Reyes Martínez directs Digital Marketing and Communications at Frontity. She gave us some background and answered a few of our questions about the company and the project.
PS: Can you give us an overview of Frontity’s history and how your company, product, and brand has developed?
RM: It all started back in 2015 when Pablo Postigo and Luis Herranz created Worona, a free WordPress plugin to turn blogs into mobile apps. Pablo and Luis discovered a lot of people were concerned about the way their WordPress sites performed on mobile devices. They thought it would be a powerful solution to build an open source platform that could be extended by other WordPress developers.
I met Pablo and Luis in late 2015, loved their project and joined them. I was used to working with WordPress as a content editor, but I didn’t have a technical background. So I mostly started helping by writing blog posts, social media content, documentation, and providing user support. Now I’m in charge of Frontity’s marketing and communications. (I still don’t code but would love to learn at some point!)
After that first prototype, they decided to develop a free platform not just for creating mobile apps. The idea was that any WordPress user could build mobile apps, progressive web apps, or add Google AMP to their blogs in a very easy way. This was Worona 1.0, which was launched in February of 2017. Thousands of WordPress users joined that journey, and we’re truly thankful for that. At that time we already used React and fetched the blog’s content using WordPress’s REST API. The mobile apps were created with Cordova.
Although Worona had a loyal following, we were aware that mobile app usage was slowly declining. People don’t want to download an app for every blog they read. Plus, Apple stopped supporting apps from app generation platforms like ours. This became a serious problem as we couldn’t grow under that scenario.
That’s when we decided to bet on the mobile web and started working on a new framework for building Progressive Web App themes (based on React) on top of WordPress. In 2018 we rebranded to Frontity and got financial backing to make the project grow. Although our main goal was to keep the code open source, we decided to use it internally and release a product exclusively to WordPress publishers (we called it Frontity PRO), so we could see what happened and gather feedback.
Frontity PRO is a proprietary mobile theme built on React for WordPress blogs and news sites. It implements Progressive Web App technologies and uses the REST API to fetch the content, along with our WordPress plugin, WordPress PWA.
By the time Frontity PRO was created, we also contributed to the official WCEU PWA. Building a PWA from the ground up is a difficult and time-consuming task, but we had created a framework to precisely solve that problem. It was the perfect time to test it out and give back to the community.
We have worked with Spanish media companies since we launched Frontity PRO, and the result has been great. Our theme has allowed them to deliver faster and more engaging mobile experiences, which has been proven to increase their pageviews and ad revenue. Our internal framework has served content to more than 20 million readers. Some of our major clients were part of ADSLZone group, like Medios y Redes, Tendenzias or Coches.com. They all use WordPress.
During this time, we realized that many of our clients’ tech teams were considering using our framework to develop their own custom themes. This was one of the main reasons that made us think about open sourcing it — it seemed the perfect moment. Plus, this was our original vision.
A few months ago, we finally decided to go straight for that vision. We set aside the development work of Frontity PRO to place all our focus on Frontity.org, the open source framework. Our next milestone is to release the first beta version in the next few weeks. (Early May 2019.) More than 300 developers have already signed up to try it out. We are really excited about this project and believe it can make a real impact in the WordPress ecosystem.
Since our resources are limited, we are looking for some financial backing again to bring contributors on board and build a thriving community of people interested in WordPress and React.
PS: What problems does Frontity solve? (And whose problems are they?) Will Frontity make frontend development more accessible to people who are new to React?
RM: In order to create a WordPress theme with React, developers need to learn and configure lots of different things: bundling, transpiling, routing, server rendering, retrieving data from WordPress, managing state, managing CSS, linting, testing,…
There are already some amazing React frameworks, such as Next.js and GatsbyJS, that can work with WordPress, but they’re not focused exclusively on it. As a result, there’s still some complex configuration and additional tooling left to the developer.
This is what Frontity aims to solve; we want to make everything much simpler for WordPress developers and more accessible to those who are new to React. Each part of the framework has been simplified and optimized to be used with WordPress, and developers don’t need to figure out what tools to use for things like CSS or state management.
Everything is ready so they can get WordPress and React to work together in an easier way.
How does Frontity differ from Genesis, _s, or WP Rig — from the developer and designer’s perspective, and in the end user’s experience?
RM: Genesis, _s or WP Rig are fantastic frameworks to develop WordPress themes based on PHP. These themes use the PHP WordPress rendering engine, which means they rely on a server-side architecture where almost every interaction that is made by the user on his device needs to wait for the server to render the new result. Our framework is focused on developers who want to create a React frontend and connect it to a WordPress backend using the REST API. We can call this a client-side architecture, where all the logic and rendering happen directly on the device and the calls to the server are limited only to data sourcing.
In the last few years, web development has evolved a lot. One of the main reasons is the shift to mobile devices and the need for fast web experiences. Achieving this is not easy using a server-side architecture. This is why client-side libraries like React are becoming so popular.
How does Frontity the framework fit into a business model or revenue stream for Frontity the company?
RM: We won’t develop any business model in this initial phase. The framework will always be 100% free and open source. Right now, we are focused on building a community of developers and contributors around the framework.
Possible monetizations in the future are a hosting solution, premium support, or a marketplace of paid themes.
What opportunities do you see for WordPress developers now and in the near future?
RM: With the shift to Gutenberg as well as the rise of headless CMS approaches, the WordPress community has started considering React for their projects. Beside this, modern libraries like React are becoming essential to rich user experiences.
The client-side approach to theme-building opens a world of new possibilities: storing and pre-fetching content, animations within themes, offline experiences, and more. It also has enormous benefits in terms of performance, UX and design.
React presents an opportunity to accelerate things in the WordPress ecosystem, build modern and engaging frontend experiences, and extend what developers can do with this powerful CMS.
Pictured in the Frontity team photo above, from left to right, back row first: Eduardo Campaña (developer), David Arenas (developer), Carmen Fernández (no longer with the company), Mario Santos, (Community), Reyes Martínez (Marketing & Communications), Pablo Postigo (Founder & CEO), and Luis Herranz (Founder & Lead developer).
Reyes Martínez directs Digital Marketing and Communications at Frontity. She gave us some background and answered a few of our questions about the company and the project. PS: Can you give us an overview of Frontity’s history and how your company, product, and brand has developed? Reyes Martínez RM: It all started back in 2015 when Pablo Postigo and Luis Herranz created Worona, a free WordPress plugin to turn blogs into mobile apps. Pablo and Luis discovered a lot of people were concerned about the way their WordPress sites performed on mobile devices. They thought it would be a powerful solution to build an open source platform that could be extended by other WordPress developers. I met Pablo and Luis in late 2015, loved their project and joined them. I was used to working with WordPress as a content editor, but I didn’t have a technical background. So I mostly started helping by writing blog posts, social media content, documentation, and providing user support. Now I’m in charge of Frontity’s marketing and communications. (I still don’t code but would love to learn at some point!) After that first prototype, they decided to develop a free platform not just for creating…
Rich Tabor is transitioning to a new role now as Senior Product Manager of WordPress Experience with GoDaddy. In the past three years, Rich founded a digital agency, launched a popular PhotoShop resource site, and started ThemeBeans, a successful WordPress theme shop.
ThemeBeans and CoBlocks, Rich’s suite of page builder blocks in a plugin, have gone with him to Godaddy. (CoBlocks remains free, and now all the ThemeBeans products are too.) Rich took some time to reflect with us on his path so far and where he sees the WordPress ecosystem going in the future.
Q: What led you to dive into the new post-Gutenberg reality of WordPress and create CoBlocks and Block Gallery?
I’ve been fascinated by the block editor ever since Matias’s Gutenberg demo during WordCamp US 2017. I was instantly convinced that Gutenberg would lead us into the next era of creation in WordPress. I saw an opportunity, was in a position to execute and had enough expertise to take it on.
Q: Did sales for these products meet your expectations?
I actually did not release paid versions for either CoBlocks or Block Gallery. There were plans to monetize both plugins, but at the time we were focused on delivering innovative solutions to Gutenberg and pushing the editor to its extremes. Adoption-wise, both plugins grew particularly fast, and are continuing to do so. In that sense, they most certainly exceeded my expectations.
Q: What do you see as the near and long term future of the WordPress ecosystem? As solo developers and small firms are increasingly hired by bigger fish, especially hosting companies, will there still be a place for small entrepreneurs?
I believe that the WordPress ecosystem will continue to be an innovative field for both entrepreneurs and larger companies. It’s all about innovation and being able to execute — regardless of the size of the team behind the product or idea.
And over the last few years, the WordPress economy and its entrepreneurial leaders, have evolved into quite a mature ecosystem. I’d say the fact that companies such as GoDaddy are investing in the future of WordPress is a huge sign of that maturity and growth in our industry. Hosts, in particular, are uniquely equipped to make a huge difference in how so many folks use WordPress. Investing in products and talent that level-up the overall WordPress experience is good for us all.
Q: What about GoDaddy made it seem like a good fit or you? Did you consider any other types of companies outside the hosting space?
I flew out to Phoenix to meet the WordPress leadership team at GoDaddy and it became quite clear that they were all-in on this new future of WordPress + Gutenberg.
GoDaddy has assembled a passionate and highly qualified team of folks who are hyper-focused on improving the WordPress experience and leading the next wave of innovation in this space. Joining this team and leading the efforts as the Senior Product Manager of WordPress Experience is a good and logical fit to fulfilling my personal mission to help make WordPress beautifully simpler. I knew that what we’d build would touch millions of sites and empower people all over the world to succeed online.
Q: Before GoDaddy came along, what was your plan in terms of growth and long-term sustainability?
Having run a successful theme shop for a number of years, I understood the importance of having a solid plan for growth and sustainability.
My plan for both CoBlocks and Block Gallery was to release top-tiered paid versions of each, with innovative tools, blocks and design systems. Those would have likely arrived in Q3 of 2019, as our focus for the first half of the year was to innovate and grow our user base. Now I hope to continue on that same development trajectory, adding many of those same features to the current plugins.
Q: What is your best advice for someone who is currently independent and wants to build a small business in the WordPress space today? What are the best lessons or advice you can provide?
First off, don’t let an opportunity get away from you. Learn to identify opportunities that you are perfectly suited to execute on, then dive right in. Don’t hesitate to ask for help and don’t be afraid to try something new. Learning how to learn and then taking that a step further by continuing to learn every single day, is a catalyst for enormous personal and professional growth. It’s not all about making cool stuff, it’s about challenging yourself to become the best version of yourself; the rest will fall into place.
Rich Tabor is transitioning to a new role now as Senior Product Manager of WordPress Experience with GoDaddy. In the past three years, Rich founded a digital agency, launched a popular PhotoShop resource site, and started ThemeBeans, a successful WordPress theme shop. ThemeBeans and CoBlocks, Rich’s suite of page builder blocks in a plugin, have gone with him to Godaddy. (CoBlocks remains free, and now all the ThemeBeans products are too.) Rich took some time to reflect with us on his path so far and where he sees the WordPress ecosystem going in the future. Q: What led you to dive into the new post-Gutenberg reality of WordPress and create CoBlocks and Block Gallery? I’ve been fascinated by the block editor ever since Matias’s Gutenberg demo during WordCamp US 2017. I was instantly convinced that Gutenberg would lead us into the next era of creation in WordPress. I saw an opportunity, was in a position to execute and had enough expertise to take it on. Q: Did sales for these products meet your expectations? I actually did not release paid versions for either CoBlocks or Block Gallery. There were plans to monetize both plugins, but at the time we were…
In Peter’s words, “the most basic way to think of WP Pusher is that it replaces FTP with a flow where updates come directly from GitHub/Bitbucket” through the WordPress core auto-updater.
You may not know Peter built the first version of WP Pusher in a shopping mall in Thailand while traveling the globe for four years. Originally from Copenhagen, today Peter is settled down in Glasgow and has just launched Branch, a Docker-based build and deployment tool for WordPress developers that goes quite a bit further than WP Pusher. Branch is a continuous integration service for WordPress that adds “the ‘build’ and ‘test’ steps” before deployment.
DK: You’ve launched Branch with a manifesto that declares “WordPress developers are developers too” before outlining the well-known lack of modern tools for WordPress development. Why do you think that has been such a long-lamented situation and was there something unique in your experience that drove you to do something about it?
PS: One of the things that makes WordPress really special is its low barrier of entry. The 5-minute install and all of that. The WordPress community proudly consists of a large percentage of amateurs and hobbyists. A lot of people have their first experience with programming because of WordPress, which is great and something WordPress should be really proud of. Most development frameworks exist to make the developer more productive, but I think WordPress has another purpose. The purpose of WordPress is to democratize publishing (which is something user facing), not to be an awesome tool for developers. There are obviously some political decisions behind this lack as well. Religiously supporting outdated versions of PHP is just one of them. Not having any sort of dependency management, so everyone has to reinvent the wheel on each project is another one.
Every WordPress developer is asking the same questions. “How do I manage my dependencies?” or “how do I migrate changes to the database?” These are questions people literally ask me because I sell WordPress developer tools. Personally, I didn’t get into programming because of WordPress. I have been doing PHP development since my early teens, and my first job was as a Ruby on Rails junior developer. “Growing up” as a developer, I was raised very strictly! My co-workers would write failing unit tests for me, and I’d have to implement the code. This made me pretty religious about best practices, testing etc. After RoR I discovered Laravel in 2013 and helped build the Laravel community in Copenhagen. However, during high school, I had built quite a few different projects using WordPress for myself and my clients. Once in a while, I’d have to update these old WordPress sites, which always involved installing an FTP client. This was rough after five years of continuous deployment using Git and automated tests. I hate FTP with a passion. It’s an error-prone and outdated way to deploy your code.
Inspired by some of the tooling I knew from RoR and Laravel, I set out to build a better way to deploy WordPress code. After a lot of experimentation, I landed on WP Pusher. However, WP Pusher only moves the code. It doesn’t run your build scripts or your unit tests. It just blindly moves your code from a Git repository to WordPress. I was intentionally ignoring this problem for a while, being kind of intimidated by it I guess. However, people kept asking me the questions I described earlier, so I started experimenting again and believe I found a really cool solution with Branch. Branch is built on top of Docker, so everything you can imagine doing inside of Docker containers will eventually be available within Branch. A major part of building Branch is to make this great, but highly technical, stack available to WordPress developers.
DK: Does Branch build on or incorporate WP Pusher, or are these totally separate technologies? As SaaS businesses, will they remain separate or merge? I imagine some of your agency customers for WP Pusher might want to move up to Branch, if they don’t lose anything in the process.
PS: The best way to understand Branch, and why it’s different from WP Pusher, is to imagine it as two separate parts: The build + test part (continuous integration) and the deployment part (continuous deployment). The deployment part of Branch very much builds upon WP Pusher. The build part is what’s new. It’s the missing link between developing on your local machine and shipping to production.
One of the things that excite me the most about Branch is that it’s a hosted SaaS, compared to WP Pusher which is “just” a WordPress plugin. That allows me to add a much more advanced feature set and ship much faster. With a SaaS, you are in control of the environment in which the software runs. That gives you a lot more flexibility and opportunity. I want WP Pusher to stay around for everyone to keep using. However, I want to make Branch so good that everyone wants to switch eventually. But WP Pusher will stay around. That’s for sure.
DK: What did you learn from life as a digital nomad? Have you given it up for good now, or do you plan to do more traveling?
PS: That’s a good question, I should probably spend some more time thinking about! I came into the “nomadic” lifestyle sort of by accident. It wasn’t very purposeful. I think on a personal level the number one lesson has been how important for me it is to have a base. Traveling for a long time, you become very aware of your roots. You spend a lot of time thinking about the good and the bad parts of being back home. I think ideally it allows you to go “home” and have a better idea of which parts of settled life you like, and which ones you’d rather be without.
On a business level, WP Pusher was born on the road and has a very different nature than most businesses. From day one it’s been a premise that I wasn’t always around 24/7. It’s never been a problem, because it’s never been an expectation. I’ve never had to change anything about WP Pusher to allow me to travel, because I was already traveling when I built it. Now I’m pretty settled, and I live with my fiancé and only travel for smaller trips. I’ll never stop traveling, hopefully, but I don’t think I’ll ever live on the road again!
In Peter’s words, “the most basic way to think of WP Pusher is that it replaces FTP with a flow where updates come directly from GitHub/Bitbucket” through the WordPress core auto-updater. You may not know Peter built the first version of WP Pusher in a shopping mall in Thailand while traveling the globe for four years. Originally from Copenhagen, today Peter is settled down in Glasgow and has just launched Branch, a Docker-based build and deployment tool for WordPress developers that goes quite a bit further than WP Pusher. Branch is a continuous integration service for WordPress that adds “the ‘build’ and ‘test’ steps” before deployment. DK: You’ve launched Branch with a manifesto that declares “WordPress developers are developers too” before outlining the well-known lack of modern tools for WordPress development. Why do you think that has been such a long-lamented situation and was there something unique in your experience that drove you to do something about it? PS: One of the things that makes WordPress really special is its low barrier of entry. The 5-minute install and all of that. The WordPress community proudly consists of a large percentage of amateurs and hobbyists. A lot of people have their first…
DK: How did you first got into programming, the web, and WordPress?
TD: Getting into programming is a long slow story. Someone mentioned the other day how they learned HTML through View Source, and I did that as well, but then it occurred to me that I learned how to do that through WordPerfect’s “View Codes.” Same idea, different platform.
The college that I went to had a VAX/VMS computer network for the whole campus. Dumb terminals with either green or orange letters hooked up to a computer that was probably five feet tall, eight feet long, and about four feet wide. It could do email so that we could send an Electronic Message all the way across campus! It was incredible. Then I was told we were going to be connected to The Internet. I remember where I was standing, and who I was talking to when I said the words “What’s the Internet?”
A year later we got a World Wide Web client installed, called Lynx. It took me a while to figure out why it was better than Gopher, but then I loved it. One day a friend said, “Hey, look what I made!” and he had made his own web page. I was floored. He said, “You should do it too!” I said “No, I could never figure that out” to which he responded, “Sure, let me show you.” That right there summarizes how I’ve tried to treat new people in my profession.
He showed me how HTML worked, and I learned every single HTML tag in about an hour. There were only about 30 tags, and the H tags were six of them.
Within a year people were paying me to build web pages. (Here’s a screenshot of my first paid web gig.)
I did plain HTML for a number of years. Server Side Includes came and went. In 1997 someone asked me to build a site with PHP/FI 2.0, so I went home from work, went to devshed.com and looked up an article on how to do that, thus starting my career as a PHP developer.
A couple of years later “cascading style sheets” looked like they were here to stay and I picked those up and became a “full stack developer” though no-one used that phrase back then. I was a Webmaster.
When WordPress was first released, I was working at a University, teaching a class on the side for fun. It was Intro to Web Development. Each student had to do a project, so I decided to take one on as well. I built a blogging system to compete with WordPress. To my knowledge, one other person used it, ever. But I used it for about ten years. I didn’t really like WordPress back then because it really WAS “just for blogging.” Trying to make it do other things was hard.
But then came WordPress 3.0 with Custom Post Types, and everything changed. WordPress morphed into a real CMS with that one version.
In 2010 I went freelance (on purpose!) about the same time 3.0 came out, and I immediately started using it, and haven’t really used anything else since.
DK: I’m curious, how did you come by the nickname “Topher?” Is there a good story there?
TD: When I was three, my Aunt was babysitting, and she asked me if I knew what my middle name was. I knew my first name was Chris, last name DeRosia, and full name Christopher DeRosia, so I assumed Topher was my middle name. She laughed and wrote it on the fridge notebook and called my Grandma etc. I still have the paper she wrote it on. People called me Topher very occasionally until college when there were four Chris’ on my dorm floor. We each picked something, and I’ve been 100% Topher ever since. When I was young and vain, I considered making it a mononym, but… such a nerd.
DK: What have you learned from HeroPress over time? Did it surprise you in any way, what people had to say? What do you think about people and groups on the “fringe” of the WordPress community today? Who/what are we (North Americans) least attentive to/aware of?
TD: I read your question about what I’ve learned from HeroPress over time and then sat in my chair for a good ten minutes just thinking about everything. HeroPress has become so pervasive in my personal relationships with people that it’s hard for me to separate these days. I never thought I would be such close friends with people so far away. People I laugh with, cry with, talk long into the night, have days-long conversations on Twitter.
Most times when I approach someone about being a contributor I have some idea of their background, so while surprises happen they’re not usually too big. One time that really blew my mind though was at WCUS in Philly. A speaker looked like a good candidate, and so without knowing anything about her, I approached her in the hall and introduced myself. I asked if I could tell her about my project, HeroPress, and she agreed. About 20 seconds into my pitch she started sobbing. Deeply and loudly. I was literally speechless. As it turns out she had a story that needed to be told, a story that started with a family leaving her country of origin when she was very young, and all the things that happened to her after that. I cried then with her, and I’m crying a little bit now as I write it. I will always say that HeroPress has affected me personally more than anyone else in the world.
I’ve learned that people are diverse, so I can’t say anyone is like X or wants Y because of my perception of where they live. Some poor people want money. Some don’t. Some people want freedom. Some never think about it. It doesn’t matter where they live or what they have; I can never assume about them.
I have noticed that wealthier people tend to forget they’re wealthy and take it for granted. They usually don’t feel wealthy. One WordPress person might say “I’m a little short on cash this year, I’ll only go to one WordCamp.” Another WordPress person might say “I wish attending WordCamp didn’t cost two years salary.” Or perhaps “I wish people I don’t know didn’t think I was a terrorist, so I could go learn.” I feel so flippant sometimes. I want to learn something, so I spend $100 on an online class. My friend wants to learn the same thing, and $100 is six months salary. Even in wealthy nations like America, where our poorest are among the richest internationally, WordCamp is a couple of months rent, or gas, or electricity.
I could write for a long time, but it has been impressed upon me the difference in life choices between the haves and the have nots.
DK: How do you look at your freelance career now? What kind of work did you do? And how did that path lead to Sandhills, Modern Tribe, and now BigCommerce?
TD: I started freelancing in college, though I didn’t know that’s what it was called, or even that people actually did it for a living. I was just picking up odd jobs. After I graduated, rather than get a Real Job, I just kept taking contracts. A few months after graduation I took a three-month contract with Kellogg’s and built their first intranet web site. Netscape 3 was the hotness at the time.
After that, I took a real job at a hosting company of sorts, and I was there until 2000 when I took a job at my old university running their radio station websites for ten years. I never quit freelancing on the side though. Always there was someone emailing me saying “Hey, my brother’s wife’s uncle’s nephew says you do internet. Can you help?” Or worse “Hi there, someone told me you know web stuff, my username and password are *****. Can you help?”
Over Christmas break in 2009, my wife and I were talking, and I realized I had spent all of every evening working on side work for two years solid. I was spending eight hours a day at work making $25/hr (granted, with benefits etc.) and three hours every evening making $65/hr. We reasoned that if I got that day job out of the way and managed four billable hours a day, we’d be in about the same position. Except I wouldn’t be at the office eight hours a day (nine if you include driving) and I’d get my evenings back. What’s not to like? So in February 2010, I was done.
People often ask me “How do you know when it’s time to freelance?” The answer is, start now, on the side. When you’re making enough that the day job is getting in the way, fire it.
As for what kind of work I did, there’s some irony. Before 2010 I did all custom PHP/MySQL/HTML/CSS stuff. 2010 is when WordPress 3.0 came out and changed everything. I did only WordPress after that. So the metric I had based my freelance career on changed as soon as I started full time. But it worked out.
I wasn’t very good with WordPress when I started, but I was a very good PHP dev, so I quickly learned how to mess with custom post types. Most implementors didn’t know how but needed them, so I did a lot of work for other WordPress devs. I would say the majority of my freelance work since 2010 has been building doodads for other WordPress developers, as opposed to building websites.
Somewhere around 2011, a client talked me into joining their startup. I become CTO, and it was sort of a Real Job. Then we took investment and became a really Real Job. Varsity News Network is still going today. While there I built a monolithic plugin that did everything I could think of — it was ridiculous. It was my first plugin, and it showed. It was decently secure and whatnot, but I didn’t fully understand hooks and filters, and the whole thing was a bit of a mess. But who doesn’t look at their code from eight years ago and cringe?
I didn’t really enjoy my time there, and my partner knew it, so in the summer of 2013 he took me out to breakfast and fired me. It was awkward because that meant I didn’t have a job or insurance anymore, but he was right, I didn’t want to be there. It also meant I had to go tell my wife that we were out of work.
There were some upsides, however. My partner went to bat for me with the board and got me my stock options, without having to work six more months to vest them. Also, there was a New Thing in the WordPress world: agencies. I’d been hearing about one called 10up, and I knew there were others. By this time I knew some people in the WordPress world, and I felt pretty confident I could get a job fast. I emailed a friend at 10up, and he said, “You need to talk to Jake.” So a few minutes later I was talking Jake at 10up. He gave me some advice and gave me a test to take to see if I’d fit in there. I’m going to skip ahead here, because the next few months are an interesting story in and of themselves, and it would make this tome even more epic.
Long story short, I started a trial with X-Team in November of 2013 and went full time in January. I worked there until the fall of 2013 when Dave Rosen, the owner of X-Team/XWP approached me about starting HeroPress. HeroPress took about four months to fail, and during that time several people approached me and said “If this doesn’t work out, come see me,” which was a very nice safety net.
Of course, it did fail. I went and saw Pippin Williamson and worked for him writing docs for about a year and a half. In the spring of 2016, I wasn’t very happy writing docs. Pippin was great, the company was great, but I just didn’t fit well. I heard Peter Chester from Modern Tribe talk about how they work, and getting back to coding sounded like just the thing to me. I worked there for about five months. Some miscommunication during hiring put me in a position I was ill-suited for, and it wasn’t good for either of us.
After that, I joined with Tanner Moushey for about a year to spin up a WordPress agency. In typical startup fashion it was a lot of hard work and not quite enough pay for either of us, so we ended that at the beginning of 2018, and I had to decide what I wanted to do next.
I freelanced for about six months. What I really wanted was a community job — something where I did a lot of shaking hands and kissing babies.
Then at 11:33 PM on June 11th, my friend Luke sent me this in Slack:
This may come as a surprise to you, but I WAS interested. A week later they made an offer, and I accepted. I started at BigCommerce on my birthday, 17 July.
DK: So do you get to do a lot of shaking hands and kissing babies as a WordPress Developer Evangelist?
TD: A lot of shaking hands, not too many babies yet, which is sad, I love babies. I’ve been tasked with going to twenty WordCamps in 2019, and I travel in person to at least one Meetup per month. On top of that, I spend a ton of time talking with people on Slack, Twitter, Hangouts, etc.
DK: Tell us about the good news of headless eCommerce.
TD: The joys of headless eCommerce are many.
- You build the presentation layer of your store in whatever language you’re most comfortable with. With a good enough API, the language really doesn’t matter. PHP, .Net, React, Rails, whatever you want. If you change your mind two years later, fine, your store is all still there with everything important still configured.
- It makes your website much more modular. By this, I mean that you can build a website and connect it to your store. Then you can build another website and also connect it to your store. Then a mobile app. Then Amazon, or eBay, or Facebook.
- It leaves the hardest parts of eCommerce to people who do nothing else but that. They know all the intricacies of PCI compliance, they have entire teams dedicated to security, and there’s 24/7 support
- A SaaS typically has quite a bit of leverage with third-party services like shippers and credit card processors. This means they can not only get solid integrations but also at prices you can afford. For example, BigCommerce has a deal with Braintree to offer the lowest PayPal rates anywhere. A SaaS has the power of volume when negotiating on your behalf with third-party services. There’s huge value in that.
DK: Is BigCommerce unique in the WordPress space?
TD: Depends on how you define it. There are other eCommerce plugins, and there are other SaaS plugins. There’s even a Shopify plugin that works over API just like BigCommerce. That said, Shopify’s API handles two requests per second out of the box, whereas BigCommerce’s does 400 per second. I think if you want to look at the purely SaaS angle, plugins like OptinMonster and Kraken.io started the movement. I think larger companies like BigCommerce are going to help turn the tide toward heavy SaaSification (that’s a @Mor10 term).
DK: Are developers or site owners hesitant to move inventory to an API-first service where pricing is based on fixed API call limits? Or is this what the future of WordPress looks like, as a Digital Experience Platform?
TD: We haven’t seen that with the developers who use our platform most. The most traffic we’ve ever gotten is a small fraction of what our theoretical limits are on the API, so there hasn’t been any concern there. Mostly what we’ve seen is excitement about being able to break out of our built-in Stencil framework and build without limits, while keeping the core power of the eCommerce platform. (Here’s a simple example.) There’s a simple form where you can put in your weight and skill level, and it will tell you your surfboard volume. In WordPress, that’s ridiculously simple, but in Stencil, on BigCommerce it would be really hard. Putting WordPress on the front end of BigCommerce gives the benefits of both platforms.
Something that has really surprised me is the excitement of agencies that have been working in Stencil on BigCommerce for years. Most of them also do WordPress sites, and they are thrilled at the possibilities. I know of more than one agency that is giving up all other eCommerce options (like Magento or Shopify) to go exclusively BigCommerce on WordPress. It’s very exciting.
DK: What do you do when you’re not working to relax or to decompress when you’re off work?
TD: I typically spend time with my family watching TV or playing games. I do have a personal vice; I play a few video games. I don’t consider myself a gamer, but there are a few I like, and I’ll occasionally take a few hours in the evening and play.
DK: How did you first got into programming, the web, and WordPress? TD: Getting into programming is a long slow story. Someone mentioned the other day how they learned HTML through View Source, and I did that as well, but then it occurred to me that I learned how to do that through WordPerfect’s “View Codes.” Same idea, different platform. The college that I went to had a VAX/VMS computer network for the whole campus. Dumb terminals with either green or orange letters hooked up to a computer that was probably five feet tall, eight feet long, and about four feet wide. It could do email so that we could send an Electronic Message all the way across campus! It was incredible. Then I was told we were going to be connected to The Internet. I remember where I was standing, and who I was talking to when I said the words “What’s the Internet?” A year later we got a World Wide Web client installed, called Lynx. It took me a while to figure out why it was better than Gopher, but then I loved it. One day a friend said, “Hey, look what I made!” and he had…
Stressing subscriptions over scale, De Correspondent launched in 2013 with €1 million from 15,000 members. Membership has grown over fourfold since then. Subscriptions and book sales are De Correspondent‘s primary revenue sources. Today The Correspondent is closing on its first 50,000 subscribers with $2.6 million raised in pre-launch funding.
Ernst is a long-time WordPress user, but his vision for journalism led to the creation of a technology company built around a proprietary CMS called Respondens for De Correspondent and now The Correspondent. Respondens’ unique design reflects an ethic where subscribers are treated as a community of people who want to be involved in the production of the news they read. In the future, Ernst hopes to market Respondens to support its development and spread the practice of what we might call “responsive journalism.”
Ernst and his colleagues intend to avoid the churn of breaking news by taking a structural focus on the issues they cover, working in the tradition of constructive, problem-solving, or “solutions journalism.”
9/ Not just the problem, but what can be done about it. In Europe, they call it “constructive journalism.” In the US, solutions journalism. The idea: Your report is incomplete — lacks depth — unless it includes what we can do: as individuals, as a society or political community.
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) February 20, 2018
Finding solutions as journalists means listening, engaging, and collaborating with readers. In his predictions for journalism in 2019, Ernst told Harvard’s Nieman Lab,
“To really be a reader-driven organization, every journalist that works there should be open to the knowledge, ideas, and concerns of their readers. You can’t outsource that interaction to an engagement editor.”
This approach to journalism slows down and deepens communication by focusing issues around the people and the communities they concern. The constructiveness of this approach may have a lot to do with its calming and humanizing effects.
Ernst has written several Dutch best-sellers, including a Thank-You Book or “gratitude” journal that came out of his efforts to overcome anxiety about public speaking. In his reflections on work, overwork, and gratitude for TEDx, Ernst emphasizes that resistance to “the burnout society” where “creativity is crushed” is a collective task: everyone needs to make daily space for their close relationships where work and media do not intrude.
I am grateful Ernst took some time after the holidays to talk about his experience with WordPress, collaborative online communities, and democratized journalism. Here is the conversation we had.
DK: What are your thoughts about WordPress today? Have you made any connections or maintained relationships with the WP community in other ways?
EP: I started using WordPress in 2006 when I launched my personal blog ahead of an internship at a press agency in the United Nations HQ in New York. The fact that I then, as a twenty-year-old, could start a publication in such an easy way, has been crucial in my career and something I will be the WordPress community eternally grateful for. Since then, I have started several sites, most of them running on WordPress. In 2007 I co-founded the blog of The Next Web Conference, now known as thenextweb.com, in 2009 I started a news blog for the Dutch daily nrc.next, and in 2010, as head of digital at the Dutch quality newspaper (NRC Handelsblad), I switched their main site from ‘Escenic’ to WordPress. The fact that we could so easily build our own plugins (for example, a liveblog feature to cover the Arab spring) was crucial in the success of that news site. Also, the developers enjoyed their work more, since they could give back to the community.
I still run my personal site on WordPress, and even though I don’t publish there anymore, I love to stay in the loop of new WordPress releases and the ever-increasing user-friendliness of the software. In lost moments, I enjoy reading the developers forums and checking their discussions about new releases (I admire the distributed, self-organizing and voluntary efforts of the community) but I’m not in touch with one of the members. I’m just an admiring bystander.
DK: Can you explain when and why you came to see community and membership features as essential to a CMS? What does it look like when the idea of membership/audience inclusion is integral to the software architecture and vision? How are you doing this in Respondens?
EP: The main consideration was focus. We wanted a CMS that only had features for our writers that we deemed important. We didn’t want to create any distraction by having other options available — both to our developers as to our writers. If we build it ourselves, we force ourselves to make conscious decisions about every new feature we add. I.e., we wouldn’t just switch a ‘like’ button on in the comment section, simply because it’s already there. Forcing ourselves to do this made sure we built a laser-focused CMS and publication. The focus and the calm that follows makes it unique. (See “Cultivating calm: a design philosophy for the digital age.”)
Also, our approach to reader interaction —as you mentioned — is a unique asset of our CMS. I elaborate on that in this Medium post, “Reinventing the Rolodex: Why we’re asking our 60,000 members what they know.” We believe in the democratization of the journalistic research process. Anyone could be a source, anyone has expertise and knowledge to share within a specific niche.
1/ THREAD: There’s a great untapped resource in journalism, and it’s available to every journalist right now.
It’s the experience and expertise of your *readers*.
Giving them the opportunity to share what they know, could fundamentally transform journalism.
— Ernst Pfauth (@ejpfauth) December 11, 2018
DK: How does your model of membership-based journalism change at scale, when you have potentially the largest possible national and international audience? Will you still ask your journalists to spend 30-50% of their time reading and responding to member comments and other feedback? Is this essential (or even possible) to sustain at scale?
EP: The thought that you see your readers as sources of knowledge and expertise is crucial. It works for the local examples you mentioned, but it can also work for global topics. For example, we interviewed Shell employees from all over the world — who we found through our Dutch members forwarding a call-out. (“How reader engagement helped unearth the Shell tape.”)
Yes, there are scale challenges. We see our journalists as conversation leaders and our members as contributing experts. We notice when a journalist gets more feedback from their sources (their readers), they need a research assistant to keep up — for example by highlighting interesting contributions to them or taking over some interviews. These are tasks that can be easily outsourced, as long as the correspondent remains the main point of contact in the comment sections and guides the conversation.
I don’t see the 30 and 50 percent as time to spend on ‘responding to comments.’ The comments are just a means to an end. The end goal is to involve your audience, so you can get a wider set of sources, become more inclusive and publish richer journalism. We estimate it takes 30 to 50 percent of your time to live up to that mission.
DK: On the other end of the spectrum, does your model have things to teach small, local journalism and other membership-focused businesses that they don’t already know? In the new membership-based local journalism I’ve been watching in the US and Canada — local media startups where there’s no history or expectation of a printed product or advertising — there’s a definite limit on the subjects that can be curated and written (or spoken) about in a deep and penetrating way. Is this a low or slow-growth model that simply must be accepted?
EP: It starts with being open about your mission as a journalist (all our new correspondents publish a mission statement when they start working with us) and then telling your audience what you expect from them. It’s about that personal relationship. The CMS, practices, technology and resources all follow. But it’s the being open to your audience input and being open about your shared goal with them that’s crucial. Anyone can do that. And when you start, it might even be easier to do it on a small scale, but it’s more intimate, and you can scale up as you get better at it.
DK: What do you do to keep sane and whole amid the busyness and stress of work? Are you still a practitioner of journaling and daily gratitude? Have your thoughts on that changed or deepened?
EP: I still write in a gratitude journal every night and noticed this three-year habit has really made me more aware of ordinary but beautiful moments in life, and also taught me to enjoy the process instead of the end goal. I save my evenings and (80% of) my weekends for family and friends — and always have my phone on DND in those hours. Also: I don’t check my email before I have left my apartment. Setting these clear boundaries and turning them into routines have really helped me to stay sane in the busyness of the campaign.
Stressing subscriptions over scale, De Correspondent launched in 2013 with €1 million from 15,000 members. Membership has grown over fourfold since then. Subscriptions and book sales are De Correspondent‘s primary revenue sources. Today The Correspondent is closing on its first 50,000 subscribers with $2.6 million raised in pre-launch funding. Ernst is a long-time WordPress user, but his vision for journalism led to the creation of a technology company built around a proprietary CMS called Respondens for De Correspondent and now The Correspondent. Respondens’ unique design reflects an ethic where subscribers are treated as a community of people who want to be involved in the production of the news they…