How To Become A WordPress Customer Mind Reader!

Hanne is the CEO at Thrive Themes and co-host of the ActiveGrowth podcast. After obtaining a degree in Fashion Business and working several years as a shoe buyer, she decided to follow her passion and specialize in online marketing. At Thrive Themes, her goal is to level up, do sh*t, fail, get better, improve, and get everyone around her to do the same.

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Episode Transcript


Intro: Welcome to the WP-Tonic this week in WordPress and SaaS podcast, where Jonathan Denwood interviews the leading experts in WordPress, e-learning, and online marketing to help WordPress professionals launch their own SaaS.


Jonathan Denwood: Welcome back, folks, to WP-Tonic this week in WordPress and SaaS. Have a great female entrepreneur and CEO; I’ve been looking forward to this interview from a great WordPress company that has a long history In WordPress. We have Hanne, the CEO of Thrive Themes. We’re going to be discussing Thrive Themes, where it’s positioning itself. Also, Hanne, a couple of years ago, did the great MicroConf presentation about being a mind reader of your clients.

So, I watched it; it’s an excellent presentation; we’re just going to be discussing everything to do with Thrive Themes and about WordPress in general and entrepreneurship, it should be a great discussion. Before we go into the main meat and potatoes of the interview, I have a couple of quick messages from our major sponsors. We will be back in a few moments, folks.


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Jonathan Denwood: We’re coming back. I just want to point out that we have some great special offers from our major sponsors, plus, if you are looking for recommendations around a specific plugin, I provide a list of plugins and WordPress services that I recommend and we use in our company. To get all of these goodies and recommendations, all you have to do is go over to wp-tonic/deals, wp-tonic/deals, and you can get them all there, folks. So, Hanne, let’s go straight into the interview. Maybe you can give some background of yourself and how you started with Thrive Themes and how long have you been the CEO of Thrive Themes?


Hanne Vervaeck: Yeah. Thank you, Jonathan. First of all, excited to be here. I’ll give a short overview of how I arrived at Thrive Themes, because it’s a very, a typical occurrence, but I think that’s, actually, the interesting thing about entrepreneurship, right? That everybody arrives a different way, and that it’s not just one path to get there. So, I, actually, studied fashion, so I have a degree in fashion business. I was a shoes buyer for six years, but I’ve always been very interested by everything that happened on the internet and e-commerce and just, in general, online marketing.

And so, I was studying, by myself, online marketing, I was following all of the American websites, even though I was living in France at the time. And I had my own side business where I was selling online courses, and I was using Thrive Content Builder, at the time, on my website. And, at one point, I received an email and newsletter from Shane, the co-founder of Thrive Themes, telling that they were looking for marketing apprentices. And that’s three months in Barcelona, coming to work for the company with the potential to stay at the company.

And, at the time, I just got laid off from my job, I was doing the whole online entrepreneur thing for about a year, I think. And I was like, yeah, this is a great opportunity to learn from somebody that I really admire, so let’s go. So, I applied and I got accepted for the apprenticeship, became Shane’s apprentice for three months, and after a couple of weeks with a new apprenticeship, he was like, can you please stay with the company. And three months later I became head of marketing, actually, for Thrive Themes, and so that’s been almost seven years now.

So, yeah, it’s been a while, it’s been pretty wild. And then, I’ve been head of marketing for three, three and a half, four years, and I started to wonder what the next step would be and where I could go from there. And, at that point, Shane was like, you know what? I’m actually looking to do something else. How about you take over the company? And I was like, sure, why not? So, yeah, that’s about three years ago now. So, yeah, that’s, kind of, how that happened, so I think I just, generally, am very curious and put my nose into everything.

So, rather than just keeping it to marketing, I would look at what’s happening in support, what’s happening in design, what’s happening in all of the other departments of the company. And so, it became, yeah, almost a logical progression, I would say to become CEO.




Jonathan Denwood: Right. That’s fantastic, that’s an interesting story. We could go a long time in just that story. But let’s move on. So, Thrive themes, you seem to position yourself in the e-learning membership area, it’s a very competitive sector, large sector, but extremely competitive, not only in the WordPress sector, but with a number of well-established and well-funded SaaS-based competitors. What do you think, obviously, that was part of your presentation at MicroConf, where part of your presentation.

What do you think Thrive Themes brings to the table for the entrepreneur that wants to build a business in the membership e-learning space? They’re looking at a number of different solutions, so what do you think Thrive Themes, really, provides that, maybe, some of the other competitors don’t? Only a slightly difficult question, Hanne.


Hanne Vervaeck: Slightly difficult. I’m happy you send the questions up front, so I had a minute to think about this.


Jonathan Denwood: Yeah, I’m not that cruel, am I? I don’t.


Hanne Vervaeck: No, it’s totally right. It it is a very crowded space, and it seems to be becoming more crowded every day of the week, right? And the truth is that we, actually, had a first version of what now is Thrive Apprentice, the plugin. We had a very first version as a feature in one of our themes, so that’s from years and years ago, where we saw already the opportunity for entrepreneurs to easily create an online course, rather than just having to create separate blog posts and then link blog posts together and like that, kind of, stuff.

And then, at one point, within the company, we, actually, wanted to have our own university, and it’s, actually, called Thrive University now, where we grouped all of the different courses that we had and all of the different opt-in offers and so on. We wanted to make one offer for our customers. And so, we started developing Thrive Apprentice as, actually, an internal tool that we needed for our own company as a marketing asset. So, it really was with the idea of offering a very easy way for people to use online courses as free lead magnets, so that is really how Thrive Apprentice started.

And then the more we went into that the more we saw an opportunity to also offer a completely visual editable environment for online courses, because Thrive Architect, our flagship product, Thrive Theme Builder, our visual editable theme builder, that technology allows to create a completely visual editable school. And so, have it so that it really fits your brand, and so that it becomes this experience for the customer where they don’t feel lost.

So, I think that was one of the biggest opportunities with what’s happening in the SaaS space, is that a lot of people, they have their work as a website and then they send people off to Teachable, or they send people off to another SaaS platform, and it’s just that disconnect. It’s not your branding, it just feels a bit weird, and so that’s already the first thing, right? Why we love WordPress and why we love having an e-learning on WordPress. And then on top of that, adding the flexibility of our visual editing to it, really allows to make the whole experience conversion-focused.

So, I think what sets us apart is that we don’t just have an LMS tool, but that we have the whole suite of tools that really allows people to create a sales page and then a login page and their online school and their courses, and that everything really interconnects and looks the same and is part of the online business. And the reason that we kept going into the online learning space was because our audience has always been solopreneurs, coaches, consultants, and online courses is just such a big opportunity that we couldn’t not offer that anymore.

Because our customers were just asking so much for it, where, yeah, they were like, Hey, how can you say that we have an online business and we’re these solo entrepreneurs, but you don’t give us an easy way to sell online courses. So, the visually editable is really what makes it shine, the flexibility, so we have a drip schedule that allows for cohort courses and every possible version of drip that you can imagine, so that people really can adapt it exactly the way they want to. So, it can look the way they want and it can fit their business, and then, yeah, fitted together with the other tools, it allows us to have this seamless experience for customers, which is really important.


Jonathan Denwood: That’s great. I just want to put this as a sub-question, it’s only my observation. I have the deepest respect for Shane, he’s one of the more memorable people that I’ve interviewed a couple of times, it’s been quite a while since I last interviewed Shane, but he’s always on my radar. Thrive Themes, my attitude to it is it’s been very similar to AccessAlly, and Natalie’s a fantastic entrepreneur as well. But the problem with me with Thrive Themes is that it was trying to be a walled garden, a bit like AccessAlly. And I have a slight problem with that, because to me, and I understand it completely, but my observation recently of Thrive Themes is that you’re trying to break away from what I call is a WordPress, kind of, walled garden solution.


Hanne Vervaeck: Yeah.


Jonathan Denwood: Would I be correct in that observation and?


Hanne Vervaeck: Yeah.


Jonathan Denwood: Have you been thinking about this and discussing this internally?


Hanne Vervaeck: Yeah, absolutely. The truth is that when the company was started, which was eight, nine years ago now. The level of visual editing that we had on Thrive Architect or the Thrive content builder, at the time, just wasn’t very compatible with what was going on in the WordPress space. And so, at that point, it wasn’t as much a choice of being a walled-off garden, but it was, basically like, well, we’re doing something that nobody else is doing, and so it becomes really hard to make sure that you integrate with all of the other tools because they just don’t work at all the way you work.


Jonathan Denwood: Slight problem, isn’t it?


Hanne Vervaeck: Yeah. Yeah. And, at the time, it really allowed to do something very revolutionary, but it also put us on this path of not having an easy way afterward to make everything backward compatible, or once the tech was, kind of, more in-line with what we were doing to easily integrate. So, last year, we spent, actually, over the last two years, last year and a half, two years, we’ve spent a lot of time refactoring most of our codes to make it API-driven.

And then to create Thrive Automator and to make that for free on the WordPress repository, and those are just a couple of initiatives that we’re continually expanding on that allow other tools to now integrate much easier with us, and also for us to integrate much easier with other tools but, sort of, make it way more of this two-way communication system. But we do realize you can’t be everything to everyone, and we want to play nice with the other tools in the WordPress space, and so that’s where, yeah, we’ve spent, actually, most of 2022 on this effort of making everything API-driven, of making sure that, yeah, people can now hook-in with us and if they tell us how to do it, we can hook-in with them and we will continue these efforts.

So, as I said, with Thrive Automator, it really makes it now, much easier to be like, okay, if something happens in Thrive Apprentice, then do this in another plugin. If something happens in another plugin, then do this, add people to my online courses and that kind of stuff. So, yeah, I would say that it’s one of those historical things that we, kind of, had in the company and that caused a lot of effort to, quote-unquote, fix.


Jonathan Denwood: Well, probably fix isn’t the right word because things change, it’s technology, isn’t it? It moves on, doesn’t it?


Hanne Vervaeck: Yeah.


Jonathan Denwood: So, my next question before we go for our break is, kind of, linked. Recently, another WordPress entrepreneur that I really admire, like Shane and Natalie, is Nick Roach the founder of Divi. He recently did a very long public announcement that Divi was really transforming itself and was really going to integrate itself into Gutenberg. And it seems to me what they’re suggesting is it’s going to be a Gutenberg library, but with the Divi interface with extra functionality designed to its community, which Nick knows so well. Is there something else that you’ve been discussing, how Thrive Themes deals with the realities of Gutenberg? Has that been a discussion that’s been going on in Thrive Themes?


Hanne Vervaeck: Obviously, that’s a discussion, right? We look what’s going on in the overall WordPress space, and then we see where do we fit in and at what point does it make sense to, yeah, to more deeply integrate or whatever. Right now, we haven’t decided to go that way. We haven’t decided to go that path, to go all-in on Gutenberg.


Jonathan Denwood: Got any, why you’ve decided that or would you rather not give some insight about why you,because you seem to be suggesting that you’re dealing with the integration question through API, where Nick has really thrown Divi into Gutenberg, the future of Divi with Gutenberg. Are you saying that you think you’ve gone the API route and you just want to observe the situation a bit longer?


Hanne Vervaeck: Yeah. So, we have block integrations or for some of our plugins in the Gutenberg editor. And when we looked at that, yeah, it’s just, we would have to give up a lot of functionality, which, at this point, we’re not willing to do. So, we’re keeping an eye on Gutenberg, we’re seeing how it evolves and if, at some point, we feel like it would be a good choice for our customers, then we might go down that road, but so far we’ve never felt like it would be a better choice for people to use Gutenberg over our page builder.


Jonathan Denwood: Were you at all surprised at Divi’s announcement and how they’ve thrown in? Because I’ve always admired Nick, I feel that he’s built a tremendous business. I wasn’t totally surprised because I think either you go the Elementor route, which is the hundred pound gorilla; fantastic team, but they have decided to go their own quasi SaaS platform solution route. Or you seem to have to decide to go what Nick has done with Divi, where you seem to be suggesting you’re just waiting it out to some extent, which is totally understandable because it’s a very interesting time, isn’t it?

Would you agree with what I’ve just outlined, either you go with the Elementor, or a separate, kind of, quasi WordPress SaaS solution or you might have to look at what Nick has done with Divi?


Hanne Vervaeck: Yeah. And, maybe, there still is a middle ground.


Jonathan Denwood: That’s true. All right. We’re going to go for our mid-break, it’s been a fascinating discussion. We will be back in a few moments, folks.


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Jonathan Denwood: We’re coming back. We’ve had a bit discussion about Gutenberg, all sorts of things, haven’t we? But before we go into the second half of this great interview, I just want to point out, if you’re a WordPress professional and you’re looking for a great hosting provider, look at WP-Tonic. If you’re looking to build a membership website or a learning management system for client, we are the choice. We offer great hosting, a suite of plugins, so you don’t have to get into any arguments with your clients. We also provide a fantastic affiliate package, where you get over 40% off of the first year hosting bought by your client through WP-Tonic.

To get that, go to wp-tonic/affiliates and sign up and become an affiliate of WP-Tonic. It’s a great package. So, let’s go in. So, Shane, he’s one of the most interesting founders I’ve interviewed. Really sharp. I’m not being patronizing here. He’s a really sharp cookie and he’s an interesting dude in general. I’d imagine it’s been quite a ride working for Thrive Themes. Got one or two interesting stories that will shine the light of what it’s like to work with Shane?



Hanne Vervaeck: Yeah, that is an interesting one. So, first, I’m so happy that I got to learn from Shane and work with him directly and very closely, because I learned so much from him, especially on video marketing, but also in just his general mindset, I think it’s tremendous. And even today, he’s a dear friend and we meet up regularly, even though he’s not in the company anymore, but, yeah, it’s always interesting to hear what he’s up to. I think one of the first stories would, probably, be one of the first times that I saw Shane, which was when he came to pick us up at the airport in Barcelona for that apprenticeship.

And I remember that he was wearing shorts and these bare-feet shoes. And he looked like a boy, I was like, oh, he’s way younger than I thought he was and way-less, in the videos, he can be very serious and he, usually, wears his blue shirt and whatever. In real life he’s not like that. And so, I was like, oh, ok, this is interesting to see the on-screen personality and then the in-real life. And that apprenticeship, I think, it was, probably, half marketing, but also half personal development, where we would have a meditation session right after lunch and before starting our afternoon and so on.

So, that was, really, interesting. I think another thing is just, he’s really funny, actually, once you get to know him, so we had a lot of fun, at one point, with the videos, where at the end of the videos, so the marketing videos that he was doing for Thrive Themes, we would just ask a question and this would be completely silly questions. Things like, oh, would you rather fight one horse sized dog or a hundred dog sized horses? Those, kind of, questions. And then he would just go out on a tangent for 10 minutes about.


Jonathan Denwood: I would never do that, Hanne, go on a tangent. My tangents go on for 20 minutes, Hanne.


Hanne Vervaeck: But there are very structured thoughts of why he would rather combat one horse sized dog and be super serious about it and, yeah, that’s just Shane. He thinks about everything very, very deeply and also very organized and that’s, probably, one of the best things that I learned from him and that many people learned from him, because he had talks about this, and so on. It’s like this clear thinking and really structuring your thoughts, which makes for really good educational videos, because you’re not rambling on, it’s just one thought, another thought, another thought and everything is boxed in and everything is finished. So, yeah.


Jonathan Denwood: Well, maybe, I should get some coaching from him because my second name is rambling, so here we go. I think I’ve gotten a bit better in these interviews, over 600 of them, so there we go. So, just to, kind of, follow-up question, is there anything that comes to mind, where you saw Shane dealing with a real mess, a real problem that came up that had to be urgently dealt with? And what did you learn about observing him in crisis mode, dealing with something, does anything come to mind?


Hanne Vervaeck: There are always, when you manage people, there are always.


Jonathan Denwood: Drama. There’s always drama.


Hanne Vervaeck: There’s always something going on. And I think if there’s one thing that I picked up from him is to not be emotional in both ways. So, for example, in any management discussion with Shane, we would say, what’s one thing you’re good at and one thing you’re bad at? What’s one thing I’m good at and one thing I can improve upon? And so, it was this very nonjudgmental feedback that we would give each other, and so in any crisis situation, that’s also how Shane would react.

So, for example, at one point, this was years ago, we had a price increase, and then what often happens is you have your price increase, you sell to everyone who’s on the fence about buying, and then you have a drop in sales. And so, after a couple of days of drop in sales, he was like, okay, so what happens? What are we going to do if this doesn’t pick back up? And then we were just very analytical, so it wasn’t like, oh my God, no, I’m not going to be able to pay salaries, blah, blah, blah. It was like, okay, this is what happened, this is where we’re at now, how can we tackle this?

What is plan A, plan B, plan C, plan D, and Shane would have one until plan Z. So, he really has this capacity just to think through things and make worst-case scenarios for everything, and then be prepared, also, for those worst case scenarios? So, I think that’s, yeah, one of the advantages of working with him is that you’re never going to be in this crisis mode in the sense of like, oh my God, everything’s on fire. What is going on, right? It’s more going to be like, Hey, this is where we’re at. This is not good. How are we going to solve this? And so, yeah, that’s his approach to things.


Jonathan Denwood: Yeah, your observation is, I would you know him a lot better than me. I’ve only interviewed him a couple of times, but his, kind, analytical side of him, it was very clear to me. I’m a mixture. I’m an instinctive individual, but I have the capacity also to be analytical when I want to be but not to the extent, probably, of him. Last question before we wrap up the podcast. Hopefully, you can stay on for another 10 minutes, which we call bonus content, but wrap up the podcast part of the show. I don’t know if you watch English television and you ever watch Dr. Who, so if you do.


Hanne Vervaeck: No.


Jonathan Denwood: You might not mean anything, but if you had The TARDIS stroke time machine and you could go back, let’s say, go back 8, 10 years, let’s say at the start of your working at Thrive Theme, and you could tell yourself one or two things that you know now, how would you advise yourself if you could go back 10 years ago?


Hanne Vervaeck: That’s a good one. I’d probably, tell myself to look less at what everybody else is doing and to listen to a hundred percent to my true fans and just to go in there. Because I think it is very easy to look at what’s happening around and then get envious, especially with venture-backed capital and that kind of stuff, where you’re just like, oh, I really wish we could do this or that. So, I think the idea of just staying focused, rather than looking too much to what’s going on around is, probably, yeah, one thing that I would advise.


Jonathan Denwood: Yeah, it’s great reflection. As I said, we’re going to wrap up the podcast part of the show, folks. We’re going to continue, well, I’m going to continue my discussion with Hanne for another 10, maybe 15 minutes, if you can put up with me, am I rambling? But she seems to be able to cope with me, with the skill of an experienced CEO. I’m easy to deal with, actually, thanks. You all observe that every week, don’t you? So, Hanne, what’s the best way for people to find out more about you, what you’re up to, and what Thrive Themes is up to?


Hanne Vervaeck: is the best way to go. You can look at our blog, or if not, we have a Facebook group, which is also for people who are already using Thrive Themes or are interested in what’s going on. There are a lot of people from the company in the group interacting, answering questions, and a lot of other users helping each other out, so that’s probably, also a good place to be.


Jonathan Denwood: Thanks for that. If you want to support the show, go over to the YouTube channel, watch the rest of this great interview, also subscribe to the YouTube channel, and leave us a comment. And if you’re generous in this pre-Christmas period, go over to iTunes and leave a review there. If you can work out how to leave a review on the iTunes interface, if you do, I will personally read out the good or bad reviews because they make it so bloody difficult that I admire that anybody leaves a review on iTunes.

We’re going to wrap it up now, folks. We will be back next week with another great interview, and then in the new year, we have some changes for the WP-Tonic Show, which I think you’re going to like a lot. We will be back next week, folks. See you soon. Bye.


Outro: Hey, thanks for listening; we do appreciate it. Why not visit the Mastermind Facebook group also to keep up with the latest news, click wp We’ll see you next time.

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#739 WP-Tonic This Week in WordPress & SaaS Special Guest Hanne Vervaeck, The CEO of Thrive Themes was last modified: by