Rob Cairns talks to Sherry Holub about the business of WordPress.
1. Sherry’s WordPress Origin story.
2. The business of WordPress.
3. Sherry’s opinion of what works and what does not work.
Hey everybody, Rob here again. And today I’m here with Sherry Holub. How are you today, Sherry?
I’m great. Thanks for having me.
Such a pleasure. It’s we’re talking beforehand. Just getting warmed up. Thinking what we need to. Talk to all these wonderful people about today and I thought we’d start by share with us how you got into WordPress and your kind of your WordPress origin story.
Yeah, definitely. I’ve been doing this since 1995, so it was kind of pre all of those CMS systems. The first ones that kind of came. Out were were. Joomla and some you know kind of off name type things. So we were trying to, we were struggling with that. It was a little difficult to maintain and manage and get it to do you know what clients were asking for and then WordPress came out and of course we all know it was kind of pitched as a blogging. So very early days it was, you know, like blogspot. So we didn’t really look at it for the first couple years. And then finally we decided to start playing around with it. And one of my programmers at the time said, yeah, I I think I could make this work for a whole website. And not just the blog. And I forget what year that was. I mean, it’s been at least 15 years. So that’s kind of how, you know, we kind of stumbled on playing around with it, started building websites with it, you know, very early days we were using. The kind of the framework and the theme that came with it and it just kind of evolved over the years. So I’d say we’re early adopters.
Now that’s kind of cool and you and you were saying before you were doing sites before. So were you coding them in like HTML and Dreamweaver? Something like that.
Absolutely yeah. Macromedia all the way.
You want you want a front page, kind of.
No, no. And and originally originally like back to 95 I was using, I think Netscape had like a product that was. You know I did HTML and that’s how I built my very first website so.
It’s funny listeners of this show know that my online experience dates back before the web, so mine goes back to the days of modems and BBS’s, and that whole culture, which is quite interesting, is just kind of evolved over the years. So it’s really interesting to see where all this has gone.
Oh yeah. Ohh for sure. When I was in college my roommate and I racked up a $330 bill on Delphi Internet surfing BBS’s.
Why yes. Been there, done that. You know, it was so bad that our phone bill dropped from lots of money to no dollars. And my parents couldn’t figure out why cause the computer was still going. Well, you can figure out why can’t you? Yeah.
It’s a talk to guys like Steve Jobs and the legendary Kevin Mitnick, 2 gentlemen that passed away way too soon about how those phone bills dropped. They can tell you.
Yep, definitely. Now there’s a whole difference when when you’re that old school and you remember that, you know you live through like the AOL Wild West. Like, yeah, it’s it’s. It’s interesting to see the evolution over the years.
Yeah, I I lived through the Wild West. We’re the only ones online together. All the colleges and universities across the world and using a network called BITNET and the and Centennial College in Toronto got pull pulled all the students off. And then after some wonderful student.
Decided to send a bomb threat to Tel Aviv and now you know how that would go over in today’s world with everything.
Going on over there.
Oh my, yeah.
And that ended that discussion for a long time there, because of one wonderful person. But that’s another story for another day. So you’ve kind of got into it that way and when and you said you were into building websites pre WordPress. When did this rule become a viable business for you right away pre WordPress or or was WordPress a tool on the journey or just the tool that made it happen?
I would say, you know, I kind of hit the ground running in 1995. That was the year I graduated from UCLA School of Art. And you know, with an art degree, you know, I didn’t want. To go that. Route of like being the artist, but I was already doing graphic design on a freelance level so I had some clients doing that and then in 1995 a friend of mine said yeah, my my vocal coach. Onto a website. Is that something? I do. And I said sure without even knowing how to code HTML, so I kind of.
You’re doing well.
So I kind of learned on the go, you know how to do that. And amazingly enough that I still work with that woman. She’s still a client after all these years. So yeah, from from word go. I kind of ran things a little differently than like the typical. Start up. You know, I formed the company and everything and I was hiring independent contract. Doctors to do things that I couldn’t and that was about a couple years in, I realized I can’t do all this myself, so I’m going to have to, you know, pull in other people. But once WordPress came out and we started building websites with that, we could see the future. Unfolding pretty much we’re like this is this is next level you know and we’ve gone through a couple of evolutions with it since then, not just. You know from the platform and the programming standpoint, but the the use standpoint and how our clients use that. Everybody pretty much knows the word word press right and they they know, you know, if they’re in this business, they pretty much know. OK, yeah. There’s a back end. We can log into it, things like that. So we had a bunch of clients. This was, I don’t know, maybe like 6 or so years ago who, you know, they would ask for it. My name? They would want to. They would want content manager. They want to be able to log in and make updates, so we’d build them this thing hand.
And they and they never do, right?
It off to them. Exactly, exactly. They would never log in and we’re like, OK, So what do we do now? How about let’s create? A you know a a monthly retainer for these folks. That’s a low enough price that they’ll all buy in and they don’t have to log in at all. They don’t care. They they’re running their business. So that was really a game changer. So you know, we have a ton of clients.
Yep, Yep, of course.
Doing that now and and that keeps us busy. Every new client that comes in, I would say 9 out of 10 times they sign on for that. You know that additional. Service. So. So yeah, that it it. It’s not only great, it’s not only a great platform for just functionality. Now it’s a great platform for small businesses like me, even freelancers, other businesses to you know keep working with clients. You know, it’s it’s kind of a doorway you can open and then it’s just a two way street where, you know, the better the product is, the more that you know, it helps you out and it helps your clients. So it’s great product. We wouldn’t, we wouldn’t even. Really look at another content management system. At this point we’re aware of, you know, different systems and have poked around a couple just to be aware of what’s going on. But we still over the years we’ve always gone back to WordPress.
The same with me and it it’s kind of funny when you when you, when you talk about that and you guys you were saying before we went to record you do mostly. Custom coding and custom building and you stay away from off the rack templates which is a place for I mean there’s no question. Have you stayed away so you don’t use a traditional page builder? Have you stayed away from the whole Gutenberg ecosystem, or have you gone there? Or what’s your? I have to ask. The question.
Oh, yeah, yeah, no, I I I know which way the winds are blowing and we have played around with it a lot, but have what we came up with is such a simpler user interface. When we, when we’ve played around with Gutenberg block so far, we just can’t get it to. Be as simple as what we’ve come up with. So while we’re playing around with it, you know, obviously that’s that’s the way things are going and you know we want to be. On the tippy top of what’s going on with the technology, but you know we, we still we still think there’s improvement to be made on especially with the UI. That could make that you know way better. So we’re hanging back a little bit on that and keep kind of treading our own path.
Yeah, it’s interesting because I used the traditional page builder. I used the page builders before they became traditional. Anybody remembers headway themes back in the day there was, they were unfortunately miles ahead of the time and the community wasn’t ready for it.
At the time, so that was part. And then you dipped into. We all know the Beaver builders that the these the, you know, choose one likes to. I’m leaving a pile out and then we kind of watched the Gutenberg and a lot of the people that used the traditional page builder to be for builders etcetera. Say they don’t want to go to Gutenberg and what they’re really saying is they don’t want to. Invest the time into going to Gutenberg because they know that faster what they already know than making the switch versus whether it’s good or. Yeah, you know, like, yeah. And you’re probably in the same boat I would think.
Well, yeah, in a way, we’re open to. Using it if it works. As like a really great solution for us and right now it’s not. So you know, we’ll keep checking in on it, right?
I need you to. Wear something. Yeah, yeah. Each to his own. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve shared this with you, but I did it the hard way. I took a live site. That had over 200 blog posts my own and moved that site away from a page builder piece by piece. Yeah, I know you’ll have to.
Having having done stuff like that, I know I know how it is. We’ve moved Squarespace sites to WordPress and that was yeah, that was a headache and 1/2 that would that it had to be hand done.
You know, you know.
There was no import export that worked.
Yeah. And since you’ve brought up Squarespace, a dirty word in our space Wicks and that their dirty word in our space. Shopify, another dirty word in our space. We’ll bring them all up. We’ll just sort of.
Yeah, that’s the. That’s the. Trio of Terror right there.
Reason for not using one of those is if you’re hosting goes bad, you have nowhere to go. Like, let’s be honest, like forget all the other reasons. But if the hosting goes bad, you have no. Where to go? Whereas in WordPress if your hosting goes bad, you pick up your website and drop it on another host cause your host should be your partner not the people you pay and tell them to go away. What do you think?
About that. Oh, I’m in agreement there. You know, one of one of my selling points for WordPress. Is that you know? As opposed to things like Squarespace and Wix and Shopify, you know you’re you’re on your you’re on their rented land, whereas with word space you you choose where you want to set that you know and like you said, it’s completely portable. You can up and leave or you know, take it. Your whole site isn’t dependent on. A singular platform. So it’s it’s kind of my same same line of thinking of this, the very small businesses who say, well, I have a Facebook page and like well then you have pretty much nothing if nothing that’s yours, you know for your business. So those other like square space and everything are very similar to that. Where you know if anything happened to that or. Your you know your whole thing is gone, your website has gone all the money and efforts you spent on building that you can’t take it anywhere else. If you decide that that’s it’s not working for you, which I get it, I’d say at least 50 or 60% of our clients come from that space where they’ve tried to build their site. Wicks or Squarespace? And then they’re like I can’t get it to do what I want. It’s frustrating. I’ve spent all my weekends trying to build this site and. And I’m like, well, the bad news is that you spend all that time and you can’t do anything that it’s not recoverable. You know, you can’t take what you’ve built there and like, try and apply it somewhere. You got to start fresh. So that’s something that I don’t think a lot of people really realize when they get into that and they think like, oh, this is cool. It’s an all in one. Thing you know, I just pick this template I you know I run with that. I fill in my content. That’s fine if that’s, you know, as far as you go with customizing or whatnot. There’s like I said, there’s a place for everything. But for the most part, I don’t recommend those type of things simply because of. You know all those pitfalls?
You know, now it’s funny, in our space everybody says Ohh you should run woo IE Woo commerce. But who’s the new name? So we might as well get used to using it. But when you say to them, you should run CRM, so stuff like fluent CRM or Groundhog they say don’t do it because the website back end can’t handle it. But the same people say go and run well. I don’t understand that thinking and what they’re really saying is you should be buying a proper. Those that can handle all this stuff, but that’s you know. How’s your thoughts to running things inside of WordPress?
The the the least you can get away with the better. Even when you’re on like the the most amazing house just because of conflicts, things like that, all of these plugins and add-ons are, you know, they’re made by different people. So it’s, you know, the more you add in there, the more there’s potential for something.
I’m actually close.
They go wrong when it comes to WooCommerce. I mean I I do like the the direction they’ve gone with the latest updates where they’ve changed how their database formats. Of course, getting all of the sites up to that or it’s going to be interesting, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. It’s more. Optimize than what it was. But it’s a heavy, heavy thing. You cannot run woo commerce on a shared host at a mass market, you know, blue host or something. You can’t. You’re just asking for trouble. But.
You have. You have to go to a host that’s a manage WordPress host or a host that provides managed WooCommerce because my experience has been I’ve got a a project I’m working on now that has over 300 variable props. How’s that? And it’s running and it’s running fine. But I’m on a high end WooCommerce optimized toast for that project specifically.
Yeah, I’ve we’ve got a site who who sells flags. Actually, that is like that. Hundreds of mix and match product. That we’ve also got a custom plugin that we wrote to dynamically show the price on the fly, so very complex. Also running about 30 other plugins. We’ve got e-commerce clients that have couple thousand products, you know running WooCommerce so. It it just? Yeah, the host is critical there. Absolutely critical. And then having someone in the back end that knows what they’re doing, it’s also critical, you know, someone like us, Someone Like You, who can manage all of those plugins and all of those functionalities for you.
Yeah, and not giving the business owner admin rights because it’s their website and they ask for it because I guarantee you they’re gonna hit something and it’s gonna go boom. And then when they get a big bill that they say, what’s wrong with this?
Picture that’s The thing is it? It’s tough. It’s a small business owner myself. Understand that need to have access or you know have your finger in that pie because it’s your thing and you know what’s going on. But there’s really something to letting go and finding that trusted partner. For your business and that’s that’s kind of how I sell our services is that you know we’re always looking out for you. We have your best interests in mind. And you don’t have to worry about that. So.
What’s your most popular service right now, Sherry?
I would say still custom design, I mean the the fact that we do custom design is is very appealing to a lot of people, especially ones who have used one of those other services or had worked with a developer who just kind of. You know, put their logo on a. Theme and didn’t really you know they wanted more. So while there’s there’s plenty of space for that, you know, quickly getting a site out, getting something up, getting it running, getting the marketing right and you can of course do that with a template, there’s no question. If your marketing is sound, it’s going to work, but there’s a whole ton of people that really like that kind of hands on custom crafted approach. And that’s still kind of our best seller. That and the maintenance that goes with it.
Then maintenance is always a good step. Or I would say if you were to change one thing in the WordPress ecosystem, what would you like to change? If you have anything?
Oh man. Well. I I there’s always room for change, you know. It’s and it’s tough to just nail down like one thing. I mean I could throw out there and say like, you know, working on the the user interface for Gutenberg would be great. You know, making that more foolproof but. Yeah, I guess, I mean, I could hit that hot button of just being like more inclusive and diversify. You know just. From from, from the community standpoint, because that’s a big, you know, hot button right now and I think that’s important. You know a lot of a lot of different voices. Haven’t been heard and can contribute, you know, great information and knowledge and expertise so. There’s that, but I mean, as far as WordPress itself, you know, I think the more it’s used, the more it’s developed, the more the Internet changes, you know, and the needs of people who are using the sites, I think they’re pretty on top of changing as. Things need to change, so that’s one of the things that kept us coming back to WordPress is it wasn’t something that seemed dead in the water that.
It’s true. I I would think in 2024 it’s probably gonna be the year where word press goes over 50% of the Internet like I think it’s coming. And people, I mean, that’s just phantoming that. You know, when they started that it would go that high. But I think the acceptance level is gone that. I and I think a lot of it is being able to have control over your data and have control over where things are at and be able to play that game instead of, you know, if you have a WIX or Squarespace, you don’t really have control over where that data sets or how it’s managed or how do you confirm that. If you’re in Europe, to GDPR or in the US, some of the big data privacy laws are in Canada. Some of those laws. So. You know it. It gets hard so.
That’s that’s a huge pitfall for Shopify with the with the data stuff and and a lot of people don’t know that either, and you’re tied to their e-commerce platform typically so.
And you can’t change their payment processor. Well, you can. But then they say we’re gonna charge you 2% more. If you do.
So yeah, so most people choose, no, we’re going to just, you know, use yours. So yeah.
So there’s that. If if you had a crystal ball and we’ve talked about change a little bit, what would you like to see sooner than later? Like if you could wave a magic wand and say fix this now, what is it?
When it comes to WordPress or just.
I would going back to you know what we’ve been talking about with the hosting. I would really like for WordPress itself to mention more about like. Requirements of hosts. You know, just because that would solve so many problems for for not just developers, but for the people using the sites for the companies, the small businesses, the nonprofits, when they’re at that better host, things are going to run so much smoother. But you know, we have so many of the hosts saying, yeah, yeah, just do one click WordPress, you know, one click install from C panel from our dollar, 99 a month hosting you know and it gives people this false sense that. If they can just, you know, run that. But yeah, it’s going to be, that would be tough.
And and by.
The way also.
Should not be your e-mail provider. Let’s get that established right. Yeah, in my prior life in healthcare, one of the things I did was exchange administration and I said to somebody this morning, I don’t care to run e-mail hosting. I feel like so one of the things I. Say is I will not manage your e-mail. I suggest you go manage to e-mail someone else. But if you choose to manage your e-mail from your web host, you are on your own. I am not I mean. Google’s got workspaces. Microsoft’s got their own e-mail hosted. If you want to go there, my e-mail host of choice is an Australian company called Fast Mail. Their privacy. There’s a couple other solutions like that, but. Hosts aren’t good e-mail providers.
No, that’s a clear case of, you know, the the Jack of all trades, master of none when the when the hosts start doing everything. And I’m the same way. I mean my e-mail policy. Is that look, that’s not our Forte. OK. We you know our host doesn’t do e-mail or of course they’re strictly hosting, but you know they they will help set up somebody with a Google or a Microsoft, whatever they’re calling it these days, office or whatnot, they’ll they’ll help set it up for you. That, you know, running it and in any kind of technical issues, you have to go to Microsoft or you have to go to Google and and hit them up about it. It’s just not in my wheelhouse at.
Has your agency jumped into the world of AI or have you avoided it? Like the Pike.
That’s a that’s. Another kind of interesting topic, the AI thing, and it’s my personal viewpoint of it. And you know, I’ve I’ve seen all the Terminator movies, so.
Well, yeah. I know how how.
AI can be interpreted to the extreme, but I I think it’s a tool just like anything else you know. But when it comes to the the specific services we provide, you know. Custom design. Custom copywriting. You know custom logo. Everything is custom. It doesn’t really fit in that box for that, but could still use it as a tool for like ideas or prompts and and the way people have been using things like chat. Be tea or barred or. Any of the other ones out there have been really fascinating to me, even on a personal level, you. You know, I saw somebody put in, you know, give me, give me some gluten free recipes for the whole week, you know, or a meal plan for the whole week. And it’s bad out something, you know, things like that. It’s it’s a great tool for that. I I just don’t believe in, you know, just pushing the button to generate content. You know, like full stop. Like you don’t change it at all. I think that there’s a a clear need that a human has to also interact with that in some fashion.
I would agree, but many of us have been using AI in terms of Photoshop buttons for years. Many of us have been using AI in a service called Grammarly. I mean, you know.
Oh yeah. Yeah, Grammarly. Yeah. They weren’t calling it. They weren’t calling it AI at the time until it got really popular.
So now it’s all AI, yeah.
It’s a. So there’s a lot going on in that space and and the other thing is the whole thing around copyright. The courts have ruled and are now being appealed on what goes on and so on and so forth. So that’s that. I don’t think Getty Images is very happy with a.
Today. No, no. And I mean I since I have that art background, there’s that angle too where I’m like there is still something about somebody who actually paints a picture or. You know, craft, something from scratch. There’s that’s. But that’s a whole other, you know, that’s a whole other world pretty much now, like it’s there, there’s some, there’s that there’s in between and there’s full AI and there’s different applications and uses for each one. And again you know there’s room enough for all of it but. Comes down to personal choice and whether it’ll really work for you. Know, the kind of marketing that humans can come up with all on their own remains to be seen.
Even The Beatles figured out the world the way high. You know. We put out. This song that went to #1 alway I generated.
Yeah. No, that’s it. That. Yeah, that’s pretty recent too.
Just one I hate to say it, one of many probably. I mean, you know, it’s gonna happen more and more, I think.
Yeah. The thing I think that that it’s going to be weird is when you can’t detect like, what if that was and you were already there, you know for yeah. For for most of. The part since I’ve been using Photoshop since Photoshop came out, I can tell like OK was this you know, is this done by somebody or was this one of those AI things? And usually I can tell. Just because there’s something not real about it, you know, there’s just something more fantastical about it. But yeah, I mean, we’re in that world now. We’re having to deal with, you know, even with when it comes to news media and stuff, things like that could be, you know.
Ohh you years old.
Yeah. Yeah. So you use it. It’s insanely influential, and it can be used for good or bad.
Yeah, yeah, news me, the, the whole thing about news media. It’s all about what people want you to hear and what you not want to hear and interesting in today’s World, News media is more opinion, in fact, than it’s ever been. It’s like it just. Yeah. I’m sorry if I want. People’s opinions. I can jump on X, formerly known as Twitter, and get opinions. I don’t have to watch an hour new show at at night at 6:00.
Yeah, I know. I don’t know if you’ve know anybody’s noticed, but the time just record the Canadian government and Google just settled for $100 million a year to traditional news media outlets. So Google can keep sharing Canadian news on their platform. Wow, we have this thing called the Online news Act that says either you pay up or you or you basically shut up so. Wow, interesting. So Australia’s gone that road as well. They were the first one, so the 2nd.
It’s maybe an interesting mess. Is there anything else you wanted to sort of chat about, WordPress or anything like that? Or development that’s on your mind?
No, I think I think just that that there is a place for everybody in you know WordPress and in online services. And I know a lot of people can get discouraged thinking that well. You know, I can’t. I can’t learn this or I’m too old for this. Or, you know, whatever. But there is. There is space for a whole bunch of different perspectives and approaches and and I think that’s what makes just the Internet and what we do, such a great thing.
There are older people in this space, there’s no question and I’m already there too, so you know.
And I think.
I am too.
That I think about a good friend, Mr. Bob Dunn, who wants to do the group podcast. Bob’s gonna kill me, but I think Bob’s 65. Like it’s just. Yeah. More older people in this space. Hey, Bob, don’t shoot me next to me. See me with this. Another sorry, Sherry. Somebody wants to get ahold of you to talk about design development. Custom work. What’s the best way?
Definitely hit up our website. It’s just JV media design.com.
Yeah. Thank you very much. Sherry, you have yourself an awesome day.
Thank you, Rob you.