Alex King – WP Heavy Hitters
This is the first of many posts in which we will be profiling the heavy hitters of the WordPress community. Who are the people behind some of your favorite plugins and themes? What makes them tick? Why are they awesome? And what sort of things are they working on for the future. Inquiring minds want to know.
Tag line: No shortage of ideas.
Knock Outs: Crowd Favorite, WordPress HelpCenter, Carrington Build, Twitter Tools, Share This, WordPress Mobile Edition, Carrington Core and the Carrington theme family.
Power Move: The obviou-virtuoso – elegantly executing on opportunities I can no longer ignore.
How did you get started building your empire?
When I moved from the Bay Area to Denver at the end of 2003, I decided to make a go of working on my own. I built some web applications and did some consulting work. I also continued to build things for WordPress (plugins, some core contributions here and there) and was active in the community (style and theme competitions).
As the WordPress community grew, more and more interesting opportunities presented themselves. I resisted this for a little while, but in 2007 I finally decided to hire someone so I could engage in more of these projects, and since then we have grown a full time team of 14 with an office in downtown Denver.
I really enjoy being able to work on so many interesting projects with my team, and being able to build much more than I could on my own. While I do sometimes miss some of the freedom of being an independent developer and being knee deep in code every day, on balance I’m very pleased with how things have gone.
What are you currently working on?
Besides our client engagements, many of which are quite interesting, but unfortunately not areas I’m able to discuss at this time, we’ve got a couple of things going:
1. Updates to Carrington Build to add some new features that I think will be really popular. We’ll probably create another theme as an example of how to use them – that seems to be the best way to make features accessible to end-users and developers alike. The initial response to Build has been great, and I’m looking forward to seeing the Build-enabled themes from our partners hit the market as well. I expect we’ll see a few of those pretty soon here.
2. Updates to all of our plugins. We hope to have them all up to the latest best practices in the next few months. It’s a pretty sizable effort, we’ve got about 30 plugins that we’ve released over the years.
3. We’ve created a number of custom web applications that we use to run things at Crowd Favorite and WordPress HelpCenter. These are built on an application framework I’ve been working on for the past 3 years. I’m optimistic that we’ll be shipping our first apps by the end of the year. Hopefully, other teams with similar needs to ours will find them as useful as we do.
Any chance you could tell us more about the custom web apps you use?
We’ve basically created a set of apps that we use to effectively run our businesses. The first one that I expect to bring to market is an app that helps us keep our client’s websites up to date. It allows us to track what packages we have installed on a website, then hooks into APIs for product updates and automatically track available upgrades and status for each site. It’s definitely aimed at a niche market, but I think it’s a really useful tool.
I really enjoy developing on the custom application platform we’ve built. Think MVC pattern with the flexibility and customization capabilities (plugin and themes, hooks and filters) of WordPress. We’ve used it to efficiently create a number of custom web applications for our clients with great success.
What do you attribute to your products/services massive success?
There are probably a couple of reasons, but I’d say the main one is that we are our own customer. I’ve typically created plugins/themes/products that I need. I have an intimate knowledge of the user stories for the products and tailor the user experience to those needs. Over time, they typically become more generalized to suit a wider audience, but they start with deep functionality from the beginning, instead of just surface functionality or lip service features.
I also think that a dedication to quality has served us well. We take the time to build things right, even though very few people outside our team probably realize or appreciate some of these things. We have long term relationships with many of our clients, and the initial investment in quality really pays off over time. It makes the sites easier to maintain, and means that future features are much more easily integrated into the overall site architecture.
We refer clients to WordPress HelpCenter when they require further development of their Page.ly sites. What can our client’s expect when they contact you?
They can expect solutions to their WordPress needs! That’s perhaps an over-simplification of what you were looking for, but it’s exactly the service we provide. Like our products, I created the WordPress HelpCenter explicitly to fill a need that I was experiencing first-hand, a void that I saw in the WordPress community.
At Crowd Favorite we typically take on larger project engagements. Because of this, our teams are often booked out at least a few months and we have to pass on projects that have quick timelines or a need to start right away. This also means we typically pass on smaller projects because most people quite reasonably aren’t interested in waiting 2 months for a 3 day project.
Over the years we have maintained relationships with a number of independent developers that are better suited for these quicker-turn projects. However, over time these developers found that they could better manage their workload and client base by catering to fewer, larger projects rather than being available for the smaller engagements we were sending their way. In effect, if a developer was doing a good job, they became less and less available for the projects we were referring to them.
This is the crux of the problem. There weren’t good, experienced developers available for smaller WordPress projects. If someone needed something quickly, they were stuck choosing from the developers that didn’t already have work. You may have heard the term “beware of the developer that can start immediately”, this was exactly that problem.
To solve it, I created WordPress HelpCenter. Though we have a great team of experienced WordPress developers, we focus exclusively on smaller engagements – most under 1 week in size and some are just a few hours. This enables WPHC to be able to be more responsive when people contact us with urgent needs for quick-turn projects, troubleshooting, answers to questions, support, etc.
The business has grown consistently, and we now have a full time staff of 3 (we are currently interviewing to hire another full time developer) with additional support from our Crowd Favorite development team when needed. We have a nice group of clients that we provide ongoing site maintenance services for (upgrades, optimizations, feature development, etc.) and a good mix of new customers that contact us via phone and email every day.
Will the WordPress HelpCenter be able to maintain the low hourly rate while remaining profitable?
We are constantly evaluating the services we provide and making adjustments where needed. Recently we had experiences with the Twitter OAuth fiasco that taught us more about what the community in general is willing to pay for (hint: if they think it’s a bug in the plugin, they don’t want to pay for help – even when it’s *not* a bug in the plugin and actually due to a server config or user error).
We want to be able to provide services to as many people as possible. I expect we will always experiment with new offerings and cut old ones based on the reaction from our customers. The bottom line is that we have to keep the business financially viable in order to be able to help the WordPress community (and I owe it our team and their families).
Which product/service of yours did you expect to make a big hit but either fizzled or was used in a completely different way than you anticipated?
I wouldn’t call the Carrington Core platform a fizzle, but it definitely hasn’t taken off the way I thought it would. I think there are a few reasons, for one we didn’t package it well enough or have enough information initially about the benefits and how exactly it makes things easier. It was too different, and it was too much of a mental leap for most folks. They looked at it, saw it was different, didn’t understand how it worked, and didn’t dig much deeper. I’ve had numerous discussions with developers that had this initial experience. Typically after I talk with them for 2 minutes about what it does, their eyes light up and they get really excited about it.
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We had a complete blind spot for this. To us (having built and used the system for months – now years), the benefits are so self evident they needed no explanation. It’s just a better/easier way to organize your theme files and reduce the amount of code you have to write. A practical example is that it enables our designers to build pretty sophisticated theme features without writing any PHP code – we used to have to bring in developers to write custom code, and now we don’t have to for various theme features.
Unfortunately these benefits were lost on the majority of the community. Sure we have a number of vocal advocates, mostly from folks with experience with other real development frameworks or creating advanced WordPress-powered CMS sites and running into the pain points Carrington Core solves. About a year after the initial release I created some more example-driven documentation and a couple diagrams; that definitely seemed to help understanding and adoption.
Before we released Carrington Core, we were so wrapped up in our own experience that the initial ambivalent reaction caught us entirely by surprise. It was a good lesson. It’s not enough to create a great system. If you want people to get excited about it, you need to make it accessible and easy to understand with minimal effort on their part.
When we released Carrington Build, we didn’t even try to pitch the core system and framework or all the great technical features it includes. Instead, we made a few videos and created an example theme so that people could try it out and experience how it works first, then the more tech savvy can be thrilled to discover how elegant it is on the back-end.
Where do you see WordPress going in the future?
I’m not sure if I can answer for WordPress as a community, but I know where we plan to go with it. We are continually creating tools to make it a more refined platform. As this happens, it will result in more and more interesting things being built on it, from traditional blogs and CMS sites to fledgling web applications and services. I don’t know that things will change as much as everything will just work better and we’ll be able to do more, easier.