December 5, 2016
Our sponsor today is Post Status. Post Status is an industry news site that covers the WordPress ecosystem for professionals and enthusiasts. There’s also the Post Status club, which gives you a news-filled email, access to a WordPress directory, a Slack community, member-exclusive deals and so much more. Check them out at poststatus.com.
Today we have a special guest, Jared Atchison, the owner of Atchison Consulting and WordPress developer. He’s been writing code for over a decade and growing his business for about five years. He’s also the lead developer of WPForms. Today he gives us some great insights from the perspective of a developer.
Some of the topics you’ll hear about today include:
- Some of the changes and highlights in Jared’s personal life and business since he was on the show two years ago.
- How Jared would describe WPForms: It’s a form plug-in which focuses on the user and usability. He goes into more detail about what to expect with this plug-in and what sets it apart.
- What made Jared want to dive into such a competitive market and how he navigated the process of developing and releasing the plug-in.
- Some of the challenges Jared had when developing WPForms.
- The primary marketing channels for WPForms; the biggest one is content marketing.
- Jared’s favorite and least favorite parts of developing WPForms.
Links and Resources:
Post Status (Sponsor)
If you’re enjoying the show we sure would appreciate a Review in iTunes. Thanks!
BRAD: Welcome to Episode 72. Today we are joined by a special guest, Jared Atchison. Say hello, Jared.
JARED: Hey, guys.
PIPPIN: Glad to have you.
JARED: Absolutely. Thanks. Thanks for having me on.
PIPPIN: It’s going to be our pleasure. So before we jump into talking to Jared about a bunch of different things, this episode is sponsored by Post Status. Post Status is an industry news site devoted to covering the WordPress ecosystem for professionals and enthusiasts. It is a news site run by Brian Krogsgard, but it’s much more than a news site.
He also has the Post Status Club, which gives you access to a special members notes newsletter, which is a handwritten WordPress news and insights email delivered multiple times per week. It gives you access to a WordPress directory. Think of like a LinkedIn style profile where you can go and be listed along with all the other Post Status members.
He’s got a Slack community on there and as well as member exclusive deals for people that join the Post Status Club. There’s also both myself and my products from Pippins Plugins, as well as the products from Brad and WP Migrate DB Pro are included in that members deal. Brian also has a podcast called Draft. Post Status is a pretty sweet site, so we really want to thank Brian for his sponsorship of the episode today.
I believe all three of us are members of his Post Status Club. Let’s talk a little bit about what does the club benefits give you guys. What do you think?
BRAD: I use the email newsletters. As soon as I get it, I usually open it up and see, you know, Brian’s take on news that’s happening in the WordPress community. The way he breaks down the newsletter is just like little — I especially like the little — I can’t remember what they’re called. I think they’re just called notes.
BRAD: Yeah. Yeah, and he just summarizes, like, what it is, so it’s usually a sentence, right? I don’t know. It just saves you so much time than digging around on a bunch of different sites to try to figure out what’s going on.
PIPPIN: The newsletter that he sends out is one of my favorites, and it’s actually one of the very few newsletters that I read every single one without fail. One of the reasons that I think it’s so valuable is not just the summary of news that’s happening, but are the insights that he includes with it. Brian has been around for a long time in the WordPress community. I think he’s actually probably one of the very first people I ever got to know inside of WordPress, and so his insights are really, really good on any topic. And so that’s where I see huge value all the time.
JARED: Yeah, definitely. For me it just comes down to my time is very precious. Having a two-year-old running around now and having multiple kind of ventures that I’m dealing with and everything, I just don’t have time to keep up with everything any more. I’m not connected all the time, which is for the better, but that also means I don’t have time to keep up with everything.
Just having kind of the digest, you know, sent to me in a nice format that’s easily scannable and, of course, his two cents and his long form stuff is great too, but just being able to keep up with everything at a glance and not having to read a bunch of different resources. I mean I still follow like the make blogs and stuff like that, but Brian does an excellent job just keeping everyone informed without having to just invest a ton of time.
That’s probably the thing I like most about it, but also I also like the Post Status chat or the Slack. I don’t read it all the time just because of time constraints, but I find particularly the Heavy Dev is one of the channels in there, and I find that really valuable on getting insights from other really good developers. I think all the Human Made folks are in there and some other just really good developers, so just kind of going back every day and reading some of the conversation in there has proved to be a really good asset.
Then sometimes in my own development, if I have a question and Stack Overflow is not doing the job or just Google isn’t turning up anything, especially for some of the really oddball technical stuff, I’ll hit up that channel. Usually I’ll get some really great answers that save me a lot of time, so it’s definitely by far totally worth it.
BRAD: I see one of your comments in the WP Business channel, Jared. You were congratulating or just mentioning Jason Cohen for his insights on business stuff.
JARED: Oh, yeah, that’s the other, my second favorite room is the WP Business. Being in the product space now, just kind of being a fly on the wall in that room, so to speak, it’s really great seeing the different — everyone in there. A lot of people discuss their products and how business is going and their trends for this time of year and how to handle refunds. You name it, there’s been discussion that kind of goes on in that room, and not just for products. For services too, there’s a bunch of agency owners in there. That’s another great room. I just kind of sit in there and, when I get time at lunch or I need a break, I’ll just do some back reading. There’s a lot of knowledge that gets posted in there.
PIPPIN: It’s like a constant mastermind. It’s awesome.
BRAD: I don’t participate very much myself either, but it’s really nice to have when I need feedback on something. I can just pop into the business channel, ask about a marketing question or something, and there’s just so many knowledgeable people in there. It’s also crazy that it’s only $99 a year to join the club, right? That’s–
JARED: Yeah, it’s a no-brainer.
BRAD: Yeah, I definitely get $100 a year worth of value out of it. I think that’s — yeah.
JARED: Yeah, I pay a lot more for things that I get a lot less value out of. I’ll say that.
BRAD: That’s right.
PIPPIN: All right. Should we jump in and talk about you, Jared?
JARED: All right. I’m ready to go.
PIPPIN: All right. We had you on back in Episode 17, which crazily was two and a half years ago back in April of 2014. I know a lot has changed for Brad and I, but also for you, Jared. Maybe give us a quick rundown of maybe what are some of the major changes since 2014, some of the highlights, or major things that you would like to talk about.
JARED: Yeah, definitely. It’s crazy because two and a half years ago is forever ago, but it doesn’t seem like that long that, you know, I was on the podcast with y’all talking about all sorts of fun things. But, yeah, since then there’s been a lot with me that’s changed.
I’ve since released a plugin that I’m in with, with Syed Balkhi, and so that’s kind of been an ongoing shift that came out earlier this year, officially, and so that’s been the biggest change is kind of going from services to products. Really, yeah, that’s been the biggest one. Since then, on the personal side of things, we had a daughter who is now two. She came around, you know, towards the end of 2014, so I hadn’t experienced that yet either when I was on the podcast. It’s been a lot of changes since then, but all good. I wouldn’t change anything, and I’m very happy with the direction of where things are, both personally and professionally.
BRAD: Are you full time on WPForms now?
JARED: I am more or less full time. I’m about to basically declare myself full time. As WPForms was released, I was kind of splitting time and still doing client work and everything like that. But it’s now to the point where really just to stay afloat it needs my undivided attention. Luckily the general reception of the plugin has been extremely positive. We’ve been growing month-over-month and everything is the direction we want to see, which has allowed me, moving forward, I’ll be basically focusing on that full-time. I still have some long-term clients that come to me for work and stuff that I’ll still be taking on and doing jobs like that. But as far as new work, moving forward, it’s not really something I’m going to be actively seeking.
PIPPIN: How would you describe WPForms to somebody who doesn’t know what it is? Let’s say that they’re a WordPress user, but they’re not familiar with the plugin. They know what plugins are and they know how to use them, but WPForms is new to them. What’s the elevator pitch you give them?
JARED: WPForms is a form plugin, our contact form plugin just at its core, so to speak, which really focuses on the user and usability. We all know that there’s a ton of really good form solutions out there. There’s Ninja Forms and, of course, the leader in the forms space, which is Gravity Forms, Formidable Pro. Then there’s a bunch of the free options like Contact Form 7, which is just a monster and has, you know, over a million active installs.
And so there’s no shortage of options, but really what we do is we try to focus on doing things, I guess I would say, the right way and in a way that is intuitive and not necessarily providing users with the kitchen sink, so to speak. If a user is looking to be able to just do a ton of different things and just be provided the option to do everything under the sun, at this point we probably wouldn’t be the best fit. But that’s not necessarily who we’re catering to. We’re catering to the mom and pop type shops, the individual users and stuff that just want the plugin to let them install and manage a form, whether it’s a contact form, a simple donation form, anything like that. Just provide them with a really good experience that kind of gets out of the way, but yet provides them with all the basic options that they would expect to kind of handle that.
PIPPIN: Do you think that that focus on the simplicity and not trying to do everything under the sun is what sets WPForms apart?
JARED: Absolutely. Like I said, there’s a ton of different options and the forms space is very competitive. But I think what has allowed us to differentiate ourselves and be successful, even in a niche that is as crowded as forms, is that we took a different approach that really at this point I would say no one else has quite done or at least not with the focus that we have, which is just providing users with — I mean in many cases it comes back to the WordPress motto of decisions and not options. That’s something that I regularly, as the lead developer of the plugin, am constantly reevaluating when we get feature requests, suggestions, or anything like that. It’s like, okay, well, is this something that’s going to benefit 90% of our users, or is this something that is going to only benefit a small portion, and then for the other portion is this going to be a confusing setting that they’re not going to understand? Those are really things that I evaluate when working on the plugin.
So far our users have been very vocal as far as everything is well received. That’s by far, you know, the common gist that we get and feedback is that the users that understand what we’re trying to do, they really like it because they don’t need crazy solutions. They’re not looking for almost a full e-commerce solution, which is what you can do with Gravity Forms. Their pricing and payment stuff is, like, you can do some crazy awesome things. But we’re not trying to do that at this point, so I think that is what separates us.
PIPPIN: With the forms market being so competitive, I mean as you mentioned there is Gravity Forms, there is Ninja Forms, there’s Formidable Pro, there’s Contact Form 7, there’s Caldera Forms. There’s numerous others as well. What really got you guys into this? What made you and Syed want to dive into such a competitive market? Was it you saw a need? Was it just you knew that the fishbowl was big enough for another fish? How did this project come about? How did you start? And maybe even how did you and Syed get together on this?
JARED: Yeah, sure. The whole kind of story of how this came to be is a fun and interesting story. Syed actually has a blog post if anyone wants to look it up on his blog that’s called Behind the Scenes of WPForms, My New WordPress Plugin, and that sort of gives a little overview with some pictures and everything.
I have been doing my freelance consulting now for a long time. I think this is probably year six or probably seven, at least, that I’ve been doing it, so I’ve been well tenured in that regard, and so I’ve been doing that. Years ago, probably the very first PressNomics, this was four or five years ago since PressNomics 5 is next year, I got to be really good friends with Thomas Griffin. I was, at the time, a developer focusing on kind of Genesis oriented projects that leveraged the Genesis framework, and so Thomas basically was about a year behind me as far as, like, getting started and everything.
I became really good friends with him and we kind of had like a little private chat. We were always talking about just our current projects and, you know, pinging each other to talk shop and everything like that. A couple years into him doing freelance, he tested the waters with Soliloquy, which is, you know, the slider plugin and arguably one of the most well-respected and popular slider plugins out there.
He tested the waters with that product and, at the time, it’s like he was talking to me and, I’m sure, several other people. We kind of all thought he was a little crazy because we were all doing really well for ourselves as front-end developers or theme developers, I guess you could say. This was before it was quite as saturated with, I guess what I would call, theme assemblers or people who are doing the divi type themes and stuff. So it wasn’t quite as saturated back then, but it was a really good profession to be in, and it was doing quiet well. And so he wanted to invest a bunch of time into Soliloquy, and we all thought he was a little bit crazy.
Then after that took off, it was like obviously he proved us all wrong in a very good way, and that proved to be a very successful product for him. Then after that he went on to basically duplicate it with the Envira Gallery plugin and everything like that. Watching his journey and, of course, I kept tabs with him along the whole way, so watching his journey from services to products, you know, it really piqued my interest. I saw the joy he got out of doing product and, frankly, that really inspired me.
I think whenever he started Envira Gallery that was the point whenever I started to think to myself like I think it would be a lot of fun to do products. At that point I’d been in the services space for a while, and it was starting to get more crowded and everything like that. But I knew the amount of work that it took and the risks involved. We see so many people with products that just, for whatever reason, usually because their business or marketing skills aren’t really up to snuff, they just don’t pan out. It wasn’t something that I was confident that I could do on my own and make a jump, so I just stuck to services.
Well then fast forward to 2014. Chris Lema has his CaboPress. Well, 2014 was the first initial CaboPress mastermind group, and I got invited to go. And so I went, and Syed happened to go too because he was one of the masterminds.
And so before we were going, Thomas reached out to me. I’m pretty sure he told Syed this too, but he’s like, “Hey, man. While you’re there, just talk to Syed. I’ve told him about you’re a great developer. You’re a great guy.” We have very similar philosophies business-wise and personally and everything on how we see eye-to-eye, so he was like, “Yeah, just talk to him. See if anything comes to it or whatever.”
At that point they had already been working on OptinMonster together, and they were already in that venture, so they were good friends and business partners at that point. I said, “Okay. Cool.” CaboPress came around, and there’s a ton of great people there, a lot of valuable information. But definitely the highlight of that trip obviously was the connection I made with Syed.
I had met him before at the Community Summit and probably some other WordCamps, but for whatever reason I just never followed up with, and we never really got to sit down and, you know, make a solid connection. But at CaboPress we did, so I spent a lot of my time at CaboPress just talking with him and just telling him where I was in business. You know, okay, well, yeah, I’m doing services, but I was basically saying what I told you all as far as I really am interested in moving to the product space eventually. That really gets my interest.
One of the things at CaboPress that we ended up talking about randomly was just contact forms, and so we both kind of shared this passion for the current state of contact forms we weren’t really particularly happy with. From my perspective doing client work, I wasn’t really happy because I use Gravity Forms on all of my client projects. For like 90% of my client projects, it was simply overkill. They needed a contact form, maybe some conditionals or maybe hook up a MailChimp, but really at the end of the day that’s kind of all they needed.
Well, what happens is Gravity Form, if you’re like a client and you do not have the developer chops or you don’t work with Gravity Forms on a day-to-day, the interface can be somewhat confusing. Their docs are good, but they’re somewhat more developer oriented and everything. What would always end up happening inevitably is down the road a client would be like, “Oh, sweet. Suzie is our new secretary, and we want her to receive a copy of all the emails,” or they’d have some change like that.
I always thought it was funny that it was five times easier and ten times faster for me to just, you know, okay, give me all the information. I’m going go in and make this change than to tell them, like, “Okay. Here are the five different screens you have to go to to change this,” and everything like that. That was kind of a pain point from my end.
Well, Syed, as the person who runs or founder of WPBeginner, he has a similar thing, so his target audience is beginners. Well, the number one free contact form plugin out there is Contact Form 7. While under the hood it definitely gets the job done, if anyone has ever used it, you will know that it’s definitely not the most beginner oriented plugin.
He, from running WPBeginner, had a lot of frustrations because that was a common thing they got on his site, questions and everything, was trying to figure out how the heck to use a contact form. Contact Form 7 was the best free one out there, but it’s really hard to explain to people.
PIPPIN: Yeah. It’s logic and the way it works is a little — well, it’s kind of like combining a whole bunch of short code.
JARED: It’s not typical, so what ended up is just kind of being like me and him just kind of jokingly ranting back and forth to each other about the current state of contact forms. Yeah, that pretty much ended up into kind of the idea of things. That morphed into the idea of WPForms. CaboPress, I think, was April of 2014, or something like that. Then we kept in touch after CaboPress and around July of 2014 is when we officially registered WPForms, LLC.
Then after that, we met again. We kind of went on a little vacation together, me, Thomas, and Syed, and our wives. Basically what we did was spend the trip kind of, okay, well, we’re actually going to do this. Like what are we going to do now type of thing, and so that was when work began.
PIPPIN: How long from the point of saying, okay, we’re doing this and we’re going to build it, to actually releasing your first MVP? What kind of time period was that?
JARED: I will admit that it took me entirely too long. Before I give you the answer, just know that it took me entirely too long. I started development in probably September-ish of 2014. We talked about it at CaboPress and in the summer is whenever we set up the LLC in the business and everything. Then we met. We had our little meeting or whatever where we all got together and talked over logistics and started planning. Then a couple months following is when I actually started development, so like I said December of 2014.
The actual launch, first launch was March of 2016. Yeah, it was basically like the week after PressNomics for this year. I think that as March-ish or the first week of April, something like that.
Yeah, it took me basically to get from nothing to our initial 1.0, it took me about a year and a half. That was definitely way too long. If I had to do it all over again, I would reprioritize things to not take as long.
A large part of that was just me not being able to juggle things efficiently because, all during the process of WPForms, obviously my main income stream was client work, so that always kept taking priority. Then what I tried to do is always say, okay, I’m going to work this amount of WPForms and this amount on client work. Then client work would always end up just bleeding over and taking up most of the time. I would also set aside for WPForms because, at the end of the day, that was paying the bills.
What ended up happening is between September of 2014 and September 2015, I mean development was like very slow, but steady. And so I met with Thomas and Syed and everything last fall. Basically we were like, okay, this sucker needs to get out. I think at the time we were like, it would be nice if we could get it out at the beginning of the new year, but really the point was, like, we need to — this needs to get out. It doesn’t need to take this long.
I just reprioritized things. I scaled down on client work and basically went to kind of like a skeleton crew on that, so to speak. It was kind of a scary time for me because I basically was taking the very minimum amount of client work that I needed just to pay my bills. Even some months it was kind of like, okay, well, I’m going to have to take out of savings, so to speak, to get it done.
But it was one of those things that I was really confident in my business partner, Syed. I knew that he knows what he’s doing, and I knew even though Thomas isn’t directly affiliated with WPForms, he’s what we call one of our advisors. Of course he’s involved with Syed in all his other business ventures. I just trusted them, and I knew that it’s one of those things that was a short term sacrifice for a long term gain, and it was something that I was willing to.
Yeah, the fall of 2015, I really just prioritized to where WPForms was my main goal. I put in a solid, like, four months of basically just finishing things up, testing, and focusing on that. Then we ended up shipping the spring of this year.
PIPPIN: I think recognizing that, how much potential it had, the risks involved, doing it strategically, et cetera, is probably one of the things that’s going to set this project apart from many commercial projects that developers pursue. I think it’s a good sign for things to come, for sure.
Aside from the challenges you just describe with trying to balance client work and development on the new project, what were some of the maybe developer oriented challenges you had in building WPForms? Did you have things that you looked at as inspiration, specific code bases? Were you trying to emulate anything? Did you build anything and then just throw it all away and rebuild it? Maybe as a developer, tell us a little bit about that.
JARED: Yeah, that is a great question. So whenever I look back at making the transition or wanting to make the transition from services to products, that was actually one of my inspirations and reasons for wanting to make the transition is being able to really push myself. Like I said, me and Thomas were generally kind of at the same place when we were doing theme development and working on the same thing. I got to see firsthand whenever he was taking on first Soliloquy then Envira and then, of course, OptinMonster, how he was always getting to push himself, work with new technologies, constantly be learning, and just exposing himself to new things like that.
As a developer, that’s what keeps me fired up. That’s what keeps me interested is doing that. What happened is with client work, I’d kind of got in a rut as far as the theme work I was doing. I mean obviously I was taking some fairly large projects and everything like that. But at the end of the day there’s only such a big project or such a level of complexity that, as an individual developer, that I can take on and complete in a timely manner, still be profitable, and all those things.
It kind of got to where I felt like that three out of the four projects I would take on, I was just doing the same thing over and over. You know slicing up the thing and doing the mark up, blah, blah, blah. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it just got kind of boring, to be frank. I mean it just got to where if I got a project where there was something I had to learn or I was getting to play with a new API or something, that really excited me, but that wasn’t the majority of projects that was coming my way.
Moving to plugins, I knew it was going to allow me to kind of shed that. Yeah, moving to WPForms, it did exactly that. I mean it was a total challenge. I will say that by far. I mean it delivered the challenge and then some. I had never — I mean I don’t know how many lines of code it is now, but it morphed into something completely bigger than I had ever done before by an order of magnitude.
The whole process of developing it, I was just — I mean I think that the actual development time alone, I feel like anyways, that at least half my time was just learning, doing the research, trying to figure out how to use different technologies or do things and stuff like that. I got to work a lot more with custom database stuff because our form entries are stored in a custom database table, so I got to do that. I got a lot more — my head wrapped around how classes work, and I’m leveraging that in just a lot more ways. Yeah, it really pushed my limits. Yeah, that was one of the benefits of doing that.
None of those things would I really have been able to — had I been able to do with client work. Now I’m constantly learning, and I’m getting paid for it. It’s extremely satisfying.
I didn’t answer your other question as far as code bases and stuff, so yeah. Whenever I sat down — so I think the hardest part for me is not having — my major in college was not in computer science or anything like that. It was actually in basically kind of the info tech, so kind of doing networking and things of that nature. My programming stuff, other than a couple C courses that I took in college, was all, like most people, self taught.
One of the biggest challenges for me was sitting down with WPForms and just knowing how big it is and trying to figure out how the heck to architect it because I knew it was going to get big, and I kind of knew the different components that, you know, okay, there’s going to be form entries, and there’s going to be this, and then we’re going to have this beast of a form builder was figuring out how to write this. What I was trying to avoid was just kind of a making it up as I go, which inevitably in a lot of cases that’s simply what I had to do. But I didn’t want to have to just write things and then, okay, well, yeah, that actually didn’t work at all. Scrap that. Rewrite the whole thing. I needed an MVP. I didn’t have time to just rewrite things 500 times.
In many cases I just kind of had to go with my gut and, you know, implement things the best way at the time that I thought was appropriate and then cross my fingers that it was going to work out because I didn’t really have any formal training or foresight as far as, like, sit down on a giant white board and, okay, I’m going to draw out all these classes and modules and how they’re going to architect and everything like that, which I mean I wish I would have had that knowledge, but I didn’t. But at the end of the day the product still got launched and the users like it. What Syed likes to beat into my brain is, “Done is better than perfect.” I think Lema probably says that a lot too. That was something I had to keep telling myself.
Now we’ve launched, and there is multiple things in the plugin that I wish I could go back a year ago and do things differently and implement things better, use a different technology or something, but at the end of the day–
PIPPIN: Don’t worry. That list that you want to change only gets bigger and bigger and bigger.
JARED: Exactly. Y’all know as well as I do that that’s always going to happen, especially with the rate of new technologies coming out. My users don’t know the difference. As long as I’m providing them with a good experience and things are stable, they’re not going to care if I’m using jQuery, if I’m using React, if I’m using whatever the flavor of the month is. You know what I mean. They just want it to work well.
That was definitely one of the challenges I had. In doing the research, planning things, I will say, since you asked me about existing code and stuff like that, I will say that one of my favorite resources was definitely looking at Easy Digital Downloads and Affiliate WP. With both of those code bases being on GitHub and obviously me being a fan of your work and everything, that was definitely a help because your code, it reminds me a lot of my stint of working with bbPress some years back, which is a quite massive plugin under the hood.
There’s something about the code that it’s complex in the sense that it does a lot of things, and it gets the job done. But, at the same time, I feel like it’s still very readable. I’m able to follow the inline docs and follow things, and I was able to wrap my head around things quickly. I didn’t have to spend too much time just trying to figure things out. So I definitely used EDD and Affiliate WP, bbPress, and other plugins like that as an inspiration.
There’s a lot of classes that you had that I kind of borrowed or incorporate into our plugin, one being the email template class and, I think, maybe your login class and a few other ones. It was like this just makes sense. It’s perfect. It gets the job done. It needs what it needs to do. It gets out of the way. It’s well documented. Using resources like that really helped.
PIPPIN: We definitely both owe John James Jacoby or J-Trip a big thanks. BBPress and his work on BuddyPress was a huge inspiration for a lot of the stuff that we built into EDD, Affiliate WP, et cetera. I know there’s several components in our plugins that are almost direct copies out of bbPress, and they’ve barely changed since then because they were built so well to begin with.
BRAD: Jared, are there others involved with WPForms besides you and Syed, or is it just you guys?
JARED: Right now it’s primarily us. I handle all the development, and Syed handles all of the kind of feature decision making as far as what he thinks kind of where things should go next in a real broad sense. Of course obviously the business, marketing, and all that, he handles that. Primarily it’s us two.
We do have — Syed has some writers that help us right now that he has on his team at Awesome Motive, so they’re helping us improve our documentation, which has become a recent focus, get out great blog posts that’s really valuable to our users and helps them kind of guide them to do simple things or solve questions and stuff like that. We do have a few writers that have been helping us, but right now as far as full time it’s just me and Syed.
BRAD: You guys are doing some content marketing stuff. What are some of the challenges that you guys are facing in the form builder plugin market? Is content marketing kind of the primary marketing channel that you guys are attacking? Are there other avenues that you’re looking at?
JARED: Yeah, definitely. For us content marketing is definitely probably a huge or the big focus. I mean that is Syed. That’s his toolset, right? That’s what he does best, and that’s one of the reasons why he, as a partner, provides such a huge value. He seems to understand the value in that and how to do it better than almost anyone else.
Naturally, that’s probably our biggest focus is content marketing. We don’t spend money on customer acquisition or anything. We don’t do AdWords. We don’t do Facebook ads. We don’t do really anything like that. Right now all of our users are basically, you know, they find us one way or another.
We do have a light version of the plugin in the .org repo, which is somewhere between 40,000 to 50,000 active installs. That does pretty well for us as far as converting. The light plugin is definitely fully functional and everything like that, really, so what we do is we even tell a lot of users sometimes that, hey, just use our light plugin. The light plugin basically just doesn’t have very many of the content or the form templates. It just has the contact form and a few other ones. Then it doesn’t have some of the fancy fields like file upload or the pagination or address field or something like that. I think it’s got the core eight.
Yeah, that was kind of the whole thing too is Syed, whenever we started this, there was really no question in his mind as far as what direction we were going to take or how we were going to approach this. He’s like, there will be a light version. It will be fully functional in the sense that a normal user can use this for a contact form without any issues because he wanted to be able to use that on WPBeginner. That was like his whole thing is, you know, I said where his pain points were running WPBeginner, so him now having the light version to be able to tell his users, “Okay, install the plugin. Hit new form. Hit the contact form template. Hit save. And you’re done.” The very most basic level, that’s what it takes to install a contact form. That was 100% deliberate to make it that simple.
But, yeah, going back to your question. Content marketing is definitely really our only focus right now, as we’re not really doing any paid acquisition or anything like that.
PIPPIN: You talked a lot about your process of building WPForms and transitioning from client and contract work to productized work. With that, one of my favorite parts of building a new product is that planning stage, is the kind of a blank slate, laying it out, figuring out where I’m going to put things, how I’m going to architect it, trying to imagine what I’m going to build into the future.
This is a two-part question for you. Number one, what was your favorite part about building WPForms? Two, what’s your least favorite?
JARED: Oh, man, that’s a good question. I mean like you said, I really enjoyed sitting down and kind of having a blank slate. I can architect this however I want. I mean whenever we got started, Syed was like, you’re the developer. I have complete trust in you. You use the technologies that you can use to get the job done, and you use whatever you feel comfortable with. And, at the end of the day, I’m going to trust the decisions that you’re going to make as far as the development and technologies just so much as I’m going to trust that Syed is going to make the best decisions business and marketing wise.
Yeah, I had complete control and freedom as far as that. Really, yeah, being able to have that blank slate was really, really fun. And it did cause me or I learned a lot because, like I said earlier, I mean obviously doing client work and stuff, I had done a whole slew of some plugins for clients in the past and everything like this. But this was just so much bigger. So being able to sit down and wrap my head around that and just learn everything was fun.
I’d say the part I liked the most was really breaking things down. And my approach was to just kind of break the plugin into different sections or modules and then attack them separately and try not to get too overwhelmed or confused as the plugin as a whole. I’d sit down and be like, okay, I need to get all the settings pages and all that taken care of. I need to figure out what’s the best way to do that, so I’d do that.
Okay. Now I need to do — now I’m going to get the form entries working. Okay, we’re going to get the form entries working. Now I’m going to do the custom table, and I’m going to do the entry management page. Just breaking it up into, like, small, manageable, micro tasks and attacking those in a fashion like that really helped me to just not get overwhelmed by the size of the plugin. Doing that and trying to stay organized, I really enjoyed that and it helped me keep my head around things.
Like I said, the thing I hated most was, I mean I don’t know if you want to call it the imposter syndrome or just there was times I got overwhelmed. It was just like the plugin was so big. I would start on a feature, and start writing it, and just keep questioning myself like I don’t know if this is the right way to do it. I haven’t seen anyone that does it better, but I don’t necessarily know if this is the best way. And so I would have this fear that I would get 50% through writing this component, or 100% through or something like that, and then be like, man, this wasn’t the best way. I really should have done it a different way. That sort of mentality.
That was the part where I just kept questioning myself, and that was one of the things that kind of admittedly led to such a long initial development was just me questioning those decisions. But Syed is used to managing people with his team at Awesome Motive and everything, so between him and Thomas, having been down this road before on several other ventures, they were extremely supportive and just kept telling me, you know, “Hey. Done is better than perfect. We need an MVP. We need to get it out there. We need to get sales coming. It’s going to work. It’s going to work well. And at the end of the day, you know, you can go back. That’s what releases are for. That’s what updates are for. You can change things down the road,” and stuff like that. That really kind of helped ease my pain.
But for me, you know, me being the developer mindset, I was real worried about the technology that was going to power that. I knew the experience for the user was going to be good because Syed was going to design something that was going to be awesome and intuitive, but I couldn’t stop worrying about, like, okay, well, you know. It basically came down to I can use what I know, which is jQuery, which is going to work, but I just had this imposter syndrome that, like, oh, well, that’s just not. That’s not the new thing. That’s not what everyone is using. I’m going to kind of feel inferior or not necessarily like a great developer because I’m still using this old technology.
My other option was, whether it would have been Backbone or whether it would have been React or, you know, one of the other technologies, or I can invest time to learn this and write the entire builder in something new. At the end of the day I made the kind of executive decision to just stick with jQuery because we needed things to get done, and it needed to be done in something that I at least knew fairly well that I was going to be able to support. I didn’t have time to basically just learn things as I go. At least not on that part of the product. Yeah, the entire form builder is written in jQuery and, for the most part, it works very well.
PIPPIN: Jared, I think you’ve just perfectly described what pretty much every product developer experiences from beginning to end, I mean from the doubts of what tools should I use of, am I doing this right, to how do I organize it, how do I structure it, to where have I screwed up, and then realizing at the end that it’s okay to stick with what you know. It’s okay to just build an MVP and get it out there. I think that all of that is the exact experience that every single product creator goes through.
JARED: Yeah, and so now that I can call myself a product creator, if you will, having kind of gone through the process and gone through this road successfully at this point, I will say, watching other people do products, I’m not one to offer product advice or anything like that because this is obviously my first rodeo and I’m not all too far down the path. But that definitely, I completely agree with you in the sense that it does seem to be a common thing, right? Sitting in Post Status or watching Twitter, whatever, I mean I see new products pop up daily. The thing is a lot of these products, they’re by developers who are infinitely better at developing that I am, but they don’t make it. It’s because they spend all their time on what we care about as developers and not about what the users care about. I think that’s a tricky path and something that you really have to realize.
I think, especially if you have a product and you’re the only person involved, and you’re a developer, then you’re going to have the developer mindset when you approach almost anything, and that can be toxic in the sense that it clouds your vision on making decisions for the plugin that you shouldn’t be making from a developer mindset. That’s why having Syed as a partner, I mean really that’s honestly why the plugin has had success is because of him. I mean he knew that that’s not the approach to take. And so when I have the developer mindset, then he’s got the user mindset, and he’s got the business mindset.
So we complement each other perfectly as far as sometimes he’ll ask for things or talk about things from a business standpoint or from a user standpoint, and I kind of have to reel him in and say, “Hey, I understand that, but from a developer mindset, man, that’s going to be crazy to implement,” or, “That’s going to be a lot of dev time,” or something like that.
But then he does the same to me. I’ll be trying to over-engineer something or I’ll propose something that’s going to just have way too many bells and whistles, and he’ll bring me back down to earth and say, like, you know, “That tradeoff is too big. We don’t need to be doing that.”
PIPPIN: I think that’s something that we all go through all the time, for sure. It’s hugely valuable having the developer perspective, as well as the user perspective, and having a broad range of experience throughout the entire spectrum is huge.
JARED: I think you could almost, like, I think it would be beneficial to almost do, like you could almost do some case studies of some of the plugins out there that are successful and have made it. They’re not going anywhere, so to speak. Look at how they did things. I think more people should do that. I think some of the best examples are obviously probably EDD and then also OptinMonster as far as, like, Thomas is obviously developer oriented. You’re obviously developer oriented, but you don’t let that cloud your vision.
Whenever I was talking earlier or previously about, you know, I was really scared when making the form builder about what technology do I want to use, you know, all that sort of thing. I had a really helpful discussion to Thomas about that. He was definitely one of the ones that was pushing me. He’s like, at the end of the day you’re going to use what you think is best, but I’ll just let you know OptinMonster was obviously a very successful plugin and then moved into SaaS, which is now very successful.
They just now have rewritten some of the elements, select elements in React. I’m sure, in the future, as things get updated, will probably move to React and technologies similar to that. But up until then, a large part of that is still jQuery. You know it works freakin’ fantastic and the users love it. I think studies like that or EDD as far as, like, it’s not the most complex code you’ve ever seen. It doesn’t use all these crazy PHP7 things, or it doesn’t use just all the latest and greatest things. But what it does, it does very well. I think sometimes that just gets lost.
BRAD: Well, I think it’s time to wrap things up. Just one last thing, Jared. You mentioned at one point not feeling like you’re in a position to be sharing knowledge about being a product person. I have the same kind of imposter syndrome with business stuff as well, especially when I go to conferences, like MicroConf where I feel like everyone is ahead of me, it seems like. What do I have to give?
But I saw an amazing tweet this morning that kind of changed my thinking on this. It’s from Patrick McKenzie. He actually is typically an attendee and a speaker at MicroConf. Anyway, the quote is, “The world needs more people who are two days into learning something writing about the problems of people who are one day in.”
JARED: Yeah, that’s brilliant. That’s true.
BRAD: It is true. Isn’t it? It’s so true. You’ve stumbled over a ton of problems the day before, but you just kind dismiss those. But people can benefit from those, for sure.
JARED: Yeah, that was one of the, I think, frustrations too is whenever I was getting — whenever the whole process of getting the plugin written from the ground up and everything like that. I remember just thinking, like, gosh, I wish more people would have written about this. You know what I mean? There’s not a whole lot of resources as far as when I was describing the struggles of, like, making these decisions and stuff like that. That’s something that all three of us have had to deal with it. Some of us multiple times. But really no one takes the time to write about that. I was just thinking the whole time, like, I know this is a common problem for people in our position, and I was kind of frustrated that I was just having to take my best guess and no one had really chronicled the journey, so to speak.
BRAD: Yeah. I guess the moral of the story is if someone is out there just starting their product journey, keep a journal.
JARED: Yeah, definitely. That would be an amazing read.
BRAD: Then write a book.
BRAD: That’d be great. All right, well, let’s wrap it up. Thanks a lot, Jared, for stopping in and chatting with us and letting us live vicariously through you and your journey.
JARED: Like I said, it’s been a blast. But like I said originally, just professionally and personally I’m in a really good place right now, and I’m really enjoying what I’m doing. If anyone is in a similar position, I would definitely encourage you to give it some thought.
PIPPIN: That’s awesome. Congrats on everything, Jared. Thanks so much for joining us today.
BRAD: Yeah. Where could people find you on the Twitters and whatnot?
JARED: Yeah, so really the only place I’m even remotely active these days is on Twitter. My handle is @JaredAtch. I have a website, which is JaredAtchison.com. But unfortunately I haven’t blogged in several years, so I don’t even — I think I even removed the blog link from it. That’s definitely on my to-do list one day to get back into that.
I’m not going to make it to WordCamp U.S. this year, but I’ve already got my ticket and hotel to PressNomics5 next year. This will be — I’m one of the five-pete people, so if anyone is going to be there, just flag me down.
PIPPIN: I’ll hopefully see you there.
BRAD: Awesome. I’ll see you there as well, actually, so we’ll all be there.
Just one final shout out to our sponsor Post Status. Check it out at PostStatus.com. And thanks for sponsoring. Anyway, talk to you next time.
PIPPIN: Cheers, guys.