Shawn Hesketh is a WordPress educator and consultant in Houston, Texas. He enjoyed a successful career as a freelance designer, creating logos, print materials, websites, and marketing strategies that helped his clients connect effectively with their audience. Later on, he created WordPress 101, one of the most popular premium WordPress video tutorial sites in the world.
In this interview, Shawn talks about his career, experience and also gives advice to WordPressers.
Let’s get started!
Cloudways: Shawn, thank you for joining us today. Tell our readers a bit about yourself and your profession. When was the first time you discovered WordPress?
Shawn: Sure thing. I started my career as a freelance designer back in 1988. As I freshly graduated from high school, I started my business venture by designing logos and printing materials for small businesses. I think I designed my first ‘brochure website’ for a client in 1994, using Adobe PageMill. Over the next several years, the complexity of my clients’ websites increased, and I taught myself HTML, CSS, and PHP. By the mid-2000s, my clients wanted to edit their content, without having to hire a ‘Webmaster’ for even the tiniest of changes. I began experimenting with the most popular CMSs but was ecstatic to finally discover WordPress 2.0 in late 2006.
Cloudways: What was the main reason behind choosing WordPress, considering there are other popular CMSs like Joomla and Drupal?
Shawn: Compared to other popular CMSs at the time — Joomla, Drupal, and Expression Engine — I found WordPress to be relatively intuitive. More importantly, so did my clients! After a brief training session, they were able to create and update their website using just a web browser — no additional software required. (It was an important factor in those early days.) Of course, there’s still plenty of work to be done to improve the onboarding experience for new users. But WordPress continues to be one of the easiest tools for building beautiful websites, blogs, or even apps.
Cloudways: Shawn, you’re the creator of one of the top WordPress tutorials site, “WordPress 101”. Can you please explain what this site is about? How did you come up with such an idea to educate the WordPress Community?
Shawn: Whenever I launched a new WordPress-powered website for a client, I would schedule an in-person training session to teach them how to update and manage their website content in WordPress. My clients loved the personalized training, but often asked, “What if I forget what you’ve taught me today? What happens two weeks down the road when I need a refresher?”
At the time, there was not much in the way of online training for WordPress. So I decided to record a series of video tutorials just for beginners, covering all the WordPress fundamentals. Then, I built a membership site to deliver the videos for my clients, enabling them to log in and watch the videos at anytime they required a quick refresher.
Before long, several of my friends who were also WordPress developers and designers asked if they could begin sending their clients to my membership site for the same training. It was all back in 2008.
Since then, the WordPress 101 video tutorials have helped more than a million beginners learn how to use WordPress to build their website or blog. I would never have imagined that while creating that first set of videos for my clients!
Cloudways: Aside from designing and WordPress, you have vast experience in marketing and SEO. What would you suggest to WordPress bloggers and business owners on how to market their products?
Shawn: The biggest mistake I observed being made by most business owners and product creators today is not taking the time to truly understand the actual needs of the people they’re trying to serve before offering them solutions. As a result, they create content or products in a vacuum. Or as I like to put it, answering questions that aren’t being asked.
If you begin with your stellar product in mind, then attempt to market your solution to your audience, you face a daunting marketing challenge. You not only have to find your target audience, but then educate them on the problem you’re attempting to solve, and finally, the benefits of your product or solution.
On the other hand, if you begin by serving your audience first — taking the time to ask questions, understanding the problems they face every day and the goals they’re attempting to achieve — then you can more easily create products and solutions that serve their real-world needs.
And that makes marketing infinitely easier because you’ve already taken the time to build meaningful relationships first. Then, when you do create that product or service, it will serve a real need — not just a misperception on your part. And those people with whom you’ve built relationships will help spread the word about your product or service.
In short, put PEOPLE first, not your product. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Cloudways: As a WordPress developer, what are your favorite plugins for optimization and securing a WordPress website?
Cloudways: WordPress 4.6 launched a few months ago claiming many UI, speed, and security improvements. How would you compare 4.6 with the previous version, and what is your favorite feature from the newer version?
Shawn: Since 2008, I’ve updated the WordPress 101 video tutorial series with each major release — something like 21 times! In all that time, there’ve only been three releases that did not include any major changes to the user interface that warranted re-recording our videos. WordPress 4.6 was one of those releases that offered plenty of ‘under the hood’ changes, but very few user-facing changes.
It was a solid release, but I’m excited about the upcoming release of WordPress 4.7. The new default theme, Twenty Seventeen, is simply gorgeous. It’ll make it easy to create a beautiful business website — far beyond the blog. And the inclusion of the long-awaited REST API endpoints will make it possible to extend WordPress in some exciting new ways we haven’t seen yet.
Embracing new tools will not only help us to become more productive but also ensure we’re creating the best solutions for the people we serve. Isn’t that the goal?
Cloudways: You’ve attended many WordCamps. Share your experience and tell our readers how these meetups are beneficial for the WordPress communities? And who are your best buddies from the vast WordPress community?
Shawn: My wife and I love attending WordCamps. They’re, by far, the best way to meet people of all skill levels — some of whom you can help, and others from whom you can learn. I still learn something new with every WordCamp I attend. And many of the people we’ve met at WordCamps over the years have become close friends.
Bill Erickson was the first to suggest that we should create a plugin to deliver our WordPress tutorial videos directly in the dashboard. And Chris Lema has become a trusted advisor, providing that much-needed ‘outside’ perspective. The best thing about attending a WordCamp is that everyone is approachable, no matter how long they’ve been a part of the WordPress community. Introduce yourself and ask a question. Beyond helpful advice and answers, you just never know how one friendship can dramatically impact your life for the better!
Cloudways: Shawn, what feature do you still see missing in WordPress? And how do you see WordPress in the coming years?
Shawn: No doubt, in the years to come, WordPress will continue to evolve into an even more robust and flexible platform.
But we’ve still got a lot of room for improvement to make it easier for new users to get up to speed. Onboarding new users will continue to be a challenge, as there is no “one size fits all” approach that works across the board.
Are you building a blog? A business website? An online store?
Depending on your answers and individual goals, you’ll likely need a unique content strategy, personalized theme and a particular combination of plugins but, you’ll also need training and ongoing support. That presents a challenge. So, can we provide that level of personalized service at scale?
As WordPress educators, we’re focused on creating resources to help beginners get up to speed as quickly as possible and then provide ongoing training and support. At WP101, we’re putting a lot of thought into how we can serve WordPress beginners even better for years to come.
Cloudways: It’s hard to take out time from a busy schedule. But everyone wants to relax every once in a while. What do you do during your free time?
Shawn: Because we homeschool our three kids and I’m able to work remotely, we enjoy traveling for weeks at times. The past several years, we’ve spent the month of September at Panama City Beach, Florida. We enjoyed traveling during off-peak times, without the usual crowds, and it’s always been a wonderful bonding time for our family.
When we’re at home, I run nearly every morning before starting work. That’s a highlight of my day, and I find it’s the best way to clear my mind. I also enjoy unwinding at the end of the week with a cigar and whiskey, preferably while deep in conversation with friends.
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Cloudways: WordPress tends to perform badly if you do not find a good host. Regarding WordPress performance, how will you compare a site hosted on traditional Managed WordPress Cloud Hosting like Cloudways with advanced caching technologies like NGINX, Varnish, Memcached, and Redis?
Shawn: There is no comparison. I used to host dozens of websites for my clients on two dedicated servers. I was responsible for monitoring and maintaining those servers at all hours, always installing software updates, and trying to stay up with the latest in server technology.
These days, I recommend Managed WordPress Hosting such as the one that Cloudways offers instead.
WordPress websites can become very resource-intensive, demanding a lot of the server hardware and software stack. To get the best performance out of your WordPress website, you’ll need advanced caching and optimization.
But it doesn’t stop there.
What about security? What happens if your site gets hacked? Managed WordPress hosting includes 24/7 monitoring for security vulnerabilities, giving you peace of mind.
One of the most popular questions we hear at WP101 is, “How can I make changes to my website without affecting the live version of my site?” Well, Managed WordPress hosting like Cloudways also provides staging servers, enabling you to make changes to your website offline, then push those changes to your live server when you’re done.
These are just a few of the reasons I recommend Managed WordPress Hosting like Cloudways offers. They take care of the technology so you can take care of what matters most to you — creating great content and building your online presence!
Finally, could you please send us an image of your desk or workspace exclusively for our readers? 🙂
Thank you, Shawn, for your time!
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Mustaasam is the WordPress Community Manager at Cloudways. Where he actively works and loves sharing his knowledge with the WordPress Community. When he is not working, you can find him playing squash with his friends, or defending in Football, and listening to music.