Jake Goldman Interview
Jake Goldman has been working on the web since the mid-nineties. After years of building web-based solutions for an array of clients, Jake founded 10up, a distributed agency with a big emphasis on WordPress and community values. In addition to building beautiful and easy-to-manage websites, his team offers expertise and education through their involvement as core contributors, involvement in WordCamps and meetups, and free plugins available in the official repository. Jake lives in Sacramento, California.
How did 10up get its start?
For me, 10up was really just a natural career progression. I’ve been making websites since the mid 90s, and have always been passionate about making sites that are really easy to manage and update. I’ve been working with content management systems since about 2005, and truthfully, thought they were all either pretty mediocre behemoths or constraining. I tinkered with WordPress in 2006, and thought it was a great blogging option with some promise. I came back to it as a more full-fledged solution in 2008 while determined to help a tiny agency (at the time) get away from its dependence on a commercial CMS. I loved what I saw, and dug my heels in. I bet on the right horse! Both the agency and I—professionally and personally—benefited enormously from that choice.
In early 2011, I started 10up with a desire to build a “formal” business focused on the art of building easy-to-manage websites, focused like a laser on the platform best suited to that mission. That’s WordPress of course!
What types of clients do you work with?
We don’t discriminate by vertical or size. We believe that the art of making great websites transcends industry, just as WordPress does. We have household brand clients in industries that range from fashion, to televised sports networks, to major universities, to major online publishers. We also happily serve a variety of small businesses you’ve probably never heard of, that have exciting projects and understand the value of doing it right the first time.
That said, we are selective. It’s very important that a prospective client value our team’s skill and respect our expertise. If we’re being compared with the omnipresent nephew taking a few computer science classes, it’s probably a sign we’re not a fit. And while I think our prices and time requirements are remarkably competitive for our tier, we are a premium agency that emphasizes customer service and quality control. So we’re probably not a fit for organizations just looking for the smallest possible dollar sign. We also prefer to work with clients doing something interesting or challenging, and those interested in forging long term relationships.
Any tips on how to turn down a potential client with grace and aplomb?
I take the view that the answer is infrequently “no thanks,” but rather, “here are our terms.” The truth is, most of us “decline” relevant work because our sense is that the cost outpaces the reward. Clients decide to decline working with a vendor because they sense that there’s a better overall value elsewhere or because they decide their costs outweigh the reward. When I find myself sensing a lack of fit (when the work is relevant), I take that to mean we need to adjust our side of the equation—the terms. The client is going to require a lot of handholding? Triple the project management hours. The client is going to tweak the product to death? Double the development hours and timeline. The client needs more than we have have on hand right now? Tell them we have a two to three month lead time. It’s also important to let clients self-vet themselves early on. If we have a sense that a prospect’s price and time expectations are not going to be sensible, we’ll tell them our hourly rate and typical lead time right from the get go.
Think of it like those childhood school dares. Would you run around the yard naked for $20? No way! How about $20,000 dollars? Of course! Would they actually pay you much? Doubtful… but hey, that’s not your fault. (For the record, my price for running around the house naked is probably closer to $100,000.) Saying “no,” gracefully or not, shuts the door. By setting a high price, we establish ourselves as a premium option that, maybe, they can afford when they’re ready and recommend us to others looking for a really premium solution.
It’s important to acknowledge that this approach only works when you don’t approach business with a “limited resources” mindset. We’re constantly recruiting, constantly building relationships, so there’s always a “way” to get something done, albeit a potentially expensive way. If you’re determined to be no bigger than a sole freelancer (or two), you do need to be more judicious about time commitments, since time is a resource with a very fixed limit.
The exception to this approach is a costly proposal process. We still bid on more traditional Request for Proposals (RFP) and we take the proposal process very seriously—there’s no off the shelf project bid document at 10up. That means we’re looking at an investment of two to three days of energy, between reviewing requirements, brain storming, and writing a formal proposal, often before we even get to feel the prospect out. If we’re a finalist, it can often be an investment of a week or more. In these cases, our marketing team will do a cost / benefit analysis, and decide whether the potential reward and likelihood of reward is worth the opportunity cost of bidding. If we decide to bow out, we’ll usually express our sense that our terms—which involve a high standard of quality and customer service often at the expense of rapidity and price—don’t fit with our sense of their terms. I can tell you that any complex RFP process that explicitly places severe weighting on pricing over qualitative measures is one that we’ll usually decline to bid on. We’re not interested in a race to the bottom.
So to tie this back to the last question, when I say we’re actually very selective, we achieve that by consciously making ourselves less or more palatable to different types of clients through the proposal process.
10up specializes in WordPress implementations, are there any areas in particular that you focus on?
I think we cover the gambit, but our specialty is really high scale sites and projects that require new administrative controls. We know how to write code that scales, from advanced caching techniques to efficient logic, and we’re very effective at collaborating with sys admins to setup a high scale, high performance WordPress infrastructure.
We’re also very passionate about the back end user experience—making new administrative screens or controls that enable both simple and complex features to feel “natural”—like they could have shipped with WordPress. For example, we have a major fashion-industry client that has a very distinct design for their home page that showcases products in an atypical grid format. They needed an interface to curate this home page that would be very simple to manage and allow them to easily and reliably experiment with different configurations without publishing them. We built a beautiful interface that feels right at home in WordPress, tailored to their specific use case.
Another example is the regional office map we built in collaboration with a creative partner, Think Tank 3, for PRG, the largest production company in the world. They’ve had this front end experience for some time—it’s a global map with big red dots hovering over regions where they have clusters of local offices. Hovering over a dot reveals a list of specific cities that have local PRG offices. Up until a few months ago, the placement of the dots was always hardcoded, and if they wanted to add a new region, we the developers had to go into the template and hardcode some new positions. That was tedious for both parties, and our goal is always to put total control over the content into the hands of the client. So we built a new interface, based on a post type for “Map Regions,” that would allow them to define map regions by clicking on a position on the map graphic.
I’ve actually given a really well received talk, “What Would Core Do?” that describes our philosophy. In a testament to our team’s shared mindset, Helen, who is also a community representative for the core WordPress.org project, gives a great talk than takes the philosophy from my talk and puts it into action with concrete samples.
As a distributed team with employees and contractors around the US, what practices do you use to communicate and collaborate?
As a victim of engineering shops that fill half their days with meetings, I like to joke that I prefer not to communicate. Of course, the reality is, good communication is critical. Not just because we need to stay informed about our work, but because “team spirit”—for lack of a better phrase—is a big part of employee satisfaction and retention at any company.
We do team video conferences using Google Hangouts two to three times a week; a formal team meeting once a week, and “water cooler” meetings once or twice a week. Day to day, we’re always on instant messaging services, including a team / group list, and use Basecamp to manage projects. Everyone, except me, is on a private IRC channel all day long, where I’m told topics range from exchanging code snippets to favorite beers. In the vein of my “team spirit” philosophy, I thought it important for the team to have a water cooler away from “the boss” where they can let their hair down a little bit more. The IRC channel has actually been an amazing tool for fostering the sense of team, and my favorite part is that it wasn’t my idea!
We also have an annual face to face meetup at WordCamp San Francisco—something I hope to do more often as the team grows. We’ll spend a little time talking about the company itself—looking back at the last year and thinking about the year ahead—but the emphasis is really on building camaraderie. We have social outings—significant others invited to some—and are even thinking about having a little team hack-a-thon this year.
It’s actually been astonishing for me to see just how close knit the team has become—I think I can honestly say more than any “brick and mortar” shop I’ve worked for. Some of that is owed to careful recruiting, but most of it is a credit to the amazing personalities that work at 10up.
Nothing makes me happier than potential talent reaching out and telling me they want to join 10up because of how impressed they are with the team. At the risk of being too boastful, this is a team of rockstar developers and strategists. Every person on this team has had a job or a gig where they’ve felt like they were carrying the operation, and I think it’s a breath of fresh air for even seasoned developers to come on board and realize there are resources here who can genuinely help them. Synergy is a word we all make fun of, but that’s really what happens when you put over a dozen rockstars together.
Universal Sports was a team effort at 10up. There’s a lot to be proud of:
- Collaborating with the client and three other teams in a leadership role (an outside lead designer, a video hosting solution, an account management solution).
- Well written code that does everything from generate a schedule to manage fairly complex ad scenarios to automatically importing tons of Brightcove video.
- Development of mobile apps that communicate with and connect to the website.
But it’s the sum of its parts that I’m most excited about. When you step back, our team turned WordPress into a full video-centric content portal for a cable television network, including a premium content model. And it’s ten times better for users and administrators than the commercial software product that was built to do exactly that. It’s not just a model for going big and doing WordPress right, it’s a case study for how and why WordPress is far more than a “blog.” Heck, it doesn’t even have a blog (at least, not yet).
The 10up team is quite active in the WordPress community, can you share more about your involvement in WordCamps and contributions to core?
I think community service is important for individuals, and important for companies. We’re part of a community where “contributing” is literally at the core of our international community. As open, community owned software, WordPress wouldn’t exist without this spirit of giving. We benefit enormously, as a company, from being able to use the best software in the world for managing and building websites without paying one dime in licensing fees.
To the extent that our fortunes are very much tied to WordPress’ fortunes, giving back isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good business. We’re helping to ensure that WordPress continues to be the place vendors flock to for building great websites. I also believe that community service creates leaders, and communities flock to and support leaders.
Select members of team 10up have dedicated blocks of hours in their work week for “contributing,” not entirely unlike Google’s famous (and I believe, now defunct?) 20% rule. Some, like Helen, have focused their energy on core contributions, and have become rockstars and leaders in WordPress core development. Others, like Zack, have chosen to focus their time on activities like producing plug-ins.
We also travel to and speak at WordCamps around the country on the company’s dime. We’ve sponsored four WordCamps in the last year. Anyone who has sponsored a WordCamp can assure you that we don’t do this because it’s a marketing boon—we do it to support the community and get our name out there.
You offer a library of free plugins. What plugins and functionalities are included in this list?
Plugins our team members have built and support run the gambit. Most of our newer plugins, and the ones I’m most proud of, focus on solving important and common problems that lacked elegant or reliable solutions. I’m particularly proud of my work on Simple Page Ordering, Simple Local Avatars, and Restricted Site Access. Intuitive drag and drop page ordering, the ability to upload a local user photo, and block access to development or staging sites are all hugely important features for certain common use cases that are not sufficiently addressed by the core software. Each of these had “solutions” available on the plugin repository, but I felt these solutions were either bloated or executed in a way that detracted from WordPress’ “naked” elegance.
Simple Local Avatars is a fairly simple WordPress plugin that enables locally uploaded / stored avatars for registered site users. It’s the simplicity and, for lack a better word, grace that I love about it. You install it, and it just works the way you want and expect it to. It even resizes images on the fly, like Gravatar. It doesn’t add a page full of configuration options, it doesn’t offer to connect to every social service, it’s light weight, and does what it promises to. In my mind, this is how WordPress plugins should work, and too few do: solve a common problem in a clean, simple, and intuitive way.
What does the future look like for 10up?
Let me knock on wood! I do believe—particularly in the technology sector—that there’s a bit of hubris in trying to predict the future. Well, that, and a competitor or two might be reading this.
I’ll say this—our goal is to grow, and we’re always seeking ambitious talent. Increasingly, our mission is to help WordPress solve big challenges that strengthen both its perceived and true value as a full fledged content management system. I think that over the next few years WordPress is going to make major inroads into the enterprise space well beyond publishers (where it already dominates). I think we’re going to see growing demand for massive consulting and development engagements that, today, are more common with other platforms. The days of WordPress as only the “lower budget CMS option” are waning. We intend to be well positioned and prepared to be leaders in that space.