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Course Update

WordPress Basics

Before we get ahead of ourselves and start building and launching successful WordPress products and businesses, let’s lay down a foundational understanding of WordPress and what we can do with it.

Lunar Scene

Before we get ahead of ourselves and start building and launching successful WordPress products and businesses, let’s lay down a foundational understanding of WordPress and what we can do with it. This might seem like basic knowledge, but you’d be surprised how many people are still confused about the world of WordPress even after they’ve managed to get it installed. Given how much WordPress has changed in the past few years, it may also be helpful to revisit the software with a fresh perspective to inspire new ideas and new ways of using WordPress in this new era.

A quick refresher

WordPress is a free content management system (CMS) that is widely used to power websites, blogs, and apps. WordPress provides you with a file system and web interface to manage blog posts, pages, media, users, comments, and other content associated with your website. Simply put, WordPress is an engine to launch a website.

WordPress is an open source software licensed under the General Public License (GPL), which guarantees end users (you and me!) the freedom to run, study, share, modify, and redistribute the software as they see fit. Development and maintenance of the software happens by a large community of people collaborating and contributing together to make fixes, release new features, determine the software’s direction, and more. Following a few core philosophies, the community can continue to shape the trajectory of the software with these principals in mind.

We believe in democratizing publishing and the freedoms that come with open source.

Part of WordPress’s motto

WordPress remains the world’s most popular and widely-used content management system and powers 35% of the top 10 million websites on the internet, an absolutely staggering achievement. Because of its massive popularity and the freedom of the GPL license, WordPress has gained a large ecosystem of free and paid products and services and continues to be an invaluable resource for launching your own business. 

The WordPress product ecosystem consists largely of WordPress themes and plugins. Themes are templates that control how your site looks, and plugins provide features that extend the functionality and features of your site.

Self-Hosted versus hosted WordPress

The WordPress we’ve been describing is also sometimes referred to as “self-hosted” because you need your own website domain and host to install and run the software. Once installed, you’ll be responsible for managing all aspects of your site such as WordPress updates, theme and plugin updates, backups, etc. Depending on your web host, you may also be responsible for managing the server, database, and SSL certificate associated with your website. 

Although self-hosted sites can be a little more work, you do gain complete control and ownership over your website and its content. You can make changes to any of your site’s files and customize and optimize everything to your needs.

With great power comes great responsibility.

The Peter Parker principle, also applicable to websites.

Hosted WordPress

For users who want the power and flexibility of WordPress, but don’t want to manage all aspects of the install itself, there are also “hosted” or “managed” solutions available. We’ll stick with “hosted” terminology for the sake of consistency. 

With a hosted solution, your web host will install and manage WordPress for you to ensure the software is up to date and remains safe and secure. You don’t have to worry about FTP credentials, server maintenance, or any of the technical details that come with hosting your own install of WordPress.

Another big difference with hosted WordPress installs is that, typically, you can’t modify the core WordPress files. These files are managed by the host to ensure they remain secure and up to date. For many users, this isn’t a problem since modifying WordPress core files is not recommended anyway. If you did make modifications, those changes would be overwritten whenever your install of WordPress was updated (unless specific precautions were taken). Only advanced developers with knowledge of WordPress core and how to safely modify these files should ever make changes like this.

You can, however, still upload, install, and modify WordPress themes and plugins as you see fit. In fact, virtually every other aspect of WordPress remains exactly the same as a self-hosted install. However, hosted WordPress installs often come with a lot of extra benefits that you might not get on self-hosted installs. 

  • Site templates – Looking to start a specific kind of website such as an eCommerce store? Some hosts will have a pre-defined “templates” or “blueprints” of themes, plugins, and starter content that helps you hit the ground running with your site. 
  • Automatic plugin updates – keeping your plugins up to date can be a tedious, but important task as they may develop security concerns over time. Some hosts offer secure, automatic plugin updates by checking your plugins for compatibility, running the update, and checking to make sure the update was successful before applying it to your site.
  • Website staging area – A staging site is a clone of your website where you can test changes or new features before pushing those features live to your website. Testing on a staging site will help prevent unexpected errors and downtime on your live site. Note that a staging site is different from a local development site, where you do the majority of code development for your website.
  • Backups – We all know how important backups are at this point. You do them on your computer, your phone, and your hard drives, and your website is no different. Many hosted WordPress providers offer nightly automatic website backups to ensure you have a fresh copy should something happen to your site. 
  • SSL – Security is paramount on your website. A Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate provides your site with a secure connection and safeguards any sensitive data that is being sent to and from your site. An SSL certificate lets users know their data is being transported securely and responsibly. SSL certificates can be notoriously finicky and hard to install manually. Luckily, many hosted WordPress solutions provide free SSL certificates with their plans and require little-to-no setup on your part. Hands-free security win! 

All of these features added up can prove to be invaluable and give you back precious time to focus on your product, service, or clientele. As someone who has run multiple online businesses, I can confidently tell you that managing all the technical aspects of your site can be incredibly time consuming and just plain annoying some days. 

After all, you aren’t starting a business to spend your time restoring backups and fiddling with SSL certificates (as thrilling as this may sound). These tasks can and will consume your day. Embrace the automation of these tools that web hosts provide and put your time back into your product and business, where it belongs. 

Slow hosting will kill your business 

We all have a tendency to shop around for the best deal, especially when starting a business where funds might be scarce or best used on other parts of the business. But if there’s one place you shouldn’t skimp on your online business, it’s on website hosting. 

Your site’s health, uptime, and speed are all critical to keeping your business up and running for your visitors and customers. In fact, slower page load times can lead to a significant drop in revenue. Some estimates say up to 1% loss for every 100ms delay in page load time. To put it another way, if your site takes even 3 seconds to load, you could be seeing upwards of a 30% drop in revenue. There’s virtually no scenario where losing 30% of your revenue is acceptable, especially if it’s within your control to prevent it.

You will be losing in search engines as well. Google has given preferential treatment to fast-loading websites on desktops for some time now and recently they started this practice for mobile visitors as well. With the massive surge in mobile usage over the past decade, it’s no secret that mobile visits will make up a large portion of your traffic (about 53% in 2018). 

When you consider all of these factors, you can see how detrimental a slow and unreliable website can be for your business. While a “less than a cup of coffee per month” hosting package sounds like a steal, just know that it usually comes at an incredible compromise to your customer experience and the success of your business. 

Get up and running fast

There are hundreds of large and small WordPress hosts out there and I’ve used many of them over the years. These days, I only trust a handful of these companies with my business. Slow sites, downtime, and sitting in support queues eats up valuable time and money which few can afford when trying to launch a new product or service. 

There are endless blog posts that review all the major WordPress hosts and compare their features, so we won’t dive in too deep here. However, I would like to highlight one to help you get started. 

Flywheel

For the freelancers, creative teams, and independent product creators, Flywheel is an excellent choice. Flywheel is a hosted WordPress service that manages the installation and maintenance of your WordPress site. Aside from super fast load times, their user interface is very intuitive, with a dashboard that gives you quick access to your WordPress install settings. You can easily manage your domain name, free SSL certificate, backups, and SFTP access with a few clicks.

Flywheel also provides one-click setup for staging sites that let you safely deploy and test updates to your site before going live with them. No more pushing code into production and hoping for the best! 

If you’re just testing the waters, you can start small on one of the $13/mo plans and scale up as needed. If you do client work, you might be interested in their whitelabel hosting service which lets you offer hosting to your clients and build recurring revenue in the process.

Local Development

A unique benefit to Flywheel is that it integrates directly with the popular Local app, a WordPress development tool that lets you build websites locally on your computer before pushing them up to a live environment. Integrating your host into your development workflow and being able to deploy code and move sites around in a few clicks is a game changer that will save you a ton of time.

A quick disclosure

I work for WP Engine, who acquired Flywheel in 2019, but my recommendation comes independent from this fact. I was a happy customer at Flywheel long before I was an employee and continue to find their offering, reliability, and speed to be the best value for what I need in a host. Real talk.

Keep in mind, there are plenty of great hosts out there, so if you have one that you’re really happy with, that’s great! What’s best for your business and your product is what’s most important when choosing services like these.  

WordPress.com

While we’ve covered self-hosted and hosted installs of WordPress, we still need to explore one more important solution for launching your website in the world of WordPress, which is WordPress.com. 

Not to be confused with WordPress.org, where you download WordPress software for free and install it on your own local machine or website host, WordPress.com is a for-profit, hosted WordPress solution by Automattic (makers of WooCommerce and Jetpack) that runs a simplified version of WordPress. While similar to other hosted solutions, there are also some key differences for WordPress.com sites. 

Most notably is the limitation on what kind of themes and plugins you can use on your site. The base plans at WordPress.com, Personal and Premium, do not allow you to use your own custom plugins or themes, or allow you to install them from the WordPress.org repository. You must choose a theme from the WordPress.com theme collection and no custom plugins can be used (although WordPress.com does offer some built-in features offered by popular plugins). In order to install themes and plugins, you must subscribe to the Business plan, which, at the time of writing, costs $25 per month. Other hosted solutions typically do not limit the ability to upload custom themes or plugins.

[Image of Calypso interface]

Another notable difference on WordPress.com is the user interface that you use to interact with your content. Although WordPress.com uses WordPress software as the engine, the user interface, known as Calypso, is a single JavaScript application that relies on the WordPress.com REST API to communicate to the WordPress core. As a JavaScript application, WordPress.com benefits from quicker page load times (generally), less page reloads, and the ability to tap into newer JavaScript technologies. Although the user interface is not drastically different, initially it can be a bit jarring coming from the traditional WordPress interface.

WordPress.com is a popular option for many WordPress novices because it offers a free plan which lets you quickly launch a site with a few clicks by using one of the free WordPress.com themes. This is a great entry point for anyone curious about WordPress because it introduces you to many aspects of the WordPress content management model (posts, pages, users, etc.) at no cost or excessive investments of time. From there, users can decide if it makes sense to upgrade within the WordPress.com system or seek out a self-hosted setup for more flexibility. Users can export their WordPress.com content at any time and take it with them to a WordPress install on any other host.

Mike McAlister

Typed up by Mike McAlister

Purveyor of finely-crafted products, pixels, and repositories. I created Liftoff to give you a 10-year head start on launching a kick-ass, lucrative product business. Find me killing time on Twitter and Instagram or take a peek through my lens.

Course Update

Why WordPress

With all of the powerful platforms out there to build websites on or build products for, why should we still choose open source platforms like WordPress today?

Lunar Scene

With all of the powerful platforms out there to build websites on or build products for, why should we still choose open source platforms like WordPress today? Why are upwards of 4 million WordPress sites being launched each year? Traditionally, WordPress hasn’t been known for best user experience or the prettiest user interface. And from a code perspective, PHP, which WordPress is largely written in, isn’t exactly the language of choice these days. JavaScript and Python have all but taken over as the most popular programming languages. 

And yet, WordPress still remains a dominant and growing force on the web and has plenty of impressive numbers to back it up. According to W3Techs, WordPress powers 35% of all the websites on the Internet, and is still growing over 20% each year. As a quick comparison, its closest competitors, Joomla, Drupal, Squarespace and Wix only comprise a mere 7% of the market share combined

[Image of WP growth over time]

Everyone from hobbyists to Fortune 500 companies like Disney, Target, Microsoft, and even the White House host websites on WordPress. From the outside, the draw to WordPress might not be so obvious, but for those who’ve invested even a little time into the software’s capabilities and explored the expansive product ecosystem around it, it couldn’t be more obvious: there just isn’t anything else quite like it.

In an Internet era where privacy and freedom are waxing and waning, WordPress remains free and open source. From a technical perspective, WordPress has unmatched content editing capabilities, it’s highly customizable, and with the arrival of the JavaScript block editor, the software is getting a second wind and quickly maturing beyond its PHP roots. It’s becoming more capable, appealing to even more users, attracting even bigger development communities. 

The WordPress product ecosystem is an open economy where anyone can create free or paid products for it. Anyone with an idea and the drive to bring it to life are met with a massive consumer base unlike any other community out there. The extensible nature of WordPress encourages its patrons to create premium solutions for analytics, payments, personalization, specialized tools, and eCommerce. These premium solutions are debatably what make WordPress shine, as they take the software from a fairly benign CMS to a full-blown platform capable of launching any kind of website one can imagine.

And then there’s the financial opportunities flowing through WordPress. Many millions of dollars are generated by WordPress product businesses each year. Millions of dollars are transacted by WooCommerce and other eCommerce solutions built on WordPress. Millions of dollars are earned by WordPress professionals and agencies who use WordPress as the engine to create bespoke solutions for their clients, large and small. And it’s not just big companies or agencies generating these impressive revenue streams. According to survey data between 2015 to 2017, 38% of people who took the survey were self-employed WordPress designers and developers. What has been a WordPress economy of millions will soon be an economy of billions.

Why WordPress? Because a third of the internet (and growing yearly) has chosen WordPress as the go-to way to build websites. Because the open and vibrant product ecosystem around WordPress breeds innovation and empowers creators of all backgrounds. Because the block editor has solidified the next 10 years of WordPress’s success and created an opportunity for a new era of WordPress products and services. Because the free and open frontier is still thriving here.

Mike McAlister

Typed up by Mike McAlister

Purveyor of finely-crafted products, pixels, and repositories. I created Liftoff to give you a 10-year head start on launching a kick-ass, lucrative product business. Find me killing time on Twitter and Instagram or take a peek through my lens.

Course Update

Preflight

I’ve worked in WordPress for over ten years now. I stumbled into this open source community before I even knew what open source was, or why I should care about it.

Lunar Scene

I’ve worked in WordPress for over ten years now. I stumbled into this open source community before I even knew what open source was, or why I should care about it. At the time, I just wanted a better way to build websites for myself and clients. But once I started working with WordPress and exploring the community, I knew I had found something special, something powerful. What I didn’t know was that WordPress was going to effectively change the trajectory of my career and provide me with opportunities I could have never dreamed of otherwise.

I started by making WordPress themes for clients and eventually for mass distribution to wider audiences. The themes got better, my audience grew larger, my understanding of the WordPress ecosystem and product world became sharper. I gave talks, guest starred on podcasts, authored hundreds of blog posts and guest contributions, and constantly pushed for higher standards in design and code. 

The culmination of my work and efforts invested into WordPress was a highly respected and trusted WordPress product company with a passionate customer base — something you can only get by actually putting in the time and building those relationships, one by one. 

In 2018, I entered yet another phase of my WordPress career when I sold my suite of WordPress products to WordPress host WP Engine and began working with them to take WordPress to new heights in the burgeoning block editor era. 

Big life events like this tend to make you introspective about where you came from and where you’re going. Upon reflection, I found that I had a lot to share about my journey so far. Over the years, I’ve acquired a wealth of information about starting, growing, and selling successful WordPress products. It would be a waste to keep all of that business and product knowledge to myself! 

With Liftoff, I set out to uncover and distill hundreds and hundreds of hours of my own research and experience into a digestible and practical book about using WordPress to power lucrative and rewarding digital products and businesses. From the basic and seemingly obvious, to the juicy tidbits of advice that you can only learn by putting in the many hours that I’ve been privileged to put in over the years. 

We’ll chat with industry experts and learn from their success and mistakes. We’ll canvas the WordPress ecosystem and see what is going away and what is coming next. We’ll crunch numbers, knock down myths, and uncover new opportunities. We may even have fun doing it, who knows! But one thing is for sure: by the end of it, you’ll be equipped to launch the next big thing in WordPress and capture an audience in the process.

Now that we’ve completed our preliminary checks, let’s get down to business and initiate the launch sequence! (I promise I’ll keep the space jokes to a minimum.)🚀 

Mike McAlister

Typed up by Mike McAlister

Purveyor of finely-crafted products, pixels, and repositories. I created Liftoff to give you a 10-year head start on launching a kick-ass, lucrative product business. Find me killing time on Twitter and Instagram or take a peek through my lens.

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© 2020 Liftoff. An educational project by Mike McAlister.