The joy of working with "really interesting people whose values drive their work"
The Wonder Jam is “a family of brands that help scrappy, soulful businesses grow”, in the immortal words of Daft Punk, harder, better, faster and stronger. One of those brands, Wonderly, builds websites, visual branding assets and membership software to help its clients “set themselves apart”. I spoke to managing partner Allie Lehman and developer Matt Hart to learn more.
Fine art to freelance to freedom
“My background is in the fine arts; I grew up doing a lot of drawing and oil painting,” begins Allie Lehman. “At high school, I had a great art teacher who, funnily enough, said, ‘You could be an illustrator, or graphic designer’’ even though I didn't really know what those things were! I chose graphic design and studied it in college.”
Allie graduated during the recession in 2009 and went into web hosting support. “It was pretty stressful, but I learned a lot about servers, how WordPress got installed, all things ‘website’,” she remembers. “In 2013, I started The Wonder Jam, now our parent company. I left my design job and started that full time.”
She had been collaborating with Matt Hart for a couple years by this point; he would code websites and she would design them. At this point, they started working together much more often: “We've been working together for over 10 years, both initially as freelancers. The collaboration was organic. Now we focus on service-based businesses building WordPress sites,” Allie adds.
Matt begins: “I do primarily WordPress development. It was self-taught in the early 2010s. For a lot of people who found themselves in the WordPress world, it was like, ‘We need to do CSS to make this theme have the right colors’ and that got very boring very fast!” he smiles. As page builder tools like Beaver Builder and Elementor came in, they gained some flexibility: “We could do things in a very custom way that really targeted the specific needs of our clients, and really satisfied us creatively.”
From the very beginning of their collaboration, Allie and Matt have focused on “going custom in a way that is affordable”, as Matt explains: “We do only what our clients need and not what our clients don't. That's something our clients really care about: they don't want this to feel mysterious. They want to feel empowered. And using these tools lets us do that.”
One of The Wonder Jam's client meetings © thewonderjam.com
Allie continues: “In 2013, I started The Wonder Jam with my husband, after freelancing on my own as a single individual freelancer. We had Matt as a developer contractor. We wanted to work, we wanted to do our own thing, we wanted that freedom.” The Wonder Jam was born.
Soil, support and systems
“We live in Columbus, Ohio and it's a really welcoming open community in terms of small business,” she continues. “Matt would visit from Seattle and we started working with local clients; we would walk down the street downtown and see all the different businesses we've worked with.” In 2020, after seven years of The Wonder Jam and as they started to expand nationally, they made it the parent company, and now have three sister brands.
Wonderly focuses on service-based businesses, including authors, nonprofits, chefs and fitness instructors. There’s a sister brand named Basis, focusing on retailers and people selling products, and a third brand, Studio Wonder, an events space and photography studio in Columbus.
These three brands allow a great deal of creative freedom: “It allows our team to focus on what they really want to do, and have their own processes,” Allie says. “Because Matt and I started collaborating from the beginning, we have a decade of processes under our belt. I have pictures from 2017 of us whiteboarding all of our processes, so that our clients feel really guided.
“The Wonder Jam operates as the ‘soil’ to provide the things every small business needs to have going on behind the scenes, then each sister brand gets to ‘sprout’ in its own way and gets to do its thing with the opportunities that arise. This lets each of those paths be clear and be unhindered by things that make it hard to run a one- or two-person business,” Matt continues. “We have several businesses that can support each other.”
Some of The Wonder Jam's processes in development ©thewonderjam.com
For example, the Basis brand offers primarily Shopify and e-commerce, but every once in a while there's a client that wants to start blogging and wants to do something that's more robust than what Shopify offers. So Wonderly will come in and advise the Basis client on processes related to WordPress. “We are able to support and communicate with each other and feel like a team, even though everyone gets to specialize in a way that feels satisfying to them,” he smiles.
“The Wonder Jam sits as a supportive foundation; no-one is at the top telling us who to work with or how much revenue to do – it's really up to the managing partner,” continues Allie. The brands have shared resources like software and project management systems and a client concierge. This allows each managing partner to book a project; the team members can then onboard the project and handle all the backend admin like invoicing and contracts.
“It lets people like Matt and myself really focus on the work,” Allie smiles. “I think we've created a great working environment; it comes back to making sure our clients have great experiences. If they email us, they feel like they're getting good response times and they feel guided through the process.”
Matt agrees: “We say we don't design for you, we design with you. We're not going to go away for a few months and make something without them. We meet a lot and let them see the process from start to finish, versus going away to our creative caves and making things on our own!”
Clients and contexts
Matt and Allie work with a lot of organizations who need the site to be accessible in lots of different ways. “Some of our clients are non-profits. And those tend to be really robust sites. They're almost too complicated, or they've been around for a long time. So we are usually consolidating or condensing so the site can be simpler,” Matt explains.
“We're also working with people who want membership sites, such as people in the food industry," Allie continues. Wonderly’s clients tend to be people who do human-service-oriented work: “They’re fighting for equality, they're looking to talk to their audience a little differently. We tend to work with people who have poured a ton of their own passion, money and time into their business,” she adds.
The Wonder Jam brands work with everyone, from nationwide nonprofits to single-person entrepreneurs who are transitioning to full-time from a side hustle. “We've tried to build systems that can accommodate the needs of both. We're learning what scales well, and what you need to think about in a different way, when the scale is drastically different. That stuff's really fun to figure out!” Matt laughs.
He adds: “With nonprofits, they usually have something established and they've already figured out all of the legal hoops they had to jump through. We'll often make this way work, because we don't want to necessarily reinvent this wheel.” The team will reframe the experience, and find what context might move somebody to donate, and smooth out that process.
Early in the partnership, and with every single client regardless of the type of business and the scope of the site, The Wonder Jam team talks about the customer experience methodology. “A website can be a tool that's really good at getting a first sale, or it can be really good at getting returning customers, or being a resource. We usually ask, ‘Is this a resource, or can it be good at fostering VIPs?’ – who are the most important people to a small business,” Allie explains.
Left: The Wonder Jam staff record a podcast about client feedback / Right: The whole team on a Zoom call ©thewonderjam.com
Matt and Allie agree that a website shouldn't try to be everything to everyone and it’s crucial to be strategic. “Whenever we're doing a membership site, the number one thing we're thinking about is that we want people to come back and to use it all the time and feel like it's the greatest value they've ever had,” Matt adds.
Case studies: Simi and Molly
Allie begins: “One of our clients, Simi Botic, has an exercise community and membership called Unmeasured, which is all around body movement, called the Barre Method. She has such a compassionate perspective of ‘Just get moving’ and not trying to ‘punish’ your body. There are lots of different options depending on your mobility.”
When Simi first came to Wonderly, she had a small number of videos available and these would be switched once a week. “It allows for things to feel curated and allows for her to pair what is possible with her schedule,” Allie confirms. “After two or three years, we expanded the membership, to give her the ability to offer more to her audience, which is amazing. We love that we're able to shift when our clients' goals change; we're just reassessing the design, making some small changes, and then implementing that in development.”
Allie Lehman and Matt Hart in a meeting © thewonderjam.com
Another client, Molly Baz, wanted to transition from her existing platform to something that could be more branded and more experiential. “Her visual branding is so dynamic and so specific to her. She wanted her audience to be able to ‘live’ in that style; they got recipes and updates and the same sort of content that they were used to, but in a way that felt on-brand and felt really specific to her personality,” Allie explains.
As we at Memberful know, Molly’s community has become so important to her. “To be able to put it into a format that fits with the rest of her aesthetic – changing the website from ‘Oh yeah, it's a picture of Molly – go buy the cookbook’ into something very substantial, both inside and outside of the membership, brings a lot of value,” Allie muses.
“Something we've tried to do with all our clients is think about what it's going to be like for them when we're not talking to them every day. We make sure they have good systems in place to be able to use the tool that we've made for them – and Molly's was a great example of that,” Matt agrees.
More information and future projects
Matt and Allie are currently working largely with companies and sites that require “a heavy lens of accessibility” for customers who are disabled. “We’re working with really amazing organizations who work to get those sites and prototypes approved by these groups of people.”
They agree, in general, they've been very lucky with their clients: “It's been amazing to just continue to work with really good people. Our clients are really thoughtful people and we always feel really respected,” Allie concludes. “We get to work with really interesting people whose values drive their work. It feels good to be able to make stuff that is for them,” Matt smiles.
You can learn more about Allie Lehman and Matt Hart and their team, and look into working with them, at thewonderjam.com or withwonderly.com.
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