Jason Lemieux is an expert WordPress developer and the founder of Postmatic, a nifty and not to mention stylish plugin that allows users to engage in and respond to posts and comment threads from the comfort of their favorite email client. When Jason is not developing for WordPress, he spends his time with his farm and family in central Vermont.
In this interview, we have the opportunity to hear from Jason Lemieux. His answer to the first question may surprise some of our readers.
Hello, Jason! So where did you grow up? Word has it that you were a part-time sheep farmer?
I ate all the sheep. They’re gone. But before that happened yes, we had a few dozen. I live on a small farm in central Vermont. There are still cows, chickens, and a horse – along with plenty of fruit and veggies. We have to take a break from sheep because of a very annoying soil-dwelling foot bacteria. The fields need to rest for a few years.
I grew up in New Hampshire, spent 5 or so years in San Francisco, and then moved back here to this spot about 11 years ago. It’s a magical place and I wake up every day feeling very lucky to be here.
Can you tell us about your earliest WordPress experiences?
It was during the time when Movable Type changed their licensing model and suddenly became, well, unaffordable as well as unpalatable. It’s remarkable. Right away the writing was on the wall that they had made a huge mistake. Looking back I still can’t figure out what they were thinking.
I did a ton of migrations from that platform to WordPress. I think maybe I spent about a year doing that for various bloggers and organizations.
Do you recall your first interaction with WordPress?
Not really. It was a long time ago. The funniest memories from those days though are in working with a plugin called The Ultimate Tag Warrior. It was a crazy mess of code which you’d use to add tags in addition to the native categories system. This was early web 2.0 time when tags were hot hot hot, but custom taxonomies weren’t present in WordPress. Custom post types didn’t exist either. To generate pages with serialized listings (like a staff directory) we’d tell the client to make a post, categorize it as ‘non-blog’, and tag it (via UTW) ‘staff’. Then we’d run a query to spit out the staff page.
Gosh, what a mess it all was.
What inspired you to develop an email based commenting plugin?
It was born out of necessity. We created it for a client. The client was a gap year program which sent students all over the world doing aid work in remote areas. Part of the requirement for the program was that the students had to blog a few times weekly about their experience. The organization approached us with a group of frustrated parents that said we just can’t figure out this RSS stuff but want to know what our kids are doing. Could there be something better?
Feedburner was around at the time, as well as a few viable plugins which delivered posts by email. We took a look and then decided to write our own. The parents could subscribe to their kids’ blog posts, and then send a nice note of encouragement back with an email reply.
For the audience, it was a huge success. So we thought, Hey, it will only take a few months to turn this into a product! That was 3 years ago.
Are you someone who works better developing as part of a team or do you thrive when you’re on your own? What advice would you give to aspiring plugin developers in this regard?
Plugins. I’m not sure how I feel about that word anymore. WordPress as a platform has evolved so much that what companies like ours are creating are full applications in and of themselves. Sure, there are still people out there creating what you might consider a plugin: something small that tweaks the functionality of WordPress or adds a negligible feature. But to create something truly endearing you need a team. There are very few people that have all of the skills necessary to create something profitable in this space.
Your team does not necessarily need to the large. Ours is barely three people. But within that group, we are still allowed specialization and have the benefit of knowing someone else has your back.
Very few people have all the skills necessary to create something profitable. You’ll need a team.Tweet
What was the main reason for monetizing Postmatic with a Freemium model?
Freemium was the only choice which let us easily give back to the WordPress community. When we started this we were highly indebted to open source and all of the contributions of the larger WordPress scene. For nearly a decade as an agency, we took, took, took and didn’t necessarily give back. Mostly that was because we were not necessarily developing plugins or themes which were easily reusable by others, so we never released our code. It was all very custom and bespoke.
When we created Postmatic, we wanted to make an enormous contribution. Engagement tools have been so bad for so long and we were investing hugely in doing it right. It felt like the core of our technology, replyable emails were essential to platform which is seeking to democratize publishing. So we gave that part away. It’s in Postmatic Basic.
When you’re not busy farming, what does your usual work day look like? Do you work from an office or a home space? How many hours a week do you spend on Postmatic?
I have two young kids and my wife is a teacher. I’ve got a fantastic little office about 2 miles from our house where I spend most of my work time. I won’t pretend to have a wonderful work/life balance in the midst of launching a massive product with a small team. It’s been kind of a mess around here for the last year or so. My workday is like this:
- Up at 4:30 am for morning email, getting the team organized
- Outdoorsy farm stuff from 6am-7am. This is quite seasonal, though.
- Kiddos are up at 7 am. Get them fed, pack lunches, and drive them to school by 8 am.
- Work until 4 or 5 pm. Maybe some exercise in here if I’m feeling especially terrible about how I’m treating my body. Which is about two times a week. About 75% of this time is spent on Postmatic and 25% on paying client work.
- Cook, hang out with kiddos from 5pm-7pm.
- Time for my wife and I from there until 10ish.
I don’t mean to endorse this schedule or think it is sustainable at all. I think it speaks volumes to the amount of work required to do what we are doing while bootstrapping. I’m not proud of what it is doing to my health. I also think it needs a particular kind of spouse. One that is built on kindness and patience. I mean it. I hope it’s all over soon.
Do you find that there are similarities between farming and plugin development? Do any skills or traits carry over from one passion to the next?
No way. They are totally opposite – which is why I do them both. I’ve always needed to balance tech work with something to clear my mind, challenge my body, and get some dirt on my hands. I used to hunt, harvest, and write about Mushrooms. I’ll always need something to contrast the inactivity, loneliness, and separation that comes from being a software developer with the things I feel make me human. This way I can focus as deeply and intensely as I want when I’m at work.
I need something to contrast the inactivity, loneliness, and separation that comes from being a software developer with the things I feel make me human.Tweet
What are some milestones you hope to achieve this year? (personal and business)
This year is make or break for Postmatic. We put all our chips into developing Postmatic 2 (which is out now!).
I’d love to grow it to be our full-time project and have it support the three families that are involved in keeping it running. A decent salary to keep working on what we love would be the first milestone.
After that, I’d like to have our feature set built out to squarely compete with Mailchimp in the WordPress space. We have already upped the bar when it comes to sending posts and weekly digests. Next, we need to flesh out our newsletter and analytics offerings. If we get those out by the end of the year, I’ll be a happy guy.
What was your biggest mistake or regret while running your WordPress plugin business? We want to help newbies learn from others’ mistakes.
I’m not the best guy to answer this as we are still the newbies in lots of ways. We haven’t seen huge success. People often think we are way farther along in our business than we actually are.
I don’t have huge regrets quite yet – but there is a what if that I think about daily. That is:
What if we didn’t keep our plugin in the wordpress.org repo? What if we didn’t have a free plan? What if we were premium-only?
I go back and forth with that because, as I’ve mentioned above, we want to give back to the WordPress community, but there are a few things which are slowly sucking the life out of our business:
- Entitlement. There is a population of WordPress users that are downright mean. They are non-paying users who are also almost always non-contributors (no plugins or themes of their own) that expect the world and become abusive when it is not handed to them. They use the wordpress.org review system to blackmail developers and are quick to say the most harmful things when something doesn’t go their way. This group makes me want to leave the repo altogether and cancel any free offerings we have.
- The lack of business tools. Our plugin is more of an application than something that modifies WordPress. It’s taken years and sacks of money to develop. We want to do the right thing and keep our code GPL while offering a basic free service to WordPress sites. The repo guidelines, as well as support and data sharing offerings, make that generosity more expensive for us than it should be. It’s not a sustainable system. Freemius is solving a lot of these problems for plugin developers. I wish you all the success in the world.
Is there any advice or perhaps some smart business acumen you would like to share with your fellow plugin developers?
We have seen the majority of our traction come from partnerships, guest posts, and being willing to meet anyone halfway in cooking up a plugin integration. I can’t say enough about the value of working with other plugin developers.