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Bowe Frankema Interview

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Bowe Frankema is a 26-year-old WordPress and BuddyPress fanatic, who focuses on creating social networks using WordPress and BuddyPress. He shares his knowledge through BP-Tricks, Twitter (@bowefrankema) and WordCamps and BuddyCamps across the world.

He’s also part of the Commons in a Box team, which has created a plugin that makes it a breeze to set up a BuddyPress-powered social network for your academic commons or similar minded organization.

How did you first get involved with WordPress, and what sort of background did you come from before turning WordPress pro?

After having spent a few years on building communities for others (Sony, UbiSoft, and a big Dutch social network for teenagers), I started to feel trapped in the world of commercial projects. I wanted to be working on something that was meaningful on a personal level.

I think I’m actually one of the few people who got interested in WordPress through BuddyPress. Of course I had known about WordPress, but I always assumed it was just for blogging, and never really looked into it.

I still remember trying to install BuddyPress for the first time, and having to go through a complicated setup involving WordPress MU, BBPress, and finally BuddyPress.

When I finally got BuddyPress running, I quickly hit a brick wall and had to resort to the support forums. I remember being extremely impressed by how friendly and supportive the BuddyPress community was. I was used to managing online gaming communities, and the contrast could not have been bigger. I got intrigued by the people behind the software, and got more and more involved with the community. At the time there was better social networking software available, but the community behind BuddyPress and WordPress really inspired me, and convinced me to stick with the software. I felt at home.

I learned about WordPress, the GPL, and developing for BuddyPress and WordPress. Before I knew it I was writing BuddyPress tutorials on BP-Tricks.com, started making BuddyPress themes, and getting approached by people to help me with their communities. I was lucky enough to have been through all the trials and tribulations of using BuddyPress as an end-user, while also spending an insane amount of time learning about theme development and community building. This allowed me to slowly fit into the role of “BuddyPress fanatic” and I still see myself like that these days. :-)

How would you describe BuddyPress to someone looking in from the outside?

Describing BuddyPress to those who have never used before, got a whole lot simpler since BuddyPress 1.7 was released; BuddyPress allows you to add social networking features to any WordPress site. With any theme.

Out of the box it adds member profiles, discussion groups, and an activity stream to your site. On top of that you can pick from hundreds of BuddyPress plugins available in the plugin repo. Not to mention the BuddyPress focused (premium) themes that allow you to quickly get a community going. The plugin has really matured over the last year, and I’m really excited to see it evolve!

What’s the story behind PressCrew and what’s changed most about the way you work since you first got started?

Like I said before I had this crazy ambitious idea to build a social network for people with Cystic Fibrosis. CF is a genetic disease that affects mostly the lungs, and it pretty much sucks. I suffer from CF myself, and one of the things that made it tough, is that real life contact with other people with CF, is not a smart idea. I won’t go into details why, but this link explains it really well.

When working on this project I quickly got in over my head. Before I knew it I was deep into WordPress development and while I absolutely loved it, the learning curve was high. My PHP is horrible, and I had these crazy ideas that I wanted to see happen. I met Marshall (Sorensson) through the BuddyPress community, and he helped me out with a lot of things. I started to feel guilty for all his help, and hired him to build some custom plugins. We quickly spent more time exchanging The Big Lebowksi quotes and sending each other our favorite Will Ferrell videos through Skype. We got along really well, and become good friends while working together. And you want to hear something crazy? We have been working together for three years, and we just met for the first time in real life during WordCamp Miami.

Did it feel risky to focus on BuddyPress when so many others were breaking through with WordPress themes, or did PressCrew evolve out of needs you or your clients had at the time?

Oh absolutely, it felt like a huge gamble. But it also felt right. When I just got started doing BuddyPress themes the market was tiny, it was incredibly hard to make themes and the quality of my code sucked. It was something I did on the side, and when Marshall and I started PressCrew we were still very cautious. It sounds like a cliché, but we did it because we believed that we could make something awesome for ourselves and the community.

We were overly ambitious and spent almost a year working frantically on Infinity before we even showed it to anyone. We just went with our gut feeling and assumed people would find it just as amazing as we thought it was.

We wanted to make a solution that was developed with BuddyPress in mind from scratch, to show the potential of BuddyPress and solve the issues we ran into while working on the Cystic Fibrosis project and our client projects.

Was it easy? Heck no! We’ve had many times where we felt that we were working on something that was going nowhere. We lost track of our goals many times, we failed to communicate with our potential customers, and we made a ton of project management mistakes. We’d spent a month on creating this awesome new feature, and realized we had not even documented half of the features that we made before that. But somehow we managed to pull through and after 18 months of hardly making any money on Infinity, we managed to make it to a stable release with a Premium BuddyPress theme in our shop, landing the Commons in a Box project.

I still remember receiving the email from the CUNY team where they offered us to develop the CBOX theme. We were in a crucial phase of our business, second guessing every single decision and afraid that we really messed up going for such a niche market. And then you read this email where these guys praise us for laying the groundwork for a BuddyPress-focused framework that solves so many of the issues they had been trying to solve for their academic commons. Hearing that your framework will be used by huge academic communities and organizations from across the world, and by potentially millions of people, has been our greatest achievement so far.

Over time how important has specializing in your own niche been from a business point of view, and would you advise people just getting started professionally with WordPress to specialize or take a more generalist approach?

In hindsight this was the best decision we’ve ever made, and I feel really proud of sticking with our gut feeling. It certainly wasn’t easy. You see guys like WooThemes and StudioPress being extremely succesful with their WordPress themes, and you’re struggling to even get one BuddyPress framework developed that works. BuddyPress was in its infancy and we’re trying to do all the crazy things in terms of code while we could have just focused on regular WordPress theming. But our passion was not to become another WordPress Theme shop, and we also felt that we were miles ahead of the competition by focusing on BuddyPress and complicated Multisite installations.

This dedication started to pay off when BuddyPress matured and we saw the interest for Infinity growing gradually. We were still not making much money with it, but our community of users started growing, we got some positive buzz and people started seeing us as “BuddyPress Experts.”

So my recommendation would be to specialize for sure. The WordPress economy is blooming, and you can build a loyal customer base by creating something that suits just a tiny fraction of the WordPress community. You would be surprised how many opportunities there are for people who are specialized in these niche WordPress projects. It’s not the quickest route to success — you need put yourself out there — and show passion in what you do. People will pick up on that, and become loyal to your business. Because you’re focusing on a niche you can be personal and get to know your audience. If you do this well your business will grow without having to spend a lot of time doing marketing or writing sales copy. You might not make as much money as the big guys, but you will build meaningful relationships with your customers and other developers who are in your small niche market. It’s extremely fullfilling and exciting to see that develop over time!

How do you know a project (or client) is going to be worth spending your time on, and is this something you’ve learned the hard way?

This is an easy one to answer: they have a game plan. It can be as easy as “I have no idea what I’m doing, but I need this to happen. Here’s a document that tells you all about it.”

BuddyPress projects are too complicated to just free-wheel it. You can’t just create the new Facebook, and building a community is much more then just the technical side. If you see that a client has taken the time to set up goals related to community building, project management, and development, then we know that this is something we would like to be involved in.

How would you pitch Commons in a Box to someone in a bar, and what challenges has theming for such a broad project, with such open scope, presented?

Thank goodness I just did that about 20 times at BuddyCamp Miami :-). In a nutshell Commons in a Box allows you to start a social network for your academic community or organization in 10 minutes flat. The look and functionality is based on the existing CUNY Academic Commons site and thanks to a grant of the Alfred P Sloan foundation, the CUNY team, and PressCrew, we’ve been able to release this “boilerplate” through the Commons in a Box plugin.

CBOX functions as a wrapper plugin that bundles BuddyPress and a selection of curated BuddyPress plugins to together form a great starting point. It guides the site admin through the entire setup process, and it comes with extensive documentation for all the included plugins which you can find on commonsinabox.org.

Besides the plugin suite it also comes with the CBOX default theme which seamlessly integrates with all the curated plugins, has an extensive theme option panel, and is optimized for mobile devices. We’ve spent a ton of time to make sure that CBOX is easy to install, looks great, and can be easily extended by developers.

The biggest — and most fun — challenges that I have had to solve, were related to UI/UX of the default theme, and improving some things I felt were not right in the BuddyPress default UI. One of the things we’ve changed is switching from an all horizontal navigation to a mixture of vertical and horizontal navigation. Horizontal navigation is used for site navigiation (Members — Groups — Forums — Activity) and vertical navigation is used for all user-related navigation (My Profile — Change Avatar — Notification Settings).

Besides that we’ve also added icons through an @font-face font, spent a lot of time on readability and typography, and wrote an extensive guide on extending the CBOX theme. The project was received by the academic community with great interest, and I’m just very proud to see CBOX used by so many communities. It has really given a huge boost to our business and the adaption of our framework, and it was a lot of fun to work with such a great group of people.

I’d advise people who are interested in CBOX to look at the demo. We’ve also just started offering a special CBOX management plan that includes installation, setup, and management of CBOX installs. We’ve partnered with WPValet and WPEngine for this service, and we’re very excited to offer it. It feels like the next logical step for our business, and we have a great team of people working on it with us.

What does your typical design process involve, and how has it changed over time?

It took me a long time to streamline the process of starting a new client project or theme. Finding the perfect workflow and picking the right apps to keep you in “the zone.” Marshall has really taught me to be organized in terms of code and file structure, and since I’ve learned Git for project management, the quality of my work has improved immensely. Because we have the chance to do projects that build off our own CBOX/Infinity framework we can use child themes for every project. Marshall has also made some really cool stuff that can automatically merge a child theme and a parent theme into a new theme. So I can develop a project as a child theme and then when it’s ready to be sold in our shop, or delivered to the client, we merge the parent and the child into a stand-alone theme. The client or customers can then make changes to that parent theme through their own child theme. It’s very inception-like!


Here’s an overview of how I usually work:

  • We create a project on GitHub.
  • I start with a child theme boilerplate.
  • I add custom code through functions.php in the child theme.
  • Overwrite/disable assets like CSS/JS and theme options through our magic .ini files.
  • Write my CSS/HTML and PHP using Sublime Text, Transmit, Firebug, and TextExpander.
  • Drink a white russian or two when it’s all done.

Has getting involved with the WordPress community influenced your business opportunities? How (if at all) would you convince someone that “giving back” is worth time out of their deadline-addled schedule?

Before I touch on the business side of it, I’ll touch on the personal aspect of getting involved with the community. No point in having a good business going, if you’re not happy in your personal life!

The decision to start focusing on WordPress has been a crucial decision for me. It’s has greatly influenced my life, and I owe so much to the WordPress community, that giving back has never been something I had to force myself to do.

WordPress and its community has allowed me to travel to and speak at many WordCamps, and gave me the confidence to travel. It allows me to work from anywhere, and in turn this allowed me to move from a small city in the Netherlands to Berlin last year. I’ve built real friendships thanks to WordPress and BuddyPress, and it’s so rewarding to work on something that you’ve built from the ground up.

WordPress gives you a foundation on which to build your business, which can be succesful on both a personal and a financial level. I don’t think there are many other types of work that allow you so much freedom then working with WordPress, and I can’t imagine any other “industry” I’d rather work in. I believe that the “giving back” aspect comes naturally as soon as you meet the people who work on and with WordPress every day. Visit one WordCamp and you’ll be convinced that becoming part of this community is one of the best things you could do for your career and your personal life.

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

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