🎙️ Episode #17

David vs. Goliath: Justin Ferriman on How Underdog Entrepreneurs Can Overpower Bigger Software Competitors

Justin Ferriman - founder and former CEO of LearnDash

Show Notes

Justin Ferriman is the founder and former CEO of LearnDash, a platform that he grew from a simple blog to one of the leading solutions in the LMS space through a mixture of aggressive marketing and clever ‘guerilla’ tactics that helped him take on bigger competitors. He’s a non-technical founder who approaches business with a competitive streak that’s seen him go from underdog to top dog in the eLearning industry.

At the height of LearnDash’s success, Justin sold the company at 32% YoY growth with a whopping 76% profit margin. He’s since settled into the role of elite business coach at his company BrightGrowth, where he nurtures and guides the star entrepreneurs of the future.

Thanks to a combination of savvy business instincts, constant content creation, and confident competitiveness, Justin has realized great success. In this episode, we examine the specific strategies and tactics he used to take on bigger competitors with more resources to emerge as the victor.

Thanks to Justin for joining us and providing such valuable advice about building successful distributed companies. Join us next week with Amir Helzer, the founder of OnTheGoSystems. His company is responsible for WPML, the leading multilingual plugin used by more than a million websites.

plugin.fm is brought to you by Freemius, your all-in-one payments, subscriptions, and taxes platform for selling software, plugins, themes, and SaaS. If you enjoyed this episode, head over to plugin.fm to check out previous episodes.


Episode Contributors:

Justin Ferriman — Guest

Patrick Rauland — Host

Vova Feldman — Content quality control

Scott Murcott — Content research and preparation

Zee Hazan — Audio and video quality control

Emiliano Pioli — Audio and video editing

Chapters & Episode Notes

0:00 – Intro

1:34 – The Explosive Growth of LearnDash During the Pandemic: A Founder’s Journey

9:55 – Navigating Competition: The Importance of Relentless Positioning and Strategic Innovation

15:05 – Strategies for Underdogs: How to Outplay Big Players in the Market

22:20 – Tactics for Hiring Content Marketers: Finding the Right Fit for Your Technical Business

27:43 – Cracking the Content Code: Winning in Content Marketing Against Competitors

35:07 – Addressing Feature Gaps: How to Compete When Your Competitor Has the Advantage

39:02 – Exploring Paid Media: The Good, the Bad, and the Profitable

42:55 – Competitive Guerrilla Marketing: Fair Play or Crossing the Line?

46:49 – Reflecting on Lessons: Outsourcing Yourself & Staying Market-Aware

49:08 – Outro


Justin: There was one very talented developer. He revealed in a conversation that we were having this feature he was working on, and I remember thinking, “Damn, that is a great idea.”

Patrick: Justin Fairman is the founder and former CEO of LearnDash, one of the leading solutions in the LMS space.

Justin: I went back to our team. We need to prioritize this idea. We did, we put it out, and we got all the kudos. And like a year later, he shut down that whole product.

Patrick: Justin sold the company with 76% profit margins.

Justin: That is an example of being competitive. To just maybe talk less and listen more.

Patrick: In this episode, we’re going to dive into the strategies and tactics that he used to take on bigger competitors with more resources and still come out on top.

Justin: I was coming out with updates every two weeks ’cause I wanted to constantly be in the inbox, telling people like, “Look what we’re doing, look what we’re doing.” People were like, “Wow, they’re really making moves. I’m going to choose them.”

Patrick: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of plugin.fm. My name is Patrick Rauland, and today I’m going to be talking with a non-technical founder who tackles business with a competitive streak that’s seen him go from underdog to top dog in the e-learning industry. He’s then taken on the mantle of elite business coach at his company Bright Growth, nurturing and guiding the star entrepreneurs of the future. It’s the combination of savvy business instincts, constant content creation, and confident competitiveness that’s led to his success. Welcome Justin and thanks for joining us.

Justin: Thank you, thank you for having me Patrick.

Patrick: “Yeah, thanks for joining us. I think lots of people in the e-learning space, and I’m, I’m kind of in that space, have heard of LearnDash, so I’m really excited to get into the details today.

So let’s start with LearnDash and how much it grew recently, especially in the pandemic era. I’m assuming it grew exponentially and just kind of skyrocketed up, and you sold. So for people who are just listening to the podcast, I imagine it was fairly steady growth and then sort of, you know, pandemic made it go up in a parabola like exponential curve and you sold it there, right? Like in the middle of an exponential curve. What was that like?

Justin: It was a wild ride for sure. There were several points in the company’s history where there were big jumps and growth, and obviously the pandemic was probably the biggest one. Now in 2020, March, that’s when the first lockdown occurred, and that’s when the biggest first bump, March April of 2020, came. Within two months, six to eight weeks, I hired about 15 people to come in, support, developers. It was crazy.

Patrick: Wow, in six to eight weeks you hired 15 people?

Justin: Yes.

Patrick: Wow, that’s a lot.

Justin: I don’t know. I mean, sometimes it’s hard to remember pain, but like if you think back during that time, we had so many support requests coming in. It was just we couldn’t keep up at the time and I always ran the ship lean and mean beforehand, yeah. So, you know, we’re already having to catch up a little bit, but that was, you know, we onboarded a lot of folks and then for the couple years there, we’re servicing them and as is everybody was creating online courses at that time and and trying to either offer them sell them, you know, augment their offerings in some way in order to remain relevant during these lockdown periods.

Patrick: Yeah. So I’ve been in the e-commerce space and I’ve been in the membership space, and I imagine e-learning and so I should say I’ve sold those to customers whereas e-learning I’ve done myself and I haven’t sold that software to anyone else. So, but I, and I’ve seen the growth of e-commerce and membership software in the pandemic and it was bonkers. I think e-learning is probably even more bonkers because there’s even fewer barriers to entry whereas e-commerce you need to have physical goods membership you need to deliver something monthly e-learning is just, anyone in the world can make one course so your your total addressable market was huge.

Justin: Yeah, exactly. I mean, think about fitness professionals at the time. They couldn’t offer anything in person, and so they all wanted to create their own online programs. Now it’s pretty normal. In fact, I personally, I think I enjoy at-home workouts now because of the pandemic, just being at home working out watching something on the computer. But yeah, it was almost every industry jumped at an opportunity for online courses.

Patrick: Wow, so okay, so let’s talk about e-learning as an industry. Why would you jump into e-learning, especially because I, at least in the WordPress world, lots of people have already created e-learning solutions. There were competitors around before you got started. Why did you think there was, like, a good niche to pursue?

Justin: So, at the time of LearnDash, WooThemes was talking about it. So, I started in March 2012 blogging about WordPress LMS and what that would entail. I didn’t know if I was going to build it or, I should say, find someone to build it since I don’t know how to code, but I, I just started talking about it because I was an eLearning consultant. That’s what I did in my day-to-day. Okay, I was in a conversation at a client site. We were talking about what LMS they were going to use. Ian, this is a huge billion-dollar corporation, but the concept of an open-source LMS came up at the time and still today Moodle is one of those LMS’s that’s open-source. I obviously had a hobby in WordPress. I was like, “Man, I bet you that’d be a great LMS.” You know, it’s open-source. It can augment with the training program as it gets bigger. You can add things for the students or the learners to make it more engaging. So, that whole idea started based on my day job. I started blogging and building an email list, decided to get it built. Now, in October is when I started getting a build of that same year.

Patrick: And what year is this?

Justin: 2012.

Patrick: Okay, great. This is pretty early.

Justin: Yeah. And at the time, WooThemes said they were still kicking out themes, and they had this, they were calling it like a “course theme,” and at some point as I was building or having somebody build LearnDash, they pivoted to a plugin, and they were like, “Oh, we’re gonna make it a plugin now.” And honestly, I was really freaked out. I didn’t know, I was like, “Man, maybe I should pull the plug on this. I’m not sure.” They’re huge. But then at the same time, I was like, “Well, that kind of validates it,” and they were calling it an LMS or anything like those words I was using because that was my industry. And so there was, at the other time, I think it was WPCourseware, you might be thinking of, but they were kind of around doing something, but they were calling it something different. I don’t remember. At this time, I was the only one calling it LMS, LMS, WordPress LMS. That was actually I was targeting that keyword in Google and everything smart. And then in January of 2013, Sensei launched because they had all those developers and resources, and I kind of hurried my launch to be a week right after. And so from there, it was, you know, Sensei, LearnDash, WPCourseware, some other players came in. I did that, I worked that and my job for four months, and then in April 2013, I left my job to do LearnDash full-time.

Patrick: Wow, only four months. That was all the overlap you needed.

Justin: Yeah, that was pretty surprising. The launch was great in my mind. it wasn’t like some spectacular launch, but you know, I made decent money, and then I just reinvested it all to the developer I was contracting. I was like, “Hey, fix everything that’s broken.” Yeah, there was a dip in February, and then when the market realized like, hey, this is cool, then the sales went up. And then I was kind of stretched too thin. I wasn’t doing my day job very well. I wasn’t doing the LearnDash stuff very well. So that’s when I took the plunge into LearnDash and never looked back. So it was a while. So from idea to leaving, it was like a year.

Patrick: Okay, that actually feels pretty fast. And you, so from the context, have you done a bunch of other plugins or software companies or anything like that, or was this kind of your first dip into that an entrepreneurship? 

I tried many things for about a decade, but this was my first foray into software. Okay, it was intimidating because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was pretty naive. I mean, I can speak the language now. I know a lot more about WordPress development for an average person, but at the time, I didn’t know anything. And that hurt the company in the early years until, you know, things kind of smoothed out and I got people in place that were experts in there, yeah, to really freshen up the code and make sure everything was legit.

Patrick: Oh, nice. So it’s interesting because I’m on the other side of this. I think I was working at WooThemes at the time. Now, I worked on WooCommerce and not on Sensei, but it’s funny because I know the people who worked on Sensei and the discussions that they had. So it’s cool to hear the other side. Here, let me ask you, in a theoretical magical world where they launched six months ahead of you, would that have changed anything? You know, where it, like, if it felt like they had more of a lead, would that have changed anything?

Justin: Probably. I think if I’m honest, I, I think at the time, like I was, you obviously, I was doing my day job. I had this, I would work in the hotel rooms at night, blogging and trying to build a buzz. I don’t think I would have been able to build as big of a buzz because at the time there was nothing really out there. But if Sensei was out and they were out six months earlier, you know, maybe, maybe. But it was just sort of a different approach. I was excited because I felt like I was bringing something that didn’t quite exist yet. I mean, we’re talking about the early days. So one thing that LearnDash did that Sensei didn’t do initially, then they obviously updated pretty quick, was you can mark things complete and have a tracker and it would bring you to the next lesson like that. Yeah, now that’s common. Yeah, that’s like the most basic features, right? But at the time, that was unheard of. Like there was the membership industry and what LearnDash did and the others that entered is we connected the dots. It’s like, why are you creating a membership to sell a course usually? And so we just took that next step further that added just that cool factor that people were looking for like making it easier for them to connect their lessons instead of creating pages and like manually adding links to each following lesson.

Patrick: When you’re comparing and contrasting yourself against competitors you can and should highlight just about anything but there are three things that Justin shares that you shouldn’t highlight more on that later.

Justin: Yeah, there’s no single path to a destination. I’ll admit that. My way of thinking in business isn’t everybody’s way. I certainly believe in my way because I didn’t invent it. I just emulated what other very successful companies have done. I tend to be a very competitive person, just I guess in life but healthy, you know. I’ve always respected competition. I don’t get hung up on it too much. Certainly as I’ve gotten older, that’s, you know, losses became easier to take and it’s perspective but in WordPress especially in the early days but still happens today, there is this mentality of like build it and they will come. We’re doing something good for the community. This is great. Like, we don’t pay attention to our competition and I think that’s silly because your customers are paying attention to the competition. They’re comparing you to the other options. So whether you are or not doesn’t matter. It’s not about you, it’s about the customer. So if you want to speak the customer’s language, you have to compete. You have to relentlessly watch the people in your space, maybe the ones that you consider are slightly above you, the ones that are right on your heels, and make sure that you’re always positioning yourself to be in the best light compared to them when somebody’s shopping you over someone else. I mean, that’s how you make more money, that’s how you convince people to buy your product.

Patrick: I’m a huge fan of positioning. I really believe that if you have a unique position in the market, you will always find customers, like if you were the best at security or whatever, like you will always have some amount of customers if you’re the best at something with your position. I do have some reservations about comparing myself. Here’s my concern: if I spend all my time thinking about how I compare to competitors AB and C, I’m not thinking about how I can be the best product. Like I think I’m only contrasting and sometimes it takes you to instead of zero to one thinking, it’s one to two thinking, or it’s incremental, it’s like how do I beat them by 0.1 seconds in load time as opposed to how do I rethink how we do design this so that’s not even an issue anymore. Does that make sense?

Justin: It does make sense and you’re absolutely right, Patrick. Like you can get down a rabbit hole and then suddenly you’re becoming reactive to the market. You don’t want to react to your competition. I think what I always did is I would look at competition was doing from a feature standpoint, from their value proposition to get an idea of how they’re going after the market and then seeing how we compared to their value proposition and if it was possible to nullify an advantage they had in that way or to maybe call out what we did and why that was more important than some of these other value propositions that were out there and convince people of our way and why we believe our way is the best.

Patrick: Okay, I love that and I think I would separate, and I don’t think enough companies do this, there’s product strategy and that should probably be something you own and figure out of like what is how do we build the best product for customers period and then maybe once you launch that then there’s maybe marketing positioning which is then I think that’s a little bit more reactive and you can “Oh, they have this one point it’s actually not that important let’s write a blog post about why that’s not the most important feature.”

Justin: Exactly. But sometimes you do get in a feature battle. It happened a few times in the history of LearnDash where there was one up-and-coming competitor, very talented developer. I still like the individual; we’re still kind of friends. But he revealed in a conversation that we were having, I was with some other people, this feature he was working on. In the WordPress setting, this is another part about being competitive. I never revealed too much about what we were working on, what was coming amongst the community because maybe you call it paranoia, call it just trying to keep a competitive advantage, but this individual did. And I remember thinking, “Damn, that is a great idea,” and I was kicking myself. I didn’t think about it. I went back to our team, to the developer, and I brought it up. I said, “We need to prioritize this idea. If he gets it out and starts making a splash, like people are going to see that and start going to that product, and I’m trying to, you know, maintain our position.” We did. We put it out and we got all the kudos. We got all the kudos in the world. And like a year later, he shut down that whole product. Is that the reason? No. But I think there’s probably other reasons there. But the fact that we already had a leg up, we were already ahead of them, and then I came out with it, and then we got all the praise, that is an example of being competitive, just maybe talk less and listen more, and you’re always gonna have an advantage.

Patrick: Justin has a ton of great mental models. One of them is his Wendy strategy which I had never heard of before but it did make sense once he explained it. If you’re a smaller business you want to be the Wendy’s to your competitors McDonald’s.

Let’s talk about so I think for a while you’re an underdog. I think eventually you kind of became the destination LMS, but I think for a while you’re an underdog and you know WooThemes, which was at the time a giant..

Justin: Juggernaut.

Patrick: Yeah, in the WordPress world comes out with a directly competing product and they launched a week before you. That’s scary, yeah. How do newcomers with few resources shine? How do you outplay bigger players?

Justin: Great question, and I think it can be separated into strategy and tactics. Tactics will always change with the times. The tactics I used might not work for somebody today, but the strategy is the same. So my mentality with WooThemes at the time is they had a portfolio of companies or portfolio of products. I didn’t need to be WooThemes at being WooThemes. I needed it to be Sensei, just that product. And so my philosophy at the time, I used to say, “I want to be the Wendy’s to their McDonald’s.” And so for anybody that’s not in the United States, Wendy’s is another fast food chain and their strategy in the 80s was to build a building right across the street from McDonald’s all the time. So if people were stopping at McDonald’s, there is usually a Wendy’s that’s right across the street.

Patrick: I didn’t know that.

Justin: It is true.

Patrick: It is true?

Justin: Yeah.

Patrick: I didn’t know that.

Justin: So that was my philosophy initially. So whenever there was an article written about Sensei, whenever I couldn’t get in the article, I was in the comments. If there were forums or any conversation, if there were podcasts or whatever, like I was always reaching out and networking with folks that were maybe gravitating towards Sensei or talked about Sensei in any kind of way. When WooThemes got bought out, they kind of shifted the attention strictly to Commerce and that was a boom opportunity. We kept hitting the pavement with e-learning, they took their foot off the pedal and they never got back. Actually, a couple years after the acquisition, I didn’t even consider him a competitor. I know Ronnie over there that’s running it now. Ronnie is an awesome guy and they’re trying to revigor in some ways, but at the time, they just lost too much ground because of the focus on WooCommerce. And they’ve done amazing things in WooCommerce and that’s probably the right play, but just sticking with that mantra, I only need to beat them on this one product. I only need to beat them. Everything I did, all my team’s energy was for one goal in the space where their team’s energy naturally was spread out over products and offerings and customers. So for somebody to bring it back up to today, somebody that’s trying to get into a space that’s already crowded, the first thing is market research. Looking and seeing what people are saying, what they’re complaining about. And you don’t have to create a competing product on every free feature level. A lot of the products out there are very feature rich, but like that can be to their disadvantage. There are certain features that are more used than others and can you slim it down? And then can you contextualize that in your sales copy and interviews you do? YouTube channel, creating content. I mean, if you’re not creating content, what are you doing? You have to do something. You can pay for ads and I’ve done that too, but you need to put yourself out there because these bigger companies like, in my opinion, WooThemes were kind of like a big cruise ship and I was a speedboat. So I could turn really quick. They had the momentum and they were big and they had the following, but I was, you know, right in the waters next to them. Why people that are starting out, you’re the speedboat, you can create a lot of noise. I was, at the time, coming out with updates every two weeks, rigorous schedule because I wanted to constantly be in the inbox of the people that were looking at LearnDash versus Sensei. Sensei wasn’t because they had more QA, probably more processes. It was probably for the good, but was constant. I was with my developer, like we need to get something out, we need to get something out, so I can email and tell people like, look what we’re doing, look what we’re doing, and that resonated. People were like, wow, they’re really making moves, I’m going to choose them. Why my approach to the market was, I was an e-learning expert since it’s a WordPress development thing, you know, it wasn’t I’m the expert, but if you want to go with the generic thing, you can go with them, but if you want to go with the expert, then come to me.

Patrick: Fantastic, so there’s a lot there in that answer. There’s strategies and tactics, there was Wendy’s, the Wendy’s approach to McDonald’s, there was you only need to beat them at your one product. I actually don’t know what to take away from that, and maybe that’s a good, there’s a lot of individual lessons there. Okay, so out of, I probably forgot to list one of those, what is the most important one? I have my own inclination of which is the most important of the ones you just listed, but like what, you know, what is the quintessential thing that blends?

Justin: What blends, what connects him, I think is just relentless communication of your message and your value. I think we see a lot of people that are starting out, maybe they’re doing building public, and I think that’s one reason building public works, by the way, is because it forces you to be kind of relentless, keeping people in the know, communicating, communicating, communicating. That’s what I did. Anytime I could create a blog post, take a potshot when I could about something, anytime I was on a podcast, I would write. I blogged every day for a year, every day. And so if you look at the Learn blog, there’s some old posts, but I was blogging every single day when they weren’t. I was on every single comment section, at the time, on blogs that were talking things, I was over-communicating and talking and shouting my value proposition from every corner.

Patrick: Yeah, I hope this doesn’t have a negative connotation because it’s not supposed to, but flooding the field is kind of just what came up to my, just like you can’t, so maybe the way to think about it, you can’t research that market without coming across LearnDash.

Justin: 100%. And right now, it was, and they would be in the conversation. Now, it was, now it’s like number one often. Sometimes it’s the only WordPress solution. This is where strategy came into play. I was from the e-learning space, I had e-learning connections, so I had LearnDash listed on LMS lists that didn’t even include WordPress, took that niche and then communicated, “Hey, everybody, we’re the only LMS that is WordPress that’s listed on these things.” We were included in an e-learning magazine. That’s by no accident because I had connections and then I told people like, “Look, we’re in e-learning magazine. You’re not going to find any of these plugins on there, but we were because we’re serious.” This is the kind of stuff that I was always saying and flooding the market with that message. But I think it’s a good way to say it and maybe it was easier for me to do it because I wasn’t coding, I wasn’t developing. So what was I doing? A lot of folks that are listening to this are super talented developers and creating really fantastic pieces of software, yep, but in doing so or neglecting that other piece, it’s an afterthought. It’s like, “Okay, now I’ve developed this thing, I’m really proud of it and you should be. Now I got to tell some people,” and they do a little bit but it’s not, it was flipped for me. I was doing no coding, so I was doing some support because I was the main product support guy and I was just boom, boom, boom, message all day long, every day.

Patrick: So there have been some interesting discussions. Like many times, sorry, many times people are technical, and they want to hire a marketing person, and when they do, you know, it’s like what keywords do we use, and like the volume is incredibly slow, and it takes a long time to get started. The volume is low, you’ll get like one blog post a week, and sometimes the quality is low. Yeah, so when you, you know, writing a blog post a day is pretty great. I will say to all the learners out there, I was very slow at writing blog posts, and then I did take a 30-day challenge where I wrote a blog post every day, and about a week in, I figured out how to write a blog post in a day. It was really hard the first week. It was, it felt, you’re like this is the idea, the outline, write down it out, figure out feat images, and images later, that was my process, yeah. But if you’re a technical person, how do you hire someone who can either A, learn that skill, or B, already has it because I imagine tiring you to do that would be expensive, you know?

Justin: It is, so first of all, for you to have any traction, and this could change too because we know how Google is and all that but we really mention I don’t think we’ll talk about it much but I’m happy to. I almost started an AI company, Gap Scout. I did it for about a year. I pulled the plug because of the legality of things and we can talk about that but I did the marketing again and I did a little bit of tweaking on what I did at LearnDash but it still worked. You need three posts minimum, 1400 words a day to create content spokes, and that means you have a theme. So my theme was market research for that and then I had articles that all related to Market Research. I linked all those articles back to the market research pillar article and the pillar would link out to these spokes, you know, spoke articles and I would do that across different, I think like you, customer experience was another one all these different keywords and over time I started getting more and more people coming to the site and I have thousands of people signed up for this list on software I’m not even releasing but that worked and I did experiment I started with two blog posts because I used to do three at LearnDash I was like I’m only going to do two by the way I started writing them until I found somebody to write for me and that was good it was getting traction but I up at the three and the Google analytics the metrics everything shot up so three plus minimum 1,400 words sometimes I went 2000 whatever and I eventually got two writers working on things I had a good sense of SEO I didn’t really want to go in the AI route of writing articles I think jury is still out if that’s a good idea or not but still works I think the point is it could be content like that but it could be YouTube as well YouTube is argu I’m coaching some folks now they use YouTube for these individuals outside the WordPress space but he was talking to me he’s like I don’t even bother with content because YouTube’s algorithm updates like once a year and the policies that they change are usually impacting like the income from ads right they’re not impacting really the search as they are in Google and so he’s killing it just through YouTube video short little YouTube pieces so it’s something to to think about as well for folks that are creating content maybe it’s a podcast, you just have to be out there producing something yeah so go back to your question though I didn’t answer it how do you find somebody that’s a tough one I’ve joined i’ the two writers that I found one was introduced to me from a former writer I had they all know each other so if you know somebody and even if you know that you probably won’t be able to hire them reach out to them maybe get one article but then you can say like oh is there someone else in your network I also joined some slack groups and I forget which forgetting up top of my head but I can probably do some research but I joined some slack groups that were around like content marketing business starting and they had like a hiring section I just kind of typed in there some guy reached out to me, he was excellent, it’s a crapshoot sometimes you gotta, I tried other ones and I just were like no this isn’t going to work I tried some off of Upwork people that have a good sense of just solid SEO principles without trying to gain the system.

Patrick: Yeah, is this the type of thing where you hire someone who’s a fast writer and then they may know nothing about your industry and you just slowly teach them about your industry and you know they’ll get technical details wrong of it’s a SaaS software as a service not a WordPress plugin you know they’ll get those things wrong and that’s okay and it’s it’s worth the tradeoff.

Justin: Yeah, that’s what I did especially in the second go around and then with LearnDash when I brought in the writer she was familiar with WordPress maybe not developer depth knowledge but my articles were more like at that time about e-learning online course creation that kind of stuff and then on the second business like market research and those kind of things so I think you know those it’s easier to somebody to come up the speed you want to find somebody that knows SEO like a very simple SEO just how to create articles link them and Target some keywords that are obtainable and and the right at a good volume.

Patrick: Well, I think we could talk about this all day but I’ll move on but that’s super this is super interesting I love hearing this.

Okay so speaking of head-to-head marketing with your competitors I think before this interview you highlighted the idea of identifying a competitor’s core strengths and then going after those exact strengths in that head-on competition can you share an example of that with LearDash.

Justin: Yeah, sure. So LearnDash was built on the blog, right? And as I’ve been talking about, that was the only marketing strategy I did for years. It’s kind of crazy to think that LearnDash didn’t have a YouTube channel at one point, but it didn’t. It just didn’t seem as important. At the time, Lifter LMS, they had a YouTube channel. Love those guys. Chris is a really great person. The guy, Chris, who runs Lifter, and I have tons of respect for them. They had a YouTube channel that was kind of their main customer driver. They were doing interviews and podcasts, their LMS cast, and I realized that they had an advantage over us by having a presence there. So I went directly to the field that they were in. I was like, “How do we compete with them on YouTube? I’m going to create my own videos with a spin, leveraging my expertise as somebody in e-learning.” And so I started off talking about instructional design principles, like the best ways to create courses to maximize course completions because in the e-learning world, a course completion is a conversion. Yeah. So how to maximize that, how to structure your courses. Oh, by the way, this is how you do it with LearnDash. And those were the types of videos. And then I started creating videos about, you know, LearnDash with Gravity Forms, LearnDash with Elementor, to kind of piggyback on these popular platforms. And I hesitate to say what their subscriber count was, but LearnDash ended up just being way ahead of it. It was 12 or 13,000, something like that when I was done, and theirs was maybe less than half of that. They also had a Facebook group, and we didn’t have one. And by the time I was done, it was larger. It was 20-some-odd thousand people in the group versus theirs that were a fraction of it. So I went to where they were, and I wanted to have a bigger presence, just for the social proof. It was if it’s a Facebook group, I just started immediately onboarding the emails that people got when they purchase. I’m like, “You need to join the group.” So I just started, like, really bashing people over the head, the fact that we had a group they should join. They should join the YouTube channel. And I was sharing the YouTube channel in the group, so I was cross-pollinating the different areas for getting more subscribers, running little contests if it made sense, but going directly to where they were at and knowing, “Okay, they’re ahead of us right now, but I’m going to beat them. And here’s the strategy we’re going to have. It’s going to be methodical.” And it took some time, you know, it took like two years really to really get ahead.

Patrick: Okay, so I’m a big fan of. I like that you seem very strategic, which I love. You’re just like, “That’s an advantage. I don’t want them to have this advantage. We’re going to counteract that advantage by doing this.” At a certain point, you want to go, “Cool, we got a YouTube channel. The subscriber numbers are going up and to the right. We’re on the right track. Now I want to hand off this project to someone else because I can’t do a YouTube video every week.” Yeah, I guess maybe the question is, how do you know that something like that is even worth the money? Because eventually it’s, “I want to do this. I want to get it started. I want to make sure it’s going in the right direction, and then I want to train someone on my team or hire someone who can do this for me.” Because there’s only 40 hours in the week, or I guess there’s more if you want to work more, but there’s only so many hours in a week, and I can’t do everything myself.

Justin: Yeah, I always did everything myself initially to get that gut check. Some of it is data-driven, but not everything can be a secure data-driven decision. I think I see a lot of folks get caught up on that. They’re like, “Oh, I need more data,” or, “I gotta get the data before I know for sure.” You’re never going to know for sure. I think it was pretty easy to see that YouTube was driving interactions and folks coming to us. I have coached somebody now, and they do YouTube. They’re in the WordPress space, and he’s getting a 10% conversion from people that come from YouTube to his product compared to something that’s lower when he’s not. When he’s coming from, like, blog posts or whatever. So I did track a little bit about how people were finding us and if they were finding us through YouTube. But I did see that our visitors went up because of it, because just being in the search, back when YouTube videos were more prominent in search results and all that, like, that helped out. And then Google, I’m sorry, YouTube being like the second biggest search engine in the world, I just, I just was like, “How have I not done this?” Yeah. But to answer your question, it’s data but then intuition a little bit. For me, it was a social proof thing. I know when I saw YouTube channels that had a decent amount of subscribers, like, as opposed to, like, 50, yeah, I was like, “Oh, okay, cool.” And then videos with like thousands of views as opposed to like a couple dozen, that resonates with me. And so I was creating something similar for people like me, and I was like, “Well, if I, I’m sure other people do something similar, or if they see a Facebook group they can join it, start talking to people before they purchase, yeah, and get a feel for the community,” and we fostered a good community there. It wasn’t just people complaining. I mean, there were some complaints about bugs or whatever, but it was social proof of being with tens of thousands of other people.

Patrick: Got it, very cool. Okay, so one area that every business has is a or almost every online business has is some sort of blog or some sort of content marketing strategy. How do you compete in content marketing because it seems like especially I’m thinking about written words, that seems harder to compete in than like there is no Facebook group. I created a Facebook group. So how do you compete just in a specific realm?

Justin: Well, in the context of LearnDash, I think it depends on your product. So if you’re an add-on for another product, I think content marketing becomes a little more challenging. LearnDash was a platform plugin, so it was easy to go after the industry. You could still do that as an add-on, but I thought like, “Alright, how do I write going after an audience that would potentially use this?” So somebody creating a course or instructional design tips for creating a course with WordPress interweaved in there. It was more about how to rank for e-learning than it was rank for WordPress, and then that’s how a lot of people got their first introduction to what we were doing. So whenever possible keyword-wise, think about the industry you’re in and see there’s always low-hanging fruit in something and go after those keywords. Now, another good strategy is the piggyback one where you just, you know, you’re comparing yourself to another product that may be more popular than yours, and you’re always, you know, talking about it in the context of what they’re doing. I’ve seen that work to some degree for add-ons and stuff because then they interject their value proposition. But content marketing is hard, and I’m not even an expert at it. That’s why I always hired people that were better from SEO. I went for a volume approach. I was like, “I’m just gonna talk about e-learning and not pay attention to the keywords,” and it worked at the time. In those early days, that became more important to be more intentional with, you know, we used SEO, so we always made sure that was on point and just followed the guidelines there.

Patrick: Got it. So, I want to talk about a specific thing about if you were reading that a competitor has feature X and you don’t have feature X, and let’s say you know you can’t build it in a week. You know there’s no easy button where you can build it in a week and then talk about it the next week. How do you compete with someone that maybe has an advantage in features? How do you handle that?

Justin: That’s a great question, and I’m afraid my answer is going to be not pointed or a little hazy. It is a gut check on some level. Like, you have to remind yourself, and any entrepreneur that’s making money and selling a product, you have some intuition. You have that skill, that ability to point out something in the market that you know people want. You have to evaluate that specific feature one against your whole vision for what you’re bringing to the market and if it makes sense and then also if people are actually asking for it. I mean, people will be very vocal if you don’t have it, so sometimes they make the decision easy. There’d be features in the past that I was like, “I’m not going to develop that,” and then so many people were asking for it, it was like, “Dang, we kind of have to.” So that made it easy. Other times, yeah, it was just me looking at something, being like, “You know, I think based on what I know in the market and how people are using my product today, I think they would like this.”

Patrick: I mean, a gut check.

Justin: Yeah, I used to. So one of the things I used to always do is go look at people’s public roadmaps. I’d be like, “Alright, what do they consider important?” And then they’d have like upvotes from their own customers, and I’d be like, “Ah, okay.” Like when I was looking and doing my research, it’s just like right there in front of you what their audience thinks is important, which is probably similar to what your audience does.

Patrick: Smart. Is there, and I think you also read review sites, right? Like third-party review sites and you’d scour those.

Justin: Yeah, so that was something unique. Nowadays, you see every WordPress plugin on G2 or Capterra, but LearnDash was one of the first. And I did it because there was no free version to be in the repo in the first place, but I wanted the perception of what LearnDash was doing to be on a different level, like an industry expert, and to be amongst other industry LMSes. And that worked really well. That’s where we had a lot of the reviews. I would look at reviews of other LMSs, and I’m thinking just things like Kajabi would be on there, and they have an LMS component. Teachable—those are kind of what I considered the main, you know, Thinkific competitors of LearnDash in the SaaS space. So I would look at the SaaSes and see what people liked and didn’t like, and then I would use that to influence some of the advantages. For example, Capterra, Teachable—one of the things that they always complained about was their quizzing. Their quizzing is still not very good. And I know from experience that people really value the quizzing in terms of how to evaluate their learners and if they know the content, especially if they’re teaching something that requires like a CEU or something very credible, has to be—

Patrick: What is the CEU?

Justin: Continuing Education Unit, or a profession. Healthcare is the one that always comes to mind for people, but there are infinite numbers of CEUs across industries, so they have to report different metrics, right, back to the state and like you can’t use Teachable for that because they just lack that. So I saw that, and we created a ton of stuff about creating certification courses for certain industries and would ham up our whole quizzing features and make sure that people knew about how much better our quizzing was than these other SaaS platforms. And in my mind, that was an example of using those review sites to really call out and highlight an area that we were doing better.

Patrick: One of the things I like about Justin is that he can have two opposing thoughts in his head at the same time. When I asked him about paid ads, he said it went really well and really bad. And sophisticated marketers can see the stuff that goes well and double down on it while cutting out the things that go poorly. Stay tuned.

Patrick: Okay, so I want to change a little bit of direction here and talk about acquiring customers. Did you try paid media, you know, paid ads, Google ads, and stuff like that? How did that work?

Justin: Really well and really bad. Okay, the really bad was Facebook. Okay, so like I said, I always started a project to see if I could do it and then if it would be worthwhile pursuing. Maybe that hurt us a bit because I could not wrap my head around the whole Facebook ad platform and like maximizing that. But then the more I thought about it, this could have been a premature conclusion, was like who’s gonna look at a Facebook ad, click it, and buy software? In my mind, that was less likely to be a customer path than something else like a Google search. So I transitioned to Google/YouTube for ads. I did an awareness campaign on YouTube targeting WordPress videos, people just talking about WordPress. So I created using some free software or paid SaaS, but it was like, you know, 10 bucks a month. I created a 15-second commercial or pre-roll and bid on an awareness campaign of anybody with certain keywords. So a lot of WordPress stuff that did really well. Like, people would watch the full 15 seconds even after they could skip after five. They would watch the whole thing, which is really cool. And my goal there was not like, oh, I want to drive a bunch of sales. It was an awareness top of mind thing. And in there, you bet I was putting the credibility of the University of Michigan using LearnDash and all these other things that were going on just like how we were in this elite air. So people had that idea of the product, which is what I was always talking about. We’re the best and we’re the experts and we have that solution that is with these major companies and universities. So that was the awareness campaign that did well. But it’s hard to say, the conversion rate. What I did have a conversion rate on Google search. I had to do it out of necessity. People started bidding on our brand name because people were searching for it. And so I was like dang, I want to be at the top of the search results for our name. But also it’s more competitive now. I set it up and look. I am not an expert in this kind of stuff like blogging, setting up ads and there’s people that are pros. But all I did was set up and follow Google recommendations. Like it was really cool like you’d set up your pages, your ads, sorry, and Google would give it scores and I learned that if you get a seven out of 10 of their page score, their landing score because they’ll rate the page that you’re sending people to based on the search you’re going to be pushed up in the ranking so you got to aim for at least a seven out of 10. I used to have 10 out of 10, nine out of 10, seven out of 10. If it was a six out of 10 after two weeks or whatever, I would cut that ad and I would try something else or even better Google suggests like hey you should change this based on like their whole AI there because it benefits them for your ads to show higher I would just follow it I would add keywords they told me to add another thing I is I didn’t have one big list of keywords I like really siphoned them off so I could be specific with my ads so that page score would go higher and then I would look at the conversions and I got it down to I made $10 for every $1 spent now there was a cap because my keyword list wasn’t huge so it’s not like I could just maximize my profit or my spending and then maximize my return but I mean we’re talking hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars made for the business just by doing these ads.

Patrick: Phenomenal! I love that you said both really good and really bad. I think that feels like a lot of entrepreneurship to me. How’d that go? Really good and really bad, both, really interesting. Sorry, we’re running late on time here so I’m going to cut to the last two questions here. Okay, so did competitors ever use guerrilla marketing tactics against you? You know, once you became maybe the biggest player, did anyone use some of your same tactics against you?

Justin: Yeah, for sure. You know, in the beginning, it was a lifecycle, right? LearnDash was just the newbie and that was fun and you’re punching up, you know? That’s always fun to punch up. But then, at a certain point, it was at the top and we were like, you know, kicking down, you know, trying to keep people out from coming up. And that’s a different place to be. We became the cruise ship that was slower to turn and they were pumping out features. They could look at what we were doing and modify it in a way that people were asking, like in our Facebook group. I noticed they would look and see what people were saying in our Facebook group and then come out with their solution that did what they were asking. So they did the same thing I was doing. You know, it’s all fair game. So they… I remember seeing some of that. I saw some negative stuff too that really irked me. That was something I’m always big on: respect. If you’re going to compete, be respectful. I remember, and I’ll share it because I don’t want anybody to do this or feel tempted to, we had a security issue, like most WordPress products do at some point, and it got kind of blasted, you know, it got some publicity. And another company, they’re still around, they saw that and they created a campaign about how they’re more secure and how they don’t have these issues and you got to be careful when using LearnDash. I saw that and immediately lost all respect for what they were doing and it was frustrating because I would never do that but like that’s… I mean, call it guerrilla tactics or whatever. I can see how we are nimble and take advantage of maybe getting some customers. I see that entrepreneur’s mindset but that’s like the dark side, right? You don’t want to go there. Plus, you know, what goes around comes around. At some point, they probably did have a security issue as well. So, it happens but yeah, people did use it against me and yeah, that’s just the way the market.

Patrick: So are there issues that you shouldn’t jump into? Are there advantages you shouldn’t take? Like, as an example, security. Like, that’s good… If you’ve been in software long enough, every software has security problems. Yeah, and it doesn’t make sense to blast someone for one thing. Are there other issues that you would try to avoid if you’re the guerilla?

Justin: This is a gray area, but when people do price increases and say, “Hey, come over to us, we’re cheaper,” because you’ll probably want to raise your prices at some time. So I’ve seen people do that. That’s like an instant gratification campaign. I never did it for that reason because I was like, “What if we raise our prices and what if they go higher than what that person was?” So that’s a gray area. I think you need to be careful if you’re going to do a campaign like that. And then something I never did, I see it… I don’t think this is necessarily gray, I think it’s probably fine now, but at the time I never advertised the importers that we had. Like, if somebody was on a different platform, I never put it on the website that, like, “Hey, come on over from these people, we have an instant importer, you won’t [lose] anything.” However, if they wrote to us and they’re like, “Hey, I’m using this product,” we’d be like, “Oh, we have an importer.” So we would tell people in private but I never put that out there publicly. I don’t really feel negative about that. People do that. In my mind, I was like, only people that are not the top do that. And that was probably more true a number of years ago, maybe now it’s a little bit less like that.

Patrick: Okay, interesting there. So there aren’t too many, I don’t want to say red lines, but areas that you shouldn’t… There aren’t too many, just a couple of obvious ones.

Justin: Yeah, just think about if you have to be and have a conversation with the person that runs that competitor. I mean, all these businesses, whether it’s one person or multiple, like, it’s just people trying to do some cool stuff, have fun, and serve customers. So it’s not all big bad companies.

Patrick: Yeah, I like that. All right, last question here. Looking back, would you do anything differently and what can other software engineers take from your journey, good and bad?

Justin: I didn’t quit quick enough. I did a lot by myself for a long time. I think this is twofold. One, there were experts that could have done it better than me. I was experiencing success, so it’s only natural that we say, “Well, I got here because I did it, so I’m going to keep doing it.” As a founder, I did not get out of the day-to-day quick enough, and chances are you can get out sooner than you think of, like, little tasks. Like, I was still doing support tickets for some reason, you know, way down the line. And it benefited the business more for me to be rubbing elbows, talking with people, and forming connections, and I did, and that did push the bottom line more. So hire yourself out of a job, you know, get some people in there to do the other work. They’ll do it better than you. I mean, that’s all they’re focused on, so they’re going to do it better than you. Maybe there would be things that you would do differently, but the mental space that you get from not having to do it anymore is going to make you more money, like hands down. so that would be something, like, I didn’t do. I didn’t hire quick enough, something I did do, I mean, just always be vigilant. Always be looking at the market. Sign up for your customers’ newsletters or your competitors’ newsletters. Like, just always be in the know, even whether you do anything with that information or not. It benefits you to be an expert in your space. It will benefit your pre-sales folks and people that are answering tickets coming in. It just, you need to be on top of it. Don’t be in a silo developing, you know, and then occasionally popping your head out to tell somebody, like, “Hey, this is what I’m doing,” and only doing it in a WordPress, you know, group. You want to put yourself out there in more ways. So that would be my other piece of advice.

Patrick: Awesome, Justin. Thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate all this. 

Justin:  Well, thanks for having me. I love talking about this stuff. I really appreciate you extending the invite. 

Patrick: And where can people find your coaching website?

Justin:  Yeah, my coaching website is BrightGrowth.com. You can also reach out to me on Ex just by name at Justin Fairman. I’m happy to talk about any, you know, WordPress projects or even if it’s not WordPress, that’s fine too. Even if you want to tap me on the shoulder and give my opinion on something, I love that kind of thing.

Patrick: Awesome. Thank you so much. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. If you enjoyed Justin’s interview, please hit like and subscribe so plugin.fm can keep bringing you more value-driven, insight-laden episodes from experts to help you along with your entrepreneurial journey. Go ahead and share this episode on your social channels to get the word out so we can widen our nets and help others like you. If you’re looking for early bird access, visit plugin.fm’s website if you’re not already on it and click on the Subscribe button to find out what’s to come before anyone else. plugin.fm is brought to you by Freemius, your all-in-one payment subscription and taxes platform for selling software, plugins, themes, and software as a service. If you’re struggling to grow your software revenue, send a note to [email protected] to get free advice from Freemius’s monetization experts. My name is Patrick Rauland, and thanks for listening to plugin.fm.

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