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Kim Gjerstad Interview

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Meet Kim Gjerstad (@kgjerstad). Kim has been working online since 1999 as a designer, developer and consultant in Montreal, Paris, Congo, and San Francisco. Although specialized in media and the web, he recently made the jump to working full time on Wysija, a WordPress-powered newsletter plugin. Among other things, we talk about the importance of filling a gap in the market, providing world class support, telling a compelling story about your product, and most importantly of all, treating your customers and clients like human beings. If you’ve ever considered making the leap from services to products, read on.

How did you get started with web development, and when did WordPress enter the picture?

I got caught in the web before the first bubble in 1999 as a teenager in Montréal. My first exposure to code was Flash Actionscript 4.

That was soon forgotten and I started teaching myself C#. I built a simple CMS out of it, only to move to PHP thereafter. By mid 2000, I put the project manager’s hat. I gradually dropped coding and concentrated on organizing teams.

WordPress first came to me while I was in the Congo in 2005. I entertained my first blog on a platform built by a friend.

The “5 minute install” promise of WordPress piqued my curiosity. I was quickly sold and I knew that WordPress would be a game changer.

Tell us about Wysija and the problem you’re trying to solve with it.

Wysija is a newsletter plugin for WordPress that was first released in early 2012. It’s a freemium solution.

Me and my 3 partners in crime wanted to fill a gap: what newsletter solution can be more flexible than Subscribe2 or Feedburner’s email alerts and yet, not force users to leave WordPress.

There were 3 challenges:

  • build an easy to use drag and drop editor
  • make the installation easy
  • keep it essentially free

What made you decide to build a product on top of WordPress, rather than as standalone software?

There are dozens of great standalones. Great, but users want an integrated solution within WordPress.

Once you’ve trained your friends, family or clients to use WordPress, you don’t want to teach them yet another third party application.

How did you arrive at the business model for Wysija, and what was the thinking behind it?

For some reason, I can’t imagine another model than freemium. Here’s why:

  • I’m personally averse to buying Premium plugins myself, believe it or not.
  • We need a lot of users to quickly to build a better product.
  • The “competition” already use freemium models.

How do the challenges of supporting a product compare to those of dealing directly with clients, as a service provider?

I grew tired of answering phone calls from clients. Consider me relieved at having a product instead of a service.

Supporting a product is very intense nonetheless. Yet, it’s quintessential to our success and I regard it as our number one marketing tool. When you have a product, it’s OK to make some mistakes, but it’s fatal not to respond to your users.

What pitfalls do you think entrepreneurs and designer/developers might face when making the leap from service to product?

Good question. I get it all the time at WordCamps. Many developers are tempted, and yet afraid to make the leap.

Here’s my own unordered list:

  • Committing to your product is a full time affair.
  • Underestimating support, or disliking it.
  • Working alone, because having a partner is tricky, will get you nowhere.
  • It’s about the experience, not the features.
  • Your users know what they want, they don’t always know what they need.
  • Yes, you’ll be poor for a while. But you’ll be exhilarated and happy.
  • Sell from day one, don’t wait.

What’s been your approach to branding, telling your story, and setting Wysija apart from the pack?

Your product needs to speak for itself. Build an experience and user interface that is easy and fun. Your users should feel they’re using something special.

As an author, you need to be reachable and transparent. Humans love to hear about other humans. When people write to you, or ask for help, they are friendlier when they’ve seen your photo. Go to WordCamps, and meet your users — it’s gratifying.

Then, it’s all about service. Provide fast and friendly support.

Your website has to look professional so your visitors know you’re serious about it.

Acquiring users is difficult. Try to make every single one of them loyal ambassadors of your product.

What do you look for in a plugin or WP-powered product you’re considering using, and what makes you run a mile?

I look for plugins that have, in this order:

  • Regular updates.
  • High number of downloads.
  • Support reputation.
  • Best compromise between features and user experience.

What part, if any, has the WordPress community played in your work and the success of your business?

The WordPress plugin repository is how people find us. More than Google, word of mouth, and sponsoring WordCamps combined.

I consider the repository as the most important community tool because it offers the support forums, the reviews and star ratings. More importantly, it’s not commercial.

Sponsoring WordCamps hasn’t given us a lot of traction, but we do it nonetheless.

Talking at WordCamps has a definite impact. Then again, the crowd is composed of enthusiasts and hardcores. An infinite group.

WordPress is used by the masses. They’re actually everywhere around you, in your daily life. They are unknowingly part of the movement. I’m thrilled when I stumble on someone who uses Wysija, yet knows absolutely nothing about it or WordPress. This is when I feel we’ve reached the core of the community.

What are the three most important things to keep in mind when supporting a premium product or service?

Premium or free, you should always support your users with this in mind:

  • Answer within 48 hours, possibly 24 hours.
  • Be courteous and friendly.
  • Get to the bottom of the problem and fix it.
  • Ask for a review when finished. See our reviews, as example.

Additional tip: ever noticed how girls always say they’re sorry when you tell them something bad happened?

They’re right! Say you’re sorry, even if you have nothing to do with the problem itself.

What are you proudest about Wysija, in terms of really distinguishing it from the other options available for creating and maintaining mailing lists?

Its simplicity. This said, you still need to be a geek to configure it. This is part of our ongoing battle to add features while keeping it simple.

I’ll leave the last words for a Matt Mullenweg quote:

“The goal is to reach simplicity and not to be simplistic.”

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I'm an independent writer, designer & content producer. Currently pummelling a book into submission.

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