This is a post that has been bobbing around in my head for a while now, just waiting to get out. It’s a long story and to be honest I haven’t a clue if I have an audience but it feels good to share. It’s stuff that I try to be private about (it’s not exactly a conversation piece at parties) but it’s nice to put it out to the web. Maybe I will find out that there are people who can relate.
This story begins four years ago when I was layed off from my job. Ever since then I have navigated a labyrinth of a process that has set me on the path that I am on today. Back then I started out with a clean slate and a healthy dose of panic, I went from “what do I do?” to “hey, I know how to make websites so maybe I’ll do that”. I have branded myself a “web designer” and my business, as “web design”. My friends and family, my social profiles, my business license, all have me as “design” or “web design”. Even my SEO rankings locally for “web design” were/are pretty decent. At one point I think I was #2 on the first page of Google and now I think I’m #4 or #5.
Something has changed though and it’s awesome. I don’t remember when but at some point I became very interested in WordPress and I started seeking out freelance developers on social networks to learn more about them and how they do business. Amber Wienberg in Tennessee was, and still is, certainly a big inspiration for me. Thomas Ewer, Leo at ZenHabits, Elliot Jay Stocks, and Jason Leister have also been very inspiring.
About three years ago I first used WordPress to build this website for a client and I realized that there was so much I could do with WordPress if I could figure out how to wrangle it. I wondered, how could I wrap ANY design around it’s functionality? How could I learn enough about how it is programmed to customize it and configure plugins to do much more complex things that businesses need for their websites? Essentially I knew that I had a target number in my head for how much income I wanted and WordPress could take me there if I could get really good at working with it. Not to mention that I passionately believe in the Open Source community.
Fast forward to 2013. That was a harsh year in many ways and I don’t know, really, if I could explain the events and how I felt. Let’s just say it was “challenging”. Business was getting better but my stress levels were through the roof. I read somewhere that we tend to only change when things become so incredibly unbearable that change is a must (or quitting is the other option). I knew I needed to change something or risk landing in a mental hospital… heh.
As a result of the hell I was in, I went through several phases of writing and re-writing my business plan and sought out more people in the industry for inspiration. I was starting to realize that with WordPress you either want to write your own themes or if you are going to build on a starter theme framework, choose a really damn good one that is supported by a serious company. A colleague turned me on to the idea that maybe Genesis was worth learning more about and I began to research the framework and see who was making a living working with it. Bill Erickson and Carrie Dils were two developers that came up during that research. I also realized that WooThemes had a solid well-supported framework and, not to mention, a really solid e-commerce platform. I really have learned a TON from what Bill shares on his blogs and in videos I have found of past lectures. I set aside an entire day to just pick apart and take notes about everything I could learn about Bill’s business model. It seemed to me like he had practically wrote an entire custom model from scratch and it was working awesomely for him. I mention Carrie because I met her at a WordCamp earlier this year and I really appreciate her attitude as well as her success as an independent developer.
While I was learning more about WordPress developers who were self-employed working full time I was also trying to still pursue the idea of being a “web design” company or mini-agency. I would make several attempts to gather together designers, content strategy specialists, and SEO gurus to work with me as a team of contractors to put out larger website projects. I contacted several local businesses to do a full design/dev projects for them. I started to respond to RFPs for larger projects feeling confident that my “team” and I could bust out some awesome work. The short of that story is that it was too much for me to manage and was quite stressful. Also, I wanted to compete with local “web agencies” and “internet marketing companies”. A bit ambitious, I must say. Something didn’t feel right.
During the time that I was working that experiment a couple of pivotal things happened: a colleague told me about using a certain very popular forum site to find WordPress jobs and I found Elto as a by-product of researching Bill Erickson’s business model. So in November of 2013, about five months ago, I began working heavily with WordPress development projects as a freelancer for Elto, formerly known as Tweaky. I started out small and worked my way up to larger projects. It was a TON of work sometimes because I would have to learn gobs of new stuff while also still maintaining my client projects. It kind of felt like I went though two years of college in two months :). Also, there’s the forum I mentioned. I posted there, to paraphrase, “hey, I’m a developer looking for a designer to work with on projects”. My goal was still to find designers so I could sell “web design” and have them do the actual design work while I built the site.
I didn’t realize what was happening though. It turns out I was working several angles of heavy-duty trial-and-error while also learning WordPress dev at an accelerated rate and at a pace that was still fairly comfortable… well slightly unbearable at times but you get my point. My post on the forum connected me with several opportunities to just do WordPress dev work while Elto helped me fill in some gaps in my developer skills.
Now, at the end of the first quarter of 2014, I am slowly changing over all of my branding and social profiles to state that I am a WordPress developer (no mention of design) and that I strictly work with agencies, internet marketing companies, and freelancers who need WordPress work done, and businesses who already have a WordPress site and need assistance or they have a design ready and need a theme built. In four to six months time I had rolled up my sleeves and pushed myself to the next level without knowing what that end result would be. It was exhausting but well worth it.
Today, I am specializing in specific plugins and frameworks but will mostly work on anything WordPress. I describe this new business model with a metaphor comparing it to auto-repair. When you take your car to a shop most of them will do all of the repairs that are needed and you will pay one bill. However, they will often times outsource specialty work like radiator work or machine shop work to someone who does that exclusively. So the website is the car, WordPress is the engine, and I am the guy who works on those specialty items. I get out the wrench and tune it up, configure it to do something new, or give it a makeover based on a blueprint from a designer.
An interesting side-effect of this change is that I am no longer trying to compete with companies that do full-service internet marketing. They are the “web design” companies that will build you a website but also do your SEO, advertising, print work, branding, graphic design, video production, and website content strategy. I appreciate those businesses for what they are and what do. They do that website stuff and some of them do it quite well. There are several just in my small college town that put out some great work. They do that. I don’t. But I can now promote my business as a contractor that they can hire if and when they need my services.
Over the next few months I will work to revamp and update all of my marketing to clarify my new services. But already, I’ve began working with businesses, freelancers, and agencies all over the USA. It’s a very exciting time to say the least. :)