The Secret to Entrepreneurship: “Just Keep Going”

Host Jon Penland, 

Providing website management services as a business is not a new concept, but Joe Howard has a few different strategies and differentiators that set WP Buffs apart. Tune in to this episode of Reverse Engineered to learn how Joe strives to provide value and be a positive influence to his clients and the WordPress community as a whole.

Duration

57 minutes

Guest

Host

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Episode Summary

Joe Howard joins the Reverse Engineered podcast to discuss his experience starting and running WP Buffs, a company providing 24/7 WordPress website management and support services that power growth. 

Joe shares his secret to success: always keep going and accept that challenges are a necessary part of your journey. 

He also shares his early day strategy for attracting new clients as well as why you should vet clients to ensure they’re a good fit for your business.

If you want to hear more about hosting providers, website management companies, and entrepreneurship in general, tune in to the latest episode.

Key Insights:

Today’s Guest: Joe Howard, Founder and CEO of WP Buffs

After discovering the huge community behind WordPress and wanting to be a part of it full time, Joe founded WP Buffs, a WordPress maintenance and support service. He can also be found behind the microphone as host of the WPMRR podcast.

Episode Highlights

Getting New Clients as a Newly Founded Business

“I knew it was going to be a challenge, not only to get one or two new customers but to create a self-feeding system that regularly gets me new clients. You can go and pay for ads to potentially get clients, but then you have to keep paying for ads every month. I wanted to go a different route, and I wanted something a little bit more organic. In the early days, I was very focused on writing content and getting the content machine working to drive traffic. That continues today to be our biggest driver of traffic, leads, and new clients.”

Dealing With the Imposter Syndrome

”I still struggle with some of that stuff. Some weeks, I’m the man. Others, I suck a lot and need to get better. That’s a continuous journey. In general, I’m pretty centered around imposter syndrome. It’s almost a requirement to start a business or entrepreneurial journey to put yourself out there and risk embarrassment.

I’m proud of where WP Buffs is today. We went through a thousand challenges, and we overcame them all. That’s the secret. Keep going and overcome challenges, including embarrassing moments.”

The Importance of Sales Calls on the Quality of Your Business Offer

“One of our biggest strengths is we are highly systemized, and we don’t offer a lot of different stuff to different folks. We used to earlier on, in the white label program days where we were a little less picky about people we brought on, and we were like, ‘Oh, you’re going to like pay us money. Okay. Yeah, come on. You’re good.’

But now we have sales calls with folks. I think about them more as educational calls to make sure people are a good fit. To me, sales calls have turned more into actually vetting people.”

Being a Positive Force in the WordPress Community

“We try to organize more of our team contribute back to WordPress. We’re not quite at 5% for the future. We haven’t quite gotten there yet, but at some point, we’d love to be doing that and continuing to support the growth of WordPress itself. Honestly, because we’re so visible, we try to be good company and have good values and missions.

We just updated our mission statement. And for folks who don’t know, maybe hearing our mission will create other people’s missions who want to do well. Our mission is to create unforgettable experiences and positive impacts for every community that we interact with.”

Transcript

[00:00:04] Jon Penland: Hey everyone. My name is Jon Penland and Reverse Engineered is brought to you by Kinsta, a premium managed hosting provider. In today’s episode, I’m talking with Joe Howard, founder and CEO of WP Buffs. Joe, welcome to Reverse Engineered.

[00:00:19] Joe Howard: Thank you for having me Jon, I’m excited to be on the podcast. When we jumped on recording here, I saw you’re using Riverside and I was like, “Oh, this is going to be a good podcast”. I’m excited for this.

[00:00:28] Jon Penland: That’s right, that’s right. Cutting, no corners. To get us started, can you introduce yourself to our listeners?

[00:00:34] Joe Howard: Sure. My name is Joe Howard. I am the founder and CEO of WP Buffs. That’s how most people know about me in the WordPress space. So we do 24/7 website management, both for direct clients, small businesses, entrepreneurs, startups that run their own WordPress website, but also white label partners. So agencies, freelancers, WordPress professionals, some other larger WordPress companies—they can work with us to provide 24/7 support to their WordPress clients through our support program, white-label support program. Yeah, that’s most of what I do. I also dabble a little bit in WPMRR, so that’s more of the agency and freelancer side of things where we do an annual summit and we do a podcast and stuff over there. So that’s a lot of fun as well.

[00:01:24] Jon Penland: Yeah. So I do wanna take a moment and let you dig a little bit more into what it is that WP Buffs does because a lot of our conversation today is going to center around WP Buffs. You mentioned that WP Buffs provides maintenance on behalf of agencies, sometimes in a white label capacity, but then also just directly to folks. Talk to us a little bit. If I’m completely unfamiliar with WP Buffs and you say WordPress maintenance, what does that mean, practically speaking? ‘Cause different people might mean different things with those words.

[00:01:55] Joe Howard: Yeah, definitely. We’ve shifted our language a little bit in terms of what we do. When the business started, we were talking more about website maintenance and now we talk a little bit more about website management. We do maintenance tasks, but a lot of times for me the maintenance is the more automated tasks, handling backups that kind of thing. 

[00:02:18] And we do those on all of our plans and definitely it’s definitely included in our lower level plans, but we do a lot of proactive work as well. Helping people with all of the website things they need like performance optimization, security optimization, all sorts of advanced work. It will help for WooCommerce sites or membership sites. So we’ve shifted more into the language of website management, 24/7 website management and we think that’s just, it sounds more premium because it is more premium. We’re offering more premium service, but yeah in terms of just what we do as a company it’s really just a subscription service for folks. 

[00:02:58] So, I’m sure every WordPress professional out there who’s listening has also their own WordPress website or their own collection of WordPress sites. And you remember what it was like to get started with WordPress, way back in the day. “Oh, okay, I launched my site. Okay, I did that, but now I have to handle all the updates and all the compatibility between the plugins and themes and PHP version I’m running. I just wanna try PHP 8, is all my stuff going to like PHP 8?”

[00:03:24] Jon Penland: Is everything gonna break?

[00:03:25] Joe Howard: Yeah. And for our direct customers, that’s something, we pretty much take the headache away from folks and allow them to, our goal is to help people grow digitally through managing their website.

[00:03:37] So we handle all the WordPress stuff. “Okay, now you’re freed up to do more of what you wanna do. Maybe you wanna focus on more sales or marketing or SEO or growing your audience or growing your community or growing your sales, your e-commerce op shops.” So that’s really the focus of what we do.

[00:03:52] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. And I think something that would be valuable, a lot of folks who listen to Reverse Engineered are going to be folks who are familiar with Kinsta. And so they may hear a lot of what you’ve talked about and not have a clear picture of what is different between the service you might get from a premium hosting provider like Kinsta and a website management company, like WP Buffs. 

[00:04:17] So can you help differentiate a little bit there? I could do it, but I’d like to hear your take on the relationship between the hosting provider, the website management company, in this case WP Buffs, and then the website owner?

[00:04:32] Joe Howard: Yeah, we have a great blog post up about this because we’ve gotten this question so much. We were like, “Okay, we have to write a blog post about it because it’s easier just to shoot someone a link, then explain this a hundred different times.” But you’re totally right. I actually wanna give a shout-out to Kinsta because when we were getting started… I mean Kinsta’s always been one of those companies that I’ve really looked up to in terms of… We’re a bootstrapped or revenue company, as is Kinsta. And, man look where Kinsta is battling against all the other big hosts out there. And really outperforming a lot of them in a lot of senses. And so that’s really motivation for me to wanna do some of that same work and reach some of those same levels. But when we were getting started and I was looking at Kinsta, I’ve worked with, partnered with Kinsta for a long time on a lot of different stuff. And Kinsta was one of the first people who, I was thinking, “Should we host websites at WP Buffs?” And then I thought, because I was working directly with Kinsta, and talking with some folks over at Kinsta, I was like, “They’re so good at hosting, like we should handle everything outside of hosting, or we should focus on the WordPress side of things more purely and allow people like Kinsta to focus on how to make the hosting environment and the hosting experience exceptional.”

[00:05:47] Everybody who’s listening, who knows Kinsta is like, “Kinsta’s great at all this stuff. Why would you try to recreate what Kinsta, as they already do it so well.” And I couldn’t disagree with that. So that’s where my distinction between the two comes in and actually where I think there’s a big advantage. Kinsta does like fully managed WordPress hosting. I have this idea in my head of like fully managed WordPress. And that’s where our white label program potentially with even like a hosting company or just a freelancer or an agency, you can fully manage everything, not just the hosting side of things, but the WordPress side of things.

[00:06:25] And that’s, I think where people get a lot of value out of that. Because everyone wants a great host. Everyone also needs help with, “Okay, I need to make all these updates to my website, I need to be posting my blog content regularly, but I don’t wanna format it every time. Okay, where do I find this thing in the dashboard?” Everybody’s had that experience of like, “Where do I change this thing in the dashboard?” Looking for it for like 45 minutes. And he was like, “Wow, finally, I found it.” Well, our engineers know where it is, they can do it fast. So yeah, I think at the end of the day like that is a really cool idea. And so to me, that’s the distinction between what a hosting company supports then what a company like WP Buffs can come in and supplement some of that support. Honestly, in some of the places that Kinsta, probably a hosting company doesn’t want to play in like “Can you help me edit my WordPress site?”

[00:07:16] Joe Howard: You’re like “No, like we handle hosting. Not that we don’t want to, but just not part of our area so we can’t help with that.”

[00:07:23] Jon Penland: Yeah, no, I think that was a perfect explanation. And I really liked the distinction you made there between managed WordPress hosting and managed WordPress, right? That’s something that I’ve talked about a lot internally. I really prefer to say managed hosting for WordPress. Now that, marketing speak, that’s a little bit wordier.

[00:07:42] It doesn’t flow as nicely so we go with managed WordPress hosting. But managed hosting for WordPress is a more accurate description of what managed WordPress hosts are providing. We are really managing the hosting environment and I could spend a really long time talking about why that makes sense. And I do think that companies like WP Buffs can be a very valuable service provider in that ecosystem, particularly because WordPress does attract users who well, maybe they don’t wanna deal with that stuff because they don’t have the technical skillset or maybe they just don’t want to deal with it because they want to focus on their business.

[00:08:20] Like maybe they do have the technical skillset and they’re like, “I just don’t wanna have to deal with this. I could, but I’d rather have somebody else do it for me”. So I do see a lot of- just a good relationship between somebody like WP Buffs and somebody like Kinsta where when we have a customer who’s asking our support team to step outside what we’re really there to do. We can go, “Hey, Joe Howard, over at WP Buffs, this guy is exactly who you need for this sort of a service that goes above and beyond the hosting itself”. So I do, I agree with with everything you said there about that relationship and the value you guys can add in that relationship.

[00:08:58] Alright, so I wanna go back to WP Buffs though. What is the origin story? How did WP Buffs come to be?

[00:09:05] Joe Howard: Yeah, we’ll get into the Reverse Engineering part of the podcast. Yeah, I was like most folks in the WordPress space. Five, six years ago I was a WordPress freelancer. I was working a full-time gig, and then nine to five working that, and then more five to nine I was freelancing.

[00:09:26] I was mostly building websites. I don’t even know really what I would call myself. I was the freelancer who like, I’m not like a super strong designer or a super strong developer, but like I can put a WordPress website together. I can throw a theme in there. I can work with a theme maybe a little bit of HTML and CSS, make it like a little bit, feel more custom, but it’s really just like a themed website, pretty straightforward. I wasn’t doing hundred-thousand-dollar websites. I was doing like $2, $3, $5,000 sites. And yeah, and I was just kind of introducing myself to the WordPress community, like getting to know folks.

[00:10:03] I remember when I discovered there’s like a huge community behind this, I was like, “Oh, this is awesome”. I’m like, “I wanna do more WordPress stuff and maybe wanna go more like full-time into WordPress” instead of the job I was working which I had not very much love for. And I had a lot of challenges growing and scaling that business model. I honestly just wasn’t very good at juggling all the tasks, it takes to find new clients and build their website and manage multiple projects at once.

[00:10:33] And I stumbled upon these other businesses around WordPress, they were doing more maintenance work and ongoing support. And it’s where companies like WP Site Care and Maintain and Valet, although I think they were, may have, they may have been like WP Valet back then, but now they’re valet.io, but they were all doing this maintenance work.

[00:10:56] And I remember seeing these companies and being like, “Oh like subscription WordPress services…”

[00:11:00] Jon Penland: Recurring revenue!

[00:10:03] Joe Howard: Yeah. And I didn’t even know the terminology like monthly. I didn’t even know what MRR was like monthly recurring revenue. And definitely didn’t know what, like lifetime value or churn was. I didn’t know any of this terminology, but I remember seeing that they get paid every month to do ongoing support tasks. That sounds pretty systemizable.

[00:11:20] Jon Penland: Sure.

[00:11:21] Joe Howard: Also, they’ve already proven the business model to me. Obviously, I have to be able to do this, and I have to prove myself that I can do that. But these companies are clearly live companies doing this work and have grown to a certain size, so okay. To me, that was a little bit of like- I didn’t have to prove if like subscription services, was a thing. If people pay them for this, why wouldn’t they pay me for this? Yeah, that’s where WP Buffs came from. The domain itself was actually- I bought wpbuffs.com domain originally because I wanted to create an educational site.

[00:11:57] Joe Howard: Okay. Okay. Yeah, sure.

[00:11:59] Joe Howard: And it kind of just laid around for a year. I picked out a few things, but it never really got anywhere. I’m sure if you go back to Wayback Machine, like you can find some old, like crappy WP Buff site, but it never really got off the ground and then I wanted to start this new company. And I was like, “Oh, I already have this domain. WP Buffs is cool ’cause it can be a double meaning for like- it’s like a history buff, like very educated in a certain area, WP Buffs. But I can also have a little cartoon strong guy for it. So okay. That seems to make sense in my head for some reason, then it’s fun so let’s go for it. And yeah, that was WP Buffs and that was, I don’t know, five or so years ago now, five and a half years ago.

[00:12:36] Jon Penland: Okay. So you’ve come up with the idea, been proven by looking at other folks in the space who are doing similar things. You’re starting to build this company. Are there certain metrics that you paid really close attention to, either early on or even coming up to today to try on… metrics that you felt would indicate the health or the growth potential of the business over time? What are the things you kept your eye on in those early days?

[00:13:03] Joe Howard: The easy answer is nothing serious. If I’m being honest, I was really focused on getting new customers. ‘Cause I didn’t really know how to do that. My background is in content marketing and digital marketing. So I feel like I’m actually pretty good in that area, but I didn’t know how to do it for this specific business.

[00:13:27] And to me, I knew that was gonna be a challenge, not just like how to get one or two new customers, but like, “How do I create this self-feeding system that regularly gets me new clients, right?” Because you can go and pay for ads and get clients potentially, but then you have to keep paying for ads every month.

[00:13:49] I wanted to go a different route and I wanted something a little bit more organic, like something a little bit more, like paying for customers. It doesn’t exactly work with how I, like personally, wanna get customers. Like I help educate people. I wanna help people. I wanna be a positive, potentially like influence in life or to have my company be a positive influence in their life.

[00:14:13] And then, after I provided value to them, they’ll come, and if they need that help, they can come and, “Hey, we offer these things as well.” And so early days I was very much focused on writing content and trying to get the content machine working. 

[00:14:28] Driving traffic that was, that continues today to be our biggest driver of traffic and leads in new direct customers or new direct clients, new direct white label partners is content, an organic search. That’s what I was definitely focused on then, it’s just I was writing a lot of content, a lot of pretty bad content when being honest, but my mentality has always been like, “You just got to start somewhere”.

[00:14:53] Jon Penland: Right, absolutely.

[00:14:56] Joe Howard: Try it out to get on the hamster wheel and run run run, and maybe the hamster wheel will move a little bit forward. So yeah, that was the big focus in the early days. Actually, I think there’s even more of a lesson there because I went to MicroComp, which is a conference for- it’s really around like small revenue funded companies that, traditionally, have not raised like VC or Angel Funding. It’s WP Buffs or like Kinsta. So I learned there probably two years into running WP Buffs, I learned what like lifetime value was and I learned what, like revenue churn versus a user churn was. And then, “Oh, what’s net negative churn?” That sounds cool. What’s my ARPU. What’s my average revenue per customer, which, of course, I laughed out like everybody else, like the first time I heard that metric. But I didn’t really know what any of those metrics were until about two years into running WP Buffs.

[00:15:53] I think there actually was some value in that. Because I think if you have 10 customers, like when I did in the early days, if two customers leave one month, it’s 20% user churn and, “Oh my God, everything’s on fire”. But not really because the numbers are not statistically, like you don’t have enough clients or customers to be, that number to be, statistically significant or not. I’ve actually on my podcast talked about a lot of these numbers and I’ve said like early days just focus on like one, like getting new customers, but also just talking with your audience and like getting feedback and like getting to know the people who are buying from you so that you can like eventually sell them but it’s even more than that.

[00:16:34] It’s just in order to sell to people, you have to gain their trust in order to gain their trust. You have to like, know them, you have be friends with them. You have to be, have relationships with them. So that’s what I really try to focus on in the early days.

[00:16:45] And then when you have 50 clients or something, then you can start looking at what’s the lifetime value and how do I increase that by releasing new features or for us like new care plans? Or how do I upsell people? Upsell sounds like a dirty word. How do I get more expansion revenue, see now we’re using more friendly language?

[00:17:05] How do I get people to upgrade or get white-label partners to add new sites? You can really focus on that, I think once you have a good foundation. And for me, like having that foundation of organic traffic continuing to send us new customers, month after month, it almost took a lot of stress off so I could focus on those other parts. And actually if I’m being honest, like now, the low churn and the expansion revenue is like actually one of the biggest growth factors of our business. Organic traffic still sends us a lot of new customers, but in terms of existing client growth, that’s a huge growth area for us.

[00:17:39] So yeah. I, but I focused on those like more metrics-related things a little bit later on. We still do today, but more in broader strokes.

[00:17:51] Jon Penland: Yeah. So something that struck me, one of the things you said early on there is that as you were getting started, one of the things you put a lot of effort into was content, and then something else that you mentioned, which I think goes hand in hand with a focus on content, is this idea of early on talking to your audience, trying to get feedback from your customers. So trying to engage with customers and potential customers and have a conversation. The thing that I am struck by when I hear that is, is I imagine, a Joe Howard who has 10 customers, or who has maybe fewer starting out, maybe no customers. There has to be a factor of fear, right?

[00:18:33] There has to be a factor of, I’m going to put myself out there as this maintenance or management company and I’m not actually doing it yet. So did you struggle with any of that fear early on or that imposter syndrome it sometimes is referred to as? Did you struggle with any of that early on and how did you wrestle through it I guess?

[00:18:54] Joe Howard: I still struggle with some of that stuff, man. Some weeks are good, some weeks are not good. Some weeks, I am the man. And some weeks, I really suck a lot and need to get better. So that’s a continued, I think, journey for me and a lot of people, but I’m going to tell you the truth. When we’ve sold our first care plan I had no operations in place and I’ve told this at a few different places before. But like literally, someone clicked and again, like our old websites, it’s so funny thinking back, like someone came to our website, read some stuff, and then were like, “They’re going to try this.” Okay. They clicked like a PayPal button and on the website embedded and paid us in PayPal. And I was like, “Oh my God, someone paid us. This is amazing. Someone paid me money. Someone sent me money online. I have money from this. All right, cool. That’s it. Oh- I have to figure out how to actually do this now.” So I actually still remember that payment coming through and scrambling to be like, okay what am I doing for backups? Like backup buddy. Okay. I guess I’ll try this. I was putting operations together as our first clients were coming in.

[00:20:04] Jon Penland: Yeah. Wow.

[00:20:05] Joe Howard: And honestly, if I were to go back, I wouldn’t do anything different. I think it was how it had to be, and I’m totally actually not ashamed of it. I’m proud of that. It’s it was actually to me a positive thing to like not everything’s going to go super smoothly all the time. If you ever wanna do anything, running a business, or growing a business, these are the kinds of moments where you have to figure things out.

[00:20:29] And yeah. But in terms in general about imposter syndrome usually I’m pretty centered around that stuff. I feel like it’s almost a requirement to starting a business or an entrepreneurial journey to put yourself out there and to risk embarrassment and almost more than risking embarrassment. It’s like, if you’re not embarrassed at some point, like you did some…

[00:21:07] Jon Penland: You haven’t put yourself out there far enough yet.

[00:21:10] Joe Howard: It doesn’t even seem like it’s possible in my mind. In my mind to grow a business, like I’m really proud of where WP Buffs is today. Like super proud, but to get here, I don’t know how much super special stuff we did. In my mind it’s really just like we had, we went through a thousand challenges and we just overcame them all.

[00:21:30] To me, that’s the secret. So keep going. And so to overcome challenges, like you’re going to have embarrassing moments. So, that’s usually my advice to people who are thinking about starting something. It’s build it out in the open, let people give you feedback. You’re going to get positive and negative feedback. Enjoy it all. You know? Obviously, if you get like 100% negative feedback, maybe something’s wrong.

[00:21:54] Jon Penland: Maybe something needs to change.

[00:21:56] Joe Howard: You may wanna peak and take a look at some of that. But there’s always gonna be some sort of embarrassing or negative attention on you. And honestly, as WP Buffs has grown, some of that has grown as well. Not because we’re not a well-run company, but there’s always going to be someone out there who’s like that one review that someone left because there was a small miscommunication support. That’s like a one-star review and you’re like, “Oh my God, like we’re doomed.”

[00:22:22] But you’re not, and so as long as I think you’re focused on the right direction I think some of that imposter syndrome, some of that embarrassment, some of that, “Am I really the person to do this?” That’s actually- I think it’s necessary to point to confront that and to be comfortable being uncomfortable because, again, I’ll tell you, to be honest, I still feel a lot of that, on any maybe a week, that’s not so great, which I’ve had a few of in the past few months. I’ve had, some challenges come up for myself personally and just for the business personally.

[00:23:01] And things you got to get better at, things you’ve got to improve at and hey, that’s the name of the game.

[00:23:06] Jon Penland: Yeah, absolutely. So I did wanna ask, there are a number of companies in the originally the WordPress maintenance space, moving into the website management space. There are a number of other companies that do that offer similar services, right? What makes WP Buffs unique within that space? I guess what I’m curious about is, were you intentional early on about saying here’s what these other companies are doing and here’s what I can do to be different than what they’re doing. Was there an intentional choice early on and how has that needle moved over time?

[00:23:43] Joe Howard: I wish there had been a more intentional choice early on. I think that- I don’t think for a long time in the company, we had a big differentiator, like a unique value proposition or like people call it like an unfair advantage. What’s your unfair advantage that makes you so like, “Why would people go with you over other folks?”

[00:24:04] And I think I didn’t focus on a lot of that early on, I think because of what we talked about, I was like, “I see these other companies doing this. Let me get to there first, let me prove that I can get there. And then I can think about, ’cause this is a good business model, I can think about maybe differentiators later on.”

[00:24:22] And I think actually, I think that the differentiator for us came from some of that feedback from clients we were talking about. Because our white label program, I think is a big differentiator. Not a lot of other programs, not a lot of other maintenance services, website support companies, one even have a white label program and two, I just think our white label program is super well organized and really thorough. We have a partner hub that gives people all sorts of resources to be able to sell more care plans to their clients. They get free ebooks to send to their clients that are fully white labeled. They have how to add care plans to your proposals that you build, like truly a full hub of how to work within our white label program that helps our white label program grow but also helps them grow because our white label partners are making a profit on the care plans they sell as well. So it’s a profit center for them. But we didn’t start off doing white label. It wasn’t even my idea.

[00:25:24] It wasn’t even anybody’s idea at WP Buffs. The reason we did it is because we were driving traffic to the website. And then, so what we were doing is we were driving traffic and I was trying to get people to download our ebooks. And so I was sending a lot of people to our ebooks page, say, download ebooks. And then they hit a confirmation page, like wpbuffs.com forward slash email-confirmed. They land on this page that says thanks for subscribing. Here’s maybe some other thing you might be interested in, whatever. I don’t even remember what was on that page.

[00:25:56] But we had a Hotjar poll popping up on that page that I added, ’cause I wanted to learn more about the people subscribing to our email address. And I asked a bunch of different kinds of questions. I was like cycling through questions, trying to learn and get feedback from people. And one of the questions I asked was, I forget exactly what the question was, but it was around like, what kind of websites are you working on?

[00:26:17] And the answers to that were like my own website, client sites, or both client sites and my own sites. And 70% of people were answering either client sites or client’s and my own sites. So the traffic I was driving, I wasn’t really even thinking about who they are. Are you like a WordPress power user or are you a WordPress agency?

[00:26:42] Those are very different people. It turns out we were driving a lot of traffic from agencies, and freelancers, and people working on WordPress client sites. So I said these are not like the direct buyers of our care plans, unless maybe like we’re managing a freelancer site. Maybe there’s- and then the white label program kind of came in as I was chatting with my teams, “Oh, maybe we could do like a white, like we could manage that for them. Like they could do it through us. We could white-label reports and manage white-label support. Oh, we could hook their support email, like just forward it into teamwork desk and add their logo and signature to the footer and like we can email on behalf of them.” And so that’s how white label program came together. And so to circle back to the differentiator. I think that’s a big differentiator for us.

[00:27:39] One, in terms of just service offerings, but two, in terms of like growth and financials. Because our white label partners are, their lifetime values are way bigger than our direct customers’. Because they come on with 20, 30, 50 sites at a time, instead of one two or three sites. They churn at a much lower rate. They speak our language a little better as opposed to a direct client who may be, “What’s a plugin?”.

[00:27:55] While agencies are like, “Okay, how are we like growing the care plan, core piece of the business”, et cetera. They know the language, right? In a lot of senses I think that’s a big differentiator for us and it’s allowed us, I think, grow a little bit faster, probably significantly faster than a website management company that just caters to direct clients. So yeah, definitely a big piece of that.

[00:28:16] Jon Penland: Yeah. That, that the white label piece strikes me as uniquely challenging when you get into the human element. So where you have- a part of your service is actually live, so my assumption is that if you have an agency that’s a part of your white label program that WP Buffs support folks are interacting directly with the agency’s customers. 

[00:28:45] And so they become the face of the agency to the agency’s customer in that interaction. Because from the customers, from the end user’s perspective, that support person, it works through the agency from their perspective. And that strikes me as uniquely challenging as managing that human element where the support personnel has to be constantly cognizant of, “What is the agency I’m representing right now”. And I’m just curious, are there things you do internally around training or around process to try and help your support folks, I dunno, better understand the agencies that they’re representing, better understand how to make sure that they represent those agencies well?

[00:29:33] Joe Howard: Yeah, so I have a really good question for some other folks in my team who truly manage that piece of the business. Nick is our COO, Dean, client success, Head of Client Success. Those two really have that piece buttoned up. I’ll tell you that one of the biggest challenges for us… About two years ago was when we hit 15 or so support people, essential people. And it like really changed how 24/7 support worked. It was just one of those transition points. I was like, really tough to figure out, how does this work at like 20 or 30 people? Kinsta’s what, how a 100, 150 people, I don’t know exactly how many but hundreds-ish of people you’ve had these growing pains as well. I’m sure.

[00:30:18] And so that was a big challenge for us, but Nick and Dean have done an excellent job of just not only managing the team but managing like systems around stuff. So we do have certain aspects of how we do support so that if a ticket comes into a certain white label partner’s help desk, if someone goes into manage that ticket or answer that ticket, we have automatic like triggers that come up. So that a note is automatically created based on that white-label partner in the ticketing system, it says, “Hey, this is this white label partner.” Just remember some notes here, as like the style that they like to use; here is it’s this way they will partner just remember they don’t any custom development for this client because they just don’t want to do that when we talk with them.

[00:31:07] We do have some systems in place so that, like triggers, it’s what they’re called, and teamwork desks. So when a ticket comes in (it’s like an if this happens and that happens) if the ticket comes into this help desk, this note is added, and here’s the content of that note. And so stuff like that has been really helpful and just systems around that kind of stuff.

[00:31:27] Also, honestly, just around like hiring the right people and again, huge credit to Nick and Dean and like Nick who’s pretty much, he does all the engineering hires. Like we have monthly stand-ups and I’m like, “Hey, nice to meet you.” Like, two new people. I’ve never met you before, but hey I’d love to chat with you. But Nick has gone through the whole hiring process and very few people have left his team. So he’s done an excellent job, hiring the right people, and honestly, it’s hard to do. It seems like it would be easy to do with 24/7 support because you have the whole world as your place you can hire from.

[00:32:05] But when he has so many candidates coming through to really hire the right people is an enormous challenge, but one he’s been super, super focused on. So yeah, I give a lot of credit to Nick in that area. I wish I had some more specific examples, but those are the ones I know about the rest I just like Nick’s got it. He’s got it.

[00:32:24] Jon Penland: Yeah. It’s funny you- I had a concept of some of the challenges and then you just tossed out there that one of the notes might be, “We don’t do custom development for this client.” And all of a sudden, the complexity just went into a thousand more pieces where I’m sitting here going, not only do you have different clients, but they have a different scope of support per client. Oh my goodness, so the, yeah, that’s a real challenge.

[00:32:45] Joe Howard: We try, we’d really try very hard. One of our biggest strengths is we are highly systemized and we don’t offer a lot of different stuff to different folks. We used to earlier on in the white-label program days where we were a little less picky about people we brought on and we were like, “Oh, you’re gonna pay us money.” Okay. Yeah, come on. You’re good. But now we have sales calls with folks. I think about them more as like educational calls or, we wanna make sure people are a good fit. To me, sales calls, quote-unquote, have turned more into like actually like vetting people on our end because we realized like bad customers, or I don’t even want to call them bad. I want to say clients who aren’t a good fit for us. They’re just going to be lower lifetime value. They’re going to churn faster. We’ve realized this. And so setting those expectations early on is really important. And selecting like the white label partners who are going to work exactly within our scope, because we’ve been doing this for a while. We know what is going to work for us and what works for you. And they don’t fight us on that. Or they say, “Yeah, that sounds good. I want to do it exactly how you’re doing it. Let’s rock and roll, sure come on in.” But someone who’s a little bit like doesn’t quite fit in that and maybe they still want to come on with 20 sites, but they’re just, we know it’s not going to work. Not because we couldn’t tweak things for them, but because tweaking things is going to like mess up our strength and our system, our strength in systems and being able to scale that. And that drips down into being able to like service all of our white-label partners extremely well because they’ve come into our system as opposed to us going into their system. So that’s something we really focus on and it’s actually been a little bit of a struggle in sales because matching those expectations…

[00:34:33] I can’t even imagine in Kinsta how it must be because you guys are huge, like much bigger scale. I’m like, “How do you do that at 150 people?” Even at 30 or 35 people, it’s been like, ah, this is hard to do cross team collaboration, but that’s a big focus. This quarter, it’s a huge focus on sales to operations as expectations setting. And we’ve always been pretty good at it, but if we wanna scale it more, like we have to be exceptional at it. So that’s a big focus.

[00:35:02] Joe Howard: Yeah. What’s funny is I think that Kinsta you know, if you were to ask me, or if you were to ask, our Chief Customer Officer, Tom, we would give almost the exact same answer, right? Like almost the exact same set of challenges, almost the exact same answer. And it’s funny when you said that early on when an agency would approach you, you really would adjust what you would do because this is something you’re trying to get off the ground.

[00:35:26] And we went through those exact same growing pains where early on, really before I joined Kinsta in 2016, Kinsta was really launched in 2014. So when I joined, we already had a significant customer base and revenue and whatnot. But there were folks who had joined early on and when Kinsta was first launched, I would refer to the early days as like a boutique hosting agency where it was like, whatever you want, we will set it up for you.

[00:35:56] And so then we moved forward and eventually we got to the point where we’re like, all right, we’re going to use containers. We’re going to make this thing scalable. And there were some major challenges in moving between those two concepts. So I absolutely can empathize or relate to some of the challenges you all have faced.

[00:36:18] Joe Howard: Yeah, totally. Can I get a quick shout-out to Tom? Because Tom is awesome. I’m sure you know Tom very well, but and I’m not sure I’m saying his last name right Tom Zsomborgi.

[00:36:29] Zsomborgi okay. Yeah. Tom is awesome, I’ve been talking with Tom for a long time. I just searched my email for the first time I had a conversation with Tom and it was March 11, 2017. Tom emailed our team. And honestly, I’ve been emailing with Tom back and forth for the past three and a half years when I have questions or when I wanna pick someone’s brain around stuff. Tom’s been like a really… We don’t talk like  super often, but he’s just someone who I know, if I email, like he’ll email me back and he wants the best for me and I can tell that. And so I just want to give a quick shout out to Tom. He’s an awesome dude. And you’re lucky to have him on your team, man. He’s excellent.

[00:37:03] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah, I appreciate that. And yeah, Tom is strong into partnerships and so yeah, folks like WP Buffs, you guys are at the top of his priority list in terms of taking care of you guys.

[00:37:15] Joe Howard: I love that. I honestly don’t even think about Tom as like a partnership guy ’cause he’s so- it almost is he just wants to help me get better and help us get better. And it’s not, it’s almost not even as much as about the partnership. We’re like, we’re an affiliate for Kinsta, and I know Kinsta sends some customers our way and stuff, but it doesn’t even feel like that. It just feels like this is like a place where we can all get better and let’s try and do that. And I always appreciated that about Tom and honestly about Kinsta in general. You, y’all have been great. It feels like your mission and value structure is very like it’s a cemented in, you know what I mean? And I always felt that come from Kinsta.

[00:37:52] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. I appreciate you saying that we spend a lot of time thinking about missions and value and maintaining a cohesive team. So I appreciate that all. I wanna go back and ask more specifically about your motivations in launching the business. ‘Cause you’ve talked a little bit around the practical reality where you wanted to… you’re doing some freelancing and you saw this opportunity to move into a subscription model, but people start businesses for a lot of different reasons.

[00:38:25] Maybe it’s purely, I need an income. Maybe they’re really passionate about solving a specific problem. Maybe they wanna start a business that enables them to live a certain kind of life. So I’m curious about your motivations, right? Was it purely I need to make a living or were there other reasons that pushed you into entrepreneurship?

[00:38:47] Joe Howard: I never really worked a job for someone else that I enjoyed tremendously. That’s not to say there aren’t places out there I’m sure I wouldn’t have landed and had a good experience. There are a ton of companies. I’m sure if I found a job at Kinsta, I’d have loved it. So there are companies out there for sure. But all the jobs I worked, I was like, I felt like I always got treated like a millennial in the sense that you don’t know anything I’m not gonna put you in charge of anything, go do these things. And it only takes you 10 hours a week, but I’m not going to give you any more work because I don’t… And I don’t think I’m super exceptional anything, but I can hold my own, just give me some stuff to do. I want more responsibility on to do stuff. I always feel like I got treated that way. It’s also probably important to say like some of the work I was doing was Federal Government consulting. I was doing some work at the like Department of Defense.

[00:39:53] And that was like all the decisions just get pushed up to 10 people who make all decisions. And it’s like, why is that person making a decision that about your user experience on the website? Like I know about this, why is that person like making the decision? So I think I just got frustrated in the sense that the jobs I worked in never really enjoyed. And never felt it, it wasn’t even about enjoyment, it was just about like positive impact. It was like, I wanted to do something and I wanted to come into the WordPress space, I knew that. And I think that sense of- I never had- I think that’s what me not enjoying the jobs was a lot about my manager. I’m sure you’ve read these statistics. It’s yeah, the, your manager is so important in like job satisfaction. Does your manager care about you, do they care about your professional development? Do they truly care about you? And I never had much of that before. I was just felt like I was a cog in the wheel.

[00:40:55] Yeah, I always, I felt like I wanted to go in a different direction and, in a sense, be my own boss and be able to, whether I succeeded or failed, have it be because of my decisions. And that was freedom for me. I didn’t want to have my own boss. I didn’t want to commute. Honestly. There was a point where I was driving like 45 minutes each way for my job. And that’s not even like a lot, some people do an hour and a half each way is like crazy. But to me, I was like, no, yeah. That’s I won’t even say any more than that. I was just like, “No, that’s stupid. I don’t wanna commute. Like, why can’t I work from home?” And so I had to started discovering this whole remote world and like in the indie hacker community and like places where like people just did their own thing. And like maybe most of them didn’t become billionaires, but that was never important to me.

[00:41:44] I just wanted it to sure, I’d like to make some money along the way, but what’s more important is to like, be able to support my family and support myself and live a life I like. To do that you don’t need billions of dollars. You don’t need to be that unicorn that does that.

[00:41:57] Yeah, that’s where I started my own thing because I should also probably note that I didn’t have very many life responsibilities back then. And I also do come from a pretty privileged background. And so the risk of starting my own business was very minimal. At the end, I was just starting to date my now wife. You may be able to hear our 14-month-old screaming ’cause he’s hungry in the background a little bit, but then we had just started dating. But that was my relationship responsibilities. I had a girlfriend and I didn’t have any kids. I come from again, a pretty privileged background so the risk financially was like, if something was totally to go wrong, I’d be okay. 

[00:42:41] So I didn’t, the risk of doing it to, for me I was very fortunate. It wasn’t, it didn’t feel like a huge risk. So yeah, it just made sense. And I honestly, I just enjoyed it, like I enjoyed working and tinkering and I got to really enjoy it. Oh, this is there’s a lot of moving pieces and challenges here. And but I can do whatever I want to, I can test whatever I want to, this is fun. So I think that’s what drew me into entrepreneurship. I never had the dream of honestly, like even being here, I never really thought I was going to have a team of 40 people like didn’t really, I didn’t, never was really that thought in my mind. I was really more I want to try something myself and see where it goes. And it looks like it’s gotten here. So who knows where in the future.

[00:43:30] Jon Penland: Yeah. So what I’m hearing is that it was really a desire to have I don’t know maybe captain of your own ship, or just like to have freedom in what you were going to work on and how you lived your life. But the second piece was that it was important to you that you felt like you were making a positive contribution.

[00:43:54] And that is something that WP Buffs has a reputation of within the WordPress Community. Is a company that is a positive force within the WordPress Community. And so I wanted to give you the opportunity to speak a little bit to what are some of the things that WP Buffs does to try to be a force, a positive force in the community, and why is that important to you?

[00:44:20] Joe Howard: Yeah. I’ve started to actually really think more about this over the past, like six months or so, in the past year, maybe. Because we’ve hit this point where we’re one of the bigger companies in the WordPress space. We’re not a big company by any means, but we hit a million dollars annual revenue.

[00:44:39] Probably like of all the companies out there doing WordPress work, like we’re on the larger side. And we are pretty visible in the WordPress space and I’m like, most people have seen WP Buffs around somewhere and that’s pretty strategic. Like I’ve done a lot of work and our teams a lot of work to try and make that the case. But now that is the case, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about like, how do we make sure, not just by chance, but by strategic design that we are putting good out there in the world, and leading by example. And I think now that we have a little bit more financial freedom, we’re at the point now where we can solve a few more problems with money.

[00:45:30] Not everyone, some things are just too expensive for us still ’cause we’re not again a huge company, but there are some things that we can solve problems by just throwing a little money at it. But that also means, from my point of view, if we’re at that point we should be using that money for good as well.

[00:45:48] So, we donate a good percentage of our profits every month to a lot of different do-good organizations, Lawyers for Good Government, as one kind of outside of the WordPress space, yeah sorry I’m getting the name wrong, I think, but this a Small Orange, no, that’s a hosting company.

[00:46:09] It’s WP end up which is like a WordPress organization that does good work in the WordPress space, and so yeah, we try to give a good amount away to organizations just to continue to support the WordPress community. We try to organize more of our team to contribute back to WordPress.

[00:46:31] We’re not quite at fifth or what is it, 5% for the future, we haven’t quite gotten there yet, but at some point, we’d love to be doing that and continuing to support the growth of WordPress itself. Yeah, honestly, we try to, because we’re also so visible, we just try to be a good company and have good values and missions.

[00:46:55] We just updated our mission statement. And for folks who don’t know that maybe hearing our mission will create other people’s missions you wanna do well. Our mission is that we want to create unforgettable experiences and positive impacts for every community that we interact with. And so we’ve got little, like fun Slack emojis for like positive impact and unforgettable experience so when people do that, we can give them credit

[00:47:20] Jon Penland: Nice. I like that.

[00:47:22] Joe Howard: Yeah, yeah. That’s actually been super helpful. So quick tip for folks, make value. We have them for our values too, all our core values so that we can give few folks credit for it. But that’s something we try to, I think that’s one of the biggest impacts that you can have is like when people see one of the bigger companies in the WordPress space, how do they function?

[00:47:42] Are they getting bigger and you know how it is Jon, as companies grow, like some of them become like evil, right? Remember when Google took out, don’t be evil out of there, like terms of service. It’s like, holy crap.

[00:47:56] Good. Yeah. And I actually, honestly, one of the reasons I’ve been admiring admired Kinsta for so long is you continue to grow, but you continue to feel like you haven’t changed at all.

[00:48:07] You are still the company that wants to have a positive impact. That like everybody loves Kinsta and so that’s what I want to strive for as well. So in a sense, I’m trying to follow in your footsteps but that I think is- you don’t see that from a lot of companies and I’m not here saying that we’re perfect at all that, nor would you say Kinsta is perfect or all that either, but you try every day to improve that and that’s something that’s been top of mind for me is just, we want to be a guiding light so that, the 10 other companies that come after us they are expected to do the same because you have to lead by example.

[00:48:42] If it’s not us, who is it? Some of the other big companies out there, the Google we talked about some, get to the size and they just like, money takes them over, but because “Hey, we’re revenue funded. We fund ourselves. We don’t answer to anybody, we have the option to try and be the best company we can from an ethical standpoint, from a do-good standpoint. And I think we have a responsibility to do that because who else is going to do it? So why not? Why not us?

[00:49:09] Jon Penland: Yeah. Yeah. I really love that Slack reactions idea or the emojis that you guys use in Slack. We actually just rewrote our values, within the last six, eight months. And there’s a page that will go live on our website, or may have already gone live on our website by the time this, will have already gone live by the time this podcast airs, where we describe those values and one of the things we’ve been trying to think about is how do we keep them top of mind? And I can already tell you that your Slack emojis idea is gonna to be implemented in our…

[00:49:43] Joe Howard: Thank you – you should totally, please steal that. And I think one of the hardest parts about having a mission and having a value and keeping everybody so focused on that is, how do you keep it top of mind on the day-to-day? Not every two weeks when you do your feedback form or every month when you have your one-on-one with your manager, how are your values going? How do you like get it infectious in the team and how do you build culture around accomplishing those values? And that Slack thing is actually, it’s a small thing, but it’s so helpful.

[00:50:13] Jon Penland: I love it!

[00:50:15] Joe Howard: Pplease steal that. That’s I hope every company using Slack does that. I think it’s a great idea.

[00:50:20] Jon Penland: The whole thing with company values is that they’re meaningless if they don’t impact the way you work. And so you have to keep them top of mind because we meant them when we wrote them and we want them to be thrown in our face when we do something that doesn’t align with those values. So internally, when we make a choice that doesn’t align with those values, we want somebody to point out “This does not align with what you said you’re about”. Does this decision make sense? And if you’re not keeping them top of mind, that’s not gonna happen.

[00:50:53] Joe Howard: And that makes it super easy. Actually, I don’t mean to like totally tension off about this, but I think it’s a great thing to talk about. It makes it very easy for me as a manager to have a conversation with someone who I’m a direct report of mine and say “Hey, we didn’t follow this value” because it’s literally, we make it so that they’re easy to find you just type in colon value or colon mission and all the stuff that comes up.

[00:51:16] And you can say this didn’t totally go exactly how we wanted and then just type in value, like lead by example. Oh, maybe didn’t lead… and that really makes it like, it’s not like I’m not like coming at you. It’s just it’s the value. And we all told ourselves we’re going to follow these values.

[00:51:34] So it actually, I think makes it very easy to have conversations around values, even like more difficult conversations, but also positive conversations around values and mission. And that’s what it’s all about. That gets it over weeks and months and years, you get that ingrained because it’s  “Oh, I know he’s going to reply with like lead by example.”

[00:51:54] Jon Penland: I know it’s coming. Yeah. That’s awesome. That’s awesome. I love it. All right. As we wrap this conversation up, bring it in for a landing, I have two quick wrap-up questions for you. So first off, what is a resource you would recommend to listeners of this podcast? So whether that’s, a newsletter, a blog, or somebody to follow on Twitter or a podcast, whatever, what’s a resource you would recommend to our listeners?

[00:52:23] Joe Howard: This is a broad question. I feel like I have multiple responses, per idea I’m having. Some of our cool WordPress resources from WP Buffs, I would actually say if you want to go check stuff out, WP Buffs, like wpbuffs.com, there’s a bunch of stuff over there, but I think the WPMRR community is really cool, and that podcast, I think, is a, if you’re listening to this podcast and wanna to listen to more WordPress content and you’re like “Joe didn’t totally suck here, maybe I want to listen to him talk a little bit more about topics like this and monthly recurring revenue and growing business, WPMRR WordPress podcast is a great resource for people. I’ve had, we’ve done a hundred what 40 or so episodes at this point. It’s a pretty well-established and every week I find, every week I’m having conversations with people. It’s honestly just like my excuse to have awesome conversations with new people. And it’s every time I get off a call, I’m like “Wow, that was, that must’ve been the best episode I’d done ’cause that was totally enlightening”, so that’s a cool resource for folks.

[00:53:31] I’m also just thinking about general, more general life stuff. I listen to podcasts pretty regularly. I would say if folks were at all interested by some of the more metric stuff we were talking about, or honestly, just some of the like revenue funded like growing your own business, like not having to deal with a man, like I’m going to do my own thing sort of conversations, the Indie Hackers Community and Podcast is a great resource for people. So it’s just indiehackers.com, and I listen to their podcasts pretty religiously because I always, I’m always scrambling for my notebook, like “Oh my God, I gotta write this down, that’s an amazing, just like totally offhanded thing that guy said,” but that is everything, that’s a great podcast.

[00:54:20] And also just like the MicroConf Community. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but MicroConf is like it’s a community and annual summit that I used to go to, not anymore now the COVID is happening. But yeah, we’ll go back to once a that’s live, and that’s excellent, an excellent resource for people if they want to really find a good community of like-minded folks. Not a ton of WordPress people in there, but when I went to MicroComp three years ago, there was like a WordPress meetup, and there were like 25 or 30 people that we all went out to dinner together. And it was hilarious, it was great. It was like “Oh, WordPress let’s go”, that was a lot of fun. So MicroConf and Indie Hackers are two communities that I would definitely urge people to, if you want to be part of this, you gotta be somewhat part of the community. You don’t have to be like the super social person all the time, but you got to get someone involved in community, learn from others, give back to others. Those are great places to do that. Even if they’re not WordPress specific.

[00:55:13] Jon Penland: Sure, okay. Nice. And final question for you. Where can our listeners either connect with you or learn more about WP Buffs?

[00:55:22] Joe Howard: Yeah, I’m on Twitter. So just @ Joseph H. Howard. WP Buffs is just wpbuffs.com, WPMRR, WordPress Monthly Recurring Revenue at wpmrr.com. Yeah, we got a bunch of stuff up, you can find links in the footers to all the other stuff, but those are the places that we talked about today. So if you’re interested at all, feel free to check out sites. I’m on Twitter although I’m not super active, I don’t have any social media installed on my phone. So if you tweeted me, like I’m not going to see it probably for a couple of days, ’cause I’m like pretty bad, like I’m strategically bad at social media so that I don’t have to check it. But I am on there and if you hit me up you know,  if you tweeted me, I’m sure I’ll reply at some point. So I’m there, if you want to find me.

[00:56:11] Jon Penland: Perfect. Joe, thank you so much for taking some time out of your day to hang out with me today.

[00:56:16] Joe Howard: You’re very welcome. And one last thing I would like to say, if you wouldn’t mind? This is a new-ish podcast, so folks should totally go and give a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. It’s not iTunes anymore. I’ve been saying iTunes on my podcasts, giving me a read there, but it’s not it’s Apple podcast that helps the show get found and it helps Jon wanna do more episodes. He’s gonna smile when he sees those reviews. So I just like to give a little review shout-out for folks. It really just takes a couple of minutes. It takes one minute really, like star review, a little comment. Jon’s awesome, Joe’s awesome. Both of you are awesome. Thanks and leave a review and that’s it. So go ahead and do that.

[00:56:55] Joe Penland: Yeah and I appreciate Joe’s recommendation. That is all for today’s podcast. You can access the episode show notes at  kinsta.com/podcast, that’s k-i-n-s-t-a.com/podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to Reverse Engineered. And as Joe suggested, leave us a review on Apple podcasts or the platform you’re listening on right now. See you next time.

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