Cody Landefeld & Mode Effect

Cody Landefeld is the co-founder and director of Mode Effect, a company that specializes in WooCommerce. In this episode we talk about how he and his company built those Disney quizzes that are so addicting. On top of that, we discuss working with Enterprise level clients like Disney and of course, e-commerce. This episode kicks off a 5 episode set of e-commerce-based episodes!

Show Notes

This is Episode # 64, the first episode of Season 4.

Sponsored by:

Transcript:

Joe: Hey everybody and welcome to Season Four of How I Built It. I’m so excited to get this season underway after taking a few weeks off. We have some amazing guests queued up for this season. We talk about some really cool topics. Our sponsors are amazing. It’s just going to be a great season. It’s also broken up a little bit differently, where we talk for part of the season about the developer stuff that we usually talk about and then there’s also going to be a part of the season where we talk about building your business and different aspects of that. I have some really great guests for that. I’m really excited to roll that out. But today, my guest is Cody Landefeld of Mode Effect. We’re going to talk about how he and his company built those Disney quizzes that are oh so addicting. Saw him tweeting about them and I thought, well I need to talk to him about that. So we talk about that and working with Enterprise level clients like Disney and of course e-commerce because e-commerce is really their wheelhouse over there at Mode Effect.

 

So before we get into the interview, I want to tell you about our amazing season long sponsors and then we’ll jump right into it.

Sponsors: This season of How I Built It is brought to you by two fantastic sponsors. The first is Liquid Web. If you’re running a membership site, an online course, or even a real estate site on WordPress, you’ve likely already discovered many hosts that have optimized their platforms for a logged-out experience, where they cache everything. Sites on their hardware are great for your sales and landing pages, but struggle when your users start logging in. At that point, your site is as slow as if you were $3 hosting. Liquid Web built their managed WordPress platform optimized for sites that want speed and performance, regardless of whether a customer is logged in or logged out. Trust me on this, I’ve tried it out and it’s fast; seriously fast.

Now, with their single site plan, Liquid Web is a no-brainer for anyone whose site is actually part of their business, and not just a site promoting their business. Check out the rest of the features on their platform by visiting them at buildpodcast.net/liquid web. That’s buildpodcast.net/liquid.
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Show: Hey everybody; welcome to another episode of How I Built It. The podcast that asks, how did you build that? Today, my guest is Cody Landefeld of Mode Effect. Cody, how are you today?
Cody: I’m doing fantastic, Joseph. How are you?
Joe: I am wonderful. As we record this, it’s a very cool August day here on the East Coast after horrible heat so I’m very happy right now.
You are out in Arizona. I assume it’s just horrible heat most of the time there.
Cody: It’s always a dry heat though. So I can’t complain too much.
Joe: Yeah that’s right. Here it’s like a humid, oppressive heat that then has to be followed by terrible rainstorms.
Cody: Yeah, can’t relate.

 

Joe: Well that’s good. So today, I saw you tweeting about this and I had to talk to you about it because I take these, you guys at Mode Effect recently did a Disney quiz engine for Disney, is that right?

 

Cody: Yes, that’s correct.

 

Joe: That’s awesome. So I take those quizzes regularly and I’m happy to talk to the people behind it so, maybe first you could tell us a little bit about who you are and what you guys do and then we can get into this specific project. Sound good?

 

Cody: Yeah, sounds great and yeah, so Cody Landefeld, co-founder of Mode Effect. We have been an agency for this is our seventh year. We primarily work on mission critical WordPress sites and e-commerce sites. We really help with business owners, helping to scale their WooCommerce site or e-commerce site and utilizing WordPress, so that’s pretty much in a nutshell what we do.

 

Joe: Gotcha. That’s since your inception at least, seven years ago has always been kind of a, not a controversy, but it’s been a sticking point, right? Like can WordPress scale, is it ready for enterprise, mission critical websites? And you’ve built a business around this so I’m going to say yes. What are some of the things you do, generally speaking, to kind a help combat that mindset?

 

Cody: Yeah, that’s a good question. Ideally, we don’t want to entertain anybody that needs to be convinced, right? We don’t want to get on a conversation that somebody’s trying to figure out if they need what they provide. Hopefully it’s always a conversation with somebody who actually needs the service that we provide and values that. So yeah, I mean obviously like you said, there’s so many businesses and so many used cases where there’s an opportunity in a just a liking towards WordPress to see that as the best possible vehicle to scale whatever they’re trying to do, whether it’s e-commerce store, or a large scale publishing site, there’s a lot of lessons we’ve learned and a lot of solutions we’ve put in place to be able to really help WordPress scale in both those cases.

 

Joe: That’s a really great point. I really like what you said. We don’t want anybody that needs to be convinced because that’s … I liken it to, a lot of people are like, what do you think about people using Squarespace or Wix instead of WordPress and I say, if that works for them, that’s fine. They don’t see the value in hiring me to do a WordPress site. It’s kind of the same thing as letting your kids make their own mistakes, right? You could be like, hey don’t do that. But they’re not going to know until they do it that they shouldn’t have done it before. I kind of think of those as the same thing. They’re not going to see the value in what you’re doing until they know they need that value.

 

Cody: Yeah, that always comes up with those entry level software. Even at WordPress.com you get people who are weighing the value of going with such an easy out of the box solution and it’s just clear it’s like yeah, you’re probably just not ready for realizing that and it’s the same in the e-commerce space. I just got back from an e-commerce conference in Austin, Texas and the whole room was Shopify or die. Everybody was like, I can’t even understand why’d you use WooCommerce because they just don’t realize that there’s such an aversion to technology and then you get in conversations with other people and they’re fully convinced that they’re just going to save tons of money and do so many key things only using WooCommerce. So same thing.

 

Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Not to belabor this point because I do want to talk about the Disney quiz, but I had a very similar conversation with somebody recently where I have a Patreon for this show. Somebody asked why I wasn’t using Give WP. It’s kind of the same thing. You understand what you need. I’m not ready to spend the time and infrastructure to set up a Give WP account. I am very willing to give five percent of the nobody who’s pledging to my podcast on Patreon. When I get to a point where I have the audience I want, I’ll probably move to Give WP, but it’s the person you’re providing the service for needs to be ready for it. You can’t just be like, never use Shopify or never use WooCommerce. That’s how you turn people off.

 

Cool. Let’s get into this Disney quiz engine. Maybe we can talk as much as you can, considering the client confidentiality stuff. How this project came about and how you guys ended up doing the project.

 

Cody: I appreciate that concern. It’s tricky when you work with those types of clients that are in that very unique group. In this case specifically, it’s been a while and it was interestingly enough this was a one off opportunity so we really weren’t bound to any particular gag order. We’ve done multiple projects for other groups at Disney since then and we can’t obviously those aren’t on our portfolio so yeah, absolutely.

 

So the way this opportunity came about was I have a good friend who goes by the name of Jason Tucker. He does the WPwatercooler. Quick shout out to water cooler.

 

Joe: I’ll add it in the show notes.

 

Cody: Oh yeah, there we go. So he somehow, somebody had gotten ahold of him and he was had just taken a full time job and just knew that he didn’t have the time and he passed it off to us, luckily. This person got in touch with us and we started talking and we were able to convince them to give us a chance to build the site. That’s kind of how it came about and we were able to have some discussions and we started working on the project.

 

Joe: Nice, very nice. So maybe you can explain the project a little bit, as far as what exactly it is for those of us who don’t obsessively take Disney quizzes. Kind of what the spec was like as you started to build it. Did you do any research to figure out what the best process for this was?

 

Cody: Yeah so just everybody knows and Joe obviously understands, there are two types of people in this world. One, who take Disney quizzes and two, that do not. That’s how you separate people in society.

 

The research that went into this, there was actually a request that originally went out. They were very much a fan of how Buzzfeed set up their quizzes. This has gone back probably about four years. At the time, I don’t think it was super saturated with quizzes all over the internet. So Buzzfeed for some reason was seen as a trendsetter there. So it originally came through the request was like, we want a Buzzfeed type quiz for Disney. So we kind of got started and we started looking around obviously to what existing solutions that were in the plug in repository and just seeing what existed and we actually found that there was a pretty decent plug in out there that is now defunct that we used and I’ll confess to everybody, we took that out of date plug in and we forked it.

 

Joe: Nice.

 

Cody: Sprinkle in a little controversy for ya.

 

Joe: Well that’s the beauty of open source. That’s like, why reinvent the wheel? You found a good thing and you forked it and you updated it a little bit, right?

 

Well I want to ask what it is but maybe I can ask off the record if we don’t want to …

 

Cody: You know to be honest, I don’t even remember the name of the plug in.

 

Joe: Nice. Okay so this is a WordPress site. We’re using a forked version of a quizzing plug in that you guys found. They wanted it to be like Buzzfeed quizzes. To get the kind of format, and I’ll link to a couple of my favorite quizzes in the show notes, too, but it’s basically like what Disney sidekick are you? Is probably one of them and then it asks you a series of questions and then it comes up with the result.

 

Cody: Yeah, pretty much.

 

Joe: Gotcha. So at face value, this is probably that anyway halfway decent coder can cobble together, right? But you’re doing it for Disney and then there are some things that you need to consider, right? The fact that there are probably hundreds of thousands of people everyday taking these quizzes. So what were some of the unique considerations you had to make?

 

Cody: That’s a good question. There were number of requests that needed to be built into the system that didn’t currently exist within the plug in. What we found is it was a decent framework to just take that plug in and build on top of it, but there was a request for an initial portion in the quiz to be in there obviously, like some type of an advertisement and then also, some type of custom analytics piece so that they could easily pull out the statistics. So like you said thousands upon thousands of people take these quizzes every single day and they wanted to somehow uniformly pull these statistics out of the dashboard, so we had to build in a piece specifically for that as well.

 

At the end of the day there was a lot of rigorous back and forth to make sure that it is indeed a scalable option because what ended up happening with this particular solution we built, if you look around, it pretty much lives on every single blog post or blog site out there. Even on the Star Wars blog. That’s probably what I’m most excited about being a Star Wars fan.

 

Joe: That’s awesome. Working a Crowd Favorite I used to do a lot of Disney work. I think they put me on the Disney work because I’m such a Disney fan, which I’m deeply appreciative of. So while I was there, there were several different hosting and caching options and things like that. I know, so again, I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say but I’m sure you probably know better what you can say. What kind of hardware set up was taken into consideration to make it scalable because the software guys will always say, well let’s throw more hardware at it. The hardware guys will be like, well you need to optimize your code. It’s generally some sort of balance, right?

 

Cody: Yeah. In this case, the group we were working with didn’t really have deep technical understanding of everything so we kind of led that charge so it never really came up that it was certain technical specifications. Now that’s obviously changed with different groups we’ve worked with in Disney, but in this particular case, it didn’t even come up.

 

Joe: Nice. Why don’t we get into kind of the how you built it. We talked a little bit about as plug-in and some of the custom analytics which I’m very curious to dig deeper into, as much as you can because that is a data and reporting is the relative new hotness, right? We want to know everything about everything. But it’s also difficult to do right, I think. So maybe we can talk about what are some of the tools and methods you used but also this custom analytics part and kind of how it relates back to e-commerce stuff, right? Which is how we kind of started off.

 

Cody: So in this case, Disney had given us the specification on what they exactly wanted to have the data be pulled out by. In this first particular case, building this first version of the quiz, it was so limited. It was very much limited to a CSV download that was a visualization piece on the WordPress dashboard. So basically you just had certain types of results that came out based on whatever somebody picked. I would say we actually got a chance to go and improve upon this model for a different group and what was interesting was the quiz actually was intended for different business groups all throughout different Disney parks. We were able to build some more complex analytics pieces and some visualization within the WordPress dashboard.

 

I feel a little bit high level on the technical understanding because I myself am not an engineer or a developer so the developer on our side, I found feeling a little bummed I didn’t invite him to kind of speak into this but a lot of it just came down to again, that CSV analytics reveal obviously for which answer was the most popular in its first version. Then eventually it became something where they had such granular data which was saying which particular business unit responded to a request and then actually what type of roll they had so they were able to have data such so granular as to what particular groups or what particular departments and different roles inside of those departments liked certain answers in these quizzes. They had a really, really big set of data that they had accessible with the second and third versions of that quiz.

 

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Nice, that’s awesome. So maybe we can talk about then: I’m really interested in the requirements aspect of this, too. Because putting a quiz together, I guess how would you put a quiz together on the back end because you have these Facebook applications that you just click on and it’s totally random. I got what Game of Thrones character are you most like? It just compared my picture and said I was Little Finger, which is preposterous. Then you have these kind of smarter quizzes that take your answers and match you up with a possible best answer but what does that kind of look like on the back end?

 

Cody: Yeah, so obviously if memory serves, it’s been a little while since I looked at it and I should’ve looked at it again. It was definitely all put together in some type of what is that, like a conditional, some type of a conditional format. If this gets answered then obviously these two particular answers become available. So basically just a lot of the bulk of the work was just putting together all of those particular answers or what particular answers could be based on somebody’s previous answer and along with that, there was the addition of the interstitial where there had to be room to plan for what type of ad or what type of information would go in there as well. If memory serves, I believe that we even built an add on for Gravity Forms to be involved with this because eventually there was a form element that really needed to be involved with the feedback piece, specifically with second and third versions of this so we actually built in that and that’s where some of the conditional pieces got a lot more complex as well.

 

Joe: Nice. So that’s actually a really good segue into a question I always ask which is, has the product gone through any transformation? We talked about a few, right? We’ve talked about the CSV moving to its possibly more visual or more deeper data. Then this add on for Gravity Forms. Something I’ve noticed when dealing with larger enterprises is you have a spec or a list of requirements then as you get closer to the end, you build something out. I’ve seen a lot of, “Oh, well does it do this? It has to do this.” Maybe we can talk about something like the transformations even during the first build, later features, and then how do you as the president, the business facing guy, how do you manage your requests like that?

 

Cody: So I take the first version of the requirements, I print it out and I just throw it in the wastebasket. The good thing is, in most cases in a specifically, we’ve been very fortunate to work with the folks that we worked with over there in the different departments. With this particular first version of the quiz, it was so basic in the sense that they were just very clear on the Buzzfeed functionality. It was on us to really come up with the requirements on the fly. Which was surprising, you always expect that a bigger agency or a bigger huge company’s going to come through the door with very clear requirements. But in this case, they really lean heavily on us to be able to put together the requirements or the know-how and how to build this.

 

That changed with the second and third versions because we had more technical groups coming through the door saying, these are the specific specs we have for this on top of what this does, and then that also went in the way of talking about inclusion of how the analytics piece would work and then also, some of the conditional information as well. In my role, as a business owner, I think it’s always having a good process about having a discussion with the engineering or development team and making sure that there are good questions and inviting them to call us, because with a smaller company like Mode Effect, we really just … with time always up against us, just everybody seems to be in a hurry at all times. We want to be as efficient as possible with having those conversations, so we’ll invite team members to look at the requirements and then attend a next call to ask better questions and then come away with a game plan hopefully in that third attempt there.

 

Joe: Nice. That’s important; as a developer, I was always reluctant to attend superfluous meetings. Meetings where I feel I didn’t need to go, but when you’re eliciting requirements, especially when you have loose requirements, it’s really important that some developer who can communicate is in on those meetings. Because essentially they’re going to be the ones building out or if they’re not building it themselves, they’re going to be the ones who are communicating the technical aspect to the team, right?

 

Cody: Oh yeah. It’s just … it’s all over the place. There’s never a really consistent scenario where somebody is always tech savvy enough to be able to spit out the requirements where you can just take it and build. At the end of the day, we’re trying to save risk on both sides. We’re trying to save risk for our clients to not be super expensive and make it a long and awful process and on our side, we’re a business. We’re in business to make a profit and be efficient on our side. So that’s, yeah that’s definitely where we want to step in and do a better job there.

 

Joe: Yeah, absolutely and I mean, when you’re dealing with larger budgets, smaller budgets, whatever. When there’s a specific number in mind, you’d be pretty hard pressed as a freelancer, I should say, it’s always been very hard for people to go back to the client and say, hey this is going to cost more than we thought it would.

 

And you get that with bigger companies maybe even more because there are people who are looking over their books more strictly and things like that. Managing expectations and costs and things are kind of the unseen side of software development. On this show we talk a lot about the technical stuff, but things like that especially with larger clients are big considerations for projects.

 

Cody: Oh yeah. I see the same all the time. It’s definitely budget is … I always consider that it’s like the light to the path. For me I don’t feel very uncomfortable with that because I feel like there’s an opportunity to educate somebody on how far their budget can take them and give them good feedback as to what the budget will allow them to do and then if anything it’s a good step in the right direction to be able to get them to trust you if they can trust you to take what does not fit into their budget and then use that as an opportunity to work together again in the future.

 

Joe: That is so important. The trust aspect of it is … you’re entering into a relationship with somebody, you know? I know it’s … I almost equate it to being married or dating somebody. You need to … you’re putting certain vulnerabilities out there. Money is involved and you need to be able to trust each other and if you don’t, you’re going to have a bad relationship. It’s not going to go well.

 

Cody: Absolutely.

 

Joe: Cool. So this has been great. We are coming up on kind of the half hour mark but I do want to ask, so you mentioned that this was kind of a one-off project you iterated on it a little bit. So for these last couple of questions at least, we can talk about Mode Effect, just generally. Maybe we could talk a little bit about the projects you do but what are your plans for the future as WooCommerce becomes more popular as it gets easier to put e-commerce websites online and things like that?

 

Cody: Yeah our mission is to help store owners that are bootstrapped, that are looking to really take their business to the next level. To have a business that exists and utilize the technology in WooCommerce or solution within WooCommerce to really bring a lot of extra money to their bottom line, I mean extra profit and revenue. I think that’s the beauty of the platform. I feel like there’s a lot of business owners that get to a certain level where they’re pretty overwhelmed if they don’t have a technical in-house resource or they do, in both cases, they can always benefit from someone who’s very expert focused on WooCommerce and its interworkings and challenges to be able to come in from an outside perspective and be able to really help them relate a solution to an exact dollar amount on their bottom line.

 

Joe: Nice, I love that. It makes sense because I am a technical person. I’ve been doing web development since 2001 maybe, and I just recently got into the product space so I’m running an e-commerce store. I’m using WooCommerce and I’m savvy and I’m still not … I’m definitely not doing things efficiently. I’m learning along the way, I know how to learn.

 

So what are some of the common pitfalls that you see for kind of people running their own WooCommerce shop?

 

Cody: A lot of the same of what you’re saying. I think that it’s really a challenge, the expectation we set and the open source world about getting started so fast with WordPress. It’s great because you kind of think of it of a small, medium, large or big, better, best or yeah, good, better, best. You think of somebody starting out a blog. You kind of think that they’re probably going to utilize less plug ins, less tools, it’s simpler. It’s a simpler site. Take the next step. Marketing site. You’ve got probably more things. A bigger site than just somebody using a blog. It’s more things are going to happen on a marketing site. Escalate that even a level further, maybe two levels further to an e-commerce store.

 

Some are slapping in not only WordPress and its plug-ins but now we’re slapping in WordPress or rather WooCommerce and all of its necessary extensions. Then other plug-ins. Before you know it, your site is running like a snail in almost hardened mud. It just becomes … I think that again, there’s a better separation of somebody who is on that level of an online store as opposed to somebody who is just running a simple blog where they really don’t need … they probably got away with building something quickly but somebody with a very specific WooCommerce store and has to do these certain things the caveat is that a lot of the plug ins cause database bloat and they need to figure out how to get speed because coincidentally you need that speed in order to make the money. People are just going to hop off the website if it takes half a second to load your product.

 

Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Those are some of the most telling stats to me. 80% of people will abandon a website if it takes five seconds or more to load and stuff like that. On an e-commerce site, that is money. If someone’s not even loading your site, you don’t even have the chance to sell them something, you are losing money. Just as you were talking, I looked up stats between my personal blog, which is halfway between a blog and a marketing site, and my e-commerce site I have 16 active plug ins on Casabona.org which is my blog. I’ve got 41 active plug ins on my e-commerce site.

 

Cody: Oof.

 

Joe: Yeah it’s a lot and I was thinking, how can I trim that down, right? Beause I’ve got WooCommerce and LearnDash. Now that’s a mistake that I made. If I had to do it all over again, I would probably just do LearnDash. I was going to use WooCommerce and Sensei and then LearnDash is to me, well LearnDash did more of what I needed than Sensei did at the time.

 

Cody: Fair enough.

 

Joe: Then I’ve got AffiliateWP running and a bunch of add-ons for that so probably WooCommerce, AffiliateWP, LearnDash and their related plug ins make up 80% of the plug ins that I’m running on my personal site. Luckily I have a very good host who happens to be sponsoring this episode, and so I don’t see a terrible decrease in performance, but again, as a developer I wanted to do something where I didn’t have to develop much. So I ended up doing the plug-ins … well this thing does what I need it to do and this thing does what I need it to do and now I don’t have to code and it even, as an expert in the field, working with an expert in this particular area would’ve helped me quite a bit.

 

Cody: Oh yeah. So we’ve got time available after this podcast to be able to give you a price on fixing … no, I’m just kidding. I’m here to sell, baby. Sell, sell, sell.

 

Joe: Well on that note, my favorite question to ask at the end of the show is do you have any trade secrets for us? So you specialize in e-commerce. You offer this as a service and you do it for big websites. On your website you’ve got Disney’s logo, you have Automatic’s logo, you have big universities so … what kind of trade secret … right, ‘uge’?

 

Cody: ‘uge, tremendous.’

 

Joe: ‘Nobody has bigger clients.’ What kind of trade secret can you offer us for running a big e-commerce website like this and if people want to get in touch with you, how can they do that?

 

Cody: Trade Secret: So the trade secret is I wish that I had one to give that fit everybody but I think right there and then it’s just I think that we kind of hit on it earlier. There are so many opportunities in the open source world in the WordPress world to be able to get started and get something out, which is so great. But when your business hits a certain level of income or certain pain point or trend to achieve a certain thing, that’s when it’s best to meet an agency like us because then we can really come in and you can actually afford and see the value of investing with a technical partner that can actually make you a lot more money and see cost effective way to do that.

 

That’s really the opportunity that we brought clients like Automatic or Disney or other folks that you probably heard of. We’ve been able to really understand that and give that same exact perspective in different ways to each of our clients.

 

Joe: That’s excellent. Presumably an easier thing for me to see hiring somebody to help me run my shop versus run my blog. My blog makes me affiliate link money and that’s it. But my shop is what I base my entire business off of. So if I can hire somebody to help me make more money that should be a no brainer for me, assuming I have that money in the bank and that’s certainly a great way to reinvest in your business and see good return on that investment.

 

I’m a big fan of that. I will link Mode Effect and a bunch of the other stuff that we talked about in the show notes. Cody, thank you so much for your time today, I really appreciate it.

 

Cody: Yeah, no thank you so much for having me.

 

Joe: I’ll end on this. I notice that you’re wearing a Cleveland Indians hat. I see the World Series logo off to the side, but it looks like the older one. Yeah, is that the 1998, ’97 World Series?

 

Cody: Oh yeah.

 

Joe: It was ’97. Very nice.

 

Cody: The bigger logo on the front.

 

Joe: Thanks again, so much to Cody for joining me for the first episode of season four. Like I said at the top of the show, we’ve got a lot in store for you this season. I’m really excited about it. I’m also really excited about the sponsors that we have for this season and this episode. So make sure to check out Liquid Web for managed work press hosting. It’s going to be, it’s excellent. I use it for this site, I use it for all of my important sites. You can check them out at buildpodcast.net/liquid

 

Check out Jilt if you want to introduce your clients to more revenue and who doesn’t want to do that? You can check them out at buildpodcast.net/jilt and Event Espresso for an excellent event management hosting platform. You can check them out at buildpodcast.net/events.

 

If you liked the show, please go over to Apple podcasts and rate and review it. It helps so much that during our break, we cracked the top 25 podcasts on Apple podcasts in the tech category. So thank you so, so much for that. It’s incredible to see the show grow so much and it’s thanks to the guests, the sponsors and of course, you. So again, if you liked the show, head over to Apple podcasts and leave a rating and a review.

 

For all of the show notes, you can head over to howibuilt.it/62 and until next time, get out there and build something.

 

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