Joe Howard, the founder of WP Buffs — a 24/7 WordPress website maintenance service, examines the advantages that service companies have over product companies, lists the most common support tickets they receive and shares his experience with hiring remote employees.

Joe Howard is the founder and ‘Head Buff’ of WP Buffsa 24/7 WordPress website maintenance service for entrepreneurs & small businesses, website owners, and white-label partners.

Joe runs WPMRR, a video course that teaches WordPress professionals how to implement, sell, and execute ongoing care plans for their clients and increase their revenues. Together with Christie Chirinos, he also hosts the WPMRR WordPress. If you’re a WP professional and want to focus more on monthly recurring revenue, become a listener and subscribe in your favorite podcast player


Why SaaS and Not Plugin​

What were the struggles that motivated Joe to come up with a service solution? Why didn’t he develop a plugin like many others do? After all, it seems plugin, or other product companies, attract more attention than service companies.

“What WP Buffs does at its essence is, really, we’re a services company. You’re right. We’re taking care of people’s websites, we manage security and speed optimization, edits, updates, all that stuff. Then we have a white-label program. We’ll work with agencies who … An agency has a hundred sites. We’ll manage it through them as a white-label partner; they’ll focus on other stuff they’re doing. In our essence we’re a services company, but it is a productized service. We kind of take our service and we put it into this plan or this package, and say by this plan you pay on a monthly basis, you have a monthly subscription. That allows us to focus more on monthly recurring revenue. To me that allows us to take a services based approach, and actually make it more scalable as a productized service.

Now for sure, you’re right. There’s this notion that okay, you have a plugin company. It’s a little sexier, right? You’re kind of moving more in the SaaS direction. I actually think that if you get a plugin right, and you really kind of nail the marketing and the product market fit and all that stuff, it can be significantly more scalable than a productized service, to run a good plugin, but it’s also more difficult to do that. You have to be more technical. You have to really understand your audience in the plugin space you’re in, so I think that a plugin can potentially be more fruitful if you get it right. It’s also a little bit more risky, because it’s more difficult, I think, to pull off.

I don’t think we do any crazy rocket science here at WP Buffs; we really just execute really well for our customers and our partners, and they trust us with their lives. They trust us with their websites, with their digital lives, I guess. Yeah, I personally do like being a services company though. When you’re a plugin company, who knows if people are going to need that plugin? Who knows in three years if another company will come along and just make a better version of your product? That could happen.

With a services company, it’s website … WordPress powers so much of the web. Someone’s always going to need services. Someone’s always going to need someone to come and help them with their website, regardless of whether we’re working with the old editor. Now the new Gutenberg editor is coming out.”

That’s right.

“Is automatic coming and doing multi-language internal into WordPress? Is that going to mess with the multi-language plugin companies? Well, for us it’s like, well, any point along that stretch we can help people with. I feel like it’s hopefully a pretty sustainable model for us, so hopefully … We’ve made it for four years. Hopefully, we’ll be around in another four.”


Work Around the Clock

WP Buffs are definitely not alone in the game. There’s quite a bit of competition in the field of WordPress websites maintenance services. How do they manage to stand out from the many competitors?

“Yeah, I think that there are, for sure, a few people in the space now. It was interesting when I came in because I was pretty much freelancing before I was building websites for customers, and I couldn’t really scale that business model. People have shown that they can. There are a lot of successful agencies that build websites and have scaled to a pretty big point, but I could never really get that to work. That’s kind of why I moved into more, let’s focus more on subscription and kind of go more in this productized service direction. When I came in there were probably 40 or 50 companies doing out there that I found, but I saw only four or five of them that I was like, I would like to emulate that, and kind of try and execute like they’re executing in terms of their marketing, in terms of their business on all that stuff.

Now it’s … I mean, you look left, you look right, you look ahead. There are probably hundreds of companies that have started to do this, maybe partially our fault because we do WPMRR, which is this video course that teaches people how to start their own business doing this. Some of the companies you see out there today may follow our blueprint as well, so hopefully, they’re doing well also. But yeah, differentiating becomes more and more difficult every day.

One of the things we do is work 24/7, so we have a remote team, people around the world in different time zones. No matter whether it’s 3:00 PM in the afternoon, or 3:00 AM in the middle of the night. If something goes wrong, someone wants to send in a ticket, someone’s at the desk, hour reply time, a few hour resolution time hopefully if it’s not too complex of an issue. We can provide service all around the clock, so I think that allows us to cater to some more serious business owners, and people who really say, ‘I can’t have my website down for any amount of time.’ A 9:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday shop might not be able to handle that.

We give premium plugin access to our customers as well, so they get things like WP Rocket, WP Smush, iThemes Security, all sorts of different premium plugins.They get that for free with their subscription, so it’s kind of like, well, you let us manage your website, and you’ll get all these other goodies for free as well. People seem to like that, yeah. Then our white- label program is … It’s a different approach than we see a lot of people doing. There are few people out there that white label, but we work with direct customers. We have entrepreneurs and small businesses who we manage their website. Totally cool. We love working with those people. I love working with those people because those are people like me. They are people who started something and needed help on the technical side, so they can focus on growing the business. That’s important.

But the white label program is, for sure, a differentiator for us because there are a lot of agencies or freelancers out there who want to push their customers or clients into 24/7 support, but they don’t really have the manpower to hire a big team and a remote team. We have that. They just kind of plug into our ecosystem. We manage all the sites through their agency, or through their freelancing business. Their customers are super stoked with them. They get to make recurring revenue as well. Then, of course, their customers come back to them when they need a new website. ‘Oh, these guys have been managing my site for two years now. I need a new site. I’m obviously going to go pay those guys $10,000, $20,000 to build me a new website.’ That’s a win for everybody. So yeah, I think those are some differentiators. We’re always trying to think of new ones, so if you can think of any more, anybody listening, let me know.”


Most Common Support Tickets

What are the top 3 support tickets that WP Buffs get?

“During onboarding we take care of speed optimization kind of automatically. It’s built into our onboarding. Someone signs up to a plan with that, we’ll take care of that for them, but a lot of people, that’s the first ticket they send in. It’s like, ‘Hey, I need my site sped up.’

Then we have to say, ‘Hey, we take care of this during onboarding, but yeah, cool. Thanks for sending in this ticket,’ obviously. We find that’s a huge need for people. That’s why that’s part of our services. We do that when people start with us, and then on an ongoing basis as well.

We have a lot of customers who publish a lot of content online. A lot of time they want to focus on writing great content and not necessarily making it look nice-

Optimizing it?

… optimizing it, making … What do I have as my SEO tags? There’s a lot of steps to that, so we do a lot of content publishing with people. If people want to write their own content in a Google doc, then we’ll come in. They’ll send it to our team, and we’ll push it into WordPress. We’ll come in with Elementor and make sure that the blog post looks nice, and then we’ll help publish it, so that all they really had to do was write the content. That saves people a lot of time because I’m sure, as you know, as a lot of listeners know, the writing of the content is one thing, but then the formatting and the everything else you have to do, after you finish writing, before it’s published-

It’s only 60%.

I was about to say it’s probably half and half. We take a lot of that time away from people, which they really enjoy. Yeah, I think that there’s some other stuff. There’s almost always just updates to a website that a lot of people … We work with a lot of ecommerce businesses, people running WooCommerce shops. People are pretty frequently pushing in new products-

Oh, we know.

… old products. You guys know. Exactly. There’s always changes with websites. We find that that’s kind of our core customers, people who want to be really active with their website. They know they have a lot to do, they have a lot to focus on, but they want to do the strategy. They want to be the general who’s kind of leading the charge, but they don’t necessarily want to be in every single little … Which dashboard do I have to go in to make this change, or how do I do this? Every dashboard is different, so that’s what we help them with. We help them win back their time. Whenever they ask for changes, which frequently happened, that’s what we’re there for.


Tips for Hiring Remote Employees

WP Buffs is based on remote employees around the globe. We asked Joe to share with us some of the struggles and the insights he had about hiring employees from other continents.

“Yeah, for sure. I really like doing video, like we’re doing right now. It allows me to see someone, to read body language, to really see if I connect with someone. I think that that’s important, but there are people who have been successful in other ways. If you look at Automattic and how they hire, I don’t think they do any video interviews during the hiring process. It’s all written because that’s what a lot of their communication is like in Automattic. Just because I think that one way is a good way to do it, there are people who are successful doing it the other way. I’m always of the … Whenever I say this is how I did something, I always make sure that there’s the asterisk that says, ‘this is how I did it’. It doesn’t mean that’s how you have to do it, but try and take lessons, and at the end of the day, make your own decision.

But yeah, hiring remote is difficult. We’re pretty lucky at this point that we’re able to. We’re hiring. This is good. We’re hiring for someone to help us with growth and marketing right now, so if there are any listeners out there that are looking for a marketing position, come talk to me please. But we’re pretty lucky at this point. We drive a lot of traffic to our website. Like I mentioned before, SEO is kind of my thing, so we drive a lot of traffic to the website. I can put a banner on the top of every page on the website that says we’re hiring this person, like we have right now on the website. That actually drives a good number of applications for positions. Almost all those people are WordPress centric because they did a search on Google to find a solution to a WordPress problem, and they found our blog. That’s a nice way to be able to do that for us.

Yeah, I mean in terms of interview process, in terms of actually what it looks like from application to actually bringing someone onto the team, it’s difficult for sure to pick the right person because there are so many factors that are going to make someone an excellent remote employee. They have to be a good technician or a good worker. They have to have good skills at what they do. They have to be able to work remotely. That’s in itself a skill. Some people I talked to about remote work are like, “I love it. It’s great for me,” but some people are like, “I need an office. I need to be going somewhere.” I totally get that, but that person would probably not be someone I’d want to hire on my remote team. Yeah.

Then there are factors like longevity almost. It’s hard to … There are so many factors. I struggle trying to find out in a two to three week peek into someone’s life. You’re never going to know someone who’s applying for job so well in three weeks. Compare that to your best friend of 15 years. It’s hard to get to know people in such a short amount of time, to say this person is 100% sure the right selection. Yeah.

I think that the key thing for me is before we hire for any position, if people want to go to our website to check out our positions we’re hiring for, every position has key objectives that we’re looking for, for that person to accomplish. So for our marketer, we want you to double traffic to the blog in the first year. We want you to help out with double the amount of meetings we have based on new email subscribers, or based on conversion of HubSpot sequences. We have very data-driven, here’s what we need this position to do.

Then when I’m going through and looking at applications and I’m interviewing people, first thing I’m looking at, I’m not really even looking at fit, culture fit. I’m not really even looking at … I’m not looking at a lot of stuff. The first thing I want to know is, is this person going to be able to accomplish the goals and objectives we have for this position? In terms of culture fit, I want to make sure I’m being explicit, I for sure think that’s extremely important. Just because I said I don’t pay attention to it at the beginning doesn’t mean I don’t pay attention to it. That to me is much more part of the interview process and the video process, like you and me, Matan.

We’re on this call right now. When we hopped on, you were super friendly at first. We have this good rapport. I’m like, ‘Oh, Matan is awesome. I would work with this guy more.’ That’s something that is important to me. I think that if someone’s going to be on video with our team every day and be part of our team in Slack every day, they have to have a good rapport with people. That’s something I think I can figure out, and have our team help figure out on the call as well. Another thing I’ll do is I’ll bring in other people on the team who would be working with that person directly, and have them do some of the parts of the interview, and have them ask questions so they can get to know that candidate. That’s kind of post-initial interview.


Most Common Tickets

When you have your whole team based in the Philippines, Argentina, the US, and other countries, how can you build a more intimate environment? How can colleagues can become friends when they’re remote employees?

“This is another difficult piece of it, because when you have people all working in an office, you have that opportunity to kind of brush shoulders, to talk at the water cooler, to chat about things when you’re just kind of hanging around, maybe in between a little work. But when you’re remote, it’s funny. When you hop into a meeting, like a zoom room or something, you have an agenda, and you go through the agenda. Then when you get through the business, it’s like okay, hang up, click. You don’t have, a lot of times, have that extra time.

I try to build in a lot of that into what we do. We have a Monday stand up, every Monday, and that has a whole team on there, just kind of a little review of last week, what they’re up to this week, that kind of stuff. But we’ve added everyone says what they’re grateful for the past week, so everyone kind of talks about … Some people talk about the team, or the work that they did with a client, but a lot of people talk about family, or things that are going on outside of work. It allows everyone to get a good kind of view into other people’s lives as well, which I think is kind of difficult when you’re remote. It’s hard to push outside of work, but that’s something that we do for sure. Yeah.

We do this thing on a weekly basis also where we just kind of ask a pretty open ended question. I think the one this week was like, ‘Who do you trade places with in this world? Who is the person who you would trade places with for a day?’. Or like one of those movies, I forget which ones, but you know what I mean. Whose life would you trade for 24 hours?

That was kind of an interesting conversation. Got to hear a lot of cool stuff about our team. It allows me to say, ‘Oh, that person considers that person like kind of a mentor, or listens to that person’s podcast. That’s interesting.’ It allows us to know each other, not just in terms of professional but outside of professional as well. I’m a big believer that especially when you’re remote working, your life and your work, or your personal life and your work, it all blends together. I know people try to separate it, but it’s going to blend together at some point. I think that I want to take care of people professionally and personally. That’s what’s going to not only move our team and our business forward, but it’s what’s going to … It’s what’s best for the team. People need to have not just a healthy work life, but a healthy personal life. The more data I can get, then the more I can help people. This more information is helpful for me also.”