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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To find out more about James Laws, you can go to mastermind.fm, adventuresinbusinessing.fm, or find him on Twitter at @jameslaws. Learn more about Ninja Forms at NinjaForms.com.

Thank you for joining us on this week’s LMScast. You can post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast.

Episode Transcript

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

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