From bloggers to developers, WordPress community has grown by manifolds over the past few months. It is not only because people are making their lives with WordPress, but the community loves to giveback to the industry. For many, WordPress has become more than just a job. This attitude shows the passionate side of WordPress.
Recently, I interviewed the inspiring and charming founder of Codeable.io, Tomaž Zaman. With his hard work and dedication, Codeable has become a highly growing online service provider. In this interview, Tomaž shares the vision behind his project, and the incredible journey of establishing one of the most trusted WordPress startups, Codeable. If you are thinking to start your own WordPress-based venture, I think this interview is a great resource for you.
Cloudways: You have been providing services to small businesses, agencies, bloggers, and experts of WordPress. From a freelancer to the co-founder of a renowned company, how do you define the journey? What challenges did you face during these years?
Tomaž Zaman: You could say I discovered the wonderful world of web development by coincidence. I was an avid gamer throughout my adolescent years (Counter-Strike, anyone?) and when I started my faculty, one of my friends approached me and asked whether I would be interested in copying an existing website design with Photoshop and he’d do the coding. It piqued my curiosity, mostly because I always wanted to know more about computers but never had a purpose, so I agreed to it. I received a remote controlled car as a reward. 🙂
He was pleased with the result so I went on to design a couple more websites for him. They weren’t real designs. I just followed Photoshop tutorials. Luckily, nobody noticed back then—nor did it matter that much, it was around 2002 after all.
After a while I got really frustrated because nothing I made was ever good enough and design being creative work, it just wasn’t something for my analytical mind. So, I dug deeper. I found plenty of tutorials on HTML & CSS and I immediately fell in love. Finally something I could write, optimise and measure! Back then, Lynda.com was the only online video course service. After taking a couple of courses of HTML and CSS, I started learning PHP. I loved those courses mostly because the authors covered a particular topic on a real-world example (albeit a simple one).
I grew up in quite an entrepreneurial family, so going out of the comfort zone never presented much of a problem to me. The moment I was done with the tutorials I approached an IT teacher on my faculty and asking them if I could make their then-static website completely dynamic.
It was quite a bold move, considering I had zero experience in actually building anything live up to that point. Luckily, the faculty approved because their old site really was crappy, but then again I guess most academia sites were—or still are.
They had only one demand though. I was to use TYPO3, an enterprise content management system that was once quite popular in Europe. It still is an awesome CMS but it’s nowhere near WordPress’s user friendliness. On the contrary, the learning curve was really steep, mostly because it uses it’s own configuration language, called TypoScript. The good thing about it is the developer rarely needs to write any PHP as most can be done through TypoScript, which is saved in the database. That was a good thing for me, because I was a total rookie in PHP.
The website was quite a success (also due to a designer who delivered really awesome design for that time). So, the word quickly got around that I knew TYPO3. Then, I got so much work that I had to open my company before I finished studying.
Shortly after the faculty, I got my first two kids (twins), and my now parents-in-law offered a half of their huge house, but that offer came with a big drawback: We’d have to move to the most remote region in Slovenia (where we still live), pretty much the farthest one can go from the capital. We moved, but soon my business started to decline—and I was mistakenly blaming my distance from the civilization, when in reality it was my lack of marketing and sales experience.
Luckily—in my desperation to recover—I discovered the beautiful world of online outsourcing, Elance.com. Well, at least I thought it was beautiful, but soon discovered I’d had to compete with tons of bad developers bidding to ridiculously low hourly rates. I’ve gotten pretty good by then. (Practice makes perfect, after all.) I had to go above and beyond to win (often bad) clients; just to feed my family through the month.
But, there was this one client that not only paid me well, he also treated me professionally, listened to my suggestions, and most importantly, he put a lot of trust in me. This, for a developer usually means more than just getting paid. His name is Per Esbensen and he became my co-founder.
After years of working together, I asked him whether he’d be interested in pursuing my ambitious idea of turning the world of online outsourcing around: To get rid of bidding, to get rid of crappy developers that learn as they go, and to get rid of missed deadlines and poor solutions for $3/hr. He was (overly) excited about the idea and we agreed to attend a startup weekend in Copenhagen, the first time we would meet in person after years of online friendship.
We pitched the idea to a room full of entrepreneurs and indeed they identified our problem as a real one. We didn’t win, but it was no problem for us as long as our idea got at least some level of validation.
With that in mind (and a good measure of optimism), we pulled a lot of strings throughout our personal networks to get in touch with investors who we thought would be a great fit for us. Some asked us why we wanted an investment in the first place and it was easy to explain: Because we didn’t have enough savings to develop the product in a reasonable amount of time. Sure, we could do it in our spare time, but it would take forever. Something we weren’t comfortable with, given how passionate we were about it.
Of course most of investors said no, but it was never just that. We would always be asked questions we didn’t have answers to: Where’s your business plan? Where’s the prototype? Where’s the market analysis? Each investor gave us something new to do our homework on—so much so, that I started to call this process: test-driven fundraising.
Eventually, we did have answers to everything, a working application, and a few customers to boot. At this point a trio of business angels decided to invest (an angel round), not because we had an awesome product or huge potential, but because they thought we were a great team that could deliver. (Another developer joined us a bit before that, so we were a team of 3 at the time.)
Raising funds from a venture capital (VC) fund then became much easier. They are much more comfortable with investing once someone else has risked their money (and done their due diligence). That’s why our seed round followed just a couple of months after the angel round, and luckily it was enough to take it to where we are today: a profitable and growing business.
Even once we had money to run our business, it wasn’’t all rainbows and unicorns. We had no experience in hiring, scaling both business and infrastructure, WordPress (yes none of us had any experience) and marketing. We had to learn everything as we went, but when passion drives what you do, then you think of it more as a hobby than a job. And, we all still do.
Currently, as with any profitable company, all our energy is focused on growth: Analytics, Content marketing, (Affiliate) Partnerships and Growth-driving features are just some of our current daily activities. It is quite a different set of challenges for a team of engineers who primarily wrote code just a couple of months ago. But we’re willing to learn, because to us, failure is not an option.
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Cloudways: Being a renowned web development agency, Codeable.io must be having a great clientele. How many websites you are managing currently? How many developers are working with you? Where do you see the business in the next 5 years?
Tomaž Zaman: This is quite a common misconception: Codeable is not an agency; We’re an online service provider and our business model is 2-sided marketplace (think Uber for WordPress services/developers). That being said, we do have an agency-like approach to how things get done; We have an exhaustive internal reporting tool that warns us when anything is out of place: a project overdue, a developer unresponsive, a bad review, and so on.
Indeed we do have (mostly) awesome clients — roughly 12,000 at the time of writing — and we achieved that by not racing to the bottom with our pricing. All of our 150+ developers are hand picked, interviewed and closely monitored in order to deliver best results. And to do so, they need to be paid fairly, which is why our minimum hourly rate is $60/hr. This (and a couple other mechanisms we have in place) weeds out the clients that think they can expect a spaceship for $100.
One thing worth mentioning is our exceptional customer service. Because we care so much about our clients and our business, our average response time is just 15 minutes. This is something we’re really proud of especially since the whole Codeable team (of 5 full timers) is in the same timezone (GMT+1). We don’t want to become a corporation, but rather your neighbourly barber shop where everyone is welcome, treated like a human being and greeted with a cup of coffee.
I think it’s this attitude that’s gotten us to a point where our developers (or rather contractors) complete more than $250,000 (and growing) worth of projects every month – with a 98% satisfaction rate. 72% of our clients post their second project within a month after the first.
And when I say project, I mean all things WordPress: theme development and customization, plugin development, migrations, custom functionality like payment gateway integration, wp-admin tweaking,… anything and everything 🙂
It’s our dream that Codeable will become the central hub of online outsourcing for WordPress – a service known for it’s user friendliness, reliability, fair pricing and a mentality of getting things done.
Cloudways: WordPress repository has thousands of themes and plugins. Which are the 5 themes and 5 plugins you love and recommend the most?
Tomaž Zaman: Jeffrey Feldman once tweeted,
Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.
— Jeffrey Zeldman (@zeldman) May 5, 2008
I wholeheartedly agree with this, which is why I’m not a fan of recommending themes, as they did just as much harm to the industry as they did good (because of both pricing and bloat). Many site owners think that the process of building a WordPress site looks like this: They buy a theme, install WordPress, install the theme and change (or insert) some copy, done.
The result is of course almost never good. Those websites don’t attract the right type of visitors (if any), don’t convert well and lack any kind of purpose or more specifically, they don’t convey their unique value proposition (UVP) well enough – if at all.
Ideally, the process should look more like this: the client would plan the website starting with the content which would be organised by a copywriter and a UI designer and only after that was done they would find a theme that best supports/enhances that content. All the pieces would then be put together by a WordPress professional. Preferably one on Codeable. 🙂
Same goes with plugins, each one exists to solve a particular problem, but luckily (or unfortunately, I guess) there are some problems every WordPress site needs to solve, and here’s my top five (in no particular order):
- WordPress SEO by Yoast. Because everyone should care about search engine optimisation. Unless you don’t want people to find your website.
- WP-Rocket. Everyone should also care about how fast their site is. Increased speed equals to better user experience which equals to happier users. This plugin is not free but well worth the money. Paired with a bit of smart Nginx/Apache configuration, it does wonders.
- Rublon is a two-factor authentication plugin that requires administrators to log in with one additional step – either by confirming an email link or using their mobile application. This means even if someone gets a hold of your WP password, they still can’t log in.
- iThemes Security is one of the first plugins any site owner should install. It is as much a security plugin as it’s an exhaustive checklist of points in which your website can be compromised – and it comes with suggestions on how to fix them. I’ve also written a tutorial on setting it up.
- Jetpack isn’t a single plugin but a bundle of modules that provide all kinds of useful functionality and I’m sure every site owner can find their perfect mix. My favourite is Markdown because that’s how I prefer to write articles. Apart from that we also use VaultPress (paid) and Shortcode embeds.
Cloudways: WordPress is turning more into an application framework. Do you ever face clients who are running WordPress as a framework? Where do you see WordPress in near future?
Tomaž Zaman: Rarely! There are several reasons. When we started with Codeable, I would do a ton of small fixes and customizations and get paid through PayPal. And, by small, I mean things that would take me an hour or so for which I got $40-60 to complete. This was our initial (and also wrong) hypothesis that there would be a lot of clients prepared to pay small amount of money for quick customizations.
As our business grew, more and more clients required increasingly demanding projects, such as custom theme or plugin development, website planning, complex migrations, speed and security optimization, etc. But, even all this can still be completed by one single freelancer or a small team.
I think the direction WordPress is heading is the most optimal one. The introduction of the REST API finally puts WordPress on the API map. Most modern internet services already “speak JSON,” and this will make it easier for developers to think outside the box. In my personal opinion, it still has some problems to deal with, primarily with its legacy of being a blogging platform; forcing every entity to become a post type. For simple applications this works, but when you need 20+ (non post-y) entities, it might become a huge problem, which is exactly the reason why we chose not to use it as our framework. (Codeable application is written in Ruby on Rails.)
One thing that bothers me as well is the backwards compatibility (in terms of PHP requirement). It’s quite possibly one of the main reasons WordPress is so successful today, but unfortunately for more advanced developers it’s the safe route of development—and we don’t like safe. Safe is boring! 🙂
Cloudways: You love your work. But, when you want to chill out, what do you do? Do you like to go on adventurous activities or just pass your time by listening to some music? What kind of movies do you watch?
Tomaž Zaman: Despite what online media says about startups (how exciting they are and all), the truth is the excitement comes after hard work—and a lot of it. Luckily, I haven’t lost my passion. There are always tons of new things to learn, so it never ceases to stay interesting, which is why I still consider it as a hobby, and not a job. Full time hobby, so to speak.
Because of that, I can’t even imagine what being bored feels like. Even more so because I have 4 small kids waiting at home for me to spend with them. They are my reason to keep going when things get rough and a much needed distraction. Otherwise, I’d brainstorm about the business 24/7.
On weekends, I always try to spend a bit more time with the family, so we often go to the pool or out in the nature (we live in the countryside). Sometimes, on warm spring and summer days, we visit one of the airports where I do my favorite (the only, really) adventurous activity: skydiving.
There are no words to describe the sensation of jumping out of an airplane or a helicopter at 4000 meters. No brainstorming, stress, business… Only adrenaline and pleasure.
On weekdays though, the only time I have for myself and my wife are evenings, when kids go to bed. So pretty much every evening, we see a movie (or an episode of our favorite TV show). I’m a huge fan of sci-fi and comic book movies, especially Marvel based or anything that starts with “Star”. On rare occasions, I also boot up my PS3 and play some RPG games, but as I’ve grown older, I got quite picky, so not every game will impress me anymore.
Cloudways: WordPress security is a serious issue these days. Many web development agencies are facing brute force attacks and other vulnerabilities. What are your common practices to protect your clients?
Tomaž Zaman: As we’re an outsourcing service, we don’t really have any common practice to protect our clients. It’s completely up to them. We do try to educate them on the matter through our newsletter, but the sad truth is they don’t see the benefits of paying $100 to $200 to get their site secured until it’s too late—and much more expensive to clean up.
Unfortunately, the WordPress ecosystem is swamped (for the lack of a better word) with self-proclaimed “developers” that read a couple of articles, know how to write an if statement or a for loop and they start selling their services. We get applications from people like that every day.
Sometimes, I wonder if WordPress is too easy to get started with. It’s like you could buy a really cheap car kit and put the car together yourself. It would work, but you would need an authority to sign off before you’d be able to take it on the road. Unfortunately, internet has little authorities like that, so it becomes a matter of education.
I always tell my clients securing your website is like an insurance: You hate paying for it, but when you need it, you’re happy you did.
Cloudways: A new version of WordPress is released every 4 months or so. How often do you update the websites, themes, and plugins for your clients? How do you manage in case the latest version of WordPress conflicts with the themes and plugins?
Tomaž Zaman: As I mentioned in the previous point, we do mostly customization and development. While maintenance is an area we’re looking at, it’s not our primary focus right now.
The main reason is there are many small WordPress agencies offering monthly subscription plans that align well with clients’ expectations about the pricing. Codeable’s minimum hourly rate is $60, so it’s understandable that our developers solve more technically challenging projects.
I’m not saying that maintenance is easy, but as it turns out it’s usually the same kind of problems that occur on updating, like deprecated function calls, for example.
Personally I’d like to see more WordPress site owners being educated on the importance of having your website updated (security, compatibility). If I use the same car analogy here: You don’t drive your car without having it inspected every once in a while. Right?
A website isn’t something you “set and forget”. It requires work in order to stay relevant, and work requires time and money. If you want it to fulfill its purpose that is.
Cloudways: Everyone has inspirations. Name 5 people who inspired you the most in the WordPress community? Please share their story and work with our readers.
Tomaž Zaman: That’s the beauty of the WordPress community (or any other, for that matter), there are no 5 celebrities that stand out—and it wouldn’t be fair from me to point a few out. Everyone contributes back as much as they are able to, even if they get no credit for it. It’s because they are driven by passion, not money.
Take an organization of a WordCamp for example. It takes tens (or hundreds in case of bigger ones) of volunteers, coordinators, sponsors, and speakers to make it happen and together they represent a clockwork that would hardly move should one take each element out.
That being said, there is one person who directly influenced my life and that’s Adii Pienaar, the former co-founder of WooThemes. While he’s not active in the community anymore, he believed in Codeable while it was just an idea and went to great lengths to introduce us to the community and took on a certain level of risk to partner up with us; something for which I’ll be forever grateful for. Because of that we’re still good friends with everyone at WooThemes and even get to meet them once in a while, usually at a WordCamp.
You can follow Tomaž Zaman on Twitter.