In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob interviews Laura Elizabeth from Client Portal about the launch of her WordPress plugin and getting to $4K monthly revenue.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Welcome to Startups For The Rest Of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products. Whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Laura: And I’m Laura.
Rob: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes that we’ve made. Laura Elizabeth, it’s wonderful to have you on the show. Thanks for joining.
Laura: Thank you, wonderful to be here.
Rob: I wanna give folks a little bit of background as we dive into your story. For those of you who are listening, Laura is a designer, a writer, a speaker, and a cross stitch addict. What exactly is cross stitch?
Laura: It’s sewing. It’s where you saw in little crosses and you make it beautiful.
Rob: Yes, I’ve seen that.
Laura: It’s very therapeutic. It’s very fun.
Rob: When Laura is not teaching developers how to design, she has a site called Design Academy, it’s a course that’s coming out soon, designacademy.io, or working on her client management product which we’re gonna dive into pretty deep today. It’s a WordPress plugin called Client Portal. You can find her writing, speaking, or watching Star Trek. Which Star Trek? There’s five of them.
Laura: Voyager or Next Generation, usually.
Rob: There you go, perfect.
One of the reasons I wanted to have you on is because a year ago, you were consulting full time and over the last year, you’ve launched Client Portal, that’s client-portal.io, if folks wanna check it out. It’s a WordPress plugin that helps freelancers and agencies interact with their clients and manage their projects. You launched that, it’s now doing about $4000 in monthly revenue. You were telling me before we started recording that it basically, almost single-handedly, has changed the value that you are able to bring to clients and it has allowed you to charge a lot more money and take on fewer projects. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Laura: Yes. This is something that I really wasn’t expecting. I launched my first product which was Client Portal. It was really only ever meant to be a side project that I was doing. It quite quickly actually became my full time gig. What ended up happening was I was sharing all this stuff about Client Portal. I was sharing how I was doing my email course, how I was getting really good conversion rates and all this stuff. It made my design work, my freelance consulting work, much more valuable. Suddenly, people were far more willing to pay me a lot more money to do consulting work.
What was really good is I could then start actually picking and choosing what projects would I be working on. I went from having sometimes five to seven projects on any one time, having five to seven projects is actually why I ended up making Client Portal, to only taking on about two or three in the last year. I’ve only been taking them on because they were particularly fun to work on or something like that. I really wasn’t expecting how much valuable making a product and selling a product is going to make me as a consultant.
Rob: That makes a lot of sense. I think there’s two facets to that too. One is you start to develop almost a personal brand or it’s people associate – they see a product, they see that it’s successful, they see that it’s well designed. Then they find out that they can hire you to help them with a product, this is a no brainer. It’s a portfolio that speaks for itself. I think that the second aspect to that is you talked about you were doing this in public. You were talking about it on Twitter, you were talking about your process, and you said that a number of opportunities have come out of that, of people kinda coming out of the woodwork. You wanna tell us about, you mentioned a joint venture that you have done recently.
Laura: That’s really been, I’d say, probably the biggest thing I’ve learned this year, is the importance of really building in the open, sharing things in public, and it’s something that I still don’t actually feel very comfortable doing because when I post things on Twitter, I post things on Facebook saying, “Hey, look at what I’m working on.” It feels a little bit one-sided, “look at me” type of thing. I’m a little bit uncomfortable doing that but it’s actually been, probably, one of the best things that I’ve done for my business.
To give you an example, I was recently building the UI for an app called Write Message. I was posting everyday in the Write Message Facebook Group screens that I’ve been designing. I’d post things about the features that were happening and just sharing previews to its customers about what’s coming, and I got an email from Robert Williams who runs Workshop saying, “Hey, I’ve been following what you’ve been doing in the Facebook group. I really like the designs for Write Message, by the way, how’s Client Portal going for you?” We started this email exchange and we actually ended up doing a joint program where I did my client onboarding email course to his list and we sort of split the revenue 50-50 when we did the pitch, and we’ve actually got a webinar for January where we’re gonna do it again, launch to his list of about 10,000 freelancers.
Robert was someone I’ve had on my radar to reach out to because I thought his audience would benefit from Client Portal. I had no idea that he even knew who I was. Me just sharing the design that I was doing for Write Message, which is completely separate to Client Portal, ended up actually him coming to me and starting the conversation about pitching and launching to his list. That was a really cool thing that happened from just sharing things, building things in the open, and just talking about what I’m doing even though it makes me a little bit uncomfortable.
Rob: I think, a lot of us as creatives, and I include designers, I include a lot of entrepreneurs, and obviously developers in that. I think we’re introverted and/or don’t wanna be showy, don’t wanna feel braggy. I’ve often felt that way as well. I totally sympathize with that. But I think breaking through that a bit and getting stuff out there, that’s one of the hard things about shipping your first product. If you take us back to building Client Portal, and then the day or the week you launched it, what was that experience like? How did that feel emotionally, and then what was the ride like?
Laura: It was a bit of a whirlwind. Client Portal was something that I made for myself, like I mentioned, I had a lot of client projects on at one time, and I really wanted something to help keep those in sync and just somewhere that clients could go to see where we’re at with the project and seal the deliverables without having to email me, and me having to find the files and send them to them.
It was something I made for myself, just a really simple dashboard. I went to Double Your Freelancing conference and I was doing a talk on how to work remotely with clients. I very, very briefly mentioned that I made this little dashboard for myself. What happened was after the conference, Brennan, the organizer, went around the room and said, “What’s the number one takeaway from this conference? What’s the number one thing you wanna go back and implement?” Over 50% of people said, “Laura’s Client Portal was a eureka moment for me. This is exactly what I need in my business.”
I have never intended to sell Client Portal and that was really what made me think, “Okay, maybe I should sell this thing.” It took quite a long time for me to get the courage to do it. I had a lot of fears, which I imagine most people have, what if no one buys? Or what if, worse, people buy, and then they say, “This is rubbish. I want a refund.” I’m publicly humiliated. I was really worried that was gonna happen. I was like, “Why would someone pay money for this little thing that I made?” What I did was, I already had an audience of developers, and a lot of them were freelancers anyway. That was for Design Academy which, I think, we’ll talk about in a while which is a course for teaching developers how to design. Brennan said he will launch, if I made Client Portal into a product by, I think, Black Friday, he’d include it in his Black Friday deal. I literally had a week to make this into something that I could sell.
Where Client Portal was, at that time, it wasn’t too sellable. It was literally just an HTML template. It wasn’t a WordPress plugin, and I’m not a developer, there’s no way I could have made that happen without hiring someone. What I did was I tidied up the HTML template a little bit, I created some documentation, I put up a really, I’d say kind of bad but just a really amateur looking landing page. I had that done in just a few days. This was my validation to see whether this product would actually sell.
I launched it to my list. Brennan launched it with his Black Friday deals. Over the course of three days, it made just under $10,000 which was insane.
Rob: That’s what I was gonna say. Didn’t that blow your mind when you saw that?
Laura: It was crazy. I was thinking if I make three sales, I’m gonna be happy. I just couldn’t believe it. I was still nervous, I was still thinking what if people used the product and they don’t like it? But really, I wasn’t selling the product as it was. I was saying you can buy the HTML template now, I’ve put together documentation on how you can use it, but what I’m gonna do is over these next few days is I’m gonna open up sales and I’m gonna close them again and I’m gonna use the revenue to pay for the development of the WordPress plugin. You’re essentially just pre-ordering a WordPress plugin.
That’s basically how I ended up launching Client Portal. It was a pretty wild ride. I do often think back and wonder whether if I haven’t had the opportunity of Brennan saying, “I’ll include this in my Black Friday deal if you can get this done by Friday,” whether I would have talked myself out of ever selling it. That thought kind of scares me a little bit because then I would not be here right now. I’m very, very happy with how it’s going.
Rob: It literally changed the path of your professional career. It leveled you up from freelancing to products which I imagine is something you’d wanna get into for a long time. There’s so much to be said from that story. I imagine that when you were first asked to speak at Double Your Freelancing, did you have some second thoughts and thought to yourself imposter syndrome, what do I have to teach people, I really don’t wanna get up there, and I’m scared, but you decided to do it anyway?
Laura: Yeah, I did. It was kind of interesting. I was very unstrategic when I first started putting myself out there. Like I said, I was freelancing and it seemed like every successful person I saw was doing something, they were writing a lot, they had a blog, they were doing guest posts, they were going on podcasts, they were speaking at conferences. I kinda thought, “Oh, I should probably do that too.” I’m not quite sure why but I feel like this is gonna come in handy in the future.
I started doing that. I started writing on Medium and I was sharing the stuff I was writing on Medium. An editor from Site Point saw my writing and said, “Hey, I really like your writing style. Do you wanna guest post on Site Point?” I was like, “Yeah, sure.” I guest posted on Site Point. Then, somebody from a conference saw my guest post on Site Point and said, “Hey, do you wanna speak at our conference? I really liked your guest post here.” I said, “Sure.” I spoke at that conference and it just kind of snowballed from there. Suddenly, people were coming to me and asking if I wanted to speak at these different conferences. But I really had no reason other than it just felt like something that I should be doing for me doing that.
It all sounds quite accidental and in a way, it was. But what I think is really interesting is, and what I’m actually really happy about is that I was putting myself out there and not necessarily knowing exactly why I was doing it but I was just testing things. I was just wanting to see what could possibly happen and what could possibly come of it. Just by doing all of these experiments, I was speaking at Brennan’s conference talking to freelancers, I had nothing to sell. I didn’t know I had anything to sell to freelancers at that point. I didn’t even know Client Portal was gonna be a product. But I did it anyway.
Then, something came out of that so I’m really glad that I didn’t wait until I had something to sell before testing the waters with these different mediums because I think that’s probably one of the really big reasons, probably, the biggest reason that Client Portal took off so quickly. I say took off, I know $4000 a month might not be what a lot of people would aim for, and may aim a lot higher. But for me, it was really life changing. I really credit that to just putting myself out there early rather than waiting until I have something to sell.
Rob: Yup. There’s a lot of lessons from your journey. You were willing to kind of get over the fear and put yourself out there and do things in public. You said yes to every opportunity that came up, it sounds like. That’s something some people aren’t willing to do. It’s hard to do at first because you’re scared and then each opportunity just lead to the next thing, and the next thing, and this whole bizarre series of events that again, have essentially changed your professional career. I don’t know if it goes too far to say it’s changed your life, but I imagine that your life looks a lot different today than it did 12 months ago.
Laura: Yeah, it definitely does. Having the freedom to be able to work. When I was a freelancer, I could always when I wanted to technically. But I did have people checking in with me, people who needed things by a certain date. My life’s a lot less time-restricted now. I feel like I’ve got a little better work-life balance. I can do things that I really enjoy like cross stitch, Star Trek in the middle of the day if I want to, not that I do that very often. But I can which is really nice.
Rob: Look at independence or freedom on three axis. There is mobility or location, there is income, being able to make more money, not necessarily just based on more hours worked, and then there is time which means during the day or like you’re saying, you have the flexibility of time. When I first became a consultant, I thought I would have all three of those. As it turns out, I had income and mobility. But the time thing really bothered me. The clients wanted to be able to talk during the day. It was always like, “No, I actually, I need this time to be a creative.” Totally hear you. I think that’s something that a lot of folks trying to get into products actually seek.
Laura: Yeah, it definitely works. One thing for me is I found that for some reasons, I work really well on weekends. I don’t know if it’s because my email isn’t going all the time or Twitter’s a bit quiet. I work so well on weekends and during the week, I don’t work very well at all. I usually take off Tuesday or Wednesday or something like that.
Back when I was doing client work, I really couldn’t do that because I’d be having to check my email every hour or so to see if they needed anything. Similar to you, I didn’t feel like I had as much freedom as I thought I would when I was doing consulting. That’s really the big draw to products for me.
Rob: Yep. Another lesson I feel like we can take away from your experience there is that Brennan giving you that deadline really forced your hand and kind of forced you to ship something which I think a lot of us resist. There’s this resistance to shipping because of all the fears of failure and all that stuff. But you shipped something, and you were creative with it. You couldn’t get a WordPress plugin built in seven days and so you just pre-sold it which I think is a genius move. To give folks an idea of the pricing of Client Portal, it’s a WordPress plugin, it’s $199 for a single site license and then it’s $399 for unlimited sites.
After the Black Friday stuff, what did the next couple of months look like? How long did it take you to find a developer to get it developed? When you delivered it, what was the reception like? Take us through the timeline a little bit.
Laura: After I launched it, it was a little bit underwhelming. The launch went really good and I thought, “This is it. I’m in products. This is amazing. I can fire all my clients.” Not that I would really want to do that. But I thought I’ve done that. What really happened was after the launch, I started looking for a developer. I found a fantastic developer who’s still working for me and for Client Portal today. I just found her by going into different Slack groups. I can talk a little bit about the process of hiring a developer if you’re interested but what really happened was I got the plugin developed, I was sending it to existing customers. My focus was really on existing customers because these people have paid me money. They didn’t know who I was and I was really grateful.
I wanted to make sure they had a product that was good as quickly as possible. But then I sort of opened the doors to selling Client Portal again. Because I didn’t have that urgency, because, I didn’t have ‘this is closing in three days’ and the price is never gonna be as good as it is right now because essentially you’re putting your faith in me making this WordPress plugin. Sales just didn’t happen. Nothing happened for quite a while. I was working on freelance projects and I wasn’t doing much for Client Portal. I knew there was opportunity.
I really needed to think about, “Okay, what do I do now?” What I ended up doing was I decided that I wanted to start putting myself out there again. I decided that I needed to start going on podcasts. I needed to talk about things like freelancing and just talk about remote working like I was doing at the conference because the conference talk that I did ends up being quite a good pitch for Client Portal. I thought, “Okay, I need to do that.” But I don’t wanna just sell them Client Portal. I need something else so I created an email course, it was a five-day email course on how to onboard your clients. I put a lot of effort into it because I see a lot of people making email courses and I‘ve taken a lot of them. Often, they feel a little bit rushed. I really wanted my email course to be valuable whether they actually bought Client Portal or not, so I put a lot of effort into that.
When I launched Client Portal with the Black Friday deals, what worked really well was having that urgency. I wanted to put that urgency in my email course. What happens is every Tuesday, I essentially have a sale for Client Portal. Anyone who’s in my email course on Tuesday, once they’ve finished the email course, I’ll open up a window saying, “Okay, from Tuesday until Thursday, you can get a 30% discount for Client Portal.” I do that and that kind of gets me back the urgency and it means that my goal then is to get people into that email course.
I tested this email course a lot. I’ve got it to the stage where it converts really well. I posted a tweet about it a while ago, I can’t remember the exact numbers but it’s got a really high conversion rate. What I realized was, “Okay, now I need to get people into the email course.” What I do is I go on podcasts, I’m trying to speak at conferences but actually, I’m typically leaning more towards podcasts just so I don’t have to travel as much, talk about freelancing and then I say, “Hey, if you wanna know more about my process, I have this email course, you go to clientexperiencecourse, I think, .com and then you sign up there to the email course,” and then you get pitched on Client Portal.
That’s worked really well for me. That’s probably been a really good thing that I’ve done to keep that urgency that I got from the initial launch. It means that I don’t feel like I’m constantly selling. The only thing I’m selling is getting people into a free email course which I don’t feel too bad about because I am confident that the email course is helpful.
Rob: Right. That’s a good way to do it, it’s to put your best foot forward. Basically, you’ve created a course that some people might sell as a tripwire course. You put so much time into it and have built this thing that when someone takes it, they’re blown away by the quality of it. You were correct with the URL, clientexperiencecourse.com, it’s aimed at agencies and freelancers, for organizing their client projects and a process for interacting with the clients.
Laura: Yeah, exactly.
Rob: It sounds like you have so many of the building blocks of what makes a product person successful. You obviously have the design background. Your design on all of your sites, lauraelizabeth.co, designacademy.io, and Client Portal, really, really sharp designs and just really, really well put. Copywriting is really good. Now, you’re modelling the entrepreneurs that have come before you that one of the things that so many of us say is, email, email, email, and you see the value of building that email list. To have something that’s repeatable like that that you have created, by repeatable, I mean, you’ve kind of started to build the flywheel. As long as you can get people on the course, they’re gonna buy Client Portal, and if you have other stuff that’s then related to that such as Design Academy, I know it won’t be relevant for your entire audience because it’s really aimed at developers, but then you have all these related products. You have this whole ecosystem that you can really offer a ton of value and more value than people are paying but it becomes kind of a system. You’re not just floating out on your own trying to run Google AdWords to some page somewhere. You have credibility and you offer value upfront and then you show that you offer stuff that’s such high-quality that for people who need what you’re selling, it’s a no-brainer.
Laura: Yeah, exactly. I think the ecosystem thing is a really good point. That’s pretty much where I’m taking it next. I’m trying to figure out how I can make everything that I’m doing, I’ve got things in a lot of different places. I still have my consulting and I have my Design Academy, I have Client Portal. I’m kind of working out how I can make this into something that I can cross sell between different people.
For Design Academy, I think around 30% of my Design Academy audience are freelancers, it would be relevant to them. Most of them are in-house designers so Client Portal wouldn’t necessarily be relevant to them. But me knowing that 30% of my Design Academy audience are freelancers, it means that I can cross sell Client Portal to them. Now, I don’t have all these systems in place yet but that’s sort of the next step where I’m taking it, to try and figure out how I can link everything so it’s not as sporadic as it feels right now.
Rob: Sure. Another lesson that I’m taking out of this conversation is something that I screwed up in the early days, 2005 to 2008 as I was building and acquiring products. It’s a mistake you are not making, and you are building products that have shared audiences. At one point, I had ten websites and products, and web services, and really almost none of them shared the same audience. It was designers, people getting married, there was a wedding site, and I’m trying to think what’s the other one, people interested in bonsai trees.
Laura: Duck boats.
Rob: Yeah, duck boats. It was random stuff. You’ve built stuff with overlap so you can build that ecosystem. I like your headline at designacademy.io, it says, ‘Design principles for developers taught in a non-pretentious, non-bullshitty way.’ Did you come up with that?
Laura: Yes. It’s based on a frustration, it’s actually a frustration that I had and I know a lot of developers share. When I was learning how to design, I really struggled and took me so many years to get to a level where I thought I was half-decent. I found all design teaching to just be so unhelpful but so pretentious. It all sounded really good but putting it into practice was just virtually impossible. It sort of came out of my frustration of that. Most of my freelancing clients were developers who had this issue where they wanted to, I was working on a project with developers and they always had side projects going on.
One thing I’ve learned about developers is they’re very creative in that they always have tools that they’re building and they always have stuff that they’re doing. Where they really feel held back is their ability to design. They really love good design but they don’t necessarily wanna become a designer. But they want enough knowledge to just make it so they can create their side projects and have them look decent and maybe sell them, and maybe once they’ve been selling for a while, they can then reinvest some of that money into actually hiring a designer.
Really the goal of Design Academy is just to teach developers enough design knowledge to be dangerous without turning them into a designer.
Rob: Very nice. Laura, you mentioned that you actually have a discount code for our audience if folks want to get a discount on Client Portal?
Laura: Yes. If anyone’s interested in checking out Client Portal, you can use the discount code ‘startups’ and get 30% off which is the same discount as I do in my email course.
Rob: Sounds good. That’s client-portal.io. Laura, I’d like to switch it up and do something we’ve never done before here on Startups For The Rest Of Us, a lightning round of bizarre questions. You could do it?
Laura: I’ll give it my best shot.
Rob: It’s gonna be awesome. Alright. These are quick answer questions. First one. What is something that is really popular now but in five years, everyone will look back on and be embarrassed by?
Rob: Chatbots. If animals could talk, which would be the rudest?
Rob: In 40 years, what will people be nostalgic for?
Laura: Oh, I don’t know. People are nostalgic about television right now, live TV. I don’t know. Mouses. Mice, the plural to the mouse.
Rob: You don’t mean the little animals, you mean the computer?
Laura: I hope not. Yes, I do.
Rob: Last one. What’s the most ridiculous fact you know?
Laura: I was looking at interesting facts the other day. Can I Google it? I don’t know. I suck at lightning rounds.
Rob: No, I pulled really hard questions. That’s the fun part.
Laura: I have one on the tip of my tongue. I was literally on Reddit last night and I remember seeing something about something that was really – I was on ‘Today, I learned,’ that Reddit thread, and they have a gazillion things.
Rob: I figured, knowing you, having hung out with you a few times, I figured you would have something, I don’t know, some weird thing about pixel kerning, or what is it, font kerning or something like that.
Laura: Yeah, possibly.
Laura: Possibly. But, I’ll think of a bunch and then I’m just gonna be emailing you which, perhaps, for the next year.
Rob: Oh yeah, that’s great. This was definitely a curve ball so I appreciate you participating in the lightning round there.
Laura: No problem.
Rob: That wraps us up for the interview. If folks want to keep up with what you’re doing, is it Twitter, Dribble, what’s the best you think?
Laura: I’d say Twitter, it’s twitter.com/laurium. It’s where I’m most active.
Rob: Sounds great. I expect I’ll see you at another MicroConf here soon?
Laura: Yup, we’re going to Vegas. The Growth one, I think. I’m looking forward to that.
Rob: Very cool.
Laura: If you have question for us, call our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for Startups. Visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.