Building a SaaS in the WordPress Ecosystem With Special Guest Jonathan Wold

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Intro: Welcome to the WP tonic podcast where each week Jonathan and his co-host interview, the leading experts in WordPress e-learning and online marketing. Jonathan, take it away.

Steven Sauder: Welcome back folks to The WP tonic show. I am Steven Sauder. My first time leading the show got Jonathan Denwood here and Jonathan wo-, how do you pronounce?

Jonathan Wold: Wold

Steven Sauder: Got it, man. Alright. Episode 635, 635 it’s a lot of episodes keeping it coming. Today we’re going to be talking about SAAS and the WordPress ecosystem. It’s a big topic, a lot of things to cover a lot of things to unravel, but before we dive into it, we’re going to get a quick word from our main sponsor here.

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Steven Sauder: All right. Welcome back after the word from our sponsor. Before we dive into the topic of SAAS in the WordPress ecosystem, Jonathan would you please introduce yourself and just tell us a little bit about yourself.

Jonathan Denwood: It’s really strange watching my co-host do the intro you did a much better job than me.

Steven Sauder: I don’t know about that.

Jonathan Denwood: I’m the founder WP-Tonic we are a hosting support platform for if you want to build a membership or learning management system on WordPress, we remove all the headaches. So your experience is sweet back over to you, Steven

Steven Sauder: Fabulous. Jonathan Wold, would you like to, introduce yourself and just tell us a little bit about who you are and what you got going on?

Jonathan Wold: So I’ve been having fun and causing trouble with WordPress for a little over 16 years now. It’s been my full-time thing and I feel like I’m still just getting started. I spent a lot of time in the agency world. I started co-founded the SaaS, spent a lot of time in the SaaS world as well. And, my most recent, corporate gig, I spent 18 months at will working at Automattic, which is a great experience, but now back out in the world of business and I recently joined PostStatus. I had partnerships over at post status and, I’m always doing, looking for things to do in the WordPress ecosystem, have a lot of fun with it. And my focus in general is on strategic partnerships, helping companies kind of get connected with each other. And that has me touching a lot of the world of SaaS.

Steven Sauder: Cool. So let’s dive into this SAAS in the WordPress ecosystem. I think maybe, for our listeners and viewers, maybe we like quickly define what SAAS is just so we all start on the exact same page.

Jonathan Wold: Yeah so from my perspective. SAAS is software as a service. Where it’s a, and in general, the distinction is going to be a problem that’s being solved by some software that’s not running on your environment. Someone else is like, Hey, we’re taking care of all of it for you, you give it some input. Even if that input is just your credit card information and the output is, you know, whatever problem they’re solving for you. And that’s in distinction to, within our context of WordPress within this ecosystem, it’s like you might have a plugin that you install that does everything locally in your environment. Whereas a SAAS might integrate with your WordPress install via a plugin, but there’s something happening on an external server where whatever magic they’re offering is happening and does what it does. 

Steven Sauder: Okay. Yeah. So like traditional WordPress, you go out, buy a plugin, you install it, all of that code, everything that’s happening is being executed on your WordPress site. But when we start getting into that SAAS ecosystem, we have some magic or some cool things that are happening off WordPress somewhere else, but like linking back and giving-

Jonathan Wold: Great example would be one of Jonathan Den wood’s favorite plugins, which is jet pack and what all jet pack vocally on WordPress. But it doesn’t really do what it does unless it connects to the servers.

Jonathan Denwood: for the listeners’ lack of confusion call me John, both of you. I really Jonathan I’m sorry I don’t think that was the best example. Sorry. I’m sorry lovely people at jetpack so apart from the jet pack example, this is where this might work together. In my opinion, I thought you were the right person to have on the show and ask this Jonathan is, you know, you’ve got the plugin model, you’ve got the platform WordPress, and then you’ve got all these SAAS kind of com- Because I’m looking at my educational membership. That’s where I do business in WordPress. And our main competitors are the SAAS providers like Kajabi, teachable, learnable. They are the competitors to SaaS but where I see maybe interesting possibilities are hybrid between WordPress and some functionality, some things that can be done on a SAAS, but combining, am I talking a load of drip or-?

Jonathan Wold: So there’s actually an important framing context for this. I’m glad you brought this up when, so one of the concepts that I found really helpful is if you think about WordPress as an operating system, we’re creating on the open web. Like, so what that means is like, if you, if you want to create a thing like you’re going to choose some operating system to work with. And we use operating systems to run our computers, our phones, and if you’re going to build something on the web, you’re going to use something to do it. And you got a couple of options. You can use an open-source operating system like WordPress. You could use other ones as well, but like those. So let’s put WordPress in this bucket. And on the other side, you can use a proprietary closed source operating system.

Like you could use something like Wix or Squarespace as the operating system for your entire web presence. And that becomes the point that you’re going to integrate with. my hypothesis like what I sort of care about is if you’re going to have a presence on the web, if you’re going to build a business on the web there’s a big advantage to owning the operating system. That, thing that you’re going to build on And WordPress it’s open source you can do what you want with it. And the ideal in my mind, because SaaSes is, are great. They provide a lot of value, but at the end of the day, if you’re building something you want to think really carefully about, are you, are you comfortable building in a situation where you’re just a renter? Like if you build everything on that SAAS, then it’s really theirs and you’re just renting it.

Whereas with WordPress, you can create this foundation that’s yours Now, if you’re going to do cool stuff in general, like you’re going to need to go beyond what WordPress gives you out of the box. Like in the operating system context, very few of us use an operating system without a bunch of apps. Like it does what it does out of the box and that’s great. But most of us get the real value when we install the apps and in the world of business, a lot of the things that we need, like rely on third-party services. Like there’s a lot of things that can happen behind the scenes. A great basic example is if you do anything in the world of commerce, you’re relying on a SAAS to process payments for you in the majority of cases. Like that’s kind of a no-brainer yet you can have WordPress woo commerce. As your operating system base connected to a SAAS to handle payment processing connected to another one for security, any number of things. 

So if you take those different like constructs, that’s like, you know, you need an operating system. I argue that it’s much better to own the thing that you’re building on. And then that takes you to that hybrid model where it’s like, okay, WordPress is at my core here. And I’ve got the flexibility, the autonomy, I’ve got the community that I’m a part of, and all those values. And then for the things that I need to do for my business, then I’m going to find both the native plugins and also the SAAS integrations that I need to get done, what I need to do. And the tension for me as someone who like believes in the power of the open web. I think SaaSes, are great they should do their things. I don’t want to see like that, that would be an overall challenge I have with something like a Wix or Squarespace or even Shopify. It’s great for what they do. I just don’t want to see that become the web.

Steven Sauder: How would you draw the line between like what you should own versus what you should just get from SAAS. like credit card processing clearly, it’s going to be better to let Stripe or PayPal or whatever other service you’re using, because you don’t want to process payments yourself. Like that’s a whole legal, scary area to get into. But let’s say we get into, I don’t know, like pulling in like Instagram, right. I could buy it. There are SAAS things that I can subscribe to that pull in my Instagram feed in my WordPress, or I could get a plugin that does that. Or I could build it myself. Like where’s the line where you think that no, you should own this or no it’s better to go SAAS.

Jonathan Denwood: That’s a good question. And the cop-out answer is that it depends. However, like here’s how I tend to think about it. The decision one is at the operating system level and part of this, it’s not black and white for me. Like as much as I love WordPress, it’s like, there’s plenty of folks like that. Awesome Squarespace that’s going to do exactly what you need. Great. I want people to just think consciously about it. Like if you’re just putting up a site, it doesn’t really matter that much. If you’re building a business or you’re doing something where like you expect it to grow, then you really want to think like open source is the closest that we get to this concept of ownership. Short of just making something up from scratch ourselves.

So the way that I think about it is that decision one is the operating system. And for most folks, if you’re building a business, that’s where I think it becomes an increasing priority. If not at the early stages, at some tipping point stage in the business, you’re going to be like, Hey one of the things I was interested to find a couple of years back, I was talking to someone who focuses on buying and selling sites and WordPress sites are worth more than other sites, just in general. Like there’s a premium because of that ownership component and the size of the ecosystem. Right. It’s like, it’s a known commodity. It’s like, okay, we don’t have to deal with like, can you imagine, like trying to sell a company that you’d built on a SAAS, there’s a dependency there. Like you can do it all the time, but there’s a dependency there that it has to be a factor in the calculus of the value.

Whereas if it’s open-source, so decision one is that operating system piece. Then from there, a lot of it comes back to like where the value lies. Like it’s a value exchange. So in general, I do favor native things that you can install, that are just less complex. Or if it’s got good support, et cetera. But then there’s questions about what’s most valuable to your business is, is it core to your proposition? Like there might be situations where it’s like, okay, now we really need to have as much control over this as possible. So we’re going to focus on native, which gives us the ability to like, do additional development. If we need to really fine-tune it. If it’s not that core, you might be like, Hey, let’s not waste any time on this. Let’s have a SAAS that just takes care of this part for us, that integrates at a nice level. So there’s a fair amount of questions you have to ask yourself. But the starting point for me is, okay, what’s the operating system. Cause then you have a lot of flexibility in your decisions.

Steven Sauder: That’s a Great delineation between like, is it core to your business? Like the more removed, it is from core to your business. The probably less, it matters if you’re using a SAAS or not, the more core it is, the more ownership matters. And where that line falls for everybody it’s different. But like that is like a rule of thumb as a good way to start.

Jonathan Wold: Yeah. And on that point of ownership too, I would just add that, like for instance, payment processing is going to be core to a lot of businesses. That doesn’t mean that you need to own that part. But it’s like, it just needs to be a conscious question because like you could, you could be relying on a SAAS that’s quite core to your business. Part of the reason why I advocate for WordPress at the heart is that in the worst-case situation, you can still change out that SAAS. Right? So it’s totally fine to rely on a third party for what you’re needing, but then the closer it is to the core of the business, the more consciously you want to think about your options.

Jonathan Denwood: I think in truth before we go for our break, I think there’s even a worse scenario than choosing WordPress, the operating system or SAAS. they’re what I call WordPress enclosed, gardens. that’s my own term and  I’m going to, I know you don’t like doing this Jonathan, but I’m actually going to use the example in the WordPress system of what I consider an enclosed garden. And, but don’t get me wrong they’re fabulous people. And they run the ethical business and the head, the CEO is a fantastic marketer, but my example is [Inaudible 14:36 ] themes, Jonathan, where for understandable reasons, they have, in my opinion, have built an enclosed garden where you get all the overhead of an operating system. You have to host it you have to make sure these external plugins work. So you’ve got all the kind of agro of WordPress. But also they built kind of SaaS enclosed so you have also got the restrictions of SaaS. So they’ve manage each to build something that you get in the pain for both sides. Do you think there’s anything to what I’ve just said?

Jonathan Denwood: I need to understand more about the specific, so what’s an example of how they’ve restricted, what you can do with WordPress?

Jonathan Denwood: They got this suite of plugins that, kind of help you build a membership, or I kind of set up that click funnels have been so successful for that you have to, and all their plugins integrate and you can buy this total bundle. And then they’ve changed it. They’ve made kind of public statement, they issue a kind of global plugging that has a much more open IEPI. But before the public announcement that they made about a month, two months ago, they had a very limited ability to get their plugins, to communicate, and work with other WordPress plugins.

Jonathan Wold So, yeah. So, so on the one hand, I’m a huge fan of people building like hosted solutions on WordPress, WordPress as a service businesses. Right. I think there’s so much opportunity there. And there is a degree to which I don’t care. Like I don’t care if the people using it know that it’s on WordPress, which could mean things like they could make a version. Like I think you could build a SAAS on WordPress that like removed the plugins from the admin, probably like someone couldn’t. So they couldn’t install more. I think you’re missing out on some of the benefits, but there’s a benefit exchange to talk about there. So I don’t have any fundamental issue with any of that. And I think it’s great. 

In general, I think some folks will do that. It’s a little bit shortsighted because you’re missing out on some of the, like for instance, someone who would create a hosted version of WordPress that didn’t allow any plugins to be installed is probably they’re addressing a symptom. Which is that like, it’s such an open, like you could install some that could create a mess of, I think we’re going to protect you by restricting this. Right. And simplify, you’re only gonna be able to work with plugins that work with each other. I don’t have a fundamental problem with that. I think that

Jonathan Denwood: I’m sorry to interrupt but that’s what we do at WP tonic to some extent is that we provide a whole suite of plugins that we think are best to breathe.

Jonathan Wold: And you probably don’t want clients installing things that are-

Jonathan Denwood: We ask them not to, you know, some, you know, some that they get of them admin access others they get a kind of super editor where they don’t have to deal with all the crappy updating and some of the marketing crap that you have to deal with. If you’ve got admin access, but all these people, we asked them, if you’ve got a plugin come to us, let’s look out over it. And if it doesn’t make the whole thing unstable where we’re more than happy to install it and to support it. So I think our position, well, I was attacking [Inaudible 18:39 ] is that their plugins don’t work that easily with other plugins. And then I think you are in the worst of both worlds, you’re in a kind of quasar, SAAS model in quasar world you’re in the worst of both worlds. You know.

Jonathan Wold: The one thing I care about, that I think is quite short-sighted. So I’m totally fine. If someone doesn’t mention WordPress or kind of whatever, because early on people don’t really care about that. Like you could build a walled garden in WordPress, if you’re going to be like, I suggest the ideal though, is give people a clear path to getting out if they want out. Like, that’s the thing that SaaSes don’t do well. And I think it’s like, Hey, you can make your garden as tight, restricted as possible, but make their been there merit-based. If they want out, give them the ability to get out. And if you do that, then you’ve got my full, like, awesome. Be as tightly restricted as you want. But that’s the part of the magic of WordPress is you need to also give them the ability to leave. Yeah.

Steven Sauder: The idea of, of owning, owning the data and owning like the stuff that you created. Got ahead to our break, but we’ll be back and we’ll dive even more into SAAS and the WordPress ecosystem.

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Steven Sauder: All right, coming back from our break. If you head over to WP tonic, you will see an email subscription area where you can sign up and get awesome deals from our sponsors, as well as launch flows and other WordPress plugins. So sign up and stay on top of the news of WordPress and get some great deals as well. So let’s dive back into SAAS and the WordPress ecosystem. something that I think is interesting is we’ve started seeing more and more companies get into WordPress and creating plugins that augment their SAAS, systems, some do it really well. Some, you know, seem like they’re kind of trying to figure out what, what does that look like? Like I don’t understand the WordPress space cause the WordPress, I feel like people that build WordPress sites and I really do think WordPress are kind of unique breed of people that view the world and the kind of, you know, it’s slightly different than what I would say. Like a very corporate SAAS business coming into that may be viewing things.

If there’s someone that’s looking at, how do I take my current business and build something for that WordPress world so that people will pick up on my SAAS and get that integrated into WordPress? Like how does somebody start thinking through that? What should they build? How should they build it? Kind of keeping in mind like the ownership of data and that this is important to people in WordPress. But also that the SAAS has to make money and you need people to subscribe at the end of the day.

Jonathan Wold: Oh man. So I find it helpful to start with the why and just to make sure that it’s the in case it’s not obvious, right? Because I’ve had conversations with SAAS folks where it wasn’t obvious and the starting point is there’s a very good chance that 40% or more of your customers are using WordPress, right? So that’s starting point 1. Like, why should you care about this? If you have a SAAS that touches the open web in any way, there’s a good chance that a majority of your customers like are in terms of what they’re using. The majority are using WordPress. So out of the box, that’s a reason to care. If you’re going to give your customers the best experience, you need to be thinking about that integration. So it’s great for your existing customers to serve them better. And it’s probably one of the best paths to acquiring new customers.

Now I’m making some assumptions, right? Like it’s a SAAS that touches business that touches the open web in some way, if you’re in that category and a lot of SaaSes, are, then the starting point is like, Hey, WordPress should be a priority now. No, and this is what I love about it is that WordPress for most folks if you don’t know it, because there’s not some big like marketing force behind it like it’s very easy to just overlook how big the ecosystem is. Like just how much there is to it. And that tends to be the conversation I’ll have with SAAS folks. It’s like, oh wow. Like I had no idea. And it’s like, yeah, it’s not. Unless you know, to look for it or unless you’re paying attention, then it’s just easy to overlook because of how decentralized it is because of that sort of open-source ethos.

So the starting point is like, recognize, hey, this matters and is worth resources. At this point, you don’t have to convince most folks that like, if it’s applicable, they should have a native iOS app or an Android app. Right. A lot of folks will waste their efforts on that. But like, if it’s applicable, then it’s kind of a no-brainer cause that’s where your customers are. And if you’re B2B, especially, there’s a really good chance that your customers like WordPress is a priority and accordingly from a resource investment perspective, I think that’s the key point that I’m going after. It’s like, just like you’d dedicate resources to making a good native app for like iOS or Android. Do the same for WordPress. Like treat it as a priority because of the size of your customers that are there currently, and also the growth opportunities that you have in the ecosystem. So that’s step one

 It’s not easy. Like we don’t make it very easy to create great. Like if you don’t know WordPress well, cause if we just sort of took a survey of some of the top plugins and WordPress, for those of us who know, it’s like, okay, yeah, this one does a great, this one feels great. Its native feeling like they do a good job and we could point to ones that don’t do as well. But a lot of that’s inside knowledge today. And one of the opportunities that I see for us broadly that I’m passionate about is like, man, we have to standardize more of this. Not by forcing, but by merit of like saying, Hey, this is what, like, what does it look like to have a design system for WordPress? Where someone who doesn’t know WordPress could come in and make a plugin that feels native. Like one of the things I’ve seen is like SAAS companies who are very well-meaning, they’ll put a bunch of resources in and they’ll make like a plugin for WordPress that just doesn’t feel native.

Steven Sauder: Like it could look super cool. Wow. This UX and UI is awesome, but like, I don’t want to hop into something that looks completely different and buttons are, who knows where.

Jonathan Wold: And it’s like, and what’s the alternative for a lot of them, like the reality today. And I’m hoping it gets better quickly is that you kind of have to know someone like you either find an agency who’s used to doing or find some freelancers, or you could like tell your team, like, Hey, let’s go look at these plugins and sort of copy what they’re doing. It’s open source. You can do that. But it takes some like personal guidance. We don’t have really strong like there’s not a design system that you can just go into and use as a starting point. It’s a bit of a mess. So I’ll jump to the guidance there for a SAAS once you’ve recognized the value, especially if you’re listening to this, you’re already at an advantage because you’ve taken steps towards like connecting to the community, which is that point. Like you got to ask around you, you show up in, you know, whatever, you know, not word camps right now. Cause there’s not a lot of that happening, but you figure out ways to get into the community. I’ll plug my own Like figuring out ways to find folks that you can ask and get that guidance. And for us as a community, we need to make it easier for folks. They shouldn’t have to know someone to figure out and do this stuff.

Steven Sauder: Yeah. Over to you, Jonathan. 

Jonathan Denwood: Yeah. Just a quick question. Before we wrap up and we go into the bonus content. About two weeks ago, I went to Portland for a conference a live conference. Jonathan held boy Rob Wildly at MicroComp. And I had one of the speakers was a Georgian Dale and he’s the founder of Riley, which built a business on Shopify by my memory, it added, a better shopping cart experience. Well, it was nice, but then he was describing the, he still runs the business but he puts a person in as the CEO because, Shopify went to him about a few months ago and said, well, we’re not going to allow you to get any new users-

Jonathan Wold: Their own product, their own cart,

Jonathan Denwood: Because we’re going to go into your space now, and we’re not going to put you out of business, but you’re not going to get any new people. And that’s the words they use. He’s got a very good relationship with the Shopify people. I understand they’re quite nice people. They’re not all as I would put it ballcrunchers. and then I asked him a question I said on reflection, would, you know, you should, if you build something on the WooComerce platform and he said on reflection, it would have been a much better idea for my company because I’m looking at new possibilities and we’re going to keep my 25- 50 people that work. And, but I’m looking at new possibilities, I think a lot of people they should learn from that shouldn’t they?.

Jonathan Wold: Yeah. Again, it can be great. Like I’m, I’m not fundamentally opposed to any of these SaaSes and the renting platforms. Like they can provide a lot of value. There’s a lot of benefit to it at the end of the day though. I want people to ask those questions like, am I okay? How far am I willing to build on this? How much confidence do I have in the fact that I can’t control, what’s going to happen? The rules that can change and as long as you’re comfortable with the answers awesome. I think a lot of folks haven’t asked that question. And if you ask that question and its like, okay, where is this going to go? Then that ownership concept, I think becomes a lot more relevant. And for a lot of folks they’re not many people, for instance, don’t know how big Woo actually is compared to Shopify because Shopify kind of gets all the attention.

Jonathan Denwood: Well just to wrap up before I throw it over to Steven and we wrap it up and then we go in bonus. I think Shopify is fantastic. I think Kajabi is fantastic for the right person, but they are very, very good at their propaganda. And I think WordPress just, isn’t very good at their propaganda,

Steven Sauder: It’s those marketing budgets. You got to have that budget to put up the billboards. It is interesting what you brought up, John about, like Shopify shutting somebody off. I was talking to a company fairly recently that does stuff in the guns and ammunition space. And, they were getting some flak from Shopify. And regardless of like your moral views on guns and ammunition and stuff, just the idea that like you can build a large business, that’s doing thousands and thousands of dollars of revenue a day. And then because of whatever sentiment in the world has changed and moved, there’s somebody that controls the key that can turn you off if they want to.

Jonathan Wold: I gotta tell you in my experience, one of the things that I have to deal with and WordPress is that there are sites on WordPress that I wish didn’t exist and I’m happy that they have the ability to exist. Right? Like that there’s that give and take, right? Like that’s the other side of this open web. And I think it’s important because yeah.

Jonathan Denwood: I Think you are so right, Jonathan because, if you really believe in freedom and [Inaudible], it’s not the it’s not defending the people that you like and agree with. It’s defending the right of people to speak that have views that you fundamentally don’t agree with to sum it. There has to be boundaries like in anything, but, you know, there are some people’s views that I just won’t mix with because they’re so extreme and so immoral in my opinion that I don’t want anything to do with them, but there is a broadband, isn’t it it’s really defending the people that you really think they got really crappy ideas, but they’ve got a right to express them

Jonathan Wold: Whether I like it or not.

Jonathan Denwood: It’s time to wrap it up Steven.

Steven Sauder: Well, thanks guys for joining us, episode 635 of the WP tonic podcast in the books. Thanks, Jonathan Wold for joining us. we will be hopping over to bonus content though, which you can catch on the WP tonic Facebook page and the YouTube page, which will keep talking about SAAS and WordPress and specifically, around can somebody build a SAAS solution on WordPress itself and use WordPress to power that, Jonathan Wold, could you tell us how we can find out more about you where we can, follow you and get more information about what you do?

Jonathan Wold: I assume you meant Wold.

Steven Sauder: Wold sorry.

Jonathan Wold: Yes. Jonathan I’m also up on Twitter and I highly recommend for those who wanna stick around for the bonus content. I’ve got some, strong takeaways to give you

Steven Sauder: All right. And John Denwood, where can people find you?

Jonathan Denwood: I must be affecting Jonathan because he’s been on the round table show a few times. My influence must be affecting Jonathan. He actually looks at me in amazement but he’s still prepared to come on it aren’t you Jonathan. But you look at the like you actually value that while, if you’re interested in building a membership site and keeping ownership, for yourself and using all the power of open source, go to the WP Tonic. And, we remove the pain of building membership websites on WordPress back over to you, Steven.

Steven Sauder: Oh, thanks so much. We’ll see you guys next week. And if you want to tune into the bonus content, head over to the WP tonic Facebook page or the YouTube channel and check it out there. See you later. Bye.

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