Welcome to this episode of LMScast with Chris Badgett of LifterLMS! Today we get into professional web design for course creators, page builders, website speed, and a WordPress theme for LifterLMS with Sujay Pawar of Brainstorm Force and Astra.
Sujay and the Brainstorm Force team created the amazing Astra theme for WordPress, as well as a suite of other products that optimize the way you can use WordPress. Sujay shares his journey into the WordPress space. He also highlights his experiences with creating a product company that now employs 30 people.
In college Sujay started offering SEO and intellect partnering services to some clients in his free time. Most of Sujay’s clients were WordPress users, so he teamed up with his current business partner to offer both SEO and WordPress customization services. The duo started building some plugins for WordPress and then picked up developers as time went on, and Brainstorm Force was created.
Front line obsession is where you are very engaged with your customers and your community. This trait is very common among good service providers and product company owners. Building your courses and services around your ideal customer is what is key to seeing success with your product.
Themes on a website do the heavy lifting of design, plugins are predominantly focused on functionality, and page builders help you create more fancy layouts and do some even more detailed customization. Add-ons are an even newer branch of web development that is becoming popular.
Chris and Sujay dive deep into how important it is to keep your finger on the pulse of what your clients are needing. The goal of the Astra theme is to take a very modular approach to web development with the heavy influence of page builders. Astra now integrates with LifterLMS! So you can do a lot of customizations with sidebars, checkout pages, and student dashboard pages.
Brainstorm Force also has the Schema plugin that makes you appear better in search results. It allows Google to understand your website better and gain a higher level of confidence in your site. Schema makes websites, especially course websites, easier for search engines to analyze.
Go to BrainstormForce.com to check out the Astra theme and all of the other revolutionary products they offer. You can get the Astra theme for free, and you can purchase Astra Pro if you want more control over styling customizations.
Chris: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and I am joined by a special guest, Sujay Pawar from the Astra Theme and the company that makes that Brainstorm Force. Sujay’s company makes a lot of other products that we’re gonna get into, and Sujay and I first connected at Chris Lema’s CaboPress. We connected online before but we actually met in person there, and it was really great to meet you in person.
What you’re doing with the Astra Theme for the course building community is really awesome. I can’t wait to dig into it, but first can you tell us a little bit about how your journey into WordPress and becoming a product company, that you now have 30 people, 30-ish people, as a cofounder, how did that happen for you?
Sujay: First of all, thank you for having me on the show, Chris. This is my first podcast. So very happy to join you on the show. As you said, I am the cofounder of Brainstorm Force, which makes Astra Theme and various other products.
I started this company about nine years ago when I was in college. The journey started, I did not have any intention of starting a company or business, but I was just in college, trying to finish my college project, and I had some spare time. I had learned a couple of things while completing my college project. It was about a SEO world rankings and stuff like that, so I though why not make some money by offering SEO and intellect partnering services to some clients. That’s how I started and met my business partner, who was in the same business offering similar services. So, we joined teams, we started providing the services together and we started as an SEO company and most of the work we were doing was on now WordPress websites. Many of our customers were WordPress users. That’s how we started offering WordPress customization services as well.
Then we started playing with WordPress. We built up some plugins, submitted them on WordPress depository, and that’s how we got in the WordPress business too. Along the way we built our team of people who wanted to join us, who were happy to join our team, develop plugins and stuff like that. That’s how we built our team as well, and so here we are for nine years a team of 30 people who co-fund us. We still provide services, which include WordPress enterprise level services, many brands in India are our customers, I mean universities, [Indian 00:03:06] newspaper agencies and publication houses, and we have a products business too. I personally take care of the products business, while my partner takes care of the service side of the business.
Chris: Very cool, very cool, and for those of you listening, I just want to read off some of the products made by Brainstorm Force. The Astra Theme we’re going to talk about today, there’s also Ultimate Addons for Beaver Builder, Convert Pro, Schema Pro, which I’m sure came out of your roots in SEO, WP Portfolio and you’re working on an addon for Elementor coming soon. So, that’s a really nice suite of products, and we’re going to talk about those in a little bit, but when I first connected or noticed you online, I originally noticed you around the Ultimate Addons for Beaver Builder. Then, as I’ve gotten to know you, one of the things I’ve really noticed about you is we share, number one, a skill and a desire and a passion for strategy, which is great, but also you have this, from my observation, thing, I call it a front line obsession, where you’re very engaged with your customers and your community and you’re very professional about how you conduct yourself when you’re in your communities.
I’ve noticed with great companies, especially in technology and software, it’s very important, especially for one of the co-founders or founder or leadership people in leadership positions to really interact directly with the customers or the prospects, so that they really understand the need of what people want, and try to solve those problems with technology, and really just invest in those relationships. Where does that come from for you? Why do you do that? How did you make it such an important part of what you do, to interact with your community?
Sujay: Many of our ideas, the best ideas, come from interaction with the customers and I believe this is an integral part of our culture. We just like to go out, speak to our customers, try to interact with them, understand their needs, and that’s how we get general feedback for our products, seeing what people are doing with our products, how they use our products, what kinds of challenges they face interacting with our communities and forums. So, this is just a cultural thing for us. We just like to go out, speak with them, hang out with them. I believe that is the source of our main inspiration and ideas.
Chris: That’s very cool, and like you, we have a background in the service business. We’re pretty much a product company now, but I think out of those roots of working with clients you develop a… It’s different than just starting with the product business. I’m sure that having a service business serves you well too in terms of really keeping your finger on the pulse of what businesses are wanting and needing. I have one more question for you just around you. One of the other things I’ve noticed about your company and your products, and really your skill set, is you have this magical combination of design, development and business skills. A lot of times companies are strong in one or two of those, but not all three in the software space and in the WordPress community. How did you get such a well-rounded balance across those disciplines?
Sujay: To be honest, I was very good at code in college, but it’s been a while, I haven’t coded. I am, myself, a very design obsessed person, so I pay very good attention on all our products and see if they are designed well, if they have good user experience and stuff like that. As for the code, that just comes from my personal background in computer science. I can understand how things work and how things should work, but I’m not the one who codes. I’m very lucky to have a good team who have great skills in software development and code writing. So, it’s just my team who writes code, and I’m the one who takes code of our designs, I’m the one who still approves our designs and [inaudible 00:08:02] very good eye on the designs. That’s a good combination, thanks to my team who write good code, and I can take care of the other things.
Chris: Very cool, very cool, well I want to talk about page builders a little bit, before we get into courses and memberships. We’ve noticed at LifterLMS that not everybody, but there’s a percentage, a good, significant percentage of people who use page builders. So, the way I describe it in general is that themes do the heavy lifting of design, plugins like LifterLMS are predominantly focused on functionality and then page builders help you create more fancy layouts, is how I’d describe it to somebody who’s not in the industry and goes into more detail about how it all works. I noticed you came in with Ultimate Addons for Beaver Builder, which is really cool. I actually go to your page there on Ultimate Addons for Beaver Builder and look at the different things that you can do that adds to Beaver Builder to make it fancier. I get so much inspiration and design ideas from there. It’s just so cool. How did you decide to… I mean, themes used to do all the design, and then page builders came in, and then it’s almost like you’re part of this new category that takes page builders even further with all these templates.
Even in your Astra theme you have Astra sites, you have these prebuilt things. Where did this, how did this evolve so that you take things that are already existing and then extend them further, making it easier for the customer? How did that happen?
Sujay: To be honest, Ultimate Addons for Beaver Builder is not our first addon for page builders. The one before, our first commercial product, was Ultimate Addons for Visual Composer. We developed that in 2014, and that was our first commercial product. Like I said, our roots are in WordPress. We provide services to our customers, so many of customers who wanted flexibility, who often came to use asking for tiny, little, small-small changes, and we at that time were product developing our own page builder around 2013 when we had just started building WordPress plugins. So we even designed our own page builder, but it wasn’t very good, so we saw which are the existing good page builders in the market, and Visual Composer was one of them. It had good APIs as well, so we just decided to extend that, because it was very basic back in 2013. It did not have any good modules, good designs or good [inaudible 00:11:05]. So on top of the Visual Composer’s APIs we built new models, and we just thought, “Hey, why shouldn’t we offer these new models and new components to other people.”
So the starting point was we just submitted the new plugin that we had developed on [inaudible 00:11:27], which is an automatic plus, and it instantly went popular. We realized many people wanted similar functionality, similar extendability, so that somewhere in our addon for Visual Composer the very old page builder got in the market, so it was out of necessity. We wanted to provide more control to our clients. We started developing our own page builder, but it did not go well, so we just took and extended another one. So, Ultimate Addons for Visual Composer was very popular, being used by more than 30-40,000 people back then, before we started developing Beaver Builder addon. Beaver Builder was new, many people were jumping on the Beaver Builder ship, and many people always reached out to us, “[inaudible 00:12:16] you have a very good extension for Visual Composer. Without your extension we can’t even think of using Visual Composer, and why don’t you develop a similar extension for Beaver Builder as well? You have a very good set of modules, which you can develop in Beaver Builder as well, and we would be very happy to purchase your plugin.”
So, that’s how we got in Beaver Builder’s space as well, and along the way we had developed a theme for our customers for serving in our clients business. Rather than starting every time with a very, very blank and scratch theme like [inaudible 00:12:56], we had developed a theme that we called ‘Theme’ back then, which we just installed on our clients’ website. We extended that theme further. We improved it, optimized it and re released it in the WordPress depository, which is now known as Astra.
Chris: Very cool.
Sujay: That’s how we got in the page builder and themes market, and to answer your question how themes have evolved, I still remember like themes were digitized, all the designs used to come from [rejects 00:13:30] and WordPress pages were just for the static pages where you had an EMC and you just had to direct things. That’s how the content of your pages came from, but that has been changing. Themes are becoming very, very flexible. Themes are mostly responsible for controlling the basic structure and the basic layout typography, color set of your website, while the custom pages are being designed from the plugin nowadays, from the page builder nowadays, while plugins like LifterLMS do the heavy lifting for essential functionality. I believe that is the way it should be, even with [inaudible 00:14:14] coming, this idea is, I believe, being proved that page builders are a necessity, so that people can design unique layouts. So, I believe page builders are a good way for users to provide good control over the design and the flexibility.
Chris: That’s awesome. I think back when I started freelancing and building sites for clients, and this would have been around… I started building sites on my own around 2008, and then charging for it around 2010. If I had had page builders and themes like Astra and addons like modules and templates I could use it would have been… It’s just amazing how far things have come and it opens up the whole world of building websites, and not just any websites, great looking websites to more and more people. It’s very cool. I like where we’re heading here. Let’s talk a little bit more about Astra. So, you have an angle on it about speed, which I think is fascinating, because when people are selecting themes sometimes you hear folks say things like, “Don’t go with this one over here because it’s “bloated” and it’s slow.” How did you decide to focus on the speed problem? Why did you choose that to focus on?
Sujay: Like we just talked, nowadays the borderline between themes and page builders has become very thin. Themes are necessary to be very flexible and most of the designs are coming from page builders, so we decided to make a theme that works with all page builders, and keep it really very, very lightweight so that it works and it performs very fast in all browsers. So that’s how we decided to make a theme that is very flexible and performance focused. Performances are a very essential thing nowadays, because many themes that you see in the market today are bloated, but very few themes focus on the performance and we just decided to tackle that problem and that is speed and performance is the core of Astra.
Chris: Well, as I can see with the very fast growth of Astra I think you made a good strategic decision there, and also acknowledging that the function of the themes are changing and page builders do what they do, and so therefore the role of the theme is different. How did you decide to get into or focus on the course building memberships site market? Why is that market of interest to you?
Sujay: With Astra, what we want to do is we are taking a very modular approach. The first thing that we wanted to do was… I mean, modularity is at the core of Astra. We are making things very, very modular, so first our initial focus was page builders. I believe we did a good job at the page builders market. Many, I mean, for [brochure 00:17:51] sites, Astra is popular now, as people are using Astra in combination of any page builder of their choice for building [brochure 00:18:00] websites, but the next step for us was to integrate with LMS and plugins like LifterLMS, so that’s our strategic decision to integrate with more plugs in a modular way, in a way that it doesn’t become bloated, and it is possible, because of our modular structure. So, LifterLMS is an awesome LMS, and it was a strategic move to come in the LMS market and integrate with LifterLMS to offer LMS solutions to WordPress users.
Chris: That’s awesome, and I noticed that you guys also support Woo Commerce.
Sujay: Yes, we released our Woo Commerce integration last year, very late last year in December, and I believe it is one of the best integrations you can find on the internet with Woo Commerce. We have provided many good things, whilst still remaining performance focused, conversion focused without any load at all. We have tried our best to provide best Woo Commerce support. It is possible because we still do client projects and we understand clients’ needs, so that’s a benefit for us since we still do client projects.
Chris: Very cool. I have some more questions I’m going to come to related to that, but before I do, can you just describe, and we do the same thing at LifterLMS, we have a freemium model where there’s a free LifterLMS core plugin and then we have addons. With the Astra theme you have a free theme, and then you have paid stuff you can add to it. Can you describe for the people that have perhaps never heard of Astra what do they get with the free and what do they get with the paid?
Sujay: Sure. So, Astra free theme is kind of a framework. This is a very good base for your website. You get a solid structure and architecture for your website. On top of that you can install the plugins and build your WordPress website. It’s a blank canvas theme that you can start your project with, and with Astra Pro it’s an addon for the Astra theme. It’s not another theme, extended version of the theme, it’s a plugin that sits on top of the Astra and accents things. So, basic styling and design comes from the Astra theme, whereas if you need more controls or styling, or the appearance of your website, if you need more options in the customizer, these options are provided from the Astra pro theme.
Chris: Very cool, and in terms of LifterLMS, what does that mean? Are there things that you can get in the free theme for Lifter, or it’s all in the addon, or how does that work?
Sujay: When you install the Astra theme with the LifterLMS plugin, you instantly get a beautiful looking website for courses. Your courses look amazing, just by installing the Astra theme LifterLMS, but if you need more control over styling, for example more control over your checkout pages, more control over the [grids 00:21:28] or more control over your membership plans, or even more control over your courses and lessons pages, Astra Pro provides options in the customizer so you can customize the appearance, you can turn on and off some options. You can control how things appear on your website. So, the styling and the design comes from the Astra theme, whereas if you need more options you can get them from Astra Pro plugin.
Chris: That is very cool, and I wanted to focus on that point a little bit in terms of integrating with a tool, like you were saying Woo Commerce and now we’re talking about LifterLMS, LifterLMS is a plugin and there are addons, and if a theme wants to integrate, I mean, Lifter can work with any [inaudible 00:22:16] well-coded WordPress theme, and I’ve noticed some companies build… They may advertise Lifter compatibility and do a few things, but what I noticed when you came on the scene is you started doing a lot of things, and you started solving a lot of interesting problems like [inaudible 00:22:39] into the customizer, which is the way people with WordPress can toggle different options and adjust things and see them change in real time, which is very cool. You started almost, to me as a product guy, it looked like you were attacking very key, important problems or opportunities. So, to give an example of what some of those are, is you gave a bunch of different layout options that looked great out of the box, like box layout, full width, a bunch of neat options that were very easy to play around with and see which one you like.
As we all know, people have very different design preferences. Some people like the box thing, some people like the wide thing, so that was very cool. Then two of the features that really caught my attention, and this is where it’s obvious that you understand the customer, but also the customer’s customer, which is actually, in my opinion, the most important thing, you integrated two features called distraction-free checkout and distraction-free Learning. I’m really glad you did both, because course creators or education entrepreneurs, they need to build a business, they’re trying to make money, conversion is important, having distraction-free checkout is important. Keeping them focused while they’re checking out and eliminating distraction makes sense, but also you took the time to create distraction-free learning, so that as they get into a lesson there are fewer things going on, really focusing on the lesson content, which I thought that’s a feature that comes from a place, from somebody that really understands course creators and their students. Could you talk a little bit about those features and where the genesis of where those ideas came from? You didn’t ask me for that or anything. You just created it. I was like, “Wow, that is really cool.”
Sujay: Sure, so on this, I mean, we believe the devil is in the details. I personally believe the devil is in the details and when we integrate with some plugins like LifterLMS, I believe it is the job of our team to provide the necessary styling for the plugin. The integration, I mean just integrating and saying [inaudible 00:25:09] is not necessary. It’s not enough. We’ve got two move upgrades ahead, and insure that everything looks great and functions seamlessly on the theme. Besides that, from Astra Pro we provide some options, so users can do very near and amazing things and get better control over the design aspect of their website. So, that’s our thinking on integrating with plugins like LifterLMS. We like to design small, small things and on the nitty gritty stuff, ensure that everything works perfectly. While trying to do all these integrations, we try to understand who our customers are, what are the challenges that they face, what are the things that we can do to help them and we do a lot of research while doing any kind of integration anywhere.
At that time I personally noticed that the problem that course creators have is engagement. Many people, many students by courses, but very few of them complete their courses, and course creators often go out of their way to engage their students through various methods, like with certificates, badges and through many [gimmifiation 00:26:38] things. So, I thought from the theme we can provide them some controls, and help students focus very well on the courses, so the idea that popped in our mind was we can remove some distractions from the theme, like the menu, the unnecessary [inaudible 00:26:58], unnecessary widgets and just in one place help students focus on the course itself and remove the distractions. Anyway, e-learning it’s not classroom learning. They already have enough distractions, and one more distraction on the website is bad for students, to the idea came from a lot of research, understanding users’ problems and just seeing what we can do to attack this further and help our customers.
It just comes from a lot of research, a lot of reading and trying to understand the problems of our customers.
Chris: Well done. I wanted to touch on a little bit on you have something called Schema Pro. Can you talk about what that does? By the way, I got access to that through the… I got the agency license for Astra, which came with… Maybe you could describe, what comes with the agency license?
Sujay: Sure. Let’s first of all talk about the Schema plugin. Schema was our first plugin, first free plugin in the WordPress space. As our mentioned, our company comes from an SEO background and we wanted to get in the WordPress… We just wanted to see how [inaudible 00:28:25] WordPress plugins, and Schema was a very, very new concept back then. So, we developed a free plugin for Schema, launched it on WordPress [inaudible 00:28:33], and it is still the best, most popular plugin for Schema. It is mentioned on many websites and it is still very popular plugin, it has more than 70,000 active installs. So, we had developed that plugin, it was a free plugin, and we knew that we could still improve that because it was our first plugin, and it wasn’t a perfect plugin. We knew that we could improve that, so we decided to apply all our learnings that we had learned throughout the journey of the last few years, and Schema Pro I believe is still one of our best products. It is one of the best tools and it is the most easy plugin to use.
Schema is a very, very complex topic. First of all, users have a challenge to understand Schema, how to integrate that, whether Schema comes from the SEO plugin, whether Schema comes from their theme, because many themes claim that they have Schema integrated, or do I need to integrate another plugin to implement Schema. So there are a lot of challenges that we needed to solve, and the education part, we could solve that from trying to put articles on our website, educating people what is the difference between Schema and stuff like that, and how themes are different, how your SEO plugins are different, and how Schema is different. So, Schema, for anyone who doesn’t know Schema, it is something that makes you appear better in search results. You might have seen some websites appear differently in search results, and some appear very normally.
So, Schema is something that makes Google understand your website better, get better confidence of your website, that this page and this particular [inaudible 00:30:36] so that they can confidently display better information of your website in search engines. That is Schema.
Chris: What does Schema mean for course creators? What’s an example of how they might use it?
Sujay: If somebody is searching for a particular course, Google might just show random results that it has in the [inaudible 00:31:01], but if your website has Schema implemented for courses Google can show more detailed information for your website. For example, who is the author of your course, how much does this course cost, how many modules does it have, what is the title of that course, the duration of the course and stuff like that.
Chris: Which is much more useful if you’re looking at a search results page to see that information instead of just the headline and the first words on the page.
Sujay: Exactly, exactly. So, even though you not rank on the first result of Google, if you are a little below your search results look much better, so it is basically free traffic. If you’re doing Schema you might not rank as high as other websites, you can stand out in search results and get free traffic from Google.
Chris: That is awesome. Yes, I always respect quality SEO advice from a respectable source like yourself. That’s really cool that you have that going on. Sujay, I just want to say thank you, and just let you know how much I appreciate what you’re doing with Astra. Thank you for making it integrate so well with LifterLMS. It’s great to be a technology partner with you and service to course creators and membership site builders. Thank you for bringing good design and making [inaudible 00:32:39] cheaper and faster to build, especially for course creators. For those of you listening, I’d encourage you to head on over to the Astra site, which is wpAstra.com, and you can find out more about Sujay and his company at Brainstorm Force. What’s the URL for that one?
Sujay: Sure. It is brainstormforce.com. B-R-A-I-N-S-T-O-R-M-F-O-R-C-E dot com.
Chris: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for sharing your story with us and geeking out together with me about your products and how you built it and the evolution of your business. For those of you listening, check out Astra, check out Sujay, and yes, just thank you so much for coming on the show and doing what you do.
Sujay: Thank you, Chris. Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure.