Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. And today, I’ve got a story for you of an entrepreneur from Pakistan who used to get made fun of because of the way that he spoke. But today, when he speaks or writes, the people in the WordPress community listen, and listen carefully.
Syed Balkhi is the founder of AwesomeMotive which creates WPBeginner, the largest resource for the WordPress community. They also create OptinMonster, which helps sites collect email addresses. You’ve probably seen OptinMonster a bunch even if you’re not a WordPress user. When you move your mouse over to the top of the screen, suddenly a beautiful looking box asks you for your email address. That’s part of OptinMonster’s business.
All right before we get into it, I should tell you that this interview is sponsored by a little tool that I call Andrew’s Welcome Gate, you can get it at AndrewsWelcomeGate.com. And what it does is basically take the page that I created that gets me the best conversions, the ones that gives me the most email addresses, and allows me to really grow my business and it makes it available to you. So, if you want to take that and put it up on your site and customize it to your heart’s content, you can do it just by going to AndrewsWelcomeGate.com.
Syed: Thank you for having me.
Andrew: Dude, you have the coolest accent. It couldn’t have been like that when people were making fun of you, could it?
Syed: Yeah. It was pretty bad about 10 years ago when I first moved here, to the United States. I didn’t speak that much English, so sounded something like this.
Andrew: Ah, I was going to ask you what you sounded like. You’re from Karachi, Pakistan?
Syed: Yup, that’s right. Born and raised.
Andrew: Before we get into how people treated you here and how you found your way and built up this company, I thought your experience in Karachi was pretty interesting. I mean, you’re a guy who sold greeting cards at, how old?
Syed: Seven years old.
Andrew: How does a 7-year-old sell greeting cards in Karachi? What’s that like?
Syed: So, we have two holidays, religious holidays, Eid. And what kids do and even adults do, is they exchange greeting cards instead of gift cards. Not everybody had money. So, this is primarily done by shop owners. But at that time more and more kids were starting to do it as well at a stall, they would go to the end of the street and they would put their stall with all of the greeting cards displayed and I did that. It worked pretty well.
Andrew: So, you saw that other kids were doing it and you thought, “Hey I could get in on this too.” Is it make the greeting cards?
Syed: No, you just buy it wholesale. I saw kids that were a lot older 15, 16, 17 year old kids that were doing it, and I was like, “Mom, can I do this too? I think this is the coolest thing.” And my mom was super supportive and so was my grandmother. So, I went to the wholesale market and got it and then did it. It was pretty well.
Andrew: What did you learn by selling greeting cards back when you were 7 years old?
Syed: I learned a very important lesson, which I didn’t learn directly from selling greeting cards. I learned from a chips company that I would by chips from – a non-branded one, Lay’s – is that free is really powerful. So the way I made my stall grow is that if you buy one of the more expensive greeting cards, I would give you the postcards – like three of them – for free. Because that is what lured me into buying these generic branded chips, because they were giving away free toys, kind of like you get in Kellogg’s cereals here.
Andrew: Free toy in the chips, so you bought the chip that was off-brand. And you said, “Okay. If that’s what got me to buy the off-brand chips, I’m going to do the same thing for my greeting card business.” Did it help?
Syed: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Because none of the other kids were doing it, none of the shop owners were doing it. I started doing it, and my stall became super popular. At one point, I sold out all of my inventory in the same day, which was pretty balling’ right? Especially because nobody buys your postcards. So, a lot of times, kids would run out or shops would run out of their bigger cards and only have postcards to sell. And I was running out of both of them, while everybody is saying, “Oh, go buy it from that kid over there because he has this offer.” And then I realized that other competitors started copying it.
Andrew: When you’re using proxies to bypass firewalls and play video games, is that also in Pakistan?
Syed: No, that also happened right when I came here. Because I didn’t speak the language, so during my lunch time in school I didn’t necessarily have all the friends. So I wanted to play games so I would go to the library and try to play games.
Andrew: Ah, and the library wouldn’t allow you to play games, because it was about helping you find books and learn, not about playing games. Is that why you needed to bypass the firewall?
Syed: Well, yes. The library was in the school the school definitely didn’t want you to go and play games, because sometimes the teachers would take you to the library to do research on whatever project. But during lunchtime, I should be able to do whatever I want But that wasn’t the case, so.
Andrew: How old were you when 9/11 happened?
Syed: I was 11 years old and I hadn’t moved here at that point. I moved literally a year after that. So, I was 12-years-old when I moved here.
Andrew: And people even at that point were … what city were you in that people were teasing you?
Syed: I was in West Palm Beach, and the perception wasn’t very well for somebody my color, and people would call me silly names.
Andrew: What’s the worst?
Syed: I mean, like bin Laden, or, “Hey, did you know bin Laden?” At that age, you know, people are like 14…
Andrew: Ah, so the other kids were doing it, and they don’t understand.
Syed: …And basically the kids that were doing it…yeah, not the teachers. The teachers were pretty nice.
Andrew: Wouldn’t it be funny if the teachers were doing it?
Syed: No, no.
Andrew: Who do I call on now? How about bin Laden over there?
Syed: No, not the teachers, but…
Andrew: So was it the kind of thing that really put a chip on your shoulder and fired you up later on in life that you have to show them?
Syed: Oh, yeah. It definitely pushed me harder, because even though when people called me funny names, when the test results came back, or the class grades came out, I always had the highest grade, right? So now, I started earning people’s respect and some people wanted to copy off of my work, and then when I did the proxy thing, all of a sudden I became the cool kid. Everybody knew me.
Andrew: Ah, I see, so through brains, you were able to win them over and that’s what got you to keep learning and to keep using your technical prowess, and one of the things that you did early on was you went to an online forum and you got clients. How old were you at that point?
Syed: I was like 13, 14 years old, and because, you know, when I started building proxies, I didn’t know much about it, but as I was learning, I’m like, “I can do it,” and people were like, “Hey, can you do this for me?” and I’m like, “Yeah, sure, I can do it,” and started doing it for free in the beginning and then I’m like, “Oh, well I can actually charge for this kind of thing. I don’t have to be that nice.”
Andrew: What kind of things were they asking you to do?
Syed: It was as simple as creating a logo with a gradient on it, or creating an avatar, or can you design my theme, which was like a static HTML template, and by this point I was already doing that kind of thing so [??].
Andrew: How old were you when you were doing all this?
Syed: 13, 14 years old.
Andrew: Still, 13, 14…
Andrew: …You were able to design basic themes. That basically means a template in HTML, and is that where you were getting clients? Am I right to assume you that you got them from the forums?
Andrew: What forums were you going on?
Andrew: And in there, you were getting clients. I heard you even helping them with their avatars for their forums, which [??].
Syed: Yes, that was the gaming forums. That was the gaming forums, because I played Age of Empires online, so there were a bunch of in forums. They don’t exist anymore, but the guy who ran it, because the game is so old now, his two forums died out along with the game, but the game…I would go there and I would create avatars who would…Goku on it, and so, a bunch of cool little animation Photoshop.
Andrew: People in forums love their avatars. They love having the wackiest, most interesting avatar.
Syed: Yep, that and signatures. So the animated signatures that would be at the bottom.
Andrew: So, then from there you started to move on. Is that when you started to do the directory business for searches and optimization?
Syed: Yeah, exactly, so…
Andrew: What was that?
Syed: …So, I was building proxies and arcade websites allowing kids in my school to bypass the firewall to play games, and I realized that I can make money with that. I need more traffic, and when I started Googling how do you get more traffic, everything just pointed me back to NCO, and I’m like, “What is this thing, NCO?” and long story short, it said, well, in order to get better ranking in search engines, you need back links. In order to get back links, you need to go to directories. I started submitting my website to all these different free directories because I didn’t necessarily have all the money to just buy a paid advertisement, but nobody would approve my listing and weeks-, several weeks would go by, and I started asking around.
Basically, nobody had the time to review their free listings when they have paid listings going on, and I’m like, “Well, I have so many domains,” because I would always barter, so I would take your domain if you’re not using it, that six months old domain name and I would just take it. I have so many domains, I can just create directories. I found a PHP script. It was called PHP LD, I believe. Yeah, it was PHP LD, and I would just put on the directory scripts and just started submitting my links in there and then telling other people, hey, I have directories [??].
Andrew: So, you started submitting your own directories to take advantage of the fact that search engines would [??] links that came in from directories. I see.
Syed: Yeah, and then, because I had all the time in the world to approve everybody’s listing, all these different people in NCO space were like, “Oh yeah, sure, let’s put listings in his directory now.”
Andrew: You know, I remember even when Yahoo used to be a directory. They’re killing it off, and then they eventually went to paid for speed. You pay a little bit extra and you get listed faster, and that’s-, that’s where it was at. You had to pay them a hundred bucks, otherwise it was going to take you [??].
Syed: You won’t get it. Yeah, some directories were doing it. You pay, you get reviewed faster, but you also get linked to where it’s the top of the directory categories and you’ll be featured for like six months or a year, or three months, or whatnot.
Andrew: Makes sense. So, that’s where you were headed, but you eventually started to shift away from that to what?
Syed: So, I was making a pretty good earning with directories as a kid, but during that time as I was doing more of the HTML and CSS work with the directories, I started getting local business too. People were like, “Hey, can you create a website?” People knew my mom, my mom’s friends. Like hey, “I have a business, can you create my website?” Sure. Now I’m getting not the logo projects but actually can you create this website for our business. And I started doing more and more of that where I’m creating static HTML websites for restaurants, I’m creating it for landscaping people, I’m creating it for account, and the list goes on.
And that’s where I started running into the issue where if the wedding planner had a new offer, they’re pinging me, “Hey, can you update this page on my website?” which is a menial task that I didn’t necessarily want to do. And that all brought me to say, “Okay. Well I need to find a system.” And at that point I was already using WordPress because as the SEO industry was going down, the thing was you had to get dynamic content. If you add dynamic content to your directory, it’s not going to be banned, it’s going to get higher ranking. So, I was already playing around with WordPress. And I said, “What if I switch my client over to WordPress because I like it so much and I give that offer to my client, “Hey, if you pay me amount X, I’ll switch you over to WordPress and you’ll never have to pay me a monthly retainer again.”
Andrew: Because now if they want to add a new page, they can do it themselves. And you were probably imagining if they needed more functionality, they could install a plug-in because installing plug-ins is as easy as installing software on your computer. Meanwhile people don’t know how to install plug-ins, they don’t know how to install software in their computers.
Syed: When I started to do that, my hope was that I would be able to get away with doing the menial work, where I’m modifying the page content, et cetera, and start landing the bigger projects, full-on website projects. Because I didn’t want to maintain the site, I just wanted to create it because that was the bigger pay-out than maintaining it. So, my hope was to get rid of the maintaining client, and keep getting the bigger clients.
Long story short, that didn’t really happen. When I switched the users over to WordPress, now I started getting questions, “How do you do this in WordPress,” and, “How do you do that in WordPress?” And I’m like okay, now I need to find a solution. I talked with some of my freelancer friends who were doing the same thing and they said, “Well, they have PDF manuals they have created to help their clients do certain things.” And I just looked at them like, “Well, how do you keep it updated because WordPress updates.” And they were like, “Well, that was a big challenge. So, I started looking for things online.
And I don’t remember who the guy was, but the guy was selling WordPress training courses for $400. I didn’t feel like telling my clients, “Now you paid me, now you have to pay this guy $400 to learn how to use WordPress. So I created a site, WPBeginner because I know I could easily update that content, instead of updating a PDF. And it’s accessible and I could potentially, make money off of it too later on.
Andrew: That’s the thing. You weren’t just thinking, “How do I get this burden off of my shoulders, where these clients are coming back to me.” You’re thinking, “Maybe there are other people in the world like this. Maybe there are other people.” So, what was the first version of the solution that you created?
Syed: The first version of the solution I created in WPBeginner, I targeted three different groups of users. One were my clients that already had a WordPress site but they didn’t know how to create a post, how to create a page, how to schedule a post, what are the categories, how to change different things within the website. That was my first group. But the second group that I wanted to help was somebody who’s just starting out, somebody who doesn’t even have somebody like me who created their website and moved them over, somebody who just wanted to do it themselves. In that, I helped them with how do you pick a domain name, how do you select your theme?
Andrew: And these are blog posts.
Syed: These are all blog posts.
Andrew: All taking one issue that you know people have, and you’re going to solve it I see, and your revenue is going to come from ads?
Syed: Ads. Exactly. So, the first model was ads and affiliates. So, affiliates weren’t the primary – well it was half and half. Ads, affiliates, and then services, because I still wanted to do services. I still wanted to create WordPress themes and WordPress plug-ins, but I didn’t want to maintain them.
Andrew: You wanted higher end stuff and more creative stuff, but not the maintenance.
Andrew: Is it Ooz or Uz, Uznet that did it?
Syed: Uz.net, exactly. So I started WPBeginner as a leech in source, because now more and more people are finding out about it, they love the content. Then they’re like, “Let me reach out to this guy and have him do the work.” And at this point, basically, not only am I getting organic traffic, other freelancers are recommending me, but I’ve been on Twitter. I go on search.twitter.com, because I need more ideas. I’m running out of ideas.
Andrew: For blog posts?
Syed: For blog posts. Because I can only think of so many things. I look up #Wordpress, and I . . . it turns out there’s a whole list of problems that people are having which I can right about.
Andrew: And if you saw someone say, “I don’t know how to schedule a blog post #Wordpress.” You would find it and then you would right a post about it?
Syed: Exactly. Then I’d reply to it, saying, “Hey, I have a post about it.” Or sometimes I’ve already written a post about it. Then I would go back and maybe update. Add a little thing to clarify it and link them to it. Or just reply to it on a tweet and that started building my audience on Twitter.
Andrew: Are you still running, I’m sorry I forgot the pronounciation, Oznet[SP]?
Syed: No. Absolutely not. That website is pretty dead. I haven’t worked on it-
Andrew: I didn’t think it was alive at all, but I see it’s got a younger photo of you there-
Andrew: -and David Pegg so the site is fully alive and it’s still linking to your other properties like Optin Monster. There’s even a link to beginner’s guide to WordPress which links to WPBeginner. So it’s back from those days, but you’re not doing that work anymore?
Syed: No, no. We basically stopped doing services as we got into products. So once we started creating different products like OptinMonster, Soliloquy Slider, Envira Gallery, and ThemeLab. We kind of shifted our focus into building our products for a wider audience versus working on one-on-one with a client.
Andrew: By the way, you and I have the same type of mike. And the reason why that I have the mike is . . . Today, there’s construction going on somewhere. I can’t even figure out where it is. Is it in the floor above our office? Is it the floor below? But, hopefully, it’s not being picked up on the mike and I keep checking the levels. Do you hear it? You have earphones so you’re probably hearing it better than I am.
Syed: Yeah. That’s the problem. I got this mike, because it’s a USB-mike. I don’t have to use a mixer setup. I wanted a better mike, but I didn’t want to have to deal with all the-
Andrew: I didn’t want that either.
Syed: -volume quality.
Andrew: You’re not picking up on all the hammering, are you?
Syed: No, I’m not.
Andrew: All right. So this is the mid-2000s, somewhere around 2005, 2006. Right?
Syed: No, I launched WPBeginner in 2009.
Andrew: So before that . . . well, at what point, you tell me, where you really big on Digg and one of those guys who could get anyone onto the front page of Digg?
Syed: In 2008-2009 time, I could get-
Syed: -you on the front page of Digg. I got WPBeginner on the front page of Digg and even when it was a site that no one knew about. I had just launched it.
Andrew: Well, was this something you charged for?
Syed: No. Absolutely not.
Andrew: Why did you do it?
Syed: Why did I do it . . . Well, one, I loved Digg; two, I loved the community. I loved my friends and it was kind of a game. I’ve always been a gamer. Although, I don’t play as many video games now, I think my business and everything now is a game. It’s all about numbers. So we would say, “Let’s see how many Digg points you could get!” And we would all have a little competition. We would help each other out. See, if you get to the front page with the right title, what happens then? That’s basically why. I enjoyed talking with my fellows Diggers, powerDiggers[SP]. I did it for wired.com. Their editors would reach out and say, “Hey, I have an article coming out. Can you push it, because we don’t want somebody else to discover it on Digg?”
Andrew: They don’t want someone else on Digg to post it, because you at least have the clout.
Syed: Exactly. Exactly.
Andrew: People will vote for your stuff.
Syed: Yeah. Here’s the way it worked. The user who submitted it had a good amount of value along with the site domain. If I submit it along with my username’s clout and wired.com’s clout, it would get good results.
Andrew: But you also had friends. A lot of people who were really big on Digg at the time would have not just one but sometimes two or three different chat apps open during the day so that if their friends needed an upvote, they could message each other.
Syed: Oh, yeah. We had Google chat. We had Skype groups, multiple Skype groups. Not all the Digger’s got along, right? There’s different groups with different Diggers in it. If I push an article, and ask, “Can you guys Digg it?” And we were getting it. Sometimes I would have four articles hitting the front page on the same day . . . which is pretty cool.
Andrew: Yeah, it was really cool back then, because you could really make a site. Back then, Digg was just user submitted content, just users voting up and down. They hated that there were all these rings, but we all knew that the rings were what led Digg; the rings were where the action was on Digg. You could really help a site launch properly by getting them up on Digg. They would send massive traffic, massive attention. Other bloggers would write about it. Om Malik[SP] used to say that when he was looking for something to write about on Gigaom, he would go to the . . . what was it called? .. . the Upcoming Section and see what was going to be big and that’s . . . [SP].
Andrew: Exactly, and then he would . . . Yeah, when you get on the front page of Big and . . . when I got on WP Beginner several times, 80,000 visitors was guaranteed and . . .
Syed: And all the link backs because all the people would scrape your site and link to it. People would . . .
Syed: . . . rather hub the article and link to it.
Syed: And then . . . you can now say, “Oh I will featured on Big”, once you stop.
Syed: And if you get to the right-hand column, it’s like several hundred thousand visitors coming to you in the more popular area.
Andrew: And one of the people who you helped out with was Daren Rousse. The guy who . . .
Andrew: . . . wrote Pro Blogger, well. . .
Andrew: . . . respected in the blogging community.
Syed: Yeah. I helped him out with his digital photography school website. I also helped him out Smashing Magazine. So at that time what Smashing Magazine would do, they would reward their authors. So if you get a front page in Big as an author, let’s say you were getting paid amount x, you would get bonus amount x. If you get front page on this design site then you will get x bonus. If you didn’t . . .
Andrew: And you definitely didn’t get make any money from doing this for people? No.
Syed: No. Absolutely not.
Andrew: A lot of people would pay. I had friends who would pay to get to the top, and . . .
Syed: Well it helped me build relationships, right?
Andrew: That’s what I’m getting at.
Syed: So yeah. So what I would do at first, at Smashing Magazine . . . one of the most important things I got out in the beginning was Smashing Magazine gave me a site wide link from their side bar, Smashing Magazine would eventually re-tweet WPBeginner.
Andrew: So see . . . so now they were giving you a lot of credibility because Smashing Magazine has a lot of credibility. They were helping you get traffic, helping you get more search engine juice when you were launching, and that’s was the big help of being involved with this community.
Syed: Exactly. Same thing with Darren Wright. So I helped Darren out a few times with his photography school, and when I launched WP Beginner he helped me out immensely with his pro blogger clout. Because all of his pro blogger audience was a perfect audience . . .
Syed: . . . to begin it. And . . .
Andrew: How did he help you?
Syed: He started . . . he tweeted WP Beginner out a lot. He let me do guess posts on his site. He even went back and modified some of his articles to say, ‘if you’re looking for a work press resource . . .’ and I think in one of his articles, ‘ get started’ or something like that, “if WP Beginner is there, if you’re looking for work to solve”.
Andrew: Ah, he went back and retroactively linked to you from posts that were popular to help you out . . .
Syed: I asked.
Andrew: . . . and show appreciation.
Syed: You asked.
Syed: I asked.
Andrew: Ah, so you were smart enough to say hey you know what . . . this post is just sitting there. And this is one of the things that you’re still good at to this day of recognizing posts that are older aren’t done, they’re not garbage.
Syed: Yeah. Yeah.
Andrew: All right. We’ll get to how you did that in a moment. Now you launched your stuff. Does it help to respond to people who you see on Twitter who have problems, and say ‘hey I solved your problem’?
Syed: Oh yeah.
Andrew: Because it’s just one person.
Syed: Well it builds trust, right? When you’re small and you have only a few hundred followers, that one person is pretty important. And if you have a hundred followers and that one person is one percent of your entire following base, you’d better have that kind of connection with your early users. And some of my early users, I know them by name, and I talk with them even until . . . even now. And I . . .
Andrew: Were you looking for people who had a lot of clout? People who . . . who . . .
Syed: No. No.
Andrew: . . . had a lot of . . .
Syed: Absolutely not. Some of the people I talked with had absolutely no clout. If they had a question, I was replying. And now those people actually have a lot of clout and I go way back with them, right. Five years back and they’re like, “Oh man, you remember those days when you use to help me”. Some of those people who got their start on WP Beginner are now working at Automatic.
Andrew: The company behind WordPress.
Andrew: What can I tell you, though? When you’re starting out and you’re desperate for traffic and you’re desperate for validation that this works, and maybe even eager to get some revenue coming in, all this one-offs from people who one day, someday might be, could be, will be, maybe who knows successful and influential . . . that’s not enough. What kept you going then going then during those periods?
Syed: I think the coolest part that I like was hearing that I’m helping one person at a time with WP Beginner, because I know that if I answer somebody’s questions they’re going to continue to come back. And people did come back. They did re-tweet. And, it took five years but we passed like 100,000 followers on our twitter. We have 700,000 people . . . not 700,000, 130 . . . 140, 000 on our email list. So it’s not . . . it added up. I wasn’t it in for . . . okay, let me go buy off an email list and blast WP Beginner and do that. I didn’t do that. And yeah, I think we grooved.
Andrew: Hey you hear that, right?
Syed: Yeah, I heard that.
Andrew: I’m trying to hit mute every time it goes up. I need to know the number of the receptionist so that I can call her up and say, “Hey, can you please . . . Suzette.”
Syed: Well . . .
Andrew: I’m too far away from reception. Have you adjusted the mic level in Skype?
Syed: I’m worried that if I do that, that now it’ll make it harder for people to hear me in the interview, but that’s what I need to do… Can you hear me?
Syed: Can you hear me, though, just fine?
Andrew: Yeah, yeah, you’re fine. But if we adjust it within the interview, it makes editing it afterwards a lot harder because you have to remember, you know? And not just so I have to remember, but Joe has to make sure to balance out both of our…I’ll see. I’ll see. I might have to actually do that, frankly, because of the construction. Who does construction like this in the middle of my interview? I’m going to get Suzette’s phone number for the future, so that if something like this happens we can call her from within the interview.
All right, you’re getting all these one-off bits of traffic, they’re helping you build up your credibility, your revenue is still coming from you doing client work. And, frankly, if you’re helping some of your old clients with work you don’t want to do, there’s some value in that.
Syed: And then if revenue started coming with affiliate’s stuff as well. So, I went to a word camp, and the speaker went up and did a talk, and essentially at the end of the slides, they had credits, and two of the three articles that were listed there were written by me. And I’m just sitting there in the back and I’m like “Why am I not the one giving this talk?” Because all of the material was from the articles that I had written. So I applied to speak at a word camp, got approved, did my talk, and then started getting more and more involved in different local communities.
When I would go there, my goal was not only just to meet and present, but talk with freelancers there that could then could then send their clients over to WPBeginner. So, a lot of freelancers are like “Oh, I’m having this issue” and I’m like “Do you know that WPBeginner had it?” They’re like “Oh my god! Can I send you an email if I have an idea?” I’m like “Of course! Send me an email and I’ll have it written up on the site.”
Andrew: This is unreal! For you to go to them and say “Do you know that my blog has it?” You have to count on them remembering your site, and remembering to pass it on to someone else instead of googling, which is what they might do, and they do it alright. They don’t have thousands of clients, they have maybe 10 clients, so if they do it alright you get 10 more hits.
Syed: But this is a very small space, right? Especially the WordPress developers. When one person starts talking, other people start listening. So my goal wasn’t to talk with one person and get 10 of their clients. My goal was to get this one person to become a brand ambassador, who is now coming back on Twitter and praising WPBeginner and talking about WPBeginner, and the inner circle of other developers are finding WPBeginner and talking about WPBeginner. Which happened, right?
So now WPBeginner is getting traffic, plugin authors and other services are coming to me and saying “Hey, can you write an article about it?” And I say “OK, but I’m not going to write a review. I’m going to write a how-to.” So now I’m writing how-to articles which are researched a lot more than a review. People are like “How do I do this in plugin name X?” And I started writing the articles. I was writing up documentation that the plugin authors weren’t writing.
Andrew: I see. And why is that better than a review? Don’t people, when they are searching around for a plugin, they want to know does this plugin stink or not, and they look for a review. They don’t look for a how-to.
Syed: The reviews are biased, right? Reviews are biased one way or another. You either had a really amazing experience, or you had a really terrible experience. You don’t necessarily see unbiased reviews. So when I was doing a how-to, it adds credibility to it because I’m not just promoting. I’m not a pitch for these companies. And I would add affiliate links in my how-to tutorials. For example, a plugin like…
Andrew: Doesn’t that make you more of a shill, because if you’re writing a how-to for something that you’re getting paid for, that’s…
Syed: I’m not getting paid for [it] directly. I get paid only if you buy that product. I never accepted money to write how-to articles.
Andrew: OK. I see the early articles did things like “How to find a name for your site,” right?
Andrew: And then it included links to things that were tools. I remember actually “Bust a Name.” I used that when I was looking for a name for Mixergy. And also links to hosting companies like Godaddy and Dotster, et cetera. That’s the kind of stuff that you’re talking about. You’d create a how-to, and then you’d create WPBeginner.com/ref (which is your affiliate subfolder)/Dotster, and then anyone who went there was going to basically get redirected to your affiliate link and you’d get paid if they signed up.
Syed: Yeah, exactly. So, for example, if you’re looking to create a mobile-friendly website, and back then when responsive design wasn’t a big thing, wrote an article on how to create a you know mobile friendly site in WordPress with WP Touch, which is a WordPress you know mobile plug in that turns your website into a mobile version, and you know they paid me commission for everybody who bought from my website, same with Studio Press.
You know so I love Studio Press themes so essentially what I did I just wrote about it, and they’re like, “What theme do you recommend, what is your favorite theme company?” That’s one of the most common questions when somebody’s starting out, and I would just say look at Studio Press, or look at Headway Themes, or look at Themify, and go those are you know affiliate links, and I talk about what you should be looking for in a theme even if you don’t choose to purchase from the links that I sent. You know I talk about…
Andrew: I’m teasing about the show by the way. I know Wire Cutter and others do it. I don’t think it’s the perfect model I just think there isn’t a perfect model. I think that recommend…I think what was it that we were talking about earlier? We were talking about reviews. Reviews are very biased too, and online frankly a lot of people do reviews that sound like they’re really going to be scathing reviews, but suddenly towards the middle they change course and they say I thought it was going stink in all these different ways it turns out it’s great, and here’s a link to it, and of course the link is an affiliate link, and the whole article was just a promotion.
All right, so I see now you’re starting to do well. At what point did you make your first $100,000.00 doing all this?
Syed: 2010 I was making more.
Andrew: So two years in you’re suddenly making…
Syed: No just one year in.
Andrew: One year in?
Andrew: Okay, well you launched I thought you said 2008, but I guess it’s 2009 that you launched.
Syed: 2009 yeah.
Andrew: 2009 Okay.
Andrew: So a year in you’re doing well, you’re creating content that you’re proud of, and you’re making money at that point all from affiliates?
Syed: Yeah, affiliates and ads yeah, and services. I’m combining…Yeah services made a big chunk right of the revenues that were coming in so by doing WP Beginner I saw instant boost in just client leads. Like you know leads that are just coming, and people wanted to work with me. You know so this is how I got like you know some of the clients I worked with like Webz, you know Checkpoint, which is Zone Alarm, Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Andrew: What did you do for Webz? Webz is a huge company, huge hosting company.
Syed: Webz.com, yeah FreeWebz.com, they used to be FreeWebz.com. I help them with all their blogs. So for Webz I help them with their blog, for Contact Me…
Andrew: What kind of help did you help them with?
Syed: The entire design, the development, all that.
Andrew: Of their, of their blog theme essentially?
Syed: Essentially yeah.
Andrew: And then their users would have access to that theme?
Syed: No, no this is just official Webz.com blog. So essentially what Webz was going through a redesign of their entire site, and so they brought me on, they were like, “Hey we need somebody who’s very familiar with WordPress who can help us you know create the WordPress blog, and we need this functionality, this functionality, this functionality. Can you make that happen?”
I’m like, “Sure,” and did that. So yeah.
Andrew: How were you able to balance it? This is basically what a lot of consultants need to do, create content that makes them an authority in their space so people send traffic to their content that allows them then to get clients, and if they do it well enough then they can stop accepting clients, like you did, and just allow the content to stand on its own, build its own reputation, and grow beyond what they could do. The challenge for that often is a consultant is so deep in his own work that he can’t start creating content, or spends so much time on content that he’s no longer doing the consulting work, balancing is tough, you did it, how did you do it?
Syed: So creating content didn’t take me the longest time right? I was very good at writing content. So it would take me between 30 to 45 minutes to write a WP Beginner article. So that wasn’t the hard part. Plus, I had a lot of help I didn’t have to think of ideas, right? A lot of times you have to think of the ideas. Is this idea going to work, is this idea going to work? I didn’t think that, some of the articles I wrote were not the most popular posts, but I wrote them anyways. So I made a discipline, I made a routine that I’m going to write one post a day on WP Beginner five days a week, never, didn’t write on weekends, and I did skip sometimes when I got super slammed, but you know for the most part I stayed consistent.
In terms of the work I hired people right? I just hired people who were working for me.
Andrew: Who were going to do the consulting work, the design work, the consulting work?
Syed: That’s right.
Andrew: So for Webz were you doing it yourself or were you supervising it?
Syed: I was supervising.
Andrew: So you’re supervising. You said, “Here’s the work that I need,” you had the developers who did it. Got it, I see. You know what else is cool about your early site is when I’m on it, even though clearly it’s built on WordPress, and you’re teaching WordPress, I don’t see a reverse chronological order of the posts instead here are the six posts that I think are going to be most helpful for you, how to pick a name, how to install WordPress, what plugins I recommend et cetera. And then if you want the latest articles, here are different ways for you to find it.
Syed: Yeah. So, again, my goal with the website was to get more leads, right? So, early in the version of the website you would see at the top, “Why use WordPress?” And I would even help them with a free blog setup, which is something I started doing way, way earlier. Now, everybody –
Andrew: You would set up someone’s WordPress blog for them.
Syed: Exactly. And I would earn a hosting commission. So, the hosting company would pay me because part of the deal is if you get a set-up through me, is that I would get a hosting commission.
Andrew: Got it. Okay.
Syed: You have to go through that hosting company. And I started doing that before any of the other sites ever even thought about that. So, I was making affiliate dollars that way, but the most important part there was once I set up your WordPress site, you’re going to come back to me because I made that process so much smoother for you. You’re like, “Hey, I need to do this, this this on my website. Can you help?”
Andrew: Got it. And then you got people who can do it, and frankly most of the this, this this and that are very simple stuff at that point.
Andrew: Very simple, very simple.
Syed: I need a form. Oh great, I got a plug-in for that.
Andrew: Right, right. I need a slider. I need to make my menu do a dropdown. So, very basic things like that, that are not very hard to do but people don’t know where to find that kind of task. And then through that, people are talking, “Oh, we’re trying to build an internal communication system, internal messaging board. Can you do that for our company?” Sure, I can do that. So, we built a whole system where the employees and all the vendors can sign up and then communicate with each other in groups, or what not. So we were getting leads from WP in the beginning, and that was the primary purpose for it. That’s why there was a big button right there at the top that said, “Why use WordPress?” Because that was people’s question.
Andrew: And another one like you said, very clear, maybe even clearer, was “free WordPress setup,” and that was your way of getting leads. You mentioned earlier that Thomas Nelson Publisher hired you to do some work on their site. You did that. Through that you met Michael Hyatt?
Syed: Yes. So, I met Michael Hyatt before I did work with Thomas Nelson. So, Michael Hyatt was actually starting out his blog, MichaelHyatt.com. He was looking for an ad plug-in and I think he found WP beginner, and he wanted to sell ads on his website, banner ads. And I was using a plug-in, OIO Publisher, since 2008, which is the plug-in that Michael started using in the beginning and it made the whole process of selling ads from his site very easy. And he wanted me to create a custom interface for that, so that when somebody comes to his site to buy, everything is branded instead of the OIO branding, it’s all Michael Hyatt’s branding.
I helped him out with little things like that along with his FDC disclosure that he has at the bottom of every post. RSS ads.
Andrew: What kind of help did he need to get the FDC disclosure? He wanted three check boxes. So, he can say, this post has – if he checks box 1, it will display FDC message 1. If he checks box 2, it will display FDC message 2.
Andrew: Got it, because he also does affiliate links like you do, and he wants to be in compliance with the FDC which says, “If you run affiliate links, you have to disclose it, and he wants to make sure that he discloses it without having to write it differently every time.
Syed: Well yeah, and sometimes he would write about a product or a book that was published by Thomas Nelson, and he was the chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson, so he had to disclose that. So, he can’t say there’s affiliate links in there, because there’s not, so he had to show a different message.
Andrew: Got it. I love the way that that guy things, because he thinks in systems like that. He doesn’t think, “Alright, I have to do this. This is just part of the job.” He thinks, “Where’s the process that will save me time?”
Syed: Oh yeah, I love Michael.
Andrew: Yeah, I love that about him. Robert Scoville [sp] then tweeted about you because you helped him with what.
Syed: His site got hacked several years ago, and I looked at it and I said, “Well, I know you got it back, but here’s a few things that you can do to help your security of your site,” which were fairly basic things. And he didn’t respond, so I picked up the phone and gave him a call because his number was on the site. I thought, maybe he’ll pick up and I would just leave him a voice mail. But he picked up and he was like, “Hey.” Oh he did pick up.
Andrew: I was with him once when that happened. A lot of bloggers at the time were just putting their phone numbers up on the site. And I thought, “This is just BS. It goes to Google voice number that just does voice mail, they never answer it.” Robert was there, interviewing people who I had invited him in to Los Angeles to interview. I said, “Look there are great start ups here in the city that I’m living in, you should interview them.” He interviewed them and in the middle, a call comes in. He goes, “Hang on I got to take it.” I’m watching him, he talks, someone from the site just called me. At some point don’t you need a break, don’t you just need people to give you some space. No?
Syed: And it’s the coolest thing that like I’ve met him at so many different events, and now we’ve become good friends it’s just that, from that one interaction, and so when he tweeted it out I think from his tweet Michael Hyatt found me. So Chris Skoebel tweeted out, and several other folks started following me, and then it went from there.
Andrew: Where do you make more money today? Is it from the blog, or is it from the tools?
Syed: The products that we have.
Andrew: The products, what was the first product you created?
Syed: OptiMonster was the first one that I created to sell that was mine. I was always affiliates and behind the scenes in other products.
Andrew: What year was it?
Syed: OptiMonster was last year.
Andrew: Last year, so it took you until 2013 to finally start selling your first product, but today products make more revenue than the blog?
Syed: Yeah, because we basically…Before services made a lot of money. We were making a killing in services. Alright we were like it’s not to be underestimated. We were making a lot of money in services, but I kind of felt that you know I still had to do the biz that, you know I still had to go meet clients. I kind of, I didn’t really like that part. I mean I love meeting people, but I just didn’t you know want to do that for the rest of my life, and I like promoting other peoples products right? I was like if I can promote their product and earn a pretty decent affiliate commission because of my audience I should really you know create something that’s mine and I did that, and then you know I’ve basically started, then I bought the slider plug in, and we you know hired the guys Thomas which is a partner now. He’s a CTO.
Andrew: Let’s take it one step at a time, OptiMonster first thing that you created. I described one of the features that it has. When you launched it was it tough to create, or did you have a lot of experience creating plug-ins already for your clients so it was easier?
Syed: No actually we almost failed in OptiMonster. We worked on it eight months right? So I was…Eight months right? Because in between WP Beginner and OptiMonster I had launched another sited called List 25, which we have around 1.2 million YouTube subscribers and like 200 million views on it. So I was working on that, and that site was generating pretty good revenue with ads alone. So I was using pop-ups, different pop-up plug-ins and none of them did what I wanted them to do, they didn’t work, they didn’t scale on large sites, full of bugs, so I’m like okay I wrote down, I wrote some code that just worked for me, then I approached Thomas Griffin. Because you know I know he’s very, very good.
Andrew: You approached who?
Syed: Thomas Griffin, my partner in OptiMonster.
Syed: And I knew he was a phenomenal developer. See I’m a developer by accident. Like you know I can make things happen, I’m not going to be the best of the best coder right? So I approached him and I said, “Hey do you want to partner up in building this plug in I have?”
He’s like, “Sure.”
I’m like, “Well let’s try it. I’m going to build another plug-in first which is a lot smaller.” Because I didn’t want to just go in and partner with somebody that I don’t know how well we work together right?
Andrew: That makes total sense. Right you don’t want to get in on this big project until you know. Right, okay.
Syed: So we built Floating Social Bar, which is a social media plug in. I think it had like 90,000 downloads, and then we’re like okay let’s try building OptiMonster. We started building it as SAAS, we realized we couldn’t scale it, because we’re not the server guys, and so we basically pivoted within 30 days, and turned the SAAS into a WordPress plug-in and launched it, and yeah.
Andrew: But you lose a lot by going…Most people go the other way. They start off with the WordPress plug-in because it’s easy and they can’t scale, but once they get enough customers they move to SAAS because that’s where longer term revenue comes in.
Syed: Yeah so we didn’t even launch the SAAS. So we will probably in the future go the other way back, because we have all the revenue now.
Andrew: So you would at some point go back and okay…So then you guys worked that well together you moved on to OptiMonster, how did that go?
Syed: OptiMonster does phenomenal.
Andrew: Well I mean developing it was easy even though it took eight months?
Syed: Yeah, it was. We had the challenge, a scaling challenge, aside from that we our SAAS product looked pretty good.
Andrew: Wait I see okay. So then you launch it, it starts to do well, are you doing over a million in revenue so far with that, with OptiMonster?
Andrew: You are? Over two million in revenue?
Andrew: Really it’s that big?
Syed: Shove it Andrew. You’re saying you don’t want to talk anymore. I don’t talk about numbers.
Andrew: Are you a millionaire at least, in cash?
Andrew: Yeah okay. I have several gas stations.
Syed: Do you really have several gas stations, literally?
Syed: Wait, how do you end up in the gas station business, I don’t want to spend too much time on that, but what’s up with that?
Andrew: A lot of my family members worked in gas stations when they moved here, I learned a lot about it. What’s the upside of a gas station business? It seems so tough to run. You show up there-
Syed: No, you just buy the real estate. You let somebody else run it.
Andrew: And they just own the gas station-
Syed: They pay you rent.
Andrew: -you just own the land.
Syed: Yeah. You just sell them a lease. It’s like a long term triple net lease.
Andrew: Got it. I see. Okay. Who was it? What’s the guy? For some reason I’m blanking on his name. He was one of the partners at Five Hundred Start Ups who was in gas stations too? What’s his name?
Syed: It’s a pretty good margin. Maybe I can convince you to get in it.
Andrew: You know what? You probably could. I could do a whole interview just on that. Yeah, we were sitting at lunch and he was telling us about these gas stations and I’m like, “Wait, you’re a tech guy? You’re talking about gas station?” “Yeah.” He started telling me a little bit about what you said but not that way.
Syed: Yeah. It’s a pretty lucrative business. In other words, I’m a millionaire. Been a millionaire. My service business was doing really well again. I mentioned that so servicing business was pretty good.
Andrew: I see a lot that you’re mentioning it over and over again because I keep discounting here in the way that I talk about it. I keep talking about it like something you have to outgrow and you keep bringing it back and saying “No Andrew, it’s a good business.”
Syed: It’s a good business. It’s just not, it’s a personal preference, right? Some people love it. My good friend, Kareem, they run Crowd Favorite. They love it. They work with this (?) and that’s what happens. These companies are not broke, right? They make a killing in services.
Andrew: But I have to tell you, I meet a lot of people who run consulting companies where they either do WordPress work to fix up sites or develop new stuff and they keep fantasizing about the life that you have which is develop the right kind of product so that you can move on away from it.
Syed: Mm-hmm. I mean, grass is always greener on the other side.
Andrew: You think that they’re just idealizing it. What are they missing? Because, if I could look at it, it seems to me like the grass really is greener on the product side.
Syed: I mean, there’s definitely pros but then there’s also cons. Like you have to be good at or partner with people who are good at certain things. Because you’re not going to be good at everything. You’re not going to be good at marketing development, handling customer support and all that. You have to learn that part as you grow and you’re going to have several growing pains. Support is something that, when you’re a developer, when you’re a consultant, you’re only dealing with one client and when you get pissed off, okay sure. But when you have thousands of customers, you can’t be having a bad day and just be pissing off thousands of customers. Support is one of the bigger challenges for developers who I know tried getting into products and it didn’t work along with marketing. So when you’re a developer, you’re not necessarily the best at marketing.
Andrew: You launched it. Was the first batch of customers, did they all come from your blog?
Andrew: And you knew that you were going to, you knew this product was necessary because you as a blogger needed it and you knew your readers needed it.
Andrew: So blogging really helped out. Once you exhaust your list, what do you do next to grow OptiMonster?
Syed: Well, I started leveraging my connections again. Over the years I had helped so many different businesses get exposure on WP Beginner. Not turning to them and I’m like “hey I wrote about it. I created this plugin, can you promote it to your audience?” And that started happening. I started reaching out to my friends. I reached out to Michael Hyden and asked him “hey, if I give you a free copy, would you use it?” And he’s like “sure.” And he tried it and his conversion rate just went crazy. So he started using it, he started recommending it. Social media examiner, Michael Stelzer, he started using it.
Andrew: I see it on there a lot.
Syed: So Search Engine Journal. So the list just goes on so I approached several friends that I knew and said “hey, if I give you a free copy would you use it? Just try it out for fourteen days and if it doesn’t work, turn it off.”
Andrew: I see and the idea is that because they’re influencers, if they try it, then other people are going to want to say “what is it that they’re using” and go get it. But I can see that with your plug-in unlike with other plug-ins where if they’re up selling, they have a free model, you can see who created it. You can with Noah’s App, with App Zumo. With Zumo King?
Syed: Zumo Me.
Andrew: Zumo Me?
Andrew: So how do people even know where it’s coming from? I’ve seen it pop up a lot and didn’t realize that it was yours.
Syed: So one of the things that we were still, like, once we created OptiMonster and it grew so fast, we kind of focused a lot more on development and a lot less on marketing and Mike Steltzer pointed out to me just the other day, he was like “dude, why isn’t it on your WP Beginner? Why is there still a services page?” Actually we’re working on a brand new services page with a products page and then it’s going to be listed that, hey, we created OptiMonster. We created (?). We recreated MyerGallery, just to make it clear. I mean, people in the WordPress community which is just huge and it’s growing really fast, saw that I was behind OptiMonster. Then other marketers and other marketing consultants started asking their clients, hey you should purchase this. So they started using it.
Andrew: I see, so you’re missing out on the virality that comes from being on all these sites, and having people then discover, oh this is an OptiMonster box, I need to get it. What you’re using instead is the reputation you’ve built up over the years, going back to people who recommend plug-ins to other sites en masse, and that’s where you’re getting the bulk of your growth.
Syed: Yes. Well, personally I don’t like when a plug-in forces you to have a powered by link. If I pay for a plug-in or a theme I should have the option to remove the powered by. OptiMonster actually has the option that you can turn on powered by OptiMonster, and put your affiliate link there, and it will show at the bottom of everything. Just by sumomeda(?), except in OptiMonster you can actually turn that off and nobody will ever know.
Andrew: But they have the…I guess SAS is better at it, and the thing about SAS is they give you the free version that works up to 500 emails a month, or up until 20, and then you can upgrade. Right? That kind of a thing?
Andrew: So you didn’t have that. When Michael Hyde installed it on a site his people might have known it was great, but unless they specifically asked him, or he wrote a blog post about it, they didn’t know what tool he was using. That’s what Michael Hyde writes about…
Syed: He wrote about it. People asked him on Twitter, and Michael’s pretty responsive on Twitter. So when somebody asked him he’d just reply, yeah OptiMonster.
Andrew: I see.
Syed: That started happening, and then we opened the affiliate program, and then several people started joining and started promoting to their list different bloggers, different authors, photographers, you name it.
Andrew: What about this, I’ve interviewed other people who’ve created plug-ins for WordPress, and you can’t protect your plug-in, people could buy it and then give it to their friends. What do you do about that?
Syed: Well, you did the GPO, right? So you know more than anybody else what happens and how a GPO works. Yes, if it’s a GPO plug-in, yeah anybody can take it. So I guess what you’re really selling in the WordPress plug-in is support and updates. Right? And especially in the industry that we’re in, where support really sucks, there are plug-ins that are created by top internet marketers which not only suck in coding but suck in support. It’s a luxury in this market if you get good support.
Andrew: So you’re saying, yeah technically people can copy it, and it turns out it hasn’t been that huge a deal, where people are copying and stealing plug-ins.
Syed: I mean, somebody just did, like two days ago, but people will do that, it just happens.
Andrew: How did you know two days ago? I would imagine people do it every single day.
Syed: Well, a product went out, and one of our users found it and pointed it out, hey this is a bleedin’ rip off, and I’m like, yeah it is. So we reached out to them and told them that they’re violating their copyright, in terms of they can’t share images and stuff.
Andrew: So that’s where you can really lock things down. There are certain aspects of it that you can control.
Syed: Yeah. There are certain aspects, the images, the design that you created is copyrighted. The code is not because that’s GPL. You have the trademarks, if they’re using our name to redistribute it, then we that’s a trademark violation as well.
Andrew: So basically the industry found a way to deal with this. And part of the way you described, the other part is support. And the other thing is, I might be willing to download a song that’s ripped off and put it on iTunes, and listen to it. But if I’m going to install something on my site, and I care at all about my site, I want to make sure that it absolutely is the right thing, and there’s no screwin’ around there.
Syed: Yeah, because a lot of times you’ll find a torented(?) version of a plug-in, but those codes would basically have encodes that then, you know, that outputs spam SPO lanes, or creates a backdoor…
Andrew: Yeah, I want to say, you know what, maybe I shouldn’t pay 300 bucks. But then I go, what am I doing, this is stupid.
Syed: Yeah, this happens a lot. This happens all the time.
Andrew: So how do you give such great support, when WordPress now, you can have so many different plug-ins on it, anything can be conflicting, it’s used by people sometimes who are idiots, they don’t know what they’re doing, right? No offense to them, frankly I’m an idiot when it comes to cooking, I don’t know, if you tell me a pinch of something I’m going to screw it up, you have to tell me specifically what to do otherwise I’m lost. So I know that when it comes to WordPress people feel as stupid as I do when I cook. What do you do to deal with that? How do you create a support community for that?
Syed: Well, for OptiMonster we have paid employees that are taught to be nice. Be human, don’t be frustrated, just be nice. Point out the resources. We have written up a lot of different documentation that goes step by step. How do you install Optimus? The first thing you need to do is download, then install, and do this. It goes step by step, so anybody can follow through. On WPBeginner, same thing. We try to go. . . We don’t omit a step. Right? It’s pretty crucial to say install and activate the plugin. Right? If you just say install the plugin, they’re like, “Well, I’m not seeing the plugin menu.” “Did you activate it?” That’s why we have to make sure that we say install and activate, be very clear with the wording.
Andrew: So you say every single step you tell them to. . . All right. So if someone out there is listening to us, and they want to create their first plugin, and then do really excellent customer support so that they can charge people year after year, which is great for their own business, and also so they have something that they can sell and not have people rip off. . .
Andrew: What’s the big mistake that they’re going to make that you can warn them about beyond not giving enough steps?
Syed: Well, so, first thing, don’t use Gmail for your support, right? When you start you’re just like, “Oh, I can just handle Gmail, or you use an email for support.” Don’t do it. A lot of times people create a public forum for support.
Syed: Don’t do that.
Syed: Because when it’s a public forum, people just start tackling on to another issue. So your issue might be completely different than the other issue, but you think it’s the same as that issue. So you’re opening an older forum ticket, so it’s really hard to keep up with everything. I would suggest going with a help desk system. We use HelpScout for. . .
Andrew: Even though. . . I love HelpScout. Oh, I could evangelize that forever. It’s such a good system.
Andrew: The thing, though, about it is, if I answer something in HelpScout, the next time someone asks it, they still have to come back to me, at least the way HelpScout is today.
Syed: Yeah. I mean, you can create workflows for your most commonly asked questions, but these are like auto, like pre-saved replies that you can just click that and go from there. I mean, we added a debugging little, you know, troubleshooting Optimus master link above the contact form, and that has reduced so many, you know. . .
Andrew: What is that?
Syed: It’s basically a document where we talked about all the common problems that people have that are not really problems with the plugin, itself, but can happen, depending on the hosting provider you’re with, or, you know, the different things that you have going on.
It makes it really easy because we can see communication with a specific customer. Second, we can see the license key that you have, so we can offer priority support for somebody who’s a pro-level. They’re like several. . .
Andrew: How can you see what license key they have?
Syed: We use a plugin called EasyDigitalDownloads, and there’s an extension that several people have written. It’s on GitHub, and you can take it and fork it and make it work your way. I think Yost is using it, Headway is using it, we are using it. It basically connects with our WordPress site, and helps Scout.
Andrew: I see.
Syed: We take the user emails. If you use your email address to purchase and to send the email, we can match that email with our support and say, “Okay. This person actually bought, Andrew bought a pro-level plan, so now we should have. . . He’s in the priority folder because of that.
Andrew: Got it. Okay. All right, so that’s something that you’d say. Don’t take what you think is the easy way out, which is a forum where you think people are going to find the answers that you’ve already given in the past. Do support via email, not Gmail, but email where you can see all these interactions with people, and you can hire people in the future, and, if you want to stop writing things over and over again, don’t put it in the forums, put it in a frequently asked questions section and into your workflow so you have kind of these macros, I guess, for lack of a better word that allows you to use the same answers over and over.
Syed: Yep. We did forums before, with Soliloquy and Wire and we switched away because, let’s say you push out and update, and one person had an issue, and they wrote about it, and they’re like, “Oh, I had this issue.”
Sometimes it’s not an issue with our plugin, it’s rather an issue with another plugin or their hosting provider, but then other people start saying, “Oh my god, I’m not going to update because of this. I’m not going to update.” It creates a frenzy, right?
Andrew: What does it cost, roughly, to hire a full-time tech support person for a plugin? Don’t give me your guy’s salary, but roughly.
Syed: Depends on what their talent level is. We’re hiring people who have developer knowledge, so we’re paying them a developer salary.
Andrew: Got it. So over $100,000 is what we could expect to pay?
Syed: No, depending on. . . We’re not hiring out of San Francisco.
Andrew: I see. Speaking of older posts, you guys go back in and you edit older posts on WPBeginner.
Syed: Why? Because now that WPBeginner is such a geek site, and I’m fairly well involved in the community, and we rank pretty high for any WordPress keyword, so if an experienced member or advanced member searches for it, and they find a solution that’s kind of outdated, then I get a backlash for being well known, or popular. Like, “Hey you need to you know up-date this older thing you’re miss-educating, or you’re not educating properly,” and I’m like, “Guys you do realize this is a blog,” and so people kind of think that if you’re going to have a resource site more than you know it’s a blog. So I started going back and updating, so we update more posts, and we actually write everyday going back and updating the article to make sure…
Andrew: So you have someone who goes back in, and says, “Hey you know what? What posts can I update today? Gravity forms didn’t add this feature that we said doesn’t exist let’s go back and change or Gravity Forms Article and include it, and we add an update text to say that it’s been updated on what date.”
Syed: Well, so what we did you know I don’t know if you follow it, but a lot of bloggers were removing dates, I think Copy Blogger, and several other started the trend like you know we’re not going to have dates because our content is evergreen. I started that in 2009 with WP Beginner, I didn’t have any dates, and I realized how you know because I thought WP Beginner was Wikipedia, write but then I was doing such a disservice to people who don’t know how long the article was written ago so I added dates, but now I’m updating and I don’t want to leave update notes so I use what’s called last updated date on WP Beginner. So if I update an article instead of showing you the publish date, which is now irrelevant, it doesn’t matter when the article was published because the article was updated Tuesday.
So for all purposes and sakes the article was written yesterday. So it will say last updated instead of posted on.
Andrew: I see, and that’s…How do you know which ones to go back in and update?
Syed: A lot of times because we get questions on our, you know through our contact form so we’re following it through another freelancer, or somebody who pinged us and said, “Hey I was going through this article and this needs updating,” and we constantly check.
Andrew: That makes sense because I’m looking at where your traffic’s coming from, and a big chunk of your traffic’s coming from WordPress.org, and I thought maybe he got a link somewhere, maybe this guy negotiated something. It’s not, it’s the forums, people in the forums are saying, “What you should do is,” and then they’re linking over to your article.
Andrew: Which is amazing.
Syed: Yeah exactly. Do you remember when you were saying that like talking with the one person is not going to help, or you’re only getting 10 people, well no because a lot of these freelancers, and developers, and community members actually give back, they go into support forums to talk about it, and now you know be able to trust WP Beginner they’re going to recommend or refer to WP Beginner.
Andrew: And that’s a big issue for you, if you want to be authoritative you want to make sure that people that people see the stuff is up to date, and if you want to keep it up to date you have to do a lot of updating, especially as you have more and more content.
Andrew: And you hired one person whose whole job is to do that. That’s it full-time job now is to handle this issue. Here’s another issue you had, and I know we’re almost out of, actually we’re past the length of my usual interview, but I’ve got to keep you on a little bit longer because this is an amazing story. You got burnt out almost, you mentioned a couple of times this gallery, this gallery thing, what is the gallery thing that led you to feeling burned out?
Syed: So in version three of the Beginner I launched two sections in WP Beginner, which were often the most asked sessions. One was the gallery, a true showcase of WordPress sites. Second was the coupon where people are like, “Hey do you have deals?” Because I would often you know if I would review or do a how to article of a plug in I would actually add a coupon. So I created a section that I’ll list all the coupons that you know companies have offered exclusively to WP Beginner users.
Andrew: I see it on your homepage is a section at the top that says, “Recent Articles,” and right underneath it “Deals and Most Recent Articles, Deals and Coupons, ” and I could get In Themes coupon 20% off, Mojo Themes 15% off, and you get paid affiliate commission on that and I get a discount as a user?
Syed: That’s right, so I did that, and the second thing was a showcase because the WordPress.org showcase, again is completely volunteer based right? So, and chances are I didn’t necessarily want to feature an average Joe’s website, because if you go look at the showcase there aren’t very average Joe’s websites.
Andrew: It’s always Wall Street Journal.
Syed: Wall Street Journal right.
Andrew: The reason is they want to say, “Look WordPress is used by big companies.” It’s not their intention to say, “Here’s a showcase of best design, or the most amateur, the best amateur who finally got his act together.”
Syed: Yeah, but now if you are, so those big sites are, makes a very small portion of the WordPress sites right? If you’re an accountant and you want to see what kind of other accountant websites look like you have no idea, you can’t even see a showcase of accounting sites, and WordPress really powered. So your best option is…
Andrew: You did that, why did that lead to burnout?
Syed: Well so people were getting bad links from this right? And as you know the SU industry tends to abuse it, because WP Beginner has such good links now I’m getting tons, and tons, and tons of spam submission because these were all user submitted, and…
Andrew: And now you’re back in the directory business where you need to start charging people or…
Syed: Well yeah I wasn’t going to charge people because it’s a showcase that I created out of goodwill because I wanted a resource that’s better. But I just couldn’t do it. And I’m, like, okay, I have to go through more spam sites to find a legitimate website. Right?
So I wanted to showcase custom designs, not commercial themes. Like if you bought a WooTheme and created your accounting website, I’m not going to feature your website. Because now you’re just talking about WooThemes. I wanted to talk about things that you actually customized or custom created from scratch.
I mentioned, though, when I was getting tons of, you know, tons of the mediocre websites but also tons of just complete spam. Like here’s a form. You know, buy pill X or cheap mortgages online were submitting stuff.
Andrew: So that’s why you just couldn’t keep up with it. You had to shut it down. It was going to be too much of a headache. Why couldn’t you just do a no-follow and avoid all the link issues.
Syed: Because I still have to moderate.
Andrew: Oh, okay. No matter what. Even if you don’t give SEO Juice, you’re still going to give some people some attention and that means that everybody is going to flood you with junk.
Syed: Yeah. Even in the SEO industry, if you follow it, they talk about no-follows still give you some credit or whatnot. I mean there’s a big debate on it. So the others that are on the other side that no-follows helps, they’re still going to keep spamming you. The links were no-follow.
Andrew: One last thing, another big challenge, and actually two things. You know the big challenge is, where was that. Oh, I’m on the site here Steadystrength.com. You tried to do the same thing that worked for you in the WordPress community.
Andrew: For strength, you said, I’ll write these how-to articles.
Andrew: Why didn’t that work out?
Syed: Well, because at WordPress, I was really passionate about it. Right. With Steadystrength, I thought it was a cool niche and I could do it, and I hired a guy to do it. And the guy and I had a same vision and then in the middle of it, he just left. Right.
Andrew: I see.
Syed: Because essentially I hired my friend’s brother who did a personal training online. Okay, you do it. Because we did it on List25 and it worked wonders. Right. List25 got millions of followers. Now I’m, like, okay, we can replicate it in the fitness industry.
Andrew: I see. And the reason that you couldn’t is the person who you picked flaked out. He wasn’t fully passionate.
Andrew: You weren’t fully passionate. But do you believe that someone whose heard this interview all the way through and even dealt with some of the construction noise in the background, and says, aha, I see how it works. You create how-to articles, you put some affiliate links in the how-to articles, you get the articles ideas by talking to real users and write solutions for them every single day. All the stuff that you mentioned, if they do it all, do you think that they could create a site just like yours in a different niche.
Syed: Yeah, I think if you try to take shortcuts, you probably won’t be able to, which is what most people are looking for. Right. There’s a lot of people who try to do it within the WordPress space. Right. They come out and they create how-to articles and they’re looking for short term. But, guess what, in the first eight months, if you don’t have Digg, you’re not going to get that kind of traffic.
Andrew: And if they don’t have Digg, and they won’t today because Digg doesn’t work that way.
Syed: Digg doesn’t do it. Exactly.
Andrew: They can’t get Reddit really, because Reddit doesn’t send a flood of traffic. It’s much more niche-y.
Andrew: So you just have to, it’s like rolling a boulder up to the top of a mountain.
Syed: That’s right.
Andrew: If you’re willing to roll it up to the top, talk to one trainer at a time, right. One how-to article at a time, and do it every single day the way you did, then you have a site that could do what yours does.
Syed: Mm-hmm. Definitely.
Andrew: And even then, you probably won’t make enough money. What you’ll need to do is create your own product. But by then, you’ll have built a relationship with people, and you’ll have enough of an audience that the product will make some good revenue.
Syed: Yeah. One thing that I definitely love about how I did it is I was able to amass such a huge audience. So when I launch a product, or even if I support a product with a joint venture behind the scenes, then I was getting pretty good commissions on those. Right. Because I have such a huge audience.
Andrew: What’s List25?
Syed: List25 is a blog I created with just the top 25 of this and top 25 of that. The 25 most brutal torture techniques ever devised.
Andrew: I see it. Twenty-five animal saviors who will restore your faith in humanity.
Andrew: 25 crazy facts about sharks you can sink your teeth into. This is you saying, I don’t have to stick with the WordPress content, I can also create these lists. And it’s just photo and fact, photo, fact, photo, fact. Where’s the revenue come from on a site like this?
Syed: Ads. Ads. 100% ads. We have done, like, promoted articles where we would write an article of 25, you know, scariest things that can happen to you on public Wi-Fi and then promote a Wi-Fi [sounds like]. So we can do promoted posts like that where, you know, it’s not blatant advertising.
Andrew: It’s buzz feed essentially without creating your own CMS. You’re just using WordPress.
Syed: Exactly. Exactly. You know, we did an experiment, launched a YouTube channel, and then that just blew up.
Andrew: How many people on the YouTube channel?
Syed: 1.2 million.
Andrew: 1.2 million people on the YouTube channel. What do you do on the YouTube channel?
Syed: Take the videos and read it.
Andrew: And do what?
Syed: Read it.
Andrew: Read the videos?
Syed: Read the articles, I mean. Sorry.
Andrew: The articles, I see. There we go. So, 25 dumb Facebook posts that got people in trouble with the law. That is just you taking a post of yours and reading it, and showing the images, and before I get to watch it, I have to watch a 30 second ad, and that’s where the money comes in.
Syed: Uh, yeah.
Andrew: Got it. So, you’re saying, “Hey, everything that I’ve done here, if you’re willing to roll a boulder up a hill people can do it too. But most people are going to want the shortcuts, that’s not going to work. Take your time. Find something that you’re really passionate about it. You know what? It’s not just passion. you found a market that is especially growing right? With WordPress, you picked a platform that was growing very fast. With this whole List 25 content, you picked the Facebook and Twitter platforms which are constantly looking for things to share, and YouTube.
Syed: Yeah. It just targets the emotion, right? If it triggers and emotion, it’s going to get shared.
Andrew: Yeah, this one with sharks with the photo of the shark teeth triggers and emotion. Congratulations on your success. Thank you so much for doing this interview. If anyone wants to follow up with you, what’s a good place for them to – should they just tweet anything and hashtag WordPress? No, you don’t do that anymore.
Syed: We do, but it’s kind of hard to keep track of it because WordPress hashtag is spam. If you have a WordPress question, just tweet at WPBeginner. You’ll probably, get an answer. Follow me personally at SyedBalkhi on Twitter.
Andrew: All right. Congratulations on all your success and to all the people who are on Facebook now, friends of yours and saying, “Hey, we went to school together. Can you give me some tips on WordPress?” Where were you guys when he was being picked on for talking like a Pakistani? Get out of here, go ask someone who can’t – thank you. Thank you all for being a part of it. Bye, guys.