#464 WP-Tonic Show With Special Guest Brian Gardner

The Former Co-Founder of StudioPress Before Selling the Business to WP-Engine

About Brian Gardner

Brian journey as a creative entrepreneur started in 2006 when he was working for an architectural firm as a project manager. He had a good job, but it wasn’t a great job. There was no path within that company which would have made him happy, so he took matters into his own hands and quit.

He taught himself how to use WordPress and was the first person who started selling premium themes. He guess you can say that he helped revolutionize the market. In his first month, he made $10,000, which grew to $20,000, $40,000, and $80,000 the following months. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Show Main Discussion Topics

#1 – Any Insights/advice that Brain would like to share with the audience who are looking to develop a business in the WordPress ego system 2020?

#2 – Does the classic WordPress themes have a future?

#3 – Does Brain have any personal insights connected to successfully selling a WordPress business?

Jonathon: Welcome back folks to the WP tonic show. This is episode 464. We’ve got a great guest, somebody that I’ve been looking forward to an interview for the past couple of weeks. We’ve got Brian Gardner, the founder of Studio Press. Brian, would you like to very quickly introduce yourself to the listeners and viewers?

Brian: Absolutely. Everybody, I am Brian Gardner. I am the founder of Studio Press. I have been a WordPress designer and developer since 2007. So, I guess I consider myself very OG, part of the movement of premium themes way back in the day. So I like to take a little bit of credit for the growth, the explosion of WordPress use, sort of beyond the blogging platform. I live in Chicago with my wife Shelly. I have a son, Zach was 15 and a sophomore in high school. I love to ski. I love to run. I’m a coffee drinker. I enjoy very much so music by Sarah McLaughlin and these are all of the things that you would read about on my Twitter bio. A huge into minimalism and design and those are the things that excite me on a daily basis.

Jonathon: That’s great. And I’ve got my great co-host who’s in witness protection this week. We have no video of him, but I think zoom is having some problems. Adrian, would you like to quickly introduce yourself to the new listeners and viewers?

Adrian: Hi everybody, my name is Adrian. I’m the CEO and founder of Groundhogg. We produce marketing automation and sales tools for businesses that primarily used WordPress. And zoom, I don’t know, it’s just not like in my camera. I unplugged it. I plugged it back in, usually turning off, but I don’t know what’s going on this time. It’s all good.

Jonathon: Right. And before we go into the main part of the interview, I want to mention our major sponsor that is Kinsta hosting. And Kinsta has been sponsoring the show now for over two years. We host the WP-Tonic website with them. But what do they provide? They provide some of the best hosting on the market, in my opinion. They use Google cloud, but what you get is a fantastic interface with all the technical bells and whistles. If you’re a power user or you’re looking for a great platform for your clients, if you’ve got wooCommerce or membership or e-learning, you need something better than the average hosting, and that’s what you get with Kinsta. Plus you get some of the best support on the market, big enough to have all the resources and you’re looking for still small enough to care about their clients.

So if that sounds interesting, go over to Kinsta, have a look at their packages and maybe buy one of them. And the key thing you need to do is tell them that you heard about them on the WP-Tonic show. So, Brian, you started Studio Press, I think, you said you don’t want to cover too much of the history because it’s been covered quite a bit. But Alan Clark, your partnership with him or Brian Clark, my brain’s been– how crucial was that in getting studio press to the next level?

Brian: I look back and I think of that sort of moment, that conversation, the period of my entrepreneurial journey often. In fact, I just tweeted a few days ago just how thankful I was, the fact that Brian reached out to me back in the day. We were doing okay probably better than okay, kind of in retrospect at the time just to give a perspective of where it was at. Studio press, sales numbers were kind of hovering between the 80 and $100,000 a month mark while I was honing it and running it and so on. And then when Brian stepped in at the tail end of his relationship with Chris Pearson at DIY themes, Brian reached out and said, “Hey you know, interested in partnering and on many levels?” And I told him this and I will forever go down to saying this, one of the reasons why I decided to do it was a defensive move.

I think you need to sometimes in business do things that might feel uncomfortable because of a bigger picture. And I realized that if I had said no to him; if I’d turned him down for whatever reason, he may have picked somebody else. My fear at the time is he would’ve gone after Clayon [inaudible 04:44] at Headway because that was a thing back then. And I realized, okay, not only is this a great opportunity because I respected Brian and everything he had built and knew the audience was there, but it was also to make sure that he didn’t then go with a competitor of mine. So at that point, Brian said that we were going to double Studio Press sales within the first 12-months. And I think like two or three months into it, we had already doubled it. And I think in its hay day we were probably in the upper two to 300,000 per month. So, that shows you the impact of the Copyblogger audience, just the skills that Brian brought to the table as well as just our ability to grow and scale at that point because we had a bigger team.

Jonathon: Oh, that’s great, over to you, Adrian.

Adrian: So I guess the sort of big news at the moment is the WP-Engine acquisition. What led up to the acquisition of WP-Engine? Is it because of our themes? Well, it’s a kind of three-part question, but why don’t we start off with what led up to the WP-Engine acquisition?

Brian: Yeah, so we formed Copyblogger media like 10 years ago and it was Copyblogger and themes. We kind of developed this sort of landing page software called Premise that didn’t really go very far. We got into hosting, regular WordPress hosting, formed a company called Synthesis, and then ultimately sort of brought that back into Studio Press brand by doing a thing called Studio Press sites. In the meantime, we also built a software solution called Rainmaker. So it got very big, very fast over the course of a few years; our company went from like 10 or 12 to like 60. We had multiple lines of businesses and things like that. And quite frankly, the five partners were just getting to a point where we’re just burnt out. We had just so many things going on, so many responsibilities. And so we sort of intentionally started to dial things back, which was why we sort of sunset Synthesis and built that into Studio Press sites.

We said, okay, let’s start to position this because I don’t know that we built the company with the hope and the intent down the road, we’d sell the company type of thing. And along the way, we had entertained many conversations with investment bankers and things of that nature that just deals never worked out or made sense for us. But sort of towards the tail end of it I think it was WordCamp US in 2017, the first year it was down in Nashville. Brian Clark went down there, which was sort of outside of his norm to go to a WordPress conference at that point. Because we started to talk about like maybe let’s try to position Studio Press to see if anybody would be interested in buying it.

So he went down there and we met up one night had a steak dinner just outside the Hilton. And I remember very specifically looking across the table and saying, “Brian, I don’t think you think this about me, but I am ready to sell Studio Press”. I was at a point where I was just, you know 10 years through it, just kind of ready to do that. And so Studio Press was sort of the first of the lines of business that we decided to make a move on because it was the most profitable, had the highest revenue. And it was probably the easiest to just kind of start plucking around with some of our friends in the, you know, kind of higher-ups in this space. And so we reached out to a handful of folks in the hosting space; WP-Engine was obviously one of them. Ironically, it wasn’t at the top of my list at the time like, I didn’t know a lot about them other than just a few things. But very quickly into those conversations, I realized I was wrong. I had sort of misjudged their company and it was a fantastic fit and there have been zero regrets since then.

Adrian: Wow. So eventually that, you know, you’ve been in for 10 years and you never really got into it with the intention to sell, but a little bit before that I was asking, well, how did you ensure that you’re building your business in a way that that process was actually actionable?

Brian: I think, you know, when I alluded to sort of scaling back and like repositioning some things within the company one of the things three or four years ago, we were trying to sell the whole lot; Copyblogger as a whole. And the company that we were talking to is like, you know, there’s so many pieces, we just don’t want all of it, we just want this one piece. And so that deal didn’t necessarily work out, but it kind of taught us, okay, Hey, maybe you should sort of start to silo the lines of business and make them more appealing to like a one-off purchase where we could then compartmentalize parts of our business and sell it like we did with Studio Press. And so that’s when we took Synthesis, brought it into Studio Press sites and said, okay, here’s now a line of business that would be very easy to sort of package, bundle, and sell-off.

And so maybe halfway through the whole tenure of the Copyblogger media existence was when we started to like really think about, “okay, let’s start to talk about the exit thing”. We wanted to just build great software and have a really nice lifestyle business. And maybe there were conversations early on about selling and stuff like that, but they were more seen as like pipe dreams than anything. The last couple of years we were like, okay, as we were starting to burn out a little bit, we were like, okay, like how do we package these things up so that we can start to kind of silo and sell them?

Adrian: Right. And so how many lines of business are there now? So now that Studio Press has obviously been offloaded, where are you now?

Brian: So we sold Studio Press to WP-Engine and we have also negotiated a deal to offload Rainmaker to a company down in Texas. Just recently, not many folks know this but just recently, this past December I then ultimately sold off my portion, my ownership of Copyblogger as a whole. So I am no longer even an owner in Copyblogger at all. And so right now what’s left of that, which is Brian Clark Darryl Vesterfelt, and a fellow by the name of Tim who kind of took over my shares. It’s really just Copyblogger at this point, copyblogger.com that is; which is sort of, you know, education and marketing type stuff.

Adrian: Right. What happens to, I’m just curious now, I’m going to pass it, I promise I’ll pass it back to Jonathan at some point, but I’m curious. So, what happened to Studio Press sites? Did that get rolled into the WP-Engine hosting service?

Brian: Studio Press site was part of the acquisition and that was then phased out. It made no sense for them to sort of maintain a separate hosting component of Studio Press. And so the folks who were on Studio Press sites were offered a very good deal to then just basically, either find someone else or migrate over to WP-Engine, which of course was the plan all along, and they were not. They were very upfront about that. We want Studio Press, we want the community, we want Genesis all of that, and of course, we’re going to roll sites into the hosting component of WP-Engine just so they didn’t have to sort of maintain a bunch of different stacks. And so–

Adrian: I suppose that would make much sense from a business standpoint what it?

Brian: Oh, for sure, and especially with then the pending which I was unaware of until it happened; the flywheel acquisition.

Adrian: Right.

Jonathon: I was going to ask you something about Rainmaker. When Brian announced it, and I think on the Copyblogger podcast, he publicly stated that his ambitions for that platform were very large. Do you think he was a little bit, you know, other people have tried to turn WordPress or part WordPress into a SAS model and it hasn’t totally worked out that well. Would you say that Rainmaker was a brave attempt, but there were some flaws in the business model? Do you think he was just a little bit before it’s time or do you not agree with any of that?

Brian: We learned a lot with Rainmaker. I think what we did with Rainmaker re-skinning the back-end of WordPress and all of that stuff; I think we did a phenomenal job with that. I think the expenses in that sort of environment, trying to pull in lots of sort of functionality by way of plugins and other things and try to like put it under the Rainmaker brand was a very ambitious project. I think the margins were low, but the manpower to pull it all off from a support perspective, of development perspective, was really high. And it just got to a point where I think we bit off more than we could chew maybe to some degree. I think the idea was there, I think with maybe some funding like that could have really helped sort of solidify us, but we were completely bootstrapped. And so, with that come pains and the ability to not like tap into like lots of money to help kickstart things. And so we sort of faced the struggle and the limitations of being bootstrapped. And then again, like it was part of a bigger picture with just so many things happening at the same time, it was difficult to manage.

Jonathon: So reflection, would you think it would have been better to have got outside money investors into Rainmaker at a much earlier stage? Or do you think there were some other basic problems?

Brian: No, I don’t know that we would have wanted to. The five of us partners at Copyblogger were kind of a crunchy five and none of us were really interested, and Brian is very vocal about his thoughts on outside funding and VC type thing. None of us wanted to be owned by anybody else for that matter. So, I think we did the best that we could and we did it fairly well. It’s continuing to be developed by the company who took it over, so it was a good run. And we’re all sort of doing our own thing now, so in the end, everything worked out.

Jonathon: So what do you think Rainmaker is now?

Brian: They have come up with sort of a follow-up version of Rainmaker called Rainmaker and drama, which is basically fixing a lot of the things that we just never got up to a point in fixing and making some things easier and better user experience. And again, I only use it on one of my sites right now that has a lot of members. I’m in the process of sort of moving that over to just regular WordPress again, so as far as I know kind of where it’s at.

Jonathon: Alright, go on Adrian.

Adrian: Just for those who don’t know, what is it? I actually had to do a little bit of Googling while our conversation was going on, just to inform myself.

Brian: Yeah, it is sort of like a managed WordPress experience where we’ve re-skinned the dashboard where it didn’t feel like Rainmaker. It was supposed to be like an all in one kind of marketing solution where you could have a podcast, you could do member stuff, LMS type stuff. So we took a lot of like the major components of what people were doing in the marketing space and roll it into like one piece of software. So you know, you could do your blog content, your podcasts, a lot of these things kind of wrapped up in one solution.

Jonathon: Would you agree with this Brian? It was like a kind of Kajabi, but then with WordPress.

Brian: Exactly. Kajabi and Marketo, kind of all of those sort of all in one solutions. Of course, the difference was we were bootstrapped and they’re bigger fish, so started to compete.

Adrian: Right.

Jonathon: I think it’s time for us to go for our break. We’ll be discussing what Brian thinks of all these changes, Gutenberg and what happened last year, blah, blah, blah. We’ll be asking a few questions about that. We’ll be back in a few moments.

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Jonathon: We’re coming back. I’ve really enjoyed the discussion with Brian. Brian, it’s been great to talk about one of the biggest people that had some real insight and really went for it. And you deserve all the success you got Brian and all the coffee that you consumed. So, Glutenberg, you know how do you think it’s going? And you got some people say it’s a bit of a conspiracy on automatics front. What do you think is the plan for WordPress or do you think there is a plan?

Brian: I think WordPress is very– they have been, as far as I’m concerned, very transparent about what the plan is. I think now it’s full site editing to compete with Wix and Squarespace and all of that. I don’t think that’s ever been a secret. I think the path in which it had to take to get there was a long path and I think it needed to be. WordPress has kind of traditionally always been sort of backward-compatible minded, and it was a lot of things to a lot of people. And so to try to take that, especially with the editor experience; when a power is 30, 40% of the internet, you’re going to have a lot of people with a lot of opinions about it. I’ve always been a fan and advocate of where it was going.

I thought the ability to do what it’s doing now and where it will continue to go is finally sort of a forward-thinking move by them, even though it should have been done probably years ago. But I like it, I’ve always been a fan. I do know that I was unsure of what that would ultimately mean for Themes. It was one of the reasons why we decided to go ahead and try to offload Studio Press because at the time we were trying to scale back our team and I didn’t know ultimately like what themes and how that would affect Studio Press. And so I figured, Hey, let’s not necessarily drop the hot potato because I think, you know, we had a huge audience and a great community of developers and designers. And so we just thought it was time to help propel that into the future and we would need the help of somebody else, which is why we reached out to some hosting companies and people who, like WP-Engine promised to invest and embrace Gutenberg and do whatever it took to sort of continue sort of the legacy that Studio Press has.

Jonathon: Well, so Studio Press, it was always part of WordPress, you know, with the other Brian. But also the code wasn’t [inaudible 19:55] WordPress, so it was WordPress in a way wasn’t kind of WordPress really? Would you agree with that statement? And that must have been an interesting road to navigate in a way.

Brian: I wouldn’t agree with that statement. We have Genesis and the whole idea of like a framework and parent-child theme thing was a little bit outside of like the traditional WordPress use, right? Everyone’s just used to just having a theme. And so from that perspective, having sort of the underlying code in a framework of sorts and having a parent-child theme. Even though that wasn’t new at the time, it was sort of a different way of doing things. We, Nathan Rice and I always made a commitment to following WordPress’s best coding standard practices and things like that. Even as it pertains to elements within the dashboard, we never wanted to sort of create our own book inside of WordPress, and so we always defaulted to WordPress core functionality. In fact, I remember to this day where I was; when we finally decided after sort of building our own featured image resizer for the OGs. I remember the whole Tim thumb fiasco.

I remember very specifically, I said, you know what, I know we just built this, but I think, and at that time was when WordPress was kind of doing their featured image thing. I said, let’s just tear out the code we just built and really just embraced the way WordPress wants to do it. So from that perspective, we’ve always really just kind of piggy-back along the back of WordPress and how they’ve done things. And you know, it’s made it easier for us to iterate and do updates because a lot of times people want to lock you into their special features and functions; we’ve never been that way.

Jonathon: Now, that’s great, over to you Adrian.

Adrian: So I’m trying to, I’m just looking through it and I’m curious about what– because with like Page Builders and Gutenberg and all this stuff, the value proposition of Themes is changing drastically. And I’m wondering what the value proposition at this point comes between getting a Studio Press theme where versus Astra or Ocean-WP, which kind of really provides the blank slate to install X page builder to create X landing page with templates, all that stuff. So what becomes the defining value proposition in between these options?

Brian: Yeah, I think at this point, the relatively universal feeling is that themes in general for WordPress will become more of like style sheets and design, and sort of accommodating all of the blocks and the functionality that will come out by way of Frameworks or Page Builders or plugins or whatever. And so I think that the value proposition is just sort of the ongoing dedication to embracing core functionality within WordPress, but also offering designs that are flexible and easy to use. And that’s always been from my perspective, as a designer Studio Press; the idea was always to like appeal to folks from the design perspective. And so I think that’s going to continue to be the legacy. I know that there’s talk of, you know, just adjusting as Gutenberg continues to develop and what that means.

And at some point, it will sort of cannibalize some of the features within Genesis and that’s not conversations that I’m privy to anymore, right, because I’m the studio press team anymore. I am not employed by WP-Engine, and so those folks the development team there, they’ve done a great job in investing in product managers and more developers and the acquisition of Array Themes and the Atomic box plugin [inaudible 23:33] shows the dedication to continue to embrace where WordPress is going.

Adrian: Thank you, Jonathan.

Jonathon: You’re saying, you know that Matt Mathias, he comes on periodically, on my Friday panel show. And he’s been quite outspoken that he sees Jet Pack as a kind of Trojan horse and I don’t quite agree with him there. I see where he’s coming from. And you’re saying, and I agree with you, it’s quite clear that an automatic may declare that they want a much better-hosted solution that can compete with Squarespace and Wix. But, it’s been over a couple of years since they bought wooCommerce, and I’ve been a bit disappointed in what they’ve done with wooCommerce. Because, I think a lot more resources, money could be spent on that and that could have been a real head to head challenge to Shopify much quicker. Do you think they dropped the ball there with the purchase of wooCommerce and could have they a had [inaudible 24:49] the positioning and the actual product itself much more quickly?

Brian: I don’t know if they dropped the ball per se. I think they acquired it at the same time that they forward thinkingly knew that they wanted to compete against Squarespace and Wix and sort of the Gutenberg thing. So there’s probably some element of competition between WooCommerce and Gutenberg, that whole thing. Two huge projects that are hard to sort of maintain at the same time and integrate. Do I–

Jonathon: Well, you’ve been there yourself, haven’t you? That’s why I thought I would ask you because, in some ways with your internal products, you’ve been there in a way, haven’t you?

Brian: Yeah. And so I’m of the mindset and have been over the last few years of simplicity. Like I’ve gotten to a point where the whole Jack of all trades master of none thing is no truer than it is. You know, we did that with Copyblogger. I have personally sort of been withdrawing myself from certain projects and things like that so that I can sort of dial back and really hone in on what I want to do in what I’m really good at. And so–

Adrian: Which you’ll have to tell us about after.

Brian: Yes, yes, for sure. I’m more than happy to, there’s no secrets there of what I’m working on and why I’m doing stuff. So I think to some degree, to answer your question Jonathan, I think both could have been done and treated differently and better. I don’t know what their plan was with wooCommerce when they bought it other than just–

Jonathon: I think now might be wrong. Automatic now it is a thousand-person company, isn’t it?

Brian: They’re huge. Yeah, I think they just– thought I saw on social media something around that, and so there’s a lot of people doing a lot. I mean, they have wordpress.com they’ve got the wordpress.org project, however, that’s all sort of defined. There’s Gutenberg, there’s so many things going on, I think on some level, it’s hard to manage all of that.

Jonathon: So really, they should hire you as a consultant so you can lead the fight for purity and simplicity?

Brian: I would be more than happy to entertain that plan.

Jonathon: Over to you Adrian.

Adrian: So what are you up to, what are you doing? What’s the next step for Brian Gardener? So after studio press and after Copyblogger, and you know, you’re really like the OG of one of the original big theme developer, so what’s next?

Brian: So I want to transition myself from being a WordPress guy to a creator who uses WordPress. Not that I have any intention on going outside of it right now. But I think, you know, on some level, certain people sort of pigeonhole themselves as I’m a WordPress consultant, I’m a WordPress or whatever. I’m like, well, not really, that’s just the software of choice that you use, right because, at some point, WordPress may not be a thing; maybe somebody wants Shopify. And so I’m kind of trying to establish the fact that I’m a designer, I am a brand evangelist, I’m a strategy guy, like all of these things and I just happen to use WordPress now. And so I am working on a new project called Menology which is exploring true simplicity, real simplicity, right? What does it mean to embrace that in our home life, our work life, any kind of elements of what we do?

Because as an OG and someone who’s now, I’m 45, and so I’m like, I’m kind of going through like a season of life. I’m like, I’m not startup mode, I don’t want to be working 90-hours a week, so I’m trying to sort of find my fulfillment. And over the last few years, I’ve been able to sort of manage and it’s taken some time to get there, but just understand that even from a business perspective that there’s a lot of wisdom and sort of staying lean and scaling back and more is not always the answer. I’ve shared a number of articles recently and I think of like Paul Jarvis’s book company of one and sort of how the mindset right now is to like just overindulge and fill and grow and numbers are everything. And I don’t know that I necessarily believe that.

And so my plan is to really sort of double down on the design aesthetic that I have sort of identified that I really love to do. And I saw a talk just recently by a fellow who says, what is the one thing that you are uniquely qualified to deliver? And so being able to sort of identify with that is kind of where I’m at. So Menology is the project that I’m really focused on. It will include some WordPress themes; it will also include probably some physical products sort of in the same vein as Ugmonk and my friend Jeff Sheldon. And we’ll also sort of include some business coaching and strategy stuff. Like how do you keep your business lean or your product sweetly? I mean, I’ve got 12 years of experience now selling companies, making mistakes, doing all the things. And so now it’s kind of time to kind of go back to my own, as Paul says, company of one, right, sort of a freelancer, consultant independent what have you.

Jonathon: That’s great. I feel we’re going to wrap up the podcast part of the show folks. I’ve got quite an interesting question, Brian, in our bonus content. And also, I’m going to be asking him does he see any trends in the next 18 months in the world of WordPress as well. Get his views back; I’ve got a special question for him as well. So yeah, you have to go to our bonus content folks, which you’d be able to see on the WP-Tonic website. So we’re wrapping up the podcast part of the show. So Brian, what’s the best way for people to learn more about what you’re up to and your views in general?

Brian: My personal website, Briangardner.com. Anywhere on the socials, I’m at BGardner; Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, those are the ones I sort of use just to share what I’m up to, what I’m doing, things I find relevant in the space, things that might help other people run their businesses.

Jonathon: And I just want to say, Brian, I’ve always been impressed with the way you’ve done business and the way you’ve done things in general.

Brian: Thank you.

Jonathon: You’ve always done it with your own style. Adrian, how can people find out more about you and your product?

Adrian: So you can go to Groundhoggs.io, to see how we can help you with your email marketing and list management directly from WordPress.

Jonathon: Oh, that’s great. And we’ll be back next week with another fantastic guest like Brian, hopefully giving you insight about WordPress learning management systems and online marketing. We’ll be back next week folks, bye.

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