Transcript of How to Successfully Run a Business as a WordPress Consultant
John Jantsch: Hello. Welcome to another episode of the Duck Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch and my guest today is Troy Dean. He is, like all of us, an online speaker, coach, consultant, podcaster; but he’s also the founder of WP Elevation, which is the world’s largest business community for WordPress consultants. So Troy, thanks for joining me.
Troy Dean: Hi, John. Thanks for having me on the show. I’m absolutely thrilled and honored to be here.
John Jantsch: So in your bio, you used the words both coach and consultant, and that always peaks my interest. How would you define the difference between those two things?
Troy Dean: Well, the truth is, John, I just haven’t decided which camp I want to have my foot in. So I learned … Many years ago I had a public speaking mentor who said to me, “A coach is someone who facilitates you to swim the laps and win the race, whereas a consultant actually gets in the pool and swims some of the laps for you.” And that’s always kind of stuck with me. I do less consulting these days. In fact, I hardly do any consulting these days. In other words, I don’t actually spend any time on the tours working on client projects. I do a lot of coaching where I help our customers understand the pathway forward, and then they go on implementing and executing. I keep them accountable. I started out as a consultant, where I would literally be under the hood tuning the engine and fixing the things for the clients.
John Jantsch: I think earliest experience tells me those are sometimes different skill sets. I mean, clearly, you’re getting consulting and you learn some tools. I mean, that’s a skill set. But I think even helping people with a consulting hat on and a coaching hat, a lot of times people can do one but they can’t do both.
Troy Dean: Yeah, coaching’s … The thing I learned about … I mean, when I first started out, I desperately wanted to be a coach, and I think for me it was I kind of wanted that two-door, so that kind of status, you know. I realized very quickly that coaching’s very frustrating; and I say this respectfully, most people are completely uncoachable. It’s very difficult and very frustrating coaching people because everyone has blocks. Everyone has some reason why they can’t execute, or they can’t implement. Maybe it’s fear of shipping or maybe it’s fear of something new in the marketplace. So these days I’m very, very selective about the coaching clients I work with on a sort of one-on-one or a very close basis. Most of my work is done on a leverage basis where we coach a community online. So it’s kind of all care and no responsibility, if I can use that term. We do our best to facilitate them, but at the end of the day they have to get in the pool and swim the laps, if they want to win.
John Jantsch: I think I ended up falling into the other side, and it’s certainly not as scalable, but I want to see people get results. So a lot of times I just found myself saying, “Oh, just give me that. I’ll do it for you.”
Troy Dean: Yeah, yeah.
John Jantsch: And I think that you have to be prepared to choose your clients wisely there as well.
Troy Dean: Yeah, totally.
John Jantsch: So tell me about … Well, let me just ask you first to give us the high level. What is WP Elevation?
Troy Dean: So WP Elevation is an online business coaching program and community specifically for WordPress consultants. We call them WordPress consultants. So it comprises of a six-week course that our students go through to basically learn basic practices about running a business as a WordPress consultant. Most of our students start out as freelancers. They might be working from home or working from a small co-working space, and they really want to mature and grow up into a real business. And that’s the journey that we take them on. And then once they graduate from their course, they’re part of our online community, which is a really healthy, strong community of WordPress consultants from all over the world helping each other. We roll out fresh content and webinizing coaching calls throughout the year. And occasionally, we run live events. We’ll get together and kind of geek out about how cool WordPress is, and how cool it is being a business owner, and how frustrating it is. We share our success stories and our challenges with each other. It’s grown into something that … I pinch myself every day. This little idea that I had over four and a half years ago has just grown into something beyond me, and it’s a truly remarkable thing now, and I feel very blessed that I get to be a part of it.
John Jantsch: Well, let’s talk about … I’m going to come back to that community idea, but let’s talk about WordPress for a minute. I had the good fortune, I think it was about 2006, the folks at Automatic actually said, “You should be on WordPress.” They migrated me there, so I’ve been on WordPress twelve years-ish, which is, really, for a technology, it’s continued to grow, it’s continued to mature. It’s certainly the majority player. But one thing we know about online is all things change and evolve. In your view, is WordPress still undeniably the best tool or are some people and frameworks catching up to the point where it might actually be something to keep tabs on?
Troy Dean: Well, it’s a good question and, I’m going to give you one of those really sucky answers, John. It kind of depends. It depends on your objective. Is it the quickest and easiest tool to get a minimum model product out the door and get some kind of product market elevation. No, it’s not. You can use something like Squarespace or Wix to get an amazing website done very, very quickly, and very cheaply, and prove a concept.
The thing I love about WordPress is its flexibility, and it’s customizable. The real power in WordPress came when they released the plug-in architecture, which basically allowed other developers to write little pieces of software that extends the functionality of WordPress. They call them plug-ins. When I discovered WordPress back in 2007, the first thing that happened is I discovered the plug-in repository, which is this free repository at wordpress.org, which has now over 30,000 plug-ins that you can download and include in your website for free. Most of them are usually very well supported by developers who do this because they’re passionate about it, but they also do it because it’s good positioning for them to be contributing to the project, and that helps raise their profile.
The other thing that WordPress has got that I think some of the other competitors just cannot match is the sense of community. WordPress is an open source project that was started by Matt Mullenweg leaving a comment on a blog. Mike Little in the UK then responded to that comment and they, on opposite sides of the planet, started collaborating on this piece of software. And that’s really the spirit of WordPress is this open source collaboration by people volunteering their time. And it’s really, and that community’s been around for a long time now, and that’s a really hard thing to penetrate or to try to compete with. So I think there are other tools that serve other purposes, but I think WordPress is going to be here for a long time, just purely because of its flexibility and what you can do with it.
John Jantsch: So I don’t want to go too far down the technical rabbit hole here with hooks, as I want to get back to the consulting and the community, but there’s some big changes coming to WordPress architecture that may impact this very thing you just spoke about. Is that something that you are following?
Troy Dean: Not really. Are you referring to Gutenberg?
John Jantsch: Yes.
John Jantsch: Is that Ruby?
So I don’t think … I mean I’ve got a great tech team. They’re some very smart people that contribute to the project. I don’t think there’s any technical hurdle that they won’t be able to overcome, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what WordPress looks like in three years time because I think it will be very different to what it is now. I mean they bought WordCommerce a little while ago and I think it’s only, I mean, I think they’ve probably got Shopify in their sights; and it’s only a matter of time before they really put their foot on the pedal there, so it’s going to be interesting to see how it unfolds.
John Jantsch: I think there will be a lot of whining from the plug-in community, because I think they’re going to have to rewrite a lot of code is what I understand.
Troy Dean: Yeah, that’s a good thing, John.
John Jantsch: Yeah, that’s right.
Troy Dean: We have plug-ins. We’re going to have to rewrite ours, and that’s a good thing. It keeps us on our toes.
John Jantsch: Well, and we’ll have some links to some coverage of this Gutenberg idea that we rounded up for you. So what does a WordPress consultant look like? If I’m a small business owner, and many small business owners are listeners, what would a WordPress consultant look like and would that differ from somebody that just says, “Hey, I can do WordPress, and I can do, you know, I’m on Upwork, and I can do this and I can do that?”
Troy Dean: Yeah. It’s a good question. So the way that we define a WordPress consultant is a WordPress consultant is someone who sits between the client and the technology. They may or may not be actually using the technology and coding. They may gave a team that’s doing that for them, but they sit between the client and the technology. They really design solutions for the client, and WordPress is at the core of those solutions that they design. So they may be using HubSpot as a [inaudible 00:11:54] or they may be using MailChimp or Infusionsoft, and they might be using other tools. They might be using Shopify. They might be using other tools to serve other parts of the business, but WordPress is the hub and the core of the technology solutions that they provide. So typically speaking, the fundamental difference between a WordPress consultant and a WordPress developer that you can hire, and that work is, our guys will walk into a small business and start asking lots of questions, rather than just taking a brief and saying, “Okay, this is the functionality you need. I’ll scope it out. I’ll tell you how much the code’s going to cost.”
They start asking questions and they start uncovering … You know, they do deep dive discovery sessions and they start uncovering the truth in the business and really what’s going on, and they help design business outcomes rather than technology solutions. WordPress just happens to be at the core of those solutions, but they are looking to add as much value to that business owner as possible rather than just being a coder for hire.
John Jantsch: Yeah, and I think that you just … My next question was going to be what to look for in a good WordPress consultant. I think you just answered it really. They should be asking you about your business objectives and growth objectives and, if they are not starting there, then you probably are looking in the wrong place.
Troy Dean: Well, you know, one of the things that happened when I first started out, I was building a bunch of websites for friends in the film industry here in Melbourne. I was just coming up against the same conclusion. I build these websites. I hand them over. And then not much would happen, and the client who was my friend would be disappointed. This happened enough times to me to say there’s something broken with this model.
What was happening was that my friends were coming to me saying, “I need this, I need this, I need this.” I was building it using plug-ins, a bit of code. Eventually, I started asking one of my friends, I said, “Why do you need that? Tell me what you’re actually trying to achieve.” And again, my public speaking mentor, Toby, taught me this framework to ask why lots of times in a very strategic way to take a meaningful brief from a customer. And when I started asking why, the solutions that I was delivering started to change dramatically.
They were asking for this plug-in and this functionality because they thought that’s what they needed. They don’t actually know what they need. That’s why they’re hiring us as consultants to solve their problem. They know the outcome that they want, but they’re not exactly sure the best path to get there. If they were, then they’d be in the business of being a technology consultant, but they’re not. They’re in the business of running a production studio. They just want more clients to come in the door or they want their Instagram feed to look credible or they want their Facebook page to be a healthy community. Whatever the outcome is, our job is to design the solution for them and the client really shouldn’t be dictating the technology to us. If they are, then we’ve got the balance wrong in that relationship. So when I started asking why, my business fundamentally changed. The impact I was having with my clients fundamental changed, and that was a real turning point for me in my journey.
John Jantsch: Yeah, and you really can’t design a website in a vacuum. Today, the structure of a site is going to be very dictated by the intent of your customer journey, by the keyword phrases that you need, and all that really has to be done as a strategy in a lot ways. Of course, designers cringe when I say this, in a lot of ways the design’s just sort of icing after you build the foundation.
Troy Dean: Correct. It is, and some of us do cringe. I still cringe when I say it. But it’s true. There’s many case studies you can see online. You can see these horrible ugly websites that convert really well. Now, having said that, I think as I’ve matured as an entrepreneur and as a business owner, the one thing I think that we’ve got apart from our sense of community, the one thing I think that we’ve got that is differential or makes it really hard for our competitors to get near us, is our brand.
I think brand becomes more important as you mature as a business, but if you need conversions, you need tracking, you need leads, you need customers. Then, sure, having a good brand is good, but don’t do that at the expense of having a great customer journey, having the right keywords to attract the right traffic, and having this really beautiful experience. You know, Ryan Dice calls it the theme park experience where the website is like a theme park, and on the way out you show them through the gift shop, and you ask them to buy some souvenirs, you know. And he tries to design online experiences like that where it’s a really beautiful experience for the customer, and by the way, you can buy some merch on the way out.
John Jantsch: Yeah, that’s beautiful. So WordPress has always been, in the early days not so much as much today because it’s so large, but it’s always been about community. The WordPress guys would put stickers on their computers before anybody else did that and there’s a WordCamp ecosystem, and so it’s always kind of been that, and I think you tapped that a little bit with your specific brand of WordPress at WP Elevation. You want to talk about that?
Troy Dean: Yeah, so community took me a long time to get my head around, what community meant; and frankly, because when I started out, I was a scared, little, intimidated freelancer who would go to these events. I’ve talked about this publicly. I would go to these events and I would go to the first session, and then I’d run back to the hotel room and manage my anxiety, and then slowly creep back out into the conference. Over a period of a couple of years, and I was speaking at some of these conferences. I would speak and come off stage, and there’d be a bunch of people wanting to say good day and have their photo taken and ask questions, and it would just freak me out. So I found it very difficult to assimilate into the community for a few years because I was intimidated by it.
As I kind of found strength and got more comfortable in my own skin, then I realized that, again, a real differentiator and a way of protecting our business from competitors is to build a community. So we’re very active now in helping our students get to know each other. It’s reflected in our core values. It’s reflected in the way that we handle our support tickets. It’s reflected in the decisions we make.
I can tell you one of our members, who’s on a payment plan with us at the moment, emailed us recently and said, “Look I’m getting married and I need to save some money for my wedding. Is it possible to pause my membership for three months?” Now we don’t normally pause memberships for three months and then let people pick up, that’s not our business model; but Jean, who’s our customer happiness manager, she said … She didn’t even have to consult anyone on the team, she just knew straightaway. She said, “No problem.” Like you’re getting married, totally, we’re here to help. She put some reminders in the calendar to pick up the conversation with Scotty once he’s been married to resume his payments.
But they’re the kinds of decisions that we make because we treat our clients … One of our core values is treat each other like family, and that includes our colleagues, our work mates, and all of our customers, and all of our clients. We feel like, without drinking the kool-aid too much, we do feel like we are one big happy family. I know that from the outside a lot of people have actually said, “Oh, WP Elevation’s a bit of a cult.” And some people might think that’s a bad thing, but as a business owner and a marketer and someone who’s worked really hard to build this sense of community, I actually take that as a compliment because it means we’re doing something right.
John Jantsch: Would you say there is a niche element to your community at all? In other words, are they in certain industries, certain mindsets, is there any way that you could kind of define what the cohesiveness is?
Troy Dean: Well, I think a passion and a love for WordPress is first and foremost. I mean we just love what this piece of technology allows us to do. But also, I mean, it is reflected in our client avatars. Usually our members and our students, and I say this respectfully, and I know they’ll agree with me when I say this, is we all feel a little bit like a misfit. We all feel like we’re a little bit quirky, we’re a little bit …. You know, most of us work from home. Now that tells you something, John, right? If you work from home, it’s usually because you don’t want to hang around a lot of other people in a corporate work space because other people tend to freak you out a bit. So a lot of us work from home. A lot of us are a little bit nervous.
A lot of us are a little bit, kind of, you know, very eager and enthusiastic to build our own business. We have families to support. We have dreams and goals that we want to achieve, and so having our own business is very important to us, but we don’t really know how to do it. Most of us haven’t been to business college or business school. Most of us don’t come from corporate. Most of us come from kind of freelancing or some kind of artistic endeavor. There’s a lot of photographers and [inaudible 00:20:29] in our community. So we feel isolated, and a lot of the times we feel alone, and we just need to know that we’ve got a bit of support from some colleagues who we can lean on when we either need a technical question answered about how to do this on a particular project or we’re having a meltdown because a client’s driving us up the wall and we just need to vent and we need to have a good cry and we need a shoulder to lean on and that happens a lot in our community you know.
Jean’s forever for sending flowers to people on the other side of the planet and cheer them up because they’ve had a rough day. So I think it’s a soft skill. You take that business plan to a bank, you’ll never get a loan. It’s a hard thing to quantify. It’s a hard thing to measure the return on investment, but what we do know is that our course completion rates and our retention rates are sky high compared to industry averages, and that’s because we genuinely care about making sure the people in our program get to know each other and form meaningful friendships and meaningful relationships.
John Jantsch: Troy, tell people where they can find out more about you and WP Elevation and if there’s any other … I know you have a diverse set of projects that you work on. Anything else that you want to share with us?
Troy Dean: Sure. Well, best to get hold of me on Twitter @troydean and WP Elevation, of course, is at wpelevation.com. We have a blog over there. We have a podcast. We’ve also just launched a new YouTube show this year called Silence is Golden, which is a lot of fund where we talk about all things at WordPress and we try to have a bit of a laugh in the process. So you can get all of that over at wpelevation.com, and that’s the best place to get all that content.
John Jantsch: Awesome. Troy, thanks for joining us; and hopefully, we’ll see you out there on the road. I know you spin around the globe a little bit, too.
Troy Dean: Thanks for having me, John. I’ll look forward to crossing paths one day.