If you believe in yourself, then it takes only a single moment to make a life-changing decision.
“How do you build a website?”
This was the question that changed Russell Aaron’s life for good. He aspired to become a journalist, but some how ended up being a WordPress ‘geek’.
His passion for web development and WordPress has led him to share his views at several WordPress conferences. He is also one of the admins at Advanced WordPress Facebook group.
We are honored to have with us, the Founder of Gravity Styles and GeekStreetWP, Russell Aaron. He is also working as Creative Director for Valley West Mortgage.
In this interview, he shares his views about future of WordPress as an stand-alone application framework, the role of the community, his earliest challenges, interests, and much more.
Cloudways: Russell, you are leading many development projects. You started working in the real estate and mortgage industry. What was the reason you choose WordPress as a CMS for your career and personal projects? Did you try other options too?
Russell Aaron: I wanted to be a journalist. I was accepted at the University of Oregon. My first orientation involved the Head of the English Department clearly defining what we needed to do in order to become successful in the journalism world. He said “You have to write about relevant stories. You have to write for both sides of the story. Trust me, it’s better that way. And lastly, you’re going to need your own website. No one will hire you if they can’t find your articles online.”
I asked myself “How do you build a website?” It was right then and there that I decided to switch majors and become a computer programmer.
While in school, I was building Myspace Layouts for bands in Nevada and Oregon. I was blogging on Myspace about my triumphs and failures. A buddy of mine told me that I was writing some amazing stuff and that I should really blog over on WordPress.com. So I started doing that.
Once I had a few blog posts, he started showing me how to change themes and make my website so much more. I stopped building Myspace layouts and strictly started learning how to Press all the Words.
For the next six months, every night, I would stay up late and learn something about WordPress. I read tutorials and watched Youtube. A lot of Youtube. I learned as much as I could and after college, I moved to Las Vegas.
I started looking for jobs related to using WordPress and I came across a Las Vegas Mortgage Company that needed help. They didn’t have their login credentials. I was able to get them their website and I had a job.
About six months into the job, the housing market in Las Vegas started to dip. There were less than 3,500 homes available for purchase. We had to come up with an idea in order to keep our doors open. We started blogging every single day and using SEO plugins to boost our rankings. After a couple of months, we started to move up the rankings and we kept the doors open. I helped some real estate agents start their own company. We built their site on WordPress and kind of did the same thing with the Mortgage Company.
Both companies are thriving and doing well to this day.
I did use blogger.com for a little while. I mean, it’s Google. You’re not going to blog without giving them a shot. I get on Tumblr every now and then. I never write anything. I just browse. I think I have one post over there. I probably have more comments than posts. As far as other CMS platforms are concerned, I never had an interest in them. Not because I’m Pro WordPress or anything. I made the decision to learn WordPress and stick with it. Had WordPress not worked out, yeah I probably would have tried Joomla!
Cloudways: Tell us about GeekStreetWP. Why you founded this support agency? How many clients do you serve currently? Where do you see this project in next few years?
Russell Aaron: I’m a member of the Las Vegas WordPress MeetUp Group. Every month, we get together and we discuss WordPress. When I first started out, the support websites that we know of today, were simply just an idea. I was considered to work for Pagely Support. Shane Sanderson of Maintainn was running the show (I think) and I interviewed with him. I didn’t get the job. I knew I wanted to do support though, so I started doing my own form of it. I offered everyone in the MeetUp group a free account in order to test my services. After a few months, we launched the company and started accepting clients.
The same month that we launched, Shane launched Maintainn. WordPress support companies didn’t yet exist. Now, within a single month, two launched. It was an insane time for both of us. We had the same basic idea in order to get clients. We jumped on Facebook and reached out to every single WordPress Facebook Group and offered discounts. That’s when I joined the Advanced WordPress Facebook Group. I asked for permission to post my company link and it went up.
At the moment, we have 1,200+ users inside of our install of WordPress for support. Of course we go through once a week and delete the spam bots. So not all of the users are active / paying for support. Looking over our current support tickets, there are 89 new tickets and 9,471 total tickets. Everything we do, we do it through WordPress. No 3rd party services. This way we’re providing 100% WordPress Support. The site is mostly one large MultiSite and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I don’t really know where the service will go in the next few years. I mean, there are always going to be new WordPress users that need help in some way. I’m sure our basic services will be relevant in some ways. I’m hoping that we can start offering support for plugins. Either for configuring the plugin or extending a plugin. We do that now, but I’d like to just offer that as a service. Maybe even cooler plugins can be thought of. That would be sweet.
Cloudways: What is the core purpose of developing Gravity Styles and how it is connected with Gravity Forms plugin? Do you think these styles are convincing the people to choose Gravity Forms for building their contact page and other forms on their website?
Russell Aaron: I was on Facebook and I posted something that said “there should be a plugin that just styles gravity forms automatically”. Megan Gray, a WordPress friend, wrote a comment. “Shut up and take my money”. So I figured that some people might want it.
Gravity Styles is a plugin that I wrote at PrestigeConf in Las Vegas. I already had the beta built and I showed Ben Fox. You know, the guy who runs Sidekick? I showed him the plugin during the conference and he convinced me to sell my plugin. He said that if I didn’t, he would. So I downloaded EDD (Easy Digital Downloads) and bought the Software License extension. I had a hard time with getting a feature to work. Luckily enough, Pippin Williamson was there and he helped me out. Just like that, Gravity Styles was built.
The plugin itself is not connected to Gravity Forms. It’s a 3rd party extension and sold exclusively through my website. I’m like Pippin that way. The plugin though, simply allows you to add a class name to any gravity form. You click save and load the page or post where the form resides. You now have a styled form. It’s just that simple. That’s really the only connection that the two have with each other. We are running checks to make sure that Gravity Forms is installed before our plugin can be run. I guess that’s the other way they are linked.
I think any extension of a plugin would help convince someone to buy the parent plugin. See what I did there? You look at what Easy Digital Downloads has done. They are one of the best solutions for selling digital downloads and they have an amazing number of extensions. That helps convince people to use the plugin. They also have a great reputation. I think that helps.
Cloudways: What are your responsibilities at Valley West Mortgage as a Creative Director? How do you manage your work between three different projects?
Russell Aaron: First of all, I just want to express how important it is to make a backup of your site. Everyday. Four times a day. Go and make a backup right now. You notice how that’s one of the best pieces of advice one can give, and yet very few articles mention that? Yeah, that’s what makes me stand out above the rest.
It’s a tough gig, That’s for sure. I manage everything that has to do with the business and the internet. Wait…. Has the internet become a thing yet? I’m not sure.
My day to day tasks include BACKING UP OUR SITE, running updates and verifying that we’re up and running. I’m in charge of SEO and bringing in leads from the internet. I’m also the guy who does all the graphic work. From designing business cards to letters and posters. When I’m not doing any of this, I’m also the company Bartender. It’s a pretty sweet gig.
Managing my day was one of the hardest things I had to learn on my own. Of course I wanted to have a structure. It’s hard to do with WordPress though. Specifically, it’s hard to do with Plugin and Theme Updates. You never know what day an update will be available. WordPress core gives you a release date. So I can plan on updating core pretty well.
Other than that, I take it one day at a time. I’ll plan on writing a new action plan or something for my site, and then a security notice gets sent out. My day starts with updating every one of our site that runs on WordPress. So I try not to plan so much on what my day will look like. I mostly plan out what I want to get done, and allow for variables.
All of our sites are on a reliable WordPress hosting service. Now, I just rely on them to update core for me. Just like that, I freed up some time.
Cloudways: You have been one of the most active administrators on the Advanced WordPress Facebook Group. When did you join the group and why you feel it’s adequate to help the community?
Russell Aaron: I joined the group the same time that we launched GeekStreetWP. So, I’ve been there for a while.
I woke up one day and noticed that I had all of these Facebook notifications. It was showing me that so many people wanted to join the group. I had no idea why I was seeing this. I then realized that I was an admin. A few months went by, and the founder, Michael Bastos, came to Vegas. We had a drink and we discussed WordPress. I asked him, why I was an admin and I have no idea what he said because someone hit a progressive jackpot while playing a slot machine.
When you help people with their problems, you get to see how others work. Especially with WordPress, when someone comes into the group and asks a question, I learn a new way that someone is using WordPress. Maybe it’s something I already knew. But now I can fine tune my projects to fit that kind of thing, if someone were to use my plugin in the same kind of situation. It’s basically free market analysis. Plus, it’s a great feeling knowing that I have contributed to a blog that could have some useful information. Maybe that information helped save someone’s life. Maybe that information gave someone the courage to start a new life and explore the world. That’s what makes it all worth it.
Sometimes this is ruined for me though. Lately, we’ve had a lot of negative words about products or hosting companies. It’s one thing to say “I don’t like this product because……” and then ask for some help on how to solve their problem. That’s fine with me. Then you get the ones who simply tell you that a product “SUCKS” and they list no reasons why. That’s the hardest part of the group for me.
I think in general, that’s the toughest part of WordPress for me. When someone leaves a review of a plugin and it simply says “Plugin Broke. Do Not Download”. Well ok, that may be. But why did it break. Are you running three of the same type of plugins on your site? Did you write a function that is named the same thing in that plugin?
That information would be useful. Instead, it just says “SUCKS”!
Cloudways: Which place in the world do you love the most and dream to travel to one day? What are the other activities you love to do in your spare time?
Russell Aaron: I’ve always loved Europe. Last year, I went to London for three days and then we jumped over to Ireland for three days. For me personally, Stonehenge is my favorite place to visit. I don’t know what it is about that place. I go there and it’s like someone hits my reset button. I’m able to sleep better and I can focus on projects for longer.
When I’m not pressing words, I usually go to some kind of racing event. I’m a huge Nascar fan. I love the sport and I attend a lot of races. We have a race in Vegas. Phoenix is just a 45 minute flight away and Auto Club Speedway in Fontana California is just about 3 hours away. The same thing goes for Drag Racing as well. I love cars that go fast. Drag Cars can reach speeds of 330 mph in less than 4 seconds. It’s insane and the Physics behind the cars would blow your mind.
I’m a huge Science geek. I like to know how things work. I think logically for the most part, I can usually figure out how something works. Not exactly, but I get the concept.
Cloudways: WordPress is slowly evolving into an stand-alone application framework. Do you agree with this statement?
Russell Aaron: I don’t think that WordPress will jump into being just a framework for applications. I mean, backward compatibility is one of the huge selling points for me. I’ll always use it to blog with. I do think that Applications in WordPress are the next big thing to change how we see WordPress. It’s interesting to see how people are using WordPress with applications, but it’s not going to be an overnight change.
I was at LoopConf here in Vegas a week ago. In a session, people were talking about getting WordPress into Apps. For the most part, it exists. You can do it. But it’s not 100% and it’s relatively new. There are a number of things you have to do in order to get WordPress transform into an app and I feel that way about running a single application on WordPress. It’s going to be a huge thing, it’s just in its early stages and it’s hard to tell right now.
Cloudways: Being an active member of WordPress community, who are the five people who inspired you the most?
Russell Aaron: These five people inspired me the most:
John Hawkins was really the first guy to introduce me to the WordPress Community. He ran the Vegas MeetUp up until May 2015. He gave me a crash course in Public Speaking and that’s where my love for speaking at WordCamp events come from. I use to ask John if I could talk at the next meetup and in exchange, I bought him a few beers. It was well worth it by the way.
Pippin is just that guy whom everyone likes and everyone hates at the same time. He’s the guy who does amazing things with WordPress. He’s well known and writes amazing documentation. He’s also the guy whom everyone hates because you can ask him anything about WordPress and he has an answer for it.
Andrew Norcross is one of my favorites. I first met him at LoopConf in Vegas. He gave this great interview that opened my eyes to what’s possible with selling plugins. He’s also the guy who will tell you how it is and he uses swear words in his presentation(s). Just like me. I think I relate a lot to him in the way I develop plugins.
Ben Fox. What does the fox say???? I’m pretty sure he just unfriended me as I wrote that. It’s not even published online yet, and I’ve been unfriended. I mentioned earlier that Ben gave me that push to develop a plugin and sell it. But he also is that guy who has a smile on his face and has a funny story to tell. He’s just a good person to be around.
Chris Lema. The guy who has all the answers and can do what you do, except 10,000 times better. Yeah, that’s Chris Lema. Sorry, that was for SEO purposes. Listen, this guy is smart and always has a killer presentation at events. He is responsible for helping so many people. We all should listen to him and provide a link to his blog from our own blogs. It’s the least we can do.
Cloudways: The WordPress Repository offers thousands of plugins and themes. Which three themes and plugins you like the most?
Russell Aaron: That’s super tough for me. With Gravity Styles, we’re trying to style a contact form for every theme that’s available on the repo. It’s tough. But as of late, we’ve used 2013 and 2015. The other theme that I’m really into is called Tracks. My own personal blog is being converted over to that theme as I speak. After that, I’m going to try to re-friend Ben Fox.
As for plugins, it’s tough. I’d recommend my favorite plugin list instead of listing 3 plugins only. I really do use JetPack more than anything. I really like the options inside it and George is just an awesome guy. He’s also an admin of the AWP group that I can reach out to if things go wrong.
I use Advanced Custom Fields more than I should be allowed to use. I use it on almost anything and I feel naked if it’s not installed. So most of my burning man sites do not have ACF. The other plugin I use a lot is Gravity Forms + Custom Post Types. I really like allowing people to post articles for review. Instead of emails and etc, they can just write the article and submit it. If I like it, I hit publish.
Cloudways: Think for a moment that WordPress is no more. Which other CMS will you love to use instead?
Russell Aaron: I don’t think this will happen. There are more than enough people who could take over and keep some version of WordPress up.
I’d probably jump to Ghost though. I met John O’Nolan at LoopConf and he had a great presentation. He also released Ghost and even though it wasn’t 100%, it went farther than I’ve seen anyone else attempt to go.
Cloudways: Growing each day, The WordPress core team is aggressively handling vulnerabilities and attacks. What, in your opinion, should be done to avoid security breaches and hack attacks in WordPress websites?
Russell Aaron: Monitor your site(s) everyday. Use some kind of security plugin. Use a host that’s going to help combat instead of saying “Good Luck Chuck”. Learn all that you can, so you’re not dependent on someone else.
You have to think man, you’ve got a responsibility. Instead of going home and watching Jersey Shore, pick up a book and learn a new security measure.
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Cloudways: Cloudways is helping WordPress users by providing ease in hosting. Our platform is a bridge to launch WordPress websites on Amazon Web Services, DigitalOcean, and Google Compute Engine in one-click. There are some tempting built-in features like WP CLI, New Relic, etc. for the support of users. What are your views about it?
Russell Aaron: I think anytime a host can step in and make it somewhat easier to do something, I’m all for that. Giving command line tools and utilizing AWS is great. I think every host is going to have to keep adding in features to stay relevant.
I was at WordCamp Minneapolis and Brad Parbs gave a great talk on using Vagrant with WP. I think it’s going to be important to use tools like Vagrant in developing sites for personal or client websites.
You can follow Russell Aaron on Twitter.