HeroPress: Growing WordPress in India
I was one of the first batch of participants in the initial version of HeroPress, which was video stories but I backed out due to multiple reasons. But, I’m glad HeroPress has survived in this current avatar, telling some really interesting stories of some real wonderful people. Few of whom I’ve had the pleasure of calling friends.
Topher has umpteen number of times asked me to write my HeroPress story and I have always either given excuses or deadlines that I never planned on meeting. The few times that I did start writing this article I went into too much of a deep dive into my life story (that I never finished it…) which is quite the rollercoaster from having failed Std.10th (high School) in English or dropping out in College to having guest lectured(teaching WordPress, of course) in one of the biggest B-schools in India OR my work experience which includes Film, TV, dealing cards to even working as an assistant to the Union Minister of India for Youth Affairs and sports… There I go again!! While that does make for a good story I should save it for when you buy me a beer.
I wanted my HeroPress article to tell a story of how our WordPress Community is truly open source and always open for everyone’s participation. I think this version does the Job. Also would like to thank Andrea Middleton and Aditya Kane who have been the most supportive of my efforts all these years. Last but not the least I’d like to thank Topher for this great space he has created and being a true friend with whom I could share some of my troubles.
I am Alexander Gounder, somewhat of a nobody who become somebody not only because I tried but also because WordPress is open enough to allow it and this is my story!
I was born in a lower middle class household in Mumbai, India. I am the middle kid among three siblings. My Father works as a tailor in Saudi Arabia and visits every few years. My Mother is a strong willed woman, who would fight the world for her kids which was evident when she refused to listen to doctors that my sister who suffers from Cerebral Palsy be sent to Special school and instead went pillar to post to get her to study in her normal school, even if it meant that she had to wait outside class during school hours (in case my sister had to go to the restroom) or carry my sister (who then was about 8 yrs old) around.
I live where 70%, if not more, of Mumbai’s population lives the slum or chawls in the suburbs.
So I’ve lived through the hunger for a day when I lost Rs.10 on my way to buy bread, this was during the Gulf war when my father couldn’t send us any money for months; I’ve lived through the darkness of when there our frequent power cuts and still the power companies claim that there isn’t any load shedding in this city; I’ve lived through the annual ritual of walking in knee deep water to school, then college and now work as Monsoon water, thanks to clogged drains finds its way to the empty plot between our chawl and the main road.
In terms of education I was an above average student but somehow managed to fail my Std. 10 board exams (this is a very important milestones in the Indian education system). Failure has been my stepping stone to success. I learnt computers as I had free time because I had to wait six months for joining college. I got a job at a local cyber cafe which was run by a linux enthusiast, this was my introduction to Free and Open Source. Post that I attended college (but didn’t graduate) and had many jobs (I’ve been working since I was 17, almost 50% of my lifetime).
To conclude, the point I’m trying to make here is, I don’t come from a lot of money or have a lot in terms of education qualifications in spite of which I was able to do everything I did in the WordPress Community here in Mumbai and India at large.
My first WordCamp
I was an attendee at the first WordCamp in Mumbai in 2012. I was pretty excited about attending it, because only a few days before I saw a video from WordCamp San Francisco. I thought the idea of having a conference about WordPress was super cool. Though the tickets seemed a little expensive, I had just started freelancing and wasn’t attending events yet, so didn’t really have any benchmarks and thought it was worth it as this was an International/official event.
My excitement was short lived when talks were sponsor pitches or mostly not about WordPress. The arrangements too weren’t as expected. During a session that was delayed by over 45 mins because the speaker and his connectivity problems (which could have been resolved by just using another machine), I lost my cool and walked out, one of the volunteers struck a conversation with me where I began by complaining about the arrangements and wanted to speak with the organizers to complain, but anger turned to sympathy when I realized that these student volunteers were in fact the event organizers, with that fact in mind even putting together this event was a great achievement. I probed further trying to understand where things were going wrong, checked what they paid for the t-shirts, it was about 30-40% higher than market price, asked if everyone paid the sponsor amount listed on the site, they said – many had bargained for upto 50% less than the published sponsor slab and some agreed with speaker slots thrown in. I asked how many tickets they sold and was informed free tickets were distributed in their colleges and to some of their partners. Partners? These were a few individuals who in the guise of helping these kids organize WordCamp had brokered deals that got sponsors discounts and/or speaker slots, free tickets (over 50) for friends / colleagues / employees, speaker slots for themselves and even their companies or brands as in kind sponsors.
On the second day, things went to a confrontational stage with many (who paid to attend the event) questioning the Non-WordPress talks and long twitter threads ensued. While it is easy to blame the organizers of the WC Mumbai 2012, I think it was those few selfish individuals who weren’t part of the organizing team but tried to influence them while offering to help.
This showed there was a need for the Indian WordPress Community to come together so we started a small buddypress website which was inundated with spam registrations hence replaced it with a FB group.
This WordPress India FB group helped us co-ordinate our first meetup in Jan 2013.
Visiting Other WordCamps
While talking to others about bringing WordPress enthusiasts from all over India, I got a sense there’s mostly mistrust among people involved in WordCamps and those attending or speaking at it. That’s when something I read on plan.wordcamp.org struck me, it said that sponsoring a WordCamp is a great way to contribute and give back. So I sponsored the next WordCamp in India, WC Baroda. When asked what is the sponsoring brand, I named our BuddyPress website. Little did I realise that this helped others see I was genuinely interested in bringing people together than make a quick buck or get publicity for myself.
While the next few WordCamps were better than my experience at WC Mumbai 2012, but they shared some common threads, in terms of the people who spoke there, or how there was no clarity in terms of how speakers were selected. I had even applied to speak at a WordCamp through FB chat, because that’s how the organiser was handling it. To my disappointment I sat through a session at that WordCamp with someone from automattic presenting exactly what I had proposed, later to be told by the speaker that he didn’t intend to speak and this was a topic proposed by the organisers.
I was disgusted by how these WordCamps were filled with shady underhand deals and zero transparency. While WordCamps had some set of guidelines and expectations, these organizers knowingly or unknowingly followed none of them.
At that point of time, the idea of organising a WordCamp in Mumbai came to mind too, but then what if I would end up doing the same as what was already happening was the only thing that stopped me from applying for a WordCamp.
Moment of truth
WordPress turned 10, and there were meetups organised everywhere and with a little confusion we too managed to organise a meet-up at a coffee shop, here the attendees weren’t people who we normally meet at WordCamps but regular WordPress users who discovered the meetup through WordPress.org. They had some amazing stories to tell about their association with the software – I met Manish who 80k downloads for his theme on WordPress.org or Sachin who had been blogging since ‘98 even before WordPress.
So I realised the Meetups and WordCamps weren’t really reaching most WordPress users within our own neighborhood, these users were equally passionate about WordPress and they too wanted to have real world meetups to meet others like them.
Then how did we do it
We not I
While “I” claim to have broken WordCamps in India, I couldn’t have done it alone. Right from the beginning I started asking other to join and help out, because we were at the end of the day trying to build a community and that couldn’t be done alone. At first it was Aditya, then we had other regular members like Sahil and Vachan join in to help us organize regular meetups.
Getting more stock holders allowed us to bring a different perspective to everything that we were doing. Till then people blocked others from participating as organizers or volunteers because of their own insecurities and used the line that “meetups don’t work in India”. Maybe even peddling that lie to even WordPress Foundation which was then allowing these WordCamps in the hope they would kickstart local. We went the opposite way.
When we started off with meetups we were told “Meetups don’t work in India”, but this wasn’t true because I was already attending Startup Saturday, a monthly Meetup for startups, Quora had a meetup, Many Bloggers had meetups. So we got started. A few meetups had 10-20 people showing up while others had 2-3 but we didn’t give up on meetups because we were meeting new people which was our end goal. Aditya once remarked that even if he met one new person and discussed WordPress that would be a successful, and has resulted in us having a fairly active meetup with so many different people speaking and attending it.
Put a little thought
I became very close friends with Aditya and we spent a lot of time discussing what we were doing here. We were a good cop / bad cop team many times. From our discussion we set up some guidelines for what we stood for inclusiveness and transparency. This was before we had a WordCamp Handbook which guides you through most of the challenges you would face.
We were the first WordCamp in India to publish the code of conduct and make sure it was accessible to everyone, we made repeated announcements on the run-up to the WordCamp and during the WordCamp about this Code of Conduct and how serious we were about following it. We even discussed thing amongst ourselves about handling any complaints about violations of the code of conduct, for e.g. as per Indian law you can’t disclose the identity of a person who is victim of Sexual Harassment and therefore we took care and had a system in place to take complaints and maintain the complainants privacy.
When we did our first WordCamp we tried to have ticket cost as low as possible (INR 300 or pay more if you’d like) to allow anyone to afford it. ( Fun fact – WC Mumbai to date has the lowest Avg. ticket price per day among WordCamps in India ).
At the first WordCamp Mumbai (2014) organized by our meetup group, I had someone come to me and tell me that he was glad to have attended and missed the last Mumbai WordCamp because the tickets were too expensive and his parents wouldn’t give him that kind of money.
This reinforced my view of never making WordCamp tickets too expensive, in fact we picked up what WC Pune 2015 did and started offering Student Discounts among other discounts to aid inclusivity.
During the WordCamp preparation time all vendor information, speaker selection and accounts data was available to all organizers, post WordCamp Mumbai 2014, we published this account on our WordCamp website for everyone to review.
Focus on Basics
We want to build a community that shared information and talked about WordPress, So we focused on the basics that included having regular meetups. Even our first WordCamp was very low key in terms of the menu or swag at the event or international speakers or host of sponsors… the things that other used to say if they organized a successful WordCamp. We focused instead on getting good speakers, affordable tickets, reaching out and spreading the message about our WordCamp. Putting in a Processes / Guidelines for speakers selection and so on. We wanted to get the WordCamp right rather than find something that we could brag about, we knew if we delivered on the first we could then brag all we want. Some simple ideas helped us cut cost as we didn’t really have many sponsors For e.g. we had packed lunch packets which bought catering cost to INR 150/day from INR 350 – 450/day if we would have a simple buffet spread. We did mugs instead of tshirts because the quality ones costed us INR 80 instead of INR 150 for decent quality t-shirts.
Keeping it open
We didn’t discriminate amongst attendees or treat someone as more important than others, everyone from the organizing team was approachable and we wanted to help. The meetups too became a welcoming space, we tried to keep a check on behaviour that could harmful or make the space unwelcoming to other. We didn’t shy away from calling out sexist behaviour. We didn’t discriminate amongst people who wanted to volunteer, we have freelancers and students in our team and they are as important as someone who owns an IT firm employing several people.
What the future holds for us
Even before WordCamp Central had a rule for allowing a person to be lead organizer only for two consecutive years we had started on planning of grooming the next set of leaders so that, if we decide to become a little inactive meetups and WordCamps would continue as usual.
WordCamp Mumbai in a gist:
As a result of the above I can proudly say that WordCamp Mumbai is oldest actively running WordCamp/meetup group in India having had twice as many WordCamps than any other city.
I would like to leave you with this song which everyone here at our meetup group can Identify with.
हमारी ही मुठ्ठी में आकाश सारा (Humari hi mutthi mein akash sara)
जब भी खुलेगी चमकेगा तारा (Jab bhi khulenga chamkenga tara)
कभी ना ढले जो, वो ही सितारा (Kabhi na dale jo, woh hi sitara)
दिशा जिस से पहचाने संसार सारा (Disha jis se pehchane sansaar sara)
These lyrics roughly translate to
We have the skies in our fist. Whenever it opens, a star will shine.
One that never sets will be a Superstar and the world will know you for the path you have chosen.