The OSTraining Podcast #37: Jason Coleman and Paid Memberships Prio

This episode features Jason Coleman, who runs Paid Memberships Pro, one of the most successful plugins for running a membership site in WordPress.

Not only does Jason have his own membership site to sell extra features and support for Paid Memberships Pro, but he's also spent years looking at the membership sites of his customers. So Jason has all sorts of fascinating tips and tricks that he's picked up from his customers and applied to his own site. Hopefully, you'll be able to get some useful advice for running your own membership site.

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Listen to the episode with Jason


Transcript of Jason's Episode

  • Steve: Hello and welcome to the OSTraining podcast. I'm Steve Burge and in this podcast we talk with fascinating people from around the open-source world. You can find previous episodes at OSTraining.com/podcast and this week I'm talking with Jason Coleman, who runs Paid Memberships Pro, which is one of the most successful plugins for running a membership site in WordPress.
  • Steve: Not only does Jason have his membership site to sell extra features for the plugin and support and documentation, but he's also spent a career looking at the membership sites of his customers. And so he has all sorts of fascinating tips and tricks that he's picked up from his customers and applied to his own site. Hopefully you'll be able to get some useful advice for running your own membership site too.
  • Steve: Hey and welcome
  • Jason:.
  • Jason: Hey.
  • Steve: Hey. Where you calling in from today?
  • Jason: I live in Reading, Pennsylvania, which is about an hour west of Philadelphia.
  • Steve: So, if you go to WordCamp and introduce yourself, how do you introduce yourself to people? What do you do?
  • Jason: Yeah, that's funny. I try different things depending on how I think the audience is, but yeah,
  • Jason: Coleman. I'm a WordPress developer from ... Philadelphia. You know what's funny? Actually a lot of people come to me 'cause I'm kind of well known from the stuff I put out online and the software and the WordPress Rap. A lot of people come up to me and mention the WordPress Rap. It's a silly little marketing rap I did like 10 years ago and it's like what I'm known for.
  • Steve: Wait, how does it go?
  • Jason: The WordPress Rap?
  • Steve: Can you perform it or should we-
  • Jason: Oh my gosh.
  • Steve: Simply go to YouTube? (here's the link to watch the WordPress Rap)
  • Jason: Yeah, it's on the homepage of strangerstudios.com. And I honestly forget the verse. Maybe you can splice it in when you edit it. I like going to non-WordPress conferences where I'm not recognized and I can kind of blend in and then ... you know. I build internet software for membership sites, stuff like that.
  • Steve: You run Paid Memberships Pro, the really popular plugin.
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: And you just did a musical video to promote that, right?
  • Jason: Yeah, we have a really talented employee, Travis Lima, who's doing marketing for us and we unleash him on different pet projects every once in a while. And he was like, "I have this idea. Will you just record things of this nature and send them to me and trust me?" And we're like, "Yeah, sure." So different members of the team recorded tidbits of kind of made-up scenarios like they're ... we don't really run these websites, but there are real kinds of customers that we have using WordPress and Paid Memberships Pro. And we put it together. We're trying to make like a satire of a lot of the ads that automatic and wordpress.com and other big WordPress players are running. It was pretty fun.
  • Steve: So you're a musician?
  • Jason: I'm very amateur. I play some guitar. I was in a band in high school and all the people I played with in high school are now full-time musicians in cover bands and stuff and I'm the one who didn't get into it professionally. And a few years ago I started doing electronic music as an amateur as well, like I saw a documentary about synthesizers, you know like the 80s keyboards making synthy sounds. I bought a keyboard and I got some free software. I thought it'd be like a fun thing to play with the kids. It kept their attention for like three days. They were like, "That's really cool." But then I kind of got hooked on it and I was downloading more and more software and learning how to compose music and music theory and stuff.
  • Jason: So I like to use that music, like we have branded background music for all of the videos that we make at Paid Memberships Pro now.
  • Steve: Well, I think there's a huge overlap. We have several developers on staff with us and I think nearly all of them are musicians.
  • Jason: Wow, yeah.
  • Steve: We've got everything from a classically trained pianist to some other guy plays country music. It appeals to the same part of the brain, I think.
  • Jason: Yeah, I think you might be right.
  • Jason: Like, I notice ... I don't know, this is a random tidbit, but I have a problem grinding my teeth and it happens when I'm programming like really intensely or creating music really intensely, so yeah, maybe there's something to that. There's something about the same frame of mind doing those two things.
  • Steve: Yeah, you know what? I will buy sticks of chewing gum en masse and have them by desk, because I'm often in thought and chewing so hard that having chewing gum by my desk to grab easily is a big help. I often go through 20 sticks in a day when I'm working hard.
  • Jason: Yeah. I'm with you too, like we're not doing video, but I would show you the bag of Dentyne gum that I have on my desk right here. Nice.
  • Steve: And I assume ... how did you get into running a popular membership plugin? How did you get into the WordPress space?
  • Jason: Yeah, so kind of my WordPress origin story starts in 2005. I made a blog, an investing blog with a few friends. And at that time I worked for Accenture doing technology consulting. In 2006 my wife and I ... I left Accenture to do freelance web development. And we built prototypes for Web 2.0 era startups. And we had a very popular wine website for tracking your wine and things of that nature. But we used WordPress for blogs for all those startups that we helped people start. And then as WordPress matured we kind of used it for more. And so we're like, "Oh, we can use WordPress for this as well." Or, "This would be a good platform for e-commerce." We did e-commerce on WordPress like before there were e-commerce plugins, we integrated with OsCommerce through CustomCode and things like that.
  • Jason: And we build an e-commerce plugin that was built directly on top of WordPress for just a few of our clients. We never released it as open-source and then WP eCommerce was released and wasn't as good as our software, I thought at the time, but it was open-source and it was embraced and it got used by a lot of people. So we noticed that, like the power of open-source at that time. And at the same time we had customers who needed membership sites, so we thought about using e-commerce plugins for membership sites and realized that a solution that was streamlined on the process of a membership site would work better for them. And so we spent a few years building that and then released it open-source around 2012 or so.
  • Jason: And from that time we were building ... doing WordPress consulting basically and focusing on membership sites. And we made money on the consulting and the plugin made a little bit of money, but was basically free. And then sometime in 2015 we took a few months off of consulting and turned away work and focused 100% full-time on the plugin. And since then we've been 100% working on Paid Memberships Pro and grown the team that supports it.
  • Steve: Well, there's been an explosion lately in memberships sites in general. I seem to remember we started membership sites, put our first one up in 2008 or so.
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: And the technology, not even on the WordPress on the website side, but the technology on the payment gateway side, was pretty awful. Most of the gateways had really bad support for recurring subscriptions.
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: And it's only been in recent years that it's been much easier to set up accurate user-friendly recurring payments.
  • Jason: Yeah, and there's definitely ... there's a lot of demand from the businesses that use it. There's lots of brick and mortar or real life associations are moving online and so they need to collect payments online. And then courses is kind of like the second most popular use of our membership software anyway. And so, I was at a podcasting conference and I was asking them about monetizing podcasts and I thought we would talk about like charging for access to old content or new content or side content, but everyone was talking about the course that they're making and they're going to sell, so. And of course with courses there's an overlap with membership sites. A lot of times they kind of sell it as a membership and other features.
  • Jason: And so, yeah, there's a need on the business side and then the technology side is growing up. Companies like Stripe and Braintree have really like pushed the gateways to do better in that regard and make it easier for us as developers to integrate. It's still a headache. It's still the biggest technology headache we have is kind of wrangling the various gateways to integrate with our software, but it's better than it was in 2008 for sure.
  • Steve: Yeah, we must have gone through multiple different payment gateways when we first got started and they all have significant problems. I remember one of them would do this random batch processing at like two in the morning-
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: Before the payments were due.
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: And the vast majority would fail because basically they ran all the payments on their system at the same time through one big con job I think.
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: We have one other payment gateway that encrypted and stored all the credit cards.
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: And then actually forgot what the encryption key was.
  • Jason: Nice.
  • Steve: And so locked up all their credit cards in their vault.
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: All sorts of stories like this, but things like Stripe make it much easier now. So-
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: The majority of your customers or at least the biggest sector of your customers are organizations that need to collect annual memberships? Is that right?
  • Jason: Yeah. You know, it's funny 'cause I do this every once in a while as a fun thing to do, but I went through like the last 25 people who signed up for our membership like this week. And I took a look at the site that they mentioned and I tried to guess like what domain it was. And probably a quarter of our users are associations, so they're groups that collect dues and have a conference once a year and they talk about some specific industry or niche. And then like another quarter of our users are either thought leaders or groups that are selling some kind of course or paid content, so like, "Here's how I lost weight. Buy my e-book and you'll learn how to lose weight like me."
  • Jason: Probably like another quarter would be random apps, so they're selling access to apps. And maybe another quarter is content like publishers, so if you have a magazine or an investing blog or something online and you charge for premium access. So that's like a rough breakdown, but there's all kinds of use cases.
  • Steve: Are there any niches or any angles that have been surprisingly successful in your customer base? Have you come across-
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: A whole bunch of sites and suddenly thought, "Wow, people are making a ton of money from selling X?"
  • Jason: Yeah. That happens all the time where I'm surprised at the different courses people are selling or the associations that exist. Apparently there's a beekeepers' association for just about every state in the United States and every country. And there's one in the UK that uses Paid Memberships Pro. And I think the beekeepers' association of Texas was the first one that came on my radar that we did work for. And they must have spread the work like bees pollinating. And so all these different associations use our software now. So every time a new beekeeper comes on as a customer we get excited.
  • Steve: You have been excited to speak at the Honey Conference 2019?
  • Jason: I don't know, but I should reach out. I should, yeah. I feel like I could. Maybe we should. We'd get even more of the beekeeper association market. But that's just one example of kind of an association that wouldn't be on your radar, but just a group of a few hundred people with a common interest and they collect dues and go to Vegas once a year. And there's so many of those.
  • Steve: So you run your own membership site in addition to running everyone else's membership sites as well?
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: Have you learned anything from watching all these customers go by? Do you pick up any tips and tricks from the things your customers are trying?
  • Jason: Yeah, definitely it's good. We use our own software to sell Paid Memberships Pro and access to our support and documentation. And I'd hesitate to call it like a membership site, 'cause, yeah, we're leaning toward selling software and I'm sure the Pennsylvania tax authority is interested in how we classify ourself also.
  • Jason: Yeah, using our own software means that we catch bugs earlier and when ... maybe early on we had an idea of you should use one gateway only. And your checkout process should be streamlined. And don't give people another decision about using PayPal or a credit card or something like that. So we built the first iteration of Paid Memberships Pro like that. And we had it on our site, but we saw a lot of our customers asking to offer PayPal. Mostly because they needed to as a second option, like for international customers. There's a lot of countries where even now people can't get credit cards easily, but PayPal accounts are easier to come by. So we implemented that for our customers and then we saw an increase in sales from it and that's something that we implemented on our site and then built an add-on around to make it easier.
  • Jason: And I think we're kind of behind the curve, like it's a big update in our core plugin to be able to kind of offer the band of every single option. You know, Apple Pay, Amazon, Google Wallet. That's something that's changed, I guess, online. People are more comfortable with that, but also we saw customers ... customers noticed that first before we did. That having multiple gateway and payment options increase sales, so yeah.
  • Steve: Well, you know what? Developers and business owners love to complain about PayPal and how clunky and frustrating it can be, but I was talking with Syed who does-
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: WPForms and a lot of large plugins. And he mentioned that they experimented with taking PayPal off.
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: And simply offering credit cards and Stripe as the gateway and in his experience it would cost something like 20% of your purchases.
  • Jason: Yeah, I would make the same guess, yeah.
  • Steve: That as difficult and cumbersome as PayPal is, even if the customers don't love it either it's a kind of-
  • Jason: Yeah, we used to feel, when we had only credit card checkouts, maybe once a week or every other week, someone would ask, "Hey, do you mind if I pay through PayPal just offline and then you just hook me up?" And we would do that and we're like, "Wow, if this many people are brave enough to ask ... " you know what I mean? How many people are making the same decision to just like, "Ah, it doesn't use PayPal" or "I don't have my credit card on me" or "I can't get a credit card so I'm going to go somewhere else?"
  • Jason: Yeah, definitely we recommend every site offer PayPal as a second option. I feel like Amazon and Google Pay and Apple are ... they're not as big as PayPal in terms of people who like solely use it for internet purchases, but they're definitely coming up. And it's helpful that everyone's like logged in already to Amazon, so it's just one button. You know? But especially it's hard for us, especially for recurring subscriptions and stuff like you said. These gateways all do it differently and not necessarily in a great way and it's super complicated to make them all work.
  • Steve: So,
  • Jason: you must be getting a lot of different pricing ideas, a lot of tips and tricks from the customers you look at. Do you end up trying a little of those on your site? Do you end up doing a lot of A/B testing? A lot of experimenting with prices and coupons and discounts?
  • Jason: Yeah. So, we usually run about one larger pricing experiment per year and we started doing that two or three years ago. Someone by the name of Kirk Bowman who runs a podcast called the Art of Value, he either reached out to me or I stumbled upon him when I was thinking about pricing and I did a consultation with him. I paid him for some consulting. And then later I went on his podcast when I talked about how I implemented the advice he gave me, but the big aha moment he gave me was around testing pricing, was that you don't actually have to charge the new price that you're testing.
  • Jason: So at the time we were considering jumping from, I think $197 to $297. And so we set up software on our website. I did it custom just 'cause I'm a developer and so I like to do things custom. But the pricing everywhere would say $300, or $297 actually. And then as soon as you got to the checkout page it would actually mention ... it would say, "Hey, we're running a fall sale, so it's $197." The pricing that was actually charged to them was only $197 and so all of our kind of like, the funnel of people coming to the website saw $297 and they twice clicked on buttons suggesting they were ready to pay $297. And then maybe they noticed it was actually $197 'cause there was a little note. And that might have had like a conversion, but we were A/B testing.
  • Jason: And so, what we found was that there was practically no change. There was a very, I think, the $197 converted like 5% percent better at every step, but of course you're getting 50% more money. And so we ran that test for a month and then that gave us the data to basically know that, "Hey, if we change our pricing it's not actually going to have as big a downside as we think."
  • Steve: So your prices are fairly high for WordPress plugins, although in-
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: General the market the seems to be more tolerant of high prices these days. I'm curious, you mentioned your ... you don't really think of yourself as a membership site. And you have all your code publicly available on GitHub. What are your selling points? What are you offering to-
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: To your customers? If the code is free and ... is it training, is it documentation, is it support? What's the value the customers are getting from you?
  • Jason: Yeah, so all of our software is GPL and open-source and it's either available on wordpress.org or github.com. So if you want to try out the code or use it, like the fool version, it's confusing 'cause we're called Paid Memberships Pro and people are like, "I have the free version. Can I get the pro version?" And we're like, "Oh no, it's all the same plugin on dot org." But yeah, you can gain access to the code free of charge. And then, what you technically get for paying $297 on our website, and I like a bundle with access to everything. It makes support and everything on our side a lot easier. We don't have to figure out which extension that you bought or, you know, which plan you bought.
  • Steve: Or prioritize support maybe-
  • Jason: Yeah, exactly.
  • Steve: Everyone comes into the same support bucket.
  • Jason: Yeah, exactly. So people often ask like, "Is there a way I can pay more to get expedited support?" And that would be hard for us to actually deliver. In my mind I'm like, "I want the support that we offer now to be as fast as possible and I don't want to get distracted by clients that are paying more." So yeah, we have one product that gives you access to everything and what everything is like our support ticket system. Some of our documentation is locked down for paying members only. Most of our documentation, probably 90% of it, you need a free membership. Just give us your e-mail address and we give you access. And so we use that as like a marketing funnel.
  • Jason: And then they also gain access to automatic updates of like what we call plus add-ons. So our policy is basically if it's a plugin that integrates with another service or another plugin, we release in the wordpress.org repository. It removes all of the business considerations of like who gets the money for this when people pay for it. And it's like, "No, this is something that helps both our businesses and we work on it together." But if it's an add-on that just adds functionality and ... it goes into an add-on if it's something that not every membership site needs but only a certain subset needs. And it's easier for us technically to kind of control the code in an add-on.
  • Jason: So those plus add-ons are on GitHub if you just want to find them and install them and they work with all the features, but if you want automatic updates to you like the WordPress backend that downloads the zip files from our server, we have to be a member. And to be honest, like that value is not ... it depends. If you're a developer you don't mind going in and manually installing things. If you're an end-user business or you're like a freelance or an agency that is dealing with a lot of plugins and a lot of sites, you don't mind paying $297 to not have to worry about these things and kind of like smooth all the roadblocks.
  • Jason: So I think the price $297 is a little high in terms of access to a single plugin. I think it's low when you consider that it gives you 90 add-ons when most other, I think, e-commerce plugins, if you bought every single add-on or even their bundles, they're much higher. And technically you could just the code for free if that's what you aim for, but we find if you're a serious business building a serious membership site, like you'll pay that for it. And we also, like the other theory there is that it's an open-source project and platform similar to WordPress and my first goal isn't necessarily to make money. It's to get people to use the platform. So putting the code out there encourages that.
  • Jason: And then, we need to raise money to pay salaries and the business that maintains the plugin and so, I see it as kind of a little bit of a Robin Hood thing of like we take money from the rich who can afford $297 and that allows us to keep the code available for free for anyone wlse who can use it.
  • Steve: So it sounds as if you've taken some pretty deliberate decisions to simplify?
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: You put your code on GitHub which takes away a lot of the distribution problems.
  • Jason: Right.
  • Steve: You have one single support plan so everyone gets the same treatment.
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: Am I right in hearing that you were a business consultant once? That you actually did this kind of optimization for a living?
  • Jason: Yeah, definitely. So, from like 2006 to 2015 or so, we did internet consulting and so people would come to us with an existing website and we would optimize it for conversions and simplify it and things like that. And we would build ... we'd build a lot of like app prototypes and ... so we had a lot of experience talking though these kind of pricing and business decisions with people. And when we were consulting it was always frustrating that I felt like we would give good advice or we would build a good product for them, but it was all on our customers to actually go out and market it.
  • Jason: And so when we started marketing a membership site and the software ourselves we got to learn why it's actually so hard and kind of do a better job at that. Simplifying your pricing and setup is kind of like a ... is good advice in a lot of use cases. People can tend to get distracted by marketing gimmicks or discount code strategies and stuff when focusing on a simple product and figuring out the price point that works is kind of more important. Go ahead.
  • Steve: So, you're in a fairly crowded market with all the different e-commerce options available. The a thousand pound gorilla in the room is WooCommerce, but there's also Easy Digital Downloads, GiveWP, and quite a few others as well. How do you end up positioning Paid Memberships Pro in amongst all those other options? Do you stick very tightly to a particular niche?
  • Jason: Yeah, so we focus on membership sites in particular. And so comparing that to WooCommerce ... and WooCommerce is great and we like it, when we consult with people we often tell people that WooCommerce would be a better solution for them when it works. But WooCommerce comes with like a shopping cart, inventory management, and shipping information and control, and those are three things that most membership sites don't need. If you did use WooCommerce there's a kind of technical debt to having those systems, so any kind of customization that you do or things you need to tweak the checkout experience, you have to consider, well like, how's it going to affect these three systems I'm not even really using?
  • Jason: And then, from a mental perspective, you have to dig through like the shipping information settings pages that you don't care about to get to the pages that you do care about. And kind of like the sales funnel of the membership site is a little different from a typical e-commerce site. And the reporting for a membership site is a little different. So the fact that we streamline for the membership site use case means that it's a lot simpler for people to set up and will map to their actual use. I mean, that said, there's a really good membership. There's both WooCommerce memberships for restricting content and WooCommerce subscriptions for charging a recurring subscription. And they work really well with WooCommerce and people are building awesome sites on top of that.
  • Jason: Then within the membership space, I think, our niche there is that we embrace open-source and the concept of a membership platform. And so like the fact that all of our code is available to build on, we want to be part of a community rather than just focused on a product. And the different membership plugins embrace that to different extents.
  • Steve: There's quite a few hosting services in the space.
  • Jason: Yeah. It's a really good business opportunity. I think Memberful was one that just got bought by Patreon where it was ... they're like a membership button, so you just put an embed button code and then you manage your membership on a separate site. And so you could put that code anywhere online. Yeah, there's other ones that they host your whole website, which are ... I think for different users, like that could work. Like different end users want a kind of simple, "I don't want to know how stuff works behind the scene." Our plugin does tend to skew towards ... and we focus on developers who want to customize the membership experience.
  • Jason: And so, some end users will have trouble doing certain things on our plugin. There's definitely a lot of end users using our plugin happily and we never even hear from them, 'cause they just set up a recurring payment and they get their money and they're fine, but what we found was a lot of membership sites need to do things a little bit differently. You know, they say like, "Memberships have to renew on January 1st, but if they pay early they get a discount." And "Oh, but if their wife signs up they also get a discount." And then, "We have an event, but if they went to the event they had to be ... " So there's all kinds of customizations that could go along for how they want to price things or how they want to restrict content.
  • Jason: And early on we chose, instead of building complicated settings pages to manage this stuff, we say, "Hey, you should hire a developer and have them write 10 lines of code to get it to work exactly how you want." So our plugin will be better for getting it to work exactly how you want if you need like a non-standard setup, which a lot of membership sites do, but you'll need a developer in a lot of cases to do that. And that's kind of the niche that we fall into, like it's a platform that developers can build on.
  • Steve: So there's a lot of these guys who may come with their membership criteria or their little rules that-
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: Maybe make a little sense in an offline world where everything's done manually, but when it comes to converting these organizations like the ... I imagine the beekeepers, for example, are somewhat easy work.
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: When it comes to converting that into an online system, it doesn't map quite so easily.
  • Jason: Yeah yeah. And it's kind of a double-edged sword. Our software makes a lot of things possible, but at the same time, like I said earlier, simplifying pricing and plans is a good thing. I always say if it's complicated to program, like you're trying to explain to me how your approval process or your content restrictions work or your pricing works and if you can explain it to me and I can't program it, just imagine explaining it to your customer. I'm like, "They want to know why their membership is $17.32 instead of $15." So simplifying is good, but even when you simplify, yeah, our pool's kind of flexible that you figure out what's important about your membership site and you can make that work exactly how you need it.
  • Steve: So how big is P&P now? You are a husband and wife team still and you got a team of half a dozen or so?
  • Jason: Yeah, something like that. Definitely Kim and I have been working together since the start and we just hired three new people who are trialing for support, so now we have ... and it's confusing, about 10 full-time people, so yeah, about five in the United States and five in South Africa, full-time working on the site. And a few contractors who do work for us here and there.
  • Steve: So how fast is the business growing? You've been at this for several years. Are you at the point where the growth is really starting to kick in?
  • Jason: Yeah. What's funny is, and this might be because I ... I'm such a fan of spreadsheets and once a year I build one and look at it and kind of like crystal ball like, "Hey, how are we going to do?' But even through the consulting stage into since when we switched our products, with the exception of that year when we switched, like our business has been growing 20% a year every year, or around that point, to 30%. And so I think we'll do ... if I had to guess, like around 70, $80,000 a month in revenue this year.
  • Steve: Hey, it's nearly the million a year mark.
  • Jason: Yeah, we're really close to that, so if we do something spectacular that bumps it up we could hit that, but we'll probably come just under.
  • Steve: Oddly that makes you, from what remembering what Pippin wrote about Easy Digital Downloads, makes you almost exactly the same size in terms of revenue.
  • Jason: Yeah. Yeah, he posts those in his annual report, so I feel like WP, I think, makes quite a bit more, like a little over a million, and I think Easy Digital Downloads is a little under maybe, last I checked or so. (Pippin was on Episode #17 talking about Easy Digital Downloads).
  • Steve: Right.
  • Jason: And then Restrict Pro ... Restrict Content Pro I always say is like our actual competitor. They line up most kind of philosophically with what we think a membership plugin for WordPress, what it should do and how it should work. And we had the advantage that he ignored that plugin a little bit while he focused on affiliate WP and Easy Digital Downloads. But now him and I forget who the other developer is who's leading it up, are focused on it, and they're doing a lot of really cool stuff with the code there, and I think they're growing the revenue of that as well.
  • Jason: I lived a really blessed life and we afford our team of 10, to pay them well and invest back in the ... you know, keep the plugin going and kind of the things that we have to do around it.
  • Steve: So we're at interesting time in WordPress. A lot of businesses are moving towards adding a SaaS service. A lot of businesses and developers are having to deal with Gutenberg. How carefully have you thought about and planned out what you're going to do with P&P over the next couple of years? Or is that not the brain works? Are you taking it step by step?
  • Jason: No, definitely there's a lot of opportunity around our platform, so I think, there's a theme called SweetDate and the company behind them, SeventhQueen. They sell things on ThemeForest. And I'm pretty sure they make more money selling that theme that ... it integrates with Paid Memberships Pro in a really tight way. It does a lot of other stuff, but they make more money selling that, like membership site theme based on our platform, than we do selling the platform.
  • Steve: Huh.
  • Jason: And there's definitely customers that we run into that make over a million dollars a year selling memberships. But anyway, there's a lot of opportunity in terms of high-end consulting to help these large associations port over to our software. Or a hosted platform, we've toyed with the idea a bit and we explore it. Well sell about maybe like 10 new customers a day. If one of them every day would buy a $100 a month hosting plan instead, within five years that becomes a gigantic business that's bigger than our business. And I think that's a safe assumption that you might be able to find one in 10 people who don't have hosting yet and just want the hosting experience.
  • Jason: Another thing we toyed with, we talked about WooCommerce earlier where it's such a giant market. We have 80,000 users according to wordpress.org and WooCommerce has 4.4 million. And so, I joke that we should just take our most popular add-ons and port them to WooCommerce and sell them as WooCommerce extensions. It would probably be a bigger business. And if you're a developer and you run into me at a WordCamp, I give away these ideas. Like if you're looking for something to work on, I'm like, "Yeah, just fork my code and sell it for WooCommerce. You'll probably make good money on that."
  • Jason: But what I find is, I think about these things and I don't want to get distracted, like I feel like we could spread ourselves too thin and lose focus on the core product that we have. I mean, maybe it would be a better business decision in some cases, but, like I said, I want to build the membership platform and have Paid Memberships Pro be as obvious a tool to use for a membership site as WordPress is a tool to use for a blog or a content management platform. And so, yeah, I stay focused on the core product and Gutenberg is part of that. I was concerned about it like a lot of people in this space and developers when it was announced and kind of how it was going the past couple years, but at the State of the Word and WordCamp US in general this past December, in actually launching it, it's kind of like, "Yeah, this is it, this is the reality, it's the future, and we have to embrace it."
  • Jason: And the development practices around it in terms of using JavaScript and React instead of PHP as much, I feel like an old-timer and a fuddy-duddy and like, "Oh, I'm just going to retire and let these young guys and girls that I've hired, like they're younger and smarter than me and I'll let them figure it out." So definitely Gutenberg is the future and Blocks in WordPress. In all reality there's an excellent opportunity not just in membership plugins but different premium plugins in general. The Forms plugins, other e-commerce plugins, the e-mail marketing plugins, the SCO plugins, there's an opportunity to build like a Block-first solution that doesn't have the technical debt that we have because we built a plugin almost 10 years ago.
  • Jason: And it works exactly how new people coming into WordPress expect it to work as a Block. There's an opportunity for them to kind of leapfrog us and so I feel like it might happen, but to fight that we're going to embrace Gutenberg. And the Paid Memberships Pro 2.0 launched the beginning of this year and it has kind of the first phase of ideas we have for using Block. So, things that were shortcodes in our old plugin are Blocks now. We have the ability to restrict other Blocks based on your membership level, which I'm not sure other membership plugins have released yet. So if you're using Blocks and you need to restrict them, our membership plugin does that.
  • Jason: And so we're embracing it and we'll try in our kind of iterative crawling open-source way to catch up and stay on top in terms of the new development environment of WordPress.
  • Steve: Well, you know what? I've really learned to love in the last month or so maybe. After all the mistakes that were made with actually getting Gutenberg out of the door-
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: And all the problems in the release. And then, what, two, three months in, my mental model started to flip and just recently, last week, I started to convert even all the custom post types that we have on different sites over to Gutenberg. I started to miss it. I'd be writing away on the classic editor on [OneCount 00:35:04] and type and say, "Man, I actually miss Gutenberg." I never thought I'd say that, but it made my writing process-
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: Quicker, the block model worked. Perhaps it helped that I dealt with similar platforms before, Igloo in particular, but Gutenberg is such a different mental model that it's taking people some time to come around.
  • Jason: Yeah, definitely. You know what I realized? Part of the 2.0 update, we changed our menu in Paid Memberships Pro. This is related, I promise. But, we had this thought ... our old menu was kind of based on the flow of setup. When you're setting up a membership site, you go here, then here, then here, then here, but you really only do that once and then you use the membership site every day differently for the rest of your life. So we rearranged things on the menu based on what you're most likely to need to use day to day. So like your members list and the orders list are first and second instead of being further down, 'cause it's later in the setup. And we kind of moved the menu up, like I think when we added it before we just added it wherever WordPress put it by default, but now there's kind of standards where, if your plugin manages custom post types, it should kind of be above the setting. So we're like, "Hey, let's move it above the settings." We made this tweak where we moved the menu and for like a month and a half my muscle memory would just click the wrong link every time I went to do something. And I'm like, "I built this. I coded this. I'm the one who told it to move up the page." I know it's there, but my arm and my mouse hand keeps going to the old menu and I have to be like, "Oh yeah, where it is exactly? Up here." And so, when I did that with my own software, and that was around the time Gutenberg was in development too and I was struggling, like, "Where's the button to delete a Block?" I'm like, man, our muscle memory, and we do this every day, is really fine grain. It's going to take a bunch of time to re-learn that.
  • Steve: I can see why you want to turn it over to the kids you fired now.
  • Jason: Yeah, exactly. It's like getting old is hard. Yeah, so I have a lot of, I guess, empathy for the problem of, "You're changing things so much, it's going to be hard." And that's what I feel about Gutenberg is the stuff it does really well feels so good and kind of the future road map of how it can be used for front-end layout and editing and different things. And also, like the extensibility of it and if you've seen a demo of some of the Block plugins that you say like ... they have templates built in. And you're like, "I need this X form." And you click it and it shows you a pretty picture and then it adds like 12 Blocks that are that form and then you can drag it around. It feels so good. It does that stuff so well. And all the stuff that I have problems with and a lot of what other people have problems with, like from a UI and use perspective, are either little bugs that should be fixed or kind of minor things that we'll get over as we figure it out.
  • Jason: The other day I ran into a weird display bug and I took a note. I got to look into it and see if that's like a known issue. It moved the cursor around in some weird way. And Blocks can get lost and the nested Blocks need to be a little bit ... have like bigger UI to make them easier to manipulate. But all these things, to me as a developer, they sound like things that can be fixed, you know? That it's not like a problem with the core idea.
  • Jason: One thing though that does worry me, I mean, talk about like from a development perspective, the movement to JavaScript and Node.js, from a development ... like you rely on so many libraries and you kind of mindlessly pull them in. And I copied a Gutenberg tutorial and it had the list of requirements. You're running the NPM scripts and it's like the NPM requirements and you run the Buildscript and it pulls in all this JavaScript and I don't really know what it all does or why it's needed. And this is kind of true when you use plugins and stuff, but it feels a little bit different to me. It feels a little more distant and there's a little more spread out.
  • Jason: Yeah, yeah, and it definitely is like at the coding level, like PHP has the encryption libraries built in and JavaScript doesn't, so you have to use the encryption library that someone builds in. There was the case, I forget the library, at the end of last year, where someone took over an open-source project and put malicious code into a commonly used library. And it was ... Ah man, I wish I could remember what it did, but it was something kind of silly. It was like a five line piece of code. It made like a kind of if-conditional. I forget, but it was something of that level.
  • Jason: It's something that almost should be built in to the software, the JavaScript, but instead you use a library 'cause it makes your code a little bit easier to use. And so everyone uses this code and then the malicious code gets in and you don't know it was there. And so, there's stuff in place. It was fixed really, it's open-source, so it was fixed really quickly, and the patches went out, but I still feel like whenever you run that NPM build and you get like 50 libraries that you don't know about. I mean, on some level the same thing happens in WordPress and PHP, but it is a different ... it's more extreme in that platform, I think.
  • Jason: I wonder if there'll be some pushback, like people are embracing it now for development, but I could see that being a kind of cyclical thing where five years from now there's going to be more of a push towards like, "We want a silo of ... we only use ..." You know? Like WordPress will bless and maintain their own versions of all these JavaScript libraries just to have more control over it and safety and security. Maybe that's how it would form or just people will ... there'll be other kind of issues with that development paradigm and people will move back towards using PHP for things.
  • Steve: Yeah, there's a whole bunch of these software projects that are stuck on somewhat old or unmaintained versions. You have-
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: Joomla uses Bootstrap 2 in the core.
  • Jason: Okay.
  • Steve: Drupal uses an old version of Symphony and inevitably some of the things have happened to WordPress and will happen to WordPress in the future again. The more external libraries you rely on, the-
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: The more your reliance on other companies, on Facebook in the case of React.
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: The more vulnerable you are to them deciding to make breaking changes for their own reasons.
  • Jason: Right, right.
  • Jason: So, it'll be interesting to see how that plays out.
  • Steve: Okay, so you've generally enjoyed the move to JavaScript development, but have some nagging concerns in the back of your mind still?
  • Jason: Yeah. So "enjoyed" is an interesting word choice. Like I've sometimes-
  • Steve: The answer is no then by the sounds of it.
  • Jason: Yeah, no. You know what? I feel like a fuddy-duddy, like I have to re-learn some things from scratch and also, and maybe ... I'm writing this book, Building Web Apps For WordPress, the 2nd Edition. And so, I'm diving into the JavaScript and I feel like I have to understand these things at a lower level and not just take for granted what they say they do. So, like I said, when you copy and paste a Gutenberg example and it says, "These are the JavaScript libraries that are required." Like one exercise I did for the book is what's the smallest possible Block I can build for WordPress? 'Cause do I need to import the localization library and do I need to import, I forget, the library that allows you to use JSX and the library that ... they do these different things, but I'm like, "It's just JavaScript. So how minimal can I make it?" And that was an interesting process. It'll be in the book when it gets released. But to then build up on top of that and figure out which pieces of this Block code are React and which are JavaScript and which are WordPress and which are another JavaScript library, 'cause it's a web of all these technologies. And so I feel like I have to understand it at a lower level and it just makes me feel like ... it makes me feel dumb. When I program PHP I feel like a god, 'cause I've been programming it for 20 years and I follow along with how it's changing. PHP is changing actually pretty rapidly now with the iteration on the versions, but not compared to JavaScripts, which I've always used in different ways, but now it feels like a different paradigm. So yeah, I feel like it's hard to be able to do something so well with one tool and then you have to use another one and you go back to square one and you spend a lot more time like researching and struggling with Build tools and stuff, so it's definitely been frustrating from that perspective. And that's what makes me feel like I'm like, "Oh, I should retire from the programming even though it's fun." But I feel like from a business perspective in WordPress like it's definitely the path forward for the project, you know? So I understand like why ... the value of all these things and like why the tools were chosen.
  • Steve: Hey, you just settle in and be the boss and higher developers to do the ... handle all the JavaScript libraries for you.
  • Jason: Yeah yeah, I'll have like side projects to build whatever I want.
  • Steve: So-
  • Jason: There's probably still people who build random things on Fortran and COBOL. That'll be the equivalent, to be like, "Look at my little PHP project here."
  • Steve: So you have a new version of the book coming out and you blog-
  • Jason: Yeah.
  • Steve: A lot about membership tips. Where can people follow you and Paid Memberships Pro?
  • Jason: Yeah, so the best place is probably on Twitter: @Jason Coleman on Twitter. And I'll post anything I ... you know, my thoughts in general. And then anything I post ... I post a lot to the Paid Memberships Pro blog and I'll probably be posting more often to my personal blog, TheRealJasonColeman.com with stuff about the new book and things like that going forward. I say new book, but it's an update. It feels totally new, like we delayed it a bit so that Gutenberg would come out and we can put Gutenberg-related stuff into the book and the rest. API wasn't around when we wrote the first version. WooCommerce wasn't really around. We have a section on e-commerce that said I thought Jigoshop was going to win out versus WooCommerce and WooCommerce is obviously now the biggest e-commerce platform generally in the world-
  • Steve: That part didn't do too well.
  • Jason: Yeah. No, yeah, so we had to update that chapter. So it's updated a lot and you can get the early release version through the Safari or O'Reilly Safari subscription, so if you oreilly.com, their model now is you pay a monthly fee and you gain access to all of the O'Reilly books. And if you do that you get the early access e-book that has the chapters as we update them.
  • Steve: Cool.
  • Jason: And that should be out in a couple months, a few months otherwise.
  • Steve: Oh, congrats.
  • Jason: Yeah, thanks.
  • Steve: Well, thanks very much for joining us
  • Jason:. Wish you all the best with the book and with Paid Memberships Pro in 2019.
  • Jason: Alright, thank you Steve.

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.