Jonathan Denwood and Kim Shivler interview Justin Ferriman of LearnDash (https://learndash.com), a popular WordPress Learning Management System plugin. LearnDash is one of the most feature-rich LMS plugins that has over 50 extensions allowing almost any configuration desired.
We discussed trends in elearning along with what it takes to create and maintain a popular plugin, successfully launching and marketing a plugin, and how to support third party integrations.
Justin has made a career as an e-learning consultant where he has implemented global training programs for Fortune 500 companies.
Passionate about e-learning and WordPress, both Justin and LearnDash have been featured in multiple industry publications, including Forbes.com, ELearning! Magazine, Training Magazine, INTERCOM Magazine, EdTech Magazine, Chief Learning Officer, and Learning Technologies by the Association for Talent Development. Justin’s experience-based vision has helped make LearnDash the most trusted WordPress LMS plugin for major universities, continuing education providers, and entrepreneurs world-wide.
What Your Favorite Motivation or Business Books?
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill sparked the “ah ha” moment for LearnDash.
On a daily basis I find motivation through my love for healthy competition. I grew up playing many sports and played soccer in college. I can say with a great deal of confidence that entrepreneurship has proven to be the most competitive (and most rewarding) “sport” I’ve ever played.
Can You List 3 to 5 Life Success or Leadership Principles?
1 – Operate with integrity (always true but double for online business)
2 – Find reasons to laugh (especially at yourself)
3 – Enjoy the journey
Here’s A Full Transcript Of Our Interview With Justin
Kim: Hey everybody. It’s Kim Shivler. Welcome to episode 230 of the WP-Tonic Podcast. Today my co-host Jonathan Denwood and I are going to be interviewing Justin Ferriman of LearnDash. Those of you who’ve heard me speak about building online courses know that LearnDash is one of the plugins I teach and talk about. Welcome to the show Justin.
Justin: Thank you so much for having me here.
Kim: So, we know that you have LearnDash. I’d like to get a little bit of the background of what you want to create a learning management system for WordPress? What was your background in eLearning or any type of learning that got you interested in this?
Justin: Yeah. Sure. Prior to LearnDash, I was doing eLearning consulting setting up learning management systems and programs at Fortune 500 companies. And a lot of that required travel. So I was in hotels 4 or 5 days a week. That was where the spark began. I was tired of traveling. I was tired of being away from home. And so, I was actually on a project and we were talking about learning management systems and open source and vendor etcetera. When open source came up I immediately thought WordPress which was always a hobby. And when I went to plugin repo, there was nothing there. And so, I was thinking about it like, “It’d be really something if WordPress could be used in this capacity”. And so, I started a blog and started blogging about the concept in March 2012 and also just about eLearning and online learning and instructional design. And then, after some market research and talking with my wife, we decided that there was enough interest there for us to take a chance in building something out. And so, we had that done and then we launched in January 2013. And about 4 months after that, I left my consulting career to do it full-time.
Kim: Wow. That’s a great quick turnaround for that.
Kim: A lot of people, it takes a lot longer to actually be able to transition. Congratulations.
Justin: Thank you.
Kim: So I would say, because I’ve worked with, I think all of them out there, of what is now quite a few learning management systems.
Kim: I would say that LearnDash is probably the most feature rich and advanced. For example, if you want to integrate with some of the reporting that Universities require and all, so far you’re the only one I’ve found that does that. When you planned it, what were your requirements? What was critical to you and why?
Justin: It’s funny because, in the very beginning, you’re right, there was no WordPress LMS. That term didn’t really even exist. I viewed I guess what our potential competition would be as the traditional learning management systems. The clunky off the shelf items that had everything under the sun built-in. And WordPress not only looks better, but it was just easier to extend. So when we were building out the first feature set, it was kind of in the mind of how are we going to compete with these enterprise solutions, to some degree. And to a degree that has shifted and we’ve pivoted away from that as our sole purpose. But we do get a lot of converts from these big platforms because we’ve always had that in mind. And our feature sets and our direction of development incorporates that.
Kim: Excellent. I know I’ve sent you some ideas of questions I had. This is going to take me down another road. So we just tend to have a conversation here. It’s specifically going by a list.
Kim: Would you say then that at this point WordPress learning management can compete with those systems? And are there areas maybe where you would still need to go with those systems? If so, what would those areas be?
Justin: Good question. I would say yes for a small to medium business for sure. Sometimes larger companies, but like a big conglomerate like 3M. I don’t think WordPress is mature enough yet or the learning management systems are maturing enough yet with all the different roles and the things that they’re managing across this global scale. We see at Universities departments leverage WordPress and LearnDash or Infusionsoft is a popular company and a private organization. They use it for employee onboarding and new customer training. And so, I think we’re seeing it in that context first where like the training that needs to be done in it at these larger companies is very narrow on scope and not incorporating all kinds of different training across a wide spectrum of employee roles or disciplines. So new employee onboarding, for example, the training is pretty consistent and standard for that. Customer training or vendor training, things of that nature. WordPress itself is going to give a lot of flexibility on how that’s delivered and you don’t need all of the extra functionality that comes with these huge off the shelf platforms which is cumbersome. And they come with a really big price tag to boot. So I think that’s where we’re seeing a lot of traction, at least on our end, within the I guess the corporate sector.
Kim: Excellent. You mentioned extensions. One of the reasons you are so feature rich is you have so many add-ons available to LearnDash. Since some of them are free and some of them are premium, how many are there?
Justin: That’s a great question.
Kim: Not sure?
Justin: Yeah. I want to say we have like 33 listed on the extensions or add-ons page. And then there’s another add-on on there called community. And that was kind of a necessity. We were getting a lot of developers saying, “Hey. We created this. Hey. We created this”, which was great. But it got to the point where it’s sometimes a little overwhelming because you can’t do these Marketing pushes and all of this stuff for everybody. So we’ve had to pivot a little bit on that end, but we still list them there. And some are free and some are paid. The ones that we list out on the site, on the add-ons page directly, we’ve either created ourselves whenever it’s an integration with another platform, we just make it free so you connect LearnDash with these other applications or we’ve commissioned it. So we’ve gone to people and say, “Hey. You should create this or please create this add-on”. Because we just were at capacity and we couldn’t. And in that case, then yes, we’ll put it on there. It’s evolved over time. In the beginning, it was all we had to do in-house. Now we’re fortunate enough that the reach of LearnDash is at a point where people are creating add-ons and useful functionality and then we can just let people know about it.
Kim: What does it take to support that? One of the reasons I had wanted to talk to you, we’ve talked to a lot of people who do LMSs. But I’ve seen yours. It’s so extensive and you’ve got all these third party people and I’m thinking, “That’s got to be a support nightmare”.
Justin: It’s challenging. And I think that’s indicative of WordPress in general, not so much us, but we definitely live that. When it’s an add-on that we’ve created in integration, usually it’s pretty singular in focus like connecting the Stripe or connecting the Paypal or whatever. And so, obviously, we support that. In the case of a third party add-on, we can answer questions to a degree, but support really, that’s not our place. So we have mechanisms in place right now. If somebody were to submit a ticket and say, “Okay. This is about this particular add-on”, before they can even submit the form, there would just be a note saying, “Hey. Support for this is provided by this firm. Here’s a direct link to submit a ticket with them”. I understand that that can be frustrating for people that have a bunch of third-party plugins. But as I said, that’s not unique to LearnDash. That’s across really any plugin. WooCommerce, if you’re using a third-party plugin, you may have to go to another vendor for support. The pain threshold for some people may be low just because they have one add-on that’s a third party. But if you have a lot, then you’re kind of having multiple touch points. But we like to think of ourselves as kind of that home base. And we’ll try our best to help describe the functionality and features. But if it gets really in depth, then our expertise isn’t going to be in that add-on.
Kim: What about to the people say, “I’m a third party shop and I want to develop for LearnDash”. Do you have any type of best practices or a support path to support me paid or not, that type of thing? Working this the best way to make it a success for both of us.
Justin: Yeah. In the event that a firm or a developer is really invested into creating an add-on, we do have a development slack channel that we would invite them to and that gives them access to our developers. And then so, if they have questions about hooks or filters or things to tap the best way to do something, then we can answer those questions directly. To be honest, that does happen, but not as much as you think. A lot of times people just create it and we get notified after the fact. That’s great, but it’s also challenging too. Because they’re like, “Hey. We’ve created this great thing. Go tell all your users”. It’s like, “Well. It’s not always the case where that’s going to apply to everybody”. So we try our best to at least give some visibility in those cases. But, yeah. Like I said, we have a development slack channel. So if anybody is watching and is interested in creating an add-on or they are creating an add-on and just want to be able to tap us on the shoulder, then that would be one avenue to do so.
Kim: Nice. Because sometimes people do, they just build it and tell you about it. Do you have a vetting process before you would actually put it on your site as something that integrates?
Justin: Yes. So anything that’s on the main page, the main add-ons page, like I said, we’ve commissioned it which means that we’ve told people to create it and we’ve tested it thoroughly and helped them with QA etcetera. Anything that somebody just creates, we’ll put it on the community page, but it’s just kind of like, “Hey guys. This is out there”. So it’s not something that we’ve extensively tested. We’ll install it and just check it out and help give a little feedback now and again. But that’s where it’s going to live and it’s more of a, letting people know that it exists.
Kim: Okay. Because I was thinking that could end up being a nightmare in itself.
Justin: Yeah. You know who’s done that, I feel fairly well within recent years, is Pippin from Easy Digital Downloads. He has a ton of add-ons created by other developers. And he got to a tipping point where it’s just too hard to support everything. We’ve looked at that a little bit for inspiration and put our own twist on how we do it. But if you go to Easy Digital Downloads or AffiliateWP, I think he’s got like an add-ons page and he’s got his own and then he’s just got like third-party add-ons and where you can go to just look at all the add-ons that other people have created.
Kim: Excellent. And he does everything pretty well I would say.
Kim: He’s a good person to model yourself after. So I found one company. This one really interested me. I’m seeing them develop for other people now too. But the first I found for you and that was the Social Learner that they’ve done both an extension to integrate with BuddyPress and then a whole theme just integrating LearnDash, BuddyPress and all that.
Justin: Yeah. Yeah.
Kim: How did that come about? That’s a big one.
Justin: Honestly, all the credit goes to them. The guys there just reached out and said, “Hey. We created this theme or we created in this add-on to connect BuddyPress to LearnDash”. So it was actually the beginning of a great relationship because now we do work closely with those guys. When we do major updates, we always notify them well in advance because they have such a following and user base. That theme is probably the most popular theme to use with LearnDash for many reasons. They’ve done an incredible job with making it possible for people to create a very active, vibrant, learning community within that theme, connecting some of WordPress’ most popular features and plugins. Like I said, all credit to them. I never reached out to them beforehand. They just kind of came to us after the fact, like I mentioned before. And it’s really something special what they created. In fact, that theme is what Infusionsoft the company uses along with LearnDash and some other plugins. And there’s a spattering of other very popular programs that are using it.
Kim: Excellent. I looked at it. I have not tested it yet, but it’s actually on my list to purchase and test because it looks so well done and so professional.
Justin: It is, yeah. There’s a learning curve. Honestly, it’s so well done and it’s professional, but it does need ample testing and the configuration will take a little bit of time. And that’s to be expected with something that robust. You’re kind of building your own LMS and picking and choosing the functionality you want. So as long as you go in with that expectation, I think you’ll be satisfied.
Kim: Then along those lines, what do you think the balance of that complexity is for their specific theme and plugin versus just that BuddyPress is its monster?
Justin: Yeah. There’s a big learning curve with BuddyPress for sure. You kind of hit the nail on the head. You have LearnDash. You have to come up to speed with that. You have BuddyPress. You’ve got to do that. If you’re going to use WooCommerce, then you’ve got to know what you’re doing there. And then you have the theme and so the settings of the theme etcetera. So it is getting all the moving parts talking. But really, you have to do it once and then you’re done and then everything will chug along.
Kim: Excellent. Yeah. There are times I love BuddyPress. But I always let my students know that is not a beginner topic. You want to get a little more under your belt before you try doing that level of platform and it’s definitely not one that’s probably going to work well on a $3.95 a month host. Right?
Justin: Yeah. You’re spot on. Yeah.
Kim: Excellent. All right folks. We’re going to go for our quick minute break. We’ll be back in just a minute.
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Kim: Welcome back. We have been talking with Justin Ferriman about learning management systems, but more specifically about what it takes to have a very robust plugin, his is LearnDash. And then that also has a lot of extensions both from his own development team and third-party developers including, we’ve just covered one, Social Learner which is a theme and an extension that goes into the plugin. So we’ve got a lot going on in today’s session. So Justin, one of the concerns developers sometimes have when they’re using add-ons and extensions etcetera, is the implication of upgrades and updates. How have you managed? You mentioned with Social Learner. You really keep those guys in the curve because BuddyPress and all. But how do you manage that with your other third-parties ahead of time to make sure it all works?
Justin: Yeah, well, that’s a great question. It’s not Social Learner guys that we do that with. There’s a handful of people. Some of the more popular add-ons, some firms have multiple. So it’s not as many touch points as you would think. But, yeah. There are times where we have an add-on that we didn’t know about or somebody just created one for our clients and we had zero insight into that. And then an update goes out and something happens. That’s kind of the nature of the beast really. It doesn’t happen as much as you think. Like yeah, I would have thought like, okay, all the time this is going to happen, especially as people are creating add-ons. It really doesn’t. We do a lot of internal testing to see what’s going to be happening with LearnDash and some of the more popular add-ons anyway. And very rarely I think more established plugins or themes, very rarely do they do really big sweeping changes. And before they do, they let people know. So actually, we’re on the cusp of doing that. And so, it will be one of the biggest changes we’ve made really since maybe a couple years ago. We always make sure that we give people ample that things are going to be changing and stuff is coming.
Kim: Excellent. Do you know when that’s going to be for us? What we can look forward to?
Justin: Oh, man. Every time I give timelines, I’m made a liar because it just doesn’t work out that way. But it’s going to happen this quarter for sure. We’re aiming for this fall. It’s almost done for the initial beta testing, I guess, phase of it. But it’s going to be something else. It’s going to really change the trajectory, I think, of the entire WordPress LMS space.
Kim: Excellent. I am so looking forward to getting to see that.
Kim: Absolutely. Jonathan, do you have some questions?
Jonathan: Yeah, sure. Thanks Kim. Justin, have you been tempted to maybe go down the kind of hybrid model where, not only have you got the plugin, but you’ve also got a full-fledged SaaS solution as well?
Justin: That has come up a few times. When we first looked into that and this was back in 2014 actually, when we were first kind of looking at what that would look like. In my mind, it’s really hard to say to people, “Okay. We have a plugin and now you can either get that or you can sign up for a SaaS and it’s the same thing”. There has to be some kind of differentiator or a more narrow focus in what that SaaS is going to be. So it’s just simply putting LearnDash on a hosted SaaS platform. I personally think that’s a hard sell. It’s also technically a lot more challenging than people think. And it sounds like a great idea and like it’d be easy to do, but when you kind of peel open the layers of the onion, it’s like, “Wow. This is super complex”. The other reason Jonathan I don’t think we are going to be hosting LearnDash anyone time soon is it changes our market place. We become direct competitors with extremely well funded, VC funded platforms like Teachable or and things like that. Right now, we do get converts from them because of the fact almost they are a SaaS. People don’t want to be spending month over month on these platforms and they come to us. So in some ways, it’s a differentiator. With that said, we do have our eye on the SaaS in different capacities. So we will try to enter that market, but it’s not going to be like a standing up of LearnDash on a SaaS platform.
Jonathan: Oh, yeah. I can fully understand the technical and also the Marketing complexity that you would face. So when you started LearnDash, how did you get that first hundred clients? What were some of the things or was it reasonably easy to get that first hundred clients? Maybe you can go back in time and give us some insights about that.
Justin: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s a great question. So I mentioned in 2012 of March or March 2012, I started blogging. And I was blogging about the concept of LearnDash WordPress learning management system. But I also was just blogging about eLearning. And I had a little sign up at the top of the page, one of those bars with just like, “Enter your email to know when we’ve launched”. And that was part of the validation because we started getting a lot of people signing up. I was like, “Wow. These people are really interested in a WordPress learning management system”. So that was kind of the validation when we decided, my wife and I, to get this built. But when we were launching, we did a competition before we launched, where we had people, I think I read somewhere after the fact that this is something people do. But I just kind of thought about it like, “This might be a good idea”. We had a competition beforehand, this is in maybe November, December 2012, where people would blog about what they’re excited about LearnDash or about this WordPress LMS that was coming out. They would submit this entry to us and then we would use a randomizer and pick a few winners. So the winners got a free version or free copy of LearnDash. And we did that and so the cool thing about this was, people were blogging about it so we were building up a little buzz that way. And then, they would submit these articles. And so, now we had these articles and we got the three winners and we awarded the software to them. And then like one week before the launch, I had this list of people that I knew were really interested. So I wrote them and gave them an insane discount on it. So I said, “Hey. You guys. Thanks so much for doing this. As a thank you, you can purchase LearnDash for this extremely discounted price”. I think it was like $29. It was crazy. And then, nearly everybody snapped it up.
So we started making money before we even launched. And then we launched to this list that we had built up over the past 10 to 12 months or whatever it was, 10 months and sales started coming in. So really we are profitable from day one and we just used that launch as a momentum. That wasn’t like the most massive launch in the world. But it was successful in our eyes. And it gave us people talking about it. It got the buzz in the community going. I think in any product space when there’s an excitement of the initial launch then people kind of test it out and see if it’s really worth the hype. And so you kind of a little bit of a dip. And then if you’ve done it right, then the response is going to go up. And then people are going to tell others about it and you can carry that momentum. So we had a nice launch, nice momentum, got a little bit of a dip and this is all before I left my consulting career naturally. And then once people were like, “Yeah. They’ve got it. They’re doing it right”. We started seeing the trajectory that we’ve been on since.
Jonathan: Oh, I think that’s fantastic insights. So just to quickly recap. I think these are the main stages that you’ve described is that through your blogging activity in the area of eLearning and building a list from that activity, you preidentified some possible customers beforehand. Through a competition, you produced some articles, some buzz and by offering a substantial discount to those subscribers on your list, you had preidentified a reasonable level interest in the product. You got your first version out to those users.
Justin: Yeah. That’s about it in a nutshell. Yeah. It wasn’t rocket science by any means.
Jonathan: No. But a great way of launching a product Justin. I give you full marks. When it comes to a learning management system, obviously you and your team have now got a lot of experience. What are some of the fundamental mistakes you see people making trying to use a learning management system? Are there any kind of regular things that you see that you could kind of give us some insights to our listeners, viewers?
Justin: Yeah. And this is probably applicable to areas outside of LearnDash as well. But one of the things that I see just as I keep my finger on the pulse of our support inquiries coming in is people get LearnDash and then set up their learning program because they have a goal of selling courses. They want to sell their knowledge which is great. A lot of people do that successfully. But the issue that they run into is they get their course content set up and they install WooCommerce and what have you and there’s QA testing. They don’t act like a customer coming to purchase the course, getting enrolled in the course, making sure that’s happening. Because you have to make sure the settings are right. And sometimes you don’t have the settings right. And so, our support team will get inquiries from people that are frustrated because now they have customers, but they can’t access the course and whatever the case may be. And it’s because there was no QA testing. I understand the excitement to get the course out and the excitement to make money and build a business. Believe me, I understand that. But you need to put in the testing to make sure it’s going to work. Otherwise, if people have a negative first experience because you didn’t do that, then they’re not going to tell others about it and you’re going to lose momentum on your launch. Just make sure everything works. Have family members go through it and so it makes sense. If they’re not as technically savvy as you, have them go through purchase your course and access the course as a user. Make sure there’s no hiccups there and solve the ones that are. So that would solve so many issues for people if they just took a step back and settled down, tempered the excitement a little bit to make sure that everything was working properly before they just went off and running.
Jonathan: I think that’s really something very insightful. I’m going to throw it back to my co-host Kim and let Kim ask a couple questions before we wrap up. Back to you Kim.
Kim: Great. Thank you Jonathan. I love that you said that Justin as your last one. It was actually a core part of a talk I did at WordCamp this last weekend only that was specifically for membership sites. But I told everyone, “This applies to online courses too guys”. So key points, test, test, test, and not with techy people, with your end users level of audience.
Justin: Yeah and I think, I’m probably going to botch the name of this company so, but I think if you went to Google you could find it. But there’s like a company, it’s like usertesting.com or usertesters.com or something like that. You pay, I don’t know how much. It’s not terribly expensive. But they will test your process for you. So whatever it may be. You can choose how many people you want to go through it. So maybe like you get 10 random people to go through it. And then they provide feedback like, “Hey. This was confusing or this didn’t work the way I expected”. And then you’re getting really unbiased feedback from people before you even launch.
Kim: That’s a smart one. There’s a couple of those and we’ll look for them and put them in the show notes because I’ve seen a few of those. Since you don’t have a SaaS type product where I can just log in and do it like a or a Teachable and I certainly understand why you don’t necessarily want to compete in that market. Do you have a consulting type side where you have it done for you, where you will install it for them? Or do you not have that?
Justin: We don’t. But we have people that we refer people to if they want it. So there’s a few firms that offer this in a range of prices depending on what you want. So there are options out there. But we don’t do that in-house.
Kim: Okay. But you do it more like maybe like Woo does where they’ve got kind of their certified Woo installers consultants type thing that you refer.
Justin: Yeah. Yeah. There’s a few firms that have done a number of LearnDash related projects that we feel comfortable in pointing people to.
Kim: Great. And I think we’re just about time to wrap up. So I do want to make sure we all talk about who we are and how we get in touch with everybody. So Justin, tell us how people can get in touch with you please.
Justin: Sure. If anyone’s interested in creating online courses or setting up a learning program in WordPress, just go to learndash.com and the contact page and let us know what it is you’re thinking, be happy to talk about it with you. If you want to reach out to me directly, probably Twitter would be the easiest way. It’s just Twitter and my handle is @justinferriman. And if you want to email me direct, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kim: Thank you. And we will have all these links in the show notes guys that you’ll be able to find at wp-tonic.com. Jonathan, how can people get in hold, excuse me, get in touch with you?
Jonathan: Oh, it’s really easy folks. You either email me at jonathan, j – o – n – a – t – h – a – n @wp-tonic.com. We specialize in WooCommerce support and general WordPress and membership sites support. You can get me on Twitter @jonathandenwood. That’s d – e – n – w – o – o – d. But all that information is on the website. And if you just put wptonic, a ton of stuff will come up. Back to you Kim.
Kim: Thank you. You can find me on Twitter @kimshivler or online you can find me at whiteglovewebtraining.com and howtobuildanonlinecourse.com. Thanks for tuning in this week. We look forward to seeing you again on our Friday roundtable this coming Friday and next Wednesday. Bye.
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