Vito Peleg: As a way of generating a bit of extra income, I started building websites from the van while we were on tour, and that was my first few freelance gigs. From there, it took off, and once the band split up and once we turned 30 and we had enough white hair to stop that, I started looking into “OK. What can I do with this web design business? How can I grow this up?” Within the first deal, I got to six figures with that business, and within three years, I had a team of twelve guys.
Intro: Hey, everybody. Welcome to episode 162 of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, “How did you build that?” Today I’m talking to Vito Peleg. He runs a very popular WordPress plugin called WP Feedback. But did you know that he also runs a community under the same name? In this episode, we talk all about the importance of community in growing your business. Now during this episode, we do talk a lot about in-person events, and as I recorded this intro, there is a global pandemic going on, so there are not a lot of in-person events going on right now. But digital communities are on the rise, and they can be just as powerful, and they can help you connect with people all across the globe. Take Vito’s advice to heart because it’s good and important, and in these times where we feel a little bit more isolated than normal, know that a digital community can help you make connections and grow your business and learn a little more about people from everywhere.
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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 Vito Peleg. He is the founder of WP Feedback. Vito, thanks for coming on the show. How are you doing?
Vito: My pleasure, Joe. I’ve wanted to come on this show for a long time.
Joe: That is very exciting to hear, and thank you. We met in real life at WordCamp US 2019, but we recently started talking because you started an online community. What we’re going to be talking about today is the important role that communities play in growing one’s business, so before we get to that, maybe we can just go over a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Vito: OK, awesome. I started building websites from the back of a van. I used to be a musician, and we were touring the world, releasing albums, playing shows are all over. Even though it seemed from the outside like we were doing it and the audience is growing, and albums are selling, we were all dead broke. So as a way of generating a bit of extra income, I started building websites from the van while we were on tour, and that was my first few freelance gigs. From there, it took off, and once the band split up and once we turned 30 and we had enough white hair to stop that, I started looking into “OK. What can I do with this web design business? How can I grow this up?” Within the first deal, I got to six figures with that business, and within three years, I had a team of twelve guys. Through the experience of growing and scaling up kind of fast, it became really apparent that there is a huge problem with communicating with clients in our industry or in any service delivery. There’s always a lot of friction between clients and the guy that is providing the service, and when it comes to technical stuff like building websites and stuff like that, it’s even more emphasized. To bridge the gap between our clients and us, we created a tool, and this is what we call WP Feedback. That tool started as a tool for us, but it worked so well we decided to release it to the wild. Once we did, it grew fast. A lot of it is thanks to the power of the WordPress community and the connections that I made within this community. The amazing people that help us spread the word, and so on. We broke a record being the first company in the history of WordPress that reached six figures in revenue within the first 30 days. Then from that point, it was like, “All right, no more client work. No more websites. Let’s focus just on WP Feedback.” That’s what I’ve been doing since, for the past seven months, we’ve been growing this product, and now we have a team of 10 people here at the company, and it’s growing every day.
Joe: That’s fantastic. First I want to ask, what did you do in the band? Did you sing, or did you play the instruments?
Vito: I was the lead singer and guitar player, and I was the manager. I was what was driving this.
Joe: Very cool. I play the drums myself.
Vito: That’s awesome.
Vito: That’s awesome. You know there’s always one guy that is the guy that does all of the work.
Joe: Yeah, for sure. It’s like a group project in college. There’s always somebody that does the work, and then anybody else just kind of hangs out.
Joe: I feel like both of us were the people who always did the work, except for–
Vito: Yeah, I think so.
Joe: I got paired up with one person. She was super type-A and had to get straight “A’s” all through college, and I contributed, but she ended up doing most of the work because she needed that “A.” She was upset that we got a 96, and I was like, “That is still an ‘A.’ An ‘A’ is always good.” Anyway, so this is great. You started making websites, and you did that pretty successfully, I would say. Then you created a tool that scratched your own itch, but as somebody who’s been in the WordPress community since 2004 knows, it scratched the itch of a lot of people. That’s why it grew, and you hit the nail on the head. You built a great product that everybody needed. I remember hearing about it right when it first came out. Everyone’s like, “You’ve got to check this out.”
Vito: That’s awesome.
Joe: It’s exciting to hear that it was thanks to the WordPress community.
Vito: Very much so.
Joe: Let’s talk a little bit about that. Were you involved in the WordPress community before you built WP Feedback, or was this something that helped you get involved in the community?
Vito: I was, but I was more of a fly on the wall than actual participant within the community. I was going to meetups here and there, nothing religiously. I was active on Facebook groups for years, and I’ve been doing WordPress since 2009.
Vito: So when you need to grow, especially when you’re a freelancer, there’s no one around you to ask. Going into a community online is a very powerful tool for us. That’s where I learned, I learned through the community. But when WP Feedback came about, I had something to also market to the community, which changes your perspective of what it is, if you will. When you approach it like that, then you start engaging with other product makers, product makers from products that I used for years, and now all of a sudden, you are hanging out with them. Podcasts that I listened to for years, now you are you appearing on them. This is like, once you have something that adds value to that community and you’re friendly, basically, then you can make a lot of connections that will skyrocket whatever you’re doing. Going to WordCamp Berlin last year, that was the huge revelation for me. I went there literally on the month of the launch, we launched on the 28th of May and the WordCamp I think was around the 10th of June. So, that was close. The buzz was starting to build when I went there, but while I was there and talking up to as many people as I could stop along the hallway track over there. That just solidified how much powerful this is. If you think of working with companies like GoDaddy, Elemental, Main WP, all of these massive players in our specific space, you would think that this is something that you would only approach three years in or four years in to any business, to start playing in these leagues. But thanks to the WordPress community, there was no barrier to entry, if you have a good idea that could provide value to those companies users that they collected over years, they are happy to make a connection, and they are happy to discuss and have a conversation around this. This emphasized this, and that’s from the professional point of view but also from our side from day one because it’s a feedback tool. We gave a lot of emphasis of engaging with our users, listening to what they have to say. It’s in the name, and we had to. So literally from even before day one, we had a Facebook group with people that were joining there. Now, seven months in the Facebook group has 1,200 people that are members in there engaging and helping each other, and all of this stuff. The experience of what I saw, from our users now, it reminded me of my experience as a freelancer and as an agency owner. That’s what drove us to the next step, which is what we’re launching now with the idea of helping the entire WordPress community with one platform that is designated for them.
Joe: That’s fantastic. You said a lot of stuff there, but I didn’t want to stop you because I thought it was very well-told. I feel like you did a good job telling that story.
Joe: But before WP Feedback, you were more of a fly on the wall. You went to meet ups and talked in Facebook groups, but I like what you said that once you were launching WP Feedback, you had something to market to the community. This is important for a couple of reasons because I think your approach was the right approach. You didn’t just jump in and go, “Look at my product.” You were already involved, and you knew how to talk to people in the community. The opposite of that is we had– I used to run the Scranton, Pennsylvania Meetup group and we had people come, and a few times these people would just come and give their card. Like it was a networking event, but they wouldn’t contribute at all. There would just go, “This is what I do, and then I’m going to leave.” Nobody wanted to work with that guy. I think that contributing and being a part of the community and then saying, “This is something based on what I know about the community that adds value.” I think you hit the nail on the head there.
Vito: We also did something that was cool that I didn’t see a lot of other people doing at that event, exactly on the point that you’re making now because I agree with you 100%. If you go to someone and you just try to jump in bed with them, it’s probably not going to work. You’ve got to ease your way in, that’s how you play the game. So what we did is before we launched the product, we had a bit of a survey that we did with our beta users. We surveyed 600 WordPress professionals to ask them how they run their business. The information was for us to see if my idea has merit. If it’s not just in my head, basically market validation and a bit of research to see what people are doing. But the cool thing is that we got a lot of data on how the industry is operating in terms of what is the average business size in the space. What tools these guys are using, which is your favorite? What is your go-to theme? What is your go-to page builder? Once you’ve collected from hundreds and hundreds of people, then you can create really interesting benchmarks. My approach to adding value to the community, instead of going around and giving away business cards, we printed out these guys. I think I have one here. We printed out these guys, which is the ultimate WordPress survey, and we just took all of the results from the stuff that we looked at people’s answers. We just created the report from “How many websites have you built in the last three months? How many WordPress websites does your team manage on an ongoing basis? How do you collect content? How do you provide support? What is your theme? What is that?” This is super– When I saw it, when I broke it down after reading the results myself, I was like “I wish I could see that as a freelancer and as an agency myself because it gives you proper benchmarks to your business to see what is achievable within the space. We printed out 500 of these, and this is what I gave away instead of a business cards, of course, the final page had a bit of information about what we do, but you start with giving value, and then if people care, they will stick around.
Joe: That’s truly fantastic. That’s email marketing 101 as well, right? You don’t just say, “Join my mailing list.” You say, “Give me your email address, and I will email you this awesome PDF thing.” Then that shows, “I’m not just here to sell you things, I’m here to give you value and quick wins.”
Vito: That’s exactly true, and that’s why we’ve got the strategy. I used to do this with the band before, and we used to play the small stage at the Download Festival, which is a rock festival here in the UK. Over there, I even have that here. It’s a festival with tens of thousands of people, which are our exact target audience as a rock band at the time. You want to get the favor of this community. It all ties up basically to what we’re talking about, you want to be in the favor of what they want, and you want to track them to see the show and to buy tickets and to buy merch, and to do all the stuff that you’re trying to market to them. So what we did is we created a few thousand of bandanas with the logo of the band and that kind of thing. Like, a cheap giveaway with the website of the band. It paid itself during the first day that we did it by people going to the website and buying the T-shirt to match the bandana that they already have, or buy the album and so on. This was a cool activity. So I’m trying to follow the same steps, and a lot of the stuff that I’m doing got taken from the music industry because it’s such a competitive market. If you want to stand out, you’ve got to think outside the box.
Joe: That’s so great. I think that’s fantastic. I’m generating ideas of my own now, so this is great. You join the community, and you immediately gave value once you launched your product, which was super important, and then you decided to launch this online community. Now before we get to that, there’s a couple more questions I want to touch on.
Joe: With the connections that you made in the community because I’m all about building networks and I’m a bit of a connector myself, I love meeting people, and I’m super extroverted. But how did you approach people in the community? You mentioned GoDaddy an Elemental, what was your approach to being like “I have this new tool. I think it’d be interesting.” What was that pitch like?
Vito: Before you pitch, you’ve got to– Again, it goes back to the dating game. Now I’m married, so I’m of out of practice on this field, but the rules still apply. You don’t want to go out and say, “Hi. I’m Vito, and I run a software company. How about you go to bed with me?” You go, and you ask questions, you develop the conversation, you develop true interest in the opposite person that is standing in front of you. Basically, you listen. The core of the partnerships that we did and all of the partnerships that we did are out of what these companies are doing with anyone else. Everything is unique, every opportunity that we got out there and made happen is not within a flow or system that these companies have. The reason for that is I found out what they are after. I asked them, and I still do that. I think that when we spoke, I asked you first, “Joe, what do you want to do in 2020?” Then I listen, and then I try to see where I can put myself in to add value to you while creating the collaboration for us.
Joe: That’s great. Again, you want to form a mutual relationship by going to events, meeting people, contributing things.
Vito: But it’s not, now that I’m saying it sounds a bit technical and maybe a little cold, but it’s not.
Joe: No, you’re absolutely right. Because look. People who are in business are in business, and I think that’s a mutual understanding. You’re not just walking up to people on the street going, “Let me get to know you, so maybe you’ll buy my product.” You’re going up to people–
Joe: Maybe a little bit, but mostly, especially at WordPress events, you’re going up to people saying, “You sponsored this event. Obviously, you want to get something out of it. Let’s talk. What do you want to get out of it? What do I want to get out of being here? How can we work together?”
Vito: “Why are you here?” That is such an easy question to ask someone at the conference. “Why are you here?” It tells you everything.
Joe: I love that. You’ve decided to take the community aspect to the next level, and we’re talking as a result of a call we had a few weeks ago as we record this, where you showed me this community and then invited me to it. I was blown away by it. You described it as a Facebook for the WordPress community, I think. Or I am describing that in my head, but that’s exactly what it feels like to me. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that and why you created it?
Vito: OK. When I first joined the community, and as we discussed that was a little more than a decade ago, there weren’t many options for WordPress. You’d go to the forums, and that’s where you’d be, that’s the only place that the community hangout. But obviously, forums is so ’90s nowadays. It’s not really– We’re in 2020, so the community has for the past decade has tried to find a new place. You saw there are 180,000 people just inside Facebook groups related to WordPress, there’s 70,000 people in Slack channels and 60,000 people in LinkedIn groups, and 240,000 in WordPress-related meetup groups. I’m not even talking about Reddit and all of these standalone forums, and the WordPress forum that is still limping its way through. It was just too much, especially now that my day is mostly around engaging with the community. With our users, with our potential partners, with our existing budgets. People like yourself, that’s what I do on Facebook or on Twitter or on LinkedIn. That’s the only reason why I have all of these platforms. More than that, when I need to consume information, I go to WP Tavern, then I go to WP Mayor, then I go to Torque. I think I told you, and these are my big three. But why? Why would I go to each one of them and consume content based on just the relevance of what they decided at that moment, instead of based on the categories that I wanted to explore? Like you do on Netflix, for example. When you scroll down, it’s not about the publisher, or if Warner Brothers’ released something, it’s about “I want to watch a sitcom. I want to watch a comedy or a drama,” it goes based on that. I tried to take all of these aspects and bring it in. The main reason for this is because the mission for WP Feedback from day one was, “Let’s fix communications for WordPress professionals.” For my position as an agency owner when we started this business, I could only see freelancers and agencies under the definition of “WordPress professionals.” But now that I’m more immersed in what’s going on, I identify this term as a much broader term. I consider myself still a “WordPress professional” now as a product maker, and yourself as a podcast maker, you’re also a “WordPress professional” in what you’re doing. Hosting companies are “WordPress professionals” in what they’re serving the community with, and all of these people, they’re also touching this community from different angles. It’s not just freelancers and agencies, so this platform is our next level and how we want to fix communications for “WordPress professionals” globally. For every company that is out there, for every freelancer, for every agency, for every podcast, and so on.
Vito: One thing that I would want to– Especially with the title of the podcast, I think that would be interesting. When this idea clarified that this is what we’re doing, because we didn’t really set out to build a social platform, but the need and the market drove us there. So, when this idea clarified and I accepted that this is what we’re doing, I went out, and I researched, “What does that mean? How can I make a successful social platform? What should I build into the tool, into this platform to make it engaging and useful to the people that land it?” What I found is that the interesting thing with social media is that all of them do the same thing, exactly, except for one or two unique features that each platform has. You must have messaging, and you have to have some kind of a profile and some kind of a feed or a message board, or some kind of area where people post stuff. But if you look at the Snapchat, the face filters and the stories were their differentiator. We even talked about Tinder, where you also have a profile and messages, but their differentiator is the use of discovery, which is a swipe right or swipe left. That’s what they put forward. LinkedIn, it’s about the community, but it’s more about finding a job. Or [BeHance], which is by Adobe now and all of this kind of stuff. It’s more about creating your portfolio, but also engaging with the community. That’s what we created here, and it’s not just about the groups and stuff, even though this is a huge part of what we’re building here to make it stick. The unique features are their feedback tool, and the sandbox, which give us differentiation over any other platform that is out there. The good thing is that now that it’s identified into a niche, we can keep building stuff that are relevant for us. Facebook will never do that. It will never build stuff that are relevant just to web designers and other people in the space.
Joe: That’s fantastic. A common theme that keeps coming up in these conversations is you did a lot of research. I love hearing that, because a lot of times it seems like you listen to the show, so you might have heard a lot, “I just did it, and then it turns out people needed it.” But the more I wade into being a “Real business,” trying to grow my business because I have actual stakes like a child and a house and another one on the way as we record this.
Joe: Thank you. We’re excited. But I’m like, “I need to be a real business person.” Research is super important because you want to know what people want, and what problem you’re solving, what audience you’re serving. You can’t just do that based on your own headcanon. Right?
Vito: I 100% agree. I used to offer it the same way that you’re describing myself, being a musician is the worst product market fit that can happen in this world. You just do whatever you want and hope that people like it, and most times they don’t. But you never change because that’s selling out. But in business, I adopted a different approach, just because with the agency, I got to see hundreds and hundreds of other businesses that came to us with their ideas, mostly stupid ideas if I may say. You’ve got to walk them through why this idea is never going to take off, or if it is what we need to do to make it take off. That rapid experience of launching websites every single month and doing not only the [inaudible] but launching the strategies to take them to market, it created a scenario where I have a system that if I have an idea I just go through the system, and it just includes market research as part of it. You create a landing page, and you ask some questions, that’s done. That’s all of it. It’s not like you’re going out there and flying around the world and serving people one by one, you just post on a few Facebook groups and get about 500 responses. Which 500 responses sometimes is the amount that these surveys in the news channels, these are the amount of people that tell you if this guy is going to be president or that guy is going to be president. This number is easy to get to, but it’s deep enough to give you a real market image.
Joe: I love that. To bring it back, if you are involved in a community, you have the ability to do that because you are given a platform.
Vito: You just ask them.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely.
Joe: We’re coming up on our time here, and there’s a couple of things I want to get to. First of all, I need to ask– I don’t get to ask this too much anymore, but I do want to ask the title question. How did you build the social platform? Did you build it from scratch? Did you start with BuddyPress or something like that?
Vito: Initially, we started from scratch, and we wanted to build this on [inaudible] and React. Our cloud based system, like our dashboard area. So we started with this, but it took so long, it took ages to do any small things that we did not want to do. As we were building it and I was working with the dev team, I was like, “Why? Why are we spending so much time to create a “Like” feature when thousands of people before us already have a “Like” feature on a comment? Why would we need to build that, why would we need to build a group’s module? It already exists out there.” Then just around the same time, BuddyBoss, which is a great company, they launched a lifetime deal on their new theme, which is basically a fork of BuddyPress. They took BuddyPress, which was great for the beginning of 2000s, but stopped there. Then they just said, “All right, we’re taking over. We’re taking it. We’re going to take it from here.” They brought it to 2019, basically, to make sure that something is viable. That gave us a nice base for what we created, but as I described before, that is not enough to create a successful community because a platform like this gives you the social tools. It doesn’t give you a differentiator. Now that’s your job as– That’s my job as the guy that is running this show to figure out “What can we build that will be so unique, so specific that this will be our title, not the community?” Like LinkedIn with their jobs or Tinder with find a date. For us, it’s peer to peer feedback, and people can go in and share each other’s design, give each other responses. It works amazingly. I don’t know if you had a look this morning on what people tell to each other, but it’s incredible the feedback that people are giving. Super valuable from the first sentence you read. That’s the impact that you would want to illustrate with these additional features. So anyway, to make it short, BuddyBoss is the theme that is powering this. We’re also using Elemental Report to drive all of the custom pages around this. We took WP Feedback as the main differentiator and the feedback tool, and we broke it down. We incorporated it in there and then patched them all together, and 10,000 lines of code later this is where the platform is.
Joe: That’s incredible. I’ve got to say, and the feedback feature is fantastic. I will certainly be taking advantage of that.
Joe: As we come to a close on this episode, I want to ask you if you could give the listeners two or three tips for getting involved in whatever community they want to get involved in. Whether it’s WordPress or some other Penn community, or something like that?
Vito: Number one, find the events that are around you. That’s the most important thing because a true relationship starts in the real world. You can talk to people online as much as you want, but as long as you’re sitting face to face in front of someone, it’s not real. That would be my number one. Then try and find local groups on Facebook or any other social channel and make yourself known. Just be there, provide value. It’s not about posting “Hi, this is my website. Come in and buy.” It’s about looking at what people are posting in there, trying to learn what are their concerns. How can you fit yourself into what they’re already thinking instead of trying to change the agenda of the day? This is what we did with both of these steps here with WP Feedback. Instead of trying to force a solution on the market, we figure out what the market needed, and we just built that. That’s exactly what has happened here with this community as well. That’s how you can get to an easy product market fit. Go meet people in the real world, engage online in these groups, go to podcasts, and do PR stuff. This is all stuff from the music world. You go to the shittiest– Sorry, I don’t know if I can say that.
Joe: We’ll post it.
Vito: You go to the most random radio stations, local radio stations along the road when you’re traveling when there’s going to be two listeners, but you’re still there doing your thing, spreading the word. That’s how it goes.
Joe: I absolutely love that. A true relationship starts in the real world. I think that’s so fantastic.
Joe: Love it. Vito, thank you so much for your time today. I do need to ask you one more question, of course, which is my favorite. Do you have any trade secrets for us?
Vito: I’m pretty transparent about what I’m doing. I think I have a bunch of trade secrets, but I usually don’t– I’m happy to share them. That’s part of the community vision. I don’t know, nothing that comes to my mind, but I can share our strategy of how we got to six figures within the first 30 days. That was a collection of trade secrets that were all bundled up together, and instead of sending to my website with the power [inaudible] let me send it to Vova’s website to Freemius.com, where I collaborated on a massive blog post over there. I think it is like 7,000 words breaking down each step of our launch strategy. How we did the market research, how we took the product to market, how we built the community around this, and how we got press mentions and all of this kind of stuff. Since then, I’ve seen a lot of people started to follow these articles and getting some awesome results, so I hope that more will do the same.
Joe: Awesome. Love that. First of all, we are going to link to that article I’ll also linked to Vova’s episode. I interviewed him on the show, but I also feel like this could be a trade secret. I’m pretty transparent about what I’m doing, and I’m happy to share, I think a lot of people feel like they need to keep what they know close to the chest. I’ve been preaching to my students and my mailing list, “Share what you know, because people are going to see what you know. Then if they need to hire you or buy your products, they’ll do that.” Because sure, I could watch a YouTube video on how to refinish my bathroom or something like that. But I’m not going to do that, and I’m going to hire a professional to do it.
Vito: Yes, I agree. I think that it also goes to the fact that if you give people something, they would want to give back. Being business owners, no matter what sector and what kind of industry you’re working on, we never know. We never know anything. We only figure it out along the way. That’s how this whole game works, so I don’t know a year from now, but someone has already been there. If I would share my knowledge with people that are a year back from where I am at this stage, hopefully, that will give me the ability to reach out to people that are useful now. It works like that, and when you send something to the world or to the universe, it comes back in the same form.
Joe: I love that. What a great place to end. Vito, thank you so much for your time. Where can people find you?
Vito: My pleasure, Joe. Join the community, WPFeedback.co. It’s completely free. It’s growing fast, and we have some amazing people like Joe and like all of the other community leaders that we have in there. Anyone from Troy Dean to the guys from Quotable that our managing groups in there, to [EV Cha and Davinder], everyone is– Nathan and all of the guys, everyone is in there running their own groups in their unique specialty. It’s the best place to gather WordPress knowledge out there at the moment.
Joe: Fantastic. I will link to that, and everything we talked about in the show notes over at HowIBuilt.it. Vito, thanks again for joining me.
Vito: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Outro: Thanks so much to Vito for joining us today. I liked his story from the beginning, where he said he started building websites from the back of his van. Some of the more, “Guerilla marketing” things that he did, and then how he built WP feedback in less than a year to make it an extremely profitable business. I loved his motivations for starting the community and things like that. I am part of that community if you want to join it and say “Hi” I will link everything in the show notes over at HowIBuilt.it/162. That’s where you can get everything that we talked about over there. Thanks again to Vito for spending some time with us, and thanks to this week’s sponsors Ahrefs and TextExpander. Those are two tools that have helped my business considerably by saving me time and helping me write good content for people who are visiting my own websites. If you liked this episode, be sure to rate and review it on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you want to subscribe to the show. You can get all of those links again over at HowIBuilt.it/162. If you are interested in starting your own podcast, like I said at the top of the show, check out my free podcast workbook over at PodcastWorkbook.com. I think that’s everything that I have to request of you right now, so thanks so much for listening. Until next time, get out there and build something.