We’re going to find out how the worst employee in the world ends up building one of the most successful WordPress companies in the world.
And for all of you saying, “the internet wants to be free; information wants to be free,” we’re going to find out how he dares to charge for anything online.
James Farmer is my guest today. He is the founder of the company behind WPMUdev.com, the world’s largest WordPress plug-in store. The site has had over 100,000 members and you know I’m going to drill into the numbers throughout this interview. And those members get access to plug-ins, themes, support and community.
James Farmer, WPMUdev
James Farmer is the founder of the company behind WPMUdev.com, the world’s largest WordPress plug-in store.
Andrew: Hey, before we get started, I want to congratulate Timothy Johnson and his team of Mixergy fans for designing TurkeyKnobApples.com. By the way, they sent me a box of turkey knob apples. These things are not just delicious, but by the time I was done eating two or three of them, there was no room in my stomach for junk food so I felt healthier and I really enjoyed them. So if you’re looking for a gift for yourself or someone else, go to TurkeyKnobApples.com. You’ll enjoy the taste and how good you feel when you eat them.
These are the kind of people who watch and learn from Mixergy interviews. Doers like Timothy and his team.
And this interview you’re about to watch is sponsored by Scott Edward Walker of Walker Corporate Law. Hey, when you need a lawyer who actually understands the startup community, who understands who Fred Wilson is, who understands what tech crunch is, who understand what your competitors do and who understands what your investors are looking for when they’re looking at a contract, well when you need all that, who do you go to? WalkerCorporateLaw.com. That’s what I recommend, go there, talk to Scott Edward Walker or one of his colleges. I have know him for years and he’ll take good care of you at WalkerCorporateLaw.com
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Let’s get started.
Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart.
Well, we’re going to find out how the worst employee in the world ends up building one of the most successful WordPress companies in the world and for all of you the internet wants to be free, information wants to be free. We’re going to find out how dare he charge for anything online?
James Farmer is my guest today. He is the founder of the company behind WPMUdev.com, the world’s largest WordPress plug-in store. The site has over 100,000 members or has had over 100,000 members and you know I’m going to drill into numbers throughout this interview. And those members get access to plug-ins, themes, support and community.
James: Hi, Andrew. Great to be here.
Andrew: So I said over 100,000 members have joined. What about active? How many active members are pulling their wallets out and paying you guys?
James: Well, that’s a secret. We got two types of members. We got members who are actively ongoing. They stay members forever. I’d say we probably got, you know, around kind of 10,000 of them.
Andrew: 10,000 members who are paying roughly.
James: Yes, as of today. You know, current active members.
But we’ve also have a whole bunch of people who come, place $79, download a [??] themes, go use them and then if they have a problem down the line, if they want some upgrades, if they want some bit of extra support, then maybe they come back in six months and they’ll buy again or do something like that.
So I suppose those guys they’re probably more like 50,000.
Andrew: I see, they come in and they go. You saw me by the way write down a note here about the download and running people. One of the first things that I noticed on your site is you say You sign up, you get our plug-ins. You can use them after you stop paying. You don’t have to be a monthly member. You can get all the plug-ins, all the themes, everything.
I want to come back later in the interview when I think it will make a little bit more sense to get into it and ask you what do you do about the download and run issue and has it been an issue for you.
But for now, people are still trying to get a sense about how big this company is so let me, let’s do a little bit of math here. You’re prices are somewhere between $79, it’s either $79 a month that people can pay or more likely it seems like they pay $418 a year and that’s your annual price, right?
James: Yes. Just under $5 a month.
Andrew: Let’s suppose with some discounts and all things that might reduce the price factored in. You got $30 a month coming in from 10,000 users. So you’re doing over a quarter million a month easy in sales from this one business alone, right?
James: I wouldn’t comment on specific numbers but, you know, we’re [??] profitable company.
Andrew: Any outside funding?
Andrew: Is the way that I just did the math there crazy in any way? Am I off base by assuming 30, 300,000 dollars, I should say.
James: It’s not wildly implausible but the beautiful thing about having a subscriber base like we have, and being able to talk [??] service and building it up over time, is that you do have that predictable income and essentially, as long as you’re adding more members than you’re losing, then you’re going to be better off next month.
Andrew: All right. I want to find out how you keep adding more members than you’re losing, I’m writing all these notes down, I want to find out about this home membership business that you guys are running. But first this is more of a biographical interview where I want to find out the whole business story including what happened with that partner of yours, if you’re willing to get into that in this interview. There was a partner, there’s no partner now right? It’s you 100%. And how you bootstrapped this. So lets go back. What year did you launch the company?
James: Well, [??]. That side of the business. I really took the leap about five years ago. But it really all started seven and a half years ago, with [??] which is now become the world’s largest education talking platform which makes up about 25% of our business these days.
Andrew: Okay. By the way, the naming on this stuff, it’s Incsub is the parent company of WPMU and WPMU-dev. WPMU.org.
James: Yeah, well the .coms work as well. That’s another story in itself, is how much is costs you to buy the dot-coms when you don’t buy them in the first instance.
Andrew: How much did it cost you?
James: Edublocks about 20 grand.WPMU-dev was about 8 and a half.
Andrew: Okay. So where did the original idea come from? What made you said, I’ve got to start business for myself?
James: I was a teacher back in the day. I was lecturing education design, at a place called ??? in Melbourne. And I was studying WordPress blocks for lots of different people. And they hated blackboards. They hated online learning systems they currently had. And then this thing called WordPress.user came out, and I was like, wow, this is really cool. This means I can get them to set them up for themselves. So it all kind of clicked and came together, with edublocks.org was the domain name that I picked up, just as I had been browsing. Back in the day when good domain names were available. And ??? the two together. And I’ll be honest with you, as soon as that happened it wasn’t. There wasn’t any money involved. But what happened was I was sitting at home, having a glass of red, I put the two together, I stuck it on my blog, incorporated some [??] which was kind of like, I was a nerdy tech blogger. And I woke up the next day and 200 people had created blogs and I thought, holy crap, this is the business opportunity. This is the chance to actually make a difference. Create something. And do something cool for myself, which I think I’ve been kind of thinking about since I was, you know, 5 or 6.
Andrew: And all you did was install the version of WordPress that allowed other people to run WordPress blogs on your site. It’s just a version of WordPress that you installed on edublogs.org?
James: Yeah yeah, and to this day that’s what still there. It’s just a later version of it. Okay, admittedly, it was pretty much the earliest version. We predate wordpress.com by about 5 weeks. And so there weren’t a lot of [??] for doing that. I sensed that potentially. Though there is an Irish blogging sites. The oldest multi-user WordPress site in the web. So yeah, that was pretty much it. It was kind of like, ah, you know, if I had put this domain at edublog what would happen?
Andrew: When April interviewed you and asked you what the first version looked like, you said, awful. If you want to prove that something works, you actually have to create terrible user experience. Why? Why should you have to start with terrible user experience?
James: As i said, about my son [??] at that time was nothing. I had absolutely no idea at that time what I was doing. And I was also quite drunk. So that was the design. It was some horrendous WordPress thing. And i think I think some of my guys as Edublocks placed it up on [??] machine. It’s still sitting there, it’s just a terrible thing. But the thing was the idea was so compelling. People were like, oh my word, blogs for education. That makes perfect sense. So, yeah.
Andrew: And by the way, if someone’s listening to this, and reminds me in the comments, I will or April will or someone else will post a link to a screenshot of what that first version looked like.
James: It’s entertaining.
Andrew: You said you were drinking when you first put it out.
James: Stringing [??].
Andrew: By the way, you’re not going to ask me to edit any of this interview because you admitted you were drinking, or the revenue. Anyone who admits revenue seems to come back and say, ‘Andrew, can you please remove that. That’s bad for business.’ You’re not going to ask me to do that, because I don’t edit. It’s an awkward experience for me and my guests.
James: As you’ll notice, I didn’t actually admit revenue.
Andrew: That’s true. But you gave me enough hints to get a sense of where things are.
James: That’s fair enough.
Andrew: The first version, is it that if you have an ugly first version and things really take off then you know that the concept works versus if you have a good looking first version and you can’t tell, is it the concept or are people just reacting to the cute design that I created?
James: It is a good question. We had a completely failed project called Blog [??] back in the day that we spent a good six months trying to put together, it’s probably 12, and the idea was it was multi-user hosting so you could start your own multi-user site. Don’t ask me why it didn’t work. We put all this time into it. We had this big launch. We got on Mashable. It was like a big who-ha and had this beautiful front end [??]. All that remains of that beautiful front end, that beautiful site, is the [??] that we developed for it, which we [??], every day because we spent so much time working with the concept ourselves and so much time convincing ourselves, ‘This will work,’ and so little time testing it with other people that as soon as we got it out there, it was like, ‘Actually, everybody wants this.’
Andrew: Putting it up quickly let you know, ‘Do people like it and what do they like about it?’ The drinking part is interesting to me because I feel like, to put out a version that you’re not especially proud of, that’s not especially beautiful, it’s fun to look back on, seven years later, the way you guys did in that blog post that I hope to link in the comments, it’s fun that way because you can say, ‘Look at how far I’ve come.’ But the day you have to launch it, you have to wrestle with your inner artist, with your inner perfectionist and get past the hesitation and the worries about what your friends will think of you. Does just to have a couple of drinks help you get past that, or am I reading too much into that one little statement?
James: It’s a conversation I have literally every day now because what happens is now we’ve got a team of 30 people and I work very closely with our lead designer and he’s a perfectionist. That’s a wonderful thing because I’m not a perfectionist. We complement each other really well. I say to him, ‘Let’s put that out. Let’s do it.’ He [??]. We have this continue, scrappy thing. I think that when you’ve got nothing to lose, you have nothing to lose. It’s your personality. It’s your own personal issues that are holding you back from sticking stuff out there and thinking, ‘It’s not good enough. It’s not ready,’ [??]. If you have nothing to lose, go there. Stick it out there. These days if I send out an email, 100,000 strong email, ‘[??] this new product. I want it to work, look quite nice, although, at the same time, just get it out there and see what happens.
Andrew: April tells me you’re not allowed to touch code now, but I can see how wrestling with people internally, where you’re the guy who says, ‘Let’s step on the gas,’ and they say, ‘Let’s step on the brake and make sure that it looks good.’ That combination could really work for you. One other thing before we go on to the next stage in this evolution. I’m wondering how does doing all that consulting work, building WordPress sites for people in the education space, how did it arm you and prepare you to build Edublogs.org, a site that allowed them to do it for themselves? How did it make you better than someone else who might have had that idea?
James: It’s exactly the same model, Edublogs to [??]. What was happening was that I was being demanded [??] people they wanted a blog, they wanted these features, they wanted this functionality, they wanted it to be easy and put it all together. I had to go out. Do the [??], walk around, talk to them, go through all of these different things and when we came to putting together Edublogs, it was obvious what people wanted because I’d spent six months being harassed by them for what they wanted.
Andrew: What did they tell you? What did they harass you for and say, ‘We need this?’
James: They wanted a WordPress [??], first thing’s because everyone hated Blogger and [??] to change their license and it was too complicated and [??] remains, unfortunately. Horrendous platform for any sort of [??]. I’d say even for advanced users [??] and [??] and stuff was incredibly hard. They just wanted WordPress and there was this massive [??] demand for it. Then when it came to WPMUdev we’d been working, before we really [??] turned on the after burners on WPMU, before we switched all our focus onto that, we’d been working for big clients building WordPress multi-user sites from ISPs in Brazil to newspapers in Scandinavia. A hundred grand plus projects putting together these WordPress model user sites for them and it was hard [??], but everyday we’re being told, ‘We want this feature. We want to have this model [??]. We want to have this control. We want to have all of these different things.’ When we came to launch [??] we knew exactly what, what are the [??]? What do these WordPress people out there wanted [??].
Andrew: You could launch a site that would allow them to not just have a WordPress site of their own but also package in all the plugins that you know that they needed but none of the crazy ones that you imagined they wanted but they couldn’t figure out. You understood their mentality?
James: It was real life because with Edublogs, it was just me, but with WPMU deck [SP], we were doing all the consulting beforehand.
Andrew: Let’s get into that, why there was a second site because Edublogs was doing OK. You launched it and soon afterward you got actual users who came to the site and created accounts and so on. Why did you decide to then go to the next property which is WPMUdev?
James: Edublogs was getting users but that doesn’t mean it was getting a whole heap of money. We have these two things, we have Edublogs [??] goes up to the supporter thing going on which [??] making nothing. And we had a campus solution which is where we set up [??] school, was making some money and that was great.
Andrew: Because schools are more likely to pay than individual educators?
James: Exactly. That wasn’t going to allow me to jump ship from my new job, which I’d since got, off the back of Edublogs which was running the online community for cycle [??] company, which is the largest news website in Victoria. I was [??] pretty nice salary there and it’s a great context and I was probably making 10, 20 grand in the background [??], but it wasn’t going to support my leap. Then Hat Trick appeared and I don’t know if your readers will know about Hat Trick, but you should. You really should. TheHatTrick.org is an old school, very successful site. Started in Sweden. They are a fantasy football [??] in the literal fantasy sense. Your own fantasy team. Your own created players that you play against other people. They got in touch [??], ‘We’d really like a blogging community just like Edublogs. Think you could do that for us?’ I said, ‘Sure. Let’s have a chat.’ They said, ‘No worries. We’ll fly you over to San Fran [SP].’ I was like, ‘All right. If you insist.’ They [??] over. We had a good chat. We got on really well. It helped that I’m a bit of a football fanatic myself and actually played [??] before. The founder’s a really nice guy and we got talking. We agreed on some specs. We agreed on a price. I went back and I realized, all of a sudden, I had the money I needed to make the leap. I also had the business model because clearly if this guy was searching me out to create this thing for him because he’d seen Edublogs, then if I started advertising, that’s what we did, was create these things for you like Edublogs, then we’d be golden.
James: And we were.
Andrew: You said, ‘Edublogs is now [??] in a lot of money. Educators aren’t going to pay much money and advertising’s not going to kick in much and, yes, we can charge organizations to bring us in for all their educators, but even that’s not enough money. If we can build sites like this for other people, the way that we did for HatTrick.org then that’s where the real money is.’ But it wasn’t, was it?
James: This is the thing. It was for a short time. There was a golden period where we were the world’s only Word Press MU developers. At least the only ones advertising the fact. From about 2007 until 2008 it kicked in big time. For somebody who is working late and salary [??] to give up their job and suddenly come in and make some large slices of [??], this was incredible. Then the GFC came and suddenly people didn’t have enormous budgets to spend on blog communities. Global financial crisis, you know? The whole thing kind of went, boof, and suddenly, the clients willing to pay 6 figures disappeared. And that became quite difficult. And it all went a little bit ??? And so we’d been doing really well for about ??? year and a half doing this kind of thing, with Edublocks kind of playing in the background, it all became a very challenging environment indeed.
Andrew:-I see. By the way you mentioned a nice salary. You’re a smart guy who was earning a good salary, you should have been happy but you weren’t. You actually, you told April not only were you not that happy but the people you were working with were letting you down and maybe they weren’t that happy with all the ideas you were bringing in. Can you talk a little bit about what life was like as an employee?
James: Yeah you mentioned the world’s worst employee thing. Actually, Its like an anecdote I suppose. I’ve managed to work my way through sales, through education, through teaching, through researching, lecturing through working as editor of an online newspaper. And I’ve never once, in that entire time, been able to be promoted. I’ve been fired by ??? And basically the reason is, I’d get a job and go and say, yeah, this is cool, we can do this, we can do all of these different things. And do massive research on it. Id get in there and sit down and be like, Okay, lets get going with this, lets get going with that. And I think a bunch of people ??? And I’d be stepping on people’s toes and I’d be upsetting people in meetings, and I wouldn’t be doing the correct political thing and it was a bit of a nightmare.
Andrew:-Alright so then, we talked about Edublogs, we talked about consulting work you did and how great it was until the economy with pear-shaped as you said. And then you launched WPMU.dev. What was that when you originall launched it?
James: So yeah. WPMU.dev was something set up initially back in the day, by the guy who I started things with, a guy called Andrew Bennett. And it was just a place where you could store WordPress MU. WordPress multi-user plug-ins. It was free. And so people knocked in a few plug-ins, they stored in there, became a bit of a resource, became a ghostly site. But, as I said, suddenly people weren’t willing to shell out big bucks for a blogging community. And to be honest with you, working with clients in that context, while it was really independent and fun and you got to do all of these things, it was also very challenging and I think everyone here has had a number of difficult clients in various ??? around the world would appreciate what I’m saying. And so I thought, what are we going to do? How are we going to get out of this pickle? How can we bring out a better working environment, a better situation? And I had this idea about taking WPMU-dev and say, okay, well, why don’t we start hosting some of our own plug-ins there and developing them, and charging people for access? Which was a pretty radical idea in the open source world, WordPress world.
Andrew: What was their reaction when you said, we’re going to be selling plugins for WordPress?
James: It was shocked without the awe. WordPress, for people that aren’t that familiar with it, are the word kings of that community. It’s a pretty unique and special place. In term of commitment to GPL, commitment to open source, commitment to, what are those different practices. And that makes it the wonderful place that it is. But at the same time, that means, when say commercial imperatives, or I would like to say, quality imperatives of charging to make something good come up against everything should be free, as in free beer. People can get a bit ???
Andrew: The idea is the WordPress community would say it, we are an open source project. If you build anything on top of it, you’re benefiting from the fact that we’ve made this open source for you. And so you can’t then charge for it and then obfuscate your code, you can’t charge for it and then ruin the river that you’re drinking from. That’s their point of view. Developers like you will say, I’m spending a lot of time building for this platform, I am spending a lot of man hours coding for it, I’m risking my financial future. I just want to be able to charge so I can pay my bills and that’s where the friction is. And when that happened to you, was there one specific bit of feedback that was especially painful, did you get an email from Matt Mullenwag? Did the community. You’re smiling, what happened?
James: Look, we’ve had our run-ins with matter and other people in the past. I think, partly, in some respects, due to certain people, who aren’t necessarily there now, anymore. Around this whole GPL thing. Around this [??]. around not losing different licenses. Because what Matt was saying was, “Okay, what are you doing, it’s fine as long as it’s 100% GPL. As long as it’s 100% open source.” So you cannot keep charging code. You can charge for it, but you’ve got to release it like that.
Andrew: Which means you can charge me for the code, and then I can put it free on my website for anyone else to download and take.
James: You can go and sell it on your website.
Andrew: Sell it on my website. Right, exactly. And by the way, I’m not making a judgment about him or you. I would be a crappy interviewer if I did that. What have to come in here with is an understanding of what happened. And more importantly, how you reacted to the realities of the world as they are, not as you wish that they would be. So just tell me a little bit more about what the pressure was, because when an avalanche of criticism comes at us, it is so much more painful than we imagine when we’re watching it come at someone else. When it comes at someone else we go, he deserves it, or this is fun. But when it comes at, when it came at you, what did it, how did you feel about it, how did you react mentally?
James: I think it has to in fact. One of them is negative, and then it makes you feel like, you’re swimming upstream. You’ve got nothing behind you, you know, it’s all a massive pain in the ass. nobody loves you, and you want to go hide in a little cupboard somewhere.
Andrew: So was there someone who was especially painful, that made you want to run and hide somewhere?
James: I’d say you do get a group of people. I wouldn’t specify any particular individual. But there’s probably a core kind of, couple dozen people.
Andrew: And how were they telling you this. Was this by email or blogging about you that was most painful?
James: Yeah, you’d say for example, you’d get comment threads on other sites and people would just let rip with. It starts with basically defamation. In any other context, it would put them in an awful lot of trouble. And yeah, it’s not fun. It’s not fun at all.
Andrew: So why didn’t you back away? Why didn’t you say, “Hey, you know what guys, I gotta go do something else?”
James: But it’s not, it’s the other side. And this, to me, is actually kind of a good side. Because I think, I don’t know if that many people read us will be interested in football, that is real football. Soccer.
Andrew: Yes, the one with your foot. Right.
James: Yes that’s the one, the real one. Anyway there’s a great manager, Jose Marina, who manages Real Madrid these days. But there’s one pulsing from various different continents and his approach to management involves a lot of saying to people, building a defensive wall around his team. Almost like, us against the world. Screw them, man. We’re going to go out and show them. What are these people saying all of these horrible things about us? What are these people hating on us? We’re going to go out and smash them. And that’s kind of how, yeah.
Andrew: That’s the way you felt. You said, “When the world pushes you back you want to go and smash some heads”?
James: Yeah, and the world preferably.
James: There’s nothing that quite shows an argument than winning it by demonstration.
Andrew: Okay, all right. And so, you got up and you had to deal with the world as it was.
James: Well, I think the, for example, I found it very hard to advertise on different WordPress sites because of the name we were getting and the way that we were being presented in that context. So I figured, fuck it, I’m going to start my own WordPress site and make it as successful as possible. And that’s now wpme.org. Which is the world’s largest WordPress site. For news sources.
Andrew: A news site about WordPress.
James: Yeah, and we’re the only advertisers.
Andrew: And so you launched that, you built your own community, you built your own audience so that you could promote a site where you sell your own plug-ins.
James: That’s correct.
Andrew: You know what? I cycle and I run a lot. And what I notice about specifically cycling is, if there’s an uphill, some people will get off their bikes and walk or slow down before the hill even comes. And what I noticed about me, at least with cycling, and I noticed it only because my wife and I have been cycling a little bit lately. I will speed up, up a hill because I want to not lose momentum and just keep building it. You’re saying the same thing happens with you. Thankfully, Olivia can keep up with me. But you’re saying the same thing with you. You see the hill, and where some people go, “Nuts to that, I’m going to go away and try some other activity,” you saw it and said, “I’m going to charge up higher. I’m going to intentionally bring more out of myself and become better for this.”
James: Yeah. Although it wasn’t a . . . I mean, there’s two things at stake. Firstly, I waned to make this thing a success, you know.
James: I didn’t care how many times I had to give it whatever direction I went. I wanted to be my own boss. I wanted to make my own decisions. At the same time, it was like the hill was the proving other people wrong and saying now look I’m right about this. This can actually work. People need to have . . . people are using WordPress for business. They’re using things . . . it’s not just [??] private blogging. It’s not just my cutsie little project anymore. This is serious business. This is . . . and that has become the case. They need plug-ins. They need resources that they can rely on that are top quality. And that are supported massively. And the only way that we’re going get the support to take it to the next step is fine model like [??]. So whether you like it or not, this is needed. It’s required.
Andrew: You’re saying it’s needed and it’s a business tool that’s needed and the only way that it could be provided is if there’s some revenue in there. Otherwise they can’t afford to keep going.
James: Exactly. So, like it or not guys [??]. God forbid you’re trying to make some money out of WordPress. But this is for the good of WordPress I believe and I think that I’ve been vindicated.
Andrew: You did adjust though. Where you are selling your plug-ins. But essentially you’re selling more than your plug-ins. You’re really selling . . . I think I could . . . I went to the site and I think I saw that I could buy a plug-in for 19 bucks.
Andrew: But I’d be stupid to buy a plug-in for $19 because right next to it, it says or you can buy all the plug-ins with membership for $34. Right?
Something like that.
James: If you’re happy to pay a year up front.
Andrew: Right $34 is what it comes out to annualized or $79 per month. So basically you’re selling the membership. Is that where more of the action is?
James: Well look. It’s anywhere I want the action to be, you know. I want the action to be there for two reasons because I think that having an ongoing support basis, you know, for your project is a really good and valuable thing. And you’re going to miss out and you’re going to waste a huge amount of time searching around for answers, attacking friends to help you out than otherwise being a member. But also because lets face it, you know, a lot of people see us as a download site. You know, they see it as, OK I’ll come here. I’ll download these things. I’ll bugger off. I’ll come back in the future if I want some upgrades, a bit of support. And I don’t really like that business model.
James: I mean it’s worked for us so far. But what we’re doing these days is we’re putting a massive, massive focus on our support and on our services. And on the sort of things which will hopefully keep people as members in the same way people will stay members of our SEM mods for example or [??].
Andrew: See they might come for the plug-in, but what they’ll stay for is the fact that they can chat with other developers in the WordPress space. Or if they have an issue, they’re paying for someone that they can talk to who can help them out.
James: We’ve got a massive support team. We’ve got eight developers. We’ve got eight dedicated support guys. [??] and including myself or our designers and those people who also come and help people out. And those are . . . essentially these people are available to you as a member to talk with. And I don’t think I’m kind of engaging in hyperbole when I say that the most experienced WordPress team on the web available to you right now.
Andrew: I know that. Right now as we speak, the person who is working on my site is . . . you’re smiling because you know it . . . is one of your guys who does support on your site, but we’ve hired him to manage our site. I’ll say what it costs because anyone can go over to thewpvalet.com and see the guys who we hired to manage our site. We’re paying them $800 a month. Something like that. To manage our site. So I see the level of people who you get.
James: Yeah. Mason is absolutely fantastic. And it’s a really great business. And that’s something actually that we encourage pretty much a lot of our people to do if they want to. Explore their own opportunities. Because I mean, I’d rather have someone like Mason, happy to work with us and also happy to build some other business and work in his own area as long as it doesn’t compete with us, then to not have Mason. It makes perfect sense to me.
Andrew: Do you secretly wish that the guys who do this suffer as entrepreneurs, so that they know what it’s like to be you and stop complaining? Sometimes?
James: I’m not suffering.
Andrew: You have as an entrepreneur. But employees often think hey this guys got it made, life is good for him, he’s got to take really good care of me. If they start their own businesses on the side, they realize hey you know what, I should really sympathize or empathize with this guy a little bit more.
James: Not at all. Actually, I offer as much help as I possibly can to people going in those directions. We’ve had people like that. We’ve had ??? who now operates words for WP. Who is one of our writers, she really came through dev and then went on to stratospheric writing career. I think I half lost her because I introduced her to ??? Like, thanks guys.
Andrew: Let me understand the evolution of the product. First it was plugins sold individually. Then it became a membership site.
James: Well it was plug-ins sold individually because we had so few. But it very quickly became a membership site.
Andrew: And then the idea of what to add to a membership site is not easy. You know, there’s so many things that you could have put in there. what’s the first thing that you put in addition to the plugins?
Andrew: Support. For the plugins only.
James: Yes. That was the idea in the first sense. And it was massive. [??] support is quite interesting and I think a lot of people do this nowadays so maybe I’m preaching to the choir. But we do our laundry in the open. So you can literally go and check out all of our support tickets right now. On WPMU.com/forums. And it’s not forums so much anymore. It’s more of a Q and A and a community discussion and all of these different things. But by doing that, what you do is, I think you encourage a level of quality. You encourage a level of openness and transparency. And what happens is, every time I’m helping someone out, doing some really great work for someone, that’s a sales pitch. And not just a sales pitch to the world, it’s a sales pitch to Google.
Andrew: You’re saying when you help someone, it’s a sales pitch to Google because when someone else is searching for that same problem, they come in and see, I see.
James: Absolutely. We’re about to have our 300,000 post.
Andrew: Something, by the way, is stealing our bandwidth. Let me see if I can shut a couple of things down just in case. There we go. Okay, so first you did support. What was the next thing you added?
James: The first thing we added was our first attempt at a service. And it’s a very specific service. Most of you guys would be familiar with the Kizmit. An anti-???
Andrew: An anti-spam blog tool.
James: There we go. There’s my mind working ahead of my mouth. And yeah, it’s an anti-spam tool. What we created was a tool. Imaginatively called Anti-Splog. Which does the same thing as a Kizmit. That’s the WordPress multi-site, sites. And it stops, well it tries to stop through various methods, and an API system that intelligently learns what sites are splogs and what sites are not Splogs
Andrew: These are just blogs that are nothing but spam. They are created almost automatically, and actually automatically. No one’s sitting there creating these blogs necessarily, they’re just created through software and they’re nothing but spam.
James: Yes, although these days, actually people are creating them.
Andrew: Oh, is that right?
James: There’s a lot of MTurk stuff going on out there so you can’t rely on stopping machines you’ve got to focus on stopping the men. So we’ve got a huge [??] It’s very successful, I’m running it now. The main thing about this was, I could turn WPUM into a massive ??? site, which meant people had to ??? subscribed tomorrow. And I could do this by saying that you have to have an active API key for out plugins to work. But doing that, as well as making me an asshole, essentially go entirely against the spirit of WordPress. It wouldn’t be open source software if that were allowed to be the case. So what we have to do is we have to work around the margins to find services that we can provide to people like this anti-Splog, which runs off our API. Which add value and keep people as members. Support anti- Splog. We have training videos as well. They also run off an API. So all of these things allow us to stay within the margins of WordPress and also offer a really good service where we’re not bait-and-switching people.
Andrew: I see. And so if they stop paying for their membership then they lose access to your spam blog protection service.
James: They do. They still retain access to a whole raft of Splog protection devices, but if they want access to our intelligent API, that is learning and is going to tell them, educate [??] and they need to continue becoming a member.
Andrew: How [??] was that?
James: Very [??].
Andrew: I mean for sales, not in stopping it.
James: I mean for sales.
Andrew: For sales?
James: Basically when it comes to the WordPress [??], we’ve got it wrapped up. At the end of the day I don’t think there’s any growth left for us in WordPress [??] or multi [??]. We’ve got pretty much everyone we need to get and everyone who then comes on to use new multi-site will find us and will say, ‘I need them to provide a good service.”
Andrew: Then they can’t stop being members because then they lose the service. So you have a lock-in on a customer?
James: Also, multi-site is a business proposition, or it’s a, more often than not, it’s someone who wants a big network of sites and wants to be able to do all of the different things they want to do because it’s got a financial imperative. It makes perfect sense. They’re great customers in that sense. They’re people, they’re not doing [??] hobby blogs. They’re not doing it just as something they’re going to play around with, they’re serious.
Andrew: That is the benefit of going after someone who’s a business customer as opposed to a hobbyist. Business customers will spend and they’re more predictable spenders.
Andrew: How did you know this would be a problem that was worth building a solution for?
James: Because Edublogs was being attacked every single day.
Andrew: How’d you know other people were having this problem to the extent that they’d be willing to pay for it?
James: [??]. We constantly have people asking for it.
Andrew: What would you hear them say?
James: ‘We’ve been assailed, everyday I’m having to spend half an hour cleaning up spam blocks [??]. It’s a complete mess where our servers are being taken down. Frequently they are. When it is about to [??] as opposed to [??] attack. It will ruin you because the number of [??] is required to set up the blog on a [??], pretty huge.
Andrew: How do you launch something like this? Because this isn’t the kind of solution that you can launch half-assedly. You have to actually do something with this. It has to be built from scratch and it has to work. It could improve as you go on, but it has to work from scratch. Most people would say, ‘This is too overwhelming. I’m going to walk away.’ How do you simplify that need to a place where you can actually launch it and serve a need?
James: it was almost easy to us because we needed it so much on Edublogs. The time and effort and money that we’re spending dealing with this on Edublogs and the problems it was causing us with servers and all of those things just made it a no brainer. I would love to know what WordPress.com used to manage their best blogging [??]. I imagine it’s [??], or something custom, but obviously they haven’t seen fit to release it. It was an imperative to us. It made perfect sense and this is what some of the wonderful things about Edublogs, because what it does, it allows [??] to see what we really need is we need a tool that teaches to be able to manage classes on multiple blogs around here. We’ve really got to do this, so we’ll build this for teachers. Then we’ll get some more schools and some more teachers will sign up. Now we’ve developed it, why don’t we release it on WPMU [??]. Then you get a bunch of teachers who’ve got their own [??] installation [??] schools [??]. ‘That’s great. I’ll buy that off of you.’ We built [??] for yourself, let me sell it to other people.
Andrew: Have you ever built something for yourself and then realized, ‘There’s nobody else who needs this. This was too unique a problem because we’re experts. We had this problem because we’re massive. We had this problem, but hardly anyone else.’ Tell me about that.
James: There’s a bunch of different things. We sent a lot of people down a really bad business path because we had this thing for Edublogs that was called Supporter. The idea was that as an Edublogs user, you could contribute 30 bucks a year to support the site and you would buy some credits and then you’d be able to support the site [??]. We put this together and we put it on Edublogs and we released on WPMU deck with great fanfare and then over the next year about 75 people on Edublogs used it. That was it.
Andrew: Everyone who’s a supporter is essentially donating to the site’s health because they believe in it so much. You said, ‘We’re going to make it easy for people to donate to Edublogs and we’re going to make it easy for all these other multi-site award priced installations to enable their users to support.’ It failed. You actually sent people in the wrong direction meaning this donation business is not a business.
James: Exactly. We [??] failed for us and then [??] failed for [??} other people that we gave it to.
Andrew: What do you learn from that? What does it take for someone who’s listening to us to say hey, I want to build a solution for my needs and then sell it to other people, because there must be other people like me. What can they learn from that story?
James: The thing is, did I make money off that, from selling it around there. Did we make money off of it. Yeah, we probably did. So, that wasn’t such a bad thing in a business sense, however, I think at the end of the day when you’re going for pushing it out there, the best approach isn’t necessarily to go with your own intuition, I think a far more successful approach to us, one with which we went down the path at the end, was to look to other successful sites and say, hang on, why don’t Essex and Marx [SP] for example, asking for [??] donations for members. They have a subscription system in. What about if we try that? And we did that in the end. We ended up switching over to a completely different model but we did that because rather than sitting there scratching our own heads going oh, how do we change the world ourselves, or these things, we surround ourselves and we saw how other people were doing it and then it became quickly apparent that was working really well for them and therefore other people were going to be far more interested in this demonstration of how these guys are doing great jobs and something we’ve come up with sitting in an ordinary town.
Andrew: I see, so what I’m hearing you say is first of all, get a reality check before you launch by checking your ad scene. Has anyone using this? Is this working for the most successful sites out there and if it’s not, it’s not necessarily a stop, but it’s an indicator that you might be off base. The second thing you’re saying is hey, if you solve your own problem and you have access to other people who are similar to you, even if you don’t solve their problem, you could still end up generating some sales because you’re all going to be experimenting together so this isn’t such a bad thing.
James: No, it wasn’t such a bad thing.
Andrew: All right. I want to talk about another setback here. The partner. Help me a little bit about how you acquired a partner and well get into what happened afterwards. You launched with a partner, so far we’ve been talking like everything was just you in a room, where did this partner come from?
James: So, Andrew Phillips [SP] who was the person who was the person who originally set up [??] itself, and was an early member of the Word Press community and was essentially a coder. [??] run a few plug-ins for it and I met him on the Word Press forums and I was kind of like, hey dude, you know, I kind of want to do this for Indy blogs and I want to do this without much money, because I really didn’t have any money at all and I don’t know, in exchange for whatever favors and maybe a small bit of cash, could you kind of write a couple of plug-ins for me? and he was like yeah okay and he did a couple of things for some indy blogs and then this hat trick, this thing that I told you about earlier, I came out of there and thought wow, this is great we have all this stuff. Oh no, someone’s going to make it! and so, I had to [??] get going there but this was the time when we first worked together and essentially I was a client, I was concept, I was design, and Andrew was code. and we put these things together and so we worked together pretty well. He was in Birmingham, Alabama and I was in [??] so time zones were a bit tricky but he didn’t seem to mind staying up that late and so yeah, we essentially got together as a kind of like, I was a client, he was a developer, or maybe the other way around, I’m not sure. He was the developer. I’m not sure he was the client in this case, and so we got something out, we did all right and so I kind of figured okay, I’m using this money now to make the jump, and making the jump is all well and good but I think I needed somebody who’s there to make the jump with me and somebody who has a skill set that I don’t have, which is writing plug-ins.
Andrew: You’re technical co-founder, even though you’re a technical guy yourself, you wanted someone else who could do that.
James: I’m not sure, I’m more of a pseudo-technical guy.
James: I know enough to be dangerous but ugh really, I wouldn’t trust me to ugh
Andrew: Okay, all right. Then maybe you’re more of a classical technical guy, business tech guy combination. More like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniack and his [??] business type than know everything developer who partners. So you and Andrew got together, you made it a 50/50 partnership.
James: Because I’m an idiot?
Andrew: Well, talk openly. I like that you’re talking openly.
James: I was coming into business and I was thrilled. I was excited that I was doing so myself, but I was also coming into it with a utopian ideal. This utopian ideal said to me, ‘[??], we have 50/50. We’re sharing this here equally. This means we will both put in equal. This means we will both passionately care. This means there will be no problems about who’s doing more work, or who’s doing less work. This means that we will work out our problems in the same ways as a marriage does.’ If you think about it, a marriage is a typical 50/50 arrangement, in most cases. [??] let’s try this. On reflection, if I screw up the emails where we discussed this. I haven’t looked back on them too much, if at all. I think it was apparent that he would have happily taken 25.
Andrew: Even if you knew it at the time he probably would take 25, your feeling was, ‘No. I want him to have 50/50 so that he feels the same sense of ownership as I do.’ Before we go into why didn’t things work out, one thing you thought that, at least, you should have done is taken 49 for yourself, 49 for him and two percent to a trusted third party. I’ve actually heard the other way, that if you have three partners, even if it’s to the small degree, there’s always the danger of two of them beating up on the third guy and there’s no protection for the third guy. There’s pluses and minuses to both.
James: The way the relationship works, the way the business was run, it was a 75/25.
Andrew: That would have been the best way to go, 75/25.
James: I think he would have been just as invested. He would have been just as happy with the revenue that came in from that and I think it would have reflected how things were. That would have been a successful way to go.
Andrew: Why didn’t things work out?
James: This is the thing. We went off. We did some great climb projects together. We started [??], Edublogs really took hold when I was in those directions and then, I can’t speak for him because I don’t know exactly where he was going with this, but what had happened was essentially we started to hire more developers. We started to hire more people. I think that he started to feel a little bit irrelevant. I was still the business guy, [??], ‘Let’s do this. Let’s do that.’ Going these directions here and he was like the plugin guy still.
Andrew: And increasingly one of many developers. One of many tech guys.
James: I was trying to be as inclusive as possible and bounce different things off him in these contexts, but he wasn’t liking that so much. Also, I think that we made quite a bit of cash by then and he paid off his mortgage and his house in [??]. Bought himself a condo down in the Gulf Coast. He bought a couple of jet skis.
Andrew: Way to go James and Andrew.
James: I have neither the condo, the paid off mortgage, nor the jet skis.
Andrew: Because you weren’t taking money out or because you weren’t using it?
James: It was because I think [??] my kitchen.
Andrew: But you still took money out of the company, just as he did?
James: Totally I did, but I [??]. It’s a lot more expensive.
Andrew: Connection broke. You were saying Melbourne where you’re living, you’re in Australia right now.
James: It’s a lot more expensive [??] there and I’ve got a family as well and a partner and all these different things. He was a single guy. To him it was all 100 percent disposable income. Me it was family income and also [??]. It got to a point where he lost the hunger as well [??], so he was happy and he just disappeared off the radar for six months of doing little bits of work. Little bits here [??] what’s going on. [??] problem, [??] and it just got to a point where it wasn’t sustainable anymore and we had to dig [??]. I’m sitting here running this company, doing all of these things here in this context. [??] you’re not doing anything, from what I can tell.
Andrew: Is it one of those things that you’re bottling up for so long that when it finally comes out it comes out all over the place, anger.
James: It was a little trick. I’m not a self help [??]. This may not work for everybody. [??], it’s one of those things, if you’re feeling a bit grumpy, if you [??] going on, one day sit down, put a piece of paper next to your computer and then every time you have a negative thought about anything, it just has to be a negative thought, write it down on the piece of paper. Then put like a little tally chart next to it. Figure out how many times you have that particular negative thought. In two days you’ll know what all your problems are.
Andrew: I love that. Dude, I love that. Did you actually do that or you wish you would have done it?
James: That’s exactly what I did. And I sat down and I did this list and it was like, I got a problem with this or, this needs fixing and at the top of this was Andrew and I had 20 different marks next to his name. For various different reasons. And so I kind of figured, yeah, I’ve got to do something about this. And yeah, we had a bit of an argument, words were said. It wasn’t a nice thing because at the end of the day I really appreciated all of the work we did together. And it was a really good thing. But at the end of the day we agreed on an exit package for him, which because of the value of the business and the way things were going, wasn’t something I could actually pay. And so, instead, we did it over, and we’re still doing it over 10 years. So I sent the man a quarterly payment of a certain amount of money. Not a lot of money. Which we’ll do for, I suppose the next 8 and a bit years. So that finalized the deal.
Andrew: So for 10 years, every 3 months, he gets a check without having to go to work. Is it enough to live on?
James: Oh, yeah.
Andrew: Oh, I see. You made your first million by the time you split up, right? As a business.
James: Oh yeah, as a business. Absolutely.
Andrew: You know what? Here’s the thing. In L.A, I guess throughout the US, but in LA I feel like specifically, a lot of people living like that. Either because they had a marriage where they’re being paid off or because they had a business marriage, but it is the funnest place to live like that and also the worst place to live where you’re struggling. Because there are people like that just strutting around, going out at night, doing nothing but sitting in coffee shops with sunglasses during the day. He’s not in L.A. is he?
James: No. He’s in Alabama.
Andrew: Did you have to go to therapy to deal with this afterward?
James: Look, I think 50 grand in lawyers bills are more than enough therapy.
Andrew: I see. You’re saying no more.
James: To be honest with you, in the end, I was a little bit upset about price and cost and value and those things but at the end of the day, he got what he wanted, which is a great, sort of. And I got exactly what I wanted which is 100% of the company. I answer to no one.
Andrew: This is your destiny in your hands, the way you wanted it, when you were working for someone else who would not take your
James: And if I stuff up, I take the hit and if I succeed, you know, the company and the staff and all those people do well.
Andrew: You know, I got to get back to business in a moment. But lets just take a moment to step away from business and say, what’s your equivalent to jet skis, what did you buy for yourself that’s fun? I don’t want people feeling sorry for you, that it all went to groceries.
James:- The other day I ordered a [??]. Do you see that? A [??]. It’s a new 3-D printer.
Andrew: Ah. Your jet skis. Actually, you know what? That is fun. A 3-D printer.
James: Yeah, here’s the real fun thing about it. Here’s what I want to do with it. I want to set it up in our new office. And what I also want to do, I’m actually seeing someone on Friday, just around the corner. Who’s going to arrange 3-D scanners, which are unfortunately much more expensive than 3-D printers. So, here’s the thing. What I’d like to do is I’d like you to come into our office. Say hi, how’s it going. I’d like to say, stand here for a minute then, boop, boop, boop. Then we’d go out for coffee. I’d like to come back and I’d like to give you a little mannequin of yourself. See you later.
Andrew: Are you old enough to remember when owning a scanner was such a luxury good. That you had to go to a friend who had a scanner in his office because for business reasons he could justify buying that thing?
James: I upgraded my spectrum to a 48-k, from the flat keys to the punchy keys.
Andrew: I know that someone’s going to discover this 20 years from now and 10 years from now and they’re going to have their feet up on a 3-D printer, going, this old thing? This is what those guys were excited about?
James: This is the thing. I think it was 2 and a half grand or something but I couldn’t not buy it. These scanners, they’re 15k.
Andrew: Two and a half grand? I thought they were still more expensive than that.
James: Well this is the [??] -2. It actually hasn’t been released yet. It was a pre-order. So I think I’m due in about 4 weeks time. So, it’s brand new virtual scanner. I’ve saw a video about the tech crunch and it was the quickest decision I’ve ever made in my life.
Andrew: All right, next big milestone for growth in the community. Do you have a few minutes? I know we went over because have.
James: No, no. I’m fine going longer. I’ve only got 26% on my Macbook.
Andrew: Oh that’s plenty. Especially on a Macbook. So give me another big decision you did to help your community grow. I read one of the blog posts that said hey, do you remember when we were, I forget what the number was. We were at this small number and now look at how big we are. What are some of the decisions that helped you go that way? Because, hell, I’m sitting on a decent sized community but I’d like to grow as big as you are and I know that there’s someone in the audience going, I understand how to get started, show me how to get the leap to the big time. Give me a couple of things that you did.
James: I think the first thing, the most important thing of all, is you’ve got to think of marketing. Not as something that you do once you’ve got a product. But something that you do when you’re happy with what you’ve got. Something you do after [??]. It’s what you do first.
It’s 100% what you do first. If you don’t have the eyeballs, if you don’t have people coming in and looking and checking out your stuff, it doesn’t matter how well it converts, it doesn’t matter how beautiful.
Andrew: So you’re saying it’s WPMU.org. Growing that is what really grew the revenue. So I shouldn’t look for more magical things that you added to the membership community. I should look at what did you do on the front end which was this WordPress news site that then helped the rest of the community grow.
James: You’ll all have a look at our support forums. Hundreds of thousands of posts. And being found by Google is a massive, massive deal. And that’s just people. As long as you’ve got the eyeballs, as long as you’ve consistently got people going, you can try new things, you can play around with new stuff. The good thing we do, we make signing up for an account super, super easy. But of course, when you sign up for a free account, you go into our email list. Email. Massive marketing tool. Increasingly, Facebook. Huge marketing tool. Much more so than twitter. Interestingly enough, for us. But email, we’ve got a list that’s approaching 90,000 now and it is strong. And it is so focused on WordPress.
Andrew: WordPress for business owners, too.
James: Yeah, and here’s something. Here’s the beautiful thing about that. Let’s say I want to hire a new writer in the WordPress area. Do I need to go and advertise? No, I don’t. Well what I need to do is send an email to that list and I can guarantee you I will have over 250 applications. I can guarantee that because that’s what happened. Just the other day. And a great deal of them is very, very good. And so I’ve got this captive audience, not just for promotion of our own stuff and other things. Because we promote other people’s services as well. Like the other day, I was promoting a sauna, because they were selling this great product. Fantastic, I want a really close relationship with them. And so, what better way to do that send them 5,000 users?
Andrew: So you’re using them 5,000 new users, not as an affiliate, but as a guy who just loves them and knows that if you have 5000 people knocking on their door, they’re going to knock on your door, to do business. Or to get to know you. And then what kind of business could you do with a sauna?
James: To be honest with you, I think Sauna is the future of online work. In every respect. If I had any money to invest, I’d be investing it in them. I don’t think I could if I wanted to. But more to the point, lets say the fact that it would be great to be featured by them. That’d be wonderful. And it saves time. [??] And that’s going to save my business 6 grand a year.
Andrew: I see. But it’s not a quick pro quo. it’s not you do this, they do that, for you, you’re just saying, I’m going to send 5,000 people. Let’s see what happens.
James: Well I got in touch with them. I said, well, I’d like to do this, I’d like to send you send you some stuff and then after that I’d like to send you something saying, please help us out or, maybe you could feature us.
Andrew:-I see. By the way, we use a sauna with Mason, Bob Hyler, internally here. Mixer G set that up. But I use them and I also use Basecamp and I also use other things. I like to try different software to connect with different groups of people. What is it about a sauna that you like so much more than you like Basecamp or you like some of the other programs?
James: A sauna is just words. Just words. It’s so flat, it’s so simple. Flat, all in one plays. You can use it just entirely by email. You don’t even have to go in and actually participate in this honor system. You can just reply to an email and it works. Back in 1999, I bought my first ever [??] book. It was called Design for Community by a guy named Derek Powazek. It’s still very [??] in the [??] scene although less so than back in the day. And it’s all about how you facilitate good community. You facilitate effective communication practices between people within a company or otherwise. And it’s like, a sauna is just the embodiment of that, within an internal work space. And added to that is an amazing to-do list, or task management system. It’s great.
Andrew: You actually told April about this in the pre-interview. You said that that’s a book that you learned from, “Design for Community,” that’s the name of the book. One of the messages that you took away from the book is, ‘Build a pub, not a night club.’ A pub with few people, well you tell me. Why a pub, not a night club? What’s the difference?
James: Here’s the thing. A lot of people, when you’re launching a new web project, or you’re pushing out this amazing new thing that’s going to change the world, you design it so it’s going to change the world. Like this huge area and there’s different concepts and people [??] spaces here and [??] spaces here and they can do that and then you launch it and people come and have a look at it and they go, ‘There’s no one here. What’s going on? This is empty. This is unused. I’m not going in.’ It’s the same with a night club. You go into a night club you see 15, 20 people and you think, ‘Let’s go to the next one because this one ain’t much fun.’ Whereas you go into a small pub, you see 15, 20 people and you think, ‘This is nice. Let’s stay for a pint.’
Andrew: If I were to apply this to an online community, I would think, a community where it’s more social network which works really well with a lot of people but not very well with few people. Not so fun. Support forum, though, where if you have fewer people, it might be more valuable to the people who first come in and see that there isn’t a big crowd there, that’s where you start. Support works better with fewer people, social networking doesn’t.
James: Bring them together and also right from the very start always include email. Always include email. This is the thing about [??]. Email is like a killer feature [??]. It’s crazy. The same with support. Same thing with any community. It’s just like [??] people. [??] people incessantly that they’ve been updated, they’ve been friended. They’ve been liked. They’ve had [??].
Andrew: Every action that your user takes should trigger some kind of email that brings them back again. What kind of actions are especially effective for you guys?
James: The simplest things. Subscribe to a thread. Recently we’ve got the [??], so you can mention in our community area @James and I’ll get an email. I probably shouldn’t say that to you.
James: [??]. Or @Mason.
Andrew: I’m on the Wish List member plugin site where they have a membership site of their own and I do get people who @ me and then I get an email and then I have to go back in and respond. It’s actually cool because they’ll say something like, ‘That problem was solved by Andrew@Andrew of Mixergy.’ Then I’m so complimented that someone remembered that I solved that problem, or that we talked about it in a past Mixergy interview that I have to come back in and chat. That’s effective.
James: That’s fantastic, apart from the fact that you’re using Wish List member.
Andrew: You guys have your own plugin.
Andrew: I love Wish List, but I know Mason told me you guys have your own plugin. He’s a little bit upset that we’re not using yours. What does your plugin do for membership?
James: It does a lot. It’s got everything and much more easy to use and better supported [??]. Those Wish List guys, they’ve gone for it. They were really early [??]. I [??] Wish List is a bit like WPE comments. [??] on the scene. They go [??], they’ve got great user bases because of that [??] people using them to do amazing things, but we’re the next generation [??].
Andrew: Give me one thing that you guys do better than Wish List?
James: We integrate with everything else that we offer. For example, you want to do somebody cracking social Facebook integration, some really good promotion stuff, some pay-per-tweet [??] one of those things. We also offer orders of those different plugins and they will all work seamlessly with our membership [??].
Andrew: Coming back to this thing that I wrote down as the first note in our conversation, which is, ‘What do you do with people who download and run?’ What are you going to do if someone at the end of this interview says, ‘Interesting. Let me rewind and find what the name of that website is.’ What is it? It’s a bunch of letters, WPMU [??].com. I’ll go download all these plugins while listening to some music or maybe watching something that I downloaded off of ISO Hunt and at the end of the night I’ll have all the plugins and I’ll cancel. I know you can’t keep everyone in, but you do have to be a little strategic and try to keep your membership. What do you do to increase retention when that kind of thing could happen?
James: There’s a couple of approaches to it. Obviously, you want to offer people who have been members and been interested. They don’t necessarily have to budget the opportunity, like a Black Friday in a sale thing where they can sign up. That’s the only sale we on the year.
Andrew: So Black Friday, but that brings people in. Does it help with retention too?
James: What it does, it takes a guy who has bought one of our plug-ins, downloaded $79 worth, and he’s gotten current on his membership, and it turns him into an annual subscriber.
Andrew: You come back to that person on Black Friday, which is the Friday after Thanksgiving, and you say, ‘You liked our service. Now is your opportunity, at a deep discount, to stick around and get all the future plug-ins that we have and support for this and everything else we offer. But only for one day.
James: Yes. It’s a funny thing, because I say this now and people who bought a full member ship for $109 might be like, ‘Ah, we got a deal [sounds like],’ but this is the one time, the one opportunity. If you guys are happy to wait until the end of November, if want all this stuff now, or maybe if you want it in January, then that’s how it goes.
Andrew: That helps. What else do you do to maintain retention?
James: We are trying to build on our service stuff. We’ve got this new dashboard thing. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, because it’s still in its fairly early iterations, but it’s really getting there. And the idea is, rather than coming to WPMUdev, all you have to do is install this plug-in, stick it in your API kit. Then you can install all of our plug-ins. You can get constant support, and, especially, you can participate in the community all from the back-end of your WordPress site. Rather than being something you go to, this is something that is always waiting. Every time you log onto WordPress it’s there. Every time you’ve got an update to a plug-in or a new release, it appears in your dashboard. You’re being prompted to upgrade. You’re being prompted to do a new release. You’re being asked civilized things. It’s an ongoing experience. It’s part of your life.
Andrew: I see. The more you integrate into people’s lives, the more likely they are to stick around. We saw that example with this blogs protector, and now we see it here.
James: I hope so.
Andrew: Do I have anything else on my list that we haven’t gotten to? Yes. The most important part of the program, by far, is where I explain to people that if they want to take this relationship to the next level, we also have a premium membership at Mixergy. With Mixergy premium I bring entrepreneurs on to teach on thing they do especially well. And if you’re watching this program I’m going to advise you to sign up, and then take a course by Noah Fleming on how to increase your retention. We also had, and this might upset James, Stu Mclaren, founder of WishList, talk about how to build an effective membership community. I point these out because it fits in with the topic of this interview, and I want you to see that we bring in the makers of these plug-ins who manage tons of communities to teach how to build a community.
And that’s the idea here. Founders with proven track records, who do this stuff everyday, come in and teach their thing really well. It’s all available at Mixergypremium.com, and I absolutely guarantee that as a result of this conversation with James I’m going to get even better at the premium membership. If you guys do sign up, pay attention to right after you pay. Notice what happens right afterwards, and if you do take that Noah Fleming course you’ll see how I learned to do that, why I’m doing it, and why it’s so effective. It’s completely ripped off from Noah Fleming, and I’m sure he’s very proud that I ripped off his ideas. That’s why he teaches them. It’s all there at Mixergypremium.com.
James, I kid of course. You don’t consider any of this stuff a rivalry, because you have some many plug-ins, right?
Andrew: Or are you still so competitive that when you hear me talk about a competitor’s product, you go, ‘What the hell is going on with this Andrew, I’m sitting right here?’
James: Look, I’m never going to be happy. If pushed like WPMUdev.org up to half a million visitors in a month, pushed to a million page views, then that’s not enough. I can tell you that when I get to a million it won’t be enough.
Andrew: You know, but that’s what I dig about you. You’re a really friendly person. Usually friendly people, when I interview them, are so wishy-washy. It’s great for after the interview. We’re buddies. But during the interview, there’s nothing motivating about them. You’re friendly, but you still have this killer instinct. This eye of the tiger is still there, and I’ve been wanting to ask you this from before but I wasn’t sure how to make it useful. But I have to ask you this. Where does it come from? You don’t look like me. I was showing Olivia my first passport photo. She goes, oh my goodness, with a frickin’ mullet? I swear she saw me, a little bit, in worse light. And maybe doubted, like am I cool enough to have hung out with her in high school for sure or not. So anyway, that’s where my motivation came from. I would see the world, where everyone looked good and talked well, was living it up and I was just this puny little nothing. And I had to fight. And the fight’s still in me. You don’t look like that, you look strong, you played football. Where does this come from?
James: I’m not entirely sure, to tell you the truth. It’s what I do. It’s kind of interesting. I spent most of my university years literally lying on a couch, getting up at 2 in the afternoon, drinking too much and ??? which didn’t help. So it was a very relaxing time. And personally, I was terrified I think, when I was 21, about what am I going to do? How am i going to get out of bed at 7 in the morning, 6 in the morning. But as soon as I got my first job which was doing some teaching these languages. It all kind of clicked in place. And it was like, wow, this is really cool, I can make stuff and change things, and things will happen and this and that. And being a teacher’s like being your own boss in a way. It was such a buss. ??? told me about this. And that’s more or less what it still is today. My partner ??? says basically you get to go to work and play with a big box of toys. ???
Andrew: That is when entrepreneurship really is at it’s funnest. Where’ it’s just a big box of Legos and you get to build whatever you want out of it.
James: Pretty much.
Andrew: You know what? There’s one other thing that I didn’t ask you that I’ve got to ask you. In fact April asked this question that we ask of all interviewees, which is, what did we miss, and you say, hey you guys didn’t even ask about staffing. We work with a team of 30 people all around the world. I’m here in Australia, I somehow find these people, manage them, grow this community. You don’t even ask me how. So you’re right, we didn’t ask you how. I’m going to ask you now. How do you do it? How do we do it better? How do we do it well based on what you’ve learned?
James: So what you do first off is you cast your net farm wide. As far as you can. So my email list is a great example. You get about 250 applications. That’s probably about enough. You sift through them as well as you can. You respond to all of them wonderfully. By the way, that’s a marketing opportunity. Responding to people who apply to work for you. You really.
Andrew: Because they potentially could be your best customers and fans and supporters.
James: Exactly. And if you fail to do so, you’re not only being an asshole, but you’re also missing out of opportunity. So you reply really nicely to people. You get as many as you can afford on paid trials working with you, doing tasks. Then after you’ve worked your ass off on that for kind of a month, then if you’ve got 2 or 3 really great people out of all of that, you hire them all. Even if you can’t afford it, you still hire them. Because you’ve found 2 or 3 great people and finding those great people will be amazing. The other day we hired one of our. By the way, most of our support people come from our previous members. Yesterday, we just hired one of our members, who just got lifetime membership. And we didn’t even have an opportunity. About 2 days before I told Mason, hey man, we’re doing well, we’re probably going to have to hire another person for 6 months. And he turns up and its like, oh my god, you’re really good. You’ve got to get this. So you take your opportunities, and then when you’ve got people together you focus as much as you can on building teams. And getting people to work together, getting people to Skype, Google hangout together, IM each other.
Andrew: And it’s constant community within your team. What, of all those things, works best for you? Is it the hangouts on Google, is it Skype?
James: Apart from email, we’ve got this thing called [??] which is a private, internal discussion site, you’ve got to have a log-in to get into it. And every months I do a recap of the highlights of the month, what’s going on and stuff, there. And every month, it involves me going through [??] I did it yesterday. Every page has got less than 20 posts and maybe an average of 5 or 6 comments on each post. And there was at least 5, 6, 7 pages at the [??] of the month. And so that’s just internal company discussions where people are hanging out, talking to each other. So that’s been huge, obviously all email. Every time I post, it goes up there to begin the email. Every time I reply to a comment they subscribe to it automatically. And they get emails.
Andrew: I see. And so you’re keeping the community going internally the way you would keep it with your customers.
James: Right, absolutely.
Andrew: There’s so much more that I want to ask you, by the way, I’ve got to ask this one last question and then I’ll go back up. You shaved this morning. Seven AM you get up and you do this interview and you shaved!
James: I didn’t. I shaved yesterday.
Andrew: OK and it survived, OK.
James: Slightly out of focus, but I do quite a bit of shaving.
Andrew: Yeah, I guess you’re not like me. I could shave this morning and still look like this. This is from this morning. Alright, so here’s the final thing I’m going to say. As always, I tell people if they got anything out of this they should connect with the guest, find a way to just say thank you and when they do, just saying thank you, magical things sometimes happen. And you know, James, I’ve said this in the past, they’re not going to ask you for anything, they’re just going to say thank you and then who knows where it goes, but I’ve said this in the past and things happen like someone in the audience gets hired by a past guest, or they end up meeting in China together and going to lunch or they end up doing all kinds of other stuff. The weirdest thing happened to me, I just checked my support email today and this guy said, “I contacted one of your guests, we talked, I’m now renting a space in his building.”
James: I love that sort of thing. I was chatting with another well known entrepreneur, very well known, but I’m not going to name, here in Melvin the other day and I said I’ll email you. And he said I treat my email just a bit like twitter. So I don’t even open the ones that don’t look interesting, so it’s probably not a good idea. I’m like, [??]. I treat my email like a daily [??] cycle. It’s a serious focus.
Andrew: Now see, you’ll really spend time on that email answering every email?
James: Absolutely, 100 percent.
Andrew: What’s your email address?
Andrew: All right, email@example.com. This guy who rented an apartment, he goes… your interviewee, he doesn’t even know who comes and lives in his place, you don’t want to just rent it out to anyone and my customer said I don’t want to just rent to anyone because I don’t if the guy is going to be a jerk to me. If I’ve got this relationship through you… Anyway, I’m not necessarily saying that that’s going to happen here, what I am saying is that good stuff happens and I love hearing about it.
James: I love to hear from people. If you’re in Melvin you fancy coffee, come [??] we’ve got some new offices down there and I’ll make a 3D sculpture of you.
Andrew: I would love it. All right, James Farmer, thank you for doing this interview. And I’ve got to give it again because the URL is a little bit tough: wpmudev.com. I’m sure all of the fans of your cite and my audience are going what the hell is so tough about it? Wp, WordPress, M, multiuser, come on, multisite, understand this stuff Andrew. Alright, I get it, dev, developer. Anyway, thank you for doing this interview and for taking all my ribbing about your company name. And thank you all for being a part of it. Bye.
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