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Shawn Hesketh Interview

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Shawn Hesketh, aka @leftlane, is the entrepreneur behind WP101.com and the WP101 Plugin — WordPress video tutorial services designed for beginners and pros alike. This former race car driver is the father of three and husband to @KHesketh. When he’s not working on the web, you’ll probably find him enjoying a good scotch and a fine cigar.

Tell us the story of how you got into working with WordPress. What’s made you stick with it all these years?

I first discovered WordPress in early 2007, while researching CMS options for my clients. I had been designing “static” websites for years, but recognized the need to shift to a more dynamic platform — one that would enable my clients to make simple changes to their own content without having to contact a “webmaster.” (That’s right. Clients referred to us as “webmasters” in those days, and we liked it.)

Of all the content management systems I experimented with, WordPress was by far the easiest to learn, had the cleanest UI, and was simple to use…all critical factors in choosing a platform that I felt wouldn’t overwhelm my clients.

Sure enough, my clients loved it as much as I did. Typically, after just one personalized training session, they were comfortable managing and creating new content for their own site.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed watching WordPress evolve and mature into one of the most robust web publishing platforms on the market. The Core development team continues to strike a delicate balance between offering developers the highest degree of flexibility without sacrificing the intuitive user experience for beginners. In my experience, no other platform comes close.

You’ve been running WP101.com, a business that offers WordPress video tutorials, for the past five years. What motivated you to get involved in education as a business venture and what has educating others on WordPress taught you?

Looking back on the past 25 years since I started working as a freelance designer, some of the most enjoyable moments have been those opportunities when I was asked to communicate complex topics in a way that was easy for folks to understand.

When I began designing WordPress sites for my clients, I felt it would be helpful to also offer personalized, on-site training to help them get up to speed as quickly as possible. Over the next couple of years, I provided dozens of these in-house training sessions, and while they were a big hit with my clients, they often resulted in dozens of follow-up questions over the next several days and weeks. So I began to consider how I might deliver the same training content in a way that would enable folks to access it again and again, refreshing their memory on how to accomplish certain tasks.

I decided to record a series of WordPress tutorial videos and deliver them online so my clients could watch anytime they liked. When I shared this idea with a fellow WordPress designer, he responded enthusiastically saying, “I need that for my clients, too! Have you considered making it available as a membership site?”

So I set to work, scripting and recording a 17-part series that would cover the current release of WordPress at that time — version 2.7 — and in September of 2008, I launched the first version of the site.

In the five years since, I’ve enjoyed tremendous feedback from our members and the WordPress community at large, not only about the current set of tutorial videos, but also requests for dozens of additional tutorial videos covering specific topics. As a result, we’ve now got a fairly well-defined road map for future tutorial series.

But, while many of those requests are for intermediate and more advanced topics, you’d be surprised at the number of requests for even more basic tutorials.

So the biggest lesson I’ve learned from educating others on WordPress is to continually adopt the posture of a beginner myself — hence our current motto, “Never Stop Learning.” That’s the best way to ensure I’m not making assumptions that will result in leaving folks even more confused.

Your training comes in a couple of different flavors: WP101.com and the WP101 Plugin. Can you share the differences between each version and help readers understand how to make the best choice based on their needs?

WP101.com and the WP101 Plugin are two completely separate products, intended for different audiences.

WP101.com is primarily intended for end users — beginners who want to learn how to use WordPress. In addition to the core set of “WordPress 101” tutorials, there’s also a growing library of intermediate and advanced tutorials…and many more coming soon! A membership to WP101.com entitles a person to return to the site at any time to watch or review the videos, and includes access to a members-only Q&A forum, where folks can get personalized answers to their WordPress questions.

The WP101 Plugin, on the other hand, was created specifically for WordPress professionals — designers, developers, and agencies who want to teach their clients how to use WordPress. A subscription to the WP101 Plugin entitles an individual to install the plugin on an unlimited number of their clients’ sites, providing them with our core set of video tutorials directly within their own WordPress dashboard. The plugin was coded by Mark Jaquith, and was modeled after his excellent WP Help plugin.

In the coming months, we plan to add videos that will cover some of the most popular plugins and theme platforms, including Gravity Forms, Yoast’s WordPress SEO, Genesis theme options, and more.

And of course, we also offer three different Distribution Licenses, which enables companies to embed our white-label or even fully-branded WordPress tutorial videos directly on their own websites, enhancing their own support offerings and increasing the value of their brand to their clients.

I’m always looking for new ways to put the WP101 videos to work for different audiences, so I’m open to creative ideas and suggestions!

Of all the specific WordPress topics that WP101.com teaches, which three do users struggle with the most? Why do you think they struggle? How have you modified your approach over time to ease the learning curve for new WordPress users?

The question I’m asked most often is whether WordPress can be used to create a “regular site,” as opposed to “just a blog.” I address this question both in our FAQ and also repeatedly throughout the video series, but the perception of WordPress as primarily a blogging tool still persists. Honestly, this one puzzles me a bit, but I attribute it to the early success of WordPress as a blogging platform.

The next most popular question is how to create links, despite the fact that I’ve dedicated an entire tutorial video to this topic. This is an example of one of those rudimentary web publishing concepts that we can easily overlook as web professionals. For example, it’s easy to assume that folks will quickly grasp the difference between a text link and using an image as a link, but it’s apparently quite confusing for folks who are completely new to web publishing.

Similarly, there is a great deal of confusion about categories and tags — how they differ, and how to properly make use of them. Closely behind that topic, I’d have to mention permalinks, which is at least somewhat understandable, since until just recently, many SEO professionals didn’t agree on the best format.

I continue to revisit these topics each time I update the WordPress 101 series, revising scripts, and creating better examples to help demystify these topics. But I’ve also created several videos covering the most basic topics like, “What is WordPress?” and “Understanding Permalinks,” which has helped address some of these questions. We plan to add many more tutorial videos in the coming months.

Finally, the WP101 Q&A Forum enables me to provide personalized answers to our members’ most basic WordPress questions, which has been a great way to fill in the “gaps” and help beginners get up to speed more quickly.

What has been your greatest challenge with WP101, and what can we expect to see from you in the future?

Since I first launched WP101 primarily as a resource for my own clients, it’s grown far beyond anything I originally anticipated, with more than 14,000 members and thousands more watching the videos through the WP101 Plugin.

I recognize that a big part of this success has come from my commitment to continually update the entire video series with each release of WordPress, which is both a tedious process and a labor of love.

My long-term goal has always been to greatly expand WP101’s library of training content, but as a one-man shop, juggling a full-time freelance design business, it was more than a daunting challenge. Any time that wasn’t spent on client work was quickly spent answering WordPress questions for members, providing support, and keeping the core set of videos up to date.

After nearly five years, WP101 has finally gained enough traction that I can dedicate my time toward serving this growing community, developing the next tier of educational content, and exploring new vehicles for delivering WordPress training.

I’ve been fortunate over the years to have developed some amazing relationships with many talented people in the WordPress community, and over the past several months, I’ve been in strategic conversations with several key folks about how we might take WP101 to the next level and better serve WordPress beginners and developers alike.

I still love hearing from WP101 “graduates” about how they’ve gone on to build a website that has enabled them to do something they’d only dreamed about before. Or this tear-jerker from a Dad who hoped to use WP101 as an activity to help him reconnect with his daughter.

At the end of the day, I most enjoy helping folks learn something new that will help them get from “Point A” to “Point B” in their life, and I hope to be doing this for years to come!

You’ve just launched a Spanish-language version of WP101.com: ES.WP101.com. Any plans to bring WP101.com to other languages?

I would love to see WP101 translated into other languages and am actively searching for translation partners to help us do so. Working with WordPress designer, Alejandro Carillo to translate WP101 into Spanish was an invaluable learning experience for both of us, and while it took more time and effort than we first anticipated, the process resulted in a model that I think will easily scale to other languages.

Of course, we made the decision to go beyond simple subtitles or just translating the narration, but to go full-out, completely re-creating the entire video series in Spanish, localizing the dashboard, and creating a Spanish demo site along the way. It took a great deal more effort, but we’re confident that this provides the best experience for our audience, and we look forward to finding the right partners to bring WP101 to other languages in time.

If someone wanted to get involved in helping create new, non-English versions of WP101.com, what’s the best way for them to get involved?

Because we’re going far beyond simple translation, we’re actively searching for partners who can not only create professional screencasts that are on par with those found on WP101.com, but also who possess an intimate knowledge of WordPress, preferably as a developer.

We’ve posted a set of required skills and guidelines on our site, as well as instructions on submitting a sample screencast. I personally review all sample videos, and when a submission meets our standards, will contact the individual with details about our generous partnership terms.

WP101 has become a trusted brand for thousands of WordPress members and professionals alike, and I hope to extend that same quality of learning experience to as many languages as possible.

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