The OSTraining Podcast #36: Ben Pines and Elementor

In this episode, we welcome Ben Pines, the Chief Marketing Officer at Elementor.

Elementor is a page builder which is technically in the same space as Gutenberg, but does approximately 1,001 extra things.

Ben is doing pretty well at his job, because Elementor is probably the fastest growing WordPress plugin around. In the last two and a half years, Elementor has grown from zero installs to close to two million, and Ben has led many of the efforts to get the word out about Elementor and its growth.

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Listen to the episode with Ben


Transcript of Ben's Episode

  • Steve: Hey, and welcome to the OSTraining podcast. I'm Steve Burge, and in this week's episode, I'm talking with Ben from Elementor. Ben is the chief marketing officer for probably the fastest growing WordPress plugin around. You could include Jetpack or one or two other Automattic products in there. But in the last two and a half years, Elementor has grown from zero installs to close to two million, and Ben has led many of the efforts to get the word out about Elementor and its growth.
  • Steve: Elementor is a page builder which is technically in the same space as Gutenberg, but does approximately 1,001 extra things. It's incredibly popular, incredibly well designed, and incredibly well marketed. In this episode, I'm talking with Ben about the marketing and growth of Elementor.
  • Steve: Hey, and welcome, Ben.
  • Ben: Hi, hi Steve.
  • Steve: Hey, Ben. Where are you calling in from today?
  • Ben: I'm calling from Israel. Tel Aviv.
  • Steve: Okay. Whereabouts in Israel?
  • Ben: In Tel Aviv, the center of the country.
  • Steve: You are the CMO, the chief marketing officer, of Elementor. Is that right?
  • Ben: Exactly, yeah.
  • Steve: And Elementor is probably the fastest growing WordPress plugin. Is that fair to say?
  • Ben: I think so, yeah, yeah. It's the 18th most popular plugin from the 55,000+ plugins available in the repo, and I think we're reaching two million active installs soon.
  • Steve: Wow. That's pretty amazing, given that you guys launched two and half years ago.
  • Ben: Yeah, yeah, exactly. June 2016 was when we launched.
  • Steve: Wow. So in two and a half years, you guys have grown up to nearly two million installs. Your website shows about 40 team members?
  • Ben: 60. 60.
  • Steve: You guys are growing so fast, the website-
  • Ben: When I joined the company, we were about six people, and now we grew 10x, which is nice. Yeah. And we keep looking ahead to new solutions we can come up with.
  • Steve: When did you join the Elementor team?
  • Ben: I joined beginning of 2016. That was a few months before the launch.
  • Steve: Oh, okay. What's the backstory there? How did Elementor have a team already in place to launch a few months later? It sounds like there was probably some quite serious planning going on.
  • Ben: Yeah. Elementor was a theme company at first. Before we thought of Elementor, it was a theme company for about two years, and before that, the founders were actually an agency to create ... They created hundreds of websites. Then they thought, it makes no sense to create a website every time from scratch. Then they created the theme company. Then they said, it doesn't make sense ... Users ask the header from one theme, but the footer for another theme. So they spent a year developing the visual page builder, because people wanted to just switch their content and change a few things. In WordPress, it was still very hard to do. You had to use code, you had to contact the developer just to do the smallest thing. It made no sense.
  • Ben: So they spent a year to develop Elementor. I joined the team, I was actually a user of the old ... the themes. And I really liked the themes. I heard they were hiring. So I joined their forces, and from there's, it's history. We launched, and at first it wasn't that easy to get the word out, because we had really the most ... Even the first version was a lot better than what was out there. But still, it was hard to ... People were used to working in a certain way. But bit by bit, they saw that it was a better solution. It could help their efforts in building websites pretty much from all levels. If you were a beginner starting out or if you were an agency with 100 employees, it helped your business, because you had to go through a lot less difficult tasks and difficult challenges and different people just to get that piece of the website building part completed successfully.
  • Steve: You guys clearly knew that the demand was there before you launched. Did you approach it really, really seriously, like a startup, almost? It sounds as if you guys knew exactly what you were doing and you hit the ground immediately. Not to dunk on some plugin developers, but there's probably a habit among a lot of developers to just throw their code up on WordPress.org and iterate slowly. It sounds like you guys came in with a real plan.
  • Ben: Yeah. I think there are different approaches, and I think all of them are valid. We really came up with the disruption approach. We wanted to put out a product that was not just a prototype that we would tinker and improve as time goes by. We actually created a product that was 10x, and this was the same strategy that we have continued in the last two and a half years. To keep leading the market, think of the next thing that nobody thought of but users suffer and have to deal with, the biggest challenges, and solve them. This way, manage to create that edge and that need to use Elementor.
  • Steve: Are you guys entirely self-funded? You had some revenue from the theme company beforehand? Or did you take a more traditional startup route and actually get some funding to help you get launched?
  • Ben: There was some small private investment at first, but basically, no. We were profitable very early on, and have continued on the same route of profitability, and that has been very fortunate for us, definitely, because the community embraced us so well, and because the freemium still is a very generous and ... offers great value to users, and the pro version offers the best complement for professional web creators, marketers, designers. We managed to get the right balance of the right free version, the right pro version, and the proper freemium model worked very well.
  • Steve: So the free version is not just a slightly broken version of the pro version.
  • Ben: Exactly.
  • Ben: That was definitely one of the key strategies here. We didn't want to go and offer a light version. It's not Elementor Free, it's not Elementor Light. We wanted to offer Elementor. It's a complete solution that you can build successful websites with it, and that's, I would say, a unique approach. It takes some sort of dedication, because it's a year's worth ... We only launched the pro version half a year after the free version. All the efforts of the entire year has been given away for free, and we keep adding new features, both to free and pro. But that's the strategy. To bring real value to users, that's our secret to success.
  • Steve: You guys had at least 18 months of no revenue, initially building the product and then launching without a pro version.
  • Ben: Yeah. Initially, before we launched, we were still getting revenue from the theme company. It was a very small team, so we managed a low budget there. But, yeah. Once we launched, at first the progression was really exponential. It's nice to see the graph of the first year, the second year, and 2019 also starts very nicely. It's been amazing to watch it grow.
  • Steve: What are the pros and cons of launching a company out of Tel Aviv, whereas ... probably the majority of your customers are European or US based?
  • Ben: Yes. Well, today, you can really do marketing that is no touch, zero touch. You don't have to have a salesman. We've never had a salesman and we don't plan to have a salesman. A sales team, I mean. Today it's possible to do marketing and get your product out there, even if you're somewhere that's not your target market. If it's Europe and the US, which is definitely our biggest markets, it has some difficulty with time zone differences, me being able to interview with podcasts, of course. But flights are cheap and we have managed to create real relationships with influencers, with other theme and plugin companies, and hosting companies. Some was done totally remote. I have met the people face to face. But some, actually, we meet them at WordCamp Europe, WordCamp Us. So it's possible.
  • Ben: This was also an issue we thought about. Is it going to be too difficult, the fact that we're not in every WordCamp US? But we managed to make it work, because it's always a give and take. I'm a big believer in personal connections, and it's a huge strategy that I use. But it has its pros and cons. The pro of launching somewhere that it's outside your target audience, that you can work hard on content marketing, on doing things to attract your users in other ways than face to face.
  • Steve: Well, you guys seem to have doubled down, being a Tel Aviv based company. You were telling me that nearly all of your team members are based in a single office in Tel Aviv. You guys have gone away from remote work?
  • Ben: To offer 24/7 customer support for our pro users, so we have to have a remote ... a strong remote team that we cultivate, that reside abroad. We also have a support team in-house, and our entire team is in-house in Tel Aviv. And that's my own opinion that this is the best way to go, because I think working in an office environment that is so positive ... If you visit Tel Aviv, I invite you to come over, Steve, and you'll see it's really people ... really love to come to work and meet other people, and the laughs and everything ... I don't understand how you can get that same kind of ... or even any similar kind of communication and fun and laughter remote.
  • Steve: Not even simply having your own company based there, but Tel Aviv itself is an enormous tech hub these days, right?
  • Ben: Yeah. A lot of companies stem from Tel Aviv. Fiverr and many others.
  • Steve: It's a real problem, especially with people that have been doing this for a good number of years. Remote work is fun at first, and has some significant advantages maybe when the kids are young and need a lot of attention. But the loneliness and the lack of camaraderie is-
  • Ben: Definitely. Also, for me as a manager, it's difficult for me to get ... first of all, to do the things that I need to do, because I rely on other people to help me give their opinion. But also to manage other people, and because I can't get the same kind of quality if it's back and forth through email, or if I have to stop everything and open Zoom to start video conferencing. It just doesn't work. I like to go to a desk, sit with the other person, and it just works for me. I know some people, it works for them, remote. For me, I really love the office environment. I don't want to change it. I used to work at home a few years ago, and I don't want to go back there. It was kind of lonely.
  • Steve: So you do the traditional commute. You get in the car or go on the train and go in the office every morning at 9:00, leave 5:00 or 6:00.
  • Ben: Yeah. Well, work continues afterwards. What can I say? But, yeah. That separation is also very important for me, to have time with my kids, with just having fun. It's important to rejuvenate. You come to the office much more driven when you've had this relaxed time that is separated.
  • Steve: You guys are a team of 60 people, more or less, all based in Tel Aviv. And you came in with a very firm plan for how you're going to take over the market. How did that actually break down into specifics? I've seen some little bits and pieces of your strategy. For example, you have 50+ translations of the plugin, which is more than any other plugin I've been able to find. You have a ton of content and a ton of videos out there. You obviously are a big believer in content marketing. Can you take me through some of the things that have really worked for you to grow Elementor?
  • Ben: Yeah, definitely. We did everything. When we just got started, when you start, it's kind of a challenge to build your blog and start building your content and get your word out there, because you have no readership. So the strategy, when we started, was I contacted everyone just to appear on podcasts like this, or videos. That was huge. Just either being interviewed or asking people to create tutorials and look at the product, people who are influencers. I think that was a great initial way to get the word out there.
  • Ben: But we've also done a lot. We've tried a lot of other channels. YouTube was a big channel for us in content marketing when we started. Something that we did from early on is release updates. We keep improving the product, and every week or two weeks, it's amazing. We come up with a very strong and powerful feature, and we try to make as much noise with that feature as we can, because that's something that not all companies, even large companies can do. Really hit new features, new, innovative features, every couple of weeks. So that was the strategy when we started, and it followed us through the last two and a half years. We haven't stopped. Full throttle ahead. So that was, I think, one of the best channels for us.
  • Steve: Yeah. I'm looking at the release chart on WordPress.org for Elementor, and you guys are pushing out updates multiple times every month.
  • Ben: Yeah. That's the biggest thing that we did, and we also make sure that the marketing around that product release is also ... We also have the video for it, the blog post for it, the email for it. Tutorials. Sometimes we release multiple tutorials per release if it's a big release. That's basically the channels that worked well. Email marketing, of course, and ... I think that covers most things.
  • Ben: We have grown a large community that helps us in our advocates, and love Elementor on Facebook, and they have a rich discussion there. People help each other. So that's also a great thing, when you have an open source and free plugin, that a community can build around it.
  • Steve: Okay. So you've had a lot of luck with creating a Facebook group where people can have discussions around the product?
  • Ben: Yeah. And with the translations, we've noticed that we've already had, I think it was a year after launch ... We already had some languages that Elementor was available for, but we wanted to encourage other translators to translate us. So we started doing that, finding translators, and people were really eager to help us out. Yeah. I think we must be now one of the most translated plugins, and it's really important, because if you're used to work ... with a tool with WordPress in your dashboard, everything in your native language, then you probably need your plugin to be the same.
  • Steve: Wow, that's one of the advantages of coming from a background like Tel Aviv. You automatically understand a whole bunch of the problems-
  • Ben: The needs, yeah.
  • Steve: ... of a plugin not being translated, a plugin not being RTL compatible.
  • Ben: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. In discussions with other designers, marketers, and people who build websites here in Israel, they frequently say that it's a huge challenge for them, the localization, and the same subject arises in Europe and other places I've visited.
  • Steve: Technically, to make a plugin as complicated as Elementor RTL compatible must be a quite significant undertaking.
  • Ben: I'm not sure about the technical side because I haven't developed it myself, but no, because we had the experience of building RTL themes. So it's not that much different.
  • Steve: That knowledge was baked in.
  • Ben: Yeah, it's not that difficult a task for us, I think.
  • Steve: If I go on YouTube or do some Google searches around page builders, you guys have been really productive in terms of your content. I went on YouTube and did some searches for your plugin compared to some other popular page builders, and you guys have three or four times the numbers of videos and tutorials available compared to some others.
  • Ben: Yeah. That's something that happened by itself as time grew by. So if you look back even two or one year ago, I'm not sure that was the case then. But once you get actual general love for your brand, and it's based on the things that we do in marketing, and it's based on the things that we do in the product, I think that translates later to other advantages that you can't really calculate, like suddenly, people make tutorials for you, and good ones.
  • Steve: It's interesting that you talk about the brand in that way, because ... Correct me if I'm wrong, but you don't have a readily identifiable influencer as the head of the company. There's not one person you point to as the face of the company.
  • Ben: I'm kind of the face.
  • Steve: Oh, yes. As close as the company gets. And you don't have a cute little mascot. How would you describe the Elementor brand? Is it a team effort, a collective effort to project a warm and welcoming culture? How do you describe it?
  • Ben: It's a funny story, 'cause when we first launched ... Just before we launched, I was actually thinking about the idea of mascot. I listened to a lecture by a marketing expert called ... She's someone that I'm going to interview in my podcast soon. She had a successful startup, I think it's called Orebe, and their use of mascot was really amazing. I was eager to have a mascot for Elementor. We even paid an animator to create this mascot, but it didn't come through. The founders weren't happy with the result.
  • Steve: Do you mind me asking what it was?
  • Ben: It was an elf. A hipster elf. I really loved the illustration that they did, that the company did. It was really nice. But it didn't ... It fell through. But the logo, I think, the Elementor logo is pretty good. So I'm sorry, I digressed from the question.
  • Steve: The Elementor brand is aimed at end users or professionals? How do you try and brand yourself?
  • Ben: Oh, yeah. If you think of other solutions that try and brand themselves as, you don't have to know anything, just insert the template and that's it ... We try to brand ourselves ... That's how we build the product. We build the product for people who want to be professional, who want to know how to build websites, and want the right tool for the job. If you're a marketer or you're a head of an agency or you're a freelance designer, you consider yourself a professional.
  • Ben: You have knowledge in your field, and you want the tool to complement that knowledge and make it easy to not just strap on a template and say, I'm done with it, and hand it to your client, but customize it, create it, have the maximum flexibility to customize it just right without having to transfer it to other hands like developers ... You don't have to have a developer at each part of the process. You can actually build it yourself. You can build, if it's popups, if it's a great looking landing page, if it's a consistent website that is unique and has a unique look and feel ... Everything from forms to sliders, everything can be customized.
  • Ben: So that's what we led in, providing the best, the all in one solution ... If you have this, you can be a professional. It doesn't mean that it takes care of the professional side and you don't have to have any skills to use it. It's not the click of a button. But it's the easiest way to get your professional skills to work and to translate into successful websites.
  • Steve: That leads me towards the inevitable question when it comes to page builders these days, and the G word. How's your team getting ready to position Elementor in a Gutenberg world? You guys are integrating in some way. It sounds like maybe you're positioning yourself as a more professional tool for people to create more advanced websites, whereas Gutenberg is a basic entry level tool. How are you thinking in the new Gutenberg world?
  • Ben: Well, we waited until we had more concise ... until Gutenberg launched to offer an exact answer to that question, because we wanted to see exactly what it was before we spoke. But basically, we see now that it's a great tool for creating content, like Medium, like other tools out there. But if you want to create and design a website and get that website to bring you results, you need to have a professional tool. The same way when you edit images, when you use Photoshop, you need a professional tool to build and design your website, and that's where Elementor comes in.
  • Ben: I recently spoke to someone, someone who builds websites. So your client comes to you and they want a website. What are they looking for? They're looking for a way to elevate their business, get more conversions, get more leads, get results so their business can be successful. It makes sense. For that, you need a professional tool that takes care of every pixel of your website, and every need that you might have.
  • Steve: So you have an enormous head start over Gutenberg, which may come a little close to-
  • Ben: I don't think they're oriented towards this goal that I just stated. They're not thinking about ... Matt doesn't think about what kind of forms Gutenberg will have, and will it integrate with all the email marketing tools. That's one aspect out of hundreds that Elementor takes care of, and it offers the all in one solution that you need when you're building professional websites. That's not something in the minds of the people who develop Gutenberg, and if it's not in their minds at start, it's not going to be properly integrated when even the feature will maybe come up. It's not the direction they're heading.
  • Steve: Oh, okay. So you guys are pretty clear you're targeting a different market, and also a ton more features as well. It seems as if that rapid release schedule that you have, new features shipping perhaps every two weeks, maybe even faster, enables you keep a long way ahead of a plugin in the WordPress core, which even to get the first version out, took two plus years. You guys are able to move much faster, adding new features almost all the time.
  • Ben: That is for sure. But also, again, I'm not sure if this is the direction of other companies. I know it's the direction of our company. Our mission is you as a web creator. You can be a designer, you can be a marketer. You have a goal. You need to create the website, and when you do that in WordPress, you hit upon challenges. You have to integrate forms, and the form needs to be consistent with the rest of your site. You have to include sliders. You want to showcase your products. You want to design your product page on commerce, or create a dynamic blog, change your blog design. There's so many challenges, that every one point that I made, without Elementor, you have to use tons of code. You had to figure it out. The designer or the creator had to stop and think, okay. I'm going to take 100 hours and make a whole project out of this and send it to the developer to do this and send it to the designer to do that.
  • Ben: Now a single person or a few people can manage in a few hours what could've been really laborious tasks that had a lot of places where you just got stuck with code and with debugging things.
  • Steve: Is it possible to say that Gutenberg is not really the competition-
  • Ben: Definitely.
  • Steve: ... so much as the WordPress plugin ecosystem, and some other plugins, is complex and confusing? Perhaps in the old days, going back three or four years, you would take an off the shelf theme, maybe edit the CSS, and if you wanted a slideshow, you'd have to go and get the slideshow plugin. If you wanted forms, you'd get the form plugin. If you wanted popups, you'd have to get a popup plugin.
  • Ben: And your website would look patch over patch, or it would take a year to create.
  • Steve: And that's a big and confusing ask for end users who have to navigate through 60 different plugins for a slideshow, whereas Elementor is offering more of an integrated experience.
  • Ben: Exactly.
  • Steve: You guys go to the point where you have to provide a lot of those features for people.
  • Ben: Even for big brands, even for medium and large companies, if they ... Okay. They've set everything up. They have a lot of functionality, a lot of custom changes, so they have a list of plugins they're using, and they have a ton of custom code, custom built for them. What if an update arises from one of those plugins or one of those bits of code stops working? So many problems can arise, and it disrupts their entire flow of business because their business is based on their website, even for big brands.
  • Ben: This is where the power of Elementor ... We're not in to replace all plugins, of course. But if you can reduce the number of plugins you're using and reduce the number of custom code you are managing, as a company, you can actually spend less time fixing problems.
  • Steve: That's truly interesting to hear you say that. We've had a couple of people on the podcast lately, including Josh, who's the head of Pagely, and they've just launched a new service where they're betting that the future is lots of individual microservices. Technically, it involves a savvy developer going out and putting together lots and lots of different pieces into a custom configuration. You guys seem to be taking WordPress in perhaps a slightly different direction for perhaps a slightly different audience who are wanting more of a Squarespace, more of a Wix experience, where the number of plugin conflicts is reduced, where the amount of hunting around for random and perhaps incompatible plugins is reduced, where it's more integrated, a smoother experience in general.
  • Ben: We've built a platform where you can actually extend Elementor. So you have, I think, it's 150 add-ons, plugins that were built to extend Elementor, that are available now. Developers are building amazing solutions, and even if ... We've created a complete code reference and developer site for developers to help them create those extensions, and we keep expanding those tutorials and those explanations, because our aim is to allow developers to create solutions for Elementor. If they have a big client and they're happy with our forms but they want that extra thing, or they're happy with our popups but they want an extra condition or extra trigger, they can actually go and develop it, and it will take a lot less time than developing a complete solution from scratch, because they're building on this very successful framework.
  • Steve: I was doing my research earlier and went to the WordPress.org plugin repo, and just there were many more YouTube videos available for you guys than anyone else, there was a lot more add-ons, a lot more plugins that extend Elementor than for most alternatives as well. It sounds as if you've really invested in growing an ecosystem around you.
  • Ben: Yeah. Definitely. And it's win-win for everyone. The developer, again, can get that love that users like our brand, so they can write it and get noticed and get eyes on their product. And they are using a framework, again, to build upon. And we get an extension of our product. It offers a larger solution for our users. And of course, the user gets what they wanted. Something ... We can't develop everything. So that's great to be able to create those custom solutions for everyone who uses Elementor.
  • Steve: You guys kickstarted 2019 with a purchase of a theme company?
  • Ben: That's right. Layers.
  • Steve: Layers is a fairly well known theme company that's been around for a while. It seems as if, just as happened with you, the theme companies are starting to struggle in favor of page builders, which offer a much more integrated, perhaps more user friendly experience. What are your plans for all the themes that you acquired with Layers?
  • Ben: Well, we have several plans for themes. We need more time to put those into practice and see what we'll actually launch. But basically, we knew about the Layers project. We supported it, we thought it was great. We were approached by the Layers developers, and we wanted to continue this project and take it and actually offer this team for ... make the adjustment to make it easy to use with Elementor, compatible with Elementor, and then release it for free, actually, because it was a premium theme, and now it's available for free for anyone to use.
  • Ben: So it's 2019. People still struggle with themes, and the big message we had with our theme builder ... We have an industry leading theme builder. So the big message we had, that you can take control of every part of your theme, and it's a big message. You can go in and design visually your header, footer areas. You can actually dynamically design how your main blog posts will look like, how your single blog pages will look like, with the theme builder. So this powerful feature that's available in the pro version is something we want to encourage more users to use and utilize to make it easy to create websites that are easy to change and customize for the client needs.
  • Ben: If the client wants to change the logo and put social links in the header, you do it without having to open up all the theme page files and delving into code.
  • Steve: Ben:, you've done a great job of explaining where Elementor is headed and how you guys have been able to grow so fast. Basically, by offering a really good freemium experience where people can do just about anything from the Elementor world. Add forms, add all the sliders, the features they need, from within Elementor. How are you going to build on that in 2019? Do you have any big plans, any big announcements coming up for this year?
  • Ben: We have a lot of plans. We just launched popup builder, if you noticed, and it's a really great popup solution that you can use to use the power of Elementor to design any popup you can think of, and also trigger it with an advanced engine that we built into it. We have a lot of plans for 2019 that I unfortunately can't share. But the rate of things that we want to push out is really awesome and amazing, so I really encourage people to subscribe to our newsletter and our YouTube channel so they can get those updates. Every two weeks, we have something new, something like that. So it's really fun to get this present in the mail, find out what's new and what kind of cool feature will help you build better websites.
  • Steve: Cool. If people want to keep in touch with Elementor, it's either the newsletter on Elementor.com, or perhaps the Elementor YouTube channel. We'll drop links to those in the show notes. Anywhere else?
  • Ben: The Facebook page. Like us on Facebook and see first, if you know this. And our Facebook group, where people help each other. If you have any issue or you need to know how to create something, people are really nice and friendly there.
  • Steve: And how about you, Ben:?
  • Ben: I'm in the podcast. I have a weekly podcast and our blog, and I push out also videos, so you can see me there. That's pretty much it.
  • Steve: Okay. Not a big social media guy, but there's a weekly Elementor podcast.
  • Ben: Yeah, yeah, featured on our blog. Yeah. We've had some really interesting people recently.
  • Steve: Well, thank you so much, Ben:. It's amazing to have dug into the Elementor story preparing for this. I didn't realize you guys had grown so big so fast, and it's great to hear from you some of the strategies you use to manage that growth.
  • Ben: Thank you. I encourage you all to see the Elementor tutorial on your channel, OSTraining.
  • Steve: Oh, yeah. That was how we initially got in touch, and I'll drop that video into the show notes as well.
  • Ben: Okay, great.
  • Steve: Wonderful. All the best for this year, Ben.
  • Ben: Okay, bye bye.

About the author

Steve is the founder of OSTraining. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Sarasota in the USA. Steve's work straddles the line between teaching and web development.