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