“I Work Really Hard to Keep Everything As Simple As Possible.” – Interview with James Laws

CMS Platforms Reviews,Success Stories,WordPress

At aisite we love to get the inside view from developers working with WordPress. Today, we’re going to learn more about James Laws, Co-founder of the WP Ninjas, Co-creator of Ninja Forms & Ninja Demo, Entrepreneur, Speaker, Podcaster, and all around nice guy. 

James has got an extensive knowledge of WordPress, and is a go-to expert for developing website with this CMS. 

We hope you find the interview inspirational for your own designing and development efforts! As always, we invite you to join in with your comments at the end of this post.

Thanks for joining us today, James. Please, tell us a bit more about your background, how long have you been working with WordPress and about your current ventures.

Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to participate. I’m a pretty average guy who’s never been content unless he was building something. I’ve worked several jobs for differing short periods of time. Grocery store clerk, nursery (plants & kids), janitorial service, bank teller, door to door vacuum sales, web administrator (for a fashion jewelry business and credit union). I’ve started a coffee shop, a design shop, and a church.

I’ve been using WordPress for about 10 years now. Mostly blogging for my various ventures, but after a short while I started modifying themes, creating new ones from scratch, and then finally building various plugins.

Now I spend my days running our little scrappy, bootstrapped WordPress plugin development business. We mostly sell products, with our flagship product being a fairly popular form building plugin called Ninja Forms.

When was the first time that you really got excited about WordPress and at what point did you decide to make it your career?

For me it started around 2008 while I was working as a web administrator for a regional credit union. They had brought me in to rebuild and manage all of their web properties and I decided to use WordPress exclusively. They had spent over $30k for a knowledge base tool built with Java. I had implemented it, but it was a resource hog and kept crashing the server. Nothing we did seemed to stabilize it so I decided to work on a WordPress plugin to replicate the most critical features. The plugin was a hit and in about a week worth of development I replaced a $30k piece of software. I then went on to replace other similar poor performing software and processes.

As far as a change in career, that happened much later. With the help of my friend and business partner, we built a form building tool which later became Ninja Forms. It was originally built for a client, but it soon afterwards I began entertaining the idea of getting into the product business. That was back in 2011. It wasn’t actually until 2013, when Ninja Forms started growing very rapidly, that we knew we had a business and not just a product.

Where do you go first to get WordPress news, insights, and updates?

I follow the WP News Desk for a steady flow of WordPress content from a large selection of sites, but my go-to source for the most relevant WordPress news is Post Status and the WP Tavern.

Have you ever faced the problem of website migration? If so, how did you manage to resolve it: by converting your website data manually or via an automated tool?

I have been bitten by migration issues many times in my past. That being said, I don’t have to migrate sites very often so I go a pretty manual route. Dump the MySql, move my files, etc..

What performance tips would you give to beginners (as related to speed, scalability, security, plugins, backup, etc.)?

These tend to be a lot simpler than people make them out to be. Make sure you have a solid host. Keep WordPress and your plugins up to date. Maintain regular backups. Keep your code lean. Keep your budget lean.

I don’t really have a specific tool or tip exactly.  In my experience, too many people don’t know what’s going on in the various areas of their sites and/or business. Regular audits help you keep everything in check. If you aren’t reviewing your site, plugins, code, processes, etc., you are essentially just waiting for everything to breakdown as it naturally does.

Confess to us your biggest moment of WP fail?

I can’t really recall a “big” WP fail exactly. Plenty of failures, but not that relate to WordPress directly. I can say that I remember the painful experience of transitioning a fairly heavily trafficked site from 2.9 multi-site to version 3.0. Back then, multi-site was a complete separate version of WordPress. Upgrading revealed a bunch of issues with how I had the site set up. I spent a lot of long days in the forums back then.

So what does WP Ninjas do? What do you think helps your solution stand out from other WordPress development companies in the field?

Essentially we build, sell, and support WordPress plugins. We have two paid plugins and several free plugins. Our main plugin and the one that pretty well supports our business is Ninja Forms. It’s a drag and drop form building solution that allows you to build any kind of form, set-up unlimited events that take place when a form is submitted, and manage those submissions.

The core plugin is completely free and pretty powerful all on its own, but how we make money is by selling add-ons. These are smaller plugins that extend the functionality of the core plugin.

Ninja Forms stands out in several different areas.

  • It’s completely open source so anyone can contribute to its development.

  • It uses the add-on business model. This seems to have been a real hit with our customers. It gives them the ability to only purchase the specific tools they need and ignore the rest.

  • We also have an all-in membership for those power users or people with lots of clients.

  • Finally, our marketplace. We encourage collaborating developers to build and sell their own creations right beside our own. This means we are able to support a lot more integrations as well as support the developer community around Ninja Forms.

What you are currently working on?

Our whole team is currently deeply focused on the coming release of Ninja Forms THREE. This is the newest version of our main plugin and it’s simply incredible.

What’s the coolest project you’ve ever worked on with WordPress?

Not to be redundant, but Ninja Forms THREE. It’s a complete rewrite in what believe will be the new WordPress way. Ninja Forms THREE is essentially a single page web application in the admin. Built heavily with JavaScript, it’s a total re-envisioning of what a WordPress plugin UI could look like. Especially in the form building space. It’s elegant, intuitive, and fast. It has a bunch of new features that haven’t been seen in a form building plugin to date. And it works great on a mobile device!

What do you think is the biggest challenge for WordPress development to face in 2016?

In the State of the Word last year, Matt Mullenweg strongly urged the community to “learn javascript deeply.” While I agree that this is the right direction for the project and the community, I think that there are going to be a lot of growing pains in the transition. PHP has been the dominant language and now a whole lot of PHP developers are going to have to learn something completely new. I could see some leaving the project completely while new blood begins to explore WordPress for the first time. This will certainly be a challenging and exciting time for the community at large.

If you could change one thing about WordPress today, what would it be?

The user interface. I have a huge amount of respect for the WordPress core designers and all the work they do to make it functional and accessible. I find it very easy to use myself, but I’ve also been using for over 10 years and watched it transition to where it is now. In my experience, new users don’t have the same love affair with WordPress that I do and find it difficult to understand and manage. They quickly forget how to do fairly simple tasks. I think a completely fresh look at the user experience and interface could go a long way for WordPress.

What new features would you like to see in upcoming versions of WordPress?

I can’t think of a feature that I’ve been really yearning to see, but I do always geek out with each new release to see what the team has cooked up.

Tell us a bit about your working setup (hardware + software). Can you shoot us a picture of your desk? 

I have a pretty simple set-up.

  • MacBook Pro

  • Thunderbolt display

  • Sublime for code editing

  • GitHub and Terminal for Code repos

  • Trello for creating processes

  • Slack for team and community discussions

I work really hard to keep everything as simple as possible.


Finally, have we missed anything? Here’s your chance to fill in the blanks and add something you want people to know about you!

I, like much of the WordPress community, am accessible. I love to talk shop and help others connect the dots in their own ventures. If we’re at the same WordCamp or another conference, introduce yourself. I would love to hear what exciting project you’re working on.

We want to sincerely thank James for the time he has spent with us and wish him best of luck with WP Ninjas and his new projects  🙂 

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