Shawn Hesketh on Running a Video Tutorial Online Membership Site
WP eCommerce Show

00:00 / 26:02

There are a ton of WordPress video tutorial sites on the web. There are only a few that can provide premium content that is professionally created and updated as needed.

My friend Shawn Hesketh over on is one of those few. Since 2008, they have taught thousands upon thousands of users how to get started with WordPress. In today’s show Shawn shares some of his experiences over the years and gives us some great insights into working in the online education space.

We chatted about:

  • What inspired Shawn to take on the task of an of creating a video tutorial site
  • The pros and cons of lifetime subscriptions and why they have worked for his business model
  • How he built some very significant partnerships that helped with the growth of his business
  • What he uses to run his affiliate program and the challenges he has had
  • His advice to anyone who is considering joining the WordPress video tutorial space


Bob Dunn: Hey Shawn, welcome back to the show.

Shawn Hesketh: Bob, thanks for having me on. It’s always great talking with you.

Bob: You know I wish I would have looked up what episode you were in last time, because I’m not sure what number this one’s going to be, but now we’ve surpassed the triple digits. It’s not going to be 101, I’m past that one unfortunately.

Shawn: I actually saw that. I made a note of it, but congrats on passing the 100th milestone. That’s just amazing. A year and a half has just flown by, and I love what you’re doing. I saw that I missed the opportunity to be on- brand with 101, but hey, I’m happy to be on anytime.

Bob: You’ve been doing some different levels in your membership right? 102, 10 …

Shawn: Sure, yeah. We’ll go with that.

Bob: Okay, before we get into the questions, why don’t you just in a nutshell tell everyone a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Meet Shawn Hesketh, founder of WP101

Shawn: Sure. We’ve been joking about WP101, which is my current business. It’s an online training site that teaches beginners how to use WordPress to build their own website. We launched in 2008, and since then, we’ve helped over a million and a half beginners learn how to use WordPress with our videos. Prior to that, I spent 26 years as a freelance designer, so I kind of joke about being a recovering designer, but it’s been great bringing that experience to the table and these days helping people get up to speed as quickly as possible with WordPress to create their own site.

Bob: Well, I want to segue right into the first question. I know you’ve probably answered this a million times online, but now you’re going to make it a million and one. How did you come up with the idea for your site?

How did you come up with the idea for your site?

Shawn: Sure. It’s always a great question. Really, it was scratching my own itch. I was designing WordPress websites for my clients, and before I would hand the keys off to my clients to manage their own website content, we would plan an in-person, one-on-one training session to teach them how to use WordPress so they could make changes to their website without having to call a web professional every time. After doing that a couple dozen times, it occurred to me that there had to be a better way. We also needed to address a particular problem. That was that clients said, hey, this training has been fantastic, and thank you for this intensive crash course, but what happens in two weeks when you’re gone and I’ve forgotten everything you told me?

That’s how the original idea to record a series of video tutorials for WordPress came about. At the time, there was only one other website that had any type of screencast or video training for WordPress. And it was badly out-of-date. That seems kind of amazing to believe at this point, given the current landscape of how many tutorials and, specifically, video tutorial websites, there are. So I decided to put my skills in audio and video to work to create a series of video tutorials. And here we are.

In the WordPress education space, what should one prepare for in terms of updating content?

Bob: That’s a perfect transition into this next question. It’s something that I know I’ve dealt with. Give us some words of wisdom for anyone who wants to create educational content, but content that needs to be updated often. You just mentioned that was a problem with one of the other sites way back then, and I know this is something you have to do a lot. Not necessarily how to prepare for it, but just from your experience, what should you be prepared for?

Shawn: Yeah, it’s a great question. You know one of the things that I realized right off the bat when I found that first set of tutorial videos and they were out-of-date, I realized that that was going to be the biggest challenge, and was going to be kind of a differentiator. As long as we could keep our video tutorials up to date with each and every release of WordPress, then I figured that could be a strong differentiator. It also kind of ended up being a labor of love because as you know, for years,  WordPress was updating with three, four releases a year. We would have to completely update the videos for each of those releases, so we called it a labor of love. I think I’ve re-recorded the WordPress 101 series something like 26, 27 times. Just keeping that up to date was a phenomenal undertaking. It’s one that I remain committed to.

Thankfully, our release schedules relaxed a little bit now with some of the changes in how WordPress is being developed these days, fewer releases per year. We’re not having to be as aggressive about rerecording these videos several times per year, but one of the things that I see taking place a lot today, online courses are the latest holy grail of generating passive revenue. Everybody wants to create an online course and throw it up. The idea is you create your online course and put it up, and the money just comes in. I kind of, my experience has proven that to be absolutely not the case. There’s no such thing as passive revenue. As you know, there’s no such thing as truly passive income, kind of a build it and they will come. That just doesn’t really work out.

If you really want to differentiate yourself in the world of online courses, it really becomes about you being more hands on. What we’re trying to do is to use the technology and tools that we have to replicate the best learning experiences that we have taken away from our entire lives, even as children, the way that we learn. We’re looking for ways to become more highly connected with our audience, to engage with students, even though we’re using this online video method, what other ways can we engage our students, get conversation, answer questions as they come up, and really be present so that they don’t feel like they’ve signed up for an online course that turns out to be a ghost town and you feel like you’re by yourself watching a handful of videos. Really I think that’s the biggest challenge these days is look for ways to … Forget about the passive income, the myth of passive income. Look instead for ways to really connect with your students and make sure you’re answering those real world questions that they have.

Bob: Yeah, that’s interesting because when I had Troy Dean in our series on online courses, I was talking marketing with him. And one of the things he said is you get your site together, create all the content, it goes live, and now the real work begins.

Shawn: That’s absolutely right. Yeah and I love what Troy has to say about online courses, rich experience. I’ve learned from him, and we’ve become great friends over the years. I think nobody knows how to do online courses as well as he does.

What made you decide to offer lifetime subscriptions?

Bob: Right. You offer a few levels of subscriptions, and one of those includes a lifetime subscription. People can argue about the pros and cons around that. Can you share what made you decide to go with a lifetime subscription, and if you had a choice to do it again, would you do lifetime subscriptions again?

Shawn: That is a great question, and one that I’ve wrestled with quite a bit. As you can imagine, I mean in the last nine years we’ve experimented with just about every type of pricing model, and also every price point. Generally speaking, I would say lifetime subscriptions are generally a bad idea. In most cases, I would not recommend that you offer lifetime subscriptions. Rather, focus on delivering new content, updated content on a regular basis that causes a learner to stay engaged, and to continue seeing a path toward learning more and more advanced topics. The reason why lifetime subscriptions work for us in the WordPress 101 space is because of exactly that: content. It’s the beginner content that you’re liable to go through one time, and once you’ve gone through that content you kind of understand the basics. Now you might come back for a refresher once or twice, but for the most part you’re not going to continue coming back to those basics again and again and again.

We found that when we went to a recurring subscription model, it actually created more headaches for us because we had, I don’t know, maybe seven, eight out of every ten renewals was from people who didn’t remember or didn’t realize that their subscription was coming up for renewal, and they would email saying hey can you please refund that. I didn’t mean for it to renew. I already have the basics, so I’m ready to move on. We found there’s actually better benefit for our particular audience, and particularly with this beginner level content, to just offer a lifetime subscription. You buy it one time, you can come back anytime and not only review the videos, but also visit our Q&A forum where we can answer questions that might pop up down the road.

I think it really just depends on the type of content that you’re offering. If it’s more advanced content, then you can probably justify recurring subscriptions. You think of models like Laracasts for example, where they’re constantly releasing new training videos that cover the latest, greatest technologies in that space. That obviously justifies a recurring subscription, but in our case the lifetime subscription has worked out a lot better.

Bob: That’s a good guideline to really focus on your content and base it on that. I think a lot of people base it on everything but their content. I love how you analyze that and how you’ve actually proven that it’s more around the content than just okay I want lifetime versus whatever, and it doesn’t really matter what I’m teaching or selling.

Shawn: Well let’s not forget, I mean we are constantly getting barraged by subscriptions. I have so many recurring subscriptions, I don’t even know where all I have money going in some cases, so this is what can happen. If we can kind of take one of those loads off, especially for someone who’s just getting into WordPress and is building their first website, maybe they’re beginners to the world of web publishing in general. What we’re trying to do is to create a more streamlined, easy approach. For us in particular, that one time payment, return any time for a refresher, works really well.

Bob: Exactly. Now you’ve built some rather significant partnerships with some other vendors. Can you share any thoughts on how you grew into those partnerships, and if somebody is looking at them thinking, hmm, I wonder when I should take the dive to actually pursue a partnership like that? I know it’s probably all over the board, and it’s individualized and based on your relationship, but still any thoughts you want to give us on that?

How did you grow those significant partnerships you have with vendors?

Shawn: Well, you just said the keyword to me and that’s relationships. The reason we’ve enjoyed the partnerships we have is because over the years working in the WordPress community, we’ve had the opportunity to meet with many industry leaders in our space and talk with them about the problems that they’re facing. Our partnerships with hosting companies in particular came about because once we started having these conversations, we realized that there was a significant problem with onboarding. There was a gap between the time that the customer created their hosting account and installed WordPress with a click or less. Then they’re being thrown into this dashboard, and they’re left saying, what do I do next?

Some hosting companies today are really doing a lot of work in onboarding customers. What do you want to build? What type of site? Are you trying to build a blog? Are you trying to build a business site? Are you trying to build an e-commerce site? Then provide some kind of user-directed paths towards being able to easily create those sites. As we started having those conversations with hosting companies about the challenges, that’s when the idea to use our videos in those processes, and to partner to provide our videos to their customers kind of naturally presented itself, so it came about because of the relationships.

What I see happen a lot of times is somebody has a great product or service and they’re thinking if only we could put this product on BlueHost or GoDaddy. Honestly, I think that most people who create products are really seeing dollar signs or a distribution channel, and how it benefits them. But if you want to head up a successful partnership, you have to articulate the challenges of your upstream partner. What are the challenges they’re facing, and how does your product or service help to solve that problem for them. Not just how you can get more eyeballs and generate more revenue for your product or service, which of course is the best product or service that was ever created, right?

Bob: Right.

Shawn: But rather it’s spending enough time to be able to have those conversations, articulate what the problem is, what is the pain point that your product or service addresses uniquely, and then arrive at a solution. The other thing that really helped make that work is that we tend to shoot for no-brainer pricing where yes, it’s a win, it’s easy to be sustainable. We’re not looking to get rich quick off of one big partnership. In order to make these things work, there has to be some flexibility in your offering. For example, the partnership agreements that we have, those are at a much lower price point than you would ever offer to an individual user or customer directly through your website. Having some flexibility, having thought through how to scale your pricing, and how to have tiered pricing in place to support potentially tens, or if not hundreds of thousands of customers. That’s what I think it takes to have that preliminary understanding of the space before you begin to present your problem.

Bob: You certainly don’t want to look at some of these hosting companies and think wow, look at all that money they’re pushing out and advertising. You see dollar signs in your eyes and you think, hmm, I want a big chunk of that pie, so maybe if I partner up, they’ll roll over some dough into my pocket, huh?

Shawn: That’s right. I mean, it makes sense. Your partners are not in business to make you money. They’re in business to serve their customers. To be frank, there is a lot more competition in this space today. Some of these hosting companies are thinking about ways they can also differentiate their offering. If we just look at the managed WordPress hosting space these days, the ante is that there’s automatic nightly backups, automatic updates to WordPress core, 24/7 security monitoring. Some of these things have just become the ante. These are the minimum requirements for a managed WordPress host, so what hosting companies are looking at is what do we uniquely bring to the table, how do we differentiate our offering. In our case, one of the ways we can help with that is by providing our training directly to their customers. That’s been a big win, it’s a win-win, a win for the customers as well.

Bob: Exactly. Now I’m going to take this into a different direction. You run an affiliate program on WP101. I know there are people that are always thinking of running their own affiliate program, or having an affiliate program for their product or service. Any challenges or tips you want to share with us on that?

We could probably have a whole show about it, right? How about the big, big tip that you want to give, or the big insight you want to share with us?

Any challenges or tips you can share on running an affiliate program?

Shawn: Sure. Yeah, I’ll do that. Over the years,  we have run all types of affiliate programs. At one point, we had over 1,500 affiliates. We’ve run on some of the bigger networks, ShareaSale, Commission Junction. But right now, we’re running a plugin called AffiliateWP that I absolutely love. It has made things a lot simpler for us. A couple things that differentiate that offering and allow us to run a really great affiliate program. First is that I can manually approve all of our affiliates, so we’re able to review them. We had a bad problem on some of the networks with fraud. Then suddenly we would get a rash of commission-based transactions or traffic that I’m having to approve and figure out what’s going on here. It’s not generating revenue for me, it’s just a way that this person is trying to generate affiliate commissions for themselves, so fraud was a real problem and why we had to move off of a couple of those platforms.

Manual approval ets me have a touchpoint conversation with each affiliate to see what their plans are for specifically promoting WP101, and AffiliateWP allows us to do that. But I have to say that the best feature about AffiliateWP that I love is they have an add-on called Direct Link Tracking. We try to promote this to all of our affiliates to use it. What it means is that if you sign up as an affiliate on our site, you come to your control panel on our site, and you enter your website’s URL. In your case, Once we approve that direct link, what that means is any traffic that comes to our site from your site,, is automatically credited to you as an affiliate link.

Here’s why I think that’s so cool. You’ve seen those really cryptic gibberish looking URL’s that a lot of affiliate companies use. When you click, being bounced through two, three, four of these links that don’t mean anything, have long strings of text and numbers, and it’s kind of confusing, those are actually becoming increasingly a problem for affiliates. Their browsers are becoming aware when you spend three, four, five hops before you finally get to the destination that was linked. Now they’re starting to throw up alerts about that, security alerts. This is one way to get around it, but the other thing is that that link on your site that points to mine now would point directly to instead of to slash a bunch of gibberish. What does that mean? That means better SEO for me because I’m actually getting actual links from your site to mine. Ultimately it’s kind of a, it’s a hidden benefit of what I think is a really cool feature. To my knowledge, that’s unique to AffiliateWP, so I really love that software, and it’s made my life a lot easier.

Bob: Yeah, that’s interesting because I never thought of that. As I know, well of course as the sponsor of this particular podcast episode, but also I know that a lot of affiliate programs that I belong to use AffiliateWP, and I can usually tell. I never really thought of, because I think wow, it’s such a nice clean URL, those benefits that you get from that. Like you said, that is significant. That’s pretty cool.

Shawn: Yeah, and I love the fact that it’s integrated with our WordPress site. I’m administrating that directly within the dashboard, so all my content is in the same place. It makes it easy for us to have members who then want to become affiliates. They just have to log into one location to manage that instead of sending them off to a third party site. I really am a big fan of AffiliateWP. I’m happy that we’ve moved to it. We’ve been running on it now for maybe a year and a half, and I haven’t looked back.

Any advice for someone considering joining the WordPress educational space?

Bob: All right. Well, the WordPress educational space. Way back in the day when you first started, you were the second one. Now it’s like, they’re everywhere. You know I’ve personally tried my hand at membership-based video tutorials, but do you have any advice for someone considering joining this space and sharing it with you?

Shawn: I think no matter where you are, one mistake I see people make is that they feel they have to be an expert before they can help someone else, and that’s not necessarily the case. One of the underlying reasons why the online education space is booming is because if you’ve got any level of experience, there’s probably somebody coming in right behind you who doesn’t have the same experience as you, and would benefit from your lessons learned. That’s kind of undergirding this boom in the online education industry. At the same time, though, we’re seeing this dynamic of people who are trying to rush in like kind of the gold rush just to make money. You’ve got people who are creating courses that really offer very little benefit, very little usable or actionable advice. It’s just being sold as a product. A lot of internet marketers are rushing to create online courses on how to create online courses. You get kind of meta, this little circle of how to make $100,000 selling an online course. By the way, this course hasn’t yet made $100,000, but you know, so on and so on.

We’re seeing this kind of dynamic take place, and I just think the biggest mistake being made is that you don’t start with your expertise, you start with your audience. When you think about your audience and their needs, and their pain points, who you serve best, when you think about their needs and their pain points, then you create products and services, or courses, that can help to solve those problems to reduce their pain points and help them get where they’re going faster. I think if there was more of an emphasis on building your audience, serving your audience, asking questions, then we might see fewer courses released to the sound of crickets. The last thing you want to do is to put all your hard work into creating a course and float it out there, and then realize you’re answering a question that wasn’t being asked. I see this happening again and again and again.

My top advice right now is spend the time to get to know your audience, ask them questions. What are the things that are driving you the most insane about WooCommerce if you’re running a WooCommerce store? Where’s your biggest frustration? Maybe that’s a place where I can create an educational piece, or a product, or a service, or a plugin that might help to ease that pain point. It really just begins on focusing first on people, on your audience. That’s the biggest mistake that I see being made today. I think if we had more folks really focused on helping people in a meaningful way, and actually helping them get from point A to point B, then we would see a lot more effective online courses.

Bob: Excellent advice. Yup. Perfect ending to the show as usual. Wonderful having you on. I know people can go to to check you out, but where else can they find you on the web?

Where can our listeners connect with Shawn on the web?

Shawn: is where I’m blogging these days. Of course, you can connect with me on Twitter @leftlane. Those are the most popular places to connect with me.

Bob: Alrighty. Well, I want to thank you. I’m glad I didn’t do this two weeks before the next release of WordPress and ask you to pull away to actually do this interview, but I appreciate you taking the time to join us today Shawn.

Shawn: Thanks for having me on again, Bob. It’s always a pleasure talking to you.

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