The WordPress community is no short of inspirational stories and businesses. A lot of people worked on a lot of challenging projects and were successful because of their hard work, determination, and persistence. It is fair to say that their journeys need to be shared and heard for everyone to take inspiration.
Today, we have Jean Francois with us, co-founder of SatelliteWP, a successful WordPress agency. Having done his bachelor’s in finance, he decide to take a leap of faith and ended up in WordPress development.
Without further ado, let’s hear it from the man himself.
Cloudways: Hello Jean, it’s a pleasure to have you with us today as a part of our interview series.
Before we start the interview, how about you introduce yourself to our readers?
Jean: I’m the Co-Founder of SatelliteWP, an agency based out of Montreal, Canada which focuses on providing WordPress maintenance services as well as accompanying our clients by evolving their website to meet their changing business needs over time.
My role as COO/CFO includes managing our technical and sales teams to provide the highest customer satisfaction, ensuring our projects pipeline is progressing smoothly as well as ensuring we make the right technology decisions to support our operations.
I’m also fairly involved in the WordPress community, having been a volunteer, speaker, and co-organizer of various WordCamps, as well as being responsible for all French or Canada translations for the whole WordPress ecosystem (core, themes, and plugins).
And when not working, I enjoy running, sailing and kicking back to enjoy a good sci-fi movie!
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Cloudways: That sounds like a lot of work Jean! So you have a Bachelors in Finance and have experience in handling financial planning and project management. How does that help you in your career now?
Jean: That is correct and I have to say both of these aspects are essential to my daily job.
I use my knowledge of finance to evaluate the viability of new internal projects and to ensure we can deliver a solid ROI to our clients on their ongoing ideas. This also allows me to bring issues to our CEO
And I use my Project Management experience to oversee the management and completion of hundreds of projects with the help of my team. The use of modern project management techniques allows us to maximize customer satisfaction in a fast-paced environment.
Cloudways: So you could say your education and experience is being put to good use. Jean, we would love to know some of the challenges that you faced while handling your projects?
Jean: I’ve actually briefly touched upon this in a presentation at WordCamp Ottawa in 2019, but essentially, I think that like many businesses, we had to face different challenges as we grew from a 2-person operation to where we are today.
Some of the challenges we faced along the way was the increasing complexity and duration in time of the projects we were taking on, having to report to multiple stakeholders and clients’ desires to be more involved and collaborate with our team through some kind of project portal.
Cloudways: What was that “moment of truth” when you decided that you wanted to change your career and shift to web development? Must have been something huge that made you take that leap of faith.
Jean: Well, it’s more like a few things and yes, some kind of trigger…
In my free time, I had always been curious about running my own website, trying new web software and blogging about it.
I was in a successful career at IBM working in the Software division and helping clients understand our products. One day, I was asked to code HTML & CSS on the IBM intranet, used by 200,000 employees… and I loved it.
Then IBM made me an internal ambassador of sorts for everything “Web 2.0” and I got to train my colleagues around the world on how to use blogs, wikis, chat software and everything we take for granted today
The trigger? In 2010, I had to take an extended leave from work due to illness and when I came back, my role and dept had been slashed. Faced with the prospect of moving into a new role where I had less affinity, I decided to strike it on my own and launch my web consulting business.
Cloudways: That’s some brave decision making Jean. But back in 2015, you were teaching about Content Management Systems. Since there are just so many of them, can you share the ones that you like the most?
Jean: Ever since 2006, WordPress has been the one for me. I’ll admit I’m partial to nice user interfaces, and back at that time, only a few CMS offered a user interface I considered easy and fun to use… WordPress and ModX, if my memory serves me well.
But WordPress is my definite favorite. It was (and still is) so extensible, with thousands of themes and plugins. Not only that, so many people use it as there is a lot of shared knowledge and best practices from which to learn.
When I was teaching in 2015, it was to future designers, and so, the goal was not to turn them into WordPress experts, but more to make them understand where their work might be deployed and therefore improve the ease with which their work could be integrated into a WordPress-powered website.
Cloudways: So Jean, tell us something about the initial stages of your career. How did it all begin? Who or what motivated you and inspired you to choose WordPress?
Jean: As soon as I graduated from university, I decided to launch my computer consulting business, where I’d help small businesses set up internal networks to improve file sharing and use email… This was in the early ’90s.
From that point, I got offered larger projects, which in turn led to job offers in ever-larger enterprises (Memorex Telex, Standard Life Insurance, IBM). While I enjoyed the added responsibilities and the perks of working with large organizations, I always remained curious in my free time about open source, web software and CMS in general.
I had a website in the early 2000’s, and I remember it was running Joomla, but then in 2005, after having tried this new WordPress thing, I decided to switch my personal site and from that point on, I never looked back!
Cloudways: “I never looked back” you could say that again! WordCamps played a big part in your career and it was Wordcamp Montreal where you met Maxime Jobin back in 2011. What was the conversation between you two that led to “SatelliteWP”. How did you come up with an idea to start your own web agency?
Jean: Actually, the conversation Maxime and I had in 2011 was near an ice cream truck which the WordCamp Montreal organizers had catered (amazing idea!) and the conversation was simply the kind you’d have while waiting in line at the bank or a buffet… no mention of going into business… yet!
Over the years, Maxime and I would chat online or talk over the phone about business issues; I’d hire him to help me on some contracts, he’d do the same.
The “we should do something together” conversation didn’t happen until 2017. I was already providing maintenance services to my WordPress clients, but more as an afterthought. Maxime invited me to collaborate on a client project, on the way back from the client, we went to lunch, and that’s where things got real.
A few days later, we decided to launch a business that would focus on WordPress Maintenance. A few weeks later, the business name and website were up and we were already onboarding clients. And a few months later, we merged both of our consulting businesses and became partners into what is now SatelliteWP!
Cloudways: I guess that’s the whole point of WordCamps, meeting potential business partners. I am sure our readers would love to know the challenges you face on a daily basis while providing maintenance services at SatelliteWP.
Jean: There are a few challenges that come to mind, the first being that what we do, website maintenance, is relatively new to the wider audience of WordPress website owners who used to think they can do everything themselves. And so, a large part of our job is to educate our clients as to the importance of maintenance for a website.
Clients understand for the most part the importance of SEO so they can be found through search engines. But concepts such as security and performance are very often only paid lip service… but these things matter, a lot!
The other challenge is somewhat ironic; if we do a good job of maintaining a site, “nothing” happens, and so, clients will sometimes ask us “Why are we paying you, nothing happens?”, to which our answer is “Exactly. Because we’re doing a good job.” 🙂
Cloudways: Well, customers can be a handful. Jean, you must be using several tools in your project workflows. Can you name some for our readers?
Jean: Like any established business, we use a number of line-of-business applications for accounting, invoicing, email… Everything we use is cloud-based and provides APIs so that we can access our data from anywhere, even though we have a physical office.
For sales, we rely on Hubspot and Zapier, which lets us automate many of our sales-related activities, manage our opportunity pipeline as well as integrate a Chatbot into our website to increase our conversion rate.
But if I had to choose the one tool that’s essential to every team member, I’d have to say it’s Teamwork. This SAAS solution provides us with Project Management, Ticketing System, Client Portal, Intranet and Chat software, all of which are integrated and can seamlessly work with each other.
This allows us to receive Support tickets from client emails, automatically create tasks in their support project and for our team to chat about the issue in the context of the client’s project. And from client interactions, document best practices into our intranet for future reference.
Cloudways: So you are the co-founder of a real estate platform that uses WordPress Multisite. I think there isn’t a better person to ask this question from, how would you define the boundary line between using WordPress multisite and setting up individual WordPress websites?
Jean: While I am no longer a partner in that platform having sold my equity, I can definitely speak to this topic.
In my view, a WordPress Multisite installation shines when you need to deliver a large number of websites that all use relatively the same underlying technical capabilities. This means using the same theme (or similar child themes off a parent theme), using almost the same set of plugins (there are always exceptions) and having the technical know-how that not every plugin works as you would expect if network-activated.
Being a Multisite also means only having to maintain one WordPress installation, which can ease the burden on your technical staff. But at the same time, we have to realize that every technical intervention on a Multisite multiplies the risk, as you could affect dozens or hundreds of client sites at once. So testing updates on a staging server becomes crucial in that situation.
Cloudways: Jean, you have had the privilege to speak at a number of WordCamps since 2010. We would love it if you share the importance of such meetups and how have they benefited you and the community?
Jean: Speaking at WordCamps has made me friends around the globe and is the way I met my current partner at SatelliteWP, so it’s fair to say I’m a strong believer in their importance!
But the first reason why I started attending them, and eventually speaking is actually that I simply wanted to “give back”. Because all of us have been helped at one point in our lives, and for me, it was a way to “pay it forward”, without any expectation of getting something in return.
Of course, in itself, sharing my knowledge has been very gratifying, especially when meeting someone that said they were inspired by what I showed on stage… that’s the best reward!
Cloudways: Sadly, due to COVID-19, almost all WordCamps are either postponed or canceled. Considering this pandemic, how do you see the future of the WordPress community? And do you think virtual meetups will be as effective?
Jean: If there’s one thing I’ve noticed since COVID-19 has started, it’s how people of all age and walks of life have suddenly started using video-conferencing, something that wasn’t as prevalent before.
So I’m confident the WordPress community will adapt to this new reality. A number of businesses are already fully virtual, and for web-based services, we are lucky this can become a reality more easily than for other industries.
As for conferences, I’ve already seen a number announcing they’ll become “virtual”; I have no doubt the sharing of knowledge will not stop, it will simply adapt.
Cloudways: Enough about Work! Who is Jean outside SatelliteWP? What do you do in your free time?
Jean: As I mentioned at the start of the interview, there’s a few things I enjoy, depending on the season.
For the summer, I’ve purchased a small sailboat, recently became a member of a Yacht Club and I’m now learning to sail in solo. This had been a dream of mine for a while, and as I have a propensity to work too much, this forces me to be completely disconnected from the web 🙂
The rest of the time, I like to run (unfortunately, all races are canceled due to COVID-19) and I’ve built a home gym just before the authorities mandated isolation, so I can stay in shape.
My guilty pleasure would be watching sci-fi movies and series. The good… and the bad! If there’s a spaceship in it, I’ll watch it 🙂
Cloudways: So Jean, you have been in the WordPress industry for a long time and since you run a WordPress maintenance firm, you would know a lot about WordPress hosting.
Jean: I do. Actually, like many people in web development, I also decided when I started providing web development services, that offering web hosting was the logical next step. Since I had previous experience with Linux from my previous jobs, I quickly moved from reseller hosting to dedicated boxes, offering high-performance hosting to many of my clients.
I had upwards of 100 clients when a critical failure occurred: a RAID controller corrupted all drives on an array, I hadn’t recently tested my backups and some clients lost weeks of work. At that point, I decided that I would leave web hosting to established firms who have engineers available 24/7 and I would focus instead on my core competencies.
Cloudways: What are your views on managed WordPress hosting providers like Cloudways? Can non-techies leverage the speed and management advantages to compete with bigger players?
Jean: I think that cloud hosting, which can’t suffer the failure of one hardware component, is the way to go for clients of any size. Clients will often argue that “controlling” the server’s hardware, but control without extensive technical knowledge and 24/7 availability are useless.
I think hosting providers like Cloudways provide a unique blend of performance and flexibility, without requiring the client to have to learn all the technicalities of web hosting.
In my view, what sets apart a good hosting provider from a great one will be the technical support; being there when the client needs it, with the appropriate level of knowledge to solve the issue.
Cloudways: Just to acknowledge our readers, can you please send us an image of your workspace. NO CLEANUPS!
Jean: I’m not a messy person by nature, sorry, if this will disappoint 🙁
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Saud is the WordPress Community Manager at Cloudways - A Managed WooCommerce Hosting Platform. Saud is responsible for creating buzz, spread knowledge, and educate the people about WordPress in the Community around the globe. In his free time, he likes to play cricket and learn new things on the Internet. You can email him at [email protected]