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Tom Willmot Interview

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Tom Willmot (@tomwillmot) is co-founder & managing director of Human Made Limited, a WordPress development company specializing in high-end WordPress sites; and co-director of happytables, a website solution for restaurants. He’s been developing with WordPress since version 1.2 and maintains several WordPress plugins which combined have over half a million downloads. He also co-developed WP Remote, a maintenance tool for people supporting lots of WordPress sites. When not coding he loves to travel with his fiancé Leanne and can often be found at the local climbing wall working at increasing his bouldering grade.

How did you get started with development, and when did WordPress come into the picture?

Like a lot of developers I’m completely self taught. Most of my childhood was spent without access to a computer, when we did finally get one around age 14 I dove in headfirst and quickly found building things was something I really enjoyed. The first real website I built was for my father’s Stone Masonry business. (It’s still online if you want a giggle — http://derbyshirefireplaces.co.uk. I’m particularly proud of the “This Web site is best viewed with Mozilla Firefox and a resolution of 1024×768 or above.”)

I spent the next few years mainly focused on front-end development; not being very good at design I got really into the web standards movement and spent a lot of time in the CSS Beauty forums having arguments with people about whether it was ok to use Dreamweaver for development. I discovered WordPress around 2005 (version 1.2 – 1.5) and spent the next year or so doing it on the side as a bit of a hobby (I had a day job at this point). At the beginning of 2007 that all changed, I quit my day job and decided to go full time as a freelance WordPress developer. Looking back now makes me realize what a risky decision that was considering how little I actually knew about the industry or the craft.

I spent a few months building pretty bad websites for small companies, some with WordPress, others just static, then late in 2007 my luck changed and I literally fluked my way into a full time contract position doing WordPress development for a large US company. At this point I wasn’t really even sure what a function was. I won’t bore you with the details but in WordPress terms I started the contract as a boy and left it as a man, with experience leading the development of large WordPress powered sites. I’m proud of the things we built there — they were somewhat ahead of their time (come find me in the bar after a WordCamp if you want to hear me wax on about it).

Tell us about how Human Made and how that came into being.

At the same time that I was contracting as a WordPress developer my younger brother Joe Hoyle was also becoming interesting in web development. We started working on projects together and after a couple of years doing this it just got to the point where it made sense to start a company. This was back in early 2010 and we’d just finished working with Aardman Animations, someone we were proud to be bringing over to WordPress. We incorporated Human Made Limited on April 29th 2010.

From the beginning our aim with Human Made was to do great WordPress work. As we’re both developers we’ve always focused on the quality of our work as a differentiator rather than our sales skills; when we were freelancing, work generally found us and since becoming a company this hasn’t changed.

How has the business changed over time?

Human Made has changed fairly significantly in three ways over the past few years. Firstly, we’ve grown. We’ve grown the number of people who are part of the company from two (my brother Joe Hoyle and I) to 10+ (as of this writing). We’ve grown in terms of the level of work we produce — from staying up all night trying to figure out how to get Gallery2 integrated with WordPress, to producing sites for some of the world’s most recognizable companies as a WordPress.com VIP partner. We’ve also grown in our ambitions, from wanting to build a company that could let us do what we loved (making things with WordPress) to wanting to create a company that can compete with the best.

Another big change the business has undergone has been a move from building things purely for other people, to also building things for ourselves. This started with WP Remote, which slowly turned into a fairly popular service and served to whet our appetite for the challenge of building and marketing our own products. We now have a couple of products under our belt with even more planned.

The final big change we’ve undergone has seen us becoming an active part of the WordPress community. We attended our first WordCamp in 2011. That was a catalyst and since then we’ve attended, sponsored and got drunk at every WordCamp we could get to. I was also greatly honoured to be invited to attend the inaugural community summit in 2012. I wish we’d got involved sooner.

You’ve worked with some illustrious clients. What do you think has been most important in winning their respect and ultimately contracts?

Respect is something that is won over time — you rarely start a project with the total respect of a client, especially when most clients have likely had bad experiences with other agencies / freelancers in the past (as ours often have). We win the respect of our clients by being honest and always trying to do the best work we can — good clients respect that. We’re proud of the fact that our clients tend to stick with us over the long term, sometimes for years, it’s a good sign that we’re getting things right.

When it comes to winning new work, the biggest single determining factor which we’ve found has been our existing client / project list. Our sales strategy (if we have one) is to make it obvious to the client that we would be the best choice. If the client sees we’ve worked on similar projects for similar clients in the past and that those previous clients are still with us, gave us a good testimonial, or even better, are happy to chat to the new client and sing our praises, then that’s much better than us just going on about how good we are.

What would you have done differently if you were starting out now, in 2013?

I would have got into the community straight away. When I first started out I was fairly unaware of the WordPress community and even when I did become aware, I was more of a watcher than a participant. In some ways this was a conscious choice and had some benefits; it meant that I didn’t get on the wrong side of any of the great debates / controversies that have swirled up at various times, debates on topics I wasn’t expert enough in to make a positive contribution. The downside is that I missed out on meeting a lot of great people and probably took a bit longer than I might have to learn my craft and discover the parts of it which interested me the most.

Of all of the projects you’ve tackled, which are your proudest of and why?

That’s actually a really difficult question, as clichéd as it might sound, I’m proud of a lot of different projects for different reasons. Sometimes it’s the complexity of the work that I’m proud of, sometimes the quality of what we’ve been able to deliver, other times I’m proud of how we’ve worked around things like budget or time constraints. If we don’t have something to be proud of in each project we do, then I’d see that as a failure.

If pushed I’d probably say that I’m most proud of our free web app WP Remote. It’s hard not to feel proud when you see people using something you’ve built, even if it makes us no money! Some of my proudest moments are meeting people at WordCamps and hearing that they use and love WP Remote.

You’ve built a strong team over time. What do you typically look for when you’re bringing in a freelancer or new team member, and what sets them apart from the competition?

Hiring great people is hard and I still have a lot to learn, however I do think we’re lucky in that we have WordPress community which makes identifying great people a hell of a lot easier. There are several traits which I look for when hiring that are also often shared with the kinds of people who get involved in open source, be it in code or the community. There’s no need to have rounds of boring and ineffectual technical interviews if the person you’re hiring contributes to open source, you can already see their code!

We currently see ourselves as a distributed company which just happens to have an office. At the moment all our growth is going to be distributed and that also opens up our options a lot. Ultimately we try to hire people who care about the quality of what they are putting out into the world, people who have a passion for what they do and who want to get better, no matter how good they already are.

How important, if at all, has the WordPress community been in your work and business?

My first few years working as a WordPress developer were spent outside of the WordPress community. I was completely unaware of its importance back then, although I’m sure the reason I had enough work was because of all the great evangelism the people participating in the community were doing — thanks guys!

These days the WordPress community is important to both my work and our business in a countless number of ways. It supports nearly everything we do and is hard to narrow down to a sound-bite or list. Being part of something as large, vibrant, and downright incredible as the WordPress community feeds my passion, it’s a daily inspiration and a constant reminder to aim higher.

It’s also important in several practical ways, for one, it’s much easier to hire people when they all go to the same conferences as you and take the time to get up on stage and prove their expertise. The community fosters a sense of belonging that would be impossible to reproduce as a company on our own, leaving our developers exciting and proud of what they do.

Being part of the WordPress community lead us to meeting Noel and building happytables. It’s also how we first met several of the developers who now work with us.

Tell us about happytables, and the problem you’re trying to solve there. How is serving the means of many users different to serving the needs of a single client?

The problems we are trying to solve with happytables are pretty simple, however that doesn’t mean we take it easy when solving them! It just means we get to focus on solving them really, really well. The obvious core problem, and the catalyst that brought happytables into being, is that most restaurant websites are really, really bad. Happytables co-founder Noel Tock details some of ways in which they suck on a cute website he runs at http://better-restaurant-websites.com.

The cause of all these bad restaurant websites is also fairly simple — most restaurant owners aren’t web designers so they struggle to build themselves great websites. Neither do most have a huge budget they can spend hiring a great web designer and finally, most of the services that purport to allow people to create a website for their business are usually rather generic and often aren’t very good themselves.

With happytables we solve all three of those problems. By building a solution aimed specifically at the needs of restaurants we can focus on giving them the features they really need without any cruft. This has the added benefit of making it really easy to use — most restaurant owners get a site up and running in under an hour. Because it’s a hosted solution we can operate at a scale which means the cost stays low for individual restaurant owners but we can still deliver them a really high level of value.

In some ways it isn’t that different from serving the needs of a single client, I’m a big believer of building sites for the users and the client is rarely the user of the site they’ve hired you to build. Just like with a single client build it’s important to focus on the vision you have for the project and say no to features that don’t fit within that.

If you could pinpoint three of the most important things that have made a difference to your business since you set out, what would they be?

  1. Co-founding. You gain far more than you lose if you find the right partner.
  2. Being focused. There are so many opportunities out there and it’s so tempting to try to do everything. Be that offering every possible service instead of the just the one or two that you’re actually good at or building product after product without ever really finishing any of them. If you want to aim high then you have to focus.
  3. Products. We love working with clients, but building our own products is another level of experience entirely. The chance to refine over the long term, to experiment, to be truly creative within the constraints as you see them; it’s wonderful. Try it.

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