Syed Balkhi, the founder of WPBeginner, is one of the most recognized WordPress serial entrepreneurs. In our podcast, he tells us about his journey, shares important lessons from his acquisitions and advises to think from the user's point of view.
With a strong 8 figure online business and numerous companies in his ownership, at the age of 28 Syed Balkhi is one of the most recognized WordPress entrepreneurs out there. He also received an official recognition, when he was chosen to the list of the top 100 entrepreneurs under the age of 30 by the United Nations.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Balkhi immigrated with his family to the United States. His story with WordPress begins in 2008 when he decided to migrate all of his clients from static websites over to WordPress. Within a year, he launched WPBeginner, the largest free WordPress resource site.
Since then, Syed has been involved in numerous enterprises, some of them became leading players in the WordPress world: OptinMonster, WPForms, WP Mail SMTP, MemberPress, Formidable Forms, and many more.
Syed's Journey in the WordPress World
Syed is the epitome of a serial entrepreneur, founding so many companies that it’s hard to keep track. How did it all start?
“Yeah, it was several, quite a few years back. WPBeginner turned 10 years old this month. WPBeginner is a blog that I started in 2009. I’d been using WordPress since 2006 for various of my other initiatives prior to the WordPress industry. But I saw a gap. Nobody was talking or training people how to use WordPress from a non-techie user point of view. At the time, all the blogs that were out and about were for developers by developers. That was really the void that I wanted to fill with WPBeginner and launched that blog because I was passionate about the WordPress community and the platform, and what it was able to offer for small businesses.
We just focused on that and created How-to tutorials. We were the unofficial documentation for all the plugins that existed at the time. That gave birth to all the different plugin suites that we have, including OptinMonster. As we started engaging with our users, they started telling us the issues they were having, what tools they would like us to build. That’s one of the questions that I always ask our users. OptinMonster was the first one to be launched. It helps you capture, get more email subscribers, essentially.
I launched that in 2013. We created WPForms, so we do the drag and drop WordPress form builder. That’s grown quite a bit, primarily because users were complaining about all the existing form solutions that weren’t easy to use, weren’t intuitive. We did a lot of the user interviews, figured out what the issues were, and solved it. It’s done well, right? We’ve passed over two million installs.
And then, we also acquired a lot of plugins. As WPBeginner readers kept growing, we kept looking at areas and voids that were within the industry. In one of the surveys, people were like, ‘We need an easier way to connect with Google Analytics.’ I’m like, ‘Well, there is one.’ But it wasn’t being updated or was getting the necessary attention, so we acquired MonsterInsights, acquired WP Mail SMTP. We actually launched the pro version of SMTP today. It basically helps you make sure that your emails are getting delivered, which is a big issue with WordPress websites. We took over the free plugin and kept enhancing it, and finally just launched the pro version today.
Acquired SeedProd, part of the Accelerator program that I launched last year to help other WordPress businesses grow, and just to succeed overall using the playbook and the things that I have learned over the last decade. SeedProd was an acquisition through that, but we also made several investments as part of that into other companies, like MemberPress, and Pretty Links, and Formidable Forms, and Affiliate Royale, and so on. Yeah, but that’s our journey in a quick nutshell.”
Focusing on Non-Techies
Mentoring or giving advice is a big part of Syed’s career, so it seems. It brings us back to WPBeginner, because this is the largest free WordPress resource site. But is it really for beginners only?
“It’s a tricky thing. I use the domain name beginner, and people are like, ‘Well, I’m not a beginner anymore,’ but they still come back and read WPBeginner. I like to think about it as that it is for the DIY user, the non-developer, non-techie user, right? I like to use the word non-techie quite a bit. That’s the user that we’re targeting.
One thing that we strive to do is just making sure our articles are step by step so even a beginner can do it. When we are proposing solutions of how to solve a specific problem, in some articles we will have multiple methods, and we will always put the easiest one first. We’ll say, ‘This is the easiest one. This is the plugin method. This plugin is easy. Go ahead and use it.’
But then, if you are a DIYer, maybe you are a website assembler or a beginning freelancing developer who wants to learn how do to code parts, we’ll have a method too and a specific tutorial, and we would show them how do the specific snippet in their theme or client project. But our first solution that we always show is for the beginner user, the non-techie user, so they can just get going without touching code. That’s some of our mottos is making sure it’s a step by step, it requires little to no code. Our preference is no coding necessary.”
Thinking From the User's Point of View
We were interested to hear what the most important lessons that Syed has learned over the years were:
“I’m a big believer that you just have to keep doing the simple things over and over. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no magic trick that will help you achieve it, you know? As long as you’re putting the people first, your community, and trying to solve the problem, you’re going to find success over the long term. Now what we’ve done maybe looks like a good role model success story, but it takes a lot of time to do so.
But at the end of the day, I would… It’s just the biggest thing is thinking from the user’s point of view and making sure that the solution that you are creating is going to help them solve a problem, and it’s not just another feature. That’s something you have to… It’s a big difference, right? Is a feature, or is it actually solving a problem and is a solution? Just making that differentiation, I think, is a pretty big one. That has helped us go from a very small company to a decent size company now.”
Solving a Problem That Users Have
Should a potential buyer assess not only the product he’s interested in acquiring, but also in the team that built it? and what are the first steps Syed does after acquiring a company?
“Acquisitions are always different. Every deal looks different. Having done my fair share of them on both sides, we’ve sold businesses, we’ve acquired businesses, it’s different every single time because there are different people running it. There usually is a different process and procedure involved.
The fundamental thing that I am looking at when we’re evaluating companies is, ‘Is the product solving a problem that our users are currently having?’ I like to call these success gaps. These are gaps between what our product suite does and what a customer needs for them to be successful. There’s a lot of things that we don’t do, right? There’s a lot that we do, but there’s a lot that we don’t do. We’re looking at the things that we don’t do, but that our customers already need. How good of a job does this specific product or business does in solving that, right? That’s, of course, the first and foremost thing that we’re looking at. Without that, there’s no conversation.
Users are telling you a story through the support tickets they’re asking. Sometimes users don’t, I would say they don’t know how to best define the problem they’re having. That’s what separates you, right? That’s why you are the expert and the authority figure in the space. That’s why users are using you, because they trust you. You have to know to understand what the user is saying.
I’ll give you a very simple example. Somebody might be saying, ‘Well, I want a popup,’ but maybe they don’t want a popup. What they really want is a tooltip, so when you bring your mouse over a link it just does a tooltip. But they don’t know what the terminology for that is, right? A beginner user doesn’t know the terminology. It’s called a tooltip and not a popup. That’s where you have to bring in your expertise and understand is the user saying what they’re really saying, right? Think about the desired end result and not what the conversation is.
We also do surveys. We do an annual survey on WPBeginner. We are consistently collecting feedback through our NPS surveys. These are all different feedback loops that we have. When people cancel our product, right? That’s a natural part of any business. We’re collecting that survey. We’re looking at all of our NPS surveys from transactional to our normal customer NPS, and so on. But combined with those surveys, combined with the support tickets, and then just looking at the industry, talking to the customer.
We do events. I know you guys do events. When we’re at a conference, we’ll do a mini customer get together. We just talk to customers, see what problems they’re having within their business. Sometimes just talking to the customers, right, it just tells you so much what we’re missing and what we should be doing.”
The First Step of Integration With a New Acquisition
Company’s culture and values are important things for its well-being. Does Syed find himself involved in those areas after acquiring a company? Does he have an impact and does he try to have his companies aligned through certain value set?
“Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s the first and most important part of integration after an acquisition of a company is that we have to see eye to eye in what our end goal is. I fundamentally believe in that. That’s not just my belief, but that’s our company belief is that we believe that people deserve more, right? We believe they should succeed and they should win more often. Everybody deserves that, right? That’s why we say we want to help small business grow and compete with the big guys, because we want to empower them to succeed because we think they deserve more, right? Small businesses don’t often have the right resources.
We want to make sure that we are committed to partnering with them to achieve whatever their definition of success is. Sometimes their definition of success is, ‘I just want to create a simple contact form.’ Other times their definition of success is, ‘I want to get more conversion and get more sales.’ We want to make sure that we are elevating our customer’s success at every step of the journey. When we’re acquiring the company, we want to make sure that that’s the first step. That’s the first step of integration with any company that we acquire.”
Syed's Advice for Young Web Designers
What advice would Syed give to web designers or WordPressers starting out their career?
“If you’re just starting out and you’ve done what you’ve done… I love listening to other people’s stories. I would go to, depending on what you’re trying to do, if you want to scale the agency side of the business, then start talking with or listening to the interviews of other agency owners or bigger agency owners, going to agency-related conferences, and just listening to people talk. I’m not saying take notes, but just understand the story and try to absorb as much as you can. You don’t have to ask a lot of questions, but ask the ones that help you solve the problem that you are experiencing. It’s a pretty old adage is talk to people who’ve done what you’ve done, and then they’ll be able to answer any problems you have.
Clarity.fm fits If you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m in a part of the world where there aren’t very many conferences. I don’t like the idea of traveling,’ you can go to clarity.fm and pretty much talk to any expert about anything. Any problem that you’re having right now in your business has been solved by somebody somewhere in the world. They are more than willing and are able to help you, you just have to reach out to them. A lot of times people don’t reach out. Just don’t seclude yourself in one little hole. Feel free to reach out. What’s the worst anybody would say? No, right? But if you reach out enough, they will respond. Clarity is pretty cool. If you’re having a scalability issue, you can just go to Clarity and ask somebody who scaled billions of requests a second.”