Lesley Sim on bootstrapping a WordPress business

February 03, 2021 · 19 minutes reading time

Transcript of episode 8

Lesley's photo

Matthias: [00:00:34] Welcome back to the next episode. This time, my guest is Lesley Sim from Singapore. I’m so happy to have you here. Good morning, Lesley!

Lesley Sim: [00:00:43] Hi, thanks for having me on!

Matthias: [00:00:47] Lesley is very much into WordPress, and she’s bootstrapping a company for it. She’s also into personal growth, I find that very interesting! She’s building a product, NewsletterGlue that she will surely tell us later about it. I’m very happy to have you here!

So, Lesley, let’s start with a little introduction: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your backstory. What is it that you typically do?

Lesley Sim: [00:01:14] I’m not sure about what I typically do. I think my day-to-day is very varied. But a little bit about myself: I live in Singapore. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, it’s a tiny country in the middle of Southeast Asia that has pretty good control over Covid, actually.

Matthias: [00:01:36] Yeah.

Lesley’s background

Lesley Sim: [00:01:38] We are pretty much a tropical country, so it’s sunny and rainy all year round. And we have really good food. Personally, I have a background in marketing and advertising. I’ve done a whole range of stuff, from B2B marketing to working at an ad agency, and: building my own agency!

That’s kind of been what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years, and in 2020, I got fed up with the agency and having clients and all of that stuff and decided to try building my own software.

It’s my first time doing it, so I wanted to do something slightly less ambitious … I’m not sure if that’s really fair because there are some really huge WordPress plugins out there with millions of users.

But in my case I wanted to create a WordPress plugin because in my own agency, we build Wordpress sites for clients and do digital marketing for them. I have a lot of experience on that side of WordPress, and I thought it’d be cool to create a WordPress plugin and see what that business is like. So … yeah!

Matthias: [00:02:56] Pretty cool! So, you know more about the inside of WordPress now, right? How WordPress behaves from the inside, how it presents itself to the admin, for example, when somebody is installing a plugin, maybe you want to help them and so on.

So, what does this plugin do? What’s the name and what does it do?

NewsletterGlue: A startup based on WordPress

Lesley Sim: [00:03:15] The name of the plugin is NewsletterGlue. It’s like a lightweight newsletter builder inside the Gutenberg block editor! Basically, you can write newsletters the same way as you would write blog posts, and we provide a bunch of different blocks to kind of spruce up your newsletter.

Matthias: [00:03:38] Okay.

Lesley Sim: [00:03:39] And you connect it to your email service provider, so that might be MailChimp, MailerLite, SendInBlue, Campaign monitor, and I think as of today we have ActiveCampaign as well!

You kind of connect to them and then you send off your newsletters, directly from WordPress while maintaining all the segments and automations that you might already have set up inside your email service provider.

Matthias: [00:04:06] That saves you some time because you don’t have to prepare your blog posts and turn them into newsletters! That’s done for you automatically, right?

Lesley Sim: [00:04:15] Yeah, that’s exactly right! We also have blocks that let you, like, for example, if you create a weekly Roundup newsletter, then we have blocks that let you embed the links. And so that can be done in a matter of seconds, rather than minutes or even hours of adding the feature image into MailChimp, and then adding the links and all that kind of thing!

Matthias: [00:04:42] Can you also embed tweets for example?

Lesley Sim: [00:04:45] Yes! The Pro plugin allows you to embed tweets.

Matthias: [00:04:48] Ah, that’s cool because that’s always something that I struggled with. I really like to embed tweets into my blog posts, and it’s a little difficult if you don’t have the Twitter script correctly set up.

How Lesley and Ahmed got started

How did you get started with all this? How did did you get the idea and the first people who were interested, how did that work out?

Lesley Sim: [00:05:10] It’s kind of a winding story.

I actually met my co-founder Ahmed on Indie Hackers, towards the end of 2019, and at that point, he being building a separate plugin. It’s a membership plugin, so it lets you add members into your site, like in “restrict content”, stuff like that. He’d be building that, and I partnered up with him.

He was looking for a co-founder, so I partnered up with him to handle the marketing and business side of things. And then, once we actually started trying to market it, we quickly found out that it was very, very hot! Again, this was my first time going into software at all! So there was a very steep learning curve.

And I realized that we didn’t really have any unique selling point strong enough to convince people to switch, especially as a young plugin. Even if your features are 10X better, most people who are creating something like a membership site, which is quite important, they’re trying to get attract members and stuff like that, they might prefer to use a more established plugin.

So things like that made us run into quite a lot of problems getting traction for the plugin, and we then considered shutting it down.

The “zoom-in” pivot

But when we were considering shutting it down, for me personally, the thing that I thought that I would miss the most would be this separate add-on, the side feature that we had created that connects MailChimp to WordPress, because I had been using that particular feature for my own newsletter!

And then that got me thinking, because, you know, I was sad that this feature would go, and I wasn’t sure where I would be able to get a similar feature from. So I thought, okay, so maybe there’s something here, you know? I obviously liked it and I can’t find any direct competitors doing the exact thing that I was looking for!

So maybe we can pivot and create a new plugin out of a small feature of our original plugin.

Matthias: [00:07:20] Yeah, that often happens in the founders community that a founder suddenly sees: “Hey, this small feature that we have could be much better as a standalone product!” I heard stories like that more often, that’s interesting that it’s the case on your side as well!

Co-founders, six timezones apart

How did the collaboration work out between the technical side and the marketing side? I guess you have a kind of role separation (role division) between the two co-founders, right?

Lesley Sim: [00:07:47] Yeah. I think so far we work really well together! So we work mainly in Slack and Notion. We work in different time zones. Ahmed is in Egypt, and so it actually works out well because it forces me to be way more organized and document everything because we don’t have a lot of overlap in terms of when we are both awake and active on Slack.

Matthias: [00:08:11] How much time difference is it from Egypt to your side?

(Remark after the podcast: it’s actually six hours!)

Lesley Sim: [00:08:16] Good question! I’m not sure, but added to the complexity is: He’s been sleeping, waking up late, and sleeping late.

Matthias: [00:08:24] Oh, okay! So that adds up!

Lesley Sim: [00:08:29] Yeah! So as a result, I think you only get like two or three hours of overlap towards the end of my night. So around 11:00 PM to 2:00 AM is when we talk a lot now, which can tough, right?

Matthias: [00:08:42] That’s really late in the day. Oh, wow!

Lesley Sim: [00:08:46] Yeah, but I mean, it’s been working really well so far! I do a lot of the product management: Talking to customers, figuring out what we should do, how we should do it, also … that product design, the UI design as a result!

I’ve been creating everything in Adobe XD and then sending him the mock-ups and everything, putting it in nicely in Notion. And then if he needs clarifications, he’ll either add a comment in Notion or message me on Slack and we’ll discuss other but yeah, so that’s how we’ve been working.

And like I said earlier, it’s been working pretty well!

Making first contact with a customer

Matthias: [00:09:26] Nice, that’s really nice! And about your audience … What was the first contact that you made to kind of a prospect, or a customer or someone, or to users?

Lesley Sim: [00:09:40] When I started with the membership plugin, I tried going, actually talking to people first in Facebook groups, but that proved difficult, and it also didn’t help that we didn’t build in public! So Ahmed had built like a lot of it already before I started trying to get interest for the target.

So with NewsletterGlue, I knew that I wanted to do things differently. The first thing I did was publish a post on Indie Hackers asking “I have this idea for a plugin, would people be interested in it?” And I think I called it “Substack for WordPress”.

Matthias: [00:10:31] People already know Substack, right?

Lesley Sim: [00:10:33] Yeah, exactly. And so I’ve published it on Indie Hackers and in a couple of Facebook groups for newsletter writers. I think the combination of doing those two things on those two channels, we probably got about a hundred people who have big interest which have converted into about 40 emails, which then again, converted into about maybe 10 actually interested people who I followed up with, by email and by video calls and all of that.

So by the time we had done that, I got a much better idea of who the audience was, what kind of product they wanted and even just looking at their Wordpress setups and what was the way that you’d be expected to use the plugin. So that whole experience, that’s really helpful!

Matthias: [00:11:33] Cool! How did it work with the Facebook groups? Because I had difficulties with that when I joined Facebook groups, I had no idea what people were talking about. And I started talking and suddenly they said, Hey, Mathias, you are self-promoting yourself. We don’t like that. Was that the case in your case too?

Or did you feel welcome there?

Lesley Sim: [00:11:53] That’s what I experienced when I started promoting the membership plugin, but I think I got really lucky with the new setup again, because the Facebook groups or newsletters that I joined were very positive, I guess! And self-promotion in a nice way was kind of encouraged and not hated on, I guess. Yeah! So I guess I got lucky just because of the culture of those groups!

Matthias: [00:12:29] Interesting, so it really depends on the group that you come in! Some groups are on that side, and some groups on that side. Then how did you develop your audience further? You said that you had really 10 interested people. How did you start from there?

Lesley Sim: [00:12:43] Good question! I guess the first two channels were Indie Hackers and Facebook groups and then the other two channels that really helped me were Twitter and paid Slack groups.

So I’m a member of “post status”, which is a paid Slack group. It’s for WordPress professionals. Being in there helped my plugin get picked up by their “post status” newsletter, and there: I have a huge audience!

And so when they sent that out, I got a bunch of more interests. And then, also just from tweeting regularly, I got more people interested as well on the plugin. The interesting thing about Twitter, for me at least, was that it’s been very beneficial for partnerships rather than to build an audience directly with my customers, necessarily.

Matthias: [00:13:44] Okay.

Lesley Sim: [00:13:45] So what I mean by that is: I’ve been talking a lot with fellow business owners or people with podcasts like yourself who are willing to have me on. And in doing so, I get to test your audience or other people’s audience. And so that’s what I found very beneficial, because at the beginning, like I started 2020 with maybe 30 people, 30 followers. And they’re all my close friends, none of whom are going to be customers of NewsletterGlue! So just like leveraging other people’s audiences, by tweeting regularly and connecting with people and sharing that and building in public, I guess, on Twitter.

Yeah. That’s helped a lot!

Matthias: [00:14:33] This resonates with me because I started at the end of October with zero followers, a really fresh Twitter account! And I wanted to build a tool that lets people understand their audience on Twitter. It’s called GetTheAudience as you will know. And I noticed your tweets and I said: Oh, somebody is building with WordPress!

I have a history in WordPress because I had my own blog in WordPress several years ago. And so I was interested. And I noticed the same effect: The Indie Hackers community was very welcoming, several founders and co-founders active there and they are very openly sharing their experience and they were really helpful.

And same thing on Twitter where those people, the Indie Hacker people hang out. They are also very friendly, and you can partner up with them. And for example, I noticed Arvid Kahl with his large audience, and he helped me very much with a shoutout, and it’s an amazing experience!

Right: It’s not so much that you do selling on Twitter, but it’s more like building community and building yeah, really building an audience of interested people.

Now when you think of your current audience, would you share some statistics with us? How many active users have you got that really installed your plugin and are using it?

Lesley Sim: [00:16:00] Oh, way too few!

Matthias: [00:16:03] Okay. Maybe we would do some advertising, you know? (laughs)

Lesley Sim: [00:16:09] Yeah, I think we have … I’ve been keeping track, so we have about 180 active installs!

Matthias: [00:16:17] That’s pretty good already. 180, oh, I would dream of that!

Lesley Sim: [00:16:23] Yeah, but that’s for the free plugin.

Matthias: [00:16:25] Okay, and for the paid version,

Lesley Sim: [00:16:28] For the paid version, I think we have maybe between 15 and 20.

Matthias: [00:16:34] Okay. Well, it makes a little difference. I noticed that when people shall spend money, they consider it one more time. So 15 to 20, and 180 in the free version. So you have the possibility to contact them, right?

About talking to users

You can reach them via the newsletter, I think? What are you doing to get in more contact, to speak with them?

Lesley Sim: [00:17:01] To be honest, that’s something that I’ve been absolutely horrible about.

(Matthias laughs: “Same thing here!“)

So I haven’t done… I guess that’s one of the things about being a bootstrapped founder, right? Like all the things you’re supposed to do, but then at the end of the day, you’re physically limited by the amount of time that you have. And maybe this is a personal fault, but I’m very stubborn and not willing to compromise on killing myself and working 20 hour days!

And also (this is definitely a fault) I tend to be too much of a perfectionist. So for example, I haven’t started my newsletter to customers yet because I want the newsletter to have a clear purpose and a clear theme.

You know, I want to make sure that I’d be able to sustain it and know what I want to talk about, and have all of those things running first before I send out emails, although…

I’m sure, to be honest, I could just start sending them out regularly! And I mean, irregularly and if it’s sporadic, nobody would care that much, especially at the beginning! But yeah, so that’s the sort of thing, but you know, that’s me, I guess!

Matthias: [00:18:37] (Smiles) No it’s not only you, it’s the same thing here!

I have an email list of about … what is it? … 40 people, 50 people, yeah! Everyone who signed up, I put them on that email list, and I email them once a week, but only with blog posts that I have, for instance, the podcast that I record like with you today … I transcribe it into a blog post, I publish it on the site, and then I turn it into an email to the people on the list. And afterwards, a few days after, I tweet about it and I also publishe something that I call “the takeaway tweets”. It’s a series, it’s a thread of several tweets that summarize the key takeaways of a blog post.

So that’s pretty much all I do…

Lesley Sim: [00:19:28] That’s a lot!

Matthias: [00:19:29] …Yeah. It’s already a lot, but what I really should do is, really talk to people, ask them more: How’s your experience with GetTheAudience, and how are you working with GetTheAudience? What are you trying to achieve? What’s the goals, and so on, so much more into a dialogue!

I really miss that. I didn’t do that yet, so I should do that!

Lesley Sim: [00:19:49] Yeah, I feel that we are suffering from opposite illnesses! I think that talking to customers is something that jumped into me after the first failure of not talking to customers, and having lots of Arvid Kahl and “the mom test”, and all of that.

So I became very obsessive about talking one-on-one to customers, and then I completely left the “scaled” version of that, like newsletters and stuff like that, but it seems that you’ve done the exact opposite, that you’ve been really good about doing the scaled stuff.

So like sending the newsletters and doing the tweets, and growing the audience. But then you have been a bit more lax on the customer interview side of things.

Matthias: [00:20:38] Right, on the one-on-one side!Yeah, I really should do more one-on-ones because you learn more. It’s amazing what you’re learning!

I had a Zoom call with one of the early customers, and he gave me so much good feedback and so many good ideas! For example, he told me how he’s going to use GetTheAudience, what he’s planning for, what he is trying to achieve…

And this is golden, this is absolutely golden information for me as a builder! Yes, I should do more of more of that.

Goals for 2021

Speaking about goals: When you think of 2021 (imagine 2021 is over). What would you like to have achieved, together?

Lesley Sim: [00:21:21] I recently added this to my Twitter account, actually my profile: To have one month of 10K revenue.

Matthias: [00:21:30] Okay, that’s good!

Lesley Sim: [00:21:33] Yeah. I don’t know how achievable it is. I mean, it’s not unrealistic, but at the same time, a lot of things are going to have to go right in order for us to achieve that. So we’ll see.

Matthias: [00:21:47] Yeah, when you trace back from that goal and when you ask yourself: “What would that mean? What would I need for that?”

For example, how many customers, how much marketing, how much this and that, what would that really mean to achieve a 10k, what do you think?

Lesley Sim: [00:22:04] It would mean we get anywhere, but depending on which plugins they signed up for, of course, but somewhere between 70 to 100 new customers in one month. So that’s hard, it’s hard to do that, but at the same time, it will be fun trying to aim for that, I think!

Like… Black Friday is historically quite a big deal in the WordPress community, so that, for example, it could be something that we work toward!

Matthias: When is Black Friday, it’s in November, right?

Lesley Sim: Yeah, end of November.

Matthias: Yeah, this will be a good point in time! Black Friday is good when Amazon does all their deals!

Lesley Sim: What about you? Do you have any intermitting goals?

Matthias: Hmm, I have more near term goals at the moment. I’m trying to reach more conversions from the free trial. I’ve got some signups for a free trial and I don’t know whether they will convert.

So my first goal would be 10 conversions to paying customers. This will be my first goal. I’m hoping that this happens in the first quarter, and then the next goal would be 100 conversions.

This will take some time, I think so, but at the end of the year, I would be happy if I had have a hundred paying customers – this would be great. It would already be a great thing to have!

Lesley Sim: Cool, yeah, that sounds awesome!

Matthias: Yeah! … So should we close here? It has been really a good learning from you! I got many new ideas from you and I’m very much interested in how your journey continues! So I think we’ll meet on Twitter more often, and I will see how it goes!

Lesley Sim: That sounds great! Yeah, I think, we’re already following each other, so that’d be great to see how you progress as well. Anything I can do to help amplify GetTheAudience, I’ll be happy to do as well!

Matthias: Oh, that’s very nice of you! Many thanks, Lesley, for today and good luck with NewsletterGlue!

Lesley Sim: Thanks so much for having me on!


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