This—and more—on the fourth episode of my weekly podcast, which I have rather enjoyed throwing together during the last month.
This—and more—on the fourth episode of my weekly podcast, which I have rather enjoyed throwing together during the last month.
When I worked with Automattic I always thought to myself, “Wow. Pretty amazing that millions of people are using some of the code I touch.” It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t deployed something at scale. It’s scary at first. After a while it becomes normal and after that it becomes fun. It’s always a little jittery, though. Having to check and triple-check a commit before deploying it, knowing that the rewards are silent and the failures are loud, makes the heart hop.
I’m on the outside now but I still commit and deploy to millions in a few key ways: through Underscores and through the premium themes that my company sells on the WordPress.com premium theme marketplace. Up until today, that marketplace utility was limited to users of the WordPress.com platform. If a self-hosted WordPress.org user (confused yet?) wanted to purchase one of our themes, they’d need to come directly to us for it. That’s incredibly good business for us,—WordPress.com retains a percentage of our sales, naturally—but hasn’t always been the best experience for users. WordPress is fragmented enough as it is and making them traverse one more step in the site building process wastes their time and confuses them. Not all. Some.
The business side of me finds this somewhat troublesome. Not only does this recent announcement by the Jetpack team worry me from a percentage-of-sale perspective, but mostly from a business branding perspective. I’ve long-held the belief that themes are not cereal boxes. Far from them. Anyone who disagrees with me is advised to purchase one from us and purchase one from another shop and determine a few things: how was the purchase experience?; were pre-sale questions answered generously and without expectation?; did the product perform as shown on its demo site?; if it didn’t, did we work hard to make it right?; post-purchase, did we treat you as well, if not better than, potential customers?; and did we leave your business better off than it was before buying from us?
On the other hand, I get it. WordPress is so fragmented, so confusing, and so awful of an experience for the average beginner that Jetpack’s intentions of easing this pain point really do come across as genuine. They most certainly are more worried about providing WordPress users with an excellent experience than they are about how good of a job I have done positioning my company and its products in a market that fluctuates but never goes away. It’s not Jetpack’s job to care about me, just as it’s not WordPress.org’s job to promote a premium theme shop that creates a free theme with the expectation of ROI. Whether or not my company makes 100% of a sale or 70% of a sale or 10% of sale should be, and is, the least of Automattic’s concerns. So I get it.
I’ve gone back and forth on this internally for a while now, both knowing that this was an inevitable shift in how premium themes on WordPress.com would be delivered to users and needing to prepare for it. Two questions that recur in my mind are 1) do we continue to develop WordPress themes with a WordPress.com-first design and build process in mind, and 2) will another distribution platform ever come around that is as reliable and safe as WordPress.com and as ubiquitous and varied as ThemeForest? It thrills me that the premium themes on WordPress.com are immediately within the grasp of the other half of the WordPress universe, but it does confuse me at times with regard to where our interests as a company should rest.
If I’m worried about revenue first, then I frankly do not care how my themes are distributed or what percentage I make from them. All I care about is volume.
If I’m worried about my company’s reputation and branding first, then fragmentation potentially harms us. If a user purchases my theme on WordPress.com or through Jetpack, has an awful experience with a support engineer from Automattic, and confuses that experience with one from my company, I face grave danger in how we are viewed.
If I’m worried about access and democracy, then I couldn’t care less about how Automattic decides to distribute our products as long as everyone has equal access to them.
And if I’m worried about user experience the one thing I want to make sure of is that any premium upgrades on the WordPress.com platform, like custom colors or custom fonts, have a clear equivalent in Jetpack or the WordPress.org free market.
My knee-jerk reaction to this was initially super-defensive and negative. Themes aren’t a hobby for me. They are food, water, and shelter. To have my business needs as an important stakeholder on a platform that largely succeeds due to the efforts of people like me ignored is difficult.
I don’t think it’s insurmountable though. That users will be able to access our themes through Jetpack is a good thing. The inside baseball, behind-the-scenes conversations around what that means in terms of our viability as a company should not be anyone else’s concern but our own.
My only wait-and-see concern, then, is how this will affect our buyers. If they find that purchasing through Jetpack is one less hurdle to leap over when setting up their business, then that’s a win for us. If they become confused, then it’ll only add to the litany of issues in the WordPress world that contribute to user confusion already.
I’ll stay optimistic. The premium theme team at Automattic and the Jetpack team do not lack heart. And mine waits to skip another beat knowing that my next commit has just been introduced to the other half of the pie.
Given this news and recent conversations with Dave, it’s fair to say that my involvement with the starter theme will likely come out of a coma and find new life. Congratulations to Ulrich, whose contributions to _s have not gone unnoticed, and thank you to Automattic for not allowing Underscores to rot on the vine any longer. This is exactly what the theming community needs right now, and I couldn’t be more excited to see what we come up with and create.
We also know that involvement from the community is vital. It’s been a while since we added our first contributor external to Automattic. To that end, we’ve given long-time Underscores contributor Ulrich Pogson commit access. He’s also a contributor to WordPress, most frequently as a member of the Theme Review Team. We’re excited to have his expertise and passion for world-class themes as part of the project. Please join me in welcoming Ulrich! 🎉
P.S. If you haven’t subscribed to Accessibility Weekly, you should. It’s the only resource I have the time to read when it comes to a11y now and beyond. I’ve learned so much from the newsletter and Dave is doing a bang up job on it.
It’s getting a lot more comfortable being silent. I used to think that I needed to write often; share every single expensive meal; check in at every single airport that I visited.
And then something happened.
One of the things that you learn in the countryside is that at any moment, with no notice, the electricity may go out from morning until sunset.
There is no warning. There is no heads up. It just happens and we adapt to it because it’s the new normal for us. I used to hate when this happened, and while I cannot pretend that I enjoy it at all, I’m a lot more comfortable with the fact that it happens now. It’s not something that I can control. It is out of my hands.
Life has been a lot like that lately. I wake up, I care for my wife, feed my cat, bond with my mother-in-law, and I work as hard as I possibly can to provide for my family as both a husband and a son-in-law.
I don’t have much time to pontificate and I don’t have any time for negativity. I only have time to either make stuff or take care of others, including the farm animals next door. I only have time to run my business and take care of my staff or to rest. I have no time for shallow thought. I have no time for idle hands. And it feels good.
I just wrote “my business”.
Around six weeks ago I took over the position of CEO at Professional Themes. I bought my partner out because I felt like there was no longer any traction in the relationship. Partnerships are like marriages. Do not ever believe anyone who says otherwise.
Our focus on WordPress was falling to the wayside and our efficacy with client services was abysmal. A change needed to happen and that meant either leaving or taking over.
I’m too old and too tired to leave again. So there was only one viable option. To take over the company, gain 100% ownership, and press on and push on to build cool things for the Internet. That’s always been my life’s mission. That will never change.
The last six weeks have been among the hardest of my life. And that includes the time that my father died in 2009.
These last six weeks have been incredibly difficult. I cannot begin to put the level of strain and pressure that they have put on my mind into adequate words.
But the good news is that it’s almost over and I can slowly and confidently get back into the business of making things that I love instead of dealing with lawyers, accountants, and paperwork. My life during the last seven months was literally lawyers, accountants, and paperwork. It was awful but it is over as all things are if enough time is given to them.
There’s also some other cool news.
I bought my wife an iPad, an Apple Pencil, and begged her to use her imagination to make things that she would love to see in the iOS native messaging app.
She has already made three sticker packs that I am preparing for submission to the App Store and I could not be more excited about it.
My wife is the Alpha creative in the family. She’s a wonderful singer and does not give herself enough credit for how creative she can be with nothing more than a tablet and an electronic pencil. She owns a fashion shop. She dreams in color.
I have also started a relationship with an F&B company that makes absolutely stunning photography for restaurants and also in-house jobs.
We will be selling those as stock photos soon. There are literally thousands of shots that I have been going through and every single one makes me go Wow.
I feel free.
I lost a friend in the process, which is something that they always tell you will happen if you go into partnership with a friend, but I feel free.
I feel like I can breathe. I feel like I can do things at my own pace and at my own sense of urgency and importance. I feel like I can take care of my staff in the way that I need to. My stress levels have dropped precipitously.
And I could not have asked for a better number two on my team. His loyalty is unshakable. I hit the jackpot with him. Had it not been for his email more than a year or two ago, I would have never put my trust in him to take over much of the work that I have been doing for the last 10 years. He is as loyal to me as a family member. My number two is everything.
Not to mention my wife. She is literally working for free, building the most amazing stickers and iOS application ideas that I have seen in a while, and taking direction and advice from me as any other intern or staff would. She is the ideal companion when it comes to work.
I love her so much for that.
Sacrifice. Everyone on my team now is giving a little now to get back a lot later. This is what I have always wanted so badly. And now we have it.
A team of people dedicated to making amazing work no matter the outcome, no matter the risk, and no matter the sacrifice involved. It feels good. We never talk about money, sales, deadlines, or any of that nonsense. All we talk about is making cool stuff. We follow our mission and we ignore the noise.
My wife and I continue to try to have a child and if we are unable to successfully make it happen naturally we will just do it by science, and soon. IUI. Soon. Super-soon.
I got fat again and I am losing weight again or at least trying to. It’s amazing what business stress can do to the body.
My energy levels are low but they are getting better and I feel peace inside of my heart. That is all I can ask for really. Peace.
My sleep habits are terrible but I made a promise to my wife that I would change them and I made a promise to my confidant and best friend, the one who I lean on whenever I have problems, that I would make a change in how I sleep. That’s two levels of accountability that I cannot ignore.
My cat is cute.
The mountains are fresh.
I love my mother-in-law as a mother. I do not even call her mother-in-law. I call her Mommy. I love my wife. I love my life.
The last six weeks have been so hard and I have never been more satisfied. I don’t know what will happen with our themes, I don’t know what will happen with our sticker packs, I don’t know what will happen with the applications that we are building, and I don’t know how well the stock photos that I am preparing will do, but none of that really matters at this point.
All that matters is that things are going well, I lead a wonderful team, I partner with amazing people across the globe from Poland to Bangladesh to Vietnam to America, and I work on things that I love every single day. And I do mean every single day.
I trust that whatever outcome happens from the work that we do will be exactly the outcomes that we deserve. I will take all of the losses and I will give my team all of the wins. That is what leaders should do.
I take no days off because I don’t deserve that yet. I don’t deserve anything yet. I haven’t won anything. I deserve to shut up and work. That’s it.
A lot has changed in the last four or five years. The one thing that I have realized has stayed the same is my steadfast commitment to staying true to my feelings and my sense of right and wrong. When it feels wrong I turn the light off and when it feels right I stick with it.
Everything feels so right. It’s been a while since I felt this way. I am a very fortunate man who lives a very lucky life and I have absolutely no room or moral authority to complain about a single shred of my day, even on the hard days.
Immediately after quitting Automattic several years ago I went into a full-on panic about The Next Thing because I didn’t have a Next Thing. All I knew is that my Now Thing wasn’t what I needed it to be. You’d have thought better planning would have gone into my decision to leave the company but it was a sudden one, the kind where I woke up in the morning and went, “Nope.” I rarely enter a relationship outright planning on leaving it. It just happens.
It’s comical how much I pimp out Automattic—Yes! You should apply. It wasn’t a good fit for me. It will be for you.—given how quickly I left. It’s like that sometimes. One day you wake up and realize that you left the candle on while sleeping and when there’s no longer any wick to trim or burn it’s time to go find a new one.
The problem was me, not Automattic. At heart I’m a grinder, an entrepreneur, a hardheaded and principled leader when it matters but an ultra-soft emotional papa bear when that also matters.
I treat companies like they are my own—R.I.P. Hastings, my first job at 16—and work long hours because the only reason I ever join one is because I believe in its mission. That works for small teams but when they scale it doesn’t unless I’m a boss. I should have been more self-aware to know that there’d come a time when I was either an executive or a former employee. Both are okay; neither would have been better than the other. I still love Matt and all to death; I’ll have his back no matter where WordPress goes.
Physically I was in Texas when I left the company and had around 1-2 additional weeks left in the States before heading back to Vietnam. That meant registering a new business called Press Build to do any contract-based work while I figured things out, getting business cards, updating my CV, and everything else that’s associated with a job loss, including dealing with the steady streams of “I’ve just made a horrible mistake.” always on tap.
The name Press Build never ended up getting used that much. I was quickly snatched up and back into the WordPress theme world via Professional Themes at an executive level, which works daily with Automattic (this, of course, makes me a very happy camper). Boy, did I love that name, though.
I held on to it, hoping to repurpose it, and when .blog came around, I jumped at the opportunity to DBA Professional Themes into Press Build and turn it into its own animal. Basecamp, a product I love and will use forever, has a similar model with Signal v. Noise that’s impressed me quite a bit.
I’ll soon transfer ownership of pressbuild.com, pressbuild.org, and pressbuild.net over to Professional Themes. We already own the .blog extension and I love the fact that it’s its own entity. It allows us to blog without getting caught up in the fact that right now we’re heavy into WordPress themes and client-side work but moving forward we might be more into plugins or other product-based initiatives. It’s a flexibility move as much as it is one of nostalgia.
Why Medium as the platform? Because I said so.