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Nirav Sheth Interview

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Nirav Sheth and his team at Anatta Design tell a compelling story about their brand and purpose, setting it apart from the scores of other WordPress shops out there on the web. As Anatta Design moves from a service focused shop to one putting out products, we asked Nirav to share some of his experiences and insights from the story so far.

How did you get started in web design and development? When did Anatta Design come into the picture?

I kicked off web design work with my first company called Dharmaboost. It did well but we were all over the place doing .net, Rails, and even Flash projects (yes, we say that with a lot of sarcasm). The motivation to start Anatta Design came from the longing to own and operate a business on my own schedule; with a team that gelled, doing projects we loved, and with no starting capital. Just three years later and Anatta Design had really taken off. We were born into a niche within web design and development. A niche where the sole focus was to improve everyday user experience problems with design and technology.

Was Anatta Design always a WordPress-focused shop or did you come around to using it later on? What made you decide to use it over some of the other options available to you?

Since it’s inception, Anatta Design has been a 100% WordPress-focused shop. We wanted to work and sell technology on the platform we use everyday. A platform that was simple, scalable, and just a delightful experience. One strong belief that we share with WordPress is a passion for great user experience. So choosing to use WordPress wasn’t really a decision. It just perfectly aligned with us and our company mission. So we ran with it and never looked back.

What type of clients do you typically deal with and what challenges do they most often pose?

Our clients fall into two buckets: high end design firms (with 15+ designers) or online-only web businesses (generating at least $250K yearly). For us, these are absolutely perfect clients. They understand the nature of running an online business, they understand development cycles, they get what’s worth spending time on, and they aim for results backed by analytics. The challenges these clients often pose are what we enjoy: usability challenges. A typical problem might be where some part of their site or a feature isn’t getting the results they want and all the solutions they’ve tried haven’t worked. In this situation, they come to us to develop a complete custom solution that requires both design and development power. These types of challenges take planning, strategy, and execution. They’re hard challenges, but super fun because it’s what we love doing—helping clients achieve what their business needs and deserves.

Do you think there are benefits to being a specialist within a field of generalists, or is it more important to be flexible with what you’re able to offer clients? How has your approach worked in Anatta Design’s favor?

There are benefits to being a specialist. As a specialist you earn the ability to dictate what works and what doesn’t backed by experience + tested results. Like being the go-to team when there is a specific challenge that no one else has been able to crack. Or having the foresight to visualize an objective solution from afar and dive into executing it. You don’t have to be flexible to make clients happy. Clients come to us because they’d rather have us be real and flex our expertise to build something that gives results than cater to everything they think they want. Flexibility gets confused with caring when it shouldn’t. We’re approachable, frank, and care for our clients, but we won’t put our mouth where our strengths aren’t.

Tell us about a big project you enjoyed or a recent success story Anatta Design has experienced.

Our biggest project would definitely be the launch of our first plugin to the WordPress repository, WP Readable. We came up with the idea, strategized it, designed it, and had it out the door, all in three months flat. We followed it up with two updates within just a month’s time. The need for such a plug-in simply arose from our personal experiences with mobile blog viewing. We found that the interaction was not fun, the design was always cluttered with functionality, and the user experience was always focused on page visits vs. reading the blog. We changed that and brought the focus back to the experience of reading and filtering through posts. It’s the first mobile plugin that lets you navigate from post to post via a touch slide/swipe interaction, effectively transforming mobile blog viewing on iPhones and Androids. What’s really exciting is the response this release has generated. It’s humbling to see mentor companies like Digital Telepathy (creators of Slideck and Slidedeck2), multi-million dollar health and wellness companies like Clean Program, and big online marketing giant Retargeter, hopping on our user lists and fueling us with some really positive feedback.

What would you say have been the biggest changes in how you run Anatta Design between now and when you first got started?

The biggest change has been moving from an entirely service-based company to a product development company. And as a result, having the opportunity to live out our company focus which is to improve user experience problems with design and technology. This is hands down the biggest and the most gradual change since we started Anatta Design. This transition from service industry to product industry is huge. Previously all our timelines and motivation were driven by our clients who had their own agendas. When a milestone or launch was completed for them, we were done. But not anymore. Now everything is driven by our customers and our core team. And we’re never done until we’re 100% satisfied with the service we give to our customers. In this scenario, we want to keep giving and keep pushing harder in projects we believe in. It’s fun and makes work satisfying for each one of us.

Tell us about your approach to branding Anatta Design. One of the things that really stands out about your site is the core narrative and imagery you use when describing your company, in words, images, and even video. Do think it’s important to stand for something as a company out there on the web, and if so, what does Anatta Design stand for?

We’ve always been focussed on telling the true story of our team and what we really care about. It’s never been about a single person or getting a single sale. It’s been about communicating our passion and our purpose for being a company. Our company solves complex web problems through simplicity. And the more complex the challenge, the simpler our solution. So to answer your question, I think it’s essential to take a stand in the web space, especially at a time when there’s so much going around. We have the same tenacity and solid effort behind our products and solutions, that the WordPress core team has behind every WP release. The end-user is our number one focus and we can fulfill that aim because we’re always true to ourselves.

Which go-to plugins save you time and headaches when you’re developing client sites? Or do you prefer to build from scratch?

We created our own starter theme back in 2009. But now we’ve switched to Automattic’s underscores theme as our starter theme  because it’s awesome. We’re always open to using another’s theme if it provides the core components we need for our client’s project. We care deeply about site load time and code cleanliness, though we’re not fanatical about doing everything perfect at first go. We do things that get the job done and then relentlessly refactor. This way the clients are happy and we are too.  And we adopt this approach in our product development too: get it out there and get iterating. We love the plugins below simply because they make everything we do so much quicker:

  • Developer ensures we have all the tools we need.
  • Debug Bar gives us a fast way to find PHP warnings and notices and debugging.
  • Core Control is great for letting us see how Core works and how we can plug into the system.
  • W3 Total Cache takes care of everything we would have done manually for front-end speed optimization.
  • WordPress SEO takes care of everything SEO-related.
  • Gravity Forms works out of the box and is very extendable.
  • Slidedeck 2 is the perfect content slider solution.

Where would you like Anatta Design to be in five years’ time?

I hope that it’s not very different from what it is right now, though with much deeper experience in the product sphere. We’ve only just engaged in the world of product development and we would love to become a driving force in the WordPress plugin world. Having a few products in the top 100 WordPress plugin market would be a great achievement. But at the end of the day, our real test is to see how our products influence the user experience. In five years, it would be great to see our products being used to solve real challenges.

Which one piece of hard-won advice would you give to someone just starting up their first WordPress shop?

Learn WordPress to the very core and understand how and why it was constructed the way it is. Only when you do that, can you understand how to build amazing, high-end, scalable websites with it. WordPress is a super powerful system and it’s only when you break away from its architecture and design will you run into problems. Stick with it, and it will stick with you.

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I'm an independent writer, designer & content producer. Currently pummelling a book into submission.

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