Chris Badgett of codeBOX talks about the entrepreneurial journey from freelancer to WordPress education company with Shawn Hesketh from WP101 in this episode of LMScast. You will learn about the successes and failures that Shawn has had and how to create and maintain an engaged community.
Shawn has a blog, plugin, and courses dedicated to helping people understand and navigate WordPress. He has 26 years of web design experience. In 2008, he started WP101 as a series of videos to help people learn WordPress. When Shawn first started he was not making a profit, but over time he developed a stable business model so that it was profitable.
WP101 was not an overnight success. Creating stability and sustaining it was a long and tedious process. Shawn updates his videos with each update of WordPress so that the WP101 users will be able to have the most recent information. Shawn has also built up a large online community around WP101 that he maintains and is active in.
Juggling life can be difficult at times, so Shawn believes that you need to be aggressive with how you choose to spend your time. You will be able to see more success in your course or membership site if you build a community around it. Focusing on your community and the need you are trying to serve will take you a long way in your niche. It is important to actively seek feedback from that community. Shawn talks about how he stays engaged in his WP101 community and how he improves his processes based on the feedback that he receives.
It is also helpful for you to reach out to others who can help serve your customers. Licensing your material will vastly increase the impact of your information and your profit. About two-thirds of Shawn’s monthly income comes from his WP101 plugin and the material that he licenses out.
Chris and Shawn also discuss the importance of maintaining balance in your work-life relationship. Constant improvement and never ceasing to learn are philosophies that Shawn believes in.
You can learn more about WP101 and Shawn Hesketh at WP101.com.
Post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us.
Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and today we’re joined by Shawn Hesketh of WP101, which is a WordPress training site. I’ve met Shawn in person, and I’m really fortunate as the co-founder of LifterLMS to work with Shawn. And Shawn also uses LifterLMS to deliver his online courses. It’s a great honor to have you on the show. You’ve been a big part of the WordPress community for a long time. You’ve helped a lot of people get up to speed with WordPress, including myself. I remember the first time I met you, through Skype or whatever it was, I had heard your voice so many times before that I had that same thing.
People say that when they meet me now because of this podcast and my 200-some odd YouTube videos. You’re definitely a legend in the WordPress community and you’ve just helped a lot of people with WordPress, which helps them start businesses or build websites, which is really amazing. Your platform has been around for a long time. You have a nice, large community and I wanted to kind of pick your brain so that the people that are out there listening, the online course creators, the entrepreneurs, the teachers, can learn some pro tips and tricks from you and also where you’ve stumbled along the way. Shawn, thanks for coming on the show.
Shawn Hesketh: Hey, thanks for having me on, Chris. It’s an honor to be on your show, and huge fans of what you’re doing. I’m happy to talk about mistakes that I’ve made because that helps somebody else avoid making the same mistakes, then maybe that makes it all worthwhile, so I’m happy to do that.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. Yeah, I mean we hear this expression about standing on the shoulders of giants, and sometimes there’s a misconception that they always have to be these larger-than-life, in-person mentors. But you can stand on the shoulder of giants all around you in books and podcasts and shows like this or whatever, so sharing the ups and downs has a ton of value. Well, for the uninitiated who has not maybe come across WP101.com yet, what is your full offer? What is it that WordPress 101 offers?
Shawn Hesketh: Well essentially at its core, WordPress 101 is a series of video tutorials that help beginners, mostly people who are brand new to web publishing in general, to learn how to use WordPress to build beautiful websites for a blog or a business or whatever else they can imagine. We started very simply with a core series of videos that just teaches WordPress, and then over the years we’ve added additional courses that teach how to do additional things with your WordPress site that you might run into down the road after you’ve got your initial site built and up and running. We’re continuing to create new courses and new videos and new tutorials that might come down the road for topics like SEO and marketing and other things like that. We’re your one stop for beginners to learn how to use WordPress to build their site.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well before that, I know you came from a freelancer agency-style work. Just briefly, what was the journey? How did you get to wp101.com as being your main jam? Before that it was LeftLane Designs, correct?
Shawn Hesketh: That’s right. Yeah, LeftLane Designs was my design company that I started fresh out of high school way back in 1988, and for 26 years I was a freelance designer. Towards the last decade of that business I was primarily delivering branding solutions for small businesses and startups. In some cases they would refer to me as their in-house or their outsourced in-house graphic design department. We ran everything from designing the logo and branding materials to the messaging, the marketing strategy, which of course led to the web strategy. In the mid-’90s I was creating websites for my clients.
Then in the mid-2000s we started creating sites using WordPress. As we brought that tool in it gave our customers the ability to edit their own content, which was one of the more popular requests in the mid-’90s, without having to hire a webmaster, as we called ourselves with pride. I was a webmaster but they had to call us any time they wanted to make changes to the phone number on their website or whatever. We started using WordPress to give them the power to make changes to their own website. Part of that was handing off the keys to the client at the end of a project and providing some one-on-one personalized WordPress training, to get them up to speed with how to use this tool to edit their content.
After delivering that in-person 101 training couple of dozen times, I had customers say things like, “Hey, this has been phenomenal training but what happens if I forget everything that we’ve talked about two weeks from now? What do I do then?” That’s where the idea came to create a series of video tutorials, which became WordPress 101, but initially was just to serve my clients. I didn’t actually begin the journey of building WP101 as a product strategy. I never imagined that it would be where it is today. It just was born out of serving a genuine need and really the desire that I had to serve my clients better.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Then you also started helping other agencies or freelancers out there by giving them a tool that they could put into the WordPress website to deliver videos to their clients. To me, I remember that exact same experience where I would sit down, I’d be in a small business in their office, and it would take about maybe 60 minutes to get through all the details of publishing a post and categories and tags and putting images in there. Having a quality place for them to go learn on their own where they can use the pause and rewind button, that kind of thinking, it gave the customer a powerful tool and it gave the freelancer a lot more efficiency in their business. You really solved a really good business problem there.
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah, thanks for that. That’s exactly how it came to pass. In fact I created the series of videos for my clients. Then as I began talking with other friends of mine who are WordPress developers and designers in the space, they said, “Man, I need that for my clients. Set it up as a membership site and I’ll send my customers to you and they can get the video training there.” Then after a couple of years of delivering that, another friend of mine also a WordPress developer, Bill Erickson, said, “Hey, you know this has been great, but you know what would be even better is if we could deliver these videos directly inside my clients’ dashboard.”
“Why don’t you release your videos as a plugin, and then we can subscribe to the plugin, we can install the plugin on the client’s site, and then they can have the video tutorials right in their own dashboard and that would be an even better experience?” We created that product, the WP101 plugin, to serve WordPress developers and agencies, and that’s been incredibly helpful to a lot of businesses to be able to provide that training to their clients in the place that makes the most sense: right in their own WordPress dashboard. Yeah, that was a second way. We actually have three different streams. We have multiple ways we’ve kind of been able to leverage or put these videos to work, and that’s been kind of an interesting thing to see unfold over the years.
Chris Badgett: Well the third way, I believe, is just you license your videos to other companies. Which recently on our LifterLMS demo, I licensed your course and I sent it out to my email list. LifterLMS is a WordPress learning management system plugin for building online courses, but in order to really get going with it you need to have a base understanding of WordPress itself, so it was only natural for me to want to get the best-in-the-world WordPress training right there and encourage my people to take it.
It’s only going to help them have a much stronger foundation for building on top of that with online courses and other e-commerce and engagement stuff related to that. Licensing is just a brilliant thing. In the last episode, if you were listening to that one with Bjork Ostrom, he talked about how he was able to maintain recurring revenue for his membership site, because he was always launching a new online course every month, among other things that would happen every month. But one of his big, key takeaways is you don’t always have to create it, sometimes you can just license it. How did the idea for licensing come about?
Shawn Hesketh: It really came about from conversations about where customers or students will benefit best from the videos. Obviously end users would benefit the most from our membership site at wp101.com. There, they can not only watch our videos but also ask questions in our Q&A forum where course creators that we’re bringing on are able to answer questions. They get expert questions, that kind of one-on-one help. That’s one channel. If the customer would best benefit from having the videos directly in the dashboard, then the WP101 plugin serves them best. Then the last scenario is the one you described. Our licensing program is the best way to use our videos on your own website, usually within a support portal or something like that.
It’s just about ways of delivering the same content in different streams to deliver them in the best place possible for your audience. By thinking of our videos and our content in that way, we’ve created not only different streams of recurring revenue, but also ways to put the videos to work far more effectively than we would have just leaving it as our own website and having people come to our website and see them there. In fact, our plugin and licensing programs make up two thirds of our monthly revenue. Only a third of our monthly revenue actually comes from the membership site itself, which is where we began. By far it’s a lot more beneficial to everyone to think about ways to leverage those videos in other streams, including the plugin and licensing.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, that was a masterclass in segmentation and product/market fit and repurposing content through different delivery mechanisms, so thanks for sharing that. Let’s go back to your story a little bit and zero in on that moment where WordPress 101 was sustainable enough that you were able to really make the switch. I know that it’s more of a process than an event most likely, but what was the time of your life like where you were transitioning from doing design or agency work over to your online education company full-time?
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah. Well, I love meeting people who look at WP101 today and probably heard about us years ago. We started in 2008 with that first series, so in eight years we’ve come a long way. People come along now and look at WP101 and feel like it might fit those narratives that they might’ve heard about overnight successes, how you build a product and they will come, you just release this thing and it became…it was not an overnight success. It is not the holy grail of making money while you sleep, all those kinds of fun myths that are out there. In fact it was a very slow, tedious evolution.
When I released the first set of videos for my clients, those were not really even intended to provide any source of revenue beyond just a significant value add for my clients. We just provided those after the fact as a resource that clients could go back to. Initially there wasn’t even an expectation to make money off of these videos. When we turned it into a membership site to serve other developers and companies in the space, that’s when we started thinking about revenue, but even then we initially built the membership site on a pay-what-you-wish model.
It was strictly donations-based, whatever you feel like the training is worth, and it was tough to kind of land on a pricing point for the videos because the videos would have different value to someone depending on whether or not you’re using WordPress to build a blog, to share some recipes with family and friends, or you’re using WordPress to build a full-blown e-commerce site. The value of this training would vary wildly depending on what you’re actually using the videos for, so one way to tackle that was just to offer them under a pay-what-you-wish model. We did that for a couple of years, and in fact we even donated 50% of whatever you chose to pay for the course towards charity.
It enabled us to do some really cool things, but there was not an expectation to ever replace my income necessarily. It wasn’t until years down the road, maybe four years into the process, when we started having people approach us about becoming affiliate partners and wanting to use our videos for their customers in different ways. It’s really difficult to set up an affiliate program on a pay-what-you-wish model where somebody pays a few bucks, right? We realized that in order to really begin partnering with people at that level, we needed to fix our price points and develop a more significant, stable business model, pricing strategy.
So we kind of put those things in place. Then all along one of the drivers was my commitment to keeping these videos up to date. When I first started looking for WordPress tutorial videos to provide to my own customers, I only found one other set of screencasts and they were already badly out of date. In fact they still haven’t been updated. I knew that one of the challenges was going to be continually updating these WordPress tutorial videos with each and every release of WordPress. That takes time. It takes resources. We’ve close-captioned the videos. Now we’re translating them into Spanish. Each of those layers that you add adds a layer of complexity, and as you do that and you want to grow, that takes revenue to do all of that.
Yeah, it was a full four years into our eight year journey before I really began looking at WP101 more seriously, and treating it with kind of the respect that it deserved. Three years ago I started kind of slowly transitioning out of client work and freelance work to put more attention on WP101, attending more WordCamps, getting in touch with and having real conversations with WordPress beginners and figuring out how we can serve them even better. So yeah. It’s been a wild ride but it’s a slow evolution. I see a lot of companies today getting in trouble because their expectation is that if they just build this thing and release it, that the masses will come, and it often takes a lot more work. It takes a lot more effort, rather, to build a community than it does to release the product or the course.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Yeah, when you first said 26 years I think and the design work, to me, that’s another 26 years to overnight success because the people I see who do the best with WordPress or really any kind of web app, web development, web education, before all that they’re solving business problems. So use technology to solve business or life problems, and by doing all those hard yards of consulting and seeing where people are struggling and seeing what works. That’s also part of that journey that makes the technical training fill the business need backbone or whatever.
Yeah, I totally appreciate that. We all hear about the lean startup, which was originated out of the idea of lean manufacturing which came out of Toyota in Japan. They had a word called kaizen which means continuous improvement. Obviously you’ve committed yourself to that. About keeping things updated, I don’t know if you realize you’re actually talking to one of your competitors here in that I have a WordPress course on Udemy. I have over 16,000 users in it last time I checked. I haven’t updated it in three years. And Udemy has recently contacted me that they might be taking it down soon or something. I mean, it’s not that I don’t continuously improve things. It’s just that particular course I haven’t come back to.
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah, yeah.
Chris Badgett: Whereas when I see you, WordPress rolls out a new thing, boom, you’re on it like “Okay, this is what’s happening in .7” or whatever. It’s awesome. It’s awesome. Where does that come from for you, that commitment to continuously improving or updating? A lot of people get really focused on the product launch, but that’s just the starting line and you take that seriously. Where does that come from, that commitment?
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah, I do. If I had to make a distinction … What I see right now are a lot of companies that are product-focused instead of people-focused, and I know this seems grossly naïve and basic, but I find that this is an enormous differentiator. Because if you’re really doing what you’re doing to serve your audience, your community, then the products and the solutions kind of are easily born out of that. Commitment to update the videos comes out of my commitment to serve the WordPress agencies and developers and designers, and larger companies like GoDaddy and Media Temple, who are using our videos to train their customers.
Out of the commitment to that relationship, we have to keep our videos up to date always with the latest version of WordPress because otherwise this reflects badly on our partners, all of those companies that are relying on us to provide this training. It’s a relationship first model. Then kind of going a little bit deeper … When I graduated high school … I don’t know if I’ve told you this before, Chris, but I’m the oldest of seven kids. In a big family like that there was no money set aside for college, so right out of high school I knew that I wanted to go into graphic design. At that time the best place to study graphic design was in the Art Institute.
The Art Institute of Houston, my home town, was incredibly expensive. While I could’ve gotten some financial aid it also would’ve just meant massive student loan debt. Rather than going that path, I just went down to the bookstore and literally looked at year one, these are the books that they recommended, and I just bought those books right off the shelf, went home, and devoured them. That kind of commitment to just never stop learning, which is kind of a personal mantra of mine, has carried me through to today. It just has never stopped. I began learning about cool things like Gestalt theory and typography and leading and all these cool things that I didn’t know about before, and that kind of approach continues today. I’m still learning. That kind of constant learning, constant evolution, is something that I’m hard-wired for, so it makes sense then.
It comes out of that same desire, that same place, to constantly keep these videos up to date, to make sure that we’re serving people in the best way possible, because I believe in never stop learning. The moment you begin stagnating and you say, “This is the content, we’re done with that, it’s one and done” … From the moment that stops you’re losing touch with the people that you intended to serve in the first place. The more you’re able to stay connected with them, keep your content up to date, keep a finger on the pulse of what your customer, your audience needs, that’s going to inform what you create next, how you continue to evolve your course, your training, your product, or even your services. I’m deeply committed to a people first approach, and then developing products and solutions that serve them best.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Yeah, I love that story about going to the bookstore and doing that. I call that trait in somebody, which is really common in entrepreneurs, I call that batteries included.
Shawn Hesketh: That’s cool.
Chris Badgett: That’s actually one of the qualities I look for. It could be about anything but you can tell it, and when people tell stories about things they’ve done or how they got into something, if they just kind of clawed their way through it … Under their own power. There’s no carrot or stick approach. That’s really cool. Like I said, that’s a really important quality in today’s world when you’re building a team or just in terms of if you’re looking at focusing a lot of effort of your life into something, it should have that natural … You shouldn’t have to try too hard to be motivated about it.
Really that’s the big opportunity with online education. The way things are headed, it seems like the world is becoming more and more conducive to helping people who want to take charge of their own education and figure it out kind of in their own way, whether that’s take this course over here, go to this school over here. The world is just more … It’s out there for you. You just got to go do it, and that’s why people are creating courses in all kinds of interesting niches. Even if there’s only 30 people in the world interested in some micro-topic, they can now find each other on the Internet or whatever.
Shawn Hesketh: That’s right. Yep, absolutely.
Chris Badgett: That’s fascinating. I was mentioning batteries included as one thing I look for in a team. Throughout your journey, what has been your approach to team? Have you always wanted to be a solopreneur? Do you bring in freelancers as needed? Do you have any people, or have you had people and then you changed over time? Does anybody else in your family help? How does it all work? From a team perspective for you, what’s your philosophy?
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah. 26 years as a designer was basically solopreneur. For a period of about five years my wife actually was working for me. She was prior to that was an elementary school teacher, quit that after five or six years to come work for me. We did some great work together. She’s great about the administration side. As a team we worked that business really well, just a husband and wife team. These days she’s much busier homeschooling our kids and has more than her plate full right now. WP101 is primarily me full-time. But it’s not really a solo effort because when it comes to other pieces, for example the plugin, which is obviously software that’s installed on hundreds of thousands of sites, I don’t trust my developer skills to create something of that scale.
I’m more than happy to bring in developers who have the chops to be able to create that type of a product. We partnered with Mark Jaquith, who’s actually one of the lead contributors to WordPress, to create the first version of the plugin and then maintaining that plugin, we hire only kind of best-in-class WordPress developers who have a solid reputation. Because when we make changes to the plugin and push that back out, I want to be able to sleep that night knowing that we didn’t break hundreds of thousands of websites. I do bring in key people to help out from time to time. Then the other key area is in the creation of content.
One of our biggest challenges is there’s just no end to the number of courses and tutorials and videos that we could create to serve the thousands and thousands of WordPress products and services in this space. What we’re trying to do is to be strategic about: What courses do our audience would they most benefit from? Are they in fact asking for? And kind of just a quickly sidebar on that. Closing the loop on our earlier conversation, when you have a people first approach and you have real conversations with the audience you’re serving, they will tell you in the form of their questions, and sometimes more critical feedback, where you need to take your next training and where you need to provide some additional material to kind of fill in the gaps.
We’re listening to that feedback, and then that’s helped us to kind of informs our future roadmap of what new courses, what new training, or even what revisions to our existing course do we need to make to better serve our audience. When we talk about scaling a tutorial business like WP101, I realize that I can’t create all the videos and also keep them up to date all the time. What we’ve done is partnered with some other subject matter experts, and bringing them in to create the courses, and then partnering with them to make sure that the videos are the highest quality and the production that we’re bringing to the table is consistent with what people have come to expect of WP101. But we’re partnering with these subject matter experts because they’re the ones who really know these products inside and out.
For example, Daniel Espinoza is a noted WooCommerce expert. WooCommerce is an amazing e-commerce platform, and I think they just released a stat that says they’re powering something like 47% of all online stores, which is crazy. I do not have the skills to teach somebody how to use WooCommerce. Daniel does. We partnered with him. He created all the scripts. I partner with him to create the voiceovers, gave him some tips and pointers about how to create those on-screen actions. We did some editing together. It was a collaboration to make sure that that course was delivered in the best way possible, but essentially it’s Daniel’s content. Then Daniel now is available in our Q&A forum to answer WooCommerce-specific questions of members who have been through that course.
We’re using that same model to partner with other subject matter experts. The next series we’re about to release, in fact, it was created by Zac Gordon, who’s a very well-known and respected WordPress teacher across a broad range of topics. But Zac’s partnering with us to create a series of videos for the Jetpack plugin for WordPress. By partnering with subject matter experts, we can deliver the content that our customers want, that our students need and are asking for, but leveraging everyone’s time a little better. But it’s an interesting way to scale because it’s not quite bringing on full-time employees or even part-time employees, but really thinking more along the lines of partnerships.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Yeah, partnering seems more and more the way of the future as the world gets more complex, as the rate of change gets more complex. Unless you’re a superhuman you can’t do it all. If I made one point that I would be willing to make in every single episode, I would say just in terms of observing the successful online course platforms, I see four key things. I used to say three but I added a new one recently which I’m going to go over. The first three are the expertise or the knowledge, so the understanding of WordPress or WooCommerce with Daniel, like you mentioned. Then there’s the instructional design, which for you making the professionally polished videos, you have that design asset which you’re really strong in and you help your partners level up their game there. The third thing you need is a platform or a course delivery system to do that. Then the final thing, which I’ve added recently, which I see as a trend in a successful platform, is community.
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Both, especially the entrepreneur behind it, is enmeshed in some kind of community. For you I think that’s the WordPress ecosystem, but perhaps there are some other places, small business stuff where you live. There’s that community piece, and also part of your platform, like you said, people get to ask questions and you’re there to support them. So you’re fostering that community. It’s not just like a silent “Here’s the content.” If you get stuck you have a open feedback loop, which not only gives your people a great experience, it also helps you see where you need to improve and where new opportunities might lie. That’s really awesome. In terms of customer support, you’ve got that feedback loop. Where have you fallen down in customer support? What have you learned over the years? What is your style for customer support for your training?
Shawn Hesketh: I’ve gotten lectured recently because I think it’s surprising for some people to learn that I’m still providing 100% of our customer support by choice. We have 27,000 members on our site. The plugin is installed on hundreds of thousands of sites. We don’t actively have to provide necessarily technical support for all of those sites. Primarily the support requests that we get come through our membership site. I choose to actively participate in those conversations. We use Help Scout just in terms of sharing a tool, because it’s a very easy email-based support tool that doesn’t kind of put the burden on our customers with having to learn how to use our customer support system just to submit a ticket.
I’m a big fan of email-based support where they can easily fill out a form to begin a conversation, and then just email back and forth replies. But by having those conversations, that’s the best opportunity that I have to determine whether or not the training that we’re providing is effective. Are we actually accomplishing the goals that we set out for the course? Is it actually beneficial to our audience? Where might we be missing some key elements? If I keep getting the same question over and over again, then that’s a great way to kind of make a mental note the next time we write the course, I need to flesh out this particular section a little more and provide a little more clear instruction about this particular area.
I choose to kind of continue doing the customer support. In terms of dropping the ball, the biggest challenge with customer support is just the sheer volume and the fact that it just doesn’t stop. Right, it doesn’t stop for holidays and weekends and sick days and on and on. That is the biggest challenge, and I know that that would be an easy way to bring in someone else. A lot of people are tempted to. The first place, in fact, they want to kind of outsource is customer support, and I’m not sure that’s necessarily the best strategy. I definitely wouldn’t advise it in the beginning.
Because I think it’s critical to make sure that you continue to get that feedback. The way that I drop the ball is actually the way that I pick up the ball. I think it’s the fact that I’m always on. This is something that could be improved over time. It is definitely a challenge, but for the moment anyway it is manageable. It’s not something that’s eating six to eight hours a day. I can take care of all of our customer support within a matter of an hour to two per day, and for the time being I just choose to participate in those conversations because it gives me the best sense of where our customers and where our audience are, and whether or not we’re actually providing something of value to help them.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, that’s awesome. At LifterLMS we also do a lot. We’ve actually outsourced before and then pulled back. Thomas more on the technical side and me on the pre-sale side and some of the customer support side, we do a large volume of it ourselves.
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: We found that really investing in on it … Over time we could actually do double what we thought was possible in our time for it, and you learn little tips and tricks. We also use Help Scout. Great tool. We have some … Not canned responses, that sounds kind of negative, but there’s actually just common things that: “Okay, if I add this here.” All these little things save like 20 seconds here. It adds up to hours a month or a week or whatever. And it’s not necessarily the whole message but it’s just like “Oh, they’re going to need this little chunk, this little chunk, plus this custom response.” You can cover a lot of ground, probably way more than you think you can, once you get good at it.
Shawn Hesketh: Yeah, those responses are incredible. I use them as templates, and then like you said I tend to modify them. In fact I don’t think I ever just apply a template and hit send. So I always customize, but it provides a good place to start when you’re getting some of those questions over and over again, so a fantastic tool. I’ve never gotten a piece of negative feedback from any of our customers about the customer support experience. Help Scout, it works transparently, and the best tools I think are those that are kind of invisible but help you make the best use of your time.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. Here’s just one more. Help Scout has this thing where people can rate your reply that we have turned on, and we actually have it so that it goes to our slack. Then you can see if it’s negative there’s a red rocket, and then if it’s positive there’s a green rocket. Sometimes people leave feedback, so we’re like, “Oh, I can see their perspective. Maybe I would handle that differently the next time,” but you give people a way to vent but also to tell you where you’re doing well. We get a lot more green rockets than we do red rockets. Some of the comments that people make about how much they appreciate or how fast or how in-depth the help was or whatever, that’s really motivating.
It’s really motivating. Well, let’s go into one more technical detail and just do a quick lightning round here. A lot of people making online courses … If you’re listening on the podcast, LMScast, you may be listening in iTunes or Soundcloud or whatever, but we also put all these interviews on YouTube. We’re having basically talking head right now. But most of your content for your courses is screen sharing. Just real quickly, can you run through … I mean, this is somebody with, I don’t know, a decade of years experience making screen share videos. What is the technology stack that you use from the type of computer, the microphone, the anything in your office to make the sound better? What are you using? Even in the browser. What’s your stack?
Shawn Hesketh: Oh, you bet. I love geeking out and talking about this stuff. First of all, to your point about talking heads, I’ve actually chosen not to put my head on there. We experimented with that for a little while. There are some great tools. The tool that I use for recording my screen cast is ScreenFlow, which is an amazing tool. It’s only available for the Mac, so if you’re using a PC you might want to consider Camtasia instead, the other most popular screen casting tool or screen capture tool. Both of those tools enable you to capture a talking head. You’ve seen this in tutorial videos where your head appears down in the bottom right hand side or off to the side of the content that you’re presenting on screen.
But the feedback we got is it’s actually distracting. People didn’t actually benefit from it and to be honest, they’d rather have the screen real estate to be able to see what it is that you’re teaching. Now, the type of content that I’m providing is educational and we’re talking about a piece of web software, so it makes the most sense then to primarily be showcasing the screen actions, and so that’s primarily what I’m creating. We no longer do talking heads. We had a brief experiment with it. But for the most part, the feedback that we get is that our audience doesn’t want to see the talking head. They just want to see the content as it’s presented.
In terms of gear, software, I use ScreenFlow for capturing the on-screen actions. But to be honest I think most of this … The first impression that people are going to have of your online training videos is the audio quality. I’m an audio nerd with a background in music and audio and video recording, so I actually have invested quite a bit into my audio rig. These days you can get a lot better audio quality out of USB mics than you could when I first started. Probably one of the best USB-powered mics right now is the Rode Podcaster. Really popular among podcasters, and it’s so simple because you can just set it up on a boom arm and one cable plugs into your computer, you’re set to go.
No extra hardware needed or anything else. In my particular setup, I have a broadcast quality mic that is the Shure SM7B. It’s the same microphone that famously Michael Jackson used to record vocals. Pentatonix, the a cappella group, uses this as a performance mic. For me and my voice this was the microphone that best captured all the inflections and enabled me to provide the best kind of sounding voiceover, and I think that’s really important. When you’re delivering an hour and a half worth of content and people are listening to primarily your voice, it’s incredibly important then that your voice sound as good as possible so that it doesn’t become taxing or harsh, if there’s a lot of sibilance, over-pronounced S’s or popping P’s.
All of these kinds of things become a distraction to the content you’re teaching. The microphone is very important. It is not a USB-powered mic. It’s an XLR microphone, so I have an XLR cable that goes down to a preamp. I use the Grace Design M101, which I thought was an appropriate name for WP101 videos. But it also is a super clean preamp, and it powers this microphone which happens to be very power hungry. Then from the preamp I plug into a Duet by Apogee, which is just a digital/analog converter that plugs into my computer. I capture all my audio in GarageBand, because that enables me to apply some filters to the audio to make sure that it’s mastered, make sure that every voiceover that we create is being sent out at the same level, so that if I’m recording videos a year from now they’re at the same level as the ones that I’m recording today.
That’s really important when we’re constantly updating our series, and plugins like that do help to provide a better quality audio because we can also do cool things like making the audio, the narration a little warmer, for example, in tone. Then just master the levels to make sure that it’s all going out the same way. That’s kind of the hardware and the software in terms of the process. Real lightning round here. I’m one of these guys who prefers to script every single word ahead of time, so I tend to create a local demo environment first. Then do a dry run, during which time I’m actually recording and writing down every single word that I’m going to say, making careful notes about where I need to put a pause, for example, to allow for a little longer on-screen action.
Once the voiceover is done, recording the script as a voiceover, then I import the voiceover into ScreenFlow and then finally record the screen actions to match the audio, which is how we get that nice, precise action on screen, everything matches up nicely, and it gives us that professional quality that people have come to expect from our videos. Those are kind of the highlights of the process itself. That doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. I would only recommend a script-first approach if you have the ability to read a script in a conversational tone that makes where your listeners can’t tell that you’re actually reading, and that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. If that’s not the case for you, then by all means go for the conversational tone above the process, but that’s the process that’s worked best for us over the years.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. You’re standing up right now I believe, right?
Shawn Hesketh: I am standing. I’m at a standing desk.
Chris Badgett: Do you record your videos standing up?
Shawn Hesketh: I do record my videos standing up. Vocal coaches will tell you that you give better support for your diaphragm and you’re able to speak more naturally when you’re standing as opposed to sitting, so I prefer to stand. And also for all the other health reasons that we have become aware of in recent years. But I tend to alternate if I’m doing email and those kind of things. Then I’ll hang out in one of the chairs behind me in my man-cave and handle email from a laptop, seated. Then whenever I get up to do the serious work I’m always standing.
Chris Badgett: Well, that’s awesome. Well, in terms of the man-cave and needing good quality audio … If you have kids, which I know you do, I’ve got kids … Sometimes they come in here, but strategically I time interview times when they’re most likely not to be around. What are some work-life balance things that you’ve dealt with? I’ll just say for me as somebody who’s run an agency, who builds product, it’s been a long journey to go to have more healthy relationship with the work-life balance.
I used to sometimes work super late, four o’ clock in the morning, get up at nine, get really close to some severe burnout or whatever, let things ride. But over time I’ve really committed … That’s one area I really focus to that continuous improvement, and I realize sometimes working less I get more done because I’m more balanced, my energy level’s good, I’m not just pouring coffee on the problem all the time and my clients aren’t getting at emails at three o’ clock in the morning or whatever. Over time I’ve covered a lot of ground. What are some work-life balance tips for you?
Shawn Hesketh: Well, speaking to the recording, we do have three kids. Our kids are 13, 11, and 10 now, so they’ve been trained over the years. Daddy’s been doing this for eight years. They know I’m recording, that they need to be quieter than normal.
Chris Badgett: I just want to say when this curtain, if you’re watching this on YouTube, is closed, that’s a signal that do not come in here and don’t knock.
Shawn Hesketh: Exactly, I was just going to say when the door’s closed they know Daddy’s probably recording. We’ve stopped just shy of putting a red light outside to flash that recording is taking place. Some of that’s just about communication. Our kids have kind of gotten used to that. They know what that looks like. I’ve also spent a decent amount of money in recent years soundproofing the area that I do most of my recordings, so we actually have some portable soundproof panels that we bring into place to kind of create a vocal booth when I’m doing most of my heaviest recording. That definitely helps to cut down on outside noise. It also helps to give it that kind of warm sound.
Actually on that note, let me just make a quick little tip, because I wish every podcaster, anyone who recorded audio for the web, would use at least these two panels. I take every opportunity to recommend these. If you’re starting off recording your voice and you recognize that you’re getting some echo from the room around you, the best thing you can buy are two panels called DeskMAX. They’re the DeskMAX panels by Auralex, and you can find them on Amazon. They cost a couple hundred bucks. They’re essentially two panels that have a backing board on them and then they’re four inches of thick recording foam.
There’s two of them. They’re two foot by two foot roughly square, and you can put those on either side of your workspace and if you do that you’re going to cut out a good 80% of the room echo and noise that you’re getting from your room. It goes a long way toward increasing the audio quality that you’re producing. That little tech tip, I have to make sure and get that in and recommend it. It’s an easy thing to invest in. It’s not a permanent solution, so you can easily tuck them away in a closet when you’re not recording. So you’re not committing to putting foam up on your walls like I have.
With all the recording stuff out of the way, your real question was more about how to achieve that delicate work-life balance. That’s been an incredible challenge over the years, particularly during those transition years that we were talking about earlier, transitioning from being a freelance designer where I was already … You try to schedule your work as well as possible, but as a freelancer you often find yourself backed up against a wall where you can end up working long nights and weekends and that’s really challenging. Add to that trying to spin up a product and provide some service and support for that product, like we did with WP101, and you can pretty quickly find yourself working 60 hour weeks on a regular basis.
I’d be lying if I said that we never did that, and Kay and I had some hard times several years ago facing burnout, and we had to drop off several other activities, kind of extracurricular activities that we were really involved in, to make more time for ourselves. My biggest tip is to become aggressive about what you choose to spend your time on. We talked earlier about customer support. I choose to participate in the customer support but I know that I can manage that within just a couple of hours. When we’re not actively rerecording videos this business can be managed within a reasonable workweek, so I don’t have to any more juggle the nights and the weekends and all that kind of thing.
Rarely do we have a technical issue that requires me to jump out after dinner or in those evening or weekend hours to take care of that. The way that we’ve gotten to this place, though, is by aggressively minimizing our commitments. For our kids, for example, we found ourselves a couple of years ago in the space where one kid was enrolled in ballet and the other was in gymnastics and the other was playing soccer, and we were building up this time of year before the Christmas holiday. One of our kids was in The Nutcracker so you had additional practices going on.
And you’re trying to juggle a business and attending a Word Camp, and it was insane. It was insane. We actually sat down and had a tough discussion, Kay and I did, about the kind of life that we want to create and the kind of lifestyle we want to create for our kids. We want to be more known for a lifestyle of peace and availability to our friends. We’d like to have deeper, more meaningful conversations with family members who we neglected during those years when we were overworked and stressed and over-committed. To make room for those we’ve had to clear out some other things, so we this year did not participate in all the things, all the sports, the gymnastics and the soccer and all that.
That’s gone in exchange for doing some travel as a family, which has been incredible for us to kind of bond as a family unit, and doesn’t carry with it that strenuous kind of requirement, especially during this particular time of year. It takes a real commitment to be aggressive about your schedule, your calendar, and what you do choose to say yes to. I would just say it mostly comes from a place of being able to say no a lot. Sometimes it’s difficult to say no to those things, but that is exactly … In fact it’s the only way to arrive at the kind of work-life balance that enables you to do this meaningful work you’ve committed to for years to come. Ultimately that’s what we would love to be able to do.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. I think it might be a little cliché and I can definitely confirm this from my experience … When you’re in the beginning and you’re in the hustle sometimes you have to say yes to everything. That’s what I did. But then later it is about saying no.
Shawn Hesketh: Sure.
Chris Badgett: You definitely don’t want to go down in flames while you’re saying yes to everything and trying to figure out your path, but trying on a lot of different things is good.
Shawn Hesketh: I think a key in that, too, just real quick, is just thinking in terms of seasons. It’s okay to burn the midnight oil for a little bit. You’re working on an intense project. Whenever we record all of our WordPress 101 videos, the kids know that I’m going to disappear in my man-cave for three or four days, and those are going to be longer days. It’s okay to do those things for short seasons as long as you’re not committing to that as a lifestyle, and I think that’s what mentally helps you to be able to process those more stressful times, is knowing there’s an out. I’m only doing this for a short period of time and then we’re going to be able to get into a more reasonable balance.
Chris Badgett: Another thing I’ve seen with you, not just scheduling work but also I think you call it a daddy date night where you take your kids out, I’ve always admired that. Sometimes putting some things like that on a schedule is helpful, just to reinforce the balance.
Shawn Hesketh: Every Tuesday night. Tuesday nights are date nights, and it just happens to work out where there are generally four Tuesdays in a month, and so the first one is Mommy and Daddy. Mommy gets to go out with Daddy. And at each of the Tuesdays following I take out one of the kids, and it’s a great touch point. It’s amazing how getting your kids alone allows them and gives them a space to have conversations with you that they might not have in the presence of the rest of the family. It’s incredibly important time. It’s one of the highlights of our week.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, definitely on those date nights and on your travels and experiences, I’ve seen something coming out of you which is some incredible photography that you do with your iPhone. When is the iPhone photography course coming out?
Shawn Hesketh: That’s great, man. Thanks for needling me about that. It’s really interesting, I’ve always enjoyed shooting and our kids have been trained since the earliest of ages that there’s always a camera pointed at them. They’re incredibly photogenic and so they’re a lot of fun to shoot, but I’ve always enjoyed photography. It’s a good creative outlet outside of the other work that I do. For that reason I chose to never really pursue it professionally, because I don’t want to kill the love that I really do have for photography right now.
Chris Badgett: Keep it as a hobby.
Shawn Hesketh: Absolutely, it is a hobby so I enjoy shooting. This past year we took a trip to Florida and I did something really risky that I’ve never done before, and that was what you’re alluding to. I took the iPhone 7+, the brand new iPhone 7+, with us on our beach trip and did not take the DSLR and the big bag of lenses or even the Fuji camera that I have, it’s a little more lightweight. I just took the iPhone and kind of pushed myself to see just how good is this camera that they’re raving about, and the cool portrait mode and some of the cool things that they’ve built into this camera. I was blown away. I never actually missed the other cameras. What I instead enjoyed was the fact that I constantly had my iPhone with me.
Because it’s waterproof I didn’t have to worry about having it at the beach, as I was with my DSLR where I’m carefully guarding that thing. Just the freedom was a huge benefit, but the images were just stellar. Now, we’re still a ways from getting the same resolution, and I really do miss that, but in terms of getting the flesh tones right and the colors of those beautiful sunsets and sunrises on the beach, I was really impressed with how far they’ve come. Yeah, I think we’re just now in a place where a smartphone could actually become a legitimate photography tool, and we’re seeing some of those images. Who knows when a course is going to come out of that. I’d love to share some of the tips and tricks. Almost every image that you see has been edited in some way or another, so there’s a insider tip for you. But yeah, we’ll have to give that some thought.
Chris Badgett: Well, if not a course at least one YouTube video like the best of tips and tricks. That’d be awesome.
Shawn Hesketh: There you go. There you go.
Chris Badgett: Well, there goes Shawn Hesketh again, ladies and gentlemen, the same guy who bought the design books and did it himself. Batteries included, figuring out the iPhone for photography. Well, people can find you at wp101.com. Is there anywhere else where people can reach out if they want to connect with you?
Shawn Hesketh: You bet. You can follow WP101 on Twitter, @wp101. You can follow me on Twitter, @leftlane, L-E-F-T-L-A-N-E, and then I also blog at shawnhesketh.com.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, thanks for coming on the show, Shawn.
Shawn Hesketh: My pleasure, Chris. Thanks for having me on.