EPISODE 136

Finding Product Market Fit and Selling Online Courses to Professors with Justin Wilcox from FOCUS Framework

The topic of discussion in this episode of LMScast with Chris Badgett of LifterLMS is finding product market fit and selling online courses to professors with Justin Wilcox from FOCUS Framework. They discuss Justin’s journey in creating his book, and they dive into the power of blogging.

Justin is the creator of FOCUS Framework, which is a workbook series on how to take away all of the overwhelm and confusion of figuring out how to start a business. It allows you to easily navigate questions such as, “Who should I talk to when I’m starting a company? How should I price my products? How should I do my marketing?”

Blogging is a very powerful form of media for many reasons. Chris and Justin dive into the details of how blogging can help you find business opportunities and how it can help you strengthen your skills. Chris shares the story of how he made his way into the LMS world through blogging. It also allows you to explore the cutting edges of an industry.

Justin started around 2010, and he tells his story of finding out through his failure with product creation how to create a good product. Through this process he learned what questions needed to be asked in order to create a successful product. He also shares his secret to what makes a product great.

Using experiments to test your customer base in a certain area is very valuable. Justin has found a lot of use for the false door experiment. As he explains, he offers a solution he has not yet developed to a certain problem in order to see if customers are really interested in finding a solution to that problem. This allows him to take a poll of the potential audience to see if a project is worth pursuing.

One of the biggest mistakes anyone can make in business is creating a product and then finding out that there is no desire for it in the marketplace. So running tests on a market before diving in is an absolutely necessary thing to do. Justin found a demand for a book through his market tests. And he ended up writing a book, even though he did not originally think he would do that.

Selling your content to professors is also very valuable, because with them come their students. In the United States most schools will buy individual copies of content for each student. So if you are able to sell your product to a professor, you can almost always get all of the students, too.

To learn more about Justin Wilcox, you can find him on Twitter at @Justin_Wilcox. You can also visit FOCUS Framework.

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. Today we’ve got a special guest, Justin Wilcox. He’s the creator of the FOCUS Framework. He also has a blog called Customer Dev Labs. He ended up building a course, and we’re going to get into his journey and how that started, where he ended up. First, Justin, thank you for coming on the show.
Justin Wilcox: My pleasure. I’m super excited. I am a big fan of LifterLMS, and so happy to contribute to your awesome community.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, I ran across Justin, I think in social media, and then we hooked up for a call. I realized he had a ton of value for you guys out there, the course creators, and teachers, and the entrepreneurs. Justin has a really unique take on finding product market fit and running tests, and experiments that trend towards a successful outcome. We’re going to get into that. But first, can you just tell us what exactly, or in brief, what is the FOCUS Framework?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, sure thing. FOCUS Framework takes all of the overwhelming mess of figuring out how to start a new business and brings down into a series of ordered experiments. For any of your listeners who are familiar with The Lean Startup, the idea here is that we want to identify the hypotheses that are making up our business model, and then we want to systematically test each one of them. There’s a lot of great theory out there about what was missing was a lot of practical advice on how to actually implement that theory.
That’s what focus is, it’s this workbook series that just breaks it down into 40 individual exercises that help people actually figure out, ‘Hey, who should I talk to when I’m starting my company? How should I price it? How should I do my marketing?’ Then just lays it out step by step on how to do that.
Chris Badgett: I think that’s really awesome. I think there’s a lot of power and wisdom in what you’re doing is that you’re not just talking about good ideas and why they’re important. You’re really getting into the how-to, which is often lacking in a lot of educational content; both online and in classrooms.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: You have a book. You have an online course. That online course is out there in many different places. We’ll get into that later, but where did all this start? Can you tell us about your journey? What was the seed that started you on developing this knowledge that makes up the focus framework? Then how did it evolve to where you are today?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. The seed is planted in this beautiful, amazing technology that I built as part of a start-up that no one cared about. It’s a huge failure. My seed, this focus grows out of a big pile of failure. I left Microsoft as a developer. I started a company, and like I said, built some awesome technology that no one wanted. As I was trying to figure out what happened, like how could something that I worked so hard on have possibly failed in such a colossal way? I began to fall into these theories around customer development and lean start-up. They were really insightful. They’re basically built on this premise that customers don’t buy products. Customers buy solutions to problems. Just that thinking and understanding really shifted where I was putting my energy, and helped me understand that I was doing it wrong. I’d put all my energy into this product, into this thing that I thought the world needed; but it turns out, that didn’t solve a real problem for the world.
Chris Badgett: So did you try to fix the thing, or start over, or were you just doing a post-mortem, trying to figure out what just happened?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, it was a post-mortem. It died. It was over.
Chris Badgett: Okay.
Justin Wilcox: I was trying to figure out what … how do I change it for next time; because I knew I still wanted to start a company. Now, when I started reading into this stuff, this was, like I mentioned before, just a ton of great theory out there; but I didn’t understand how to apply the theory. That’s basically where the customer development labs blog comes from. It’s just me trying to figure out, ‘Okay, well, there’s this great theory about how getting out of the building, so we shouldn’t be inside the building thinking about it. We just need to get out of the building, go talk to our customers. Our customers give us the ideas.’
So I was like, “Okay, well, how do you do that?” The blog just explores that and how to go do that, and that was really born out of … I went to a networking meet-up, and there was a panel.
I tried the same advice probably a couple dozen times, and advice that someone asks, “You know, what should I do getting started?”
Someone on the panel said, “You just need to go out and build something, and see how the market reacts.” I just knew that didn’t work. It didn’t work for me. It didn’t work for so many people.
After a while, I was like, “I have to start sharing at least what it looks like when you try to apply this customer development principles so that other people can kind of see what that looks like in the real world.” Yeah, so that was the genesis. That was the start of the blog. Then after that, the blog turns into a series of speaking engagements, and I do quite a bit of work for new emerging startup communities around the world; then, mentoring of start-ups.
Then along the way, I actually changed and pivoted my original company. We found product market fit by doing something completely different, by not worrying about features and awesome products at all. We ended up just documenting the hell out of our product so that it can meet a higher security bar. That’s what our customers wanted. They wanted to go get Department of Defense contracts, and so to get that, they had to have a higher level of security. To get that, we had to add even more documentation about our security. It turns out our customers didn’t want more features, they just wanted more documentation.
Chris Badgett: Wow, that’s interesting. Well, how much time went by from the start-up that failed to evolving this methodology to going and speaking and consulting on this?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. This has been a long journey. The start-up died in … I want to say 2010-ish. Yeah, 2010-ish. Then, we’re seven years later now, and now I’ve gone on all this stuff. It’s taken a long time to evolve all of these things, and put these pieces together. Yeah, for sure.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Yeah, I think that’s something that’s often overlooked is just the timeline. There is no … and it may appear like overnight success or whatever. I think it was 2012, I was writing a blog post about how I was creating an online course, and a lot of my blog posts, they didn’t get much interest or whatever, but that one exploded.
I’m like, “Oh, there might be something here;” but here we are, it’s many, many, many years later. I was already 100 blog posts deep before I got to that one.
Justin Wilcox: Wow, wow.
Chris Badgett: I just want to emphasize that in my opinion, blogging is not dead. It’s a great way to workshop ideas and explore the edges of something.
Like you mentioned, you were hearing some good theories and stuff; but you were like, “How do I do it? How do I do it?” You started taking leadership and exploring that yourself. It’s a journey. It takes time.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah man, no, it totally … As far as blogging’s dead, I don’t know if anyone’s saying that or if they are, I don’t think they understand the power of it. I’m going to start a new initiative here, in terms of curriculum development, and I’ve just been working with my partner on this. We’ll literally start another blog, probably next week; because there is so much value in providing value and solving problems for our customers. That’s how we generate connections, and ultimately how we can solve problems in a financially sustainable way, through courses or through whatever it is. Yeah, blogging is just an amazing to connect to customers and solve the problems.
Chris Badgett: Well, let’s talk a little bit about that transition from consulting to online courses. There was a book in there, too. What order did you go in, and how did that play out?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. My world starts with this blog, and I’m really doing a bunch of advising and mentoring, like all for free, and just because I love the community and I want to understand their problems. I didn’t have any plans on building a business around serving early stage entrepreneurs. This blog was getting more and more traction. It started off with ‘No, I didn’t have any audience,’ and then eventually, it was getting 100 visitors a day just from simple blog posts that I’d written up. Then, after that, I thought, ‘Well, what if I could find some financial consistency through this blog, and if I monetize that?’ I did what’s called a false door test. This is one of the normal experiments in any sort of MVP or minimum viable product, or lean start-up processes.
The false door experiment is where you say, “Hey, here is a solution to a problem, and it’s behind this closed door.” Then you just measure how many people try and open that door to gauge interest in that thing. In my case, I had this blog. I had some traffic coming up, and I just added a little banner bar to the top.
I said, “Hey, I’m offering a video course in how to find product market fit. Click here for more information.” Then I just measured how many people clicked that button. Behind that false door was nothing. It basically “Hey, thanks for your interest. We’re trying to test demand for this video course. If you’d like more information, please enter your email address below, and then we’ll tell you about it.”
I split test this false door; so split test meaning I had one version that was ‘Hey, a video course,’ and I had the same thing, ‘Hey, I’m going to write a book about testing or finding product market fit. Click here for more.’ Then, I had one for, ‘I have a mentoring … some sort of mentoring, one-on-one mentoring for finding product market fit.’ I just measured what my audience wanted, and it was clear after this that my audience wanted a book. I had no intention of writing a book at all; but my audience said they wanted it.
I said, “Okay, then let’s go on to the next phase,” which was not which modality do people want to learn. It’s how much do they want to pay? Are they willing to pay enough for this book, that it’s worth my while to build. After that, I had the bar up at top that said, ‘Hey, I’m writing a book.’ Then after that, you clicked onto a page that was basically a pre-order. Like ‘Hey, here’s the book that I’m going to write. If you purchase this, you’ll get a discount.’ Then, I did a bunch of A/B testing on pricing. What ostensibly started as an electronic book … For electronic book prices, I started, I think $39 for my first test, and ran a bunch of experiments and found that at $99, it actually converts better than at $39. This thing is like a tome, I knew it was going to take a lot of work.
Anyway, so I just experimented with that until I had … Eventually, I had 75 pre-orders before I ever wrote a line of it, so that I knew that there was real demand for it. It was basically just a series of small experiments to determine whether or not there was … what there was demand for, and if there was enough demand to make it worth my while to build it.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. I just want to underscore the importance and the efficiency of doing things that way. In terms of the false door test, and preselling, you can save yourself … The biggest, most classic mistake is to lock yourself in the creative cave and go build this thing, the course, the book, the consulting practice, just in a vacuum and then … You could be making a huge error, and wasting a lot of time, or charging the wrong price.
Just to go over the false door test again, I think there’s a lot of different ways to do that. You were talking about measuring clicks. It’s got to be measurable. You could do clicks. You could do opt-ins. You could have people fill out some kind of application. You could have a phone number for people to call. You could ask people to send you an email or whatever. Can you think of any other false door test ideas that you’ve seen out there?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, it’s all about we got to connect the dots between where you are right now and what your ultimate goal is. I call that defining your victory. You have to define your victory. For some people, this is about impact. I’m building an organization that we want to have impact. I want to teach X number of people. The thing you need to measure is what’s going to … What am I going to measure to determine if I’m actually impacting people. If you’re testing that, you might want to test, do I get their email? Then, if I wanted to measure impact, how many people actually read my follow-up emails to them? That’s the measurable … That’s the metric that matters. If it’s monetary, a monetary goal that you have, then you want to measure can you actually sell something?
As far as the false door test, it’s basically just pick something, any metric that you can measure that’s going to help you get to what I call your currency test. Your currency, that’s the big one. You’re collecting. Eventually you’re trying to identify your funnel and optimize that, during your offer test, or your fake door test. Eventually, you’re going to sell the thing. Can you actually get the people to read the thing, or can you get people to take your course, or can you get them to give you money?
Chris Badgett: How was it that you were able to be open minded enough to challenge your assumptions? Perhaps it was because you came from a start-up failure. Lifter LMS is actually not my first software product. I don’t know if I’ve said this on this podcast, but I know what it’s like. When you come back around that second time, sometimes you’re more open to having your assumptions be challenged, or whatever.
Justin Wilcox: Yes.
Chris Badgett: How was it for you? Why didn’t you just say, “All right, I’m doing a book. It’s going to be a $20 eBook.” How did you be like, “But wait a second, maybe there’s this … I have elasticity in the format, and the medium, and the price.” Where does that come from?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. It absolutely comes from my failure. This is a pattern I see over and over, and over again; that the methodologies that are … in focus, or whatever frame we’re going to use, lean start-up customer developer; they are emotionally difficult to do. The fun thing is to build a thing. It’s fun to write software. It’s fun to write a book. It’s fun to build a course. The problem is that I have been down that road, and I have built far too many things that people don’t want. Eventually, you learn that the only thing more fun than building a product is building a product that people use, right?
Chris Badgett: Yeah. It’s a lot more fun.
Justin Wilcox: It’s a lot more fun, right; but it does take more work. It’s more emotionally difficult to do that work. It’s through this agony of failure that I’ve learned that it is better to take the time to run these small experiments than it is just to sit in your creative cave, and just build something. I’ll tell you, I promise you. I would have never picked book. I would have never thought that people wanted a book. I would have thought they wanted the mentoring first, which was the least highly converting. Then, I would have thought the video course. I would have picked book last. I would have been totally wrong. I would have spent a bunch of time building out something that no one wanted, and I certainly wouldn’t be talking here with you today if I had not run this experiment.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Let’s pick up the thread on the story from ‘Okay, it’s going to be a print book,’ and then what happened next?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. We were going to have … I knew it was going to be an electronic book, and then I tested demand for a print book because print books are way more expensive. Again, here I found that at 299, it’s actually five workbook series; and so workbooks are just more complicated and expensive to build. I found at 299, it was actually worth producing those books. Then, I ran a test for a video course. The same sort of deal, false doors, measuring and testing different price points.
Then once I knew I had something, … it was sort of at the phases where pre-orders, having written nothing, then I wrote the whole thing. Then, gave it to everyone who pre-ordered. That took about … I think it took a year to write the whole thing. It takes a long time to write this thing. Then, I was selling during this time, and then I gave it to people as I as selling it. After I had it, then I ran basically a crowdfunding campaign for a nicer version of it. One that was like a-
Chris Badgett: Why’d you do that?
Justin Wilcox: I ran the crowdfunding campaign because the crowdfunding campaign is an incredible way to … get an entire community behind an initiative. It’s basically like a month-long marketing campaign. I had already … This is a really fascinating technique. A lot of people recognize the value in crowdfunding because it helps you test and run an experiment. You get to understand, ‘Should I build this or should I not?’ If you wait until the crowdfunding campaign to actually run your experiment, then it means you’ve missed out on all of the actual marketing bonus that comes with a crowdfunding campaign. You could be trying to sell the wrong thing. I optimized my message and everything before the crowdfunding campaign. Then, I ran the crowdfunding campaign to ostensibly go and get-
Chris Badgett: And scale?
Justin Wilcox: What was that?
Chris Badgett: To get scale, to get more scale?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, to get more scale, and also to get a nicer version of the book. I needed to pay for just higher quality printing. I needed to pay for a nicer website, and all this kind of stuff. Yeah, we had this whole big campaign, like a 30 day campaign. Also, I had … Throughout this time, during my blog, I had never emailed my subscribers about my book. I had all the pre-sales were just from people coming to the landing page. I had basically been waiting to actually sell the book to my audience that I’d built up over time. I think at that time, we had probably like 10,000 subscribers, 12,000, something like that; until the book was done. Once the book was done and finished, and a crowdfunding campaign was ready, then I started emailing all the subscribers I had built up. I was doing that crowdfunding campaign that I actually, …
I said, “You know what? About half of the people who are pre-ordering ‘Focus Framework’ are actually entrepreneurship teachers. So they’re consultants, or they’re people who are teaching in medical communities, like a community outreach and community support. Or, they’re university professors.” So I thought, “Let’s just see what happens if I host a little online workshop for people who are teaching entrepreneurship.” I hosted this, and it turns out one of the people who was in that course wanted to use ‘Focus’ in his university, in a course he taught for his entrepreneurship course-
Chris Badgett: So another way to say that is perhaps it as kind of B-to-C, business to customer. Then you started to realize it was kind of B-to-B, or B-to-teacher, or B-to-T, whatever you call it.
Justin Wilcox: Right, right.
Chris Badgett: You started attracting a different … There were different segments in your audience.
Justin Wilcox: Exactly, exactly. This is something that I work with entrepreneurs all the time on, that we have to … Basically, you niche to win. Of course I knew there was so many people that I could help with it, a practical guide to finding product market fit; but I was really, really narrowly focused on early stage founders who were reading my blog for practical advice.
What happens when you niche and you solve a real problem for a small group of people, instead of other people who have similar problems, they will start finding you. You don’t have to cast this big giant net to get everyone all at once. You solve one problem really well for a small group of people.
Other people find you, and then from there; like this university professor, he said, “Hey, will you build a curriculum version for me?” I was intrigued, and eventually it was like, ‘Yes, this is a great idea.’ It just turns out, that’s an entirely different segment, and it’s arguably much bigger than the one I was focused on. I wouldn’t have known that if I had tried to sell one version that was a curriculum at the beginning, and one version that was for accelerators, and one version that was for founders. I had to solve the problem really well for a small group of people before I could actually attract the attention of other markets.
Chris Badgett: I’m familiar with the concept of the beachhead market, ‘Crossing the Chasm’ is a classic business book. Can you lay that out? What is the beach head market, and who was it for you? Then, can you just tie that into your story?
Justin Wilcox: Sure, of course. Of course, yes. The beachhead market, … if you’re familiar with the curve in ‘Crossing the Chasm,’ it’s one of these normal distributions. It starts off with this very small group of people called the early adopters, who are going to be the … I have a slightly different … What I think is kind of more practical definition of that beachhead market, and I’ll describe it here. People can look up what ‘beachhead market’ means. To me, an early adopter is someone who is actively trying to solve a problem. Remember at the beginning, we talked about someone who … Customers don’t buy products, they buy solutions to problems.
Chris Badgett: So for you, it was the early stage founder, right?
Justin Wilcox: Exactly. It’s my early stage founder. That’s my overall customer. My early adopter is not just any early stage founder. My early adopter is the person who’s actively trying to solve the problem, ‘I don’t know how to do lean start-up.’
Chris Badgett: Okay.
Justin Wilcox: That’s a very, very small segment. All early stage founders … If you think about it, who even knows about lean start-up? It’s like this many people, all right. Who has read the book and then tried to do it on their own, and actually failed, and doesn’t know how to do it? It’s like this group of people. It’s like a tiny, tiny group of people who are trying to solve this problem. By solving their problem really, really well, like we talked about before, you get brand awareness and people start trusting you.
You get authenticity, that like, “Oh my gosh, this person solved this problem really well. Maybe he can help me solve some other problems,” and you can branch out from there. That’s what I espouse all the time, is you’ve got to find the people who are already trying to solve the problem that you want to solve. Then, solve their problem. Don’t try and be everything for everybody.
Chris Badgett: Let me just ask you that question, in terms of the lean start-up, how did you find the people that failed? How did you find that? How did you find those early adopters?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, great question.
Chris Badgett: Or was it just from your writing and your blog that grew organically through search?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. It’s the same answer. It turns out that I was … I was having a problem. My problem was great book, I got it, too. Great book, but how do you do it?
Chris Badgett: Right.
Justin Wilcox: The blog, Customer Dev Labs, was me seeking a solution to that problem. It turns out other people were also seeking solutions to that problem, and so they found me because I was trying to solve that problem. It became one and the same. My channel was basically a channel of early adopters looking for solutions to this problem, and then all I did was offer a better premium solution to that problem; a visible blog.
Chris Badgett: Gotcha, gotcha. Well now that you started attracting these other markets, we have professors becoming interested in you, keep going. What happened there? Tell us why that’s so much more … because it’s not just the professors who would buy one book, right?
Justin Wilcox: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. This has been really fascinating. You should know, I am not a professor. I did go to college, but that’s my only experience with higher level education. Getting into this market is incredibly difficult, unless you’ve done this kind of groundwork. It turns out this market is really fascinating, because you can get … If you get one professor to agree to use your textbook or your resource in their course, then you ostensibly have one buyer for every one of their students; at least in the United States. It’s different outside of the United States, but in the United States, it’s … very common for a professor to have 20, 30, 50, even 100 students in their course. If they think that you’re providing a valuable resource, then you can sell your course, your course, your textbook to all 100 people in their class.
I’ve actually just started this entire process over again, after that one professor, started all over again. Then just this week, we met our what was called a success metric for our currency test. We started this process all over again. We did false stores, and we did a bunch of interviews. We did false stores, then we did currency testing. We just did our success metric. It looks like we’ll be doing the exact same thing again with a larger curriculum version of this entire thing going forward.
Chris Badgett: How do you conduct interviews? How do you do that?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, this is super, super important. It’s like the most important step that I’ve found in enabling me to find product market fits for myself, and what I coach everyone on. Okay. The goal of the interview is to identify the problem your customers are trying to solve. Once you know their problem, you can start building the marketing copy, and you can start building your feature set. In other words, it doesn’t go the other way around. We don’t start with a feature set, and then we try and market it to our customers. We start with the customers, use them to build our marketing copy, and use that marketing copy to go build our feature set.
How do we go figure out their problems? We have to do these interviews. These interviews are very special kinds of conversations where you will not talk about the thing you want to build at all. It will be an entirely empathetic conversation in where you are listening to them and their problems.
Chris Badgett: Why did they even allow you in the room? What’s in it for them to have the interview?
Justin Wilcox: Yes, yes. Great question. Why would they waste their time talking to some stranger?
Chris Badgett: Right.
Justin Wilcox: Remember when we talked about you got to find the people who are already trying to solve the problem? These people who are actively seeking some solution, if you go off and say, “Hey, I see that you’re trying to solve this problem over here. I am also trying to solve that problem, and I’m trying to build a solution to this. Can I talk to you about the problems that you’re having, and solutions you’ve tried?”
Chris Badgett: Well, yes.
Justin Wilcox: Not everyone … Yeah, not everyone will be. They’re far more likely to agree than if you just walk up to some random stranger, right? Or, trying to email, cold email. If I tried to email a thousand start-up founders, I’m not going to get any conversion rate. But, if I find the founders who are going to lean start-up meet-up groups, who are buying other books and leaving reviews on Amazon for other people’s books, and I target those people in specifically, I know they’re trying to solve a problem and so they’re more likely to give me their time. That’s how you get the interview.
Then, once you have the interview, there’s just a very specific set of questions you’re going to ask like, “Hey, I see you’re trying to do this thing. What’s the hardest part about doing that thing?” Then you just listen to them, and you ask them, “Okay, so why is that hard?” What you’re listening for there is the emotions that come out, because ultimately like we said, people, customers buy solutions to problems. Their real problem is the emotion that comes up for them. When you can understand the emotions that are associated with the problem they’re having, that’s your marketing copy. In my case, are you overwhelmed trying to find your product market fit? ‘Overwhelmed’ is the word that comes up over, and over, and over again.
I build my marketing, and then once I know that ‘overwhelmed’ is the problem. The way to solve ‘overwhelmed’ is to break a big crazy complex process into individual steps. There’s my feature. My feature set comes directly from my conversations with my customers.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. I think this past two minutes here is really at the heart of what entrepreneurship is. That process you described is the talent, and it’s the unique ability. It can be trained. It can be learned. If you have fun doing that kind of thing, that is the signal that you’re an entrepreneur.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. I like to think of entrepreneurship as just the French word for solving problems.
Chris Badgett: Yeah.
Justin Wilcox: It’s such a great place to be. If your job is to solve people’s problems in a financially sustainable way, what better job is there in the world?
Chris Badgett: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think there’s a lot of people out there who prefer to go into a certain world and execute on a certain task, or work with certain materials. Like you said, you have to go in there, totally detached from what it is you think you might build, and really be a vessel for understanding the problem. Then, you get to go be creative and build the marketing, and build the thing.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: That’s really fascinating.
Justin Wilcox: It might be worth talking just a little bit because we were talking about the optimal way to build a company, where you start with the people you want to serve. You talk to them, but so many people already have an idea that they’re working on right now.
A very often, frequent question I get is “Okay, yeah. Fine, that’s the way you should do it, but I’ve already started, and I’m trying to sell this thing. And like, what do I do now?” If you think it’s worthwhile, I can just speak just briefly on it … Okay.
Let’s pretend we’ve built a course or built something, and no one’s buying it, or not enough people are buying it, or we don’t know how to get people to buy it.
What I’m going to recommend there is that you take this thing you’ve got and you peel a layer of the onion and say, “Okay, what problem does this really solve for my customer, in my customer’s own words?”
I can’t say something like, “Oh, you know what? The ‘Focus Framework,’ the problem it solves is that there’s not an actionable resource for applying lean start-up theory.” That’s not the words my customers would use. I have to reverse engineer it and say, “Oh, you know what the problem is that-”
Chris Badgett: When they’re overwhelmed at the bar, what would they say to a friend?
Justin Wilcox: Exactly. Exactly.
Chris Badgett: Right.
Justin Wilcox: It’s just like, “Oh my god. I’m not doing anything. I’m being lazy, you know? Like I’m not getting anything done because I’m overwhelmed.” That’s exactly right. What would your friend tell another friend at the bar about their problem? I like that. Breaking down to that level, so now you know that you have a hypothesis about the problem they’re going to solve. Now you’re going to ask yourself, who is already trying to solve this problem? What steps are they taking to try and solve the problem that you can observe?
Remember when I said I can target people who are reading and leaving reviews about books on applying lean start-up? Just because someone reads lean start-up, doesn’t mean I can find them, right? I don’t have a list of all the people who’ve read this; but if someone-
Chris Badgett: You can look for those one star reviews.
Justin Wilcox: Exactly.
Chris Badgett: Like, “Hey man, how do I actually do this?” You’re like, boom. Google their name.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. Exactly, find their name, then contact them. If they’re talking about it on Twitter. They’re like, “Oh, there’s nothing actionable on Twitter,” then I can find them. These are what I call externally observable behaviors. It’s a behavior that someone does that you, as an external observer, can actually see and target them to actually go and have your conversation.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely.
Justin Wilcox: That’s what I recommend. If you’ve already done it, then go find the externally observable behaviors, try and interview them. Then with their interviews, then build back out. Redo your marketing, and then if you need to, change your feature set.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, let me ask you a question for the course creators out there that are chomping at the bit. They’re like, “Wow, that sounds really great. If I can sell to one teacher and get a 100 customers through their students, and then leverage that trust to get into more departments around the US, or the world, or whatever.” What are some advice you have on getting to that one teacher first?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Or should you be so good that they find you. How does it work?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. Exact same principles apply. You need to find the professor who’s actively trying to solve a problem. Don’t go to the professor who’s had their course, and he has their textbooks, the same ones for the last 10 years. What’s been fascinating in this journey so far, everyone we’ve been working with who’s been willing to have a conversation with us, and sign our letter of intent, has been an associate professor.
Chris Badgett: What does that mean?
Justin Wilcox: An associate professor is someone who is, I think there’s three different levels. There’s an adjunct, an associate, and then a full professor. The associate professor is someone who’s not tenured yet, but has enough control that they can create their own curriculum, and design their own craft, their own class. They’re not tenured yet. Something really amazing happens when you get tenured. You stop having the same incentives to create a really interesting impactful course, as you did before you got tenured. That’s just goes speaks to my point of about you got to find people who are trying to solve a problem. These non-tenured professors, part of the way you get tenure is by having really great reviews from your students. How do you get great reviews? By having a experiential, engaging course, which is why they want to use our curriculum.
Whatever your university professors world looks like that you want to target, you got to find someone who’s actively trying to solve a problem. That’s what we’re doing now. You should know, though, that other people have realized how powerful this market is, and you are not going to be the only one trying to solve this problem. The people who I’ve talked to, they get inundated with these conversations all the time. What’s really helped is the person who was working with me, he has a lot of credibility in this space. He’s been able to help guide me and point to the right people. He’s been giving me some basically social cover along the way. That combination, like I said. Half the people who are buying the book ahead of time were also teachers in some form, so just having credibility in solving a problem in a really great way for a small market can get you some credibility with these professors.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. I really like that idea about if that associate professor read the bar, they might say “Oh, I don’t want to just use whoever came before me’s old curriculum. I need some cutting edge … I need something fresh. I need to get some raving students.” It’s the same process, exactly like you’re saying.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: That’s really cool. That’s really interesting and really keying in on what that professor wants and needs in their career, and they’re looking for tenure, or whatever. Perhaps they’re a little hungrier. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. Why not go find a hungry horse and offer them a glass of water? That’s really cool. Well, let me just ask you just a couple quick tactical questions. That is for your book, what’d you use to publish it? Is it self published? Did you find a printing press? Version one, version two, what’d you do?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, so it’s all self published. I’m an engineer, which is … for better or worse, I ended up rolling my own platform using WordPress’ software to … because I knew I was going to have a digital version. I thought I was going to have a mobile version. I knew I was going to have a print version. Anyway, I won’t dive into that.
Yeah. I built my own platform. It turned out that the platform … It’s not good, because I built it myself. When I was looking sort of for the second version and especially when I made this jump into the curriculum space, I was looking for something … I was looking for an LMS, basically. Something that was searchable that had all of the exercises that I could put in, extensible, in that I could write my own code, and all that kind of stuff. That’s when I came across Lifter; which like I said, has been awesome. I love it. I use that for all of the curriculum versions now. Eventually, I will move the entire electronic version, which is on a standalone HTML site. I’ll move that also over to Lifter as well.
Chris Badgett: Cool. What about the print book? Was that CreateSpace, Amazon, or what’d you use?
Justin Wilcox: Okay, so-
Chris Badgett: Like if somebody wants to create workbooks that they send in the mail.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Where do they go?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, yeah. I’ll have to dig up the name of this place, but there’s … I could show you this hack. I’ve got these five workbooks here; because I’m a low volume printer, I’m not going to get thousands of these things made. You got to find a way to get … They’re like small workbooks, but there are five of them. This is number three. This is number one. You can’t get customized small versions. I found this printer who lets you basically count, even though the content of these is all … different, because they have a same number of pages, it counts at one print job. Does that make sense?
Chris Badgett: Okay.
Justin Wilcox: Instead of having five different print jobs, it was just one print job that happened to have five different versions. That cuts down on the price a lot. I can get you the name of those guys. Basically all I did is for the shorter workbooks, I just stuffed on note sections at the book, so that they’re all the same pages so they’re as long as the longest workbook. Then, they’re filled with notes to make up the space.
Chris Badgett: Do they print on demand, or do you warehouse a stash of them?
Justin Wilcox: I warehouse a stash of them. Amazon fulfillment services, or fulfillment by Amazon, by the way, is awesome. I totally love them. I recommend them super highly. Basically all I did was I had all the books published, and then I printed out all these … I laser-cut these boxes, and then I had a book building party. I had a bunch of friends come over. I brought a bunch of food, some drinks, and then we all just assembled books. We did 100 at a time, so I’ve done it twice. Then, I take all those books and ship them off to Amazon, and Amazon does all the delivery/fulfillment.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. What software did you use to create the workbook content?
Justin Wilcox: Which content?
Chris Badgett: The workbook content?
Justin Wilcox: That was just WordPress. I put it all in WordPress, and then I wrote a little app to download it from WordPress, and put it into HTML. Yeah. Don’t do it … Yeah, we shouldn’t even answer this question; because it’s not a good … Unless you’re a developer, you don’t want to do it. It was HTML. HTML converted into PDF. PDF converted into in design.
Chris Badgett: Now you’re going back to the web, right?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The web’s the big one.
Chris Badgett: Okay. I see, I see. Cool. What did you use for the crowdfunding? Was it Kickstarter, or Indiegogo, or what’d you use?
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. I wrote my own again. Why not? Why not just do everything myself?
Chris Badgett: Okay.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah. No, it was a WordPress site. I wanted some very specific things on it. I wanted to be able to AB test during the crowdfunding campaign, because I’m … This is what I do. This is what I love, this experimentation optimization. Kickstarter won’t let you AB test on their page, so I wanted to build my own platform to do that. Yeah, Kickstarter is a great place to go. Tilt, they just got acquired, so we’ll see how long they’re around; but Tilt is a great place to go. Tilt lets you run your own crowdfunding campaign on your own website. I’m sure there are WordPress plug-ins for it now.
Chris Badgett: Awesome, awesome. Well Justin Wilcox, ladies and gentleman. I want to thank you for coming on the show. If you want to check out Justin’s blog, you can head on over to CustomerDevLabs.com. Over there, there’s some links over to the ‘Focus Framework,’ so you can see what he put together there. Is there anywhere else you want to send people, Justin, if they want to connect with you and find out more?
Justin Wilcox: Those are the best places. My blog, subscribing there. You can follow me on Twitter. I don’t do much, but I’m Justin_Wilcox on Twitter, if you want to catch me there.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, thank you for coming on the show. I really appreciate what you’re saying about really getting out of the building, but not just … That’s a good idea, but how do that, and how to really focus on the problems, and building solutions for problems-
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Going about things that way.
Justin Wilcox: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Thanks for coming, and we’ll have to do it again some time.
Justin Wilcox: I would love. To everyone out there who’s starting a company, I’m wishing you the best of luck and help on your journey. If you need help on your journey, just let me know. I’m really excited for what you’re doing, and I’m happy to help.

EPISODE 135

Leveraging Events, Blended Learning, and Uncovering Demand for an Online Course Idea with Brian Hogg

This episode of LMScast with Chris Badgett of LifterLMS is about leveraging events, blended learning, and uncovering demand for an online course idea with Brian Hogg. Brian helps developers and agencies turn the WordPress plugins they develop into products that generate revenue.

Brian is a big player in the WordPress community. He has created his own WordPress plugins, and he has created an online course about professional plugin development. Making Pro Plugins is the name of his course if you’d like to check that out. The course is for people who have an idea for a plugin, and maybe they’re not a developer, but they need to get the plugin out there into the market. The course will help you out if you are afraid of the launch process, teaming it, the support, marketing, and all of that good stuff.

They also touch on the marketing and innovation aspects of business. Peter Drucker said, “There are only two things: marketing and innovation.” The Making Pro Plugins course can help you get these things clear and help you get through the creation and launch of your plugin.

When Brian was 15-years-old, he created and launched a Bingo game online. People would download it, and the server would feed the numbers and cards players received. He was able to grow the user base to about 800 simultaneous players in the late 90s. Brian was able to build up a large community around that. He was also able to make some money from it in the form of advertising.

Podcasting can be a super powerful medium in the content marketing world. As Chris and Brian discuss, podcasting can promote your product or service, as well as establish credibility in a certain field. Chris gives a quote, “The information age is over. It’s all about the integration age.”

Chris and Brian discuss a podcast Brian created around electronic music. The purpose of the podcast was to get the music of lesser known artists popularized. He gained a lot of knowledge about that when he attended a couple of conferences in Las Vegas and Amsterdam. The podcast also covered topics for new artists who might not know as much about the industry, like how to release your own music. You can check that out at paidformusic.com.

Chris and Brian also get into what you should do after your course is launched, and a little bit of the breakdown about being the best at something in any topic.

To learn more about Brian Hogg you can check out BrianHogg.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. Today I’ve got a special guest, Brian Hogg, coming all the way from Ontario, Canada. How are you doing, Brian?

Brian: I’m doing very well. How are you?

Chris: Doing good. Brian is a big player in the WordPress community. He’s also created his own WordPress plugins, and he’s created online training, and he’s a man of many interests and passions and enjoys life. In this episode we’re going to get into Brian’s story a little bit. We’re going to get into his products, which have to do with events, and we’re going to talk a little bit about how to integrate events into a learning experience and what Brian’s plugins do and how you might benefit from them. Brian is also just about to release, by the time you hear this, he will have released, a course about professional plugin development. First, Brian, thanks for coming on the show.

Brian: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

Chris: Well, tell us a little bit about the mystery of who you are, because when I first met you, you’re a man of many interests. There’s the electronic music, you had a history in some kind of Bingo thing?

Brian: Yes.

Chris: And then you kind of came up in the WordPress community, and similar to me you run, you create a premium WordPress plugin, and that sort of thing. I guess let’s start with the Bingo thing. What is the Bingo thing?
Brian: So that was one of the first, I guess it was a startup before startups were called startups. It was a way to learn client server development over the internet. I was 15 I think when I launched it. And so obviously I lived with my mom, my mom suggested that, “Why don’t you do a Bingo game? Because obviously you have a client who’s the person playing Bingo, and the server that’s feeding the numbers and the cards, and everything else.” So, launched that, had a couple people that grew to four, and ten, and they told their friends, and eventually got up to 800 or so simultaneous players, and this was back in the late 90s, so it took like an hour to download the thing. So yeah, there was a really cool community that build up around that. It had IRC type chat inside, you could do /join, you could have different rooms. So it was a really cool experience for people who played for 10 hours a day and really enjoy it. And made some money off the advertising that you can do within the app as well. It was a really cool intro to technology and business in one.
Chris: At 15. I think that’s a common experience for the listener out here. There’s something in the course creators, or the creative type, or the entrepreneur type where they just make stuff.
Brian: Yeah.
Chris: And they just try things out, and when it works, it’s pretty fun and it’s cool. But sometimes it doesn’t work.
Brian: And you don’t know til you try, right? So you can get a sense when you talk to people. Otherwise you don’t really know for sure until you put it out there.
Chris: Yeah. It seems like you also have some podcasts, and you do some content around the community you live in. And also you’re into electronic music. So tell us, it seems like you use the web to really accentuate your passions or build community around them, or teach around them, or draw other people together. What’s the mix that makes up Brian Hogg?
Brian: I guess we’ll start with the smaller one, electronic music. I don’t create music, I just enjoy the genre. So I actually went and personally went into a couple conferences in Vegas and in Amsterdam, and just learned a lot, learned as much as I could and was trying to figure out a way to use technology and my experience to help get people get paid what they deserve, and get their music recognized. Again, they can get paid what they deserve when the music’s actually played. So the podcast was really just an educational tool where I wasn’t making much progress and I was actually revolutionizing the industry. So I’m just like, “All right, lets create a little podcast, get some big names on there that I met through these conferences and through other people. And just hopefully just put it out there.”
And things like how to release your own music, stuff like that. So you can definitely check that out at paidformusic.com and those episodes are just kind of there for anyone who wants to listen to them. And they’ve still got my finger in the pulse of that, but as a business thing, it’s not the top priority. In terms of the local community podcast, that was on Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, where I lived for years. Really big in the community there. We also do, I’ve co-started a freelancer or consultant meetup about three and a half years ago, that’s grown to about 700 members or so. The podcast is really an extension of that. And running the WordPress meetups and events and stuff in Hamilton.
It’s neat to mix the online and the offline, and just try to build a community wherever there’s a need.
Chris: That’s awesome. I just want to highlight what you did there when you went to those conferences in, was it Amsterdam and Vegas?
Brian: Yep.
Chris: And then you leveraged that experience, and you build a podcast around that and made connections and stuff. You’ve really got out of the building. Which is really cool.
Brian: Yep.
Chris: One of the things I see course creators run into, is they get so into the online world that, even something like podcasting, even if you’re still home, you’re still reaching out outside of the bubble and you’re still sharpening the saw, following your passions, getting better at stuff, networking. Podcasting can be super powerful medium. Especially from an SEO perspective, or just an in-bound marketing perspective, if all your content is locked behind a membership site or an online course, it’s a lot harder for people to find out about you, so it’s good to do things like podcasting and blogging and so on.
Brian: Yeah, definitely. And like you said, getting out of the building. That really what drove the latest course that I did. Because I thought initially, “Well, this stuff’s pretty straight forward. You can find a lot of the stuff online, so why would anyone be interested in a course?” But actually getting out of the building, going to work camps, speaking with other developers and getting a sense for the questions they had, and the fears they had about say, launching their own plugin, really was just kind of eye-opening. Like, “Oh.” And some of the technical stuff, where you developed a plugin, “You’re a developer. What do you mean you have questions about setting up the sales platform, or setting up some of the automated marketing stuff?” And just hearing those questions and concerns and trying to help made that clear that there was a need for like that. To how to knock out of the building, it just would have been assumed everything in my head as to what questions or concerns people did or didn’t have. That was a huge part of the research factor that you just can’t find by searching online or not talking to anyone.
Chris: Yeah. I’d like to say that information ages over. It’s all about the integration age. I mean, I have a similar story. One of my first courses I built a free how to build a WordPress website course. Part of the reason I did that, is because I was just painfully looking through YouTube channels and all this stuff, trying to figure it out myself. And then I kind of curated it, went to meetups, did things, I figured it out, and then I put it all into one package. Last time I looked, there were like 10,000 people in that course. It’s a free course. And I used that, the free course, to help build up my agency in the early days. People would get in there and realize, “Oh, there’s a lot here. Maybe I’ll hire a professional. How about that guy’s who’s head’s talking at the bottom of the video?”
But yeah.
Brian: That’s exactly … we did an online Webinar for our freelancer group. Similar thing, right? They can go through and they can see how to set up a WordPress website and it was free, but yeah, it definitely, they hit a point where they’re like, “Oh, there’s a lot of stuff to know.” So, if there’s not something  I can help with, I try to refer it to some of the community who can help them get their presence out there. It’s a great way to build up that trust, and it’s a big part of it.
Chris: Yeah. Another metaphor I use on that is, when I was a kid, I remember I went out once into the forest to build a house, or a little fort. And I started stacking logs into square shaped, but then I realized, you know, there’s really a lot that goes into building a house, even a tree-house that I’m not even really prepared for.
That’s one of the cool things about … There’s so much nuance to the build world around us, and digital and physical and stuff like that, that there’s just really an unlimited amount of things that people can teach, and things that people can learn.
Let’s talk more about your course, and we’ll circle back to what you do with events. The course is called, Making Pro Plugins. Is that correct? How do you say it? What’s the title?
Brian: That’s correct. Yep, Absolutely. Making Pro Plugins.
Chris: So what’s the elevator pitch for the course?
Brian: So it’s if you have a plugin, maybe that you’ve developed for a client or maybe you had developed for a client or if you’re not a developer, and you just kind of see a need to get that plugin out there, but you’re afraid of the launch process, teaming it, and the support, and the marketing and all that good stuff. This course will basically help you do that. So it doesn’t teach you how to build it, there’s a lot of great courses on that, that have been out there over the years that have actually program over plugin, and it does go over some of the technical of integrating software lacing and automatic updates and all that good stuff. But the crux of it is really the getting over the fear of launching, actually getting it launched. By the end of module 2 you have your pro plugin out there. And then getting a free version out there and growing it. That’s what the course is all about.
Chris: That’s fantastic. Another really cool thing about that is just that, sometimes to launch a business of that kind, but it could be another kind, it could be like a dental office, like you may be a great dentist, but you still have to figure out how to run a practice. Or you may be a great engineer or developer, but there’s a lot more … The way I look at it, I always go back to this quote by Peter Drucker, that in business there is only two things: marketing and innovation. The innovation, that’s the engineering, that’s the coding, that’s making it work. But now you’ve got to market it and sell it, and support it and all these other things. That’s really cool.
So how did you, I know you got out of the building, but what kinds of things did you start hearing from people that made you realize that maybe you should build a course? Or that there was a need?
Brian: Well, I mean, a lot of it was around the fears of launching. Like, most people were thinking, “Okay, if I put the plugin out there, I’m just going to get buried with support. I’m going to release a bug. I’m going to take down someone’s site, I’m going to break the whole internet, and everyone’s going to sue me.” It’ll be this horrible thing. Which, I always say, well look at Jetpack recently, right? They had version 4.0, took them millions of sites and then 4.0.1 still took down millions of sites. Hopefully 4.0.2 will fix it. Right? So it can happen, but you just have to be there and respond, and don’t push an update and never test it and then run out of the building for a week. That’s probably not a good idea.
But otherwise, most of the time, you test it during development and it’ll be good to go. So a lot of it was getting over that fear, and I heard that over and over again from the presentations I did on this at work camps, and just talking to different developments. And some of it was just the technical process. I can never remember the SVN command to actually update a free version. Why can’t it just use get? So there’s a video on integrating get and SVN, and just little videos that you can refer to every time you have an update. And then some of the technical integration of setting up the sales platform, setting up automatic licensing and what your options are for that. Automatic updates. So yeah, a lot of it was just hearing all these different questions and this one over and over again, and not seeing any resource that really brought it all together. And a lot of it was, I’m very thankful to talk to a lot of different plugin developers who have been doing this a lot longer than I have, and have much bigger plugins than I have, and just that encouragement and saying, yes, you’re definitely create a course on this. And because you’ve been doing it for a little less time, you remember what it was like a little better to start. What it was like to start. And building it on the side, kind of thing.
It was great to get that encouragement and also some additional ideas for content and whatnot that I can include. Yeah, it’s been a great process over the last few months to get it built, and looking forward to getting it out there.
Chris: That’s awesome. How did you come up with the buckets for the sections? Like, this is an instructional design question, or a curriculum type question. You have like, “Getting Started.” And then you have “Preparing and Launching The Pro Version.” And then “Adding licensing.” And “Automatic Updates.” Then “Preparing and Launching the Free Version.” And then “Keeping Plugins Up to Date.” “Getting More Paying Customers.” “Handling Support.” How did you, in the swirl the 107 steps, how did you create those buckets or modules?
Brian: A lot of back and forth.
Chris: Okay.
Brian: For sure. Just coming up with ideas, eventually I started, I had it in I think an Evernote node, or something, trying to rearrange it there. Eventually moved over to Trello, so I could kind of drag and drop, and do that. But a lot of it was, yeah, a lot of back and forth. At first I had the free version first, but then the flow wasn’t feeling right. Because if you’ve already got a plugin, you may not be sure what the free version might be, you might not even want to do a free version necessarily, if it just doesn’t fit right with your plugin, or maybe you just can’t, because it doesn’t meet the rules of the WordPress.org repo, so you might not be able to do a free version at all, right? So I’m just like, “Okay, cool, I’ll do Pro first.”
And then that started to feel a lot more better as a flow rate, but it was a lot of dragging and dropping and editing the Trello cards, and figuring out where stuff can go. Trying to be as ruthless as possible. Take stuff out if it wasn’t needed to be there. I can always add stuff later. Otherwise it would just never get launched, right? That was a big thing, editing, I’m glad I was part of Masterminds, where they were just like, you know, offer feedback and were also, “I challenge you to take what you think you need in there, and then take out 25%. Can you do that?” And I was like, “I could, yeah, actually. I think there’s some stuff that doesn’t need to be here, at least for the first version. It was a lot of back and forth. And it can feel like you’re doing a lot by having that outline, but until you actually start recording and getting a better feel for how the content is kind of coming out, yeah, it’s a big part of the work. It’s good to start getting some actual scripting and then you really start to see if the flow is there and if you’re missing something. Or if you’ve got too much.
Chris: Yeah, it’s important to be flexible. And for those of you listening, if you’re not familiar with it, Trello is a great project management tool. It has all these lists, you can drag and drop things around and it’s a great way to brainstorm.
I like what you’re saying. After you get going, it doesn’t mean your outline is locked. “Okay, I’m going to move this entire thing higher in the course. Or I’m going to move this lesson around. After I’ve recorded a lesson, I can still be the ruthless editor and go back and chop 25% off.”
Brian: Exactly.
Chris: So that’s really cool.
Brian: At least I made that decision before I recorded the 25%, so. That helped.
Chris: I think we all kind of intuitively know this for the book writing or publishing world. But making an online course, especially if you’re not just doing a little topical skim, it’s going to take some time and that’s an iterative cycle or process. So that’s …
Brian: Everyone who I’ve spoken to who’ve done video courses of a similar size has said that. One I had lunch with recently, he was working on it since July. To come up with the outline, figure out what kind of project that would be that that forms the core of the course. And stuff like that. Yeah, it can take time and it’s a process. Yeah, but once it gets locked down it can come pretty quick after that.
Chris: Well there’s a group of people who listen to this that are, you know, what they teach is technical in nature, like what you’re doing here. How much of what you did was screen sharing, slides and talking head? What was the ratio?
Brian: There’s no talking head. I guess so. It’s either slides or screen cast.
Chris: Slides or screen cast? Okay. So if you guys want to see what Brian looks like, come on over to the LMS cast on YouTube and you’ll see the talking head. But if you’re listening on Itunes …
Brian: I might do one similar to what Wes Bos did for ES6, and just do a little intro one minute video or something that’s a talking head.
Chris: Oh like the kind of commercial for it, you mean?
Brian: Exactly. Yeah yeah yeah. I think that’s good to do.
Chris: That’s cool. When I did my first WordPress course, I would put my head really small down on the bottom. And I got two types of feedback. One type of feedback was, “It’s really annoying to have that talking head down there.” And the other feedback I got was, “Oh, I feel like I know you.” Like, when I would meet them later, talk to them later, they would be like, “I feel like I know you, because I’ve seen you talking all this stuff.” It’s funny.
Brian: Especially, I think that’s why the commercial’s good to do. I’ve actually convinced another course creator recently, because he did a little slide based commercial. It’s like, “No, do you have a camera? Can you do an in person thing?” And it totally … You can see that they’re a person, and that they know what they’re talking about, and that builds a little bit of that trust. So that’s good.
Chris: Absolutely. I actually sell … I’ll search for it while we’re talking here. I sell an SEO course made by somebody that had a really nice talking head commercial at the front end of it or whatever. But the course is mostly technical in nature.
Brian: Nice.
Chris: Let’s shift gears and talk a little bit … In order to teach this course, you did the thing yourself. So you have some plugins that you sell, called EventsCalendarNewsletter, and EventsCalendarShortCode, right?
Brian: Yes.
Chris: In my past, I’ve done a lot with the EventsCalendarPro, by Modern Tribe. I know there’s other Event Calendar systems out there. For the course creators out there, many of them are often integrating … They may have an online course, and they may have live events that are separate, like Big Ticket Items, or whatever. Separate parts of their overall offer. Or part of the course itself may include online specific time meetups through something like Zoom or Skype, or GoToMeeting, or whatever it is. Or it might include actual in person class time, or workshop time. And some people call that, that’s one application of the word Blended Learning, where you’re blending the live and the passive stuff together. Both in person or off online, and that sort of thing. Tell us about EventsCalendarNewsletter. What problem were you solving there for the website owner who has an event calendar, and they’re publishing these events that are happening?
Brian: Yeah, totally. A lot of it is errors that come up. It’s through no fault of the person who’s creating the newsletters, just that it’s super easy to get the title wrong, the date or time wrong, the link to the event wrong, the venue details wrong, or the link to that. There are so many elements that come into it. You usually want to format your newsletter in a different format than you do on the web, right? So you’re not just copying and pasting a whole list of your events and throwing it into the newsletter, right? So you’re piecemeal copying little lengths and details and everything else, or retyping it and often times mess it up.
So, I’ve made that mistake, or either people have corrected me or they come there at the wrong time, which is really bad. Really what prompted it was someone else was creating these newsletters, and they kept messing up the time of our events. They were volunteers, so it’s not like I was super angry, but I’m like, “Oh, what’s happening, are you doing this manually?” And he’s like, “Yeah.” So we cranked out that first version for his specific use case and so that was the main driver, so if you’re creating a newsletter of your upcoming events, you can have all the details you want in there, and you’re not going to mess up the date, time, link, title, details, anything. It’s a great time saver, and headache and nervousness. Because you can’t take an email back. If you send that newsletter out, and it’s got some bad information …
Chris: Right.
Brian: It’s out there. You’re now going to have to fight fires to try and correct anything or people don’t notice and then they show up at the wrong time. Or go to the wrong event, that’s not a good thing.
Chris: Yeah, that’s a huge efficiency boost. The short code part of that plugin, what that does is it allows you to move your events portably to different locations, is that right?
Brian: Yep. So that was a totally separate plugin, but they’re sold right now through the same website. Because the free version of … It’s just for like the EventsCalendarNewsletter, the EventCalendarNewsletter plugin supports a whole bunch of different WordPress calendars, and a couple themes. But the EventsCalendar short code is really just for the Events Calendar by Modern Tribe. Their Pro version has some short codes, though not with as many options and stuff as this one does. This was really to fill that gap between, there’s a free version, there’s a pro version, which like a few extra options and a nicer design, but it’s really to fill that gap, because the free version of the Events Calendar doesn’t have short codes that you can use. Yeah, just lets you pop it in wherever you need it on the site, which is nice.
Chris: Yeah, that’s really cool. So if you were using a learning management system, you could port your events lists, or you could put them in interesting places like sidebars of a certain course, or in the lesson content, an that’s the beauty of short codes. At LMS we have a lot of short codes, and people move stuff … It’s always amazing, how creative people can be with moving pieces around. That’s awesome.
Brian: You can filter by category. Some people actually use it to show details of one specific event, because like you said, it could be part of their LMS, and they might be doing an event and then they just use the short code to kind of pull in those details, so, again, they’re not manually typing or copying and pasting that stuff. Yeah, it’s served a great need, and a lot of people are using it so it’s great.
Chris: Very cool. Well, what’s next after you launch a course? Do you plan on doing a different course, or staying with that one for a while, or what’s your plan? Because you’re a creator.
Brian: I’m not sure…exactly, it’s going to be hard to stop. I’ve got the Pressnomics coming up in April, heading to the first little bit of Micro Comps just to say hi to people and then flying out before that starts, and then the trip, and then a family visit after that for a couple weeks. There will probably be a bit of downtime.
But I think one course that could come out of this is the next step, could potentially be growing it outside just the WordPress plugin. Like perhaps making it sort of like a stand alone SAS out of your plugin? A lot of people I’ve been talking to have seen this as a need, and there are some that are so obvious. It’s like, this doesn’t need to be, if it’s a project management system plugin, obviously this doesn’t need to just be WordPress, and to have that as a requirement, that you need a WordPress site to do project management doesn’t really make sense. Right? I think that could be a potential next course. I’m just looking forward to getting more feedback on the course content, probably adding and tweaking stuff that’s in this course. And yeah, just see what people are looking for and asking for. I’ve gotten some of my ideas already on more technical ones as well, but I’m really liking this almost marketing business growth, getting over fear side of things quite well. It’s probably about 90% of the work I would say of doing a plugin business.
The technical stuff is not trivial, but it’s definitely a huge marketing and getting your stuff out there is a big part of it.
Chris: Well how did you get so that you could live in both of these worlds? The technical world and the business world? Because I see that kind of as a unique skill. How are you the engineer and the marketing or entrepreneur CEO type, too? How did that happen?
Brian: I don’t now. I’ve always described myself as the most social computer nerd you’d ever meet. And I’m just not one to just stay and code. And I struggled with that, actually, for a long time. I’ve been developing since I was 12, and would spend countless nights just coding and hacking on stuff, and whatever. I just kind of started to realize, I like getting out of the house and talking to people, and not spending all my time just sitting at the desk. It’s great to spend some chunks of time just messing with stuff, but that was, that just kind of came and evolved over time. And then I definitely struggled with it for a while, because I’m like, “Oh crap, I don’t know the latest JavaScript technology. I don’t know the latest whatever library, technique and everything else.” Even without knowing that, if statements are still if statements, loops are loops, you can still create some awesome and valuable time saving stuff, without being this epically amazing developer.
And just being that a bit of writing on the wall, I guess, just being a pure developer or a developer without any real thought of why you’re building what you’re building, and the business case behind it and everything else. It’s kind of going down a bit. I know a lot of very talented developers that either have been let go or because they’re just 100% focused on the code, and not looking at the business stuff. So just all of that together have kind of made it where, “Okay, yeah, I do like social aspect more than just sitting on my own for hours a day.” And so it really built from there to kind of focus on the marketing stuff. And it’s a lot of fun. I missed it from the Bingo days, I guess. Building and marketing products, as opposed to just the consulting side of things.
Chris: That is really cool. And I just want to highlight something there that, to be the best in the world at something, I’ve heard that you’re in the top 1%. Now if you combine two things, like engineering and business, you really, when you combine them, now you only have to be in the top 25%.
Brian: Right.
Chris: And then the insight I have talking to you, is that you bring in a third circle into Venn diagram, which is the social component, the getting out of the building component, the listening component, and that just makes you super powerful and it really just opens up the world or really your mind to be able to solve problems in interesting ways for people and to teach people. So that’s really cool. And I admire your journey.
Brian: Thank you. It starts getting to the point where the only person who you’re beating is yourself. You’re the only person you have to get out of your own head sometimes, right?
Chris: And then the competition’s not so hard anymore.
Brian: Or it’s a lot harder.
Chris: Yeah, that’s true, it depends. Well awesome. Well I want to thank you for coming on the show, Brian. Brian, if you want to find out more about him, and there’s links to all his stuff, you can find him at BrianHogg, with two G’s .com. And where else on the internet do you want to send people to, Brian?
Brian: Yeah, not really, BrianHogg.com is kind of the hub now. And transition from BH Consulting that’s B.H, Brian Hogg consulting to just me. Because I have no desire to hire people anytime soon for custom stuff. So yeah, BrianHogg.com is the social links to the course, podcast, all that good stuff.
Chris: All right, well thank you for coming on the show.
Brian: Thank you for having me.

EPISODE 134

Design Versus Functionality with User Experience Designer Nate Wright from Theme of the Crop

Chris Badgett of LifterLMS discusses design versus functionality with user experience designer Nate Wright from Theme of the Crop on today’s LMScast. Chris and Nate get into web design conflicting with efficiency. They also talk about using the internet to market and drive foot traffic to brick and mortar businesses.

Nate is the creator of Theme of the Crop, which is a technology solution for restaurants looking to enter the online space and have a website to perform some of the tasks restaurants need done. Nate sells plugins and themes that solve different problems restaurants can have. He got started with Theme of the Crop in late 2013.

Chris and Nate discuss the difficulties with using something like Facebook to promote a business. They also talk about the importance of finding themes and plugins for your website that are compatible with each other. Themes being ‘plugin aware’ is important. This means the themes are compatible with plugins.

Finding a theme for your website is one of the most important parts of having a website. Chris and Nate dive into the difference between a good and a bad theme and what to look out for. Hiring people for your business and what to look for in applicants is a topic they touch on as well.

It is currently an opportune time to connect bricks to clicks. During the expansion of the internet space and internet marketing come the opportunities to find a niche and serve that market in order to make a profit. Chris and Nate discuss different niches in the local business market that are currently underserved. Finding exactly how far to narrow down your niche in local business is also a component they talk through.

Using the internet to market for a local business provides many opportunities to get great analytics on what customers are interested in as well. They emphasize having clarity and having your website be smooth and clean is also important for a business website. They discuss the things you should consider and questions to ask yourself when building a website to help put you in the customer’s perspective.

Chris and Nate talk about qualities good websites have, such as how good design is less important than good photos for websites in the restaurant industry. Having your contact information, address, and menu (if you are a restaurant) is important, because that is what the customer is most likely looking for when they visit your site. Having these elements also improves the SEO value and helps you beat out competitors on the internet marketing front.

To learn more about Nate Wright you can check out his Twitter at @natewr or you can find him at Theme of the Crop on Twitter. You can also find him on themeofthecrop.com or Theme of the Crop on Facebook.

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, and today I am joined by Nate Wright from Theme of the Crop. We’re gonna be talking about a hot topic that comes up whenever you’re doing a web project. Whether you’re an online course creator, a teacher, or an entrepreneur. It’s important to have some clear thinking around the differences between design and functionality, and how to use technology to support these two different things, and some things to watch out for.

But first, Nate, thank you for coming on the show.

Nate: Thanks for having me.

Chris: So Nate does something very similar to what I do at LifterLMS, where we’re predominantly, on my side, LifterLMS is a WordPress Plugin that makes it easy to create, sell, and protect engaging online courses. Predominantly we make plugins, but we also have themes, and other companies have built themes that work with LifterLMS. So, I’m kind of living in both worlds of plugins and themes.

Nate is the creator of Theme of the Crop, which is a technology solution for restaurants looking to come online and have a website that does the things that restaurants need to do. So, tell us a little bit about Theme of the Crop, Nate. What is it? And what do you guys offer?

Nate: Yeah. I call it a WordPress shop for themes and plugins for restaurants. So, basically I sell, kind of a package of plugin solutions, like Lifter LMS, which help you manage things like, restaurants manage things like online bookings, or restaurant menus. Or, in some cases, to kind of help out with certain kinds of SEO that are particularly good for business. Like local businesses, like restaurants.
And then, on top of those plugins, I also sell a suite of themes, and they are basically the presentation layer. So, the plugins kind of do the things the restaurant websites need to do, and the themes bundle all that stuff up and present it in a fashion that, hopefully, matches the restaurant’s character and fits their need. That sort of thing.
Chris: That’s awesome. So if you’re listening to this episode, and you happen to be a restaurant owner and are also making cooking classes, there’s not a better podcast episode on the internet to listen to right now, than this one.
But even if you’re not a restaurant owner or a course creator, at the same time, you’re still going to get a lot of value out of this episode as we dive into this issue of design versus functionality.
So I kind of take a similar approach, where I believe that plugins, in the WordPress language, are for functionality. And then themes are there for, you know, design. Or, like you said, the presentation layer. I’m probably gonna steal that, and use that expression later.
Yeah, I think of themes as design and, really, my experience with this is in 2012, I launched my first online course project. It’s still up. It’s called Organic Life Guru. It’s a gardening course’s website, and I partnered with experts all over the world to make gardening courses. I found a theme on Theme Forest, that was a LMS theme called Academy, and the site is still using that right now. Pretty soon I’m gonna be switching it over to Lifter LMS and all our stuff, but that’s where I started.
I started with a LMS Theme, but what ended up happening is I got kind of locked in. I can’t easily change the design cause I would lose all the functionality, you know, the LMS functionality that’s in it. So when I came around, after doing a lot of client work for people building online courses and membership sites, and doing those websites with WordPress, you know, I really got crystal clear on, you know, it’s nice for functionality to be portable and themes to be, you know, for design, so that you can easily change a theme later. Or, you know, work with just functionality in isolation from each other.
So that’s been kind of my experience with it, but, tell us more about how you approach theme versus plugin functionality versus design.
Nate: Yeah. Well, when I sort of got started with Theme of the Crop, which was probably, I think it was more like end of 2013. Around that time there were a lot of concerns within the WordPress community about what had happened with the sort of sudden growth of themes on Theme Forest, and the way that they would bundle functionality into the theme. Like you experienced with your LMS theme.
The problem is that you would buy this theme, and it would come with all this functionality. But then, 2-3 years later when you needed to make a change, you couldn’t just take your website you’d built, and move it to another theme because, both the functionality and the presentation were all bundled up together.
So, right when I started coming out with Theme of the Crop, was when there was a lot of discussion around this. And Theme Forest has since, sort of, come out with rules, basically telling theme developers you can’t bundle functionality with your theme. If you do, you kind of have to split it off into a plugin. And that had the right intention, but, unfortunately, you’ve ended up with the situation where every theme has split the two, but it’s still using it’s own proprietary plugin, and it’s own proprietary theme. And so, even though the data is technically separated, you still can’t really go from one theme to the next, because they’re using completely different platforms.
So, essentially with Theme of the Crop, what I do is I built a suite of plugins that were not just restricted to my themes, but which a number of other themers could make use of. With the intention that, somebody who buys one of my themes could move to a competitor and still use all of the same, sort of functionality. That’s kind of the ideal.
I think the reality is sometimes a little bit more complicated. But, definitely, sort of, it’s the question around lock in. If you, you know, if your audience tried to build it’s audience on a third party service, like Facebook or somewhere. They’re going to face the same issue where it’s difficult to actually get those customers and those relationships out of that locked-in, service-based place, and into a place where you control the data and you can do whatever you want with it. If you want to make a special thing you can go out and you can hire a developer and you can do it. But you can’t do that on a locked-in system like Facebook.
So, you know, it’s kind of descending levels of separation between all these different components. Which just allow you, your business to grow as you grow, rather than being locked into one thing forever.
Chris: That’s awesome.
Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the strengths and weaknesses, I guess, of the WordPress community. Cause WordPress has a, you know, it’s on a mission to democratize publishing and application development and these things. But part of the democratization process is, you know, just being, having open borders basically, and being able to, you know, take one piece out and insert another piece in without the whole thing falling apart.
So WordPress can be very simple, or you can get very complicated with, you know, lots of plugins and, you know, or a light weight theme or a heavy weight theme. So, it’s just one of the issues there. And that’s like such a great point about lock in, making things portable.
Even at Lifter LMS, we recently added a export feature. So you can actually export all your courses. And, you know, use that for a back up, or take them somewhere else, but that’s just part of our alignment with the issue of, like, not locking people in. We also have an import feature where we make it easy for people to pull in courses from somewhere else. So that portability is a big part of things.
What, in your mind, makes a great theme? And it’s sort of a loaded question because, one of the things I really admired about you, and wanted to have you on the show for, is how you got really very focused on one, very specific, type of user or customer.
Cause sometimes, you know, things, really, what we call a bloated theme, can do like, 57 different things, and all this stuff, but, just like with Lifter LMS, like we’re really focused on people who want to sell courses and that’s about it. It’s either resonates or it doesn’t.
So, what makes a good theme, in your opinion? And how did you get so focused on the restaurant owner? Or the restaurant user type?
Nate: Yeah. So, the question of what makes a good theme is tricky because it does depend a lot on the user. And it does depend a lot on, sort of the whole process around which the website is getting built, and how it will be maintained, and all that sort of stuff.
I think, in an ideal world, everything was completely separated and you had maximum flexibility and portability from one thing to another. A theme would do nothing but define the presentation of the site. So, you know, the colors that are used, the typography, you know, the font stacks. You know, basic layout things like, is the text on the left or the right and, you know, ideally a theme would only ever do that.
In reality themes kind of need to be a little bit aware of the content they are working with. The, sort of, any theme for any website, it really only works if you’re talking about specific archetypal websites. Like, any theme for any shop website. Any theme for any blog website. You know, it’s very hard to take a design that works really well for a blog, and make it work really well for a shop, for instance.
So, in that sense, although themes should be portable from one place to another, in some ways they have to be, what I call, plugin aware. They have to know the plugins they’re meant to be interacting with. In order to present them in the best possible light.
That’s where standardization and stuff comes in. So a good theme, will try to do less on its own. Like, it won’t try and have it’s own bespoke system for everything. What it will try to do is find master class plugins, for the specific features that its target customer needs, and it will integrate those plugins with the theme.
So, that could be using Lifter LMS. It could be, if I was a food blogger, it could be going out there and finding the best, most reliable, like, a recipe plugin, for instance. And making sure that my theme presents it really well.
So I think a good theme is targeted enough to know which plugins to select, and which plugins to not select. But not so specific that it only ever works with some narrow plugin that only the people using that theme are going to be using. What you want to do is find plugins that are widely used. That’s sort of my general PSA on what to do with themes.
In terms of finding the niche customer, you know, it was a little bit of an accident on my part. To be honest. I entered the space mostly just looking for some passive income. And I did a just kind of quick analysis of which niche I thought didn’t have too much competition, but might have a lot of buyers. And I settled on the restaurant one. And I made a theme for that.
And by the time I’d gone though that process, I mean when I set out I thought, I’ll just go out and I’ll find a plugin that works, and I’ll integrate it. And I went out and, you know, for a lot of smaller niches, there just aren’t very many good WordPress plugins. Sometimes there are none.
The restaurant space has opened up a little bit in the last few years, but in 2013, as far as I was concerned, there was no such thing as a good menu plugin, and there was no such thing as a good restaurant reservations plugin.
Chris: And there’s a lot of restaurants out there.
Nate: There are. And I think you’ll find, actually, that, sort of, the local business market is really underserved. It’s huge, and yet, when you talk to people in the, sort of, developer community, they’re entirely focused on blogging, publishing, or e-commerce. Whereas this massive market of local businesses that need good websites and need, like, plugins that solve problems for them.
Chris: Yeah, and one way to …
Nate: So I kind of stumbled into it. But once, yeah, go ahead.
Chris: … Oh, I was just gonna say, one way to think about that, if you’re, you know, trying to find one of those undeserved markets, is just think about a really small town. And think about like, you know, if they had like, only had twenty or fifty businesses, what would those be? Those are those opportunities you’re talking about.
Nate: Yeah.
Chris: Restaurants, of course, are in every town.
Nate: Yeah.
Chris: There’s usually a lawyer, there’s usually a, I don’t know …
Nate: Hairdresser.
Chris: … Hairdresser.
Nate: Dentist.
Chris: Grocery store. Yeah.
Nate: Yeah. I live in Edinburgh. And in most places in Europe, you have mixed use zoning, you know, its shops in the ground floor and apartments and flats above kind of thing. So I really just think about it like walking down my street, you know? What are the things that have to be within a 1 mile radius? That everybody has within a 1 mile radius because you have to walk to it. There are loads of business opportunities there, because they’re almost all being undeserved.
Chris: Absolutely. And I just want to say, like, from the Lifter side, there’s, you know, there’s a lot of people trying to teach. Now, I’m not saying Lifter LMS is a good fit for every single school in every single town. A lot of people aren’t doing online training. But, there’s also this misconception that the, you know, that the market is really just the, make money online niche of people trying to just make money on the internet by teaching stuff. There’s all kinds of applications of teaching that aren’t necessarily primarily focused on, you know, making money on the internet opportunity.
I’m just trying to think in the restaurant industry, you know, if you’re a restaurant owner and you, you could have some internal training that you’re not selling to the public, but, you’re curating, like, how you want your waitstaff to, you know, learn their job. And you’re taking like, the best waiter, or waitress, in your company and you have them help participate in making the lessons of like, how to train the new person. So that, when they start, they can take the online course, in addition to, you know, working with, shadowing somebody more experienced.
There’s all kinds of different ways you can use online courses, besides just, you know, trying to make money. If you were trying to do that in the restaurant niche, you know, lots of people have the interest in starting their own restaurant. You could have the restaurant, you create restaurant start up courses. You can get even more niched, like, what are you gonna do? Sushi? Italian? You know? Mongolian Grill Start Up Course or, you know, The Vegan Restaurant Start Up Course. Whatever it is, there’s just a lot of opportunity out there.
Nate: Yeah, actually there’s a lot of restaurants are doing their website and digital marketing themselves. You know, they’re not contracting that stuff out. So I think there’d be loads of demand for a course that really showed a restaurant like, how do you do local digital marketing?
Chris: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. Cause, I mean it’s, you may know digital or social media marketing. But when you really niche down like, to the, for restaurant owners, or for sushi restaurant owners, or whatever, you’re really getting targeted. And I can’t emphasize that enough, how much easier it is to compete when you’re really focused. As opposed to not.
Nate: And, you know, I think there’s a misconception in the digital marketing space that kind of, what works for one site works for every site. And, restaurants are sort of quintessentially local bricks and mortar businesses. And that means that there’s a lot of, they have a lot of unique technical needs. One example is, I did a comparison a while ago, on kind of different lead generation things that restaurants can use to capture people’s email addresses on their website.
Chris: So what’d you find out?
Nate: Well I cam down sort of recommending this service called privy.com. And what really impressed me about them is that they had, kind of an end to end platform that connected your website with the physical, like. Someone would come to your site and they’d get a pop up, which everyone is familiar with. And there’s a million services providing pop ups. But, you could have them put in their email address and it would send them one of those QR codes. Then they could bring that QR code in, and privy had an app that you could have your staff have on their phones, to just scan in the QR code, and …
Chris: So is that like a free drink, or a discount or something?
Nate: Yeah.
Chris: Okay.
Nate: The great thing about that is that, then you have end to end analytics. Like, not only do you know a lot about the person who came and visited the site, but you also know which branch did they end up going into, what did they end up purchasing, or like, using their discount on. So, that kind of linking up. There’s loads of space. When you really start to niche down you realize there’s lots of opportunity for doing things better, or a more narrowly targeted way.
Chris: That’s awesome. And if you just had like, some kind of general reservation system, that wasn’t necessarily just for restaurants, you never would have gotten that kind of inside. I mean, once you get really into the wants and needs and pain points of a really specific type of business owner, especially, you know, the problems and the opportunities are much more nuanced. So that’s …
Nate: Yeah.
Chris: … That’s really cool. Well, what do you think of, in terms of, what makes great design? And so, if somebody’s listening right here, like you’re a theme builder. You know, you help provide the presentation layer for restaurants. Just what are some concepts you use when you sit down to a blank canvas and start thinking about design? What are some things, what are some principles that people should thing about if they want to have a good design, but don’t necessarily know how to do it? They may know it when they see it, but what are some key concepts?
Nate: Well, I guess, first off I should say, I don’t really consider myself a top notch designer. And, in fact, for my last theme, I contracted out the, a lot of the actual, sort of initial, design mock up and stuff.
Chris: So there’s the first lesson. There’s the first lesson right there, which is, you know, perhaps leverage another designer. Like, or at least at the first level, to get the brand guideline or some general, like, styles.
Nate: Yeah. What I would do is I would distinguish between, kind of, aesthetic design and what’s often called user experience or user interface design. So, I’m not very good at that aesthetic design. And that is, you know, somebody can come up with a really cool logo, or who could make an awesome looking poster. That requires aesthetic skills, which I think I’m like okay at, but I’m not, you know, I’m not quite up there.
But the other side of it is much more focused on sort of, marketing principles and business, business outcomes.
Chris: Like you were just describing with the pop up and the connecting bricks to clicks.
Nate: Yeah, exactly. I like that.
Yeah, so the thing that I see all the time is, this restaurant has this website that has a million different style things on it. There’s animations going on, there’s loads of stuff going on. But they don’t have their phone number, or their opening hours, or even their address.
You know like, the very first thing that you should be thinking about in business is what does the user who comes to your website want to do? And how can I make that as clear as possible for them to do it? And, you know, that’s, you don’t need to be a good designer to figure that. You don’t need that, in fact, often times really good designers aren’t the best at that because they don’t know your business, and they don’t know your customers. They, you know, this might be the first restaurant or LMS website they’ve ever built. They might not know what are the priorities, and you kind of need to be able to set those.
And then, the other big thing that I think right off the bat is, how are you going to convert? So a customer might, like, a customer might want to come, and they might already know they want to come to the restaurant, for instance. And in that case, you just need to make sure that you can get the address, the phone number, or the opening hours as quickly as they want. Because that’s probably what they’re coming for.
But the other thing is, that customer who is just checking you out. How are you going to convert them from a potential customer into a real one? You do that by using things like calls to action. So, you give them a really compelling prompt that makes them interested in it. And then you give them a really clear action they can take to fulfill whatever you’ve prompted them to do. Whether that’s make a booking, or look at your menu, or look at a map of where you’re located. You know, something like that, so they can turn that click into a brick.
Chris: That’s awesome.
Nate: So that’s probably the second big thing.
The third big thing is, a little bit technical, but, for instance, particularly with the restaurant space. I mean, obviously mobile compatibility is really important for just about anybody on the web, but I think it’s especially important for restaurants. A lot of restaurant customers might be tourists who are in town. They might be, they might have data roaming issues, so they might be on a 3G connection. So they’re gonna be on a slow phone connection, and they’re probably gonna be checking out all of your competitors at once, trying to figure out where they’re gonna go.
Chris: So that’s where like a fancy design could hurt you, that has all these animations and things that are hard to load on the phone. And you actually, you know, they might just give up and move on cause your website’s too slow. Even though it’s beautiful.
Nate: Exactly, yeah. Yeah. And, yeah, and you’ve gotta be able to turn that visitor around as quickly as possible. And that’s a big, massive chunk of users. I’d say it’s probably more than 50% for most restaurants. Minus only the the tourist angle. And you’re right that, kind of the more fluff you put into your website, the slower it’s gonna be.
And finally, the last thing is, you need good design less than you need good photos. Obviously they’re all kind of part of the same thing. But, if you have a choice between spending loads of money on a whiz-bang website that someone’s going to make for you, or you can spend the money on hiring a photographer. At least for restaurants. This isn’t true for all niches. But, for restaurants I would tell them, you know, pay for that photographer. Because you can put great photos on a plain website and it’ll look way better than bad photos on a fancy website.
Chris: That’s awesome. Yeah, and in the course world we have a similar recommendation, in that, let’s not make the website too fancy. Let’s put all the focus on the lesson content, like the videos or the images. If you make everything around it, all these animations and pictures and things, it can get really distracting.
Well I didn’t realize that I had somebody with that million dollar skill on the line of UX design. So I kind of want to unpack that a little bit because I think that the user experience design is like a highly underrated and misunderstood. I don’t know if there’s even any way to like, really, if there’s training programs for it, or whatever. What I see when I run into user experience designers is, it sort of evolves over time. And then if they really niche down and really invest in the users, they think about all that stuff from that standpoint of, this person passing through the, you know, an experience, and how does technology support that. Instead of starting with, okay, I need all these building blocks of technology because I’m this kind of business. It’s very different.
In education, it’s all about the end user. Like, if, whatever decision needs to be made, as long as you focus on the end student, as long as it’s the best call for that person, everybody else wins.
And the same way, what you’re talking about is, let’s focus on the end restaurant, perspective restaurant goer. You know, if speed’s important, if finding it’s important. If, you know, getting to the menu, the hours is important. Those are really important things, I mean, there’s nothing more frustrating than going to a restaurant on Sunday and it’s closed and you drove a long way. Because you, the hours weren’t easy to find on the website.
I actually, because I’m the web guy, I look at restaurants a lot. Just with acritical eye, when I come across them, cause a lot of them have like terrible websites. But some of them like, even if it’s just a, I would rather go to a website where there’s noting more than a PDF. That has the menu on it, the office hours, the address and the phone number. I’m good to go. I’d rather see that than see a beautiful website that’s missing one of those things.
Nate: Yeah. And it’s amazing how many are missing it. It’s amazing.
Chris: Yeah.
Nate: Yeah. I don’t even know where to start on that because, it’s, yeah. I’ve seen a lot of improvement over the last three years, in terms of restaurant websites. But, you still run across so many where you just think, nobody’s put any thought into the problem solving side of this.
Chris: Yeah.
I do want to go off on a little tangent here because you brought it up, which is SEO. When you really niche down, you get the unique challenges of a really specific segment. So, for course creators, one of the big SEO challenges is, a lot of their content is locked down beside lessons and things, and membership. So, the search engines don’t necessarily index it. So that’s a huge SEO challenge that, like a blog site, doesn’t have at all.
Nate: Yeah.
Chris: So what is this SEO problem, or opportunity that you solve with restaurant sites? What is that all about?
Nate: Yeah, it’s primarily about rich snippets for local businesses. So, if you search for a restaurant, or any kind of local business, on Google, you know, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about when I talk about that little panel that appears on the side. And it’s got a map, and it’s got your name, a business name, and it may, or may not have, a phone number, opening hours. It can even have a link to your restaurant menu. It can have a link to where you accept reservations.
So, a lot of what I do is provide a really simple way to put in that data, and then out put it in a way that Google knows how to read and interpret and display that.
Chris: Super valuable. Super valuable, yeah.
Nate: Yeah. And should be, I think, like one of the primary parts of a restaurant website. But, actually getting people to be interested in this is quite difficult. Cause they haven’t yet made that search. Everybody knows you need SEO, but nobody’s quite recognized the value of local SEO for local businesses.
Cause it’s not like the main, when you go to Google on your desktop, and you put in that search, you get that side panel. But, a whole lot of people are doing searches directly from Google Maps on their phone, for instance. And the way that Google Maps knows how to put that dot, that shows where your restaurant is, is through, through that same kind of steamer mark up system. Yeah, I think it’s incredibly valuable, and kind of, a shame that it’s not really thought about by many restaurants. Cause a lot of restaurants have terrible websites, if they just had this up, it would probably make a pretty big difference for them.
Chris: So somebody who’s listening to this episode, go make an online course called SEO for Restaurant Owners, and you can use Lift LMS to do that.
Nate: Yeah, and let me know so I can tell my, all my customers, to go follow it.
Chris: Yeah. And then they can get some themes from Theme of the Crop.
So that’s a really good insight. Yeah, SEO is just one of those things. Sometimes, I think it’s important, especially if you’re doing something business to business. Some things are really hard for the business to latch on to. Maybe because there’s an education gap. Like, I don’t even understand this SEO thing, or, certain things are over valued. Like, oh, I want this animation in the slider and you’re like, no, they want your menu and your office hours. And they want it to load fast. So there’s a …
Nate: Well I think …
Chris: … Go ahead.
Nate: … Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a component of identity that’s wrapped up in somebody’s website. And so somebody really wants it to represent themselves, and because they’re maybe not a technical person, they can only relate about what they see. So, they want what they see, to impact them and represent them, in a way that feels exciting about who they are, whatever.
And, you know, that’s great for a blog or a personal project, but if you’re running a business you should be thinking about other things. Because what appeals to you isn’t necessarily what’s gonna work for converting visitors into customers.
Chris: That’s awesome.
Well I just want to kind of highlight the various archetypes, or types of people that, you know, when it comes to design, and development, and this is very, very, very rarely, these qualities are very rarely found in one person. So, oftentimes, you have to hire somebody, you have to buy a product, you have to consult with somebody, or whatever. But, so there’s really 3 areas, there’s the design, the development and the business part of it all.
So, like, I like what you said about design. There’s a aesthetic designer, and then there’s the UX designer.
And then development is all about functionality. It’s like, well, okay, well how do I make the SEO work? How do I get a restaurant reservation? How do I buy a course? Protect the course? All these things.
And then the business owner, you know, is, has really two jobs. One is innovation, which means making something valuable. Making food that tastes good. Making courses that create results.
And then they have the second job, which is the marketing or the selling of all that. And often, even within a business, somebody’s really good at like, making food in the kitchen, the innovation. But, they’re not necessarily awesome at sales or linking up pop ups to QR codes and all this stuff. So, yeah, it’s just important to realize where you’re strong and where you’re not strong and get products and people around you so you have a really well rounded approach to design and development.
Nate: Yeah, and one thing I’d add to that. Maybe a third job that that business person has, is to make sure that when they’re hiring a designer or developer, that that designer or developer understands the business imperatives. Not just the aesthetic imperatives or whatever. Because, me, as a developer, I come with a whole baggage of past problems I’ve solved. So whenever I come to a new problem I think about how I solved those other problems. But your problem, as a business owner, might be very different. It might have very different, like, solutions that have to be found.
And so, you know, as a business owner, if you’re trying to evaluate whether a developer you want to hire is the right hire for you, you should really look for a developer who instinctively knows to ask you about what these business outcomes are. If your developer is only asking you for technical specs …
Chris: Like, what functionality do you want? Or, what do you want it to look like?
Nate: … Yeah. Then you’re probably going to end up with something that fulfills your technical requirements, but doesn’t serve your business needs. Unless you’re very good at interrupting that person and making sure that they’re focused on your needs.
But, in most cases, you want somebody who understands that their technical skill, whether that’s technical skill with a designer, or a programming technical skill with the developer, is only one part of the problem, and that they need to reach out to you and figure out the whole picture.
That’s a really good way of vetting developers really quickly. Because a lot of developers won’t do that, and you’ll be able to weed out a lot of bad ones pretty quickly.
Chris: Yeah. And I would say something similar in terms of design. Design should be out come focused. Which, loosely, in the web world of design, should help with what’s known as conversions. Whether that’s a email opt in, purchasing a product, making a reservation, enrolling in a course. Whatever it is.
So, there might be great design, but if it doesn’t further that end result of, you know, getting someone to make a reservation, or easily find the restaurant, it may not be the right design for that project.
So, yeah, I like that. That’s why I called it the million dollar skill. The UX designer, or the user experience designer. Because, the user experience designer, if they can get in sync with the business owner, cause the business owner also really understands, they should understand, the user experience, you know, of their ideal customer, whatever. And the experience they’re trying to create. So once everybody’s on the same page, whatever the resulting, you know, website, or application, or whatever is, it’s going to be ten times better than, you know, just picking software off the shelf. Stringing it together.
Nate: Yeah, and I don’t want to discount, I mean, we both sell software off the shelf that people can use to string stuff together. So, I don’t want to discount that. I mean, I think …
Chris: But a lot of user experience went into the design of that stuff. It’s not …
Nate: … True, yeah. I mean, my reservations plugin for instance. I’m very deliberate about keeping the options minimal and keeping the booking form process as streamlined as possible. Which means I’m constantly fending off requests for other stuff. But, you know, when you have hundreds of thousands of customers, you know, you can’t fulfill every single little request. Or else you’re going to have hundreds of thousands of features that everybody has to deal with. Even if they don’t want them.
So, yeah. It’s like, I would say, when you’re choosing products, choose products that have been carefully designed.
But, yeah. Well, I guess what I was saying just a second ago is, I don’t want to discount the off the shelf stuff. I think what I would caution people to do is, if you take something off the shelf and you deploy it, be very careful about how you go about modifying it from that point on. Because, oftentimes decisions will have been made about things for very good reasons, and you might not understand why those decisions were made.
So, you might think, oh, well, I don’t want this here, I want it over there, and so you’ll you know, maybe you’ll go in and you’ll hack something about, or you’ll figure out how to get it from one place to the next. But, if the product has been well designed, then it’s been, it’s had it’s design done in a way that thinks about where everything is positioned and why and stuff.
And so, unless you really know what you’re doing. Obviously, everybody needs to customize stuff from time to time. But a good product will have really good, sensible defaults, that are best left alone, unless you really know what you’re doing.
Chris: Yeah, and that’s one of the neat things with the WordPress community. It’s both extendable, but also, I mean you can take it forever and go different places with it. But, yeah, I like what you’re saying, a lot of thought went into the defaults. I mean it’s easy, there’s a word that we use in software called bloat. Like, it’s easy to make something like, really bloated. So, the things that are there, especially if the product’s been around for a while, or has really come through a lot of intentional fore thought before it was launched. It’s important to recognize that.
It’s just like building a house. You know, all of the components that go into it you may not be aware of, unless you happen to be a house builder. But, there’s a lot of parts in there, and there’s also a lot of parts that aren’t there.
Nate: Yeah, like, you know, you might want to move a shelf from one place to the next, but you might drive that nail in and realize you’ve just driven it through a wire or something. You know.
Chris: Really.
Nate: There’s a lot that goes into it that you, you know, you might not be aware of, and that’s okay. Not everybody needs to be a technical expert. But, yeah, you have to be careful about, sort of, pushing things too far.
Chris: All right. Well, if you’re a restaurant owner and you’re also looking to teach cooking classes you’ve got. Come find these two guys that you see on your screen. Or, if you’re listening in the podcast audio only, this podcast episode is also recorded on YouTube. My name is Chris Badgett. I’m from Lifter LMS. And this is Nate Wright, from Theme of the Crop. If people want to connect with you, Nate, where can they find you?
Nate: Yeah, you can talk to me on Twitter @natewr, that’s N-A-T-E-W-R. Or, you can reach out to me at Theme of the Crop on Twitter. I’m also on Facebook. Facebook.com/Themeofthecrop. And I’ll reply to you anyway there. But, of course, you can check out my stuff and get in touch with me on my website as well at themeofthecrop.com.
Chris: That’s awesome. Well thank you, Nate. I really enjoyed our conversations around design and development and niche-ing down. Ton of value there for the listener. So, thank you for coming on the show.
Nate: Thanks for having me.

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.