Today on WP-Tonic Episode Jonathan Denwood and his co-host Kim Shivler interview Ben Arellano of Fly Plugins (https://flyplugins.com/).
Fly Plugins is a Premium WordPress Plugin shop. Along with S3 Media Maestro and Churnly, they create WP Courseware. WP Courseware is Kim’s first WordPress LMS that she used and teaches. She loves it for its ease of use.
This Episode is Sponsored by….
WP Courseware was their first plugin and it was built to fill their need. They were Internet marketers who wanted to run an online course and a basic WordPress installation wasn’t doing what they needed. So they built the plugin and launched it on The Warrior Forum in 2012.
WP Courseware was the original WordPress LMS (Learning Management System) plugin and they are excited about a new rollout that will be coming later in the year that completely overhauls the user interface experience.
Churnly is a plugin that helps reduce credit card churn for WooCommerce and EDD (Easy Digital Download) carts. It checks if a card has expired and if it has gives people a way to easily update their call.
S3 Media Maestro is a plugin designed to provide a secure media player for Amazon S3. This includes both video and audio.
Find Ben Arellano and WP Courseware at https://flyplugins.com/.
Also GET 25% off WP Courseware with this special coupon code just for our listeners: WPTONIC25
Here’s a Full Transcript of Our Interview With Ben Arellano
Jonathan: Welcome back folks to WP-Tonic Wednesday show where we interview somebody who’s doing something really interesting with WordPress. And we have a great special guest here, I’m going to let him introduce himself in a few seconds, but first I’m going to introduce my co-host Kim. Would you like to introduce yourself, Kim?
Kim: Absolutely. I’m Kim Shivler. I’m Jonathan’s co-host. I’m an Instructional Design Consultant and a Communications Instructor.
Jonathan: …and a great one at that. And we have Ben, would you like to introduce yourself Ben to the audience?
Ben: Sure, and thank you for having me. I really appreciate you guys having me on the show. My name is Ben. I’m a co-founder of a premium plugin company called Fly Plugins, and we produce premium plugins for WordPress.
We’ve got a flagship product called WP Courseware which is a learning management system, which I imagine that’s probably what we will be talking quite a bit about today. We also have a plugin called Churnly, not too many people know about Churnly. It’s a plugin that helps reduce churn, credit card churn and these are specific to sites with EDD and WooCommerce. And then we have a plugin called S3 Media Maestro which is a secure media player that integrates and interacts with Amazon EWS S3.
Jonathan: Right. Before we start the interview I have to mention our sponsor which is Kinsta Hosting. The WP-Tonic website is hosted by Kinsta. I’ve been absolutely delighted with their hosting, the speed and really impressed with their support which is top notch. I wouldn’t have a sponsor if I couldn’t in good conscience have the WP-Tonic website hosted by them and I have no reservation about recommending them to you or if you’re a developer or consultant, to recommend them to your clients. So go to the WP-Tonic website you’ll be able to find some links banners to Kinsta. They are affiliate links so you’ll be helping the show if you purchase through those links. I’m going to throw you over to my co-host Kim and we’re going to get straight into the interview.
Kim: Excellent. Yes, so WP Courseware, I do want to let you talk about the other two also, but let’s jump into WP Courseware first. WP Courseware was my first love for WordPress learning management systems. It’s the first one I used. It’s the first one I taught. It’s the first one I talked about at Word Camps.
Ben: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much.
Kim: It’s a wonderful, wonderful plugin. I have to say that a lot of my business lately kind of moved away from that because it was requiring more complexity. Questions and things like that with LearnDash, for example, had more capabilities with some of the questioning techniques.
Kim: But I would say that WP Courseware is the quickest and easiest to use, learn, and roll out a course in. So, as you decided that, as you built this learning management system, what were your thoughts around that? Who was your target audience you wanted to reach with this LMS?
Ben: Well, that’s interesting. So that kind of goes back in history to why we started WP Courseware. WP Courseware was actually created for myself and for Nate. We were both internet marketers and we were trying to teach courses online using WordPress and we were trying to you know take blog posts and categorize them and make those like into modules and organize them and there just wasn’t a way to do that and so we decided we need to make something. We need to try to create a plugin or something. We had no idea what we were doing.
We had no idea what a plugin business even looked like, but we each forked out a few hundred dollars and we hired a developer and out came WP Courseware. We didn’t know we were going to launch it as a product but that’s exactly what we did. We launched it as an MVP and we were thrilled to death when we had our first couple sales. In fact, the funny thing is, we actually launched WP Courseware on the Warrior Forum so I’m not sure if you guys are familiar with Warrior Forum, but it’s a place where all internet marketers hangout. And we launched it as a WSO and I think we made our first $20 and we were just you know. So we had really built it for us, but in a sense, we wanted to build it so that other people could use it as well.
Kim: Nice. Is the Warrior Forum still around?
Ben: I believe it is. I believe it’s still around and we are not selling it there anymore.
Kim: Wow, I remember that from back in the day.
Ben: Oh yeah. It’ still there.
Kim: So WP Courseware then was your first plugin. What year did you launch that on the Warrior Forum?
Ben: So, we launched that in 2012. It was the summer of 2012. We were actually the first learning management system to market for WordPress. In fact, it’s funny; we didn’t even know what an LMS was. We didn’t know it was a learning management system. We didn’t even know what that was. I think we might have coined WP Courseware just before we launched it but we had no clue what an LMS even was.
Kim: I love that. You had a need and you went for it. And yes, that’s something that’s funny. A lot of people don’t realize the concept of an LMS didn’t start with WordPress. It’s been around…so I’m an Instructional Design Consultant, got my Masters in Education, these go way back. They go back before the Internet, even, where we had CBT’s and things. And before that, there were philosophies of how to deliver courseware even if you’re in person.
Ben: And it’s funny because you’re absolutely right. They go far back. In fact, I was attending the New Mexico State University and I was actually working for an instructional little section of the university, they were teaching teachers how to put their course online with a software called, I think it was called Web CT, and I actually set up courses for teachers and kind of trained them on how to use that software and I completely forgot about that software. In fact, it wasn’t until years even after we did WP Courseware that I thought back and you know I think I used to work on something like this.
Kim: I love it. So, being that you needed it for yourself. What was your first course that you launched using your plugin?
Ben: That’s a good point. Okay. As mentioned, we were Internet Marketers and so we were coming off this training course that we had done with Pat Flynn, and actually, he had done what they called a Niche Site coaching course. He picked 20 students and 20 students got in this and that’s actually how I met Nate. So anyway, we learned a whole lot from that and Nate had already been doing a lot of Internet Marketing. He had several niche sites; he was affiliate marketing and that sort of thing. And so, Nate and I kind of met in this course.
We started masterminding and we thought,” You know, we could probably teach a course.” and so the first course that we launched was How to Make Money Online. Now, the caveat to that was, it’s funny because we were teaching people how to rank in Google and some of the tactics were black hat, they weren’t necessarily white hat. But, you know, Google came along with their Panda and their Penguin and it just blew us out of the water. Needless to say, our first course completely utterly failed. But it’s okay because we had WP Courseware.
Kim: I love that. That’s excellent and funny, right?
Ben: It is.
Kim: Definitely not an evergreen course if you were that pre-Google, what they do now. It definitely was not evergreen for you.
Ben: We were teaching people how to spin a blog post and use backlinking all different kinds of ways. It was terrible. It’s horrible. We look back…in fact, it’s funny. We have an e-book that we launched as a lead magnet and we still have that e-book and there’s some of the content that’s still actually valuable, but a lot of it’s not. It’s actually hilarious.
Kim: Maybe a little embarrassing, some of it.
Ben: Yeah. Well, you know, at the time it was working and Nate made some good money. He did really well. But it is what it is and things changed.
Kim: I love it. So then at that point, you dug fully into the plugin business?
Ben: Yeah. And so, you know, like I said, we got into the plugin business not knowing anything about plugins. I knew quite a bit about WordPress.I had built some sites on WordPress. I know enough code to be somewhat dangerous but I don’t consider myself a full developer, full-stack developer or anything like that. So like I said, we outsourced WP Courseware actually for several years and that might have been to our detriment because we didn’t go as fast as we could have. We do have a full-time developer now and he’s wonderful. I mean we have updates coming out pretty frequently now. We have a new product. We totally rebuilt S3 Media Maestro. So we have some things up our sleeves; so we’re not done yet. We have some really cool ideas coming.
Kim: And are you going to share with us some things for WP Courseware, what we can look forward to?
Ben: Sure. So right now we’re in development and one thing that we’ve been lacking, and we survey our customers, and we are a very customer driven company, our customers are awesome and they’re constantly requesting features. We have a full Trello board full of feature requests and I have to give complete credit to our customers because they’ve helped build our plugin. They’ve helped the company be what it is today. So what we’ve got in the works right now, we’re working on built-in shopping carts and payment gateway right now which has been lacking for years, yes I know. The next updates should have some really cool stuff with our UI. We’re going to make a major UI overhaul in our next revision. So this revision will be just shopping cart, payment gateway and the next one is going to be a major overhaul to the UI. So that’s coming up in the next couple months. So keep your eyes peeled. It’s coming.
Kim: Will do. You know, it’s funny; I’m sure that your customers asked for that shopping cart.
Ben: Oh yeah.
Kim: I’m going to tell you for me that was never the drawback. And the reason is that when I teach people to build online courses and learning platforms I specify that we build out a whole platform which includes a membership piece because there are pieces, if you think logically about a class, there are pieces that belong in the class that’s the step by step instructions.
Kim: And there are pieces that are resources that belong in “the library”, if we were going to think of traditional school, and those go best in membership areas.
Kim: Not in a step by step. So, for that being your limitation that was actually always a bonus for me because I had to make people…you’re going to have to have your membership site now.
Ben: It’s funny because one thing that I think really helped us since we didn’t have the shopping cart, one thing that we did right out the gate is we did a lot of integration. We had integrations with lots of membership plugins and e-commerce plugins and those I believe really helped us a lot and I still feel today that we need to even have more than we currently do. And I think we have some of those in the works as well.
Kim: Yeah. You have, and I say this all the time when I talk about the differences, you have the most integrations of anybody I’ve seen out there and not only do you have the most, every one of them I’ve worked with works very well.
Ben: Thank you very much. Thank you. That was one of our goals. One of our primary targets is to target entrepreneurs, just solopreneurs, and entrepreneurs that just have some knowledge or skill set that they just want to share and sell. And we wanted to make it as easy as possible and we realized that people were already using a WooCommerce or an Easy Digital Downloads or MemeberPress or wish there was WishList; back when we started WishList was the big one.
And so we wanted to make sure we had integrations with those and we didn’t want to charge those either. So we wanted to get those in the repo and just let people get those for free. We want to create some more and maybe at some point too we want to get some deeper integrations with some of the bigger ones that have a few more downloads. I think PMPro has a few more downloads than MemberPress and WooCommerce obviously, that’s the big one. So maybe we can get dome deeper integrations with those as well.
Kim: Excellent. As I said, I’ll be interested to see what you have because right now they work beautifully. I used to always do PMPro and WP Courseware and then bbPress, those were my go tos. I have moved since to MemberPress because of the functionality.
People in my group don’t buy necessarily buy a package where it’s level A, level B, level C, they might buy this and then that and then the third thing and they’re very disparate and PMPro can’t do that. So, that was where I focused on MemberPress and also the corporate sales. MemberPress I can actually sell to a company and they can manage their own users within my courseware in my installation which is…
Ben: Oh. Okay. I love that. I didn’t realize MemberPress had that functionality. In fact, we had some requests with iThemes Exchange which is no longer iThemes Exchange, it’s ExchangeWP; they got acquired. But I think they had a plugin called Umbrella and it did the same exact thing and that’s one thing that we actually have, it’s one of the requests we have from our users is for companies to come and buy in bulk and then be able to set up separate member accounts for each one of their users so that they can come in and take courses. So we love that idea.
Kim: I can show you how to do it in MemberPress because you already work with them.
Ben: No, MemeberPress is great. We were at Word Camp US this past year and we got to meet Blair Williams, from MemberPress and we had lunch with them. And so, yeah, we definitely want to do some work with them.
Kim: Sounds great. I think we’re coming up on our break and I need to hand it over to my host Jonathan, who I’m sure has questions.
Jonathan: Yeah. I think we’re getting close, though it’s been a fascinating conversation. We’re going to go for a quick break folks and we’ll be back in a few moments and we’re talking to Ben and there’ll be more into what we’ve been discussing basically. Back in a few.
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Jonathan: We’re coming back. We’ve had a fantastic conversation with Ben. I want to delve into a little bit of the business side of it. Obviously, you’re quite an established plugin shop now, how long have you been running the actual WP Courseware in the market?
Ben: We launched WP Courseware, I want to say it was July of 2012. That was when we first launched. We’ve been around for going on six years.
Jonathan: So, what’s your feeling about the plugin business in general and making a decent living in the WordPress ecosystem? Do you think it’s getting harder or do you think there’s just the same level of opportunities?
Ben: Yes and no. I think it’s a great opportunity. You have 29% of the Internet on WordPress. It’s open source; it’s a perfect storm if you want to build a business, it really is. WordPress is not going anywhere anytime soon. On the other hand, you have competition. So we launched in 2012 and three, four months later we had competition. Now competition is healthy. I believe it’s very healthy. It keeps checks and balances. It makes sure that you’re improving your products and constantly moving forward trying to improve your processes and your support and that sort of thing. I think it could go either way. You look at a plugin like WooCommerce who’s downloaded millions of times but yet you see Pippin Williamson and he’s got a multi million-dollar business with Easy Digital Downloads, RestrictContentPro and WPAffiliate. So there’s definitely room for growth. I think the economy’s great. I think it’s a great space if you feel like you want to jump in with a plugin business, absolutely. There’s definitely an opportunity.
Jonathan: I actually think, obviously in WordPress, you have your competitors but actually I think very similar to WooCommerce, the real competition in a way, is the fully hosted solutions and there seem to be a plethora of new players offering total integration of every element, some of these hosted players. Would you agree with that and what do you think is the buy-in proposition for somebody looking to establish a course using WordPress?
Ben: There are definitely some big players coming in and you have your teachables coming in, your SAS products and there’s definitely a space for them. Obviously, a lot of them have deep pockets like you say, they have every integration that you can think of and there are just some people that all they want to do is point and click a couple of buttons and create a course and generate it immediately. They’re not worried about having a blog.
They’re not worried about having pages and making their own sales funnels and hiding things behind a membership wall just like Kim was mentioning. So I think there’s room for both. I think on the SAS side of things a lot of those players have deeper pockets for marketing and at the end of the day it boils down to marketing and also it really boils down to the end user and the ease of use that they want. I mean WordPress is generally pretty easy to use, but a SAS tool, you’re just creating an account and you go and everything is set up. I mean you do not have to worry about downloading WordPress and FTPing it up and setting up your WP config file and doing all these additional steps that aren’t necessarily hard, it’s just easier to do it the other way. So it’s a little bit of both. It’s hard to go one way or another.
Jonathan: It is difficult because I have some reasonably extensive experience with WooCommerce and Shopify. And Shopify, if you wanted just a standard setup with a little bit of customization, it was probably the platform to go with. There was a stage where trying to do something in Shopify wasn’t really the best solution. There was a time to move to something like WordPress. But where that stage was, was hard to identify because it was each person stage. A., would you agree with that and secondly how important is it for somebody that is generating income, that wants to move their course to the next stage to have the ability to customize their experience to a certain degree?
Ben: I totally agree with your statement. It comes down to a personal level, what you feel comfortable doing. Even sometimes it can come down to, I think a time issue. If you just have a lot of time where you’re able to customize things and work through all the little idiosyncrasies of WordPress, I think it’s a personal opinion, I guess, at the end of the day.
It’s what you want to do. I think for the most part people that want to take their courses to the next level, customizing their courses, I think they’re doing things like, maybe trying to break out their courses into maybe selling modules or even doing course padding where you take a course and if you pass this course you go to a different course or things like that. There are some really deep customization that you can do and I know that some of the other competitors may have that ability. I know some of the SAS tools do definitely have that ability but at the end of the day, it’s personal opinion. How do you feel, how easy do you want of course to be, how you know how customized you want it, how much time do you have? And those are kind of the, I think, the big decisions that people have to make.
Jonathan: So do you think online education, the course industry, which is a multi-billion industry and growing, do you think it’s at it’s high water level or do you think there’s a lot more growth and potential in online education anyway Ben?
Ben: I think it’s just starting, to be honest with you. As we mentioned before, online courses go way back. I remember doing CBT nuggets and things like that or the Web CT type stuff. And I think now we’re just seeing these technologies with LMS tools and I think it’s just starting. I think online education is a big deal because it also goes to talking about distance learning and people that don’t have access to a college or to a school but they have internet access or even just mobile access, people are taking courses on their mobile phones. Parents are probably going to hate me because I say this. I think education is very important but I don’t university or college is always necessarily the vehicle that gets you that education. I don’t feel that way and I think that you have things like lynda.com and if you want to learn about Photoshop you can go and you can take various courses on Photoshop and get well versed in that without going to a $40,000 a year college to get that education.
Jonathan: Yeah. In some ways we’ve had these discussions on the show as well, Ben and I agree with you. It’s a very tricky area because I think the best scenario is that people learn in various different ways and also having a very diverse environment. I think the best scenario is to utilize online courses but also to have that ability to have a face to face either online or in person, whether with a mentor or instructor if possible. Funny enough, I’ve said this a few times, one of the leaders in this was in Britain actually Ben, in the Open University that still operates quite expensively. So it’s an interesting subject. So I agree with you with the growth. How do you think you are positioned to capitalize on this growth with WP Courseware? Where would you hope to be in five years time, Ben?
Ben: Obviously, we want to grow WP Courseware, our company goal is to have the best LMS on the market. That’s our goal. Obviously, how we look at that can be subjective, I get that. But I think in five years we’d love to have a full solution where people can just create courses, not just creat course but have the ability to do it with an ease. It’s super simple. I like keeping things simple. I know that user interfaces are a big deal and that’s kind of why that next project that we’re going to take on has to do with our user interface.
I had a sweet lady come to me at one of the Word Camps and she was so nervous to talk to me. I guess she knew who I was. I had no clue she was. She was a WP Courseware customer but she was so nervous, but she said, “Your plugin is so difficult to use.” and she was so nervous talking to me. And I told her, I said, “I completely agree with you.” and I don’t know if that’s the response she was looking for. I sat down with her for five to ten minutes and I just showed her a couple different things and it really helped clear some things up. I do realize that there are some things that we need to do and this could be some of the reasons that people that have moved away, like Kim, from our plugin, we realize that we want to be able to retain customers obviously, but at the end of the day we want to give them the best experience possible.
Jonathan: Well, in all fairness, I think it’s difficult really Ben, because…actually it’s great when you have people coming up to you in a Word Camp like that because it shows passion and really that’s great insight, isn’t it, when your user base is already passionate, aren’t they? When they don’t care that’s when you have a bit of a problem, don’t you Ben?
Ben: No, that’s true.
Jonathan: And the second thing is, obviously, the more feature rich it becomes, the more complicated it becomes. So I would say there that you’re struggling with it Ben?
Ben: It’s true. You’re right. I didn’t really talk about my background. I used to be in IT before I got into entrepreneurship. One of my previous duties was a Desktop Engineer and I used to automate software installations, do desktop automation and that sort of thing. So, one of my biggest things with WordPress and plugins and to make things easier is to utilize that automation. It’s there for a reason. We can automate different functionalities; simple things like when you install a plugin it sets up the correct pages for you or it may be installs a demo of course. Just little things like that and tweaks that just make things easier for the end user. At the end of the day, I understand you can’t automate everything and you can’t satisfy everybody but I like simple. I like automation. And that’s just kind of my passion with the plugin and making that plugin just really functional for the end user.
Jonathan: So, it comes to mind the way to deal with increasing features and dealing with the consequences of additional features, more stuff to deal with is modularization and add-ons, isn’t it? So you have your core product and then if people want additional functionality they can bolt it on, can’t they?
Ben: Yes. So that’s the beauty about WordPress, right, because everything’s extendable. And even with WP Courseware that’s one of our goals. We’re in the process, and I guess I didn’t mention this, we’re in the process right now doing what we call or 5.0 build. We’re in our four version right now, but when we reach five it’s going to be a fully rebuilt plugin. And one of the things we’re doing in the background, in the back end of things is we are trying to add in filters and hooks in any location possible because we want to provide a full developer documentation, online documentation, so that people can extend the plugin and it’s not difficult to do that. We push off a lot of people that want customizations. I send them to Kodable or UpWork and I hate to do that because there could be some easy filters or hooks that I can just point them to, to get that functionality that they’re looking for. So, one of our goals is definitely to get that extendible just for our plugin itself.
Jonathan: That’s great. I think we’re going to wrap up this part of the show folks, the podcast. But we’re going to continue the discussion with Ben, which you’ll be able to watch on the WP-Tonic website with all the links to the things we’ve discussed, with the show notes and like I said, you’ll be able to watch the extended conversation between me, Ben, and Kim on our website and on our YouTube channel. I’m going to let Ben tell how people can find out more about him and then let Kim do the same. Ben, how can people find more about you, your company, and your products?
Ben: Absolutely. So if you head over to flyplugins.com, that’s our umbrella brand for all of our plugins, you’ll find WP Courseware, S3 Media maestro and Churnly all on flyplugins.com. You can find us on Twitter. It’s just @flyplugins. Our YouTube channel, I believe it is just fly plugins is the YouTube channel. You can find us in any one of those locations and we’d be happy to answer your questions and we’d love to serve you and help you in any way we can.
Jonathan: That’s great, Ben. And Kim, how can people find out more about what you’re doing, Kim?
Kim: You can find me at kimshivler.com or on Twitter @kimshivler.
Jonathan: And I’d just like to say Kim’s agreed to write a few posts for the WP-Tonic about learning management systems. So look out for that on the WP-Tonic site and we’ll be writing a lot more about learning management systems and WordPress their selves. I think it’s been a great influence. What does WP-Tonic do? Fundamentally, it is a support service company that does development as well for business owners but has an emphasis on learning management systems and membership plugins, customizing the website, plugins, functionality. So if that’s your interest go to the website and find out more details. Like I said, we’re going to wrap up this interview and like I said, join us on the bonus content. We’ll see you next week where we’ll be talking to somebody who’s a kind of WordPress junkie doing something interesting with WordPress. See you next week folks. Bye.
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