Earlier last month I had the opportunity to review WP Courseware, as a part of a series of articles covering popular WordPress LMS plugins. I spent hours and hours with the plugin, finding out how it does what it does, exploring every single nook and cranny.
And I wasn’t disappointed. WP Courseware offered what I found out to be a unique take on implementing LMSes on WordPress. And a unique take could only have come from a unique team.
WP Courseware was first conceptualized by Nate Johnson and Ben Arellano, also the founding members of FlyPlugins, the team behind other popular WP extensions like S3 Media Maestro.
Nate was kind enough to oblige me with an interview for WisdmLabs’ blogspace. And I have to admit, it’s been an extremely gratifying experience. He spoke on a variety of topics: WordPress as a community, the emerging LMS niche and its contribution to society, mobile applications and the work ethics that his team follows. And as you’d expect from anyone with a knowledge base as extensive as his, along with considerable experience in the industry, the answers he furnished us with were not just well thought of, but also incredibly insightful.
But don’t take my word for it. Read on to find out his.
WP Courseware is an ambitious project – how was it conceived and where would you want to take it from here?
It has been a complex project requiring a lot of time and resources, but it’s something that Ben and I have been passionate about since the beginning, which was about 3 1/2 years ago. There are so many opportunities to extend the functionality and we’ve been very fortunate to have amazing customers who share use cases and feature requests with us all the time.
But the beginning of the project was quite simple. At the time, Ben and I were involved in a separate business together teaching an online course. We were both actively developing businesses with WordPress and had some great content for our course which we spent hundreds of hours creating, but there were really no WordPress LMS plugins out there so we had to get creative building our course on our own.
That’s when we conceived the idea for WP Courseware, as we realized that there were many online entrepreneurs who also had great content to share but no simple and effective way of structuring it into a marketable training course. We had our first stable version finished around July of 2012 and it’s been evolving ever since.
Our feature request list has hundreds of items on it which we’re always reviewing and working at incorporating, so there are a lot of different areas for growth with the plugin. We’ve tried to focus most of our updates on features which our current customers have requested, as opposed to just thinking about which ones are the most marketable, and I thinks that’s been good for us, our customers, and our prospective customers.
Tell us about the people that Nate Johnson and Ben Arellano are when you take FlyPlugins out of the equation?
When you take the business out of the equation, Ben and I are both family guys. He has three kids and I have two, so we’re both busy dads outside of work with a lot different activities going on. But I think I can speak for both of us that we’re very grateful that the business affords us the flexibility to spend time with our families.
As an entrepreneur, you never truly have a day off where you’re not at least thinking about how to make your business better, but we’re fortunate to be able to balance work and family life.
You and Ben make a great team, as is evident by the success of WP Courseware. What individual roles do each of you play at FlyPlugins?
We do make a great team and I’m incredibly grateful that Ben and I were able to meet through a mastermind group a few years ago and recognized that our complimentary strengths would be an asset. And we’ve gone on to become great friends as well.
Ben is definitely our technical genius. His background is in IT and he’s also done a lot of WordPress development, even writing some of our code. In conjunction with the developers we’ve had, he’s overseen most of the development and testing of our products. He also keeps a close eye on our support desk and support staff.
My background is in finance and accounting and I’ve come in on the ground floor of a couple of startups, so I focus most of my time on running the business side of things and marketing our products.
But as with any small business, we overlap in different areas and I have to say that we wouldn’t be where we are if we didn’t have both of us to sit down and brainstorm new ideas and make decisions together.
The WordPress LMS niche is growing and growing fast; what trends can you foresee taking over the industry in the coming years?
WordPress itself has had a tremendous growth trajectory over the last decade and obviously the evolution of plugins and themes has been driven by what types of sites are using the WordPress CMS and what developers need to meet their project requirements.
With the LMS niche, we were fortunate to be in the space relatively early on. So we’ve been able to assess the various types of applications of an LMS solution for WordPress and for us that generally comes down to three user segments; schools and universities, professional or corporate training/certification sites, and online entrepreneurs who are seeking a way to profit from their content creation.
For us, with WP Courseware stemming from our need to market a training course online, we’ve largely focused on the entrepreneurial segment of the market. You wouldn’t believe how successful some of our clients have been, teaching things like equities trading, blogging, music, CPR, and even tarot card reading. It’s always fun to see who’s using it.
So I think we’ll eventually see more specialization in the LMS solutions for WordPress which address user needs in those three areas because those needs are quite different. One LMS might focus on universities which have high demands for data collection or aggregation and compatibility across different systems. Professional training courses may need more features related to certificates or the ability to require training to be completed on a recurring annual basis. And entrepreneurs obviously want functionality which allows them to market a course, charge for it, and manage subscriptions.
I think this specialization will be good for the WordPress LMS niche and help developers make more informed and efficient decisions on what suits them best.
WordPress accounts for about 25% of the Internet as of 2015. How would you like to see it evolve as a CMS and why?
It’s amazing how much WordPress has grown and I think we can all appreciate the dedication that Matt Mullenweg, the core team, and the contributing developers have had for this project. It’s an incredibly selfless and sharing community, as anyone who has attended a WordPress event would attest, and I think that has been a huge component in its growth.
For me, one direction I would like to see WordPress heading is more customization and better UI options on the admin side. We hear from a lot of developers who end up spending their time on simple recurring tasks for their clients. That takes developers away from larger projects and puts them on small issues which a client could solve on their own with the right admin dashboard or interface.
I know there are some initiatives already taking place which will allow for WordPress to be more customizable and the eventual scope of those changes could have many positive implications, but that flexibility will really help to bolster the number of developers who favor the CMS.
The world is going mobile- apps are taking over virtually everything the digital world has to offer. Do you guys, at FlyPlugins, plan on following suit?
Ben and I have both developed and marketed our own mobile apps in the past and certainly understand the direction that space is going.
But I think there are two main ways to look at what’s going on with mobile app development. You have the stand-alone applications…apps like Instagram or SnapChat, which are mobile-only. Then you have applications which make a browser experience a little easier with a phone or a tablet. This would include apps like Facebook or Expedia, which obviously have to water down the features a bit to make the mobile experience more effective than a browser-based experience.
For us, the feedback we’ve received from our WP Courseware customers indicates that they generally want their students to sit down at a computer and focus on the content without a lot of distractions. We do have clients who want a mobile experience for students so we’ve tried to ensure that WP Courseware functions well on mobile browsers, but we don’t currently have plans to convert the plugin to a mobile app.
What are some of the coding practices that FlyPlugins swears by?
We were very fortunate to find an incredible lead developer right off the bat when we started the project and most of our practices have been driven by his experience and thorough approach to coding.
Adhering to WordPress standards to ensure long-term compatibility with the core code and other plugins or themes comes first. We’ve also tried to make certain that the code is efficient in terms of resources and queries as we have some sites which have over 15,000 students in their databases. Finally, we’ve done our best to create code which is friendly to developers and well-commented. I’m no code expert, but even for me finding things within WP Courseware to modify is simple and I think our process of using clean, efficient, and streamlined code with the least amount of files or external libraries has been a huge help for our customers.
Of all the people and projects that have benefited from WP Courseware, which amongst all of the client stories stand out for you?
We’ve done a few case studies of our clients on our blog. But I would have to say that the ones which stand out the most are those entrepreneurs who have taken their knowledge in a niche topic and created businesses around it. We have several clients who left behind 9 to 5 jobs after creating a full-time income delivering their content with WP Courseware. One of them created a course, launched it earlier this year, and has earned close to $400,000 while she’s been traveling the world and working online.
Those really hit home for me and truly show how the idea of “work” has been transformed by the internet and allowed people to make money doing something they love. And it’s not WP Courseware. It’s these entrepreneurs who realize that they have expertise in something, put in the hard work of content creation, take a risk, and make it happen.
One of my favorite books is The Four-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. While he explores a lot of strategies in the book, I feel that WP Courseware really allows people to make that transition to time and location independence much easier than the effort required to create and ship a physical product.
When I hear some of those stories from our customers, it makes every minute and every dollar invested in the creation of WP Courseware completely worth the sacrifice.
Off the top of the head:
WordPress, in a word, is? Community
PlayStation 4 or Xbox One? Xbox One
A band you could listen to all your life? The Beatles
One future tech you wish to live to see? Landspeeders
Your Halloween costume this year was? Daryl Dixon
Many thanks for your time and the wonderful words, Nate. Here’s wishing you, Ben and the guys over at FlyPlugins the very best in life and career, we look forward to an even better WP Courseware and other great WP extensions in the long run.
And I certainly hope we do get to see Landspeeders in our time here.