Building a Quality WordPress Theme Shop with Cory Miller

How I Built It
How I Built It
Building a Quality WordPress Theme Shop with Cory Miller
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In this episode, Cory and I have a great conversation about all of the things iThemes does, how they got there, why they do things, and the most important aspect of any business.

Show Notes:

Transcript

Joe Casabona: Hey, everybody. Today’s show is brought to you by two sponsors. The first is Themetry. Themetry makes WordPress themes with mathematical precision to detail. They are a new shop with a small but beautiful collection of purpose-based themes. You can sign up today and have access to all of their themes for $99. Go to Themetry, that’s themetry.com, themetry.com, for more information.

The next is hover.com. With hundreds of domain extensions, no heavy-handed upselling, and best-in-class support, Hover makes it easy to spend less time on your domains, and more time on your big ideas. I use Hover for all of my domains and you can too. Make sure to head over to hover.com today, and use the offer code, BUILDIThemes for 10% off. That’s BUILDITHEMES, no spaces, all caps at hover.com for 10% off your first purchase. 

And now, on with the show.

Hey everybody. Thanks for joining us for another episode of How I Built it. Today, I’m here with Cory Miller, founder, and CEO of iThemes. And we’re going to be talking about building up iThemes as well as all of the great products they have to offer. So, hi Cory. Thanks for joining me today.

Cory Miller: Hey, Joe. Thanks for having me on the podcast.

Joe Casabona: No problem. No problem. So I guess let’s just jump right into it then. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about iThemes and the products you guys have to offer.

Cory Miller: Yeah. So we started iThemes, me and I do have two partners with their summit partners.  Back in January 2008, we started with WordPress themes, premium commercial WordPress themes, in the first year. In the second year, third year, I started rolling into plugins for WordPress. And so today we have, you know, tens of thousands of customers across the globe. And our key products are BackupBuddy, which says backups, restores, and migrations, WordPress websites, the complete site, take a whole snapshot of WordPress. And then in the event of a crash or hack or something, be able to restore those. And, of course, if you want to move to a different hosting, which happens from time to time in WordPress, you can use BackupBuddy to move those sites.

I think security is one of our newer products, about three years old now. It, excuse me, you know, I’ve got all these Oklahoma allergies here, but, we, I think security helps you easily lock down and protect your WordPress website. So your backups, you know, you get your back up stream and offsite. And then security is that next kind of partner tobacco buddy, where you can easily lock down your WordPress websites. 

Finally, I think Sync, which helps you manage multiple WordPress websites from one dashboard, doing all of your updates from one place. And then we’ve got some cool features in there, like reporting where you could pull reports for your clients or yourself from those sites. We have a team of about 26 people. Most of that, the bulk of that team is in the US, another big percentage of that team is in Oklahoma. However, not everybody comes into the office. And then we have a number of team members that are remote spread throughout the east coast, mostly.

Joe Casabona: Nice, nice. So, was BackupBuddy, kind of the first, the first product that you offered? or you offered themes before that. Is that right?

Cory Miller: Yeah. So we started with just, you know, simple single themes and, that just had different designs and stuff like that for different use cases. And then in 2010, we rolled out our first commercial plugin which was BackupBuddy. And then we just kind of shifted over into Plugins as we’ve grown old. So, you know, we’re eight-plus years old now and realized that there was much more opportunity. and we could do more good work in the plugin space. 

And with Sync, we’re actually moving into software as a service.

Joe Casabona: Gotcha. Well, you answered my follow-up question, which was what made you want to move from themes to plugins? So. Cool. When you kind of decided to make the jump, well, first of all, what gave you the idea for, let’s say BackupBuddy since that was your first commercial plugin?

Cory Miller: So about six months before we released that product, we had done a little bit of hosting. We tried to roll out our own hosting product, and we had a couple of dedicated servers and things like that. Well, we had one day we woke up, we had a catastrophic server crash. The hard drive, I think, is what happened with that particular case, basically, just melt it down. You know, I mean, equipment fails from time to time, even the best servers. What we discovered was that at the end of that day, we didn’t have backups for those, for that particular server. And so, we’re scrambling to copy and paste from Google cache to bring websites back, get websites just going back. So we had no backups. We learned that the hard way.

But we thought, you know, the first lesson we would, you know, “Okay. Move on. Get everything back to normal and then go.” And then about two months later, we had another server crash that was due to a big script command line stuff. You’d know more about this Joe, than me. We changed the permissions on the root folder for everything. And the server just kind of started crashing down. And again, so we’re trying to figure out what’s going on and then try to remedy the situation. And guess what? We still did not have backups.

So, you know, this is early on in WordPress history too. And after that, we obviously. It sought to get good backups. But we realized for those servers but realized WordPress really didn’t have a holistic all in one solution for backups. Just like, you know, we, I said earlier, the way to do a backup it’s to have that saved offsite so you can easily restore it in the event of something happened. And we just realized WordPress didn’t have that. And it was a great time for us. We had just hired one of our awesome long-time developers [Inaudible 6:13.73] Bolton. I came back from WordCamp, WordCamp Boston, and had some conversations there where I thought, “Okay. It’s time for us to think about WordPress plugins.” And of course, one of our developers, another one of our developers, Christian, my longest tenured team member, today has been, he is eight years next month, and said, “Hey, we should look at WordPress backup solution.” and that’s how BackupBuddy was born. So about three months after that conversation, we released the first version of BackupBuddy, and haven’t turned back since.

Joe Casabona: Nice. So like a lot of great products, it sounds like it was built out of some need that you had. Because I have, I’ve been on the end of servers crashing and not having backups. So.

Cory Miller: Yeah. I mean, Yeah. That’s the mantra is you build something out of your own need. We happened to build it out of our own pain.

Joe Casabona: Well, awesome. And because of that, you are saving lots and lots of people, that same pain.

Cory Miller: Hundreds of thousands of websites now are being safely backed up, stored remotely with BackupBuddy. And we’re pretty proud of that moment. Including my own sites now. One of our sites on that server one, the first crash happened to be my own personal server and I lost content, you know, photos, things like that, that you can’t just kind of magically get back with and get back up.

Joe Casabona: Yeah. Wow. Well, I can say that I’m using BackupBuddy for, I offer backups and stuff like that for my clients, and BackupBuddy and iTheme Security are two plugins that I make sure to have on there when they get that service from me. So you moved from, so you had BackupBuddy, and then iThemes Security was kind of what came next.

Cory Miller: Yeah, I’m trying to think about my timeline. But we hit BackupBuddy hard. Kept trying to iterate and add new things that people wanted or needed. And did that for a long time. We experimented with some other plugins, but they weren’t even close to the success that BackupBuddy was.

And about three years ago, we had the opportunity. I actually stumbled upon this plugin because I was having problems with my site, personal site. Again, such security and the host I was with at the time recommended Better WP Security, which is now iThemes Security. I reached out to the developer. We ended up hiring him and pulling that plugin underneath our iThemes brand, and to have worked for the last couple of years to just kind of just streamline the business as possible to make sure the code’s extremely fast, performs well, doesn’t bug down services. But in an effort to extend security for WordPress websites, we also thought, Okay, you got backups and security. We’ve been doing backups for six years, you know. And so the perfect compliment is a security plugin because backups are a best practice for security. So those two, I wish we had done that six years ago. Those two at once, because they are Batman and Robin, you know, with what we do. So very much complimented our hip plugin.

The other plugins we had tried to that point and done and built and everything released, supported many of which we still support and maintain today weren’t complimentary to that particular category. And that was one of the things I look back. And I think I learned a lesson there is that we had become known for BackupBuddy, and doing backup WordPress websites. And instead of trying to compliment that particular product, we struck out totally new and different areas. And so that was kind of a marketing and messaging problem. You know, when this thing is, you know, backed up but he used a grand slam home run for and we’re done. And we just tried to strike out into something new. And I’m trying to think of a parallel for that. You know, if a Honda Motor Corp, of course, they do a lot of things, set it to do flowers or something. You know, it’s not a complimentary service to what they’re doing. But security has been really good. You know, like I said, Batman and Robin do that and make sense as I look back. I won’t say I was a clear point on it or could see into the future, but that’s one of the things that has benefited both products as we’ve continued to build and maintain those. 

Joe Casabona: Gotcha. Gotcha. Yeah. And that’s excellent. So,  when you were building out BackupBuddy, and then eventually, bought what would become iThemes security, did you do a whole lot of research? Or did you kind of go with your gut? Or, well, I guess we’ll answer that. And then I guess a follow-up to that is what do you think was, what do you think made BackupBuddy and iThemes Security work? And then as opposed to like the other plugins that didn’t work so well.

Cory Miller: Well, you know, for the longest time, probably starting around the time when we started a BackupBuddy, we noticed in our forums that people were coming to the forums at the time. Now we have a ticketing system, private ticketing. But in reporting that their sites had been hacked or, you know, something had gone wrong with their sites. And so security became an issue with that for many years up until we got the actual plugin to help people solve that particular problem. So we’d heard that quite a bit. And, just seeing, you know, people’s sites being hacked is WordPress powers one-fourth of the web, and it becomes a big target. WordPress is extremely secure, but the problem is many people don’t, as you know, Joe doesn’t keep their WordPress websites may too. I’ve been guilty of that up to date, to the latest version, particularly the security patches that happen.

And, so about that timing, my personal site was just getting nailed and, so much so that the VPS server was having to shut down and reboot, and all that kind of stuff. And so that was probably the one that made it personal for me. And then when the opportunity came, I was like, you know, “This just makes sense. We hadn’t gone into security, but we were doing security with backups.” And this window, you know, this opportunity presented itself with the better WP security plugin to pull that onto our team. And it just made sense for us. So I would say personal need, customer experiences with security problems, and the opportunity that presented itself at that particular time, it just made everything kind of fall together.

Joe Casabona: Gotcha. Yeah. That, again, that makes so much sense. So I’ve kind of found that talking it out with people really helps.  You actually have been really helpful in kind of me pivoting WP in One Month. I’ve talked to Rebecca Gill and Shawn Hesketh, a lot of great people. Did you talk to anybody about Let’s say building up your business, right? iThemes is now a business that has a bunch of these products, but, did you talk to anybody about things like, kind of managing these products, and hiring employees, and things like that?

Cory Miller:  Oh, yeah. So over the years, we’ve employed a number of coaches and consultants. The two that come to mind where first is a leadership coach named, Michael Smith. We called him Smitty. Six years ago. I pulled Smitty on to come in to help me first kind of get some things tweaked models. And then second, with Matt Danner, my chief operating officer here. And he’s worked with our team too. His help to us has been extremely valuable as we’ve gone along. But he built and grew a family business, a chemical business to like her and 50 people and $50 million and all that kind of stuff. Eventually sold it back to his employees and grew. He had been there and done that. And, again, a chance encounter just kind of getting down to the local community here in Oklahoma City, was recommended to him numerous times. But several entrepreneurs that had done coaching knew what he did and his work still. We still maintain contact with that coaching relationship because he’s been so vital and that he’s become a dear friend of ours. 

The second one would be as a CFO for hire. We weren’t and still aren’t emphasizing where we could be able to hire a full-time Chief Financial Officer. But, another kind of referral within the entrepreneurial community here in Oklahoma City, we hired a guy named Rick Simpson to come in and help us kind of tune-up our books, like just with software and different things, you know, good analytics helps you measure and improve what you’re doing. And, we needed to grow up in that particular area as part of the company. Rick did a great job just helping us kind of fine-tune tune that, get good metrics, understand stuff. I feel like he gave us, we laughed at them a couple of times. He gave us like a good MBA between Smitty and Rick gives a really good MBA type education about how to run businesses professionally as adults.

And then, you know, product-wise, of course, we’ve in the last couple of years, we’ve known Chris Lema. We’ve talked to him frequently, and still engage him. And he’s a great friend of our business. But,  professionally we engaged him on consulting projects from time to time. You know, he’s been there, done that, grown big organizations to, you know, grown great products, dev teams, all that stuff. We’ve gleaned a lot of his experience and expertise to help us improve what we’re doing here. 

Products specifically, in specific to BackupBuddy. And I think security, I lean heavily on our dev team. These guys and gals know what they’re doing. And so I look to them first and foremost about the products that we offer, the features that we provide in those products, what’s on the roadmap going forward particularly with security. You know, my technical skill level is about the user level. And I joke about that sometimes my team, how my team doesn’t allow me to actually log in to the iThemes.com WordPress site account that they, you know, fake it so that I don’t have access to things that could break stuff. But, by doing that, helps me think through and be on the user level, and then pair that with the technical expertise of our team to offer the best products that we believe in, support, and love that helps other people.

Joe Casabona: Yeah. That’s great. I mean, it’s good to, as a developer, I have a hard time testing the stuff I build because I know how it works. So having somebody like you, so familiar with the business and willing to get their hands dirty to test things is a big deal. So it sounds like you lean on your developers, you know, probably just as much as they lean on you.

Cory Miller: Yeah, I think it’s probably more weighted on their side. I lean on them quite a bit. But yeah. From a user standpoint, you know, they’re used to shortcuts and doing different things. And, you know, the developer side of things, and they don’t, you know, translate that with our products to someone that even my mom can use our products is the key for us. So, yeah. It’s, I’m kind of lonely in that category here. We’ve got a lot of talented people. But it’s been very productive. I think going forward, it’s just helping us understand that our user is a little bit different than what, who we are.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, absolutely. And again, just to kind of drive home that point, I was having a conversation with somebody recently where they were saying, you know, we really need to teach our clients how to resize images and make sure they’re not uploading gigantic images. And I said, “It’s up to us as the developers to do that for them”, you know, we don’t have to, we shouldn’t say, “Oh, well, in order for you to upload an image for your blog post, open it up in Photoshop and save it as a smaller size and then crop it this way.” It’s we should do as much of the work for them as possible to make it as user-friendly as possible. Because If it’s not easy to use people, they aren’t going to use it. So.

Cory Miller: Absolutely going, you know, if you think about the value proposition of what a product or service offers is that, likely it, somebody wants something easier, faster, better and cheaper. So, you know, just because you do it this way, doesn’t mean the client, like you said, with, you know, Oakland images, maybe you should do some of the heavy liftings for them. Then I want something easier, faster, better, more affordable, right?

Joe Casabona: If you throw in a learning curve, they’re not going to, it’s not saving them time or money. So there’s no justifying the cost there, which is, I think probably a perfect transition into here because we haven’t talked much about your, your third product yet, Sync. And it sounds like this may have been evolutionary. The best place to go. 

Cory Miller: Yeah. I mean, today, you know, in 2008, when we were, we just started out, we’re doing iThemes. And today, August 2016, we drive about 3% or less of our revenue from that particular product we had to evolve. But the emphasis that we have is around three kinds of keywords, backup, security, and maintenance.

Now Sync is going to do more than just maintenance. But, backup security we’ve already covered that. Maintenance is that third tier, you know, you’ve got to update your websites. You might want to pull reports that if you’re offering like you said, you offer a service,  backups to your clients. You might want to pull a report to say, this is what I did for you this month. And that’s what syncs does. And also we think about sync as the glue of all of our products together. You know, BackupBuddy is compatible with security, of course, but, you know, we leave those distinct product categories to themselves. There’s not a lot of overlap of course. But they both interface and have integrations with sync.

And so again, solving a problem for our key user base, which is freelancers and agencies that, you know, have multiple WordPress websites, they maintain being able to bring that all together in one central place makes Sync kind of that glue that’s core, the hub for everything else to kind of come with.

Joe Casabona: Man. That’s awesome. So you have, you had your themes, you evolved into products. Now you have this almost software as a service thing, which I think probably covers one of the questions I asked, which is, have you, like, what transformations have you gone through? We’ve kind of been talking about that the whole time. But you have this business with a bunch of products with a bunch of employees. So, the title question I want to ask you, how did you build it is around the business. We’ve talked about products, you know, and you’ve mentioned yourself that you’re not necessarily a developer, but you’ve built a very successful business in the WordPress space, which is something that a lot of people have a lot of trouble with. So I’d love to hear kind of how you built up this very successful business in this space?

Cory Miller: Yeah, I love software development. Like you said, I’m not a developer, but I like, I love how software is developed. You know, you’ve got version releases and you tried to iterate with things that improve that, add new features to it. That’s the way I’ve looked at iThemes as a business, the product that you said we built over the last eight and a half years. It’s just, year one was version one, year two is version two, we’re on version eight, plus something. Now, every month, every day, we add something new to the overall, you know, product iThemes, to make it better for people. We learn new things, we try to iterate on those things, and watch out for mistakes that have happened in the past, and learn, and grow, and be better for our customers. Our mantra is to make people’s lives awesome. Now we do that through these products that we’ve mentioned.

So how can we continue to get better and better at what we do for our community? Every single year, we learned something new to add to that. But I would say the core component that’s made us successful is focusing and being only about people. Products are awesome. Software is awesome. We should build products that help people. But really at the core, it’s about people. And we say it starts first with our team. Well, as the entrepreneurs say, it starts first with me. I knew from past experiences that if I’m not happy and healthy, the team won’t and our customers will feel it too. So me, our team, our customers, and our partners. And so we want to continue to focus on those groups of people to care about, to serve. And I think that’s one, what’s been one of the most key elements of our success. And in this foundation, a core value that we hold dear is that people are, you know, we want to treat people like humans. We want to care for people as humans. That’s had an exponential benefit, just caring about people with our team, we’re able to attract good people that want to come here and use their time and talent. And, you know, progress toward that mission of making people’s lives awesome. A lot of people who could do could have their own show could be their own rockstar, but decided to join a band and iThemes together. 

The focus is on customers now, I didn’t put them first. If you notice, I didn’t even put them second, but third is our customers. They pay our paycheck. And when we’ve gotten that out of alignment, that’s caused problems for us. But we tried to seek to be very intentional about leading, and educating, and helping, and serving our community. We don’t just say, customers. We say customer community. I just sent out an email today, or we did with a post saying that “You have 137 days left in 2016, here’s some thoughts. Here’s a worksheet about how you can make the most of that.” Doesn’t even include our products. It’s just saying that iThemes isn’t a company, it’s a community. And we care about those people.

A couple of years ago, I started the Initiative, a theme that was supposed to last about one year. And that was wprosper, basically that we want, if our customers win for our community wins, then we win. And how can we help them win? How can we help them overcome some of the Oscars they’re facing to get towards their dreams and goals? And so just like that email sent out today is for their benefit to help them grow, become better, and make progress on their dreams, and be a part of that. We want to be a partner with them in our community. So I think that focus if I were to look back at eight and a half years, what’s helped make to success is just focusing on people.

I believe my role is that of a shepherd that goes back to my church background. But, I believe as a leader of this company in our community, that I’m charged with being the shepherd, to taking care of the people that are on our team and in our community. And that’s had great, great benefits for us.

Joe Casabona: That’s fantastic. So there’s a bunch of great takeaways there, right? There’s taking care of your people, and your customer community, you know, putting people in number one. That’s perfect because you know, they are not only the people who pay your bills, who develop your products, but they’re also going to be your biggest advocates, right? So they’re going to be the people talking about you. But, and then going back to something you first said, you kind of viewed the businesses iteratively. And I love that because I was talking with Rebecca Gill about this a couple of episodes ago, but most people see the businesses that make it big. They see Facebook in its final form, or when it’s a giant IPO form and they don’t see everything that went on behind the scenes. Or, you know, you look at an Olympic athlete and you see that they’re a gold medal performance, but you don’t see everything behind it to get them to the place where they can get a gold medal in the Olympics.

So I think that’s great advice. It is to keep your business iterative. Think about the people that make up the community, that is your business. I love that. So awesome. So, we’ve got two more questions here. The first is what are your plans for the future? 

Cory Miller: What are, what are my plans for the future? I love the job that I have. I love the people I work with, and I love the people I serve. So I like to do this job for as long as I possibly can. You know, technology changes so fast that we’ve always gotta be ready to adapt. I can’t look into a crystal ball. I don’t know if I have one, I can probably find a magic eight ball at a Walmart, but, and be more accurate about technology and progress and things like that.

So we always were in that business, you know, in year one, the iPhone had just come out version one. And then quickly in a year or two, that completely changed the landscape of our entire lives. The smartphone. And if we hadn’t seen that, watched it, observed, and then make critical moves, we wouldn’t be here today.

And technology is so, you know, a five-year plan. Anytime anybody’s asked me that and I go, “You know, I want to do this job. I want to, I love software. I love being a part of the software development process for people. I love serving our customers. And I want to keep doing that.” If that means in five years, we have to move to another platform altogether, If we have to change the core things that we do for people, the areas or the categories of products that we do, then we’re going to have to do that because I want to keep doing this job. And our team does too. And so that’s kind of the future for us is just doing things the right way. Do good for people, keep doing it.

And when technology does change and exponentially innovate, then where we need to be right there, riding that next wave and leading our customers in that direction. I assume it’ll be in WordPress. I love WordPress. It totally has changed my life. I’ve been using WordPress for 10 or 11 years now. And, I hope WordPress continues to be here for the next 10 or 12 years. But, who knows.

Joe Casabona: Awesome. That’s a great answer. And finally, and I know, no pressure, but I know you’ll have a great gem for us here. Do you have any trade secrets for us?

Cory Miller: Yes. Okay. So you already, you had kind of told me the notes. So I was already kinda thinking what my trade secret would be.

The number one business trade secret, as far as what we’d done, part of our big successes has been all around email marketing. It still baffles me today that a lot of product companies, not just WordPress, but product companies overall, don’t use their email lists to educate with good content, and share good things that you’re doing for your customer community. I can tell you every single day, over the past year, if I look at a chart and say, here’s the sales bumps that we’ve had has been the same days, we’ve sent big emails out to our customer base. Staying in touch with those relationships, helping them with things around your product and other things in your life, we’re going a little bit broader. A lot of the content I provide to our community is a little bit broader mind about thinking through okay, hundred and 37 days in 2016. How do you make the most of it? Here’s some thoughts about that.

Product-specific stuff, we’ve got a webinar coming up about WordPress security with our code lead developer. I think security, Aaron Campbell. That’s going to be awesome. Helping educate people around the product too. And helping them know the space of a website security a little bit better so they can, you know, stay ahead of particularly getting hacked. 

So, you know, email marketing all comes down to that. That’s the primary channel that is still to date as far as August 2016, that I know to market. Get people into those lists and then start sharing good stuff with those lists. And that’s one of the keys for us as we’ve grown.

Joe Casabona: Awesome. That is great advice. Well, definitely heed that advice because I don’t think I utilize email marketing as much as I could. So that’s personally very helpful, which is the whole reason I started this show. And I figured I would just share these conversations with whoever wants to listen. So awesome. That’s everything I have on my list. Was there anything else that you wanted to talk about or mention? We’re at the half-hour mark. So.

Cory Miller: No. It’s been fun being on the podcast and sharing a little bit of the story. It’s a fun story for us. It’s had its highs and lows, but overall it’s been a great time. I always love sharing in the background.

Joe Casabona: Awesome. Cory, well, thank you so much for joining me this week.

And thank you to our sponsors, Themetry and hover.com. Make sure to check those guys out. They are awesome.

Make sure to tune in next week, I’ll be talking to Carrie Dills all about Office hours, FM and her community, and all the cool things she’s working on.

So until then. go out there and build something.

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