Interview With Product Lead Brandon Dove Of Pixel Jar — Post Status Draft 144

Brandon Dove, co-founder of Pixel Jar, joins Cory Miller to discuss his WordPress plugin, AdSanity Plugin. They dive into the nuance of advertising, evaluate the benefits of free and paid plugins, and talk through the challenges and opportunities available to agencies that invest in product development while providing other services.

Estimated reading time: 22 minutes


In this episode, Cory Miller talks with Brandon Dove of Pixel Jar about agency product development. They discuss how the AdSanity Plugin works and what lessons Brandon has learned about the relationship between agency operations and product development.

Top Takeaways:

  • Recurring Product Revenue.While it can be challenging for an agency to balance custom service work with product development, having a product that generates recurring revenue can provide a cushion and diversify the overall business revenue. AdSanity is a successful example of this, and the team is working on dedicating more resources towards the product to even out development between the two sides of their business. However, it can be difficult to maintain free plugins without generating revenue, and it’s important to consider how to incorporate them into the business model.
  • Value vs. Spam in Advertising. For many people, advertising has become a four-letter word, so there is a need to help customers become good advertisers rather than just spamming ads everywhere. It’s critical to empower your visitors by explaining the importance of creating a community around the site to allow for more meaningful conversations with visitors. 
  • The Point of Free Plugins. Building free plugins is more about passion and community engagement than being a lead generator. The main outcome has been connecting with people within the WordPress community, but those connections remember to come to you for solutions. So the increased exposure can lead to revenue in the long term.

🙏 Sponsor: GoDaddy Pro

Manage your clients, websites, and tasks from a single dashboard with GoDaddy Pro. Perform security scans, backups, and remote updates to many sites on any host. Check up on site performance, monitor uptime and analytics, and then send reports to your clients. GoDaddy Pro is free — and designed to make your life better

GoDaddy Pro

🔗 Mentioned in the show:

🐦 You can follow Post Status and our guests on Twitter:

The Post Status Draft podcast is geared toward WordPress professionals, with interviews, news, and deep analysis. 📝

Browse our archives, and don’t forget to subscribe via iTunes, Google Podcasts, YouTube, Stitcher, Simplecast, or RSS. 🎧


Cory Miller: [00:00:00] Everybody welcome back to Post Status Draft. This is another interview in the series called Product People, and I’m talking to my longtime friend, uh, an agency owner and product founder Brandon Dove. Today to talk about Ad Sanity, a WordPress plugin that helps you, um, helps site owners. Um, Well, I’ll let you tell that in just a second, but , um, you’ll be seeing ad ad sanity on posts very soon cuz I meant to mention this before we started recording.

It’s something that we need. Need for the site. All right. And I’m like, great longtime friend product, product member, um, has the key solution. Anyway. Um, Brandon, would you tell us a little bit for those of you that don’t know you, and, and, uh, tell us a little bit about what you do, uh, your work in WordPress from both product and services side?

Brandon Dove: Yeah, uh, thanks having me on by the way. And, um, yeah, so, uh, I run a, a company called Pixel Jar. [00:01:00] That, uh, we’ve been doing WordPress stuff for a very long time. Um, we started our business in 2004 and, um, you know, just, uh, through our work with not only clients and, and services that we provide, um, have, have found sort of a, a niche in building plug-ins for our, our customers.

And, um, some of those are great one-time use things for our customers, but. , in other cases, they’re, they’re bigger, sort of, um, needs amongst the community. And so, uh, our product Ad Sani launched from just such a, uh, an instance where we had a, a customer who was, who had a wedding blog that was highly trafficked.

They had been using another plugin that was just tanking their site. And so at the time, you know, we decided to build them a custom solution for advertising and it worked for them. Um, it kept their site up and, and kept making them [00:02:00] money. And so we talked to them about like releasing it to, to the broader community to see if people would be able to benefit in the same way.

And, um, they were agreeable to that. And, um, yeah, we, we put it out in the market.

Cory Miller: Well, I want to talk about that, that whole experience too, because I know a lot of people on the on agencies go, “Hey, what if we did this product?” And you’ve done this unique organic experience that came out of. Um, your work, which I think is so cool for agencies to think about that there might be an opportunity to do a product.

And I’ve seen so many agencies like you, you know, this, uh, friends of ours that have done products, well, maybe they haven’t monetized directly from them, but it’s been a part of their portfolio and all that kind of stuff. So, um, how has that experience agency and then having this product. That you’d like, you work on, I know you’re passionate about it.

I’ve talked to you in the pa part about it, but tell me from that agency experience, what that journey has been like. [00:03:00]

Brandon Dove: Uh, yeah, it’s, it’s tricky for sure, right? Um, you know, our core services are, um, taking care of our customers, our clients who come to us and need more custom solutions, like that’s our bread and butter.

Um, but you know, as agencies, it’s, it’s great to be able to. You know, sort of, um, get past the ebb and flow of work to have a, a baseline of income that’s recurring revenue from a product kind of type of, uh, business. And so that’s, that’s sort of where, you know, we really focus on ad sanity to, to provide that for us is, is that that cushion to really start off our month every month with like, okay, we’re gonna, we’re gonna make this much money.

We can, you know, we can. Uh, count on that. And, um, so then it’s like, uh, from an organizational standpoint, how do we focus time on this when we’ve got clients who are saying, Hey, I, I need you to complete this work by this deadline, or whatever. You know, that that push and [00:04:00] pull of product development in that is, is sometimes really tricky.

Um, I’ve talked to some product only houses that say it’s just not possible to do well, um, between products and services. And in some days I definitely feel like that it’s, it’s really hard to, um, especially for a small team like ours, to, you know, please everybody all the time. And, um, so we’ve, we’ve set.

Over the years at Sandy Launch in 2011. So it’s been around for a long time. Um, and so throughout that time we’ve spent, um, you know, a lot of time on it in some instances and also in some instances, not a lot of time because client services had a ramped up. So we’re, um, we’re in the middle of trying some, some more dedicated resources towards the product to even out development, um, between the two different sides of our business.

And, um, it’s a work in progress, right now ?

Cory Miller: So I appreciate that. I think hearing [00:05:00] that Will is gonna be help a lot of people as they’re thinking through this. Cuz I think there’s this perpetual, you know, pressure to say, do I have a product when you’re doing client services? But then I talk to so many people that are very, very happy doing client work only.

Yeah. Um, And then some people like me that have failed miserably at client work and go, well, it’s product. So I think it’s cool. It’s been around very long time. Um, it makes money. Uh, and now it seems like what I hear too is it’s an opportunity to even diversify your overall business’ revenue. Yep. And, um, I know you’re, you’re passionate about product, like this is something you’ve poured into with that sanity in particular, just talking to you in the past.

So, um, I think that’s all, um, super cool to hear, hear, and then it has potential. Mm-hmm. . It could stay here and we’d be happy with it, but it has more potential if we might put some in there. And I think that’s a, that’s a really nice [00:06:00] place to be in the product space. Like we said, there’s plugins out there that, you know, agencies maintain for themselves that probably don’t make, you know, money.

Sure. Um, but are those portfolio pieces,

Brandon Dove: and I think that’s one of, that’s a, it can be a drag like, um, We’ve put out free plug-ins before we ever put out paid plug-ins and supporting that as a service. Is really hard, right? Like if you have plug-ins that aren’t making you money, but they’re useful to the community, sometimes you put those out there and say, well, some people might be able to use this.

Those often get unsupported. They don’t, they don’t really ever change code because, you know, unless you have a very large team. Um, but, uh, It, it, it’s hard because you’re like, well, how do I, how do I put that into my business, uh, if I’m not making money off of it, but I have customers or clients who are paying me.

So that, that, that is tricky. I think if you have a free plugin. But, um, ad sanity started really [00:07:00] small, um, really lightweight, really basic as far as ad plug-ins go, but over time we added functionality through add-ons and things like that, that made it more robust.

Cory Miller: Well, tell me about the plugin itself. Uh, I’ve, I’ve obviously used it, but tell us a little bit about where the product is today, and then I’ll ask you where you’re kind of go, what your thoughts and ideas are for the future for the plugin.

Brandon Dove: Yeah, so the, at the core of Ad Sanity, it’s just, it’s a custom post type. So for developers out there or people who are very familiar with WordPress, it, it’s, it utilizes a lot of WordPress core functionality, which is what we wanted, right? We didn’t want to build independent systems that we’re gonna add to WordPress.

We wanted to make sure that we tied in as closely as possible to the WordPress editing experience. So, Any user could pick it up and, and build with it. And so, um, out, out of the box, it’s, you know, custom post type that supports a featured image. So if you have a relationship with a, an advertiser, you can take their, their ad assets, [00:08:00] dump ’em into a featured image, and we use a lot of the built-in WordPress, um, queries and things like that to keep things really, keep things really performant. And you know, we have different blocks, widgets, template tags, like all sorts of different WordPress implementations to be able to display those in different ways on your site.

Like that’s, Outta the box. That’s the very, very basic stuff. We also support, um, ad ad networks. So we have a, an area where you can dump in ad network code if you want to use an ad sense or some other, um, ad network, you can just pop that in there. Um, and over time we added also HTML five ads, which was really, um, a lot of our customers were asking for and even just plain text ads.

Um, so you have some customization of a look and feel of those things, but, um, that’s sort of out of the box core functionality. Um, I think there’s some other things I’m probably glossing over, but, um, we, we created some additional add-ons to. [00:09:00] You know, enhance the functionality of the things that you might expect of expirations on impressions instead of just, um, like date-based ranges of like start and end dates.

Um, we have conditional advertising, so like, You can say, only show these ads on these categories. Um, but you have an ad group that has lots and lots of ads in it, so you can really slice and dice and display those, um, those ads where you want them, or based on user, user type or lots of different things.

Um, we’ve got a way for advertisers to get self-service reporting, so if you do build relationships through advertisers, they can log in. See all views, clicks, and click through, rate, all that stuff on their own. So you don’t have to provide those to all your, your customer or your advertisers. Um, yeah, there’s, there’s probably like a, a few other I’m missing, but I think those are like some of the popular ones, um, that are on top of my head.

Cory Miller: Yeah. The ability to put ads on your [00:10:00] WordPress site. Um, uh, this, its, uh, I can assume will always exist, but. You know, trying to monetize onto the site and it does it very freshly Well, I was trying to remember when I logged in, seeing all the down the add-ons there for a second to help to, to share some isol.

Um, well, okay, so that’s where the plugin is now. And, and I wanna just talk a little bit before we talk about the future of what you’re trying to do with the plugin. I know a high value from you, from me and friends as long as we have talking about this product in particular, that you have a, you threaded align with this because.

You know, value, personal values, business values too. And in the subject of advertising, it’s always this tricky like, line. Yeah. To, uh, to, to, to walk. So tell me about that. I, I know cuz we’ve talked about this subject is, you know, you, I go to this, I can’t remember what the side is, but I’m like, man, I’ve got one answer by one inch square to actually.

What the text is and everything else is [00:11:00] video. And I know from past like that’s one of the things I know you always card against. How do you navigate that line with the product?

Brandon Dove: I think like more and more lately, you know, advertising is sort of like, um, a four letter word almost. You know, people are like, I, I’ve got an ad blocker on my, my browser because I don’t wanna see 17,000 ads when I’m just trying to read an article.

Right. And, and more big publishers are starting to go, okay, well, like, hold on a second. We were, we rely on that money. To, um, to be able to create this content. So I think what, what that’s really led us to is how can we help all of our customers, our insanity customers, be good advertisers or good publishers, and not just spam.

Ads everywhere, all over their site. Um, and so we’ve done a lot of, um, writing on our site about, you know, best practices for advertising. Um, we actually have another ad-on, which is, um, [00:12:00] is an ad block detection because we want, we want our, to empower our publishers to start that conversation with their visitors, right?

We want them to be able to say, , I appreciate that you’ve got an ad blocker. I’ve got one too, or whatever, but here’s why I have ads on my site. You know, I’m a small team of, of content creators. We rely on these advertisements to pay our bills. You know, either could you turn off your, your ad blocker for our site, you know, like, like whitelist us or in some cases we’ve been talking.

Creating a membership so that people become members to your site and you can disable using the conditional ads add-on. You can disable ads for users who are logged in or at a certain level. Um, so again, it creates, um, more of a community around your site. It allows you to, to connect with people who are visiting your site and actually have more meaningful conversations.

With them, um, and, and give them the kind of content that they want. Um, and, and in addition, be able to [00:13:00] provide advertising that’s relevant to those people. So not only are they not turned off by the advertising, they’re actually more willing to like look into those, those advertisements because it’s something they’re you’re already writing about or something that’s related to your content.

Cory Miller: I, I love that for two reasons. One is because, um, giving somebody an option that. , um, you know, like developer and explaining why we’re doing this. I mean, post, we take advertising in the form of sponsorships. We want people to see those and say thank you. And those advertisers have like goals, objectives, they wanna meet a part of that. And so it’s like balancing that. I know, I know this, so I love that. You’re like, Hey, I know you don’t like it. Here’s a path to help support us. Mm-hmm. . And then the second. Um, the ability from just a business model standpoint to go, you don’t like ’em, turn ’em off.

Like come into, it’s a great introduction to membership and that’s, you know, [00:14:00] particularly during Covid, Brandon, I’m sure you saw this too, is like the rise in the. anecdotal data from friends around the sphere. Yeah. Is like membership sites were really hot core sites. L m s stuff was really hot and for good reason, people kinda left, has had a little bit more time and thought I’ll do my pet project and stuff.

Yep. And I think this is that line you, you kind of balance with any kind of membership is. Strong enough front facing content to attract people to the membership. And I love that you’ve got a path for people to use, um, with, with those two scenarios. Mm-hmm. , hey, you don’t like it? We don’t either, but here’s an opportunity and then a way to go.

I want to pay for the non-advertising version and to do that programmatically. I pr think it’s pretty spectacular. Yeah.

All right. What, what, what else did I miss on, on that part? I love that you mentioned that particular add-on. Is there anything else that came to mind before I start talking about [00:15:00] the future and what you’re trying to do?

Brandon Dove: I think one thing that I just, just, it’s not specifically related to this, but one thing I, I did forget to mention when we were talking about agencies or like being an agency and having products is, um, what we have found in having ad sanity is there, there’s always people who want customizations, right? Like we get that as an agency. People come in and they’re like, Hey, we’ve got these seven plugins. We need ’em to work better together. Or we have, you know, this one plugin that we just need to tweak another 10% to get exactly.

Have it exactly do what we want. And as a product developer, it, it gives you like core knowledge about this plugin. Like I know how to modify ad sanity. Any use case probably. And so we have, like, we’ve had people come to us like looking for ad sanity and, and seeing it as a good platform, but they need another 10%, or in some cases they need an entire add-on built for it, um, to do what they want.

And, and that has been a huge revenue generator for, [00:16:00] for Pixel Jar. Um, and, and so like that, that, you know, Cross-selling opportunity. I think as far as an agency and a product space is, is actually really great.

Cory Miller: Well, we really didn’t go deep into that, but I a hundred percent agree and I’m not from the a agency side, but I go a project that can generate work or an name brain that just being out there and knowing that you might have a plugin that somebody might go, huh, it’s a cool plug.

I wonder who, who does it. And it’s this awesome agency. Could lead to a lot, a lot of work. And then I know there’s companies in space and you got, you all might do this too, is companies approach you to build their integration plugin and continue to maintain it. And so you’re like mm-hmm. . I, I think that’s an excellent, I’m glad you came back to that because an excellent way to build the marketing exposure and, uh, drive revenue to your business.

Yeah. Even [00:17:00] some of the ones, like our friends over at WebDev Studios, I know they’ve got custom post op ui and I think to myself, what a great calling card. Yeah. Because I think it’s installed over a million times on the repo. And, um, but what a great calling card, you know, to say when you’re talking to a client or to get, be out there in the mainstream.

Um, how have the free plugins you’ve done in the past worked? Um, there, there’s bound to be some net effect that’s helped, but how has that experience gone from the free.

Brandon Dove: Um, it’s difficult, right? Like, um, I would say some of ’em are, um, you know, used on a couple thousand blogs or something like that. Like nothing to the extent of custom post type ui, um, which is a fantastic plugin.

We use that several times. Um, but, uh, but yeah, like, uh, for. It’s, it’s more of like the passion for the community that gets us to put those out. Um, the first, I think the first free plugin I [00:18:00] put out was because in 2009, There was a plug-in competition in New York, uh, word Camp New York, that, uh, it just, as a developer, it was a way for me to engage with that community.

Like I had never been to New York before. And, uh, because there was that plug-in competition where you were gonna be on stage and, and kind of talking about the plug-in you built, um, and you had to have a team that was, um, distributed. So you had to work with people, uh, that weren’t just in your company or whatever.

So, um, I got the, the opportunity to work with people that would’ve never worked with otherwise. Uh, I flew out to New York to, to present, um, the plugin and, and I think that was like my favorite experience for building like a free plugin because, um, you know, being part of that WordPress community feeling, the collaboration was, was pretty awesome. I, I think for me it’s more of a, it has to be more about the passion in, in that case than, you [00:19:00] know, having it be really like a, a lead generator in a lot of cases.

Cory Miller: Yes, absolutely. And I mean, I would think the better, it helps showcase your core expertise, the work you do, um, e even better.

So, yeah, I like that. All right. Well, Let’s talk about the future of added sanity and what you got planned and what you’re thinking about, um, a little bit more in depth. So what’s next for the, the product?

Brandon Dove: Uh, that’s a good question. Like I said, um, we are, uh, we’re experimenting with dedicated resources for the, the product.

So while we continue to maintain it, build new features here and there, it’s not as like, it, it’s, we don’t have a dedicated team to it. So, um, it, it, it can, sometimes development can come sometimes slow. So I think that’s, that’s part of our plans next year is, is really to dedicate resources to it. We, we are also as [00:20:00] many plugins are, um, sort of like finding our way with all of the new block editing stuff.

We, we addressed a lot of our core functionality with block editing. Um, we integrated with a couple page builders at the same time. But I mean, the, the way site editing is evolving, um, will probably. Further and deeper than we expect. And so we’ve been following a lot of the, the development on, on site editing and Gutenberg and, and all of that stuff.

And I think you know what it means for us, like I am, I’m a backend more PHP focused developer. So what it means for us is really, you know, fully embracing more JavaScript life, um, and, and becoming, uh, You, you know, more in tune and more ingrained with what, with what WordPress is offering at its core.

Because that was our initial mantra is like being, [00:21:00] being very, um, focused on what WordPress offers out of the box and making it an easy to use experience. So I think like the, the big thing that we’ve been focusing on is trying to plan, how do we want to integrate with, with the site editing experience in a better way and, um, , you know, how does that rework our entire user interface potentially.

Um, and also as a product developer who’s been around for a long time, how do we not alienate customers that have been with us for years and years and years?

Cory Miller: So, Yeah, that we could do a whole public podcast series on how to balance like agency time and resources with the, with that product. Mm-hmm. , um, for sure.

And that equation, when does it make sense? But I was right in here, some of the reasons we’ve talked about why an agency might consider doing a product and one, I was just thinking, I know you’ll do this part of your client work, but the product is probably an excuse too [00:22:00] to. Dig in and really stay in touch with full side where the software itself is going.

Yeah. Uh, in addition to like flexing your expertise muscle and all that.

Brandon Dove: And Beyond that, it’s, it’s like we’re in charge. Right? A another benefit of an agency with a product is like all day you work servicing clients who have requests for you to do exactly what they say, but when you’re a product owner, you get to decide what gets built.

Like you might have customers who are saying, Hey, we need this feature. But you ultimately get to decide like, do I wanna build that feature? Do I wanna support that feature? Is it good for the broader customer base that I have? Um, so there’s some freedom in that as well.

Cory Miller: Yeah, like a change of pace too, you know.

Mm-hmm. , um, like you said, I, I got change of pace when you said that. It’s like, okay, we have to do what the client ultimately wants over here, potentially, but over here we get to like make our way and see, and that creative freedom freedom’s gotta be nice. Yeah, definitely. Balance [00:23:00] with, okay. We still wanted to pay , you know, make money.

Yeah. We don’t want to just spend it on a research project.

Brandon Dove: Yeah. That tracking is important too, right? Like, whatever time you’re spending on it, you wanna make sure it’s, it’s effective. You know, just like as a developer, if you’re building a new feature, you wanna make sure it’s not impacting the performance of the plugin, things like that.

So you gotta, you gotta weigh those things for sure.

Cory Miller: Yeah. And just there, it just kind of ping my thing so you. hours you all spend as a company on the product. Yep. That’s excellent. Because then you’re able to make better informed decisions. Okay, we just spent 50 or 500 hours this quarter, year, whatever it is, right?

In making those decisions, having some of the data. That’s awesome. Mm-hmm. . See, I like talking to the real agency pros, ,

Brandon Dove: You gotta know.

Cory Miller: Yep. That’s true. All right, Brandon. Well thanks for, um, talking about all this. Is there anything that I missed that you want to. And talk about with the plugin and,

Brandon Dove: um, no, I think, I think [00:24:00] that’s, that’s most of it.

You know, I, I think, you know, we’re, we’re not going anywhere. That’s, that’s, uh, um, you know, when development slows, sometimes people get like, is this plugin still active? Like, yeah, we’re, we’re still grinding on this and, and we don’t anticipate it going anywhere. There’s a lot of other advertising plugins out there.

and, um, you know, I still think that that, you know, I, I’m personally biased, but I still think ours is the best. Mm-hmm. . Um, so we’re, we’re gonna continue to, to keep up with what, what WordPress is doing and make sure that it’s, it’s doing what we can for our customers to be successful.

Cory Miller: Cool. Well, I know you’re in Post Status , but where can we find Ad Sandy and learn more about you and Pixel Jar ?

Brandon Dove: Yeah, ad sanity is the website. Um, and uh, from there you can get over to as well. But, um, yeah, all the information’s on ad sanity Our, our socials are, you know, burning cuz of Twitter. I don’t know , uh, but uh, yeah, we’re [00:25:00] on, we’re on twitter at (???) and Facebook as well, so wherever you still hang out.

Yeah. ,

Cory Miller: we’ll be there. Yeah, exactly. All right. Thanks Brandon for sharing about Ed Sandy in our Product People series at Post Status draft. We’ll see you all next time. Thanks, Cory.

This article was published at Post Status — the community for WordPress professionals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *