Building Your Side Hustle on Open Source with Ben Meredith and Better Click to Tweet

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Ben Meredith is a WordPress man about town, working with lots of great folks in the community like GiveWP, and putting out his own plugins. In this episode, Ben and I talk about Better Click to Tweet, a fantastic and free WordPress plugin he created.

Show Notes


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My guest today is Ben Meredith. He’s a man of many hats in the WordPress community doing work for GiveWP, helping out with friends in need and creating plugins. And today we’re going to talk about his plugin, Better Click to Tweet. It’s a side project that he created, we’ll let him tell you more about that. We talk about all sorts of stuff like being self- taught, submitting a plugin to the WordPress repo and the benefits of that, using PayPal and the surprising mindset behind it, creating side projects and just kind of doing it yourself. It’s a really fun conversation. I’m really excited to release it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And without further ado, on with the show.

Joe Casabona: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks “How did you build that?” Today, my guest is Ben Meredith and we’ll be talking about Better Click to Tweet. Ben, how are you?

Ben Meredith: I’m doing great. How are you doing?

Joe Casabona: I am fantastic. We’re finally getting some really nice weather here in the northeast after a terrible rain last week. So I will be spending a lot of time out on my porch. I understand you live in North Carolina so you’ve probably had hot weather for a while.

Ben Meredith: Yeah. It’s been, actually I love this time of year because it gets cool at night. But it’s still 80/90 degrees during the day so you can open the windows at night. It’s great!

Joe Casabona: Cool, very cool. Well why don’t we jump right into it? So we met because you do work with GiveWP but we’re actually going to be talking about a personal project today, right?

Ben Meredith: Yeah, absolutely.

Joe Casabona: All right. So why don’t you tell the listeners who you are, what you do, and how you came up with the idea?

Ben Meredith: Well my name is Ben Meredith. I’m a developer/support tech and my full time gig like you said is with GiveWP which isn’t an online donation platform. And so I work as a senior support tech there, I do triage in the tickets, as well as answering tickets and some minor bug fixes and things like that. And then yeah, my WordPress back story is I got involved in the community around 2013 or 2014 and I’ve built Better Click to Tweet.

So the story of how I came up with that is I was working freelance, I was doing some low level development stuff. I was definitely what I would call a budding developer knowing what I know now. And I had a client who was a social media and content person solo entrepreneur, and she asked me if I could vet a plug-in for her. She said, “Can you check out this Click to Tweet plugin and find me the best one?” and so I said “Sure”. So I downloaded them and you know, picked through the code and there were two at the time that were on the free plugin directory. And so one of them was written before the shortcut API so it didn’t utilize the shortcode API. And then the other one was basically serviceware where you sign up for an online service and pay for it and then this is there you know WordPress plugin. So I didn’t really like either one of those and I thought he could, maybe build that myself.

And I had one other plugin that was much more simple in the free directory at the time. So I set up to kind of retool ‘Click to Tweet’ and because I’m great at naming things, I named it ‘Better Click to Tweet’. and then the best part of the story is, or I guess the fortunate part for me is, as I was preparing to release it I looked back in the plugin directory and the original ‘Click to Tweet’ plugin had been removed because they had a powered by link that was it runs afoul of the guidelines for the WordPress directory. And so it got pulled out of the repository and so I’m like, “Oh, now it’s my chance”. And so I released it and it almost immediately had thousands of downloads just because it was the only one that was there. Now that other plug-in eventually got put back in but it still hasn’t really been updated since that time. So that was the short story of how Better Click to Tweet started.

Joe Casabona: Nice, nice. So I like that you’ve said the Pippin Williamson naming approach just named it exactly with this.

Ben Meredith: Right.

Joe Casabona: I’m always appreciative of that because it’s easier to find stuff. So you actually, in that story, touched on research, right? You were looking for…you were tasked with looking for a plugin that did the thing you were looking for. Nothing was exactly right, right? And so you built your own, so maybe we can talk about what kind of research did you do to get things up and running, and submitting it to the WordPress plugin directory, right? Because that seems to be a sticking point for a lot of people who use SVN and there’s a big process. So maybe you could talk about how you figured out how to do that.

Ben Meredith: Absolutely. What I thought about my plugin or at least that plugin at the time was, I just wanna learn how to be a developer, right? I wanna learn how to make something that other people use. I wanna learn how to support a product. I wanna learn how to do all those things. You mentioned SVN, that was one of the biggest shell shops I finally got approved and then they sent you this link. I don’t know how they do it now. I haven’t submitted one in a while. But they tend to just link this like, how to use SVN? I didn’t even know what SVN was. I had no concept of version control of my plugin. It was built into a TextWrangler on my Mac like I didn’t have an ID. He didn’t have anything. I was just hacking away at a plugin and making it work. And so then, now I had to learn SVN.

And so one of the great parts about the WordPress you know, ecosystem is there’s just so much, so many ways you can learn stuff. And so I learned enough SVN to get it in the repo. And then months later, I learned that you can tag things and SVN so that there’s previous versions available. And you know, overtime it’s just been a constant thing. But what I’ve told people is I’ve really viewed this plugin and all of my plugins and the free directory as a resume. I see it as a way for me to showcase what I can do and also not just a resume but a learning tool, you know? It’s funny you go back into the archives of the forums. I learned stuff as I went, there’s two examples of that. First is MB string, Multibyte Strings, right? I had no concept of what, well I knew what Multibyte Strings were. I just didn’t know that it was something that wasn’t in every PHP install and so I released my plugin. Of course my plugin counts how many characters so it can truncate it into a tweet if it goes over the 120 some odd characters that are required to include a link. And so it truncates that and it did some math to do that. And in doing that, I was using Multibyte Strings so that it would work for multibyte characters like emoji or multibyte characters like some non English languages use. So I put in MB String at a user’s request because he said, “Hey, I’m using this plugin and in Greek it’s not working, can you add an MB string?” so it does. I said “sure.” So I did that, and then like 1000 active installs later I get an email from a guy that’s you know, my plugin white screen this site and he’s angry about that and so I got to learn.

And another example you know, until next year, you know go in and put in the fallback, you know? Things at the time WordPress core didn’t handle Multibyte Strings. Now there’s some magic that happens within the WordPress core that actually handles MB strings. So I don’t have to do that. Another example is ‘Internationalization.’ I knew nothing about internationalization and so somebody said, “Hey I want to translate your plugin into Greek” and I said, “I don’t know how to do that.” But I got to learn on the job and so now the plugin, I haven’t checked lately but I think it’s being shipped in like 6 or 7 languages all because I took the time to go back in. And the first version of internationalization didn’t internationalize anything that was in JavaScript because I didn’t know how to do that. I just knew how to internationalize the stuff in PHP and so then I had to learn, you know, how to internalize Javascript. So all along the research that I’ve done has just been as needed, you kno?, it’s like “Okay, somebody else comes with the new issue”. I’m, this is my resume, this is how I’m representing, how I work to the world. Summer’s gonna go and go and learn it and it’s all been self taught, I haven’t taken really any courses.

Joe Casabona: Nice, and that’s amazing. There’s something that you said that I really liked, which is that your plugins on the repo are your resume. And I really like that because I was having a chat with someone recently and they were really sweating the things on their resume and I’m like “Man you’re going for a programmers job.” I’m like yeah, “Make your resume good but make sure to send people to your GitHub page or to your right plugin repo page because you are actually showing what you can do”. So, maybe that’s great advice for people who want to get a job within the WordPress space. Create a free plugin and put it out there on the repo, you know, make sure your GitHub account is up to date because that’s going to speak a lot more volumes than you know, the three year work study job that you had at column one time.

Ben Meredith: Absolutely.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, awesome. So this is a side project for you. And I’m curious you know, you talked a little bit about talking to your customers and learning from them or your users I guess and learning from them. But you know when you talk about different features, if you’re going to try to make a business out of this or anything like that. Are there people that you talk to or are you part of a mastermind group or anything like that?

Ben Meredith: Well there’s a couple of people that in the course of Better Click to Tweet’s life that I have talked to. One was very early on, actually before there were as probably 1500 active installs or so, I got an offer for someone to acquire my plugin. And so I had no idea what a plugin is worth, I had no idea what you know, I was like I had no idea. And so I was a friend of a friend with Chris Weigman and so I reached out to him and said, “Hey, I would love to pick your brain.” I love that phrase. “I love to pick your brain about my plugin.” And he was very gracious and got on us a call with me and we kind of walked through it. And he gave me the bottom line like this is the number that you shouldn’t settle for less than, and the offer was less than that. So I still own Better Click to Tweet. And so that was one person that I reached out to for that because again, I saw this as my resume and I had just started to get a lot of traction and I didn’t want to give up that user base that was really my fan club and teachers and a you know all the people that are helping me learn WordPress and want to give those up.

The other folks that I’ve bounced business ideas off of I’m in the WP morning through slack channel which Jesse Peterson started. And so spend a lot of time there bouncing ideas off of Jesse and other people and constructive early morning ‘grumbling’ we call it. And so yeah, not a ton of business advice in there but he did give me the kick in the pants to take my plugin sales or plug-in business and WordPress business off of my personal domain. He’s like one day he said “You know, it kind of looks like you’re selling WordPress services out of your kitchen and you should not do that.” And so that was great. This is before I was working with Give even.

And so, and then finally Matt Cromwell, who I worked with, that he’s my boss at Give. This past year, I was saying, “You know man, I really wanna do something with Better Click to Tweet.” And he finally gave me the kick in the pants to say make a pro version. And so recently right on Christmas Day, actually I released premium styles which is an addon that allows people to put in premium styles to their Better Click to Tweet boxes. And that’s been awesome. So there have been some people but not. I wish I had done more knowing what I know now about the WordPress community. I wish that I had spent, you know, stepped out there and been willing to say, “Hey, I need some help and business advice, and what could I do better? What could I do, you know, differently?” Things like that.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, well it’s never too late for that.

Ben Meredith: Sure.

Joe Casabona: Cool. So let’s get to the title question then which is, how did you build it? And specifically you touched a bit on how you built the plugin, you know, throughout the tire interview. So maybe we can focus on the pro add-ons that you created, you know, how do you integrate those? How do you verify that they’ve been paid for, and things like that. I think those are questions that a lot of people probably looking to get into the premium plugin space have burning questions about.

Ben Meredith: Absolutely. So First off, I use Easy Digital Downloads for everything in terms of selling the premium add-on. And so that started I guess around November of last year, just kind of figuring it out. Again, more learning, everything is learning. And so getting that set up on W.P. which is my domain name and selling it through there. The software licensing bundle or software licensing add-on rather is crucial and selling a plugin if you’re selling a plugin without it you should stop immediately and add software licensing. And yeah, just that’s a constant process to an iterative process. As well just going through and figuring out and I had a customer the other day say, “I need to change my billing information. How do I do that?” I looked at my side, I was like, “Well, currently you don’t.” So hard to make a page that, you know, has their subscription history and the ability to change their card and strike and stuff like that. So I’m using Stripe with Easy Digital Downloads. I’ve toyed around with the idea of adding PayPal. I just haven’t pulled the trigger yet to add that. And yeah, so doing that, learning all about software licensing things like that, and then I put the actual add-on itself on Bitbucket. I’m considering just moving that to GitHub where the core file lives and it would be free there. Anyways because people who use GitHub and people who need CSS Helper are pretty mutually exclusive groups of people. And so my add-on, adds premium CSS that any developer could add. So I’m probably gonna end up moving that to GitHub.

But yeah, so I use my time with Give has been so instrumental in how I’ve done everything I’ve done because I kind of get a front row seat with Give and the add-on ecosystem that Give is using an add-on model of stuff. And so just using that as a template like, “Okay, I can have the core be separate from add-ons” and my next thing is to move because I didn’t understand how to do this at the time the software licensing from the add-on itself into the Better Click to Tweet core. I’ll be doing that coming up soon so that if I want to add new add-ons or the licensing is all handled in the core instead of being handled in the add-on itself. And so hopefully we’ll be doing that in the next couple of months. And yeah, so I use PHP storm, not now as my IDE, I use Flywheel, local by Flywheel for local development which has been monstrously helpful both in my day job and then development to be able to just spin up a new site and test out something and see if it breaks and without having to trash the whole copy that I’ve, that I’m working on has been fantastic. So…

Joe Casabona: Yeah, That’s great. Wow! So I want to circle back to something you said about adding PayPal later. I recently at the time of this recording saw that Carl from over at Gravity Forms or Rocket Genius I guess, Carl Hancock was asking, was asking folks if they had PayPal enabled and then disabled it and how it affected their sales. So do you think not having PayPal enabled has affected yourselves?

Ben Meredith: Honestly, I have no idea. But I suspect I was talking to a friend who is, I think it depends on your target market. And the target market for my add-on is very very beginner, non-techie WordPress users. And I was talking to somebody kind of in that demographic the other day and she said something just off. Hand of a different conversation but she said, “I don’t buy anything if there’s not PayPal on there ’cause I don’t trust them.” And so I thought, well that’s fantastic insight because I’m almost the opposite, you know, I sure. I buy stuff with PayPal but I don’t love PayPal because I’m a developer and their documentation is notoriously awful. And you know it’s all the developer grudges that you hold against payment gateways as supposed. And I just love Stripe, and I love being able to use the Stripe checkout and all that stuff. And so it probably is affecting my sales and so that’s why I’m gonna try it out at least and see if it changes things. But I think just giving people more options can’t be bad because the people that want to buy it with PayPal will buy it with PayPal. People that want to buy it with a card directly on my side will do that.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, that’s kind of…I was in the same boat as you when I first launched WP in one month. I only had Stripe because I’m like, Stripe is easier. Give them one option.

Ben Meredith: Right.

Joe Casabona: And then they can just put in their credit card information. And that first day, I got a couple of requests “Hey, you don’t have PayPal”, so I immediately turned it on and I would say, I would say like it’s probably a 60/40 split between PayPal in favor of PayPal/Stripe. So the lesson, that lesson that I learned and continue to preach is make it as easy as possible for people to give you money.

Ben Meredith: Right.

Joe Casabona: So that’s a little personal take away.

Ben Meredith: The biggest thing honestly, the biggest thing for me and affecting my sales rate is…and I know as a developer as a WordPress user as you know, for years, I’ve been anti this. But the biggest thing that changed sales for me was adding a nag to the plugin page. And so when somebody downloads Better Click to Tweet, the core pops a nag up there that says, “Hey, have you seen, we just launched Better Click to Tweet premium styles?” and it went from I have used your roles as a URL shortener and so I can track the number of clicks. It went from like three clicks a day to like 17, 18 clicks a day to my sales page overnight. And it went from one or two sales a month to, I think I got like seventeen in a week a couple of weeks ago. And so that far none by a long shot has increased my sales more than anything else. But I’m, I definitely need to spend some time here and put in PayPal to see if that has a similar effect because I don’t mind people sending me money. It’s a great email to get.

Joe Casabona: Yep. And that’s another great thing to touch on right? I think that us, in the development world, hate those nags like or the lightbox popups, you know, like OptinMonster, whatever. But there’s a lot of evidence that says that works. So you know it’s something that I don’t have on WP in one month or the podcast page at How I Built It. A kind of in your face way to collect email addresses. I have virtually know email addresses for this podcast. So I only know what lips and tells me at the time of this recording. Yeah, it’s a little bit better for WP in one month because I encourage people to join the newsletter in other ways. But that’s another piece of advice. if you want people to do something, ask them to do it because they’re not just gonna magically find their way to it or or anything like that, you know, same thing with what the affiliate program that I have at WP in one month until I start actively marketing it and doing things to encourage people to join it, people aren’t going to join it. So you know, I think this is at least anecdotally a little bit of proof that adding that little notification in WordPress like, “Hey, have you seen this?” does work or it works better than doing nothing at least.

Ben Meredith: Yeah. I mean before to be fair, I had done almost nothing. There was a very small link in the back end of the settings page that said, “Do you want premium styles click here?” and now it’s really in your face. I put it on the front of the repo, the readme rather on the, you know, when people are shopping for it they can see that there’s this new add-on but I track each different type of URL click, you know, from each different place. And the nag by far is outperforming every other way that people get to premium styles by a mile. It’s not even close.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, awesome. Well that’s a lot of great takeaways there for anybody listening especially people who want to get into the premium plugin space. So we talked a little bit about where your plugin has been and its transformations, so why don’t you tell us what you have in store for the future of Better Click to Tweet?

Ben Meredith: So I’m hoping to add images add-on by the end of this year. That’s my goal. And now I’ve said it on a podcast, so there’s some accountability there.

Joe Casabona: Yeah, you do have a little bit of lead time because I generally record like six to eight weeks early from the air date.

Ben Meredith: Nice. I appreciate that.

Joe Casabona: So you’ll have until July before it’s public knowledge.

Ben Meredith: Do you mind if I have like, leave a note for my six to eight weeks from now self on the podcast? You said you’re going to release this thing by now.

No, so I’m hoping to add the images add-on. That’s really tricky because the Twitter web intent which is what we used to actually build the URL doesn’t allow for images. And so you kind of have to do the best. I can understand at this point I’m still in the early research phase. The best you can do is create a Twitter app, then make that Twitter app, tweet the picture, and then your actual web intent is a retweet of that picture by the user. And so that’s more learning. I get to learn how to do all of that. I got a very very basic Twitter app tweeting images now. So the next step will be to make that and then roll it in. And also as I mentioned once, there’s two add-ons I’ve gotta fix. the first one, to take the licensing stuff out of it and there. But yeah, I’m hoping to release the images add-on at least. I think that will be a big sell. I get that request a lot for people to add images and there are no free plugins and the repository that does images at all. So that’s the, my goal is to release that by the end of this year.

Joe Casabona: Nice. That’s awesome. Well, I will definitely keep an eye out for that and good luck with… I love how much you have preached learning because that’s, I mean if Sean has capitalized in Season Two and he always says never stop learning. So that’s awesome. Now so before we get to the lightning round, I wanna ask you my favorite question which is, do you have any trade secrets for us?

Ben Meredith: My trade secret has always been to preach it to myself all the time is, I can’t and never will be the best developer on the planet but I can have the best supported plugin in the directory. And so even if my answer is no, we can’t do that, or I don’t know how to do that, I read A blog post by Scott from EDD recently where he said the powerful, the powerful word but after I don’t know, I don’t know yet, or I don’t know yet or I don’t know but I can learn. And so being able to say that I’m gonna figure it out and so that’s my advice for anybody who’s trying to get into the WordPress world is there’s a whole lot of impostor syndrome and for me it wasn’t really impostor syndrome. I really didn’t know most of the things that I was setting out to do but there’s a lot of that voice in your head that says “Ohl gosh you’re never, you’re not as good of a developer’s this guy or this girl, you’re not as good of a whatever but anybody can do support. Anybody can, you do more than the user of your plugin. You do know more about how your plugin works than that person, that guy, that girl. And so getting in that putting yourself in their shoes and answering the question quickly, I remember very early on in my plugin life, I would get up from the dinner table to go answer a support ticket that came in to the forums and my wife understood she’s like go answer. You know, this is your resume, do it. And so getting that answer out quickly and courteously and helpfully. And you know, if there’s a bug, fixing it quickly goes a super long way toward that. So that’s my only trade secret.

Joe Casabona: Awesome. I love that. I think that’s great. It reminds me of something that the Disney imagineers say, they never say no because they always say yes. If so, it’s not that you’re saying no, you can’t, there’s no way we can do this, you’re saying yeah this can be done, if…and I think that really is kind of the powerful use of, right?

Ben Meredith: Yep.

Joe Casabona: Cool, very cool. And I love that I am by far not the best developer but I’m very happy with my skill set and the things I do. And as you said, you can always, you will, you can be the best knowledge base for the thing that you are very full of. So that’s awesome.

So now let’s move on to the bonus round, The Fast Five. I don’t, I haven’t gotten a letter yet from, I think it’s Universal Studios. They’ve got the Fast and the Furious movies. So I’m gonna keep calling it Fast 5 until they tell me not to.

Ben Meredith: Nice.

Joe Casabona: So here we go. Are you ready? And would ask you five questions. I want you to answer them first thing that comes to mind.

Ben Meredith: All right. I’m ready.

Joe Casabona: All right. Number one, what is your favorite book?

Ben Meredith: My favorite book? Ah, ‘Do Over’ by Jon Acuff

Joe Casabona: All right.

Ben Meredith: As far as business books, that’s the first one that came to mind.

Joe Casabona: Nice. I have not heard of that one so I’m definitely going to check it out. Quick followup to that one. What’s the book that you most recently read?

Ben Meredith: Oh man, I’m in the middle of reading a book called ‘Union with Christ’. I don’t even remember the name of the guy but it’s more of a personal spiritual book.

Joe Casabona: Nice, very nice. I am almost done with the circle. It’s like the first fiction book I’ve read in a long time, a bunch of a bunch of nonfiction. Again, what music do you like to listen to?

Ben Meredith: I have a rule that I had to be able to bob my head to it so that basically rules out the really really heavy metal but almost nothing else. I love music. Blues music is my favorite to play. I play guitar, and so Blues is my favorite to play. But I mean bluegrass, blues, rock. Not a huge fan of most of the stuff that comes on the radio because I’m a snob like that. But other than that, Americana, I listen to all of it.

Joe Casabona: Nice, nice. I played the drums so at the next Wordcamp we’re both that, we’ll have to get a little jam session going on.

Ben Meredith: Absolutely.

Joe Casabona: What is your favorite food?

Ben Meredith: Favorite food. I recently went on the South Beach diet which is like a cuss word so this is a tough question. My favorite food right now is stuff I can’t eat. Come on Joe! No, my favorite food, I absolutely love southern cooking and so, gosh! Top of my head favorite food, probably fried chicken, collard greens.

Joe Casabona: Nice yeah. My first trip down to South Carolina, I drove with my college professor, then we stopped in North Carolina for food and he’s like ,“Well, we have to get barbecue here because this is the best place to get barbecue.”

Ben Meredith: Yeah. All of my North Carolina friends are gonna be mad at me that I didn’t say barbecue like, that wasn’t the first thing that came to mind. I love barbecue but fried chicken was just the first thing that came to mind. I was not prepared for these questions, North Carolina friends.

Joe Casabona: That’s right! I have not, I did not give these questions in advance. So again, I hope you don’t get in trouble with this one. Who’s your favorite sports team?

Ben Meredith: Oh, Tar Heels, and that basketball is my favorite sport. But anything the Tar Heels play I will watch. But this year is a good year to be a Tar Heel fan for basketball, so…

Joe Casabona: Very nice. And the last question which I recently switched up the first half of the season. I asked, how did you learn what you know? But we covered that a lot in this show and it was recommended that I asked this question instead. What would you do in another life professionally, like, so WordPress doesn’t exist, you don’t write code, what would you do instead?

Ben Meredith: Golly! I’ve already had like three lives professionally. So I started in full-time campus ministry for eight years and then I was in sales for three years and now I’m in WordPress development. So if that didn’t exist I would love to make a career in music. I love playing and singing. I realized that now. Music is more about promoting and selling concerts and stuff. But yeah, I would love to be a traveling musician in another life.

Joe Casabona: Nice, very nice. Well you know, Spotify and all of these kinds of self publishing platforms are making it easy to not have to sign a huge contract and you still have to promote yourself but you can still make it about the music and get it out there. So…

Ben Meredith: Nice.

Joe Casabona: That’s awesome. I love that! Ah Ben, thank you so much for joining me today. I’ve had a lot of fun.

Ben Meredith: Absolutely. Thanks Joe.

Joe Casabona: What a fantastic conversation with Ben. I’m really a big fan of Better Click to Tweet. I do use it on my blog and I strongly recommend it. It’s free on the repo with some paid add-ons.

And if you liked this episode, head over to Apple podcasts and give us a rating and review it. It helped people find the podcast which means more listeners, which means maybe better content. And if you do leave a review, I will probably, maybe read it on the air, which is excellent. I should also say that I’ve seen a lot of crazy growth in the podcast over the last two months. And so I really wanna, from the bottom of my heart, thank everybody out there who’s been listening and sharing the podcast. It’s been kind of so much fun doing this and it’s very rewarding to see it grow so much in just a little bit over here.

So thank you so much for that. Thank you to Ben once again. And thanks to our sponsors liquidweb and Access Aerial. Be sure to check them out.

And until next time, get out there and build something.

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