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28 MIN

Ep. #118, Headless CMS at Speed with Jake Lumetta of ButterCMS

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In episode 118 of Jamstack Radio, Brian speaks with Jake Lumetta of ButterCMS. This conversation explores the latest insights around headless CMS including API-first CMS, CMS-first principles, and the experience of moving from a traditional CMS to a headless CMS. This talk also contains general advice on bootstrapping startups, fundraising, and improving SEO.

Jake Lumetta is the Founder and CEO of ButterCMS. He was previously Chief Product Officer of Power2Switch (Acquired by ChooseEnergy).


Brian Douglas: Welcome to another installment of Jamstack Radio. On the line we've got Jake Lumetta from ButterCMS. Jake, how are you doing?

Jake Lumetta: Doing great. Thanks so much for having me on, big fan of the pod.

Brian: Yeah. Well, I'm glad you listen. I mentioned I've known of ButterCMS for a while, but before we jump in, do you want to just share real quickly who's Jake and what's your background? How did you get into this?

Jake: Sure, yeah. So I'm the founder and CEO of Butter, ButterCMS formally. My background is software engineering, prior to Butter I was the CTO at an energy startup. I've been doing startups my whole life, have started and failed a bunch of them, too many to count at this point to be honest. But yeah, big fan of startups and, yeah, have just been always dabbling in side projects and such and eventually came across something that seems to be working pretty well with Butter.

Brian: Excellent. Well, what is Butter?

Jake: Yeah. So Butter is, I guess, technically a headless CMS. Although, when I founded it I thought of it as an API and still do, think of it as an API first CMS. Butter was really borne out of pains that I experienced when I was leading engineering at some previous startups as I mentioned. Basically we were building an energy marketplace and we were using Django at the time, Python and Django, so this was pre-Jamstack days, I suppose.

But yeah, we were building a custom marketplace and everything was going great, and then the CMO asked us, "Hey, Jake. We need to be able to write blog posts." I was like, "Cool. Let's use this WordPress thing I've heard of. Everyone uses WordPress, I've heard of it, let's just plug it in to be our blog." The thing was is that we wanted it to be, and this is a little bit of a technical detail, but we wanted it to be our site .com/blog.

We didn't want to throw it on a sub domain because that's not optimal for SEO. So in order to achieve our site .com/blog, to really deeply integrate WordPress into our own native tech stack, again we were using Django at the time, it ended up being a really, really painful process. Insightfully painful process, actually. It was like, "Wow." Just looking back at that, I'll spare all the gory details of what that took and the pains and challenges there, but just looking back, fast forward two months or so of trying to get that set up.

I was like, "Man, that was exceptionally expensive, painful, complex, just to add a blog to our existing site." So that was really the genesis of Butter, which was like, "As an engineer, how should a modern CMS work? How would I want it to work?" That was really the thought process, and that lead me down to thinking about some core design philosophies. This is just early, early days. Headless CMS is well known now, but when I founded Butter I had never heard of a headless CMS.

I'm not sure the term... It may have existed somewhere out there, but I had certainly never heard of it, and wasn't aware of any other companies doing things like this. But just from the first principles of how should a modern CMS work? That's what I was thinking through when founding Butter. The first is that it should be able to work with any technology stack, that was a core goal, and so that really lead me down the path of, well, it needs to be API based. So WordPress is great, it works, you have to be proficient with PHP and know PHP, so if you're not using PHP, that kind of stinks.

Not just to bash on WordPress, but a lot of CMSs work that way.

Why should it matter what the CMS is built in, whether or not you can use it or not? How the CMS is built should not determine whether or not you should be able to use it, at least that was my opinion.

So with Butter, that's what took me down the API based approach. It was like, "Okay. Well, this has to be API based so it can be integrated into any technology stack." Then the other big thing was having it be SaaS based, so we are SaaS only.

The thing there was just from having to run and maintain the WordPress instance that we set up, it was like setting up the WordPress site, the database, patching it, securing it, scaling it, making it perform, all that kind of stuff just sucks for a CMS. That's not what I considered as a core part of my day job, it was just a byproduct of needing a CMS. You know what I mean? I had to do all this extra stuff on top of my actual important, core day job which was building this energy marketplace, in my case.

So that's why with Butter we took the approach of being SaaS based, so we handle that for you. So it's a bit odd because I decided to take that pain on and make it a personal pain of mine for the past almost decade of my life, but we take that pain on so that other folks don't have to worry about that kind of stuff.

Brian: Okay. So you had mentioned that you had to make this API based because you had this conviction, so what do you mean by API based CMS?

Jake: API based or API first, rather. I think of Butter in two pieces, one is the dashboard. Obviously when you go login to Butter, you do your stuff, create blog posts, landing pages, that kind of thing. The other big part of it is just the API, so we've always been built from day one with an API component. That is just a core part of Butter.

Brian: Okay. Yeah, you've mentioned about the term headless CMS because I have a story there, if you want to hear it?

Jake: Yeah.

Brian: Yeah, I started actually talking about it and we're like, "We should just hit record." Previously when I started this podcast I worked at Netlify and we had seen these API first CMSs start to grow. There wasn't a ton of them, but it was like, "Hey, we can build frontend focused React apps and Angular apps and have a CMS attached to it, and then we can compete directly against WordPress by just building a Jamstack in general." So we had to think about what is a term that could be applied to this?

I don't know if headless CMS specifically came out of Netlify in particular, but there was a small movement of people who did have a bunch of names. It's funny, I just ran into Bud Parr at GitHub University in Jamstack Con yesterday. Bud Parr, he maintains New Dynamic. Well, he contributes and runs that stuff. New Dynamic was one of the other terms of what Jamstack eventually became.

Jake: Oh really? I didn't know that. Okay.

Brian: Yeah. So headless CMS was an easier way, instead of saying, "Is it API first? Headless." Headless is a term that was picking up.

Jake: Yeah, for sure. Thanks for sharing that. Yeah, Butter was not a headless CMS. It wasn't like day one, "I'm going to create the best headless CMS ever." It was just like I said, how should a modern CMS work, in my opinion? And over the first few years or so started stumbling across other CMSs that seemed to be doing kind of similar things, and then eventually saw this headless thing and then people were like, "Are you a headless CMS?" And I'm like, "Yes, we are." Then it became this marketing sort of thing, so yeah, now we're a headless CMS.

Brian: Yeah. All the back and forth, the conversations like, "Could I use this thing? Can I not use it? Is it for me?" You can check a box pretty quickly by attaching a term and joining a movement, which is what the whole Jamstack being so revolutionary, evolutionary, it's really just to have a bunch of tools, projects that folks can put together to solve problems that are not locked in like you've got to choose PHP if you want to do WordPress, or you've got to... Well, you don't, now WordPress does provide a headless version, so I guess that leads to my question of how is Butter standing out from the rest?

Jake: Yeah. So now, like you said, there's a lot of headless CMSs out there. There's always been a lot of CMSs out there, that's the thing. People ask me, "Why did you start a CMS?" I'm like, "I don't know, actually." It's kind of insane from a business perspective, because CMS is not a new thing, they've existed for decades. But it really was just borne out of personal pains. So how does Butter stand out from the rest nowadays? Well, first of all, who doesn't like Butter? Literally in the name, so that helps.

Brian: Yeah, big fan.

Jake: One thing about the company is that we've not raised any outside funding so we're completely, I guess the term is bootstrapped, I like to say we're customer funded and customer focused. I think that's pretty unique for a CMS company, just generally speaking. I know that we're definitely in the minority there, but I think it's a really great thing and I've deliberately built the company in this way for lots of different reasons. But again, it really just allows us to be super customer focused and really just driving product. On the product side, we really have a pretty opinionated UI for certain kind of key things.

We have formal concepts for blog posts, we have formal concepts for pages, we have another concept called collections. Basically we really take an opinionated approach to the UI which ultimately means what we're trying to do there is have just an amazing experience for marketers and content teams so it's really, really easy and intuitive for them to do what they need to.

Sometimes there's a bit of a concern moving from a traditional CMS like WordPress or whatever to a headless CMS just because the concepts are different and how you do what you need to do as far as navigating and finding the piece of content you need to update and all this kind of stuff can be a little bit daunting. And so we really try and make that not an issue at all as far as our UI goes.

We've spent a lot of time focused on our API design as well so that the developer experience... We have a huge focus on the marketer side, but on the developer experience side, again my background being a software developer, I wanted us to have an amazing developer experience. That manifests itself in lots of different ways, what is a great developer experience? We try and have really, really great docs.

We try and have great docs for pretty much any tech stack out there, so I'd encourage you to go take a look at our docs and, whatever tech stack you're using, we probably have a guide for it. Then our API is really clean as far as just how you work with it, so just the design of it as well as the response of the API, the data that comes back is pretty clean, really easy to work with. So that's a big focus for us as well.

Then I guess one of the intangible things is we have one of the highest MPS scores in the industry, actually, based on an industry survey. So that's something we're really proud of, I think we're like 93 is our MPS score. Again, that just goes back to the first point around the company being super customer focused.

Brian: Yeah. You said that you're SaaS only, so you're specifically folks can self serve, add Butter to their toolkit, there's not enterprise option or anything like that?

Jake: We have an enterprise option, but if by enterprise you mean self hosted, where they can run the software on premise?

Brian: Yeah.

Jake: We don't support on premise, but we are definitely enterprise focused. We do have enterprise customers and such that use us. But yeah, they need to use us in a SaaS way where they just connect our API.

Brian: Got it. So how big's the team? How do you maintain all these different interactions and different frameworks and libraries?

Jake: Yeah, it's a big effort. We do a mix of in house as well as working with a variety of freelancers and such. So when you see all those different technology stacks, it's not to say that we internally are masters of all of them, but wee just have built up a really nice network of folks who are, basically.

Brian: Yeah. That's one way to scale, and it sounds like bootstrapping, the term of not taking outside institutional funding, you've bootstrapped your way into building a business that... I don't know if you're profitable, it's a private company so you don't have to disclose. But if it is, definitely disclose. I guess what I'm getting at is, do you have personal reasons for bootstrapping? Have you done VC backed companies before?

Jake: Yeah. Butter is profitable, which is really helpful, especially in times like this. But why haven't I raised funding for Butter? The past two companies I worked at, they were both venture backed and it was super excited and I loved working at those companies. It was just my first experience and gave me a good insight into what that's like, basically. The model makes sense for certain types of businesses and for certain types of reasons, but in terms of just building Butter and building my own business, the model just didn't align with, I don't know, maybe my core values or thought process or whatever it is.

So specifically I like the idea of just being able to focus on customers, and not worried about raising the next round of funding perhaps. It's just inherently part of it, right? When you go down that path. Unless you can raise the first round and you're instantly profitable off that first round, which is quite rare. Then that means you're on this path of every 12 to 18 months you're back out there pitching, and you're pitching to investors and you're not focused on the customers and the product.

So it was like, well, if I can avoid that, that sounds good. So let's just focus on customers and try to build this profitably. Then, I don't know, just the concept of burning a lot of money every month is also really scary to me. The term runway is kind of... it's sort of a built in term that's like, "Every company has runway." But that's not actually true. If you're a profitable company, the term doesn't apply to you.

You have infinite runway, and in running Butter we've been fortunate to not have to think about the world in terms of months of runway left. So those are the two big things. There's a lot of cons though that come with bootstrapping, there's a lot of pros to raising money, right? We've missed out on those, but anyways.

Brian: Yeah, that makes sense because I think that the VC back and the runway and applying that, and the burn rate, you're taking investment for the hope that you get growth, and growth really quickly. And if you don't get growth really quickly then you shut your doors really quickly, so that becomes an option.

But you mentioned in passing, 10 plus years of working on this problem, you're able to see whatever the next tier of headless or whatever the next evolution when it comes to building apps and be part of that longevity, and especially during this current market, not having the stress of, like, "Oh man, I don't know if we're going to be able to make the next round of funding because we're not profitable."

You do get to bypass that too as well. So it's definitely a decision, I think it's definitely admirable to grow a company for this long and make it as successful as you've made it so far. So curious what your outlook on the space... This is Jamstack Radio, so I'm curious how Butter fits as a piece of the JAM because I like Butter and Jam sandwiches, I'm a big fan.

Jake: Hey, I love it.

Brian: Yeah, so what's next for Butter?

Jake: Yeah, we're continuing along. We've been building this company over many years, and we've been moving. I guess from a business perspective, just moving upmarket is how the term goes. So we've just been continuing to reinvest in the platform, in the product, making it better and better.

The beauty with a CMS company is that there's no shortage of feedback from customers, you can look at that as a good thing or a bad thing, some days it's a tough thing, some days it's a great thing.

As far as... To answer your question, where should we go? Customers have a lot of opinions around that, so listening to them definitely helps with figuring that out. But yeah, I don't know, just really want to keep our ears to the ground. There's so many new frameworks and such that are coming out every month, it feels like. Astro, Remix, et cetera. There's just been things happening in the space around new frameworks and companies acquiring those and such, so I think that's kind of an interesting development.

Brian: Yeah. In particular, the Remix from Shopify.

Jake: Yeah, the Remix in Shopify. That was pretty recent. It's kind of an interesting development. With Butter, I think we're well positioned just to adapt and pay attention to where the market's going. I think on the bleeding edge, and I think a lot of the folks that listen to this, we're on super bleeding edge stuff. You ask the average person have they heard of Astro or Remix?

Not that I'm picking on them, but we're on the very, very bleeding edge here and the rest of the developer community and industry, they're still kind of catching up. I think even headless CMS is not as necessarily pervasive as we may think it is. We're so deep in it, you know what I mean? Sometimes I go to a conference and I describe headless CMS, and they're kind of like, "Oh, what is that? That's a weird word. Tell me about that term, what does that mean?"

So whenever I have those moments it's always really insightful. We've been doing it a while, we're so deep in it, but I think if you look across the entire space it's still probably pretty early days here for a lot of this stuff.

Brian: Yeah. I would say that you're pretty early days from the timeframe you've given me and doing the headless CMS or API first CMS as well. You're pretty early days as well, because we didn't see WordPress have the WordPress API and publicly available and usable until maybe shortly after Butter was created.

Jake: Really? Okay, I actually don't know the day. That's actually a good question, I don't actually know the day when WordPress came out with an API.

Brian: Yeah, it's around the date that I had an episode with Shifter, Git Shifter, and they specifically were leveraging WordPress as an API so that might've been around 2016, 2017. It might have been around a little bit before then, but that would've been around when people were really intrigued and started to explore that space because you saw Gatsby grow and blossom on being able to leverage the API into Gatsby and build an entire WordPress blog without the WordPress admin interface.

Sorry, you would get the admin interface, but you didn't have to be locked down to PHP. Yeah, so it's a trend and WordPress is even doubling down where now I think the number on the Jamstack survey that was just announced on, I believe Tuesday, 45%... Actually it wasn't the Jamstack survey, this was actually another talk I was at. Laurie Voss who runs the Jamstack survey at Netlify shared that WordPress was 45% of the web in general, which is an amazing, astounding number because I know the last number was like 30 or 25%.

Jake: Yeah, it's amazing. It keeps going up.

Brian: Yeah, it keeps going up and I think it's mainly because of inertia. It's a thing that so many agencies have built their bread and butter around, no pun intended. But there's a lot of opportunity there because at the end of the day, WordPress, it's going to cost $75,000 to get a site up and running from an agency and if I can do a SaaS model and have my scrappy developers add Butter to it, there's an opportunity there to circumvent getting stuck into some... WordPress, it's a valuable and it's a very useful tool. But there's so much other exciting stuff out there that you can build on top of which, yeah, I appreciate your longevity and just churning along. That pun was intended.

Jake: I love it, I love it. Well, yeah, I really appreciate the kind words, genuinely. Yeah, I echo your sentiment on all fronts there, for sure. Yeah, I mean the CMS space, like I said earlier, is not new and it's not small, so I don't think it's a winner take all. I think the fact that WordPress continues to grow, I mean 45% is an amazing number. I wouldn't have been surprised to start to see that number start to go down just given how old it is and I figure it would get pretty saturated, but the number keeps going up which I think is really interesting. I don't know, it's maybe a rising tide floats all boats, type of thing.

Brian: Yeah. Well, as you mention, it's not a zero sum game because I think what's really happening with WordPress is they're bringing more people on the web, so as you grow, as the tide rises, you are growing but they're positioned to basically attach themselves to the hose of new people adding sites on the web because I definitely have some WordPress sites I haven't touched in years.

So my site doesn't disappear because I don't touch it, I create new sites and my new sites might be WordPress, they're not WordPress surprise. I'm using JAMstack stuff. But yeah, I build new sites all the time, every weekend or every couple weekends I'll build a new site for fun, so for that reason I think the web is expanding and I think that there's a lot of opportunity for folks to also be part of that education pipeline, onboarding folks onto web.

I would say definitely I've come across some content for Butter and y'all show up in the SEO feeds, so yeah, it's all about educating folks that there's another opportunity out there to get on the web, get your site live, to add a CMS to your site if you want a blog or you want to maintain some content. That's all opportunity. But how do you get started with Butter? What's the first step? If you've listened to this and you're like, "I want to try something besides WordPress,"what's the pitch there?

Jake: Yeah. Go to ButterCMS.com, but if you want to jump deeper into it, go to ButterCMS.com/docs, D-O-C-S. You'll see a beautiful array of your favorite flavor of tech stacks and just pick your favorite flavor there. We probably have a starter project for it. One thing that we've done that's really cool, it's not just like a starter project sitting out there, go to take a look and we'll actually have a deploy to Netlify button or Percel or Heroku or whoever, right below the starter project.

So literally you can just go there, ButterCMS.com/docs, find your favorite tech stack, click the deploy button and have a live project up and running in literally under five minutes. What that project will be is it'll be the starter project, it has the nice frontend hosted on your favorite hosting company, and that will be connected to your own ButterCMS account which will have some kind of default content just built right into your account there. So it's zero config, zero anything you need to do, so that's a really fast way for you to get a live site up and running. You can go and customize it from there.

Brian: Cool. Well, thanks so much for the conversation. I do want to transition us to picks, so these are things that we're jamming, could be music, food, tech related. Nothing is off the radar for at least this podcast. And if you don't mind, I'll go first. The thing I've been jamming on is something I've been working on since June of last year called The Secret Sauce.

It's a YouTube series where we talk with open source maintainers and founders about their open source strategy. I've been working on open source full time for about six months, so as long as this other podcast has been around I've been working on this new project, which is now live, OpenSauced.pizza. But yeah, Secret Sauce, just want to shout out Ryan Carniato, who is the maintainer of SolidJS. Had a great conversation with him about where Solid came from.

He had been working on it for like five, six years, but only folks had really realized it in the last 18 months, the reason for that is he just started writing blog posts, started creating content about what he was working on, started sharing his ideas and thoughts because he's a super sharp dude. I think it's a testament of you get to talk about what you're working on, you put it out there in the open, otherwise people won't know what you're doing.

So a super fascinating story on his approach and how we got to where he's at today. He's working full time at Netlify doing open source, so I'd appreciate everyone like and subscribe, check out that video on The Secret Sauce. YouTube.com/OpenSauced is the place to find it. You'll find the playlist. But yeah, that's my pick.

Jake: Awesome. I'll definitely check it out. Love the name, love the name. I mean, especially food, can't go wrong. So my pick is OpenAI, I'm not sure it'll be new news to anyone listening to this podcast, but the stuff that they're putting out is crazy, with Dall-E, everyone knows about GPT3 at this point. But yeah, it's been a while since I've had one of those, "Wow, this is different," kind of moments, and the stuff you see that Dall-E creates, I had that kind of feeling of seeing some of the images that they generate and stuff.

So there's a lot of emotions that go with it, it's like, "This is really cool, but also really kind of crazy, maybe a little scary. What are all the implications here?" So I know there's a lot of conversations online about this stuff. I guess I'll throw another secondary pick called Life 3.0, it's a book. It's about AI and one of the chapters that it opens up with is this story about this made up group of super smart AI developers, and holy cow...

It just makes up this whole story around how these developers take over the world, basically, and that chapter... I get vibes of that from OpenAI. Not in a bad way, but just in a crazy, holy cow, some of the stuff that this book in this made up hypothetical is happening, it's happening right now where there's multibillion dollar companies built on top of OpenAI. You know what I mean? I think it speaks to the power of OpenAI.

Brian: Yeah, I'll definitely have to check that out. I think it's a fascinating space, AI in general, and I think a lot of the stuff. Everyone looks at Star Trek as the place that gave us the iPhone or GPS and stuff like that, and I think a lot of the fiction that has come out in the last 20 years is now fueling growth our progress of people, of people like, "You know what? Actually that should exist in the world."

And I think AI, I've mentioned this on the podcast before but maybe someone missed it, but I met a founder who's working on generative AI for game programming. So when you think of NPCs, it's like, "Hey, I want an NPC that's eating pizza and drinking a beer, sitting on a stool." And it will generate that as the game is processing and coding stuff, so to be able to see new stuff happening in the game based on AI would be pretty amazing for expansive worlds and et cetera.

Jake: It's kind of infinite at that point, right?

Brian: Yeah. It's a very expensive problem, to be quite honest. I was definitely talking about the cost of being able to do that as a test, but yeah, I think if you've got enough will and enough time to test out these problems and maybe if you do take funding, maybe someone will fund it or someone will hire you to do that. Yeah, I think the current state of development, it's extremely exciting and I'm looking forward to seeing where we take it.

Jake: Yeah, likewise.

Brian: Cool. Well, speaking of which, thanks so much for the conversation, and hopefully, everyone, try out Butter. And if you're looking for a headless CMS, definitely check it out.

Jake: Appreciate it, Brian.

Brian: And keep spreading the jam.