, and the questions you should be asking, and becoming aware of what you might run into. AJ also has a lot of great life experience and has had an interesting journey through technology and also some teaching himself, so we’re going to get into that a little too.
AJ, thank you for coming on the show.
AJ: Hey Chris, thanks for having me.
Chris: Let’s start with just a little background. You’re at Liquid Webb now, which is a hosting company as a product manager and wearing many hats during that role, but what was your journey through technology, entrepreneurship, freelancing, to where you are today?
AJ: I started at a school district, and web design development had always been my thing so it was quick to pick it up. Back then in the early 2000s, it was really, “Hey, we need you to do professional development training for all our teachers and staff.” That’s really where I picked up a lot of the technical side of things through my career. Moved that into doing some technical support, going to a university and doing a lot of work with integrating multiple systems before it was easy to do, it required a lot of code. Moved out of that and got into the business marketing side of things and products, and really the idea of product management and bridging the gap between customers and the development team, since that’s always been a pet hobby of mine that now I get to do as a job.
It’s also one that has allowed me to take what I’ve learned through the years and apply them. It’s great because it allows me to have a different task every day and live the entrepreneurial lifestyle inside of corporate America.
Chris: Awesome. That’s also called entrepreneurship. I have a lot of great friends who do that and love it, and it’s a great way to roll. Let me go back earlier in your history and ask you about, when you’re helping facilitate continuing education requirements for IT … I think it’s probably what it was called back then.
AJ: Yes.
Chris: Any teacher or course creator eventually they come head on with this concept of dealing with people who, obviously don’t have as much training, and sometimes it can be frustrating to work with; I see some people get impatient or lose track of what it’s like to work with a beginner. What was your approach to working with people who obviously had a lot less technical knowledge than you, and how did you stay sane if things were moving slow?
AJ: For me, a lot of it is understanding other analogies that can help people understand the different concepts. Typically, I would find one or two teachers or staff in a class that might … Maybe they’re close to retirement or computers aren’t their thing. I would try to spend more time with them and actually working with them to grasp things. Most teachers back then, especially in the early 2000s at least had some basic understanding of computers. They knew what a mouse was, they knew how to open up Word or Excel, or go to a browser and go to a web page, and so they had some of the basics, but what they lacked was the understanding of, how do you work within a specific application or web application? before there were web applications. It was a lot of patience.
It’s funny, my wife says I’m entirely the most patient person she’s ever met and I would definitely attribute it back to teaching. You have to find ways, and repetitive ways, in many cases, to get your content to a person. I’ve been in classes where no two people are alike, and so understanding ways to repeat the information, to say it in a different way, to break it down a different way, has really helped in that matter.
Chris: That’s awesome. I’m sure it’s that same skill set of patience and tuning into the needs of learners that also helps as a product manager with customers or potential customers. It all goes together into one package. There was a famous quote by Peter Drucker, who wrote a book called The Effective Executive, and he said that business is really just two things, marketing, and innovation. I really love that quote because when you divide up tasks around what needs to be done, or how business can grow, you really have to look at those two areas. Everything is like a sub-category under marketing or innovation. Part of what we do as teachers, like you do at Liquid Webb and also do at Lifter LMS as a product manager role, is we build a bridge between the innovation, whatever that may be.
A hardware or software, ideas, ways of being, and then marketing, the communication around all that, the selling of all that, the building of community around all that. That’s a unique skill set to build that bridge. If somebody is teaching or developing a product or developing a business, what do you think some of your super powers or pro tips are for being able to build a bridge between the customer or the learner, whatever you want to call it, and then the raw team making the innovation inside the company? How do you do it?
AJ: I always try to, one, put myself in the place of the customer. If I can understand what the customer is going through, what their mindset is, what their mental model is, what their understanding is, even their understanding level; different customers are going to have a different understanding level. When you start to build a product for even a service and you’re thinking about your customer in that way, you get a new light to think through how effective you can be as you’re implementing or featuring a product, or you’re adding something to your service. I think that for the most part, your internal team, that … Maybe your team is a team of developers, maybe they’re a sales team, maybe it’s a support team.
Whatever that group of internal people are, they’re all going to have different mindsets, and they’re going to all have different ideas about problem that a customer is experiencing. But, as product manager and that person that becomes the bridge, you really have to think of all the ways that your internal people are thinking about it and help share the story of the customer, because you end up being the customer’s voice inside the company.
Chris: It’s a really good point. It’s almost like to your internal team, you’re championing the customer, or to the customers and the outer world, you’re championing your team and your brand and what’s going on behind the scenes. In both cases, I know that involves a combination of storytelling and also education, for example, we both work in the software industry, if a prospective customer or company or whatever is coming with something to do with your software, and you’re not quite there yet, they may have to do some custom stuff to pull it together. Sometimes that involves some education about making sure you understand what they are asking for, seeing how that aligns with road map and educating about the process of how we develop, whether you work in sprint or whatever.
I don’t know, I see education popping up a lot, or coming to the teams, support team and being like, “I remember when I was first building my first WordPress website in 2007 and I didn’t know how to do anything, let’s not forget what that’s like.”
AJ: A lot of times, it’s the … From a business angle, going back to your quote from Peter Drucker, the purpose of a business, typically, is to create a customer. I think we’re both in kind of a sass, a product world, and so you have a subscription that might be yearly, might be monthly, and so your goal in your business is to create a customer. If you don’t really understand the customers that you’re going after, how do you expect to be successful with your business?
Chris: That’s a really good point. One thing I’m doing, it’s on my list to do today actually, is I’m going to redo our … Basically, I’m going to create a video, when a new customer comes, not only … We have welcome emails in onboarding but now this is for software but you could also do this for a course. You can do a video, like, “Okay, here is where you are, and here’s where everything is, here’s how to get support, here’s where most people get stuck, watch out for that,” and so on. Always focusing on improving the customer, or the learner experience. It’s never one and done, it’s a continuous evolution, right?
AJ: Absolutely.
Chris: Let’s get into hosting a little bit. A lot of people listening to this episode they’re course creators, they’re entrepreneurs, they’re teachers. The way I explain it to people is, “You have to get web hosting. It’s a computer that’s in a warehouse in the desert somewhere. Your website actually has to live on a piece of hardware.” But not all of it is created equal. The domain name points to where you can start installing stuff on it like WordPress, and plugins and things and stuff like that. Not all hosting is created equal and the certain challenges that I see a lot of people coming up with … so let me just spray it all out there and let you jam on it, is what’s the difference between a really low cost shared hosting account versus a managed WordPress hosting environment? What is staging? Why is it important?
People are either overly concerned or under concerned about backups, that’s something I see a lot. Where does plugins and WordPress stop? When should you call your web host versus get support somewhere else? These are the things that I run into in the day to day. Maybe start with helping us understand, as you grow in hosting where do you … if you started at the bottom and you have no email list, and you start, when you might you want to grow to managed hosting?
Speaker 3: I think the first point that you had asked was the difference between the shared and managed WordPress. I think the easiest analogy I’ve come across and I use this internally a lot to get other people wrapping their heads around it is, there’s all types of hosting just like there’s all types of houses. Shared hosting, in my analogy, is like the fraternity house or residents home that you might have in college, where you get a small little space to yourself and then you have to share the bathroom or the kitchen, or the door into the building and that kind of stuff. So there’s all sort of these shared resources and sometimes it can become overpopulated, and then all of a sudden your little space can’t perform well because all these other shared pieces …
If your hallway’s got a hundred in it and you’re leaving in and out, your site in that shared hosting environment is going to be slow because there’s a lot of people there. You then can go up to something like an apartment. I look at an apartment as a VPS, and VPS, for people that don’t know, is a Virtual Private server. What that does is, think of an apartment complex or an apartment building right there, there’s studio apartments, there is a single bedroom, a two bedroom, three-bedroom, four-bedroom. There’s different size units in the apartment building but that is all yours. You can now get your own bathroom, you have your own kitchen, you have your own entrance, and it’s gated off from everybody else.
Your water is water, and in some cases your heat is your heat, in some cases. That’s what a VPS is. As you grow, you can got to that. You can even grow inside that apartment building. You can go from a small little studio apartment, all the way up to a four bedroom, and that’s what a VPS is like. Then you’ve got dedicated servers out there and dedicated servers are your house, and so what do you want in your house? You want a five bedroomed house because you’ve got four kids, you want an office, you want a kitchen, you want a playroom you want a living room, a dining room, you want all these features. As you build out your house, that’s like building dedicated server. What are your needs for it? A lot of people don’t necessarily need everything that a dedicated server has.
I think that we’re, especially in the WordPress space, starting to come across Managed WordPress. Managed WordPress has been around for probably the last 6/7 years now, I’d say. I think Pagely and WP Engine go back and forth between who started it but they’ve been around for a while. They make choosing hosting easy. I don’t have to worry about the hosting infrastructure, I don’t have to worry about if I’m on a shared or a VPS or a dedicated, I don’t have to worry about that. What a managed WordPress host is really going to do is they are going to take of that for you and if they’re proactive, they are going to make sure that they’re taking care of all the infrastructure and letting you know, “Hey, you need to have this plan because we’re noticing these things on you site.”
If you’re running an LMS and you, say you’ve got a hundred courses and each course has a hundred people enrolled in a course, you have a lot of data, people accessing in the site all the time, and so your host is going to help you understand how to have, what plans you should have to really make your site shine so that your customers are happy.
Chris: I just want to add to that point that a learning management system has a lot of moving parts compared to the more traditional informational website or blog. Not only could there be all those courses and lessons and quizzes, but then there is the reporting and all the interrogations of the internal data and the data that’s being stored as users move through courses and certain behaviors and milestones attract, there’s a lot going on.
AJ: Yeah, and if your courses are pay by a course or their subscription, you’ve all the transactional data that’s also going on with being able to sign up of a course and pay for the course and all that. There’s a lot of moving parts and if we focus on just LMS and some sort of a learning management system or Ecommerce, I think the two go hand in hand. There’s a lot of moving parts to those. That’s where managed WordPress really can shine, is they can monitor all of that very easily, especially when you’re using something like WordPress, and you go to a managed WordPress host. Those hosts are going to be able to find and understand at a higher level than somebody that just does shared hosting. You’re able to really understand and really partner with your host in that sense.
You create a partnership with the host because they are providing a service to you that helps you run your business.
Chris: Absolutely, and just one more thing on that, it’s kind of like if you take the classroom and you take it online, the building and the room and everything are really important. Just because you are online you still need to have some underlying infrastructure for the magic to happen.
AJ: Yeah. It’s funny I was actually talking to a friend, it would have been last summer now, they were talking about wanting to…they do online courses, and they were like, “I think I want to get into course. I want to do a physical, in-person course. I want to give this a try. I want to see if I can … ” I remember it was my online courses,”Let’s see if we can bring this into the real world, the real life.” The best advice I gave to them was exactly that. I said, “If you’re looking for a real world place, do you want to go to the airport hotel that has a conference room, or do you want to go to somewhere nice that has Herman Miller chairs, and it’s painted and it’s got windows, and the projector, and the screen, just working and you don’t have the issue?
What experience do you want to have there?” I think that, to your point, when you have a learning management system and you take in your classroom and you’ve digitalized it, you want to make sure that the infrastructure from a building to the wall is going to hold up when you need it. It was good advice actually, she went to a beautiful location in downtown, she didn’t go to the airport hotel, and from what I heard, everybody loved it. There’s your words of advice for her hosting and buildings there.
Chris: That’s spot on. I like how you used the word technology partner because if you are going to do this stuff online you need … whether you realize it or not and if it’s really well done you almost don’t notice the technology partners there, but there are several layers of that. There’s the hosting layer, there’s the WordPress itself layer, there’s themes, there’s plugins, if you’re doing videos, you’re probably hosting on Vimeo or Wistia or something, you need this kind of technology partnership. It’s important to spend some time and choose wisely and make sure you’re getting the quality that you need.
AJ: Yeah, exactly.
Chris: Help us understand this concept of a staging environment. Why do we need one? I’m a big proponent of it but I want to hear your take on it.
AJ: Yes. It was early in life a website for a school district is probably my first full time or that first real job. That first job that you have that you’re like, “This is awesome, this is what I want to do. I want to give it my all.” Back then we didn’t have databases and content management since they were starting, and so they were very limited in what they could do. At the same time, the internet was growing rapidly and everybody had to be online. It was, “Everybody’s got to be online,” “Oh, I got to have a website.” We had static HTMO and various files. If you have production environment, that’s where your site lives, and in most cases, back then that’s what you have, that’s typically all you had, but when you wanted to do work, so you wanted to change an image or wanted to change a web page or maybe you wanted to change the layout of the site, you needed a place to build and test things out.
For a staging site, for a lot of people where it comes from, your developers, not having them in the past and making the change in,and blowing up a site that was live, or it was a place to stage things in preparation for moving everything live, so staging is important. On any given day, I have … If I’m managing sites, I still have a few that I manage from my freelance days, I always have a staging site. I always do something there first to know, is it going to wreck the production site, especially mission … anytime you have learning management system or and Ecommerce system running your site, those are mission critical. If your site goes down for whatever reason, that’s dollars out the window that you’re losing while it takes to get that site back up.
You always want make sure that you have some sort of an environment that you can test whatever you’re about to do, maybe it’s your changing the theme, or you want to add a new plugin, you want to have an environment that’s very close to your production environment so you can test it out. Most managed WordPress hosts now will give you a staging environment just for that reason. Where you can go and test the things out that you want, and when you’re ready to go, you just do it on the live site.
Chris: Couldn’t have said better myself. The analogy that just popped into my head while you were talking comes from the automotive industry. I’m pretty glad that they stage or test certain things with the crash test dummies, before, like you said, your revenue or your actual live site life of it is on the line, let’s just due diligence and do some testing before we deploy this new fibre glass bumper to all our car lots around the country.
AJ: Exactly. It’s important to test the idea. I forget where I was reading, but somebody had actually not had staging environment, made a change and they were losing thousands of dollars an hour because there’s change and top of that change, they didn’t know what the change was. It was, one, because they didn’t have a staging environment, two, they didn’t have common software development practices in place. Using some sort of a version control, so when you do make the change, if that change went out with five others and something borked your live site, you’re having that version control also helped. Unfortunately, this company didn’t have that, and they were losing thousands of dollars an hour because they didn’t have the basic, kind of common practices in places.
Chris: Things will go wrong eventually. Something goes wrong or something gets hacked or whatever. Then there is the concept of backups, which you guys have at Liquid Web. How did backups work at Liquid Web?
AJ: Every night we did do a full site backup. The next that we do is we actually tell you how many posts, how many comments, how many pages, some of the basic level WordPress content changed between each backup, so if you do need to restore from the backup, you know roughly about how much pieces of content you’re going to lose. One thing I’ve actually stopped doing recently is I don’t write drafts in WordPress. On my own blog, I only put post in WordPress when I’m ready publish it or schedule it because that way I’m not losing that random data. I’ve had data corruption issues or you have to for whatever reason revert to a backup. If you have all your drafts up there, you might lose those. We wanted to make sure that we showed you how many posts and pieces of content have changed between …
Chris: That’s awesome. There’s really two ways if you’re in that situation, where you need to restore backup for most people and that’s caller developer, or some hosting environments have an interface for the nontechnical person to restore backups. Is that what you guys have?
AJ: Exactly. We have a list of backups that are all stored off-site, off of the infrastructure that actually runs your site, and then we allow you to just click restore and you the restore button and it brings that back up live.
Chris: That’s awesome. Those proactive measures are a really important part of picking a technology partner, so those are important to consider because it’s not just, what if it goes great and you sell of courses or get a bunch of students but what are you going to do if something goes wrong? Since plugins and WordPress itself and Themes and everything are always updating. What else is unique about Liquid Web? I know you guys have a iThemes sync system, what does that do?
Speaker 3: We recently integrated with iThemes sync. What iThemes sync pro does is it gives you a portal to all of your WordPress sites. You instal a plugin, you hook up the plugin to your sync account then sync can see your five sites that you host, or your ten sites that you have hosted. What it allows to do, is it actually allows you to install and update plugins across the board, so you don’t have to go into individual sites, update stuff, you can actually just go into this portal, you can see, “All these plugins and all these sites need to be updated. I’m going to click through, click update and it’ll update them all.” It does the same thing for Themes. You need to install a plugin, maybe you’re making a switch for Gravity forms to Ninja forms, you’re switching forum plugins, and so you want to install it on all your sites.
You can quickly just upload the zip file to sync and then say, “Install on these five sites,” and it’ll install. That’s probably the biggest most used feature I would imagine if I went and asked Cory or Matt that’s what they would say. But they’ve continually added extra features, so from a freelancer perspective, you can go in and you can hook up Google Analytics so that you can see a very high-level overview of what pages are being accessed, what your business account for a time period. They’ve just integrated with the search council, Google Search Council, so you can actually see what people are searching for and come through that way. There’s an integration with Yoast SEO, I think there’s some integration with Gravity forms so that you can see the form entries right inside there.
You can add users to a WordPress site so you’re not having to go into each individual site to add users. The idea is central management of all of your WordPress sites. We’ve integrated with them to provide a lot of that feature set to our managed WordPress customers.
Chris: That’s awesome. Can you purchase domain name through you?
AJ: Right now you can purchase domains through us. We are domain registered. We’re in the process of actually making that easier from a managed WordPress product to be able to purchase those domains.
Chris: I just want to really … We can end it on that note of finding a technology partner because when you take all the stuff that can be a little intimidating especially to someone who’s not in the industry, that’s spread out in all these different places and you bring it under one roof, since you know somebody like AJ in the team at Liquid Web or back there really focused on improving that customer experience that we talked about, or the learning person the technology partner, the domain name, the staging, the backups, WordPress is already installed. I see you guys have the SSL taken care of, which if you’re trying to sell your courses with stripe, you’re going to need to have a SSL. Then you have that one company that you can call for support and you have a product that limits the moving part of, “Okay, my domain name’s over here.
My SSL company is over here. I need to go get WordPress over here,” these things are taken care off and anticipated in advance. I’d encourage everybody to check out liquidweb.com/wordpress and you can see more info about Liquid Web, and what AJ and the people with him have been up to. I guess to close it out, AJ, where do you see the future of Liquid Web heading? Where is it going as a hosting company?
AJ: As a hosting company, I think we’re quickly finding where our niche is. It’s definitely not me Shared hosting small area, I think what you’re going to find from Liquid Web is, we care and we want to work and partner with the people that host mission critical sites. It’s mission critical sites, in a sense that it’s your business. If your site goes down, you’re losing money, if you’re having to work with, constantly give us a call because there’s issues, that’s not what you want, that’s not a partner anymore. A partner is somebody that’s going to come alongside your business that’s going to help you grow and grow with you. As you business grows, as you make more money, that’s success and that’s a win. I think you’re going to see Liquid Web pull features that really become partner ask features.
How do we further become a partner with you to help you be successful?
Chris: That’s awesome. Just to highlight that point you made. There’s a really big difference between a website that’s a sign or informational thing for a business, whereas when your website is business, it’s really important. You really need to focus on the technology pieces there. Aj, I really want to thank you for coming on the show and chatting about your story and helping educate everybody on hosting and some of the things to consider in this world of the LMS and finding technology partners. If somebody wants to connect with you personally, is there anywhere they can go to find you?
AJ: Twitter, I’m on @ajmorris, ajmorris.me is my blog. It’s coming back from CaboPress, where we were both at last fall, I have started to try to blog a little bit more. I’m committing to publishing more content there and of course, you’ll find me WordCam, another WordPress conferences throughout the year.

EPISODE 129

Course Marketplaces Versus Self Hosted LMS with Serial Course Entrepreneur John Shea

Chris Badgett of LifterLMS discusses course marketplaces versus self hosted LMS with serial course entrepreneur John Shea in this episode of LMScast. They talk about the pros and cons of using a hosted space for your course versus hosting on your own platform like LifterLMS. They also discuss how to optimize the money you make from your course.

John shares his origin story as to how he got started in the course building space. He tells about his experience finding content and building up his course on Udemy. John then started working with Skillshare. To date he has created around 90 courses. Now John is starting to sell through his website using the self hosted LMS style.

There are pros and cons to publishing your courses via course marketplace. But there are also pros and cons to self hosting your courses.

Chris and John discuss how when going with a marketplace, most of the marketing is done for you. Also when you go through a marketplace your course tends to be more towards the passive end of the spectrum, so it requires less work from you later on. They discuss the cons of using a marketplace, such as having a set price point for your course.

On the other hand, creating and hosting your course yourself can have many benefits. Some that they discuss include: having the ability to control the functionality, design, and price of your course.

Chris and John toss around the idea of negative feedback and how they go about dealing with it. John also shares how he has built up relationships with people by providing a free course and then going on consulting calls with them and giving them advice.

John shares a bit about his method of course creation and some of the feedback he has received. He talks about how he becomes motivated to teach a course and his experience in a learning environment. Chris also shares one of his stories of creating a cooking course.

They talk about how to make the most money you can from your course. Chris and John discuss how you can make money with your course even if the course is free. One of these strategies is using affiliate links. John has used them in some of his courses, and he shares how that has brought him a significant increase in course revenue.

You can learn more about John Shea on his blog at NoShameIncome.com or by searching his name on Udemy.com and Skillshare.com.

You can 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. Today we have a special guest, John Shea, from No Shame Income. How you doing John?

John: I’m doing awesome. How you doing?

Chris: Good. John has been around the block for a while with online courses and hosted platforms and figuring out how to make money with online courses, how to build an email list with online courses, how to market online courses. I first came across John somewhere in the Udemy universe or in the Lifter universe. I could tell after talking with him that he’s just been involved for a while, so he has a lot of insights to share with you all today.

We’re going to kind of get into a little bit of the differences between a hosted place to put your course or a course marketplace versus doing your own platform like you can do with LifterLMS or other tools. Really engage in the conversation not from a one side is better than the other, but really just get into the pros and cons of either. Both of us, we do courses in both ways and depending upon where you’re at in your business or what’s going on, it makes sense to post the course in either place or both places. There’s some nuances to it all. We’re also going to get into some other interesting ways to monetize a free course. But first, John, thank you for coming on the show.

John: Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me.

Chris: Take us back to your origin story in terms of how did you get into online courses. What year was it, and what was your first course? How did you foray into the world of all this?

John: I guess I’ll kind of give like the short version of my story. I have a really long one if you go to my website, it’s like a book. I basically got started with online marketing about six years ago. Initially it was kind of dabbling around that first year. I started sort of blogging, learning from different people, trying to figure this stuff out. Eventually I started my own podcast.
I did a lot of interviews where I’d go out and interview people, same thing we’re doing now. Did about, I don’t know, maybe 80 of those. I got to interview a lot of people I was really looking up to, so I built a lot of relationships that way. The reason I kind of started that in the first place was I was interested in so many different topics and I felt like that was a way to kind of like harness that energy or the shiny object syndrome as people might call it. They’re always interested in so many things, they’re being …
I just got an email today about how some guy is making two million dollars with Shopify stores. Then it’s like, oh man that sounds cool. Just one thing after another sort of coming at you. I felt like with the interviews I could be interested in what everybody’s doing, but at the same time kind of harness that into one thing. I did that for a long time and eventually formed a little SEO service with somebody that I’d interviewed through the relationship we had and got really interesting in SEO.
Basically what it kind of came down to was I was going out and I remember I actually had been following a guy who was doing similar stuff with interviews, this guy Mike Thomas. He runs an interview show called Mike From Maine. He does a lot of product creation interviews, so people that create internet marketing based products, could be software or whatever it was.
He interviewed this one guy by the name of Vinnie. Vinnie had put out a product that I really liked. But the presentation of it was really terrible. It just wasn’t very good at all. It was on this old HTML website, didn’t look very good. The product itself was great, but I remember the delivery of it was like these zip files with text files telling you to go to other places and open these other files. The images and everything was just such a mess.
I approached this guy Vinnie and I said, “Man this method’s really cool but why don’t we take this and go put it on our own site?” At the time, I still was really … I knew what Udemy was. I’d heard of it but I had never really done anything with it. Initially we spent weeks. I probably must have spent a good 40-50 hours at the time using WishList Member, which was one of the, in my opinion, probably one of the first to really do the self-hosted sort of membership. I really learned how to use WishList Member. That was a huge learning curve.
We went out and tried to relaunch the product, it’s like version 2.0. Neither of us really had any real big relationships. My email list was super small, it wasn’t very targeted. What ended up happening was it just kind of bombed. It was a learning experience. I said to Vinnie, I said, “Why don’t we just take the course and take the exact same thing I just helped you structure and I’ll put it on Udemy.”
With Udemy you can actually split the revenue with someone pretty passively. Their system was designed for it. We set it up with a 50/50 split and I think to date … The course hasn’t made anything crazy, I think it’s like $400 or $500. Me and him kind of split ways and that course still will get sales here and there passively through Udemy’s marketing. For a while I just kind of let it make sales.
I eventually made a little podcasting course and I just kind of threw up some interviews I had already done in the past. Made a little bit more money. It was like $50, $60, maybe $100 a month. Then November, I believe it was 2014, I was literally sitting at my job one day and I had this idea come up in my head. I’d been really working hard on building out what’s called an Amazon affiliate site, where you sell products on your own website and redirect the visitors to Amazon to make that a final purchase and you earn a little commission, like a 4% or 5% commission.
I had been doing that and I had this full built-out site. I had started having some success with it and I said, “Man, I could turn this into a super awesome course.” I actually wrote up, while I was at my job I remember. I would slack off a lot at work. I sat there for three hours I remember, and I wrote up the entire syllabus. It’s like a six week syllabus.
That same weekend, that coming weekend, I just cranked for an entire Sunday and put all these videos out there. Got everything up on YouTube the following couple days. Got it approved. The following month was November or I think I did it right before the Black Friday stuff really came in at the end of the month. I made I think it was over $800 on Udemy. I was like, oh my God. There’s really something here. This is solid.
That was kind of what took it off for me. What I eventually just started doing was anything that I learned, even the simplest smallest things, if I could turn it into a short course, something that I could teach someone else, then I just started publishing courses on Udemy. When Skillshare came about about a year and a half ago I think it was, I was able to transition a lot of my courses over there and immediately was making around $200 a month. That just kind of grew from there.
I now have, I think it will be almost 32 or 33 courses on Udemy, combined free and paid. I’ve got about almost 40,000 students on Udemy now. It’s obviously been about three years, a little over three years. Then on top of that, I now have over 90 courses on Skillshare and most of those are very short. That’s kind of what they look for, the 15 minute to 30 minute courses. They’re not really as picky about their review process so you can kind of throw whatever up there, so long as it’s not like you’re actually teaching something.
A lot of the stuff I put on Skillshare would be like a brief tutorial or here are three awesome tools that help you do SEO or something like that. A lot of the courses are really simple. I’ve been combining my efforts between Udemy and Skillshare.
Now I’m actually really moving into trying to sell on my own website, which I know you wanted to talk about. That’s obviously what you can do with tools like Lifter, LMS, and many, many other tools that are out there available today. I’ve been starting to dabble into that and really start to get people coming in through my own blog and my own website and my own marketing efforts, so I’m not relying on these marketplaces so much these days.
Chris: That’s awesome. That’s quite the journey and quite the story. I’m curious, before we get into kind of weighing the pro’s and con’s to the different ways to host your course and deliver the course, where does that come from in you? The desire to teach? I definitely see this in prolific online course creators. You haven’t made one course, you’ve made like 90 or whatever it is.
John: Yeah.
Chris: Where do you think it comes from or do you not … Is it just hard to explain?
John: It is kind of hard to explain. It’s like I never really thought of it as something like hey I just really want to do this. It was kind of like, I’ve had little things happen here and there along my internet journey where something might happen that just sort of triggers you.
I have another example where one of the very first clients I got doing SEO marketing, bringing on a local business to help them with their marketing, was an Insurance client. At the time, I went kind of nuts and I started like branding around Insurance and trying to go after Insurance Companies and I made that a thing. Never really took off, but it was like that one trigger just sort of explodes things. That’s kind of what’s happened with the courses. I’ve been able to be pretty consistent with it over the years and meet a lot of really cool people that are doing really well in both Udemy and selling their own courses.
I think a part of it too could be, and I never even really thought about it much growing up, but my father was a high school teacher for I think almost 30 years. Basically that was his life. As far as I can remember, he was always teaching. I would go down and actually watch his students and stuff when I was younger or even older at some points go down to his classroom. He taught History for seventh or eighth graders I think it was. That was like the rough age range. That could be somewhat part of it.
I know one of the things I’ve only recently noticed is I’ve been recording my videos standing now. I kind of set up this, you can see there’s like a green screen sort of setup behind me here. I don’t have the green screen up, but the stand. I’ve got some lights. I talk with my hands and …
Chris: I know.
John: That’s something my father does when he talks. I don’t know. I think some of that I probably picked up from him would be my guess.
Chris: Yeah. Sometimes we can’t escape our genetic destiny.
John: Although I am adopted, so you never know. But I think it’s just being around him, maybe that did it. I get really excited just being able to talk about stuff. I’ve gotten a lot more confident being on camera, things like that. Jumping into these interviews. I know some people are like deathly afraid to even get on video, you know, so it just takes time.
Chris: I used to be that way too. It all just, it just gets better with time. I think one thing for me making courses is when you see results, like you said, whoa I made $800 by doing X. Even just your first course. When you see someone you don’t know buy it, that just doesn’t even get old whenever it happens.
John: Yep.
Chris: It’s a big motivator and something that encourages me to keep going, when those sales happen independent from my hourly work or whatever. Let’s talk about Udemy a little bit. I’ve been there for, I don’t know, I think three years. I have some free courses. My free WordPress website and the weekend course has around 10,000 people in it. I put it there originally to get leads for my web design business, but also just because I was having fun making online courses.
John: Awesome.
Chris: I started doing gardening courses with experts around the world and with my wife. We built our own platform, but we also published on Udemy, so we get the best of both worlds. We have some gardening courses on Udemy, which Udemy brings the traffic or they come to our site and bring the traffic. Then we just double the places where I’m listing it or whatever. That’s kind of my approach.
How do you approach Udemy? What do you see as some of the biggest benefits? For me, I just say I think it’s … I already have an audience, so that’s a big Pro. The biggest Con is you give up some control and sometimes it can be hard to stand out. I know you can go into a lot more detail about it. What do you like about Udemy?
John: I’d say some of the things I do like are platform’s easy to use. There have been obviously ups and downs. I’m sure, if you haven’t talked about it already with your audience, there was some big price drops back last year so that was kind of disheartening. Some people just left the platform. Even some of the biggest people that I know of got up and basically walked away.
I guess the biggest thing was that, for me, it was always that I really loved creating content and I didn’t really want to worry about marketing it. That was something Udemy was doing for me. Unfortunately, in some ways, I feel like it sort of brought it to a level that I would have not wanted it to be. In the sense that they’re discounting something that easily could be worth hundreds of dollars, where they’re selling it for like $10 or $15.
The kinds of people that come in and buy something like this … If I go in and buy a course for $10 and I don’t watch it, I don’t really feel very guilty about it. I don’t really push myself that hard to really go through it and actually consume it and take action on it either. But if I spend $1000 or $500, then I’m like man I have to do this and I’m going to follow it. I put a different precedence on something when it’s seen as valued that way and I think a lot of other people are going to do the exact same thing.
That’s probably like a disadvantage. But at the same time I’ve seen people, you may or may not know him, but there’s a guy by the name of Jerry Banfield. He used to be really top instructor on Udemy. He got banned for doing some stuff he wasn’t supposed to with joint ventures on Udemy. He had a ton of courses. He was just making such a flurry of sales every month that even with those high discounts, because of the pure volume of people buying, he could still make $10,000 or $20,000 a month.
It’s kind of all in perspective I suppose. I know that he was doing extremely well and he still does really well with his own website. I’ve had other people come to me and say, “Well going on Udemy isn’t really smart because they control that pricing and then they diminish the value.” But at the same time, you look at someone like Jerry and look at how many sales, just the pure volume of people he’s got coming in and buying.
I still get messages all the time from people who I can tell they bought for $15 and they’re messaging me telling me how much they love the course. They’re like wow this is amazing and really helpful stuff. I guess I’ve kind of had a little bit of a two-way street with it.
I think the biggest advantage that I’ve gotten out of Udemy, in all honesty, is that not only posting on Udemy has allowed me to build some passive income there, but I’ve had a lot of people come to me. Other providers or marketplaces, whether or not how successful they are, some are obviously like garbage. Some will come to me.
I had a guy by the name of, jeez I can’t remember … His last name is Clark. Matt Clark I believe it is, who runs Amazing.com. He formerly was selling really high-end Amazon training. This was like $3000 or $4000 training on how to get started on Amazon selling. They formed this marketplace similar to Skillshare where you come in and it’s like $40 a month.
They let me publish four courses. There’s only like 180 courses on the whole platform. It’s almost exclusive and they’ve not really opened the doors to any new courses. I’ve been consistently making another $400 or $500 a month from them with existing courses that I’ve had on Udemy for a very long time.
Matt found my Amazon course, the one I mentioned earlier in my story, the $800 one that initially got me that $800. He found me on Udemy, saw that I was teaching a lot of people, and then reached out to me personally to come teach on Amazing. Obviously that’s paid off quite well. It’s been many months now, so I’ve made thousands of dollars off of stuff that I don’t really have to do any extra marketing. I just give them the content and they’re making me extra sales and extra money.
I also had a friend who was teaching on Udemy and he made a referral for me. He introduced another company called StackCommerce. They run a series of sites. I’m sure you know who they are. I think they’re … I forget all the entity names, but there’s like StackSkills. StackCommerce is the main one and then they’ve got a couple others.
What they did is they took a bundle of seven of my courses and they priced it really low, like technically lower than Udemy. It was like $19 I think it was. They would take 50% of the sales and they must have blasted this to God knows how many people that first month. It made over $10,000 in sales the first month. I made over $5000 the first month they put it out there.
Took some time to get it out there, but it kind of goes to show those small sales could really add up. If you get that many people buying this bundle that’s absolutely amazing for $19, and I’m making $9, $10 off each sale, that adds up really fast if you’re getting just pure volume. Whereas if I’d said okay, all these courses you’re going to spend $500 to get one of them, sure I could make $10,000 off a webinar but it’s probably going to be a little more challenging in a way.
That one’s kind of dialed down a little bit. They’re still sitting out there with the promotion, but it makes me another $400 or $500 a month. That one’s another one that’s just sort of just passively earning me. I’ve got another $1000 here, between just those two platforms, coming in every month without me doing anything.
Chris: That’s awesome.
John: Those would be probably some of the biggest advantages I would say. Obviously in some ways this isn’t going to be an opportunity everyone could have. It took a long time in building an audience and building courses people were interested in and really had people that would be really intrigued to pick them up and buy them.
It’s definitely opened doors and people will reach out to you. Obviously people watching your courses, the pure amount of people, they could end up coming to your website. Like you said, joining your email list and maybe buying other products from you, whatever the case. There’s just a lot of other opportunities there that some higher level course folks might overlook when trying to sell stuff for that $300 to $500 plus price tag.
Chris: That makes a lot of sense. I want to kind of unpack some insights out of there. But before I do that, I just wanted to, for the listener if they’re not aware, correct me if I’m wrong but Udemy recent … The price thing they did recently was they forced all the users to reprice their courses to be between like $20 and $50. Is that correct?
John: Yeah. The courses had to be between that price point. I think the reasoning was that they realized over 90% of the courses being sold were being sold at that price point. But I think what happens is it’s kind of a perception thing. You see a course that has 2000 people in it, which obviously everybody knows if they’re anybody … I mean not everyone’s going to know, obviously some buyers won’t know, but from a perception standpoint that looks like a popular course.
Then you see a $200 price tag and you see wow I can get it for $15, like 90% plus discount, that’s an amazing deal I’m going to get it. But when they diminish these prices, what happened was nobody was buying. All of my sales went from … I think I was making … I think it was right before March, I made almost $2000 in March from Udemy without any of my own marketing. It was purely their stuff. Then it went down to something like $700.
It literally cut my income in more than half. It stayed like that and then they changed the pricing again. They didn’t open it up quite as wide. Before you could price your courses at $500. Now they made it so you still have to price them between a bracket, it has to be between I think $20 and $200.
I actually used to have a course priced at $15 because I knew it wasn’t … It was just something I was just like whatever, it’s not really super in depth. I can’t even price it at that, has to be at least $20. That way they can run their promotions and sell it for $10 if they want or $15 and make some money off their own promotions. That’s definitely kind of come back up.
I’m having a pretty solid month this month. I’m getting close to I think, and being it’s a little bit more than halfway through the month, it’s the 20th, I made just about $1500 this month without any outside promotion. It’s definitely picking up again. It’s just a matter of how it’s going to be the remainder of the year. I don’t know if it’ll slow down again and fall out.
November and January I’d say overall have been historically for me the best months. November due to the Black Friday sales and then January for some reason I think they just run some New Years stuff. December I’ve historically, this past one I had a really good one, but the prior two years it was really terrible. It’s been kind of on and off.
But again, I’m not putting … I’m putting more time in the actual course creation than I am the marketing. Which in a lot of ways is probably not the smartest. I probably should be spending more time on the marketing. I guess the reason I’ve always just relied on it was I couldn’t figure out how to do it on my own. If I throw it out there on my own site, getting people to that is a whole other ballgame really.
Chris: Yeah. Doing it on your own, I mean yes now you have full control over the price, the design, you can add other functionality to your site and other things. That’s the big trade off. If you build it they will not necessarily come.
John: Yeah.
Chris: Udemy gives you that kind of shortcut. That’s why they call it a marketplace. Just to be clear with everybody listening, there’s really kind of three options out there. One is the course marketplace, like Udemy. There’s other ones like Teachable out there that are hosted where you set up your course, but you don’t really own the site. You’re just paying for access to this platform to deliver your course from. But it’s not a marketplace where you’re surrounded by other courses and other teachers and everything. Then you can do your own from your own website. There’s really like three options out there.
But I want to dial it back to something earlier you were talking about John, which was where you published on Udemy and then Amazing.com contacted you. The same thing’s happened to me where there’s all these other Udemy type places that contact me about my courses and I’ve experimented with putting stuff on these different platforms.
But I think the big takeaway there, for the listener out there, is that it’s really important not to start with the technology. Make your course. Don’t even think about Udemy or are you going to host it yourself or Teachable or whatever. Start by making your course.
I see a lot of people get bogged down on technology before they’ve made a single lesson. John, you’re obviously a prolific course creator. I know one of your niches is you like teaching people how to use various tools and things on the web, so it’s not hard for you to create a course.
John: No.
Chris: You probably even enjoy doing it. You like the challenge.
John: Yeah. In some ways … I had someone leave a review the other day and they could tell in some ways I’ve gotten, I don’t want to call it completely lazy, but I definitely just kind of wing it. I’ve never really had the amount of criticism I would receive and, opposed to people that say really positive things, is very minimal.
Some people don’t realize how much time you really put into this stuff. But I try to make it as simple as possible. I just really try to convey good information. People have to naturally understand like if I’m going to cough in the video or I say um a few times, that’s not worth it to me to go back and edit all the stuff out. It just takes too much time where I could be creating more stuff and teaching something else when really it’s such a minute thing.
If it’s really serious, like I made a total goof, then obviously I find myself redoing something. I’ve had that happen plenty of times. Even still today it still happens. But overall, I do my editing … When I do my screen shares, I almost never rerecord them.
I just mentioned the beginning of this, we did the LifterLMS course and I’ll mention that a little bit later. But I just did a course covering LifterLMS and in one of the videos I was going through one of the settings and my internet actually went down in the video. It wasn’t coming up and I thought maybe it was something in the plugin. I said, “Oh that’s strange” and just kind of acted whatever. Then I just ended the video. I didn’t edit it out. I was like no, whatever, it’s not a big deal. Then I just continued the series.
Some people might look at that as well he was unprepared or he’s having errors as he’s trying to show stuff. But I just don’t really make a big deal about it and most people they’re not really going to care. I still got across what I generally wanted to get across and the information is still good. That’s just kind of how I roll with a lot of it.
One thing I will say that I made a huge mistake on and I finally have rectified the problem I think as of today. When I first got started, I had my office set up. I’m in just a little tiny blue room. It’s a really small room. Originally when I was recording, I would sit in my chair here and just record with the webcam, just like this. I would wear, in some cases I had band T-shirts on or just a plain shirt like this.
I had people on Udemy actually message me and say, “You know, I didn’t buy your course because you didn’t look very professional in your video.” In my promotional video or whatever. When Amazing.com actually brought me on, they told me … They accepted my courses for what they were, but they told me for any new stuff they wanted me to be dressed really professionally and have this whole set up.
Of course I went out and I bought, I’ve actually got two lights in front of me. None of them are on right now. There’s the light above me and then I’ve got these other light sets behind me that are kind of mobile. They’re not plugged in, they use battery. That was like $130. These two were another $60 I think. Then I’ve got this green screen kit which was another $60. I probably spent at least 15 hours trying to get this thing working. I went out and I bought a sport jacket, nice new shirt. Here you can see my hair is done. I’m not just like kind of a shaggy mess.
I did all this stuff and then I redid a bunch of videos, sent them to them. I found out that the quality when you zoom in, I couldn’t get the green screen settings just quite right, it was coming out like I’d be blurry. So they’re criticizing me over that. I moved my entire desk setup again. I’m just going to use my wall.
Today in the mail I just got this little really high end point and shoot Canon G7X. It’s got a flip up, for those of you listening on the podcast, it’s got a flip up screen so I can record myself. A lot of popular YouTube Vlogger guys will use it so they’re looking at the camera and they can talk. I made a video with this just today. I just got it in the mail today. This is like vastly better than the webcam. I’ve been struggling a lot with just getting the overall quality to come up.
I think that is really important. If you’re starting out, make sure you’re dressed really nice. You don’t have to go crazy investing in all this stuff, but don’t have … That first course I made on Amazon, I was recording it with a band hoodie on and my hair was a mess and I had a cat tree behind me and my cat was playing around. It just didn’t look very professional. Here I am teaching and … I never received any bad compliments about it, but it definitely gives off more of a perception to people.
Chris: That’s a really good point. I’ve kind of been through a similar journey. It’s funny you mentioned the cat. In my very first course on Udemy, I challenged myself to make a course in a weekend and I recorded it in a day. I actually did a cooking course. It’s on Udemy. It’s called The Poet Omelet Method. It’s perfect omelets every time. I was just more doing it because I like cooking omelets, but mostly because I wanted to figure out this whole online courses Udemy thing.
I was actually house sitting for somebody. The kitchen I’m using in the course isn’t even where I live. It was a friend’s house. Probably they don’t even know their house is on the internet. Their cat was walking back and forth in front of the camera, but I just rolled with it. But over time, I sound really far away because I wasn’t using a mic. But now you can see, if you’re watching this, I have a professional mic.
John: I’m using the same microphone by the way.
Chris: Okay. This is the ATR, what is it called?
John: The Audio-Technica ATR 2100 I think it is.
Chris: 2100. Yeah this thing’s really awesome. USB mic.
John: Yeah.
Chris: The sound, definitely a game changer in terms of sound. Also just to what you were talking about. I think there’s kind of a spectrum of online course creators. You’re really far on that end of like I’m a serial creator. If I make a mistake, kind of move on. I’m kind of the same way. I’m more like that.
But there are some people who all they’re ever going to have is they’re going to have one course and over time it’s just going to get better and better. They’re going to keep polishing it. They’re going to burn it down. They’re going to rebuild it again. You know, you’ve just got to figure out where you are. There’s nothing wrong with being a serial course creator and there’s nothing wrong with being hyper focused on one specific problem or one method that you teach over and over and over again. That’s really cool.
Let’s get into the free course on a marketplace situation. Like I mentioned before, I’ve done it to just build, for practice. I’ve done free courses for practice to build the email list. If I have, like the gardening project I mentioned, I put courses on Udemy just for different, letting other people’s marketing, like the Udemy Company, bring in traffic and convert it.
Yeah sometimes they package my courses inside of their sales and everything and it really drives the price down, but I don’t really care because those are customers who may never had found me over at my website. What do you do with your free courses?
John: I could lay out … I just thought of all the ways that it’s benefited me. I could give you four different ways and some of you guys probably listening would have never even thought of this stuff. The first would be, I’ll give you the simple common sense stuff. The first is that you’re going get a whole bunch of new students, especially on Udemy, if you make it free. A lot of people are just natively going to find that.
The one disadvantage about that with the free stuff, is that if you make it free and people leave bad reviews and you get an average of under 4.0, then they will hide it from the search engine now. Which is something unfortunately I have had happen with a couple courses. Because some people come in and just leave like these one or two star reviews and they don’t write anything. I have no idea, I can’t even try to really rectify the problem, and they of course hide it from Udemy search.
You can then make it a paid course, but obviously if I made it free it’s usually not something I felt like I wanted to charge for in the first place. I have done that with a couple courses. They will make a few sales here and there but it’s pretty nominal. Ultimately that first one will be you get a little bit more of an audience.
The second thing would be you can set up what’s called a bonus module inside of the Udemy course. What you can do with that bonus module is specifically send people to your website or a blog post, something that’s more useful. Obviously you can’t be really spamy in the way you do it.
What I did was I made a bonus video on all of my courses that basically invites people to come check out a free video series. The video series shows them how I made my first $1000 by freelancing on a platform called Upwork. That’s really intriguing. Someone watches my course and then they’re like oh wow, that sounds really cool.
They head over to the site and that video course is actually an Evergreen system. We could maybe get into this later if we have time, but it’s an Evergreen system to sell them one of my courses for $200. It brings them to a webinar that’s all automated and everything’s all set up and ready to go. That’s one piece I have going there with the bonus video. Of course you can do anything you want there. You could send them to a blog post or something of value, but ultimately you probably want to get them on a mailing list.
Then the third would be you could set up affiliate links inside your course. You have to be careful about this. Again that bonus section could technically be that. Maybe you throw in a bonus video or you talk about a product. One thing that I’ve sort of been doing, I’ll give an example, was I just made a course about LifterLMS and you guys have an affiliate program through ShareASale.
I’ll get the course approved on Udemy and then I’ll go back and maybe throw an affiliate link inside the course. You can add an add link reference to a video. I’ll probably throw that in on a couple of the videos, maybe introduction or the conclusion or any video where I mention it. That’s a good way that you’re going to potentially drive some sales.
I’ve made about $800 from a product called Thrive Themes by just including affiliate links across a lot of those courses. I have one where I talk about landing page builders and I compare a ton of them. Then I kind of break it down at the end and say Thrive Themes is one of my favorites and this is why I recommend it. It’s almost like I’m doing an extensive product review inside of the course. Then at the end of that they can go and pick up the product through me and I’ll make a nice commission. So I made about $800 doing that.
Then the last one, which this is probably the most unique one and you guys probably would have never thought of this one. People love this. I just taught this on a webinar. I’ll just kind of break it down really simple. I made a free course on how to set up a Google My Business page, which is something that’s extremely easy to do. Anybody could go and actually go through that and understand how to do it. It’s really common sense kind of stuff. But there’s a few little tweaks you can do, like maybe doing some stuff with photos. I threw in some bonus tips on how to get more reviews for a business owner.
What I’ve actually been doing is, one of my big courses and one of the things I’ve spent a lot of time on over the last few years is SEO and helping local businesses. I actually made this free course and I put it on Skillshare is free. What I do is when I send out my proposals, on a platform called Upwork, what will happen is I’ll send them a link to the free Skillshare course.
I’ll say, “Hey I put together this free course. Check out what I’ve done.” They’re basically watching this video of me where I’m teaching them how to set up Google My Business. It’s like I’m building trust with them. They’re not really talking to me on the phone, they’re watching me on the screen and on the video, and they’ll come back and say, “Wow that was really helpful.” Now they feel a lot more confident in feeling like they can hire me.
It’s built a little bit of a relationship already. I’ve closed a whole ton of either consulting calls, where I’m just basically people drilling me for advice. I had a guy pay me $50 for an hour once. I have another client that I convinced through it that I’ve been working with now for, it’s probably going on like seven, eight months. I’ve probably made, it’s got to be close to $5000 from this one client now. I have them up to $850 a month now on a contract. I initially landed that contract because I sent them that free Google My Business course. He realized wow this guy knows what he’s doing.
That’s really a unique way that you could utilize a free course. I would say one other way too I thought of is maybe you have a topic that is really big. Let’s say I wanted to teach someone how to start an SEO consulting business. That’s actually one of my courses. It’s really long, it’s like ten hours. Maybe I could make another course where I show them one way to go out there and get clients. In exchange the idea would be maybe throw that out there as a free course that drives some interest.
You could kind of consider it a mini-course, maybe it’s 30 minutes, shows them one specific method and fixes that one pain. You could then bring them into your bigger solution which then solves all the pains. Kind of a well-rounded solution to everything else. You could use that as a way to get people just generally interested in the topic and interested in learning more. Like wow this stuff is free and it’s really good, imagine what his paid stuff is. That kind of mentality.
That would probably be the biggest advantages I would say with free courses. I know a lot of people they look at it … I’ve talked to some other Skillshare instructors. I know one who’s done over 100 courses on Skillshare and he’s like, “I’ve never done a free course.” Those are some ways that I’ve been utilizing them as of recently.
Chris: That’s awesome. Well John is like a cornucopia of experience and wisdom here. Go check him out at NoShameIncome.com. I wanted to ask you a few more questions John. In terms of creating courses around other products, I find it really fascinating because it appears to be that oftentimes the best teacher about a software tool or some kind of marketing method or sales method or even outside of business, health method or whatever, it’s like a different person than the person who created the original product. I guess a different company. You mentioned the Thrive Themes and the Thrive Builder and all that stuff.
John: Yeah.
Chris: Just made a course for LifterLMS, which is awesome and we really appreciate that. Where do you think that comes from? Why don’t companies themselves make the best training? It just seems to be a trend. If you look for, I don’t know if you use ScreenFlow. I’m a Mac guy, maybe you …
John: I use Camtasia, so same thing.
Chris: The people who teach ScreenFlow don’t work at ScreenFlow. The people that teach how to use Scrivener for writing a book, the best courses are taught by individuals who built their own businesses around education, around software. Why do you think that happens?
John: I don’t know. It is interesting to look at it that way. It’s one of those things too, and sometimes I have to realize it. Someone was just watching a video series or a webinar I put together and of course they’re completely kind of cold coming into this and they gave me some really critical feedback that they felt like it wasn’t that valuable. But for someone that maybe was like really interested in kind of what …
I coined this from, this is something Scott Oldford, he does a lot of Lead Gen type stuff. He calls it the slow lane, the fast lane. Then I think he’s got another one, kind of like a path of where someone is whether or not their interest is. When you kind of think about when we were doing some teaching, I may be at a different level where someone else is. But if you’re already kind of involved in something, it might be a little harder to step back and think, man where was I five years ago when I didn’t know any of this stuff.
Sometimes it can be a little hard to differentiate the difference when you already are so involved and already know something about this. But I don’t know. It’s definitely interesting. I know that a lot of these companies, if they’re going to do training videos, it’s people that work there.
I think you were saying too when we spoke the other day, you were saying me teaching it it’s like … I think you were saying it’s a little more difficult because you’re so involved in it and you know it really well. It might be a little different than someone coming in from the outside and throwing their perspective at it. Which I’m sure the stuff you’re going to do is probably going to be much higher quality in terms of the information because you’re the one that made it and designed it. In a sense you know everything about it.
Whereas me coming in, I’m kind of like hey not really sure what this feature does but. A lot of it obviously with your particular … is like basic features. I knew what they were and understood, but there’s certain things that I was kind of like I’m not sure. It all depends. I don’t know. It’s definitely an interesting one to think about I suppose.
Chris: I think one thing too is like a product company is often looking to the future. They’re like where are we going next. It’s like a totally different mindset than like they teach a tool or focus on, like you said, that user who’s just not as familiar. You kind of forget what the beginners mind is like for the new person coming into the fold.
That’s awesome. John, I really appreciate you sharing with the audience everything that you’ve been up to. You’re kind of weighing the pro’s and con’s of the Udemy course marketplaces versus the self-hosted. Do you have any other parting thoughts that you’d like to leave the listener if they’re trying to decide between the two or do both?
John: Yeah. Something I realized a few years ago was, and I just watched someone by the name of David Siteman Garland. He used to run a podcast. He was actually the one who got me interested in podcasts in the first place. He started doing online courses and I remember I was watching one of his training videos. He talked about how he was going to price the course at $97.
He ended up basically talking with people about that and determining the stuff he was teaching was stuff that took him years to realize how to basically learn how to do these things, the things he was teaching, it took him a lot of time. He decided to price it at $497 based on that. He’s now doing millions with online course sales and he teaches people how to create online courses.
I’ve actually been going through his content and it’s really amazing the way that he set these things up. He’s utilizing a lot more value based and just sort of scarcity tactics and getting people just really sort of pumped up about the types of products and content he’s creating. He’s got a few flagship courses that he really wouldn’t sell much of anything for probably under $200. A lot of the stuff I’ve been going through, he’s just focused really heavily on making something that’s really high quality and then at the same time putting some effort into marketing.
I guess what I would probably recommend is that don’t necessarily steer clear of Udemy and Skillshare. But I’ve been suffering some problems because I’ve actually done webinars where I’m selling one of my Udemy courses and I’m trying to get a premium price for it, like $300. We’ve seen people come in on the webinars and say well why would I buy this one when I can go get it on Udemy for $15. It’s just completely kind of ruining the situation.
Of course it’s a different name so a lot of people won’t know that that’s really the case. But some people are able to figure out, okay he teaches on Udemy, of course he’s got the course over there. That has actually been somewhat of a disadvantage.
I may look at it like maybe for your really big high end flagship courses, might not be the best idea to put it on Udemy. Because if you really want to get that premium high ticket price for it and you’re determined to do everything in your power, learn how to run Facebook ads, get the marketing down, build a little video series, get people hyped up about it, then I really would probably …
At this point, I’m trying to move away from Udemy and really just crack that code on getting your own marketing down. You could use tools like LifterLMS or any of these platforms out there to do that. That’s the way that I’m kind of moving into the future right now.
Chris: Just to add one more note on that. Another strategy I see people implement is their big premium thing, they self-host it. But maybe some of their … Not every lead magnet or opt-in bribe or whatever you want to call it, is necessarily a free Ebook. It could be a free course. It could even be a lower priced paid course.
I would encourage people to reap the best of both worlds. Publish some stuff on Udemy to get your personal brand and your business brand and your expertise out there and leverages their audience. I also always recommend people, especially even from the beginning, start thinking about what’s that high end, what’s my flagship, what’s my main premium offering. That’s something you don’t want … You kind of want to maintain control of.
But you can have all these outposts around the internet. You can have your free course videos on YouTube. You can put it on Skillshare. You can put it on Udemy. You can put it on Facebook. You can put it all over the place. But when it comes to time for the premium course, you’re probably going to want to end up owning that because it would have been a real shocker if you had just published a real expensive course on Udemy and then they enforce the pricing controls.
They technically don’t give you the email list of the people taking your courses. You can contact them but there’s all these rules around how you contact them, your own students and stuff like that. It’s not all bad, but there’s definitely a place when you’re debating between a course marketplace or self-hosted to think about.
John: For sure.
Chris: I want to thank you for coming on the show John. Where else can people go to find out more about you and connect with you?
John: If you head over to by blog, I’ve got a blog called NoShameIncome.com. I don’t post as much as I’d like to, but I’ve got income reports and you can kind of learn a lot about what I’m doing, check out some of my courses over there, kind of see a lot of the things I’m doing. If you just search my name on Skillshare, Udemy, you’ll be able to find a lot of my courses that way too.
Chris: Awesome. Thank you for coming on the show John.
John: Awesome. Thanks for having me.