Today we are thrilled to interview Amir Helzer, the founder of OnTheGoSystems, the company behind the two unique and successful WordPress products, WPML and Toolset.
Since the first day of Elementor, we have met with Amir Helzer at different WordPress conferences and workshops, getting his valuable insights as a prominent figure in the world of WordPress. Now, we took advantage of the upcoming integration between Toolset and Elementor, to sit down with Amir and have a meaningful conversation about growing your website creation business.
Amir, I’d like you to tell about yourself, about Toolset, and about its target audience.
Sure. So I started OnTheGoSystems about 10 years ago. Our first product was WPML, and about 2-3 years after we started with WPML, we looked for what else we could add to our clients, and we started building Toolset, and it’s been going since then.
Toolset came because of our history, the way we started with WordPress. We didn’t really start with WordPress. We went into WordPress because we were looking to translate websites. This is how we came with WPML. We came into this through Drupal CMS. At that time Drupal had multilingual module while WordPress didn’t really have something like that.
We created WPML with the same architecture as the Drupal I18n module, it’s grown since then, but this is what we learned. This is how we wanted to build a plugin. From Drupal we got an inspiration CCK and Views modules. We thought it would be very nice to have something like this for WordPress. This is how Toolset was born. It’s actually started as Types and Views, which were our parallels to Drupal’s CCK and Views module. CCK is content creation kit.
Leveraging Your Business Using Toolset
Can you share with us what it does and who is the typical user who uses this functionality?
Sure. Toolset allows non-programmers to build more advanced sites. It has several elements: types, which a lot of people know. It lets you create custom-content types, custom fields, taxonomies and connect them together.
Views is a big query builder. It lets you fetch content from the database and display it on the front end anywhere you want. And maybe we can look at more examples later, but this is in a nutshell what Views does. It allows you not to write PHP in order to display content, not have to write WP queries and then loops that go through them.
We also have a Forms element in Toolset, which allows to create forms for submitting and editing content. it’s not really optimized to work as a contact form plugin but it’s great when you’re building interactive sites, where visitors or members need to submit content and edit their content.
User generated content?
Yes, exactly. And finally we have Access which controls access to the site, both to the admin and to frontend pages. So together, when you put all these elements at work for one site, you can build more advanced brochure sites, or you could build listing sites, classified sites, membership sites, sites with geographic searches, we have a lot of clients who build real estate sites, all sorts of club sites. Things like that.
Can you share one success story about someone who created this sort of one-page websites and were able to leverage their business, using Toolset?
I talk once a week, I have talks with all clients to get to know them better. There was one call that I did with a lady from the US a few weeks ago, which was super inspiring for me. She lives in the east coast in the US, she works from home in a small town. She has no experience in programming, she never learned how to code, she doesn’t do any marketing for herself. She has a very long waiting list of clients looking to get work from her. She learned how to create listing sites, directories very efficiently.
She uses mainly Toolset, where she uses simple themes and simple plugins. By doing this she becomes impossible to compete with. She’s winning projects from fairly large web agencies who are in the area, and she somehow magically manages to do it at a fraction of the time and the effort, and do them exactly. People passed it as a word of mouth from one person to another, that if you want to have a successful listing site, you contact her. She turned this into a marketing vehicle, because each listing site also gives her huge exposure to all the listings. One site exposes her to maybe a hundred different clients in this area and it grows organically without any sort of marketing. That was a very inspiring story.
The Challenges of an Evolving Business
That’s amazing, and the ability to take this sort of client onboard, someone who doesn’t have a lot of coding experience. That’s something we’re also trying to do here in Elementor, and I think you’ve done it amazingly well. What were the biggest challenges that you faced in the first few years after Toolset launched, and what are the challenges today?
In the beginning, it’s always hard to get the word out and to explain what you’re doing. I think in every market it’s like this. Specifically for us it was to get people to use the terminology. To understand that what we’re doing is something that they actually need. Basically, we built the category, developing more advanced sites without programming. And then, when the category was already there, we were very happy to see more players there, because it means that people understand they need what you have.
Now, our biggest challenge, like I think with most established companies, is to scale things up. At the beginning we had maybe two developers, working on toolset and they were giving support also, to the few clients that we had, so the developers knew exactly what the clients needed. It was like a hand and glove. Something didn’t work, we fixed it right away, we understood what exactly they need. And it evolved quickly.
But now the team is big. We have developers, we have supporters, we have people who do technical writing, and it’s a lot harder to get everyone on the same page. So, we want to make sure that supporters don’t just patch things up, but they explain exactly what’s wrong and we can handle it properly. When we have requests for all sorts of compatibility work, to understand it and to prioritize this. It’s even challenging to make sure that all the supporters know exactly what you have now and what’s coming. If you don’t do this well, then supporters keep apologizing about features that we already implemented. When it’s more than two or three people, this management and coordination, I think, needs attention.
That’s interesting because this is something that you share with your client, because if you are a designer, you’re also going to use external developers or content writers, you’re going to have to work remotely. And I know that a lot of the members in your team work remotely. Can you share a few insights about the challenges of working remotely, whether it’s employees or freelancers, and how you specifically manage to make it work?
First of all, it needs to start in the hiring process. If you hire people who want to work remotely, and they can manage themselves a large part of the, then you’re off to a good start. And then we learn that we need to set up processes, which allow people to work remotely, not feel alone, feel connected, not feel like something is happening and they don’t know about it, and yet not to cause excessive noise. We’re going between these two extremes. There are some developers who want to have complete quiet, have their tasks, work on them 8-9 hours a day, finish at the afternoon and go off. Other developers are a lot more chatty, they want to think together with other people, to have a cooler to get together next to it or a coffee corner, they don’t like being alone and they don’t like the quiet.
It’s important that people find their soulmates and can work the way they like, so that if we have an open channel on Slack, for instance, then it doesn’t become a huge disturbance for people who want some quiet time, but still, people who want to ask for advice- it’s not complete silence for them. We need to understand that not everyone are the same, and to accommodate, so that people who want this kind of work style can find it, and the others who want more social environment can get that also.
So you develop a different process for different employees.
It’s just important for everyone to know the preferences of others and to set up expectations correctly. Our process is that every team has a daily meeting at the morning, where everyone needs to show up. We have flexible working hours, but at the sync meeting everyone needs to showup. Because, otherwise it’s a complete chaos. Then, there are processes for how to do a code review, how to resolve issues, how to do all of this, but still, we know people are different. So these people just learn over time what they can expect from everyone and they get along just fine.
Dealing With Client Feedbacks
And do you combine between the different departments. How do you get support talking to developers and that feedback look?
So, on these daily sync meeting the first person to get the microphone is the support team leader, and he comes to this meeting after he had the chance to review the support cue, and he knows what’s interesting today. And sometimes he would highlight a new compatibility issue, sometime he would highlight just a recurring bug we need to get rid off really quickly. Sometimes he would just have a general request from the development team, not really a bug. Last week we had too many support requests. One person from the development team had to join our system team and update our support system a little bit, to make it easier to find older issues.
This is every day in the morning, the support comes first and we make sure that developers always prioritize what comes from clients.
And how do you prioritize in terms of, you know, here in Elementor, we get tons of feedbacks and feature requests. Some are really viable and important, some are more niche and not a good fit for all users. So how do you decide which features to put the focus on and develop?
First, it’s a good place, right? it’s a lot nicer than complete silence, when nobody needs anything. I get these all the day, like at least 12 hours a day. I get these feature requests and urgent suggestions. I learned that typically, the requests which have higher volume, not in amount but there are louder, things which are all CAPSLOCK and super urgent, these ones I need to put aside. Typically, when someone writes in ALL CAPS, it’s because he didn’t think it through. So these ones actually get the lowest priority. Then I try to make my decisions about changes in our priorities after the weekend. Because at the time, when it comes, it all looks urgent, and if we make everything urgent, it means that nothing is really important. So I let it sit, I take notes, I do my best to let it sit and not take on-the-spot decision. And then I relax in the weekend, I come fresh at the beginning of the week, I go through them and now it’s a lot easier to see what really takes precedence.
I’m sure this is the same insight that is important to someone who creates websites. Because managing clients is also, kind of a big challenge.
Yes, probably in a lower scale. Everyone who works with clients gets feature requests. We, because of our scale, probably get more feature request.
Why Some Clients Still Afraid of WordPress
Of course. And I want to go back talking more about Toolset. So still today I think the bigger clients are still a bit hesitant about using WordPress, using Toolset, to design projects that are beyond the one-page websites. So, why do you think they still turn to the custom coded and more costly solution?
The term I learned about this some 30 years ago was not invented here. That’s a general problem for developers to be able to use something that they don’t feel they have 100% control over. The initial instinct is: “I don’t trust them, I don’t know exactly how the code works, maybe it has bugs, maybe it has security problems, maybe it has a lot of stuff stuff I don’t need, and maybe it would be better for me to develop it myself”.
In some cases, if you take poorly designed code which nobody reviews or tests properly. Maybe that’s the case. Actually, WordPress doesn’t have a pretty good mechanism for people to find this kind of code. Plugins who come from the WordPress repository have a rating like products on Amazon have a rating. So if you need a dining table, then you can buy some wood and create it yourself, or you can go to a shop and get a dining table. So it really depends on how you want to use your time. I for myself, I would love to have the time to build tables, but if I spend my time building tables, I’m not gonna spend my time, doing what I need to do. If it’s a hobby then go for it. My kids are learning WordPress now, they’re finishing high school and they’re looking for a job in the summer. I encourage them to do everything themselves, because they need to learn, so it’s a learning experience to them. They need to learn how to code.
If you think of the human history, throughout history all the developments have been made one on top of the other. First agriculture, then technology, something that is built upon prior technologies.
Of course. We use only a few plugins on our sites. And I think maybe an SEO plugin is a good example. Because an SEO plugin sets the metadata for pages and archives and it creates a sitemap. I bet that our developers can write this. But it’s already written and it works and it gets tested and people are supporting it, so why would we want to do something like this? We will have one less plugin, but we we will have the same amount of code that we developed. Why would we want to do something like that?
You mentioned listing sites, and I know Toolset has a ton of solutions for listings and directories and shops, what do you think is the most used feature in this gigantic plugin?
So for listings sites, the beauty is that it’s not really one feature. To have a functional listing sites you need to have a combination of features and they need to work together smoothly and this is the great appeal of Toolset. When I interview clients, this is the thing that I hear in every conversation. For this kind of sites they know that they need to put together several big elements, and they love it when everything just works in Toolset.
So a typical listing site would have custom types and fields and it would almost always have relationships between different posts. If you a real estate site you’ll have the listings and the agents, and obviously they’re connected. An agent has listings, and listings belong to an agent. So they’re most obviously connected and there are more relationships like this. Then every listing site needs to have a search, which Toolset does very well. A lot of listing sites need to display data on maps, and we do that. Normal listing sites would also need to have content submissions forms.
So an agent needs to be able to update his listing, and it’s very good that he can do this from frontend forms, and not going to the WordPress admin, and you need an access control. So the agent sees his listings in one way, visitors see it in a different way, and maybe non-registered visitors see it as teasers. So they have incentive to register. Toolset has all these elements, and all of them have grown, because since the beginning listing sites have been fairly popular with us. And we’ve learned about the little features that clients need in order to really build production sites, and over time we added them.
What Makes a Successful Listing Site
You’ve had a lot of experience with this kind of sites. So what makes a successful listing site? What are the key factors that when you see a site you say “ok, this is going to be a success”?
I think the most important feature of a listing site, is that it will do what the business needs. It doesn’t just come out of a template, and you squeeze the business into what the template offers, it’s the other way around. The developer sits with the client, understands exactly what this client needs, and then he implements it for him. So it has the workflow, it has the presentations, and it has the automations that the client needs. And this makes it successful, because a listing site is part of the operation of the business, it’s not a business card anymore.
A brochure site, if you’re a lawyer and you have a website for your law office, then your website is like a big business card. You don’t go and take a legal action against the website. It makes the lawyer look professional and you contact the company. A listing site already does something. It’s part of running the business. It’s very difficult for the client to compromise here because if the client would need to pay another 30 thousand dollars, and have it exactly as he needs, that’s a good decision for him. If the developer chooses to save 200$ on a tool and then it limits him on what he can do, it’s not a good deal for the client.
And obviously, the other important factor in this kind of site is that it’s reliable. Because it becomes part of the business and it’s really unfortunate when this site goes down, even for a short amount of time.
So, if this site glues together too many elements from too many sources, and they are not developed and tested and synced, once in a while an update will come along and things will break. This makes the business very difficult to run. So I would say a great listing site needs to do exactly what it was meant for, and never break.
Another insight here is that, I think, web professionals that create websites for living, they normally think of questions like “how can I get more traffic, how can I get more of these websites?”. If they skew a bit and think about how they can make a listing site that is usually done by a developer and costs tens of thousands of dollars, they can stay with the amount of work and the amount of time they spend on each project, and make a lot more for each project. They also have less competition.
It’s such a commodity, I completely agree with this. If you move a little bit out of commodity area, then it’s a lot easier to make a name for yourself, and exactly like this lady I talked with, she doesn’t compete with anyone and she doesn’t need to sell to anyone. People know her because she has an excellent track record, and they just keep coming for that.
Integrating Toolset with Elementor
Well, this is, I think, a good transition to introduce your upcoming views and integration with Elementor. Can you say a few words about that?
I remember how this happened. We talked about it between ourselves, but what really pushed it is when our common clients saw us chatting together in a conference in Tel Aviv, and they came to me and they came to you, I think, and to Ariel, and explained to us in their own words why they need this. And when the decision makers hear their clients asking them for something (and way more than one client) you understand it better. And this is exactly the experience that we had. Realistically, Elementor and Toolset complete each other very well. Elementor gives a very convenient design experience. Everyone looking at Elementor for the first time says “wow, this is great!”. And correct if i’m wrong, but I think if our developers started using elementor, they would not need to go through photoshop and break their design into CSS. Is this more or less correct?
Even if they do it simplifies how much they work with Photoshop, definitely.
So a designer can get a lot done through Elementor and in a few hours have his design on the web, responsive. Which is excellent, really excellent.
Toolset doesn’t have any sort of design features. It allows you to enter your design into the tool. It allows you to do more of the backend functionality: to set up custom elements in the admin, to create queries, to create loops, to create conditions, to set access limits, to have these forms for contact manipulation. None of this has anything to do with design. Actually when we created a test site with Elementor and Toolset, we thought it would take a week, this is what we’re used to. We take two new tools, we set dummy data. And we said: ok, it’s going to take maybe two or three days to learn how to use elementor, and then another couple of days to figure out how to connect everything together. But Marine, you talked with her, she started it on wednesday and on thursday afternoon I got the email with everything working.
So I think this exactly shows the value here. We wanted to do a pretty complex site which showcases everything. Everything that you added into Elementor Pro for the templates and archives, and everything we added with views to that, and it just works. Wednesday they started, thursday it’s finished.
The Future of WordPress
Wow, it’s amazing. It’s going to become one of those power packs. You need Elementor and you need Toolset, and you have those combos. You can create anything with much less plugins, much less hassle. The future looks bright in that department. Speaking of, how do you see the future of WordPress in the next two years, maybe five years? And how will Toolset be part of this future?
I think that more businesses today understand that the website needs to work for them. It’s not exactly just a big business card, printed from both sides. It something that can help them with automations. It can do work that human doesn’t need to do. Today in real estate sites, you want to find a listing? you don’t need to have an agent go search for you and emailing you the results everyday, there’s no sense. So listing sites or real estate sites today are a great example of how websites grow from just presenting something to be a big part of the businesses’ workflow. This is already happening on WordPress. Before, WordPress was just a blog, but that was years ago. And then people successfully used WordPress to build pages and nice presentation sites, not only the blog sections, and now naturally they’re thinking to themselves “ok, how can this website take some of my workload off? How can it automate stuff that I do today?”. I don’t think it’s a prediction, it’s already happening.
The challenges here are how to integrate things, because now you’re talking about much bigger integrations. And integrating between a lot more complex things. For instance we’re working also today with Fox building the events plugin. So it’s fairly a big integration. And in order to look nice, to work nice, things need to be designed together. We’re doing this with Elementor, we’re doing this with other big plugins. So I think the challenge is for the more popular things to work together nicely. Because otherwise I don’t see it happening. If the developer who builds the site, gets an answer that says “this is a 3rd party plugin, we can’t help you with this, you need to talk with them”. Then he hears the exact same answer from the other site. What does he suppose to do? He’s stuck. If this happens he’s probably going to turn away and say “I might as well code it from scratch and there’s no benefit to using WordPress”. Because WordPress, the presentation part of it, is maybe 10% of the entire site. So if two or three big elements don’t work together – there’s no benefit.
I agree. I also think, to complete this picture, I think that in the past, even though WordPress has been popular for a lot of years, I think there was a separation between the producers, the developers who knew the tools, and the people who are actually using them, like site owners and entrepreneurs. I think there’s going to be a better combination, more involvement in the business process, because you have tools that, like you said, allow you to manage those complex websites in a more easy-to-grasp way without dealing with code, so I think this is a direction who is going to be… I remember I had a conversation with hiring designer agency and she struggled with creating website for employees and jobs, and it was, you know, unfathomable for her to build it on WordPress because of that, and I think it’s going to be a lot easier for those people to create those complex websites.
I certainly hope it happens, because if the business owner disconnects himself completely from the presentation, then what he wants is not gonna get built. He doesn’t need to be an expert PHP developer, but at least he needs to understand his options.
Okay Amir, It was very insightful to interview you. I have a lot more subjects to talk about. We’re going to post a lot more things regarding Elementor and Toolset integration in the near future, so there’s something to expect there. I’d like to thank you for the time you spent and let’s do another talk soon.
Thanks for having me, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what will develop for our clients.