WordPress And Appcelerator: Innovation without the Cash

Product Business

I just recently spoke at a WordCamp (San Diego) on how a small business or start up could use WordPress for more than just a blog or web site, and referenced one particular case of product innovation but didn't get into the details…so here they are.

Not all innovation requires that you start from scratch.

I don't know if that's rule number one for me, but it's in my top ten. Right there with it is something like, design with what you have rather than waiting until your fundraising is complete. Whatever you think about my rules for product launches, start ups, minimal viable products, minimal viable audiences, and more—there are a handful of tools and strategies that regularly work for me. One of them is WordPress. Now, not every start up that I coach uses WordPress, so it's not a hard and fast rule…but many do—mostly because it makes innovation a lot easier and faster.

“I Need to Raise $1MM bucks…”

When I first met the ROAR team it was in the form of their CEO, Matt McKee, who was already working on building a mobile solution for non-profits. He was already doing all the right things – evaluating his market without the expense or delay of building a new product from scratch. Like most people, he'd talked to a few developers and engineering companies and heard the same refrain you may have heard, “Sure we can build it. We can build anything…” but the price tag that regularly came with it was high. So in one of our early conversations he shared the need to raise a lot of money to build his platform.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with raising a lot of money to spur on innovation. But raising money too early can just as easily kill you. So I regularly suggest that you innovate where you are, rather than waiting for a large chunk of change to drive your new product development efforts. Additionally, as we all know, things get cheaper as time moves on…

“They quoted me $120,000”

After about six months of online meetings and phone calls with the guys from ROAR, Matt called up to tell me that he'd received a new quote for the platform and it was way down from the last one he got. Mind you, the platform definition hadn't changed. At it's heart, ROAR wanted to let churches, schools, and other non-profits access a platform to collect and create content and then push it to a customized mobile app for either iPhones or Android phones. While the lower price was great, the challenge was that the quotes Matt was getting still assumed that every aspect of the platform required it's own innovation—a custom CMS, a custom code generator, a custom build engine and finally, custom mobile apps.

What if we used WordPress & Appcelerator?

“What if we could do it cheaper?” is rarely a question a CEO gets, so Matt was all ears when we first started talking about how to build a v.1 platform on the cheap. Now don't get me wrong, others have said it and I agree with them 100%—if you're not embarrassed by your v.1 then you waited too long to ship. I wasn't suggesting that he could build a million dollar platform for twenty thousand dollars. But I was suggesting that the right tools could drive his innovation forward without the need to raise tons of outside money. After all, I love bootstrapping.

Creating a Custom CMS with WordPress

WordPress would provide the custom CMS—with the use of plugins like Gravity Forms, Advanced Custom Fields, and a host of others from WPMU Dev. It would enable the team to create a baseline site with forms, custom fields and custom post types, and then for each new sign up, replicate the template but customize it per client. The New Blog Template plugin worked perfectly. We even customized the dashboard with another plugin. But that was only one part of three.

The Glue

The second part came in the form of a custom plugin developed to pull data out of WordPress and make it available for part three. While part one, the custom CMS using WordPress, took know-how, the innovation was one of assembly rather than creation. You just had to know that it was possible and you had to bring the right features together to make it happen. But it was fast (weeks, not months). Part two was brand-new, creation-style innovation. It was a custom plugin of our own making that opened the door to part three. It pulled data out of WordPress and made it available to Titanium.

Appcelerator: Why take any other approach?

When it came to the mobile side of things, the team from Appcelerator had done all the needed innovation, so the big question was why wouldn't we use it? ROAR's VP of Development (formerly the CEO of Mobile Salt), did all the heavy lifting—creating the Titanium code that would result in both iPhone and Android applications that could be compiled on their own platforms and sent into the stores. But he needed the data from WordPress (which is why this was a three-part solution instead of a two-part one). Once he was able to access it programmatically, he had custom apps rolling out in no time.

Lessons Learned

Did everything work out perfectly? No. Appcelerator rolled out a new version right before launch. Re-coding part of your code that you thought was done is never an exciting proposition. One of the early plugins we used for a ticket system started sucking almost immediately. So that had to be pulled. And customizing the WordPress Admin Theme—via theme and plugin—required a few rounds to make sure that we were respective roles (in terms of what parts of the dashboard we were hiding). But the cost was a fraction of even the cheaper quote ROAR had received. And it let them launch their own CMS and sign up a few hundred customers in a remarkably short time.

Innovation doesn't have to start from scratch. It may not be rule one, but it's in the top ten. When others are innovating—like the entire WordPress community and the folks at Appcelerator – you can accelerate your own initiatives by leveraging their work and building from there. Often, it can result in you jammin' a lot of cash back into your pockets!